Back to school. After over a month of silence, my brain is slowly coming out of hibernation. Since this month included several big changes (with schools, vacations, etc.) I have decided to break it into two parts. Happy reading… it is going to be a long one.
Part One: The Part before Christmas Break
During my final week before vacation, the weather gods had a hearty laugh. After my last entry spent musing over the unseasonably warm weather in Challans, the clouds finally decided to weep freezing cold rain all over the Vendee. It came down in steady sheets for five days, with barely a moments rest. When the rain did stop cascading and slowed to a torrential downpour, that is when the wind decided to pick up. It was almost as if an inconsolable child had come to drench all of Challans with its wracking sobs and blustering hiccups. It seemed that the wet was indeed coming from everywhere. It was in the ground, in the air, and dumping from the sky as well. By the end of the week I was gloomily re-writing verses of Bing Crosby’s Christmas classic to the refrain of “dreaming of a wet Christmas”.
Part Two: The Part where I am on Christmas Vacation
Christmas break was wonderful. Kévin and I planned to leave at 9:30am on Saturday morning to make the nine hour drive to his family’s house in eastern France. Naturally, we left at 11:30am. The drive was altogether unremarkable, though a painfully long nine hours. We passed the time trying to find words starting with each letter of the alphabet on billboards, which took an incredible two hours. (The letters W and X are surprisingly scarce in the French language.) Since I still have not perfected the art of driving a manual transmission, I was left to contemplate the countryside while Kévin drove the entire way.
When we finally arrived at his family’s house, dinner had already been served so we ate re-heated leftovers and told his parents about the trip. Not an hour later, four of Kévin’s best friends came over to welcome him home. After four months of seeing absolutely no one between the ages of 18 and 25, it was nice to interact with people our own age. And slightly overwhelming for me. With Kévin, his family of six, and four of his friends, our homecoming was a loud and busy affair. Seb, Lindsay, Damien, and Francis stayed until 2:30am before calling it a night, at which point Kévin declared that it was time to go out and see more of his friends. Soooooo…. I agreed to tag along. We arrived at “La Ferme” at 3:00am. To explain, “La Ferme” is the nickname for a farmhouse owned by one of Kévin’s friends, Justine. Since no one lives there permanently, it is the choice location to host soirées for all of her friends. Seeing as the world did not end on December 21st as predicted, the theme of the night was zombie apocalypse. As fate would have it, Kévin parked his car in a field of mud only to get completely stuck. (I’ll explain what fate has to do with this in a minute.) Playing my part as the dutiful and ever-so-helpful copilot, I got out to push the car onto higher ground. For about three seconds it looked like it would work – that is until my boots got stuck, he successfully reversed, and I fell flat on my face into a puddle of uprooted grass and mud. I was cracking up and spitting out mud when Kévin got out of the car to see if I was alright. Or at least, I thought he was checking to see if I was alright, until his first response was, “Wow, tu n’es pas très maligne toi”, the rough translation of which is, “wow, you’re not very clever.” Thanks a lot. Sooooo, as I was saying – as fate would have it, I looked every part the zombie for the party, though my look was trending slightly more toward Gloppy the Molasses Monster. (For those of you who never played Candyland, this reference will be lost on you.) Anyways, to speed up to the conclusion of this night, I met approximately fifty more of Kévin’s friends and acquaintances covered head to toe in mud and debris. The logical aftermath of the outing was that I got sick and was in bed for the following three days. I would not recommend standing outside for three hours in the middle of the night drenched in mud to anyone…
And on to the holiday part of the holidays. Christmas was a magical occasion, even though my family was glaringly absent for the first time ever. We had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, which is a tradition that is unfamiliar to me. And what a French affair it was. As an appetizer, we had mixed nuts and wine followed by mushrooms in cream. The main course consisted of frog legs in cream and frog legs in butter with herbs, with a different selection of wine. There were also mini-waffles in the shape of window panes to complete the meal. Dessert was a homemade “galette des rois”. To explain this last item, a galette des rois is a pastry like dessert in the shape of a pie in which a fève (ceramic trinket) is hidden. Whoever gets the piece with the fève in it is named king for the night and must wear a paper crown.After eating more than our fill, Kévin, his parents, his two sisters, his sister’s boyfriend, his two brothers and I all squeezed into the living room to watch old family videos. And this is where we ended the night, completely satisfied and already anticipating an early wake-up call for Christmas morning. Before heading to bed, we all made sure to place a slipper under the Christmas tree, which is the French equivalent of hanging stockings on the fireplace. And so goes my introduction to a true French Noël.
Christmas itself passed in somewhat of a blur. Everyone got up to open presents at about 9:30am (much different than my accustomed 5:00am Christmas wake-up call in the US). Since there were nine people there, opening presents was somewhat of a mad dash and the paper tearing frenzy was finished in a remarkable 15 minutes. Breakfast followed shortly thereafter, and a heavy dose of homesickness along with it. Everyone was preoccupied with new toys and games for the rest of the morning and I, who was feeling lonely and sad, curled up on the couch and slept fitfully for several hours. Luckily, my homesickness faded later in the afternoon when I was able to Skype with my family and open presents with them via webcam. It was great to see them and certainly put the completing touch on a wonderful Christmas.
And now, to recap the following few days in less than eight pages, I will try to mention only the highlights:
• Choosing wine for New Year’s Eve: Because Christmas is followed so closely by New Year’s, Kévin and his friends wasted no time in making preparations. On the 26th, we met up with eight of Kévin’s friends to do a wine tasting. As someone who is enthralled by all things typically French, I was delighted to spend an afternoon perusing cellars and making wine selections. We settled on 12 bottles of white wine and 3 bottles of crémant, hoping it would be sufficient for our predicted party of twenty for New Year’s. Crémant is champagne, though, because of France’s appellation controls, it is not allowed to have that label unless it is actually from Champagne. Just a fun fact.
• Soldes: In France, the soldes (sales) are a big deal. Unlike American retail stores where there is often a discount section, everything in France goes on sale at the same time. The catch is that this only happens twice a year. Sooooo, from early January to mid-February, most stores are completely bombarded by eager shoppers. To celebrate our wine tasting success that I mentioned earlier, the girl contingent of our party of ten decided to go shopping with the hopes that we would find some early sale items. Shopping in France with a group of French girls was slightly surreal for me, and all the more so when I thought of the comical stereotype we were playing out – the girls spent the afternoon shopping while the boys stayed at the apartment to watch soccer and drink beer. What a quintessentially (gendered) French outing.
• New Year’s Eve: This year marked the first time in a very long time that I did anything interesting for New Year’s. “Interesting” of course entails actually staying up until midnight and interacting with other human beings. Which I did. Hoorah. In total, we ended up with a party of seventeen people, each assigned to bring a different course for the New Year’s dinner. The concept of a “New Year’s dinner” was strange to me, but I dutifully helped Kévin select the cheese that we would bring for the occasion. I was struck, not for the first time, at the laid-back atmosphere that surrounds everything “food” in the French culture. Kévin and I were the last to arrive at 9:00pm, but luckily for us the aperitif lasted until 11:00pm. Dinner went on for another hour afterward and we were all so absorbed in the food that we missed the countdown to New Year’s. So, with two minutes delay, we did our own countdown at 12:02, ringing in 2013 in true French style. We broke out kazoos, confetti, and champagne to celebrate, as well as several sarbacane. From what I can gather, a sarbacane is like the commercialized version of the spit-wad where everyone is given a cardboard straw and several colorful balls made of paper mâché to spit at one another. Curious. Anyways, after our general celebration of the New Year, we jumped back into eating – finishing with the cheese course, dessert, and coffee/tea at approximately 1:00 am. From there, the revelry continued for another seven hours with dancing, karaoke, and story-telling until we all made our way to bed at 8:00 am. I’d say that counts as an interesting New Year’s.
After the marathon that was Christmas and New Year’s, Kévin and I kept a pretty low profile for the rest of the vacation. I contented myself with completing a new winter coat I had started sewing, playing board games with Kévin’s family, going on a short hike, and making wood fired pizzas in the stove in the veranda. It truly was a perfect vacation. Neither Kévin nor I was very enthused with the prospect of heading back to work, but after two false starts, we finally motivated to make the trek back to Challans and our unheated, silent house… And now, since this entry has gone on for far too long, I will cut it short here and save my adventures in Challans for another day.