By my Christmas presents I’ve broken the rules and embarrassed my friends
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?
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PHOTOGRAPH: GORDON TERRIS