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Vignettes of Paris. It’s these encounters, these snippets of daily life living in Paris that create the best memories for me. The people and experiences of travel in a foreign land stick with us long after the moment has passed.
Here are a few of my most memorable encounters from December.
Christmas Shopping In Paris
It’s my 300th day of living in Paris. It’s December. Grey. Dull. And spitting rain.
I head across the Pont Royal leading to the Louvre as a pearly-white swan glides along the dull Seine providing a bit of brightness to the day.
I pass through Galerie Vivienne, one of the glorious ancient covered Passageways of Paris, admiring the Christmas lights and spectacular mosaic floor.
I’m looking for kitchen shops and in my research, I’ve discovered E. Dehillerin. What I don’t realize is that I have stumbled across one of the most notable kitchen shops in the world. In business since 1820, E. Dehillerin is the go-to shop for many renowned French chefs.
I enter the shop and am swept back 200 years. Row upon row of ceiling-high wooden shelves are filled with kitchen utensils and gadgets for slicing, chopping, coring and peeling. Copper pots dangle from the wall. I peruse the madeleine pans sitting askew beside the springform and loaf pans. Dreams of sugar plum fairies start to swirl. I love baking pans and whisks!
Men in aprons are offering expert advice to shoppers while, to me, the prices remain a mystery. Hanging from a nail at the end of each wooden shelf is a ragged binder. I watch another shopper flipping through the pages. I take my turn with the binder. I flip. It’s page upon page of codes. I return to the shelf, find the code of a prized item and once again open the binder. I’m literally shopping in the Belle Epoque…
I settle on some silicone molds. Lightweight, they will mail easily overseas. The gentlemen behind the counter take the time to find me the perfect box.
I know where I will be heading when I set up my Paris apartment.
Encounter With A Bouquiniste
The cafés are closed but a few people are gathered at a corner café serving churros, hot chocolate and vin chaud to go. The vin chaud warms my hands on this damp cold day.
I head to the Seine where the sun has broken through the clouds just in time to set and the winter light throws a seasonal glow on the iconic buildings.
Three bouquinistes, who sell books along the Seine, have their stalls open. The rest are shuttered green. There is no one about. The sidewalks are virtually empty. I strike up a conversation with a bouquiniste and what entails is a 30-minute dialogue. Neither of us is in a hurry. We delve in and share stories. He recounts how his precious job has changed over the years. He’s lucky to sell a book or two a day.
We speak of family roots. He loves Quebec and speaks fondly of days spent there.
We look at special editions. I pick out a hardcover of photographs of Paris from 1938. We turn the pages together. He tells me of the renowned German photographer.
His attention turns quickly to a regular customer, an older gentleman, who is waiting to speak to him.
My grin is wide as I cross the bridge, book tucked under my arm.
Pine Boughs à la Paris
I am passing through the 6th arrondissement on my way home. Christmas trees and stacks of pine boughs add to the festive ambience. The strong scent of pine sends me immediately to Canadian forests. I have been looking for a pine branch to add to my minimal Christmas decor. I pop into a minuscule boutique that is filled with Christmas arrangements, holly, mimosa, poinsettias, and seasonal bouquets. I ask the price of a pine bough. The shopkeeper hurriedly responds, “45 €, Madame.” ($67 Cdn)
“No, Madame. I am not looking for a Christmas tree, merely a single pine bough.” I answer, trying to clarify the situation.
“Oui, Madame. They were less expensive last week and they will be less expensive next week. but this week pine boughs are 45 €. Each.”
I am stunned.
“Madame, pardon mais je viens du Canada.” (I come from Canada)
“Ahh, Well you can just walk out into the forest and cut a branch!” she retorts.
“Oui, c’est vrai!” (Yes, that’s true!)
“Merci Madame et bonne journée!” I say as I back out of the tiny entranceway.
It was holly that eventually became the superstar of my Christmas decor!
The Graciously Gifted Holly
I love some branches of holly to liven the place up at Christmas time. I pop into a local florist and he tells me to come back in two days when the holly will be fresher. I leave the florist shop empty-handed.
When I return a few days later, the young vendor and I chat. I tell him about my French Canadian roots and he happily talks of his love of Canada. As he wraps up a gorgeous full bouquet of holly, I reach for my wallet.
“Madame, je veux vous offrir le houx.” (Madame, I would like to offer you the holly.)
I tell him how much I love Paris because it is like a village.
“Well, Madame especially around here. Everybody knows each other.”
I float back to my apartment, the enormous bouquet of gifted holly in hand.
The Bûche de Noel
I decide to buy my Bûche de Nöel at Maison Mulot. I tell the vendor that it is my first Christmas in Paris.
He asks where I am from.
When he hears Canada. He stops. He lights up. He starts talking about Quebec.
I tell him I have French roots.
I say, “The French just love Quebec.”
He holds his hand over his heart. “C’est si proche, Madame.” (It’s so close.)
I think of Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and my ancestors who made their way across the sea to Nouvelle-France. My ancestor made a two-year commitment to stay in Nouvelle-France. He must have decided to stay. I would love to know his story.
It’s no wonder the French connection is “si proche.” It is a recurring theme this French love of Canada in my encounters in Paris and the rest of France.
Homeless In Paris
There are a lot of homeless people in Paris. They are referred to as SDF – sans domicile fixe – without a fixed home. There are tents pitched under bridges, in small alleys and in the doorways of closed stores. Laid out sleeping bags and pieces of cardboard are a common sight. The line ups for food in Place de la Republique during the last confinement stretched further than the enormous plaza itself. Living in a neighbourhood, one gets familiar with the homeless people that have chosen it as their place to be.
Out Christmas shopping one evening I notice a woman, later in life, is stopped and in the middle of a conversation with a homeless man. He perches in a doorway amidst a blanket and his entire life’s belonging in a few bags. He gazes up at her and explains how it came to be that he is here. She appears relaxed, leaning against the doorway, ready to hear his story and honour his voice.
I find in this busy city of Paris where many foreigners find the citizens cold, that the opposite holds the truth. Time after time, I witness Parisians stopping and digging into their pockets for loose change for a homeless person. But this exchange touches my heart on a cold December night under the Christmas lights.
It’s a silvery day. I have decided to stop describing Paris as grey. If you look through the lens of silver, the rooftops, the Seine and the sky take on a different hue. Grey vs. silver. Subtle silvery shades brighten the spirits.
Is it strange being alone for Christmas? It’s not my first time. A few years ago I was in Valparaiso, Chile.
The hard part is that I haven’t seen any family in a very long time. I would love to be with my girls and son-in-law. Or my brother and his family in London. Or my favourite French family in Villescresnes. But it’s 2020. The year (or more) of the Coronavirus.
I feel strangely at home and settled into the idea of this first Christmas in Paris. I know it will be just fine.
Parisians seem a bit “pressé” for tonight, on December 24, is their main Christmas celebration. The line up at the Poissonerie on my street stretches far around the corner. The poissonière points to the sign reminding people to move back as they only have the right to have three customers in the shop at a time.
Parisians are leaving with their orders of cod, scallops, oysters, mussels and fish I have never seen before. Enormous preordered platters of seafood are flying out the door.
I decide to join the line. I’ve had my fair share of oysters this year but not recently. I’ve already got champagne chilling in the fridge. The logical accompaniment? Oysters… I get in line for six number 2-sized Gillardeau oysters. I know these have the reputation as the best. The Rolls Royce of French oysters. They also come from the Gillardeau’s oyster farm, in operation since the late 1800s, and from the area near La Rochelle and Île d’Oléron where my ancestors come from.
I order une demi-douzaine and ask if he will open them for me, “Bien sûr, Madame.”
I pay my 16€, about $4 Canadian each. It’s going to be a festive Christmas dinner!
I see people bustling down the streets carrying large paper shopping bags from my favourite pâtisserie Thierry Marx. I join another long line. The neatly arranged baguettes are disappearing and box after box of pâtisseries are being carried out the door. I leave with my warm baguette, a lemon tart and a Chausson aux Pommes.
Midnight Mass At Saint-Sulpice, Paris
Saint-Sulpice is enormous but in 2020, the chairs are spread out inviting a mere fraction of the church’s capacity.
December 24th is the only night in this confinement where the 8 pm curfew is lifted. I feel a glorious sense of liberty as I walk from my friend Alex’s apartment, under the Christmas lights, towards Saint-Sulpice. As I arrive, the police presence is unmistakable. Along with the police, soldiers are patrolling the periphery of the Church.
I call out “Joyeux Nöel” to the first soldier I see.
“Joyeux Nöel, Madame.” rings out in the deserted street.
I arrive for the Carol Singing at 11 pm. There are trumpets, a violin player and a sparse crowd. Behind my mask, I sing at the top of my lungs the hymns and carols that I know. In English. With the odd French word thrown in the mix.
When the mass starts at midnight, I decide to stay. Who can resist incense and priests carrying a baby Jesus held aloft? I am fascinated by this Catholic service that I barely understand. When the priests line up and start to leave I marvel at the short duration of the mass. But, I am sorely mistaken. They are carrying baby Jesus to the crèche and laying him purposefully and carefully where he belongs.
By 1:15 with the service still in flow, I decide to slip out. I pass the crèche and have a good look at baby Jesus, trying to recall the words of one of my favourite hymns, Il Est Né, le Divin Enfant. I saunter home along empty streets aglow with Christmas lights, singing aloud.
Our Cousins – That’s Us Canadians
In the midst of yet another confinement, I am sauntering down rue du Bac looking in the store windows at a particularly lovely vase with a bird design. The owner is suddenly beside me unlocking the door to the boutique.
When I tell him I am sending a photo of the vase to my daughter he asks where she is. When I mention Vancouver Canada, he just about does a dance. With great exuberance, he holds both hands over his heart and says, “Nos cousins, nos cousins!” (Our cousins, our cousins) He proceeds to tells me of his memorable voyages in Quebec and British Columbia.
The French and Canada. No wonder I feel so at home.