27 December, 2008

The creche naif.

You follow the D1 to reach Parignargues, a tiny village in the sun just outside Nimes. Another microclimat entirely, nearly everything is still green. Once you see a clock tower (at left) nearly leaning against a church tower, you'll know you have arrived. The village is mute, all animation is in the minute church. Just follow the sign.

In the 1940s, the village priest, l'abbe Jeanjean, built a nativity scene, using old clockworks and sewing machine engines to animate his busy vision. There is of course the baby Jesus, stage right, but the space is dominated by craftsmen--the pot thrower, the blacksmith, the chimney sweep et al. And munching sheep. The Three Kings and their camels trundle officiously and repeatedly by on a track, to better view the baby, who seems a bit outsized, but then again he isn't just any baby.

The activities reach a soaring crescendo with St. Michael, who uses his lance to imperiously smack a demon right back into hell. All this kitschy, earnest bustle is watched over by complacent Mary, resplendent with her tin and rhinestone crown. It's a lot of drama for a Saturday afternoon, and the highly satisfied children take turns dropping coins into the collection box placed there for the maintenance of the creche. Their coins set in motion another little baby Jesus, whose little display box lights up as he wiggles, waves, and all but coos at them. The religious fervor overwhelms us, and we rashly decide to get a jump on l'Epiphanie by committing cultural sacrilege and having a Galette aux Rois for tonight's dessert. (Place your bets on who finds the feve and wins the crown). I will make amends to French traditionalists everywhere by making my own Galette aux Rois on the first sunday in January...while daydreaming about Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar--les Rois Mages--the Sorceror Kings.

23 December, 2008

The Pere Noel drops by.

According to Agathe, Sophie's friend from pony club, the Père Noël has magic powder which he sprinkles on his reindeer to make them fly. I'm afraid to ask why he can be spotted all over France in the company of a white horse. The seed of doubt in Sophie's eight-year-old head is already being fertilized enough by recess rumor.

I'd like to know why they think the Père Noël showed up at Sophie's school last Friday--with her classmate's horse. I might have asked the Père myself, but he showed up after I left. Figures. Everyone's families had been invited for a Christmas lunch on the last day of school, to be held in the school cantine. After grinning continuously over our wine and appetizers at the children singing their way through a medley of Christmas songs, over two hundred people settled down for veal fricassee and buche de noel, or yule log (6 euros per person for enormous, kid-ladled portions). Our waiters were selected from the oldest kids, who'd dressed for the occasion. As the service was a bit slow, I had time to gaze around and do a bit of musing. I was startled by how many grandparents showed up, although I suppose they are more available. These are often the ones who mind other parents' little ones on a regular basis, which seems like something out of a fairy tale to me. I forget that the expatriate life, spent at a formidable distance from one's family, is not the life most people choose. You lose, you gain.

Examining the rather puny, half-hearted efforts to dress up the otherwise bare, large walls, I had time to ruminate on the odd inability of the otherwise (generally anyway) oh-so-stylish French to decorate for the holidays. They hang these horrible, deflated little plastic santas outside of their windows, for example. I realize this is a personal, small gripe, but I don't know why French Christmas trees must always look so anemic, so sorrowful, so oddly-shaped, compared to the lush, fluffy behemoths to be found on the other side of the Atlantic. Jose Bove would probably retort that the French trees haven't been genetically modified. At present, the French simply do not have suitably plushy, filled out trees to decorate (the only somewhat decent variety to be found is the Nordmann), and, once decorated, the ornaments are usually too sparsely and quite poorly hung anyway. Even in Paris you find weirdly shoddy Christmas decor--everywhere. They manage deciduous tree lighting decently, but the rest I just don't get. The annual December editions of Cote Sud, Marie Claire Maison, and Elle Decor are the exceptions to the un-Christmassy rant of above...

So anyway, there we were, filling up endlessly long tables, munching on slices of flute (the inflated, airy cousin to the baguette) from the only bakery in the handkerchief-sized village. Everybody was periodically craning for a look at the littlest children, seated communely at scaled-down round tables in the center of the canteen. The veal and its carrots were juicy and tender; we all went for seconds. I didn't try the pitchers of red wine, but others certainly did. I could see Max, at his round table, seriously chowing down. Sophie said it was the kind of food they get every day...except for the yule log. I cannot imagine eating like this every day, but it is one of the things Sophie loves the most about the French educational system: a warm, multi-course lunch.

I left early, utterly satisfied and replete with good feelings; it was time to get started on my own holiday cooking.

Merry Christmas to all, (and to all a good night!)--Clement C. Moore. (Remember?)

11 December, 2008

Squeezed Lemon.

If you really want to come across as a foreigner living in France, you buy yourself a lovely old, dripping with nostalgia, Citroen 2CV, or Deux Chevaux. The charm is so there, my three year old bounces up and down with excitement when he catches sight of one on the road. Alright, I do a little bouncing as well.

Let me qualify this: as a 2CV owner, you are either a (most likely Anglo-Saxon) foreigner, a Luddite with ascetic tendencies, or you're just plain lacking in funds. I, on the other hand, fell very, very hard for an old Fiat Mini 500 sedan (so very Italian, that's how confused I am). Marriage being a series of compromises, we ended up with a moderately used Renault Kangoo. As in "can-go," and not "Mr. Magoo." I know, I didn't quite see the compromise either. It's very French, very campagne, very practical. And in our case, very yellow. In Holland I am teased because the car fits perfectly in the fleet of the Dutch version of AAA, the wegenwacht. In France, however, people run after me to give me their mail.

From my archives, as the Canon's still on strike.

Our profoundly yellow car is just the tiniest bit more golden than those of La Poste, or the French postal service. On the bright side, pun intended, on my monthly forays to the grandes surfaces (department/"box" stores), I never, ever lose my car in the parking lot anymore.

There are certain rites of passage inherent to living in a foreign country. Learning the language, figuring out the local customs, finding your own favorite places. Then there are the extra credit rites of passage, such as getting into a car accident and working your way out of it.

I got extra credit yesterday. Those charming little villages, with their impossibly narrow streets? My daughter takes drawing classes in one. Having picked her up, I was headed home, when I abruptly stopped. Hurtling toward us (on aforementioned impossibly narrow streetlet) was another Kangoo. The driver never slowed, as she evidently considered the road not impossibly narrow. She was wrong. The entire left side of my car needs replacing, as pieces and bits were strewn over Kingdom come. The children and I were left whole. With the suitable dose of adrenaline, I immediately engaged in highly fluent hand-waving, with my eyebrows providing a little additional elan.

After the initial flurry, however, my conclusion is this: things resolve themselves often rather more smoothly in the countryside. After all, you stand a far better chance of running into one another (ahem) in the supermarket/pharmacy/cafe than strangers do in the city. As it turns out, the other driver was a mother of one of the other students in Sophie's drawing class. Never seen her before, but my money's on seeing her very regularly til the end of the school year, knowing the way these things go. And she'll have to wave and say hi, because you cannot ignore a siren yellow Kangoo. Especially one you've already bashed up.

09 December, 2008

Fete des Lumieres.

Unfortunately, boys and girls, today's story will be without illustrations, as the narrator's camera, realizing it now lives in the greatest country in the world (...), has gone truly local: it has gone on strike. It won't even oblige your gentle narrator by turning on. Not even when she shakes it, vigorously.

Life, however, goes on, and the narrator went, en famille, to visit her friend Delphine, who lives in a charming old apartment (early 1700s) in the old center of Lyon. The narrator decided to make this trip right when 4 million others also come to Lyon. Aah, you say. But of course! The narrator loves very large crowds...


Once upon a time--in 1643 to be exact--Lyon was being ravaged by the plague. The prosperous city's leaders, under siege, swore Lyon's eternal fealty to Mother Mary if the town was spared.

And it was.

So from that point on, her mercy was recognized and remembered by the city. In the 1850s, they decided to put up a statue of the Virgin Mary, overlooking the city. The inauguration of the statue was supposed to happen on the eighth of September, which is considered to be the anniversary of the birth of the Virgin Mary.

But then it began to rain. Very much. The river flooded the city, including the workshop where the statue was being prepared to be covered with ten kilos of pure gold. There was great uncertainty about what to do next. The Archbishop, however, wanted his party. And so it was agreed that the statue would be unveiled on December the 8th, which is the date the Lyonnais believed was the anniversary of merciful Mary's immaculate conception. Yes, for the people of Lyon there have been two immaculate births. But I digress.

By December the eighth, everything was in place; fireworks and Bengal flares were to be launched, bands were to serenade the procession. It was to be the event of the century.

But then it began to rain. It rained all day. The flares and fireworks were soaked through and spoiled. All seemed lost, yet again.

Then, just before sunset, the sky cleared. And, one by one, the people of Lyon began lighting candles and placing them in their windows. There was a run on the shops, every available candle was bought and lit, as the whole city lit up and came together in celebration. The procession wended its way up the hill and the new statue was unveiled, to the joy of all. The people sang songs, and shouts of "Vive Marie!" and "Merci Marie!" were heard deep into the night.

(Your humble narrator learned this by watching a children's shadow puppet show, complete with period costume. On the shadow puppets, not the puppeteers.)

Today, the lighting engineers of Lyon have become famous for their skill in lighting the beautiful old buildings of Lyon and amplifying the Fete des Lumieres. Sound, sculpture, water, and even scent, are incorporated with light to sometimes spectacular effect. The installations are across the city, every night for three nights, and vary in complexity and size. Each year, the city of Lyon has a different theme for the festival. But on the eighth itself, everyone still puts candles in all the windows of all of Lyon.

The end.

01 December, 2008

Forgotten fruits.

(Beeswax sculpture of a wild boar. To be found very much alive, and in large numbers around here.)

The annual "Days of Trees, Plants, and Fruits" came to St. Jean du Gard this past weekend. For those into growing stuff, it's one of the highlights of the Cevenol calendar. You can find things very much off the beaten path, such as the un-commercialized, disappearing old fruit varieties, like some of these apples below. These were for sale, but they also served as tasting samples, and you could take home the very trees that grow the apples you liked best...I fell pretty hard for a Patte de Loup, a relatively plain apple sometimes distinguished by an ingrown natural "scrape" scar, resembling a nasty slash from a wolf. It has a strong perfume, great crunch, rich, wine-sweet flavor, with a refreshing dose of acidity. Also went home with Reinette d'Amourgine--its close cousin is Reinette d'Amboulne, a green apple hiding in the photo below. Beyond the apples, the whole event is pretty crunchy--lots of information on living more green, with organic foods, seeds, and plants for sale. As to be expected, there was a goodly number of participants with long hair, good skin and, very possibly, hemp shirts under their wool sweaters. The musician below is blowing into an instrument made of goatskin. Sounds striking, like a rather mystical bagpipe. The Cevennes has a pretty sizable, vibrant sub-group of

people who have opted out of the more mainstream way of things. These include the artists, the neo-hippies and every single permutation and degree between. They get on well with the "true" locals--you know, people like me--even if they tend to smile rather a lot.

After the requisite people-watching and chatting, I got down to the serious business of selecting this year's trees: the two apple varieties; a pear (a Williams Rouge, the smallish fruit is almost too pretty to bite into); a quetsche (a type of Damson plum, from which the Alsatians make Eau-de-vie); almonds; citrus (a clementine, and a Meyer lemon--go USA!); and that kaki. I was given a little Figue de Miel tree (with yellow, melt-in-in-your-mouth sweet fruit according to the grower, and passed down through four generations of his family). Another gift: a vine of old Raisin Fraise (Grape Strawberry!), which are sweet grapes claimed will make me the envy of all far and wide. This was announced with a straight face. Plan to drop in on us in a couple of summers to test that claim...

This being France, we had our choice of delicious soups, including a gorgeous onion one and a green bean one made by one of my favorite local (jam and everything-else-making) producers, who has participated in the St. Jean event for the past 18 years. Chestnut-flavored snacks, whole-grain breads and many other food treats were also there for the picking, in addition to the aforementioned apples. Did I mention how good the apples were?

As for beverages, I was intrigued by this concoction, made of elderberry juice, rosehips, and other fruits.
I overshot my gardening budget, as usual, but I did go home with heavy (bio-degradable!) bags and a full stomach. I've had worse days.
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