A French Christmas

A version of this article appeared in LiveMint

My office was closed for 10 days over Christmas last year and only one question prevailed in my mind… quo vadis (where are you going)?

Growing up in India, the subcontinent was big enough for me to plan all my holidays to new destinations. When I moved to London and Europe became accessible, I continued to succumb to the temptation of that insatiable search for the new. Why return to a place when there were so many others to explore?
But this time, manipulated a little by west London’s aggressive promotion of staying with families during the festive season, I was beginning to have doubts about whether I was adventurous enough. It was evident that I was seeking something else; perhaps a sort of travelling warmth that can only come with familiarity.

I couldn’t afford to go back to India, so in an experiment to see if I could change the way I perceived travelling, I decided to return to France, a place I had visited many times before. I would start with the unknown (Lille), make my way towards the acquainted (Maisoncelles), and end my journey and the year with the familiar (Paris).

Lille lies in the north of France, on the border with Belgium. Some miles from this brew of red-brick buildings, boutique stores, Belgian beer and waffles, is a residential commune called Croix, where I was hosted by my friend Marion in her family home. It was in this sheltered, green, suburban paradise that we ate, drank, talked, slept and didn’t do much else.

Marion had her extended family over for Christmas, and we had a special dinner every evening. On Christmas Eve, as the fireplace crackled away, I was treated to some Swiss raclette—the preparation of which was a long-drawn affair of melting cheese on an electric grill in little pans called coupelles and scraping off the melted part on to potatoes and charcuterie.

My raclette companions consisted of Marion, her parents, sister, uncle and two 90-year-old grandmothers. One of these grandmothers, over the course of several decades, had perfected the only four words she could remember in English and didn’t tire of saying them to me at the end of every round of cheese melting (there were many rounds). My Christmas present was thus a “How do you do?” in an accent becoming of the queen herself.

The other grandmother, fondly referred to by the family as “Michael Jackson” on account of her spunk, was dressed in the shiniest of jackets and entertained me by telling me of her escapades on the tram (something that had been forbidden to her by her son) in French-for-dummies, a language that the whole family stooped down to for my benefit.

The raclette dinner was probably the longest and most pleasurable meal I have ever experienced. The family seemed to have perfected a way of prioritizing the things that were really worth spending time on. Like dinner.

Post Christmas, I took the train to Maisoncelles, a small town near Le Mans, where my friends, Sheriden and Tiny, live in a house more than a century old. Over the years, they redesigned their house to suit their tastes—even the name of the house was modified from Le Genièvre to the more philosophical Le Zenièvre.

Objects of the past like the bread oven and fireplace remained in the living room and other new developments brightened the house, like the converted attic that was my bedroom—a room with sloping roofs, furnished with bookshelves all along the walls, a writer’s desk under the window and an armchair whose purpose seemed to be luring bibliophiles with a comforting spot and then making it almost impossible for them to leave.

I spent the mornings going on long rambles in the countryside. As I passed sign after sign announcing the names of large old farmhouses in French—champs de la vigne, la hutte—I realized I was in an alien world. This was a slow-moving world of family-run farms and large woodlands. It was so far from the people in London who were hurrying to get somewhere, anywhere, all the time, this was so far from anything I had ever known.

Downstairs, the fireplace was lit every night. The walnut trees in the garden had supplied my hosts with a large produce and we cracked fresh walnuts for all our salads. The larder was full of home-made jams, preserves and supplies. My only real task—stretching the definition of task in every way—was to feed a couple of ducks in the pond outside.

It was difficult to leave this zen-like existence, but the end of the year was upon me and it was time to go to Paris.

On my first visit to the city five years ago, I was fascinated by the coexistence of real people and places with cultural landmarks that I had only heard of or read about.

On the one hand, there were original paintings by Claude Monet at the Musée d’Orsay, and on the other, I could stare out of bus windows at fashionable old ladies, French-speaking children and young lovers lingering forever to exchange a kiss in the squalor of a metro station.

With each visit to the city, the gap between my two self-defined realms—the ornate, imagined Paris and the real-life Paris—got smaller and smaller till one visit, exhausted of that initial, cloudy-headed fascination, I just did the things I would do anywhere.

My friend lived on the bizarre campus of a university where all international students had been bundled up into buildings that had been designed to resemble the architecture in their home countries. After a close inspection of the most exotic buildings (Maison du Japon and Maison de la Grèce), we indulged ourselves in a second-hand bookshop that sold French children’s books.

We greeted the New Year standing on top of Montmartre. As we counted down, I was reminded of a New Year’s Eve spent some years ago on the same spot with my brother. Two teenagers seated on the stairs of the Sacré-Cœur had switched on a radio just as The Dave Brubeck Quartet had reached that magnificent point in Take Five when the improvisation ends and the song comes back to its original, instantly recognizable melody.

As the crowd around me erupted, and I finished playing the same segment of the song in my head, I felt elated. I had seen a side of France that I had never quite managed to capture in my manic, checklist-making frenzy. In seeking the familiar through the unfamiliar, I had discovered a feeling so strong that I knew it would be a reference point I would remember and return to, like a great jazz song that you want to listen to again and again till you remember it so well that it plays in your head automatically, si tu veux.

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