how to speak to Santa Claus in French

We’ve survived a bleak November, and Montluçon is getting its Christmas makeover. bienvenue

Music plays and lights sparkle into the night. The festivities are a little haphazard: instead of one cohesive carnival, there are attractions scattered around the city. Bumper cars at the foot of the chateau, some food stands across the street. A five minute walk brings you to the main attraction: the little marché de Nöel in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

France loves its Christmas markets. Typically, they last all throughout December, and are set up like a little Christmas village. You stroll around and eat, drink, shop, and play games or go on rides.

I was pleased to find that Montluçon does one too. It’s small but quite charming, with little booths that look like elf-sized log cabins forming the perimeter of the space. At these booths you can buy wool scarves, fine chocolates, sausages, fondue cheese… There’s a tiny skating rink with a big Christmas tree in the middle, an oyster bar, and, my favorite, several stands selling cups of vin chaud, steaming hot and ladled out of huge silver pots.

Vin chaud, or hot mulled wine, is a magical drink, tasting more like Christmas than anything I’ve ever tried. It’s made with red wine, wintery spices, and something to make it sweet, such as honey.

My favorite café here does it best. The flavor is perfection and they give you a little spoon to capture the grosseille berries and orange slices at the bottom of the glass. The café is in the medieval part of town (a circular area near the Cher river). It’s called Les 12 Apôtres (the 12 Apostles) and is right next to a medieval church and across from a used bookstore selling ancient Tintin comic books. montlucon-dusk-moto

du-vin-chaudLast night we went to the marché to have a glass of vin chaud for Mary’s birthday.

The wine wasn’t as good as my dear 12 Apôtres, but the atmosphere was festive, and who did we see but Santa Claus.

It was definitely him, Père Noël, but his shoulders were stooped, his steps slow. He trudged around the festivities in a slow circle. Even from behind, he looked decidedly unjolly. And disconcertingly thin.

Still, we wanted a picture. I didn’t want to catch up until I had my approach. Typically, Santa does the work: well what would you like for Christmas? But I had a feeling that French Santa, probably unaccustomed to the demands of American consumerism, would stare at me blankly after my bonsoir. What do you want and why are you bothering me? No twinkle in his insouciant French eye.

We walked slowly behind him, waiting for the right moment. “This looks creepy. We have to stop doing this,” Mary said as I took a picture of him with my camera.

“Fine, let’s just go.” As we sped up, something came to me. “Wait! Do you tutoie Santa Claus?” Tu versus vous (informal vs formal form of address) is often ambiguous even for the French. There are some clear rules: you always use vous with strangers (unless, say, someone runs off with your purse), you never use it with children or animals (inquire after a cat’s well-being with comment allez-vous and look at the smirks you’ll get). Usually I do okay, not without my share of accidental tu‘s and hasty corrections, but this was one of those situations they don’t teach you in school. Does politesse entail using the formal form of address with Santa Claus, a Christmas character in a velvet suit?


We got our pictures, and as expected, he was not exactly full of cheer. No Joyeux Nöel, even. He did, however, leave us with a mumbled à bientôt (see you soon).mary-et-pere-noel

I won’t get my hopes up. While my list would include perfume, Chanel nail polish, travel money, a food processor, and a nice pillow, French Santa would probably just tell me to appreciate what I already have; eat more salad.

I’ll have to count on American Santa, if he can find me here. We don’t even have a fireplace.hotel-de-ville

puy de dôme hike

Last weekend we hiked the Puy de Dôme, a dormant volcano in the Massif Central. The Auvergne region is nearly synonymous with these volcans, which account for the green lunar landscape of the area. volcan-viewsvolcan

Lonely Planet chose the Auvergne region as one of the top ten regions of the world to visit in 2016, saying “Auvergne has long been overlooked for being too peaceably rural. But that’s all changing, as French travellers weary of tourist-clogged rivieras seek escape here. The Auvergne has responded by reinventing itself with ambitious art projects and a portfolio of wilderness adventures, without ever losing its small-town charisma.”

I can attest to that. After all, last summer I visited Puy-en-Velay and was so charmed by the views and sloping cobblestone streets, the lack of tourists and the tiny brasseries, that I put the Auvergne on my application as one of my top choices for where to live this year.

Here in Montluçon, in the département of the Allier, the geography is a bit different. Though there are no ancient volcanos rising from the ground, the town has been called the porte d’entrée (entryway) into the Auvergne. Getting from Montluçon to the Massif Central is just a short trip south–or it should be.

Mary and I had planned to take the train to Clermont-Ferrand (the largest city in the region; only a few miles away from the Puy de Dôme), but in a last-minute change of plans, a French friend offered to drive us.

G showed up at our house in attire more suited to a discothèque than a vigorous hike, though this wasn’t the only expectation he challenged.

Men are thought to avoid asking for directions, but the trend must not extend to France as G inquired probably a dozen times about the proper route.

It turns out you cannot simply put the name of a volcano into the GPS. Puy de Dôme was close–we could see its trademark antenna–but couldn’t find a parking lot or the start of the trail.

We listened to French rap and wound through the hills, the language barrier presenting occasional moments of hilarity. After the fifth or sixth u-turn, I got my book out, only looking up twenty minutes later when I heard Mary laughing hysterically from the front seat.

She didn’t have to explain. Just ahead, a line of cars had formed, waiting as a herd of red cows wandered lazily down the road.cows

A few blasts of of the horn quickly took care of the problem.

The cows were not the last hurdle, but after a few more wrong turns and a brief visit to the wrong puy, we soon arrived. It’s possible to take a tram to the top, but we were craving fresh air and exercise and had gotten lucky with a sixty-five degree day. tram.jpgIt took us a leisurely hour to get to the top, level with the paragliders. For 85 euros, we could have joined them, though my stomach dropped at the idea. Maybe next time…para 2.jpgjess auv.jpgpretty trees auvergne.jpgdomesky-hikeimg_2437sunIt’s funny: though the view from the top is clearly gorgeous, more well-known is the view from Clermont-Ferrand of the Puy de Dôme itself. At the top a sign explained how a famous French author (if only I could remember who) would always gaze at the Puy from afar, but when he saw the view from the top, he was sorely disappointed. He wrote about it in a letter, expressing something like righteous indignation.

While I don’t share the man’s bad attitude, I will admit there’s something impressive about the Puy de Dôme in silhouette, something you miss standing at the top.

Still, the view is breathtaking: almost prehistoric, incongruous with the rest of France.

We hiked down (the word rolled would almost be appropriate with how steep it was) in about half an hour. It was easier on the lungs but worked a whole new set of leg muscles.

Back in Clermont-Ferrand, we made a quick visit to the cathedral before having dinner in a little crêperie. The Notre-Dame de l’Assomption is, I think, my favorite cathedral in France. Unlike Notre-Dame de Paris, it’s not swarming with tourists, and something about it makes me think strongly of fairytales, like it’s not quite real.

Mary and I visited a few weeks ago when we were in Clermont for our TAPIF orientation. When we took the train to return to Montluçon, the sun was setting a brilliant violet and the cathedral stood high and dark above the city, still visible as the train swayed and creaked away from Clermont. I think we all have buildings or sights or works of art that speak to us for inexplicable reasons, and this place does that for me.

On our first visit, an organist played high above as a few quiet visitors wandered the perimeters. The music gave me chills.img_1864-1img_1862-1img_1787-1img_1863-1

clermont cath.jpgDinner was savory crepes and sweet crepes and wine. We pored over the menu, delirious after not eating all day. I chose something with coquilles de St Jacques, emmental, mushrooms, crême fraiche, and for dessert, a crêpe with chocolate and bananas and peanut butter (something you don’t often see here!). We found that Mary’s accent improves when she impersonates a French man, and the meal ended on an exciting note when the server set both of our crèpes on fire, though only one included alcohol and was supposed to be flambéed.

It was a good weekend in Clermont and I suspect we’ll have many more. It’s just an hour and a ten-dollar train ride away!