Christmas in the North of France

(And again).

Having lived in this region for a few months now, I have become quite acclimated to the stillness that permeates all of France on Sunday afternoons. Shops, cafes, and most restaurants close, shutters snap shut in front of bakery windows, and by 3:00, the cobblestone streets are empty, save for a few families and elderly couples, out for afternoon walks. For most assistants that I know, Sundays have become a sort of dreaded day. If not long and empty, Sundays in France are certainly lonely for the foreigner. We have, of course, all found ways to fill the Sunday hours by now, hanging out with friends, visiting museums, picking up hobbies, and of course, reading, reading, reading, but I think that on some level, the feeling of loneliness and out-of-place-ness still exists.

Christmas in France is like a thousand Sundays packed into one. I don’t mean this in an absolutely negative way. I had the opportunity to see and experience French Christmas traditions firsthand, to walk through the empty, snow-covered streets, ride the Ferris wheel at the Christmas market under a cold cloudless sky, and wander around the city with cup after cup of mulled wine; to walk through uuthe silent city, as the last cafés were closing, the soft crunch of the snow underneath our feet, and the echo of our laughs permeating the stillness. But, there was a part of me that missed participating in my fantastically cheesy family traditions, that wished that I was in a home somewhere, drinking hot chocolate and opening presents. My French Christmas, like my French Sundays, was cultural, beautiful, quiet, and, even though I spent it with friends (eating cookies, watching movies, etc.), a bit lonely. Greener grass syndrome strikes especially hard this time of the year. More on that later.

In any case, a few days later, my friends and I were on a train, headed south to Strasbourg. I’ve visited the city once before, when I was studying abroad. I had fallen in love with the city then, and was eager to show it to my friends. Our days in Strasbourg were spent wandering about, getting lost between countless canals, cathedrals, and Christmas markets, sampling the local cuisine, beer, and pastries, and having late-night conversations with our unbelievably cool Polish Couchsurfing host (a physics doctorate student at one of the schools in Strasbourg). What was perhaps my favorite day in Strasbourg was spent wandering around for a couple of hours in the morning, then making the last-minute decision to go to Germany for the day. A thirty minute train ride through the Franco-German countryside later, we arrived in the smallish city of Offenburg, with no greater ambitions in mind than finding the nearest coffeehouse. It was only after finding one, and installing ourselves at a free table when we realized that none of us spoke German. Luckily, most of the shopkeepers, baristas, and barkeeps spoke English. (That night, after the fact, I asked our Couchsurfing host, who speaks a variety of languages, to teach me a few words for future reference: numbers, greetings, etc.). Happy to be the only tourists, and certainly the only Anglophones in this small town, we spent the day tromping about, popping into music stores and camera shops, and eating the best pastries I’ve ever ever ever tasted. Ever. One was a bit like an elevated version of a pain au chocolate (a chocolate-filled croissant), and the other was a sort of raspberry jelly-filled pastry, covered in the lightest powdered sugar in existence.

The Strasbourg trip ended with a four a.m. trek through the treacherously icy streets, thanks to a conveniently timed tram strike which happened to start the morning of our scheduled departure. A very memorable trip.

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