By my Christ­mas presents I’ve bro­ken the rules and em­bar­rassed my friends

The Herald Magazine - - FIRST UP - FIDELMA COOK

THREE years or so ago I gave Miriam a rather splen­did spa box from the White Com­pany. It con­tained a white tow­elling “lux­ury” robe, can­dles, unguents and bath prod­ucts, if I re­mem­ber rightly.

It came in a glam­orous white box with black rib­bon and I took great plea­sure in hand­ing it to her.

In fact I was rather ex­cited at the thought of her open­ing it and dis­cov­er­ing the trea­sures within – lux­u­ries she would never dream of buy­ing for her­self. Christ­mas is the one time I can say thank you for all she and Pier­rot do for me dur­ing the year. Pier­rot will never ac­cept money when he sorts my sep­tic tank, my plumb­ing or plugs in my bat­tery overnight or an­swers my call when ter­ri­fied by some­thing strange in the night.

Miriam wouldn’t even think that there should be any form of rec­i­proc­ity when she ar­rives with plants, crepes, pates, tiramisu, mi­mosa, fruit or veg­eta­bles through­out the year.

But af­ter a life­time spent in cities and in a ma­te­ri­al­is­tic cul­ture, I am un­easy that I have noth­ing to give back. I haven’t the skills or, in truth, the de­sire to make or bake some­thing, so it’s Christ­mas I use as the thank-you ve­hi­cle.

Tak­ing them out to a restau­rant doesn’t work, as both are very fussy about what they will and will not eat. Plus Miriam al­ways says: “I make that bet­ter at home”. When, long into the New Year, Miriam still hadn’t ac­knowl­edged the present, I fi­nally asked if she’d liked it.

“I don’t have a bath,” was the re­ply. “I’ve only got a shower.”

“Erm, but you can use the things in the shower and af­ter­wards,” I said, baf­fled.

“But it’s for a bath.”

Since then I’ve given her a cash­mere jumper – “too hot,” a cash­mere scarf “too hot” and this year I got her a fine fleece trimmed with leather. Again no re­sponse un­til I asked. “It’s too small.”

“Well, give it back to me and I’ll re­turn it.”

“No, no, I won’t wear a thick jumper un­der it – I get too hot any­way.”

To Pier­rot I give hunt­ing things. I’ve only asked him once, long ago, if he liked the three boxes of car­tridges I’d got him. “You paid too much,” he said. “You should have asked me and I’d have got them cheaper.”

“But then, Pier­rot, it wouldn’t have been a sur­prise, would it?”

He looked at me as if I were mad, then shook his head and gave his bark of a laugh as he chuck­led his way out of the door. (I used to give him bot­tles of good whisky un­til one lunch at his house he opened a drinks cup­board where they were all ranged up – un­opened. He rarely drinks, I was to learn, and then just a sip.)

I also buy for Robert, my 90-plus gentle­man caller, and his wife. Through­out the year he too brings me sea­sonal fruit and, if none is ready, pack­ets of bis­cuits from Car­refour.

This year it was a rather fine Ch­ablis and four thin wine glasses in a pre­sen­ta­tion box. Of course he didn’t men­tion it when he turned up the other day. “Did you like your present?”

At least he said he did. Re­sult. But then he’s from north-west France

Please don’t get me wrong. All three are gen­er­ous to a fault, kind and very po­lite. And I don’t give presents to re­ceive effusive thanks – I just want to know if they en­joyed them as much as I did care­fully or­der­ing them.

But the fault does lie with me in that by my ac­tions I am go­ing against French cus­tom – or at least ru­ral French cus­tom – and maybe by their si­lence they have been try­ing to tell me so for years.

Nor­mally here Christ­mas is purely for fam­ily, al­though the long Christ­mas Eve din­ner, which lasted through the night, has, in the main, been dropped for Christ­mas Day lunch… which lasts through day and evening.

Presents are given to the chil­dren and rarely are even cards sent or handed over. But New Year is for friends and for the whole month of Jan­uary one can give and send good wishes with post­card-style cards.

Now is the time, too, that small gifts of choco­lates or posies of flow­ers are brought, unan­nounced, to the house.

By my presents I’ve both bro­ken the rules and prob­a­bly em­bar­rassed them with my ap­par­ent ex­trav­a­gance. They don’t wish to hurt my feel­ings so si­lence is the an­swer un­til I goad them.

But then that can’t be all of it ei­ther be­cause they are then hor­ri­bly hon­est in their re­ac­tions.

That I think is a ru­ral thing too. If I ask Miriam if she thinks I’ve lost weight – she eyes me up and down and says. “No.” Does she like my new trousers? “Not much.”

Now I just laugh and tell her: “Lie, Miriam, just lie to me. I want you to lie to me, okay?” Again bewil­der­ment and fi­nally a shrug.

“Right, let’s try again. Do you think I’ve lost weight?” I can see the strug­gle she’s go­ing through on her face. Fi­nally she an­swers: “Not re­ally.”

We will never fully un­der­stand each other in our ba­sic cul­tural dif­fer­ences. But we ac­cept them, in­deed rather en­joy them. What more could we ask?

cook­fi­[email protected]­mail.com Twit­ter: @fi­del­ma­cook

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GOR­DON TERRIS

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