Stephen Clarke’s ex­pert tips for life in France

France - - Contnets -

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.

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