#OperationChristmasCheer

#OperationChristmasCheer

The lanes in the city are all decked out for the holidays, twinkle lights zigzagging between the open patch of sky between buildings and sparkling away against the winter sky. The Champs-Elysees lights up the night, the mythical tree-lined boulevard illuminated with festive decor. Window displays are all decked out for the season, row after row, enticing people of all ages with just about every item you could possibly dream of owning. During the holiday season, the City of Light amps up its elegance and taste for fine things to a whole other level. Families stroll around and laugh together as they partake in their holiday traditions.

However, Christmastime also has a way of heightening feelings of loss and loneliness. Behind the dancing snowmen in the windows and cheerful faces are those who are hurting, those who have no one to spend the holidays with. Simply taking the metro or walking down the street to the plea of outstretched hands and dirty mattresses are evidence enough, not to mention the gloomy outlook of many regarding the state of world affairs. For some families, Christmas is a season of laughter and fun. For others, it’s only a day and the buildup is unimportant. I’ve had a taste of both in my life. The expectation that takes over at Christmas – what gifts we’ll receive, who we will spend the day with, who will be thinking of us – can weigh us down.

As I spend my first Christmas season living on my own, I have struggled to find a balance between acknowledging these darker feelings and finding the energy to create my own Christmas cheer. It has been a challenge to come home to an empty apartment with no Christmas tree or family to share in our traditions, and to not be swept into the envy and resentment that the hyper-consumerism of the season can breed. It has been frustrating to feel so disconnected from the ones I love back at home during a time generally centered around family. In some cases, I have felt like I am “out of sight, out of mind,” making it hard to push aside these feelings and extend my own holiday greetings. My budget is tighter than it’s ever been and I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t been a point of stress on some days. And once again, I find myself worrying that I am not cheerful enough, that I am lacking in Christmas spirit that seems to come to others so easily. Though I vow it will be different every year, that this will be the year I get a leg up on Christmas, this season always has a way of making me feel emotional and inadequate.

But spending the holiday season on my own has also been an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.We know it’s not about the presents but it is so easy for our vision to become blurred. When you can’t have all the things you want, what is it that still matters most? Through the loneliness and nostalgia that left me feeling empty, it has been finding ways to create my own joy and to be thankful for another Christmas season. It was exchanging cookies with friends who understand that that was all we could afford to give one another this year. It was curling up with a good book and some hot chocolate after a long day of trying to explain the importance and use of auxiliary verbs in English to anxty teenagers.  It was running around Paris with old friends who came to visit and discovering that going to see the Christmas lights and six-story Christmas tree at the Galeries Lafayette is fun no matter how much money you have. It was filling that lonely space in my apartment with the sounds of Christmas songs and movies while occupying my mind with making holiday cards and enjoying a glass of wine. It baking a cake “with” my cousin on Skype though 6,000 miles apart. It was lighting a candle for my mom on the longest night and allowing myself to miss her. But then it was also taking comfort in the words to my favorite Christmas carol – O Holy Night – for the stars always shine, even on the darkest nights. Though there were still hard days when I really missed home and Christmases past, I made the most of this special season for myself, a young twenty-something year-old living on her own.

Maybe these are the things that should matter the most all year round, every Christmas season, spent alone or surrounded by family.

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Happy Holidays to all, from Paris!

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Marketplace Chatter

Marketplace Chatter

It’s a Friday morning, the fridge is empty, and you haven’t received your paycheck yet. In a city where food is expensive, particularly if you like fresh produce and unprocessed meats, this can only mean one thing: it’s time for a trip to the market.

But not just any market; depending on where you live in the city, markets can be just as expensive, if not more, as buying food at the grocery store. While markets such as le Marché Saint Quentin and Saint Pierre are well-known for the quality of their products, the prices can be exorbitant if you’re on a tight budget. So what is a young 20-something year-old who wants to eat well while living on a small income to do? Pack a good book and an empty backpack and ride whatever public transport you have to take to get to a market at the edge of the city! Make a coffee date with a friend who might live nearby for afterwards and you can make a morning out of it.

Down at the southern edge of Paris in Malakoff, le Marché de Vanves  has become my go-to for produce and other perishable good needs. It’s about a forty-minute trip from where I live but the ride doesn’t feel that long with thoughts of all the good food I am going to walk away with swirling in my head and the satisfaction of saving money. As soon as I step off the metro, I follow the steady stream of people pushing caddies and carrying empty bags into the streets of Malakoff. Along with the distance from the city’s center comes the refreshing feeling of being in a small town. A couple blocks down and the main square is filled with tents selling everything you could possibly need, a taste for what is to come when you step inside the covered halls of the market.

The market offers a slice of life in Paris, the place where so many different people gather – the elderly, for whom the market serves as the social outing of the week, stopping to chat with their favorite merchants, some of whom they have frequented for years and where they are greeted by name. Housewives and working women, young and old, families and students alike line up by the stands with their baskets and bags of every shape and variety. Stands of representing different nationalities and cultures – Indian samosas, Algerian delicacies, Lebanese falafel and hummus, and freshly made Italian pasta – bring together the cultural variety normally separated into neighborhoods by the social boundaries of the city.

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Within the marketplace’s narrow aisles, the tough Parisian exterior falls away. Strangers smile to one another and make friendly conversation, virtually unheard of anywhere else, pointing out the best deals and remarking on the weather. A woman shows me how to pick the best clementines – not too ripe but one that gives a little to a squeeze. My sweet potato merchant – as I now feel I have the right to call him for never failing to supply me with my favorite fall vegetable – asks me how my week has been as he weighs my vegetables and a conversation ensues. Where does he get his vegetables? Little town southwest of Paris, part of a food cooperative. Maybe it is simply the product of living on one’s own and occasionally being in great need of social interaction that leaves me open to conversation with such strangers. This is the meeting place where the human need for nourishment, nutritionally and socially speaking, dispels the petty judgments and preconceived notions of daily life to which we often give ourselves over.

As I pick out my apples at one of the many fruit stands, an older man recommends I try a different variety I’ve never heard of before called une reinette, a muted yellowish color. I hesitate. I am drawn to the dark red apples that shine like jewels next to the drabber reinettes.

“Don’t be fooled by the color. It’s not the outside that counts,” he chuckles.

All varieties are going for the same price today, 1.80€ per kilo. It won’t hurt to try. I pick a few of each. He nods in approval. I learn that he used to live in Maine where he dated a beekeeper. Go figure.

After packing my week’s worth of veggies into the backpack and a cup of coffee with a good friend, I head home, laughing to myself at how carrying a cauliflower through the metro has become normal. I unpack my loot at home and calculate that I’ve spent about 12€ on food that will last me a little over a week. Not bad at all. And the apple was delicious. Not the red delicious but the unassuming reinette. Thank goodness for marketplace wisdom.

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A Happy French Friendsgiving

My silence on the blog has felt as tense as the atmosphere in the city; bursting at the seams with thoughts and feelings, yet unsure on how to proceed in this new reality. I have not wanted to sensationalize what I personally experienced on that Friday night or the residual trauma that inevitably continues to seize up in all of us. But it is undeniable that life seems different than it did a month ago. Sirens have taken on a new meaning and extended delays on the metro have us holding our breath. On a casual stroll on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, marks of mourning stretch across the city, flowers attached to doorways where victims formerly lived and makeshift memorials set up against lamp posts and statues, flags waving from windows and buses. The six year-old I watch has acquired the word “terrorist” to her vocabulary and I must find a way to engage in an appropriate and honest dialogue about something I have trouble comprehending myself. This is how life has changed for me.

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Almost two weeks later, the fourth Thursday in November arrived in Paris carrying no greater significance than being a rather abnormally sunny fall day. Work went on as usual, though the day may have felt longer for those of us missing elaborate turkey dinners and pumpkin pie back home. I myself felt wistful all week for the comforts of family antics, my dad’s shuffling about in the kitchen, and the general American-ness that characterize the holiday for me. Sometimes it takes being far away from home to realize how attached you are to certain holidays and traditions.

In light of all that is going on in the world, it has been challenging to express my thankfulness during this time of national mourning. As humans, we cannot help but feel grateful it wasn’t us while looking into the eyes of those who suddenly find themselves bearing an incurable pain and thinking, “I’m so sorry it was you.” The state of our world, from extremism of all kinds and violence to the destruction of the environment, weighs particularly heavy on me this year, with Paris currently at the focal point of both topics. How long will checking every person’s bag and coat at every point of assembly be sustainable for protecting against a threat whose origins are intertwined in a complex history of muddled foreign interests, humankind’s fated egotism and cruelty, and the hatred that is born from the three? How much longer will bombs be used as the method of resolving this hate and extremism? I believe in the resilience of the human spirit. But our ability to be kind, empathetic, and tolerant of one another has been put into serious question for me. We seem to be spinning faster and faster to our own destruction.

As life resumes and a city comes to terms with the fragility of the present, it felt especially important to gather with friends and share in the traditions that tie us together. Unable to declare our own national holiday on Thursday, we held our Friendsgiving on the following Sunday in a little apartment on the very top floor under the rafters. The 3 kilo turkey was splayed open in a baking dish in order to cram it into the tiny oven (capacity of 1.5 kilos…) and we crossed our fingers that the turkey would finish cooking before the sagging rack gave way under its burden. Friendly debates about the quantity of garlic and butter to add to mashed potatoes, how to describe stuffing to our French guests, and the proper way to carve a turkey filled the cramped kitchen as the familiar scents of home began wafting through the air. Everyone had to compromise on at least one element of the meal since each of us have our own attachments to family recipes and tastes. For my part, I contributed my family’s veggie-filled stuffing and experienced my first marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole but I missed my cousin’s tart cranberry sauce. No one had a problem with the wine, though – we’d never had better on Thanksgiving!

But the combination of these various traditions spiked with French accouterments shared among friends with different histories and backgrounds represented everything I wish for our world. As this month of violence and changes in a way of life comes to an end, I am thankful for things that I didn’t know how to be grateful for before. On this first Friendsgiving in Paris, we raised our glasses to France, friendships that break down language barriers, distance and religion, and the choice to feel grateful every day of the year.

 

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Photo courtesy of Briana Stroh