As winter approaches and the world slows down around me, I inevitably find myself slowing too. Consequently, my writing becomes more infrequent and all of life’s little unexpected hiccups seem to be going dormant along with the flora and fauna of Challans. Perhaps this is what you call routine. Unfortunately, it is these unexpected hiccups that make for the most unusual adventures and I’m afraid to report that the last two weeks have been distinctly devoid of all things new and exciting.
The weather in Challans has grown decidedly colder in the last few weeks. The entrance gate to the house has frozen shut twice now and I can’t say that I relish standing outside in the cold trying to force it open on my way to school. This sort of coastal winter is not something that I am used to. The weather may be getting colder and I may wake up to a few millimeters of frost on the ground every once in a while, but the sky remains sunny and the cloying humidity gives everything a wet sort of shine. When I was living in Tacoma, the weather gods at least had the good grace to shower us with droves of icy rain (and occasionally snow) to remind us that winter had truly come. Here, I feel as if I am living in some sort of eternally sunny microclimate that does not respect the traditional rules of seasonal change.The biggest mystery to me is how a place like Challans can enjoy so much sunlight and still be so wet. It is the type of wet that comes seeping up from the ground and hangs heavy in the air instead of dumping from the sky. When I told my students that we sometimes get as much as three feet of snow in one storm in Colorado, they were shocked beyond belief. They started laughing in an I-don’t-believe-you sort of way when I told them that school does not get cancelled for less than eighteen inches of snow. They reported that one centimeter in Challans would be enough to close the schools for two days. Alas, it does not look as though I will be enjoying a white Christmas this year…
I will admit that the sunlight has its advantages however. When I finally motivated myself out of my pajamas and struck out for a hike last weekend, I was fortunate to be accompanied by blue skies. To my delight, I discovered many hidden treasures along the way, which was more than a little satisfying considering that documenting Challan’s beauty has been one of my ongoing projects.I strolled across marshes and over streams, wandering through territory that was comprised of an interesting mix of cobbled pedestrian paths, hiking trails, and unused dirt roads. I must confess that I have never been on a hike quite like it. It was much more like a tour of the outskirts of Challans than a proper hike in the middle of nowhere. I am not complaining though. Aside from the occasional sounds of dogs baying and guns firing (I realized belatedly that it’s bird hunting season) the outing was perfect. I made it home without incident, sporting a brand new pair of quarter-sized blisters on my heels. After eight miles of hiking on mostly paved roads, my feet took quite a beating. However, it was a small price to pay for the satisfaction of hiking through the scenic environs of Challans.
I mentioned in my last post that one of my goals in the coming weeks was to meet new people. Taking eight-mile hikes by myself is, admittedly, not the best method for making lasting friendships. However, I was pleasantly surprised last weekend when I was invited to a dinner with all of the English teachers from Collège Milcendeau. Kévin and I were assigned the aperitif and made it to Véronique’s house bearing a plate of ham roll-ups and biscuits. We began the evening with an hour or so of chatting during which we ate hors d‘oeuvres, drank champagne, and gossiped about various dramas at the school. When all seven of the professors had arrived , we moved conversation into the dining room for a traditional French raclette. A raclette is a dinner of various dried meats (ham, sausage, etc.), potatoes, and melted cheese. Each person has a small rectangular dish into which they place their choice of cheese before putting it in a heating apparatus in the middle of the table. This was my second raclette and I must say that it makes for a very lively meal.We each had a turn frying quail eggs to go along with the raclette which proved to be much more difficult than any of us anticipated, as the shells were incredibly thick. Our party of eight eventually turned to a party of eleven when Veronique’s family came to join us. The meal was finished with an English Christmas pudding (my first) that was surprisingly good. I had only ever heard negative things about Christmas pudding from people in the US, so I was rather happy to discover that the genuine artifact is quite delicious. In typical French style, the meal finished around 1:00am and by that time we were all ready to head home. Relating back to my mission of meeting new people, I thought that this excursion fell neatly in place. I may not have met anyone new, but I certainly enjoyed getting to know the teachers that I work with a little better.
And on to the holidays… I will be spending my first Christmas away from family this year, a prospect that holds little joy for me. However, to take my mind off of the oh-so-important element of family, I decided to devote myself fully to recreating a genuine Christmas here in France. On December 1st, I began listening to all of the Christmas music that I could get my hands on. Last week I started buying Christmas decorations. Yesterday, I bought a Christmas tree and a blender so that I could start making holiday soups (like butternut squash, miam). On another note, the grocery store seriously redeemed itself on Friday for the glaring lack of yams and cranberries during Thanksgiving.For some unknown reason, both of the aforementioned items mysteriously appeared in the fruit and vegetable section as I was hunting for walnuts. I was both incensed and overjoyed – a tricky mix of emotions – but my lingering frustration from Thanksgiving eventually gave way to excitement at the prospect of an early Christmas dinner with honeyed yams and cranberry sauce. And now, I think I will cut this entry here so that I can enjoy and overdue screening of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.