In France Christmas decorating is a big thing, I mean BIG. I get the impression that because they don't have Christmas and Thanksgiving, and New Year's Eve they have to squeeze all their homey, cozy, food celebrations into Christmas. Its for just such squeezing that they begin to set out decorations in every town square in every little village in November. It starts slow. In Saint Amand for example I arrived one frosty November morning to a truck full of little sapling trees spray painted with fake snow, workers feverishly tying them to ever lamp post on every street corner and all over the large parking lot in the middle of the square. Slowly but surely between that day and Christmas Eve lights in a myriad of bright colors, and flashy patterns, strung into festive shapes, sprung up all over. Each town did its part dutifully hanging strings between buildings and on the side of lamp posts so that soon everywhere I went there were joyous Pere Noels (Santa Clauses) and bright shooting stars. Even though all this was quite impressive, the most far out decorations of all, consistent in every little nook and cranny, out-of-the-way village, were those on the massive, ancient, sentinel churches. They put up entire creches in lights across the entry ways, and lines of color along the broad ledges that framed the entry ways; lights reaching up as far as a human could reach with the extension of his machines. The only other section of building even coming close to the insane spirited hand of the religious leaders, was that of elementary schools who doused their facilities in blue and multi-colored, flashing mania. Other pre-celebratory activities included Christmas markets in every town, ranging from the large Lille, to medium sized cities' such as Valenciennes, all the way down to Marchiennes, who gave a glowing example of markets in little villages. These Christmas markets were comprised of many little 'chalets' made out of wood, and assigned to an artisan or local vendor, who would then exhibit their goods, christmassy or not, for all the passers-by. Most included a stand of steaming waffles and crepes draped in melted chocolate or powdered sugar, depending on your preference. Each market was draped in lights like the rest of the town, and often had other lit amusements for the children set up at the end of the row of stands. The idea of all these markets was to present local (or not) gifts for your loved ones, however I hardly saw anyone actually shopping, except of course at the food stands. The most popular food stands were by far the boulangerie, who was selling christmas loafs of brioche and spice bread, and then the fish monger who was selling heaps of fresh oysters, this being the season. Personally I prefer the brioche, being my favorite pastry, I was so pleased to discover the promise of brioche over-load during the holiday season was absolutely one hundred percent true!
While I'm on the topic of food I shall describe the traditional French holiday feast. In France they eat a turkey for christmas dinner. However because this is France, and as I pointed out before this is the holiday, the French eat a stuffed turkey only after they've had an aperatif of little salads, such as crab, and toasts with smoked salmon, and foie gras, and stuffed endive, and only after they've had appetizers of oysters with vinegarette and lemon juice, and escargot, and if not served earlier foie gras, complete with onion jelly, and fresh clementines, and fleur du sel, only then can the French even think about eating Turkey. THen after eating said turkey, stuffed with chestnuts and mushrooms, they eat their version of ice cream cake, only they're usually in a log shape, and mixed with other more exciting things like meringue. Another interesting feast fact is that the French eat all this and more on Christmas Eve. Then, because there are two sides to every family, on Christmas Day they go eat with the other side of the family. In fact the French often eat three or four large christmas meals during the week of christmas. Christmas Eve, however, still remains the biggest and most important of all these side meals, and it is also when most people open presents. Luckily for me and my stomach, my French family is a little bit more realistic about the eating capabilities of the average human being, and so we ate only aperatif and appetizers on Christmas Eve with of course some cake, and then Salad and Cake on Christmas Day, and that was that. I think the most interesting thing I tried during this time of rich and exotic delicacies was a foie gras striped with a sort of pate made from beef tongue, eaten on toast like normal foie gras. It is called, luculus, and is a specialty of Valenciennes, the home town of my host mother and her parents. It was actually quite good. I thought perhaps the tongue would be tough, and it was thicker in texture than the foie gras, which is naturally soft and fine, but it enhanced the texture rather than detracted and altered the flavor only slightly, to make it a bit more savory and complex.
As soon as the festivities were finished we packed up and headed off for London. We drove the car the the boarder at Callais, and then drove it onto the shuttle train, which takes the same tunnel as the Eurostar, under the channel. We debarked at dover and drove into London. We were able to leave the car in the hotel parking lot for the rest of the trip, which was nice as you cannot drive a car around London proper without paying a yearly tax, in other words unless you live there. We saw tons of things in only tow and a half days thanks to a bus system for tourists which makes constant loops around the city all day until 4, and dropped us off a block from the hotel. The Hotel was filled with French and Italian tourists, all of whom, I was amused to see wore ski resort wear to combat the chilly marine-like wind of december London. I however thought Marchiennes was much colder, and was exceedingly happy in my pea coat and thick turtleneck. We saw the London Tower, the London Dungeon, the London Bridge, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Regent's Park, Regent's Street, Piccadilly Circus, Tralfagher Square, Madame Tussaud's, Couvent Garden, The British Museum, the London Eye, and my personal favorite, Baker Street. (My real favorite was the London Eye, which is the largest ferris wheel in the world, and the loop lasts a half hour, but I am still so excited by the fact that I actually got to walk on Baker Street, the real Baker street, that I maintain my opinion that that one brief detour on our trip was my favorite.) My overall opinion of London was that it is a magnificent specimen of a city. No where else have a seen such a successful blending of ancient and modern architecture, everywhere you look the age-old historic buildings are sitting right next to trip-y spiraling blue and black striped towers, or giant ferris wheels. The effect was not confusing, or saddening but rather inspiring and breathtaking; it looked like a city evolving, on the move, alive, even the historic museums looked alive. Also London is very clean. I believe it is the cleanest city I have ever seen. I'm sure there are poorer and shabbier neighborhoods as well, but everything I saw, which included the poorer indian quarter, was broad light-filled boulevards and litter-free (or at least as close to litter free as any city could be), sparkling, pedestrian friendly side walks. There were parks and trees everywhere, not just little staked up saplings in the medians as part of a urban regeneration project, but real towering, solid trunks. Along with all this cleanliness was a lack of city noise. There were no sirens and horns honkinga nd construction and back firing cars outside the hotel room window at 4 in the morning, and no open vents, no man holes, no screeching, no clicking of heels along every sidewalk. Everyone and a while you'd hear the tube zoom by from a grate in the gutter, but n real city noises. (Actually this kind of disappointed me because I love city noises, but I'm sure most of you critics out there are taking off your hats to that one. Even I must admit it was quite a shock to discover that at midnight I could hear nothing at all except the soft whir of the heater in the bedroom, no matter how I strained my ears and when I looked out the window there wasn't a sole in sight, all was calm and peace.) Because of the driving tax I mentioned earlier, set in place to reduce pollution, the only cars you saw driving around were the huge double decker, red busses, the imitation tourist busses (such as our own), and the old fashioned black taxi cabs, along with a small sprinkling of cars, mostly very expensive cars, as their owners obviously have enough money to pay the tax. Overall I thought London looked like a very livable city, in fact, it would be an ideal city to, a. raise children, or b. retire, but it also looked like a city where you'd want a decent income to enjoy it properly. I would be very happy to have a chance to go back.
The last thing I'll add tonight is a brief note on the Galette des Rois, or cake of kings. This little pastry is only served in January (at least traditionally). It is to celebrate a catholic holiday which the americans have done away with long ago, if it ever even made it off the boat, something to do with the three wise men. It is a fluffy many-layered, pastry crust filled with frangipane (sweetened almond paste). The fun part about it though is not the filling (which has now been extended to include apple for all those non-frangipane eaters, to resemble a chausson au pomme, which is a house hold pastry in France), it is in fact la feve, or the fava bean which is baked into the pastry. Whosoever is lucky enough to find the hidden feve in their slice is king for the day, and gets to wear the little paper crown sold with the cake. Nowadays its no longer a fava bean but a little porceline figurine. I'm told that many people actually go out and find bakeries who make their galettes with fine figurines and collect them. Apparently you can find very high end feves and keep up really beautiful, expensive collections. In fact bakers used to bake batches with one gold coin inside that way they could raise the price of the entire batch and people would come and buy multiple galettes at once trying to get the lucky gold coin. Of course this made me think immediately of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but thats another story. So far we have had a chance to eat from five or six galette des rois, being small they serve eight little slices, and almost everyone eats two helpings, and I have not gotten le feve, but I have all of January I figure, so I'll keep my fingers crossed.