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Christmas Holiday in France

The Christmas Holiday has past, but it is not leaving without first beckoning me to buy more chocolates with cherries and liquor, more with liquid caramel centers, pistachio nougat or praline something-or-other, more hollowed out dark chocolate turtle, santa or owl shapes that crunch when we eat them. The prices split in half for the same weight, or remained the same for twice the weight. I’m filling in all that wasted space in my stomach since I did not stuff myself last year at Christmas dinners. This year at our family get together, my mother-in-law prepared a satisfying and uncharacteristically inexcessive meal. As is often the custom, the in-laws (or outlaws, if you prefer) and their dog, Mallorca, played hosts in their light warm house. My father-in-law searched his wine cellar with slightly shaking hands, opening each aged bottle with a grunt or slight wheeze, pouring crisp glasses of fine wine and reminding us that we had to finish the bottle. My mother-in-law spent most of her time half in and half out of the kitchen. Three quarters of the time she prepared everything, and for one quarter she ate and entertained. Habitually, we women would notice her absence amongst the other guests and offer help with the intent of speeding her return to the table. To no avail. She would just as quickly be lost in her return to the kitchen to finish some other last minute touch.

 

Dinner at the inlaws is always simple but flavorful. Meals follow the standard pattern. There are small “amuse-bouches” (fun for your mouth) or “amuse-gueules” also called “gâteaux apéritifs”. The choice of gâteaux apéritifs always depends on the host/hostess. During the holidays here, it usually means thin toasted circles of bread topped with smoked salmon or tiny cocktail shrimp and a drop of butter or mayonnaise, small servings of foie gras or fish or pork paté.  Each dish is accompanied by its wine, and for the gâteaux apéritifs, the first chilled glass of the night is usually a clear yellow not-too-sweet wine. The serving dishes make the round of the table until there are no more gâteaux apéritifs left. The first dish, called the entrée, I come to recognize as the fish dish. Not eating red meat, poultry or pork, I always get two servings of the fish dish…It is usually a white fish filet rolled inwards on itself, set up on its side in the plate, drizzled with beurre blanc (which is a butter, shallots and dry white wine sauce) and served with boiled or roasted white potatoes and/or slivers of carrots, celery root and leek sautéed in olive oil or butter. This dish tastes good the first time. In the middle of the table there are bread baskets with cut pieces of crisp crusted baguette. This basket will be refilled throughout the meal since the bread inside is often used to clean one’s plate. That habit is considered bad manners in some regions. Around here, I get the impression that it’s bad manners if you don’t clean your plate with the bread. Next comes the main course, “le plat de résistance”, which this year was an oven-roasted turkey served with wild mushrooms and chestnuts.  This is followed by a fresh green lettuce salad and homemade vinaigrette, offered at the same time as the cheese platter is sent around. And of course, a good glass of red wine is offered to complete this dish. Then comes the dessert, which this year was a store bought pistachio and hazelnut vanilla ice cream bûche de noël with a sorbet raspberry topping. Coffee, caffeinated or herbal teas are offered alongside the invitation to taste various homemade “goûttes”. The word goûtte literally means a drop or a taste and that’s basically all you need in order to understand what it is. “La Goûtte”, also named “eau de vie” (water of life) is made by allowing fruit or fruit juices to ferment and later distilling them. Most of the time, the smell is too strong and I’m not tempted to taste. But, one time I did taste some goûtte due to some deceptive olfactory alterations. The one I tasted smelled like sweet tangerines. I swirled the two drops of goûtte around in the bottom of my empty tea cup and tipped my head all the way back to get the drops passed my lips and down my throat. Almost immediately I felt a cold sensation as alcohol evaporated from my lips, then I covered my eyes that had begun to water and clutched at my chest as if to stop the violent burning that descended the long bumpy ride down my esophagus. Apparently my tasting convinced some others not to do so. This Christmas dinner ended with the family playing their favorite card game togehter: la belotte. This is always a rowdy bout of yelling, scribbling scores, French cursing, angry fist banging and firm knuckle knocking on the table. Many children learn this game at a young age, but I’ve yet to take the time to understand it.

 

Instead of preparing dinner, we could’ve gone out. On Christmas day, it is common for restaurants to serve large and small families. My first Christmas in France and the first time I met my husband’s paternal side of the family was in such a restaurant. When standing at our seats, the chairs barely scraped the back wall. While seated, it felt to me like a beach of walruses unable to move around but for great effort. I met many people I did not remember, brushed many a cheek with my own while kissing into the air, and as promptly as I could attempted to melt into my chair. Some refused to let me melt away and sat with me the whole 3-4 hour meal, poking at me with their chattering tongues as if I were to come alive in my petri dish. These charming people I come today to appreciate as true friends, if not yet family. But at that instant, I felt petrified, utterly embarassed, unprepared for the noise and the crush of people, including some that gave the “bise” with cold eyes. This reunion was so noisy that the following Christmas, we went to a different restaurant, one with separate rooms for individual families or groups. Our room was facing farthest south. The cold air and the stink of cigarette smoke rushed into the warm room every time someone opened the door. The room was big enough and painted a shade of peach that reminded me of my grandpa in New York. At this restaurant, there was no seating chart and the room quickly split into three groups: the elders, the too-good-for-you-crew and everybody else. The elders sat together, the too-good-for-you-crew sat together and everybody else sat where they could. Those in the crew yelled out funny things from the safety of their herds, but never acknowledged the intelligence nor the comedy of anyone else. So, I endured being ignored by the crew and endured the gentle interrogation by several elders as to why, after 4 months, I continued to breastfeed my son, as to whether or not I truly believed my breastmilk to be healthy…

 

And until the year 2008, that’s about where my French Christmas restaurant experiences have ended. I refused to attend any others. Perhaps, I was wrong to do so. But, I was not alone, neither in my refusal nor in my absence. Instead the family decided to meet up at the end of summer for a barbecue at my inlaws’ house. I arrived with my husband and two children, feeling anger broiling inside of my chest just at seeing certain familiarly nonchalant expressions. I stayed away from the crowd because I had to skewer my marinated shrimp for the barbecue. They were all brown and spicy smelling from the cumin and soy sauce. My heart beat quickly and I moved from one foot to the other as the translucent grey flesh slowly gave way to an opaque coral pink. The crackling fire licked tatooes of caramelized molasses onto the side of the shrimp. The metal tongs scraped the edge of the white serving dish as I piled on the copious amount. I sat down at the end of the longer of two wooden makeshift tables, at the end of lewd jokes and bursts of raucous laughter, deep rumbling money talk, high pitched-baby cries and gurgles, next to granny gushings. J came over to be served and I quickly spooned cold mixed salads onto paper plates, passed plastic utensils and sat her in a chair next to me. Unbeknownst to me, the shrimp plate had been picked up and had managed to switch hands four or five times before I realized it was no longer where I had placed it on the table. My husband and a couple other young men had prepared serving platters full of sausages and pork chops! Why eat my sole plate of shrimp, the only “meat” prepared for me? With a sharp tone of voice, I stopped my shrimp from advancing any further down the table. Keeping an eye on their faces, I began to prepare my own plate. And they sang a short song, more like a refrain, which is common at French gatherings, but this time they sang for my shrimp. I smiled confusedly, but I was gleaming on the inside. And for the rest of the day, things followed the standard pattern of meals. But there was a little less tension, especially on my end. Many empty wine bottles were piled up at the end of that day, more card games were played, a bunch of us got drenched in a sudden afternoon downpour of bitter cold rain while others settled for naps in cool shaded rooms. The groups mingled and inch by inch brought down their guards in order to talk with each other. This was a much nicer Christmas celebration, although not at Christmas, that captured the spirit of a true reunion. Perhaps, we just needed to meet on common ground and truly spend the time together.

 

The end of the Christmas season comes shortly after New Year’s Eve with the Epiphany.  The beloved “galettes des rois” dominate the windows of all boulangeries and are prominently displayed in supermarkets. There are two kinds of “galettes des rois”. One is called the “couronne” and is a brown crown-looking pastry, literally having a hole like a doughnut but much larger in width and height, that has a medium to dark brown exterior and butter yellow interior with no sugary sweet taste. It is soft and smushy to the touch, like Charmin toilet paper rolls, and is eaten with sweet things such as jellies or jams. The second one, my favorite, is a solid tart with a buttery flake upper and bottom crust. Its center is made of an almond paste called frangipane. Both galettes have one single fève in them. The person who bites into this hard cooked clay ornament the size of a nickel becomes the king or queen and receives a tacky gold crown. Although, I’ve never personally experienced it myself, I’ve always been told that the king or queen then is allowed to choose his or her queen or king. For me the galettes des rois are another reason to get together and offer a small gift to people you admire, love or like. We purchased a frangipane and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon with the inlaws snacking and chatting about the New Year. We will invite our nearest neighbors for slices of galettes to thank them for when we needed them during the year or for just being good neighbors. And we have invited a good number of our friends over for the end of the month also to taste a galette. It’s like being invited for dessert everywhere you go, but this dessert is in season once a year. Another action that shows the end of the Christmas season is the national sales kick-off. In France, there are no individual store sales. All stores slash prices during this national sales period and do not have sales outside of the national sales period. As far as I can remember, this sale takes place twice a year and the first national sales period began on January 7th. 

 

As we come to the end of this season, I’m shocked to find that I write mostly of food and people. When I was living in the US, and especially as a child, Christmas always meant lots and lots of presents. As I grew up, my mother became religious and it became more about Jesus Christ. Today, I live in a different country and I’m learning different traditions and customs and at the same time attempting to create Christmas meaning and memories for my own children that mimic some of my best memories. I’m not religious, but more spiritual in nature. And I believe the origins of the season are necessary to keep in mind. No matter where the origins stem, be it the pagan celebration of light or the Christian birth of a Savior, I’m glad that we have it. To me, it is about giving gifts, tangible and non-tangible, such as sitting down and sharing what we enjoy the most with the people we love and perhaps with those that we don’t yet understand. What is Christmas for you?  

 

 

 

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Lettre d’un Poilu

Here’s an exemple with (my) translation of a French soldier’s words to his 15 month old son.  The text was found online at the website:  http://textes.poesies.free.fr/news.php?extend.449.7

A mon petit Armand

Tu es encore bien jeune et ne peux comprendre ce qui se passe en ce moment : la guerre, ses horreurs, ses souffrances.
Cette carte sera un souvenir de ton père, et il te souhaite qu’a l’avenir les hommes soient meilleurs, et que semblable chose ne puisse plus arriver.
Que jamais tu n’aies besoin, et sois forcé, de mener la vie que je subis en ce moment en compagnie de beaucoup de papas qui ont laissé, comme moi, de petits anges chez eux.
Pour t’élever, tu te trouves d’être bien pénible, mais tu te rattraperas de cela en étant dans quelques années un petit garçon bien gentil et obéissant.
Le moment venu, je serai sûrement auprès de toi pour te diriger, mais si mon espoir était déçu, en mémoire de ce père que tu n’auras pas connu, redouble de gentillesse pour ta mère et pour ceux qui t’élèveront.
Devenu un homme, sois du nombre de ceux qu’on appelle les honnêtes gens.
Sois bon pour ton prochain, ne fais pas ce que tu ne voudrais pas qu’il te fût fait.
Vénère ta mère ; sois pour elle un soutien véritable.
Rappelle-toi aussi que le vrai bonheur ne se trouve pas dans la richesse et les honneurs, mais dans le devoir vaillamment accompli, ainsi que les bonnes actions.
Si le destin te donne des épreuves à subir, sois courageux et tu les surmonteras, mais si par malheur tu te laisses entraîner par le vice, les passions, relis vite mes conseils, ne te laisse pas aller à la dérive.
Il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte ; une fois entraîné par le courant, on roule de chute en chute, et il arrive qu’on ne peut plus se relever.
C’est trop tard.
Alors, arrivé à ce point, la vie est finie.
Gâchée par sa faute.
Et on est plus bon qu’à être la risée, ou montré du doigt par tout le monde, suivant le penchant qui a perdu l’homme.
J’espère n’avoir pas à rougir de toi car je sens que tu suivras le chemin de l’honneur.
En attendant de pouvoir te choyer et caresser, je te fais, mon petit fanfan, de grosses bises.

Joseph THOMAS

 

 

Translation:

 

 

5 août 1915

You are still quite young and cannot understand what is happening at this moment : the war, the horrors, the suffering. This letter will be a souvenir of your father, and il hopes that in the future men will be better, and that something like this may never happen again. That you never need, and never be forced, to lead the life that I am subjected to while in the company of many dads that have left, like me, little angels in their homes. Raising you is painful or difficult, but you will make up for it given that in a few years you will be a nice and obedient young boy. That moment come, I will surely be near to direct you, but if my hope is disappointed, in memory of this father that you will not have known, double up your kindness for your mother and for those who will raise you.
 
Having become a man, be amongst those who call themselves honest people. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Respect your mother ; be for her a true support.  Remember also that true happiness cannot be found in riches or honors, but in work valiantly accomplished, as well as good deeds. If destiny subjects you to trials and tribulations, be courageous and you will overcome them, but if by misfortune you let yourself get dragged into vice, passions, reread my advice, don’t let yourself get swepted away. Only the first step costs us ; once we are swept away by the current, we fall lower and lower, until we can no longer get up. It’s too late. So, arriving at this point, life is finished. It is wasted by our own fault. And we are only good for being laughed at, or pointed the finger at by everyone, according to how we’ve lost ourselves. I hope never to feel ashamed of you because I sense that you will follow the honorable path. While waiting to be able to hold and caress you, I give you, my small child, many kisses.

Joseph Thomas was a farmer and lived in Saint-George-d’Espéranche.
 
This letter was destined to his 15 month old child.
 
Joseph only had 8 months left to live. He died March 30th 1916 in Verdun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 3 – 11 novembre – le jour de l’Armistice (Veteran’s Day WWI)

Day 3 – 11 nov : Le Jour de l’Armistice

 

Please excuse my absence for the past few days. At first I was reeling from the results of the American elections. Then I was knee deep in research and thoughts in preparation for this week’s blog.

 

Today is November 11th. In the United States, we might refer to this date as Veteran’s day and this day is used to commemorate the veterans and fallen of all previous wars.  In France, this day is solely for the commemoration of the fallen and the veterans of one war: WWI.  French soldiers of WWI were called “les poilus”, literally meaning “the hairy”. They were called this because while deep in the trenches, they had no time to shave their beards. In France, WWI is most often referred to as “La Grande Guerre” or “la Guerre 14-18”. (Just in case you don’t know, this is referring to the years that WWI spanned: 1914-1918) Another French name for this day is “le jour de l’Armistice”, which celebrates the end of WWI.  The war was said to have ended at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918.

 

Armistice day is a national holiday here. Schools are closed today. Many businesses took a four-day weekend. Today at 10:30am, there will be a national memorial ceremony shown live on tv and that will be presided by the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.

 

On Sunday morning, in my village, I attended two out of three ceremonies honoring the fallen and the veterans. Each dedication was short and sober, but heavy with emotion. The conciseness of the ceremonies left me wanting and curious. Armistice day is 90 years old today. But, its relevance is still necessary in a world like today. People then called it the Great War and the War to End All Wars. As interesting as this all is to me, you’re not here for a politics, nor a history lesson.

 

Here are some sites where you can go to read letters by “les poilus” or see some of these local and national memorials monuments.

 

1. lettres par poilus :

 

 

2. pictures of memorials :

 

I will put up some letters with their translations on my blog as soon as I get permission to do so. Although this stuff may seem gloomy, these are important topics to learn about. We do not choose what we learn in our mother tongues. To become fluent and conversive in other languages, we can choose to touch on all subjects. “Enjoy” the reading and allow it to take you that step closer to your goal in language learning.

 

Happy Learning!

Karena

 

Day 2

Hello Out there,

I’m just sending out a little information on this great & important election day for the entire world! I realized that I did not give you any radio information for all of you that wish to listen to French radio online. Here are a few websites that you can/could visit for your listening pleasure:

1. www.radiofrance.fr — this is a talk radio station and most of the stations are local. for instance my area is Mayenne, so I go to http://www.radiofrance.fr/chaines/france-bleu/?tag=mayenne

2. www.classique.fr — as you can guess, this is classical music, but the hosts speak introduce and do interviews in France.

3. www.nrj.fr — r&b, alternative, etc.

4. www.skyrock.fm — R&B, rap

5. www.virginradio.fr — rock, alternative, R&B,…used to be Europe 2

6. www.funradio.fr — dance, club music

7. www.rtl2.fr — pop rock radio

Keep in mind that there are many, many French web and radio stations. So, you can do your own google or yahoo search and find many stations and opportunities to listen. In the meantime, these are just a few that I might listen to when I’m driving in my car. It depends on how I’m feeling at the moment. And these are definite ways to get plugged into the actual culture of France. Good listening!!

Karena

Day 1

Hello. My name is Karena. I am an American living in France. I live in the departement of Mayenne and this blog is all about my experience in this rural area of France. Along the way, I hope to tell you about life in France, and perhaps teach you some French. If you’re a Frenchophile, a student of languages, or a student of life, then I hope this will be the beginning of a lovely relationship.

 

Jour 1 — 1er novembre 2008 La Toussaint

When I was back living in Baltimore and still going to church, the 1st of November was very important to me. But as I got away from religion, I focused, like I believe most of America does, on Halloween and not so much on All Saints’ day. That’s exactly what “La Toussaint” means. And although Halloween had managed to get a foothold in France, La Toussaint is still the more important of the holidays.  It is a national holiday and religious celebration of the dead, thus it is a day where people don’t go to work,…normally. Instead, they go to cemeteries and visit loved ones who have passed. For some, perhaps mostly youngsters, it means vacation. My son has been attending the local day camp for the past week, instead of going to school. La Toussaint vacation began October 24th.

On Sunday, October 26th, the hour was changed back. Thus, we were able to get an extra hour’s sleep in. This is a good idea since vacation time allows the children and the parents to get used to the hour change. School starts back up on Thursday, November 6th and I hope the children will be delighted.

Here’s today’s Cultural Note. I like to listen to the radio here. I’ve always been an avid fan of music. So, one thing that I was surprised to learn was that about 50% of the music played on some radio stations here is American or English. There is a bit of Italian and Spanish music also that gets played on the radio stations. (These bits of information are in no way statistics. They are simply and uniquely my impressions.)

In any case, I am a strong believer in listening to and enjoying learning a language, so I hope that you will take a look at the next two videos. I picked these two songs out totally randomly. They are the first two French songs that came up on two video channels that I view online. You can listen to and view the songs on youtube.

The first song found was a rap by a female French artist named Kenza Farah. Her song is called “Au Coeur De la Rue” and it’s youtube website link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3kmDOb1wyo .

The second song found was a song by a male French artist named Bénabar. His song is called “Le Diner” and it’s youtube website link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpzTeeZYuTQ&feature=related .

If you’d like to have translations of these songs, please write it in your comments. I’ll translate to the best of my ability. Or, if you’d just like some basic explanations, I can do that too.

Here’s a News Note for today. If you’re looking for the news, you can find news in many places on the net. Here are some web addresses that I like to check out when I’m searching for current news:

1. www.tf1.fr — This website is the internet version for the regular television channel. You can find some video for the weather, the daily news or some paid programming that come directly from the television channel TF1.  LCI.fr is an associated satellite channel and internet news station, but LCI only provides news programs or short news-based documentaries.

2. www.france24.com/fr/ — This is a news website that also has a satellite channel. This is a multiple language provider of news.

3. www.ouestfrance.fr — This is an daily online newspaper. A couple other daily online newspapers are: Le Monde and Le Figaro.

Personal Note

No matter what your reasons for learning French, if you are truly into it, you must immerse yourself in it. I know how difficult that can be if you are far from the tools that you need to make speaking and understanding well. Here are some tools that you can use to see more of France than what they put in those textbooks. In the meantime, practice speaking and listening. Practice, practice, practice. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We take our biggest steps when we make our mistakes.

 

A bientôt

Karena