a room of one’s own

The house in France hid behind a tall gate in a suburb of Lyon: Champagne-au-Mont-d’Or. With a name that promised champagne and gold mountains, I hadn’t known what to expect. Fresh flowers and gilded windows? Really, the house was modest, modern French. It was small and white and square and very clean. Everything in its place, and so on. I had never before lived that way.

Stuff was a comfort, always had been. I’d amassed nests of books, notebooks, sweaters–one in every color. I had never lived simply. Up until then I had had two rooms, a bright aqua childhood bedroom and a dorm room filled with colorful paraphernalia. The constant clutter, piled in boxes and pushed behind doors, meant I had always had choices: what to read, what to wear, what to look at.

Now I had a third bedroom, sparse and scrubbed clean, bright white with a small skylight. I had a yellow lamp, a twin bed, a small bookshelf that held, I noticed, a French translation of 50 Shades of Grey. I had a large suitcase that lay on the floor, stuffed with dresses and skirts I’d bought at the summer soldes, weighted down with a heavy leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina.

The room was not much of a solace. It was always too hot. I never got used to the absence of air conditioning, and would wake early most nights in a tangle of sweaty sheets. For another, I wasn’t to eat in my room. This wasn’t an instruction my host family felt they needed to impart, but something I intuited. At particularly stressful times throughout my stay, I wanted nothing more than to lounge in my small bed with a filched baguette and the jar of Nutella from the pantry. I knew, though, that my crumbs would find me out. I managed just a couple of covert summer apricots, wrapping the stones in old receipts from Carrefour.

The room and I developed a complicated relationship. It was where I fled to scribble madly about the day’s events, to cry when necessary, to stare up through the skylight, paralyzed with pain from the headaches the heat gave me. Where I went, in short, to cope with the occasional frustrations and troubles of being an exchange student.

But it was a last resort. Most days, I rather resented this little room, which on moody days I would compare to Jean Valjean’s cell.

Luckily, a house is more than a room; a family more than a house. The more time I spent with my host family, the less time I needed the escape. I stopped missing the piles of stuff I’d always had at my disposal. A rich freedom: to instead begin collecting moments, new words, photographs.

A camera, a battered notebook, a comfy pair of jeans. The objects I began to truly treasure had something in common now: they took me out, away from a world of introspection and solitude trapped between four walls. Home became portable. For the first time, I understood that.

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?

Probably. 

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