Close-up of Christmas tree in Valence.
Bonnes Fêtes et Joyeux Noël à tous! I hope you all are enjoying the holidays, wherever you may be in the world. I wish I could have been able to celebrate with all my friends and family, but they haven’t yet invented the technology for that kind of travel. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my friend Sophie and her family, my second French Christmas. Although the first might not count since I was 8 months old and if you go by some philosophy, your self is only the sum of your memories. And I remember nothing, although the photos from family albums are stored in my brain. This was my first Christmas to be away from my family, and I never realized how much I could miss little things like driving through neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights and the empty Bartlesville streets on Christmas morning, or the walks we always take on Pathfinder on Christmas afternoon. I did listen to David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” on my computer and watched “Christmas on Mars” (filmed in Oklahoma) on DVD to get into the spirit.
The Bastille above the cafe of the same name is decorated for Christmas. Just like it was when it was a real prison, I'm sure.
Christmas Eve is the big night for the French and is when most of the celebrating happens. We got to Sophie’s parents house in the early evening and soon there were about 14 of her family members who had driven from Lyon. I get a little overwhelmed when I have to decipher French in a crowd, it’s subtle syllables get lost in waves of sound. Everyone likes to talk about Barack Obama and fat Americans, it seems, and I think people still think I am from Texas. Anyway, I tried to be as social as possible while not butchering their beautiful language too much. Often, I feel like my tongue is an axe.
The Montelimar bear returns, sporting the holiday spirit.
I can’t believe how many courses comprised the Christmas Eve dinner, it was gluttonous even for France. First, there was the aperatif, where people mingled and drank kirs while eating cheese, antipasto, and olives. Then, everyone sat down and white wine was poured and salads with foie gras (duck or goose liver) were served. I’m a vegetarian, so I’ll list the meat to show the food abundance, but I didn’t eat any of it. Then there were plates full of salmon, followed by a giant bowl of oysters. Apparently, you squirt lemon juice on the oyster to make sure it moves and is alive, therefore good. Sometimes I’m glad to be a vegetarian just to have an excuse not to eat certain things. After the ocean animals were eaten, the next course was a “Trou Normand,” a little glass of pear sorbet with alcohol. This was the third type of alcohol, if you’re counting. You can add red wine after it. Anyway, the Trou Normand is served between meals as a kind of digestive and palate cleanser. After the Trou Normand, the “Volailles” were served, meaning the birds. Giant bowls of turkey and chicken were passed around. Soon after, there were two Gratins: Gratin Dauphinois with potatoes and Gruyere and Gratin de Cardons, also with Gruyere. We were unable to find cardon in the French-English dictionary while we were there, but some internet searching shows that it looks kind of like a thistle and is known as a “wild artichoke” in Spain. I guess it’s close to an artichoke and is used in some regional cooking in this part of France. I still can’t find an English translation. Anyway, there’s still more food to list! Following the Gratins, the cheeses were served. There were two choices: Fromages secs (dry) and Fromages blancs (wet). I guess you could have both if you so desired. I went for the dry cheeses, where there were three massive slices on a plate to sample from. Fromage blanc has the consistency of yogurt and most people added sugar to it. Then came the dessert: Bûche de Noël. There were two, one made from Nutella and another made from Creme de Marrons (chestnut cream). I went for oh-so-decadent Nutella. Oh, and there were macaroons and truffles as well as clementines alongside the main desserts. Finally, Champagne was uncorked and distributed. So there you have the 12 courses served for dinner. I have crazy respect for Sophie’s parents that they were able to prepare that much delicious food for so many people.
Christmas trees on the streets of Valence.
After dinner, gifts were exchanged, and I was shocked to receive some from people I just met. I got a bag of nougat, a jar of clementine jelly, a candle, and on Christmas morning I got a soft scarf and potpourri holder from Sophie. It was incredibly sweet and I was already grateful to have been invited, let alone to be given things. It’s amazing how generous people have been during my time in France. I think the gift giving ended at about 2 a.m. and I went to sleep at about 3 a.m. In the morning, the under-the-tree gifts that Père Noel left were opened and there was coffee and Christmas dinner leftovers for lunch. We paid a visit to some of Sophie’s other relatives in town before heading back to Valence and saw a movie later that night. I’ve condensed a lot of this down, but I hope this gives you an idea of how I spent my Christmas. Sophie was amazing to have invited me and it was much better than celebrating alone somewhere and let me see the French Christmas traditions. I am so thankful that I was invited.
I’ll be leaving for Paris on December 30, although I’ll try to get in some exploring before then. I miss everyone I didn’t get to see for Christmas and I wish you all the best!