Stephen Clarke’s expert tips for life in France
Christmas in France has our columnist longing for English traditions.
Normally, I am an advocate of the idea that, as a visitor to a country, you should adapt to local customs. In these columns, I usually try to explain what I think is going on in a French situation, and how I badgered my brain into accepting, and even embracing it.
There is one exception to this rule, though, and that is Christmas. I am sure there are readers who do not celebrate Christmas. There are plenty of people in France, too, who ignore this annual mixture of religious celebration and pagan orgy.
But I am a fan of Christmas – English-style, that is. So this is the one time of the year when I resist all temptation to be the slightest bit French. (Actually there is another – you won’t catch me trying to drive into or out of Paris on summer weekends; it’s like trying to take a peaceful stroll through a herd of stampeding wildebeest.)
Anyway, the French Christmas. Let me say that I heartily approve of the tradition of guzzling champagne. As far as that is concerned, Christmas cannot come often enough. But I have lost count of the times I have turned down a ‘ délicieux’ slice of foie gras, which is not half as delicious when you translate it – ‘fat liver’. Usually, I just smile and decline, and only once have I responded to almost aggressive insistence with a reply along the lines of: “Thanks, but I don’t eat the organs of force-fed, clinically obese animals.”
The bûche de Noël, too – the Christmas cake in the shape of a log – is beyond me. There is something wrong (to my prejudiced palate) in covering a fluffy sponge with a thick layer of icing like solid butter. As I eat it, I can feel my foie getting gras. Some families break out the marrons glacés, candied chestnuts, which taste to me as though a French scientist has been experimenting with making one of nature’s fruits as unnatural as possible – and achieved 100 per cent success. Then there is the timing of the festival. What is this habit of giving people their presents the day before Christmas? Don’t they even want to pretend, in the deepest regions of their adult consciousness, that Santa visited during the night? And then on the 26th, with half of their foie gras still undigested, they go back to the office! When are they meant to exchange all the wrong-sized jumpers, and trawl through the manuals of the electronic gifts they have received? Luckily, plenty of French people seem to think my English habits are just as insane. Once, a friend brought an English Christmas pudding, and, at about 1pm, announced: “This is for dessert.” She was dismayed to learn that it had to be steamed for about four hours (I do not have a microwave). Then she dared to say that this brick-like British tradition “didn’t taste like food”. The thing that confuses them most, though, is the music. I have an original 1973 copy of Merry Xmas Everybody by the band Slade. No one French ever believes me when I say it has charted every year since, and if they deign to listen, the usual comment is: “What are those lyrics? ‘The future’s only just begun’? C’est nul!” The same goes for the carols. When they hear me singing along to religious ditties with weird titles such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Away in a Manger, French guests usually announce that it is time to leave. Which gives me the chance to make a batch of extra-lumpy custard and finish off that brick of Christmas pudding. “Bonnes fêtes,” as they say here in Paris.
On the 26th, with half of their foie gras still undigested, the French go back to the office
Stephen Clarke’s latest novel is Merde in Europe, an exposé of the insanity – good and bad – that is Brussels and the EU.