I love Paris, and have been lucky enough to visit in both the spring and the summer, but I'm being increasingly drawn to the notion of spending a winter and specifically a Christmas in Paris. All those Paris blogs that I read, endless images of Paris in her stark winter beauty with chocolat chaud the perfect warming potion, and hearty seasonal treats in abundance. Who couldn't help but be entranced? Well John Baxter let's it rip from the first page- spending the whole preface dissuading silly, romantics like me from visiting Paris at Christmas. Shops and restaurants are closed. The streets are deserted. The ATMs will remain empty for days as the people who refill them refuse to work over Christmas. "At certain times of year, the spirit of Paris moves elsewhere. It's soul migrates, and this most beautiful of cities briefly falls empty."
Of course Paris falls empty because the French are so busy celebrating Christmas. "Think of that sense of family solidarity, reconciliation, and homecoming that characterizes the U.S. Thanksgiving. Combine it with the affirmation of shared values found in a nationalist festival like Russia's May Day or Australia's Anzac Day. Toss in the eating and drinking that distinguishes a German beer festival. Now you have some idea of a French Christmas."
One Christmas Baxter is preparing the dessert for Christmas Day, and is keeping it a surprise. His wife, Marie-Do pesters him to tell her what he is making.
"It's a surprise."
"Surprises are an enthusiasm of young societies," she said pedantically. "The French don't care for them."
|Statuary in Tuilleries|
My first major surprise on reading this book was that John Baxter is Australian! I'd not heard of him before, and had assumed from the brief bio at the front of the book that he would be American. He's a frightfully well connected Australian though- he describes being destitute on first moving to England in the late 60s as so many clever young Aussies did, but he was lent a tiny, unheated cottage by Randolph Stow, who happened to be away for at a six month writer-in-residence gig in Scandinavia. Baxter later became a drinking buddy of Kingsley Amis, because they both enjoyed a well-mixed drink.
John Baxter grew up in Australia, and learnt to read whilst whiling away the hours waiting for his parents to finish up at the pub. Hardly an auspicious start. Yet he grows up to become an author and codirector of the Paris Writers Workshop. This book gave me joy on many levels- as an Australian, as a Francophile, and as a foodie. The breadth of subject matter is quite astonishing- and a tantalising tidbit is thrown in so very often. In his chapter talking about the prodigious drinking abilities of the average Australian, he mentions George Miller, the filmmaker who made Mad Max. Baxter states that Miller's inspiration for Mad Max's apocolyptic vision of vehicular homicide stemmed from the young doctor moonlighting as an ambulance driver in the 1970s and seeing the results of so many alcohol-drenched crashes. It really was the perfect book for me to while away the hours, and if I do ever become lucky enough to spend a Christmas in Paris I shall make certain to read it again before I go.
|The dome of the Pantheon|
I love the glimpse provided into hugely different Christmas traditions, and a look back in time to the history of Christmas. John Baxter meets his future French wife in Los Angeles in 1989, and then impulsively moves to Paris to marry her and begin his Parisian life. He discovers that their Christmas celebrations affirm family and tradition. It's fascinating to me to know that the French send their Christmas cards after Christmas. His wider French family arrange presents around a shoe belonging to the recipient- a tradition dating back to when people would put a clog by the chimney to receive a single emblematic gift.
Of course our modern frenzy of gift buying and giving is relatively new. I remember my own childhood of course. We usually got one present for Christmas, often something exciting like a swing set, and fully meant to encourage us to play outdoors of course. "In Dickens's day, food and good works mattered far more. Scrooge, when he sees the error of his ways, doesn't buy presents but gives money to a charity that helps the poor and sends a turkey to his clerk Bob Cratchit, whose wages he raises and family he helps."
|The magnificence of a Sadaharu Aoki quatre fruits rouge tart|
"Gifts were symbolic- sometimes just an imported orange or clementine, luxuries in midwinter." Modern French folks appear to have a rather extraordinary number of rules to follow when selecting a gift. Normally you can't give anyone food or wine, but at Christmas this is possible. While you can give any number of kitchen gadgets you can't offer up a knife as a present as it is thought it will cut the ties that bind the friendship. And you can buy your mother in law silk pyjamas, perfume, cream, soap or cosmetics, but not an electric toothbrush as that would be too intimate, and so not appropriate. A rather formidable, and apparently confusing set of rules to the sadly non-French.