The Little French English Improvement Project

little french person trying to improve her english, little french english person trying to improve herself, french english person trying to improve a little bit… and blogging along the way. (Now in Deutschland)

Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

More festive memories…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 27, 2010

Hey there, so this is part two of my Christmas reminiscences (part one can be found here).  I think last night I finished on six year old me walking into the sitting room in Greenbank Villas and discovering the piles and pyramids of boxes and packages, the promontories of gifts extending over the carpet and spilling out onto the leather sofa, colourful presents all around.

I’ll spare you the details of the actual opening of the presents, I’m sure you’ve spent Christmas with children before. You’ve all seen how kids throw themselves on the pressies or how they get handed a beautifully wrapped package, quickly rip away the paper and squeal with excitement, whilst all the time keeping an eye on the grown ups in charge of distributing, just in case another present might come their way. After that, we all got dressed and went to church. It was a special mass for children, and we were invited to bring one present along. Then for the homily, the priest invited all the children to the front of the church, around the altar and sat down among us to tell us about the Christmas story in words we would understand. It was always nice things he said Nothing, and I mean Nothing like this year’s sermon in Sauxillanges.(the priest basically enumerated everything that was wrong in the world: war, plagues, famine, financial crisis, unemployment, homeless people… have I forgotten anything? And then he ended with an unexpected “so let us be joyful”…). It was all about christmas joy, and  how wonderful family is, and all about giving and receiving… And we’d see all the neighbours and cousins with their gifts. And there was a massive tree in the church, and a giant crib in a corner. I miss it. I miss the wonder of it.

After mass and after we’d caught up with news of everyone on the parish and they had all wondered at how quickly we grew, we went back to Greenbank Villas to prepare the traditional Christmas “lunch” (Dad never thought it qualified as lunch, seeing as it never started before 3 or 4pm). Christmas dinner was one of those rare occasions when we ate on the nice plates, in the dining room where the piano was.  We always, always had ham and “24 vegetables”, yum. Of course there never actually were 24 varieties of veg, it was like Heinz’ 57 varieties, but there were plenty, and plenty more than I would ever eat (I mean, to this day I’m not so keen on sprouts).  So there was all the English food, all the stuffing, and roast parsnips, the very very green peas, and the bisto gravy, and jelly, and pudding and custard… Along the years, more and more french elements were added, like a platter of cheese, or french wines and champagne, and foie gras of course.

This probably would better illustrate yesterday's paragraph about christmas stockings but oh well...

Naturally, we children didn’t sit at the table through the long hours of christmas dinner. It lasted aaaaaaaaages and there were cousins to talk to and presents to be played with and chocolates to be eaten. After we’d had enough food, we’d ask “please may can I leave the table”, with our cute little french geordie accent and go and play in the sitting room, watch some Disney classic on tv and roll on the carpet until it was time to set the Christmas pudding alight. every year we watched it, and every year we tried a tiny amount of pud and decide we didn’t like it, before gorging on custard and biscuits and more chocolate. We’d pop champagne and pull crackers and somehow, whoever won, the children always ended up with all the little presents! And we’d bring a box of crackers back to France to impress our french friends.

And all that was only Christmas day. We’d always spend at least a week in England, and every day of that week held visits to cousins, shopping trips in Newcastle where they had all the lights and the beautiful window displays, rides on the metro, a quick trip to the beach, rented videos, carols singers knocking at the door. But once more I have great difficulty separating the general excitement of being on holiday in England with the family  from the Christmas cheer itself. I have so many memories, there are so many details…

After a while, we’d come back to France and have another Christmas over here. As we’d come back to the house, we’d find out that Santa had been here too and left us plenty of french titled gifts form our uncles and our french family, and there’ be a family meal here too, although maybe not as long and complicated. But it just meant Christmas got extended a little longer, and we got to eat a whole other range of festive food, like Bûche de Noël, and more foie gras, and chocolate and fruit paste papillotes, with bad jokes hidden in the wrapper.

So many memories, and, as you may have noticed: so much food! Our family traditions have changed over the years, but I will always remember the christmases in Greenbank Villas as the best and most magical ones ever! How do you like your festive season?

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Ah the spirits of christmases past…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 27, 2010

I know I keep saying I need to write more regularly, and every time my messages and my apologies stretch out over longer periods of time.And yet, every day I find reasons to write, lovely inspirational moments like last week as I lay underneath the Christmas tree, peering at the twinkling lights through the branches. I had a sort of epiphany, remembering moments, glimpses from my childhood. Since then I have been visited daily by the ghosts of Christmases past.

On Monday Mam and I were in the kitchen cooking… something (so much gets cooked and baked over the X-mas hols, I just lose track), and listening to BBC radio 4, as we often do since Mam borrowed Dad’s chequebook for her birthday and bought an internet radio. And on the radio that day, it was Women’s hour Christmas tradition call-in. People from all over the UK were calling with their anecdotes and family customs. Stuff that had been around their families for generations, or habits they’d started a couple of years back. From ancient traditions from Denmark, to truly modern british oddities involving motorbikes…  It just reminded me of all the things we used to do when we were small.

Christmas was such a big affair! I will not discuss here the long weeks of secret plotting it took my Mam to let our aunts know what presents we might like, complicated toy names she had to spell backwards in foreign languages over the telephone to make sure we didn’t know what she was going on about. I mean, that certainly was fascinating in its own right. But there was so much more to come. First of all, we had to travel to Christmas land. A long two-day car journey from the middle of France to Newcastle in the North of England, with three kids in the back, can you imagine it? And the evening before we left, when all our things had somehow been squeezed into the boot and under the car seats, my gran would invariably turn up with a massive crate full of “presents” for the family in England. A bottle of my grandad’s home-made walnut oil, boxes of french biscuits, freezer bags full of broad beans and various other  home-grown produce… All of which of course was rather voluminous, weighed a ton, ahappened every year, even when we started travelling by plane.  To this day I don’t think we ever told grandma about the stuff we just could not take with us.

And then it was two days of I-spy, unhealthy snacks, are we there yets, and  audiobooks.  We also had a small suitcase in plastic faux-leather which held a wealth of musical audio-cassettes. Each year there would be a different selection, my parents had very eclectic taste, but we kids would just pick the amusing and cool-sounding titles, not necessarily knowing what was on them… I think that ended with our primary school teacher asking mam why my little sister was humming chansons paillardes in school… So that lasted two days or so.

And then we got to my Grandma Thompson’s house in Jarrow, near Newcastle. I loved that house. There were so many little things different from home, so many details. And so many people. Since we only went to England once or twice a year, the world and his wife turned up for a visit, along with their second cousin thrice removed. And when we got to 8, Greenbank Villas, we had a quick and delicious dinner of Stottie-cake and bacon sandwiches and we children were sent upstairs to bed while the grown-ups retreated to the living room with a glass of wine or something to fill the room with presents. I think. Looking back, we were very good about that actually. Maybe we didn’t go to sleep immediately, but we never peeked. The threat of the omniscient Father Christmas stopped us from tiptoeing down the red-carpeted stairs, or even leaning over the landing railings. It kept us safely inside our room where we skipped from bed to chair to bed, to table, to windowsill never touching the floor so it wouldn’t creak and no-on would suspect we were awake. We would listen at the door for people walking up the stairs or talking in the corridor, and watch the metro trains rushing past the back garden out of the window. I don’t remember ever deliberately going to sleep.

Somehow on Christmas morning I would find myself waking up in bed. But mam always told us not to come downstairs too early, because we’d have to wait for everyone to wake up anyway. We’d also received instructions not to wake one another either, so I’d turn over as slowly and as quietly as possible to see if either Géraud or Lucile were awake. If one of them was, we might sign to each other, mouth “Merry Christmas”,  or whisper and giggle. If not, well I could just daydream; I was very good at it at the time. But come on, how long can you expect children to stay quietly in bed on Christmas morning? I can’t quite remember what made us come out of the room at last. It was so long ago. I think our whispers and giggles and the unavoidable running around would probably end up waking mam and dad in the room next door. Mam would lead us to the kitchen for breakfast. We would eye the determinedly shut sitting room door as we walked past it, trying to guess what lay inside, but we knew we weren’t allowed in before every single person in the house was up and had had breakfast! To keep us busy, we would be allowed to open our christmas stocking. In our family by the way, we use proper socks. None of those massive things no-one could ever wear on their foot and that can fit massive toys. The biggest thing we had in our stocking was a tangerine. And there was a pound, and chocolate money, and usually a novelty soap, and Starburst, and a pencil.

And then, finally, we were allowed into the living room. The tree was in the bay window-area, and the rest of the bay window was piled with presents. There were so many of them. Many of which weren’t to be opened by us and would lie there for days and days, but they were there all the same and helped making the moment, the room even more magical.

There are many other things we used to do, but it’s twenty minutes past midnight, and I want to go to bed with  the image of this amazing christmas tree at the front of my mind. I’ll tell you about the carols, the fenwicks windows, the mass, the shopping, the cousins, the ham and stuffing,… another time.

I hope you are, like me, still basking in the afterglow of a wonderful Christmas. Good night.

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What? Presents? What presents?

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 14, 2010

And yet again a small bit of eternity seems to have happened since the last time I wrote. Where does all this time come from, where does it disappear off to, and will I ever learn? And it’s not that I haven’t spent enough time in front of the computer or that I didn’t have time to spare. I have been doing precious little these past few days apart from coughing, sleeping and studying (in decreasing order). That little niggle I had, tickling the back of my throat last week has turned out just about as bad as it could have. I went to a doctor’s on Tuesday, and since I had a cough, he gave me cough treatment. So far so good. But he didn’t know me and my history. So it just got worse and worse. I think I reached the lowest of the low on Friday. The plan had been to get a train at about 2:30pm, then someone would pick me up and drive me to our usual doctor so he could pump me up with medicine and make me get better. Which he did eventually. But Friday lunchtime as I sat on my backpack in the freezing, draughty railway station in Clermont-Ferrand, fighting to keep my lungs inside my chest, all trains canceled because of an unexplained, unannounced strike, I felt I would never get there. In the end, my lovely dad came all the way from home to pick me up. At least he had no difficulties in finding me despite the station being so crowded: not only could he hear me a mile off, but people were giving me a wide berth. And apparently they were right: Docteur Pascal told me later on I was highly contagious… I hope I haven’t contaminated too many people (apart from my cousin Celia in England apparently – though how my germs reached her from my library all the way to her bay window desk in the north of England, I haven’t the faintest idea.)

But let’s talk about something else. I have literally spent the last week and a half thinking, talking, worrying almost exclusively about this and I DON’T LIKE IT! I am getting better though, thanks to a lot of cortizone, so maybe it’s time I changed the subject and wrote about something else that I’ve had to postpone so far… like Christmas presents! As you may have read in my “Books” post, I already have a couple of ideas for my own presents list (Maybe someone will have noticed?). However, being a very naughty, self-centered selfish girl, I have not yet even started on buying presents for other people! Oooops… It’s all the weirder since normally, I love buying presents for my friends and family (maybe partly because it means I can afford it). Normally I start looking out for stuff around mid-October, and I go through a series of ideas for each and every single person on my list until I have settled on what I believe is the best possible pressie. Well this year I suppose I’ll just have to follow my first intuition. I already have a couple of ideas. Of course I won’t write them here though. It is highly unlikely that anyone concerned by this Christmas’ present-making will ever read my blog, but why take the chance?

So it would seem I am going to have to be organized and effective… *crestfallen sigh*… This is so not me. I love wandering more or less aimlessly about town before Christmas, searching for ideas and criticizing the festive/extravagant/rubbish festive window setups, all lit up and tinsel-strung. But I have to admit, what the weird contradictory little person in me loves most of all is walking around the cold darkening streets, just waiting for all the illuminations to light up. And just when your nose starts to feel like it’s  about to fall off, stepping into a clothes-store and getting hot air blasted into your face by the gigantic automatic blowers they sometimes have right behind the door. Or walking into a chocolaterie, knowing full well everything in there is far to expensive, but taking all the time in the world to browse and look at every single one of those amazing chocolate/orange/nut/gold/caramel/roast/melting/spectacular/crunchy/round/square/star-shaped/dark/white/milky/bitter/sweet pieces of edible wonder, and maybe buying just the one truffle for yourself. (But shhhhh… don’t tell anyone about it!)

I must write a post entirely about chocolate…

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♪♫♫♪♪Well the weather outside is frightful…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on November 30, 2010

Or so most people seem to think. This is where my weirdness shines through once more: I love snow! Is winter my favourite season? Hmmm, I don’t know for sure, but it is certainly a time when get to do a whole load of things I absolutely love! Going into the woods looking for the perfect christmas tree. Coming back home after a walk and warming your hands on a hot cup of tea (I even like that sensation when you suddenly recover a sense of touch and your skin burns  and itches). Snowball fights. Walking in the woods and shaking branches over people’s head to make them look like snowmen. Finding a patch of pure white snow and walk across it just for the sake of turning around to look at your footprints… And there are also so many indoorsy things to do as well: cooking and baking christmassy stuff that fill your house with the smell of spices and citrus fruits, decking the halls with boughs of holly (tralalalala lalalala)… And sitting snug and warm in an armchair sorting through the remaining Quality Street chocolates looking for something other than “strawberry cream”, and peeping through the curtains every now and then to say: oooooh what a dreadful weather!

But snow is really what turns it all into winter (and therefore pre-Christmas time). Everything that happens before the first snowflakes start falling is just preparation. Mise en place. Last weekend for example I made traditional mincemeat (for people who don’t know what it is, you’ll get an explanation further down), and stored it into jars. And I left it at that. But now… I feel like making a bit of pastry, bringing out my muffin tray and get cracking. And with that I’ll have a glass of mulled wine, please! The perfect winter snack: mince pies, a tangerine and mulled wine. Mmmmhh!

Over that same weekend I also went out into the woods to get some holly, ivy and fir branches to make the advents wreath. With the leftovers (and I had quite a lot of them) I also made a nice wreath to hang on the door of my flat. And at first I did wonder: “is this too early? Am I turning into one of those people who start decorating waaaay to early, so early it’s almost ridiculous?” But then today it snowed. And somehow it’s enough to justify Christmas decorations.

Soooo… Mincemeat and mince pies (Google kindly informs me they are known in America as mincemeat tarts..) I hadn’t planned on explaining them at first but it occurred that my french friends wouldn’t know what I was going on about, so a quick description is in order.  Basically mincemeat is a mixture of fruit(dried, candied and fresh), sugar, spices and BRANDY, and you use it as a filling to make mince pies. It is absolutely lush. I usually use Mrs Beeton’s traditional victorian recipe, with a couple of so-called improvements, which end up a bit like this:

200g chopped suet/ 150g raisins/ 200g sultanas/ 200g glacé cherries/ 200g crystallised ginger/ 200g chopped candied peel/ juice and rind of 1 orange and 2 lemons/ 200g apples, peeled and grated/ 250g soft brown sugar/ 250ml brandy, 1tsp each of dried ginger, cinnamon, mixed spice. (not fixed, you may add in or omit what you like)

Mix it all up in a bowl. Cover and leave for two days, stirring occasionally (this prevents it from fermenting later on), and then store in jars. If you want to be sure it’ll last, you can boil the jars afterwards to seal them.  Like most of Mrs Beeton’s recipes, this one could probably feed an entire victorian household (including the downstairs staff). But because it keeps so well (being only fruit, sugar and alcohol), you can keep it from one year to the next. Not that it happens on a regular basis though, I’ve never had difficulties using it all up. I love making traditional english Christmas recipes. And if ever another french person tells me this winter that it is oxymoronic to talk of english cuisine, I’ll just stuff a mince pie or tow into their mouths. It’ll have the double advantage of shutting them up, as well as proving them wrong and spreading the good word. Yay!

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