Christmas was bound to be different this year.
In 2011, both of my grandparents passed away, and now the family home, which was built by my ancestors, the Perry family (Some folk from the Mayflower, Commodore Matthew Perry, Rebecca Nurse of Salem Mass, and Eli Whitney of the cotton gin amongst them,) is up for sale. (Anyone looking for a $1.8m ‘family home’? Get in touch.)
Christmas used to mean a gathering of the Kelley clan (I’m named after my grandfather’s last name) at Number 4 Margin St., and last year was the last time for it.
My reaction was to make this year as different as possible.
This is the only Christmas I’ve ever sat outside in the sunshine during the middle of the day, eating French petit fours, cheeses, and drinking homemade Vin d’Orange from a friend (Valerie). It’s the only Christmas where, when the sun was down and it was chilly again, we had a big log fire in a stone fireplace, and it’s the only Christmas where my mom, aunt, and I baked a Capon – an unexpectedly enormous chicken – turkey-sized – stuffing olive oil and herbes de Provence beneath the skin, and baked mashed potatoes with black truffles.
It’s the only Christmas where I went to Christmas Eve Mass (particularly in French, though I don’t recall ever going to a Christmas Eve Mass at all,) and it’s the only Christmas where we played Dominoes, ate sugared chestnuts, macarons, and a chestnut buche. It’s the only Christmas I’ve Skyped in with my brother and his family in Rhode Island. That, and phone calls with Dani’s family, meant we really did feel connected, despite our far-flung abode. I think that’s what an international lifestyle is all about – not letting the distance stop you, but also enjoying the exile as you wish.
The day after Christmas was a Monday, so with the anticipation that everything would be closed, both because many things are closed on Mondays, and because it was the day after Christmas, we made the now-obligatory trip to the beautiful perched villages of Tourettes and Fayence, not a far drive from Les Adrets. It was a lovely sunny day, and this time, knowing how close beside each other the two villages are, we parked in the carpark at Tourettes and walked all over it and Fayence. We watched gliders soaring across the fields and hills; silent, white, long-winged.
We saw more of Fayence, including a gorgeous church. I’m aware of how many churches I’ve visited on this trip, of going to church. I have always loved ecclesiastical architecture and London is full of it, too, but it feels like here there is more of it – perhaps because each little village has its own church (though England has the same thing). I’m not sure if I’m in a more religious country (Roman Catholic – yes, I suppose,) or I’m just more aware of it. Also, it being Christmas, it means the santons in crèches are everywhere. We even saw a chocolate crèche in a chocolaterie! Best crèche ever.
Stray olive trees bent ripe with unplucked olives, persimmon trees dropped their gloopy orangey-red fruits to the ground, and pine cones clustered thickly in the branches of tall, thin pines. We read the history of Christmas on a sign-board outside of a closed cafe, which began with the pagan origins of the holiday and ended with the adoption of Father Christmas by an American advertising exec who changed Pere Noel’s clothes from green to red so he could sell Coca-Cola – echoing exactly Raymond’s own explanation of the commercialisation of Christmas.
We drove to the coast, wandering around the Christmas market in Frejus, which, to my delight, was open. We ate freshly baked macarons and debated the distinction: to an American, a ‘macaroon’ is a coconut (and sometimes chocolate) squishy cookie thing. In France, it’s like a tiny hamburger-sugar-sweet, which can be chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, pistachio, etc – many, many flavours.
But to confuse us, the macarons we ate at the Frejus market were both the shape & consistency of the American version – but came in many flavours, including ‘natural’ (which was coconutty,) and chocolate, raspberry and pistachio. I was trying to assert that ‘macaROON’ was American (coconut) and ‘macaRON’ was French (sugar-burger) but failed.
In the end, we decided it didn’t matter and ate a bunch of chocolate macaro(o)ns. I had mulled wine and we bought Florentines (orange glazed and dipped in chocolate on one side to make a delightfully chewy orange cookie) and ate little fried things – almost like raviolis – filled with cheese & spinach.
We looked at the crèche in the town hall and the crèche in the ancient cathedral.
There were little tableaux set up with life-sized puppets, electronic, which moved & played music, acting out popular fairy tales, and little kids watched, wide-eyed, as the Prince bent to kiss Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent looked on; Hansel & Gretel were tempted by the wicked witch, and Peter Pan flew away from Captain Hook with Tinkerbell.
I’m afraid I don’t have photos of these, so I’ll post one of a fabulously sexy water fountain instead.