Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Noel en France

Yannick and Cristelle, our neighbors, gave us a marvelous Christmas gift by inviting us to their family dinner Christmas Eve.In addition to their kids, Constance and little Paul, Cristelle's family was there - brother, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, mother, father, and presiding over the whole group, Yannick's grandmother.

We came over a little after eight in the evening. The kids set to playing right away and we chatted over snacks and champagne. Cristelle's brother is in law school in Bordeaux, her sister is a nurse in Ares, and her brother-in-law works in a metal products plant in Bordeaux. Around nine or so the Yannick took note of how quietly and contentedly the kids were playing down the hallway in Constance's room. There was a brief confab involving the adults, the sense of which I grasped but only indirectly. Then they sprang into action. Cristelle's father stationed himself at the door to Constance's bedroom, his hand firmly on the doorknob, in case some little hand might try to open it. The rest of the adults disappeared in about three different directions, reappearing moments later bearing armfuls of wrapped presents. Efficiently, they deposited the gifts under the tree. How cute, I thought, but then they disappeared again, repeating the process. How impressive, I thought. From down the hallwaay I heard Cristelle's father speaking through the door..."Wait a minute, we're looking for the key!" The knob was twising slightly in his hand. The great gift transfer continued apace. I was nearly laughing out loud at the enormity of it all. Then all was done; the kids were released, and wrapping paper began to fly. We had brought a couple of gifts for our kids and so they were right in there with everybody else. It was delightful...really exactly the kind of family feeling we had hoped for.

We fed the kids and sent them upstairs to watch Nemo....at around ten we sat down at the table.

Yannick had prepared the feast...he and Cristelle really know how to set what is called a bonne table. The menus featured specialities of the region...an enormous platter of raw oysters fresh from the bassin, foie-gras mi-cuit, crepinettes (a pork sausage patty), and for the main dish, chevereuil (elk) accompanied by a mushroom dish whose name I missed. For dessert there was of course the traditional buche de noel.

We had tried raw oysters once before and found it hard to suppress the gag reflex, but these oysters were nothing like the others we had tasted. Beth ate three! ...I had seven. Our antics with the oysters provided some comic relief at the table. We were at the table until after midnight.
It was fun to watch the family interact, the sibling relationships, the amiable parents, the friendly ribbings. Every once in awhile we were asked to verify or correct certain assumptions about american culture....was it true for example that in America you were legally entitled to shoot someone who climbed over your fence? Did people in America use forks and knives when eating pizza? The recurrent question that seems to arise wherever we eating with French people has to do with when Americans eat their supper. Yannick never tires of needling us about eating so early...normal supper time for us in Amercia is between six and seven. Here in France we've made an effort to push the time back to try to get into a local rhthym but the bast we can manage is seven or seven-thirty...this makes Yannick laugh. His brother-in-law, Oliver, then asks us in all sincerity, "So if you eat dinner at six or seven, what do you do after dinner?" I paused, seeing the issue from his angle was a bit like considering one of those math word problems back in school...if you eat dinner at X and go to work the next day at Y, what can be done to fill in the interval Z? I decided to send the question back to Oliver? What do you do after eating dinner? He seemed a bit at a loss himself and then he shrugged and said that they relaxed, maybe watched a little tv and then went to bed. I said, "We do the same thing..." but really, I knew it wasn't that simple...we sometimes go to eveining events, games, concerts, activities....maybe we go to work earlier in the morning. I couldn't shake the notion that the French manage a neat trick of finding more time in the day than we do...for things like being at the table together. Yannick did observe somewhat ruefully that this too was changing, for the worse, in France.
We carried the kids back across the street and into their beds around two in the morning.
About seven hours later...Tess and Colm were up and at our tree, delighted to discover that Santa had left gifts under our tree as well. Beth had composed notes to the kids from Santa...she read the letters to them before they opened their presents. I have to say that this Christmas will go down in history...


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