A Paris Christmas, of Another Kind
On the morning of Christmas Eve I encountered the father of one of my neighbors on rue de Bretagne — an older man whose daughter and husband live directly below me. We’ve “known” each other for 20 years. “Known” means that we have kind of distant relationship as we’ve been in numerous homeowner association meetings together, but that’s the extent of our acquaintance. Even his daughter and her family are mere acquaintances after all these years of living next to one another, participating in numerous meetings and even having a few small altercations — the kind that happen between neighbors — such as overwatering my geraniums so as to make a mess on her flowers below which didn’t please her, or making noise in the stairwell to which she scoffed — situations like that.
He and I said “Bonjour,” we shook hands, I said “Bonne Noël” and he was “cute” to call me “La Parisienne” — perhaps because I was wearing my usual beret, but also because I am the American in the building who has outlasted most and never waiver from big smiles to him regardless of how he might vote at any of the meetings.
I was headed to Café Charlot for breakfast and settled in at a table that’s not my usual, but close by. Other “voisins” (neighbors), denizens of the “quartier,” frequent the café as often as I do because we all know how good the food is and the chef appreciates our appreciation of him, too, by “gifting us from time to time” with something special from the kitchen.
An elderly woman, who I see there almost every time I’m there, came to sit at the table next to me — the far right corner against the wall — and she sat facing the wall. She always sits this way, to my never-ending wonder. Why not face out and see all that goes on? That’s what I do. So, it puzzles me, but she sits there like that nonetheless. We never had occasion to talk until then.
We exchanged pleasantries about the good food and the wait staff who take care of us regulars like family. She admitted that she was 95 years old, and I must say, she had every bit of her faculties, as much as I have. She asked where I was from and openly criticized that my French accent was “horrible,” but also made a point to tell me that my French was even more respectable and “refined” as many native French speakers.
That seriously impressed me, because I think my French “sucks” — even after having lived here 23 years and using it about 5% of the time — only when forced to use it in public or with the French who don’t speak English. (I cannot deny that I am a very lazy French speaker as I don’t enjoy speaking it one little bit.)
I had my own confession — I told her that I speak because I started a French-English conversation group many years ago as a way of learning (“Parler Parlor” in 1998), but never learned to read or write in French.
These two encounters were a bit of bright light on the usual gray Paris day — had I really come to be a part of the scene as “La Parisienne” with a level of French that would rival a native speaker? Or were they just cajoling me?
My daughter and I decided to brave the onslaught of last-minute Christmas eve shoppers for a visit to the BHV just to see what was going on and perhaps score a guide book to South Africa where we are going mid January. Their selection was limited, and of course, the books are in French, but we found a small one we thought was comprehensive enough and wandered around the massive store to see what was “in store” for us that we “couldn’t live without.” Nothing was the answer, although she tried in vain to find something I liked that she could buy me for Christmas.
“I don’t want or need anything,” I said over and over again. “Please don’t add to our already overflowing closets!” When you’re living in a small space, it’s a good excuse to accumulate less and have less to give away or store. It’s a “blessing in disguise” that we never had when living in our big American abodes where the closets and shelves begged to be filled with something…anything…as long as it wasn’t empty and gathering dust.
We headed home to relax a while and then prepare for Christmas eve chez friends who had organized a party of about 15 people along with more food and drink than 15 people could possibly consume. The array of fare was impressive, everyone having contributing something, with the traditional “Bûche de Noël” that every respectable French Christmas table must have. I am still full from the over-indulgence as I write this.
It’s quiet out there on the street at the moment. I haven’t heard hardly a sound, except for an occasional car or motor bike, but no one, and I mean no one, is out on the streets this Christmas morning. Even we non-practicing heretics are keeping quiet and letting all the sleeping Christmas dogs lie and have their “grasse matineé” (to sleep late). I, however, was up with the dawn, cleaning up and doing this — writing the Parler Paris Nouvellettre® that I write come rain or shine (except for one week in the summer when I’m on a “real” vacation). Even important holidays don’t deter me from communicating with you.
Later today, as is our tradition, we will be seeing a movie (Star Wars!) and having a Chinese dinner in one of Paris’ four China Towns — Belleville. This is what Jews do on Christmas, while the rest of you are eating hams and Bûche de Noëls. The tradition dates back to the Jews living in the Lower East Side in New York when they and the Chinese lived side-by-side at the end of the 19th-century. The immigrant Chinese were “restaurateurs” having opened many restaurants in their entrepreneurial spirit and there were a million Eastern European Jews living in New York by 1910, constituting over one-quarter of the city’s population. The first mention of this phenomena was in 1899 in a American Hebrew Weekly journal, criticizing the Jews for eating a non-kosher restaurants, singling out Chinese food as the big culprit — but on Christmas day, one must remember, these were about the only restaurants open!
It stuck, and we (the Jews) have been doing it every since…even in Paris!
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good meal (and good movie).
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(with Erica Simone)
P.S. Don’t miss the two event we’re promoting today: a re-airing of our House Hunters International episode “Champagne Problems in Paris,” at the top, and a James Navé workshop, below. Do both!