Archive for December, 2009

Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the entire year. It is the day that all other days lead up to. The Stone Family Christmas eve adheres to strict traditions. First, the attendees. Once our extended family got large enough that each family wanted to have Christmas at their own house, we started inviting out second family, the friends who are another sort family. For the past 9 years or so it has been the same bunch of three or four families, plus a couple extras. We have grown up together, despite different colleges, career paths, dating and breaking up with each other’s children, etc. We walk our separate ways much of the year, but come Christmas Eve, everyone is accounted for. Next, the meal. Always fondue. Several varieties of cheese with a multitude of dipping items for the main course, then a variety of sweet dips for dessert. Every year, without fail, we burn one. This year, the white chocolate fondue took a foul turn. What would Christmas Eve be without a pile of congealing dip in the trash? There are always more people than chairs, so we just kind of overflow leaving trails of Christmas napkins and fondue skewers in our wake.

After dinner, the program starts. My family takes Advent seriously, and every year the four weeks of devotions (centering around a different theme each year) culminate in the Christmas Eve Program. The events begin with the children performing a skit. This tradition began when the “kids” meant toddlers and elementary kids underfoot, as well as angsty middle schoolers too cool to participate. It was mainly a ploy to get us out of the way while the adults cleaned up from dinner. The youngest “kid” is now 16 and the eldest finished his masters last year. We count in our number 2 spouses, a fiancé, one Oxford masters student, one seminary masters student, and multiple college degrees. Yet we are kids till we create kids, we have been told. So every year, we try to make our skit worse and worse in hopes that we will not have to do it next year. One year this meant a Blair Witch live Christmas film, and another meant tying up people in Christmas lights while we chanted existential phrases. Last year, we were given a break, and ironically, we all felt cheated. This year, back to the stage in an improv number included a Palestinian terrorist, a ninja, and a poinsettia cell phone. Ridiculous, yes. But taking a photo of all the “kids” lined up afterwards, seeing how we have grown up together, reminded me why I love our silly skits. (In case any one is panicked looking at the picture, that is a toy gun which served as another prop in our horrendous Christmas skit)

After an amazing devotion from my dad, where there are often wet eyes in the crowd, we move to the Christmas tree for carols. The Taylor family always leads the singing, as they have more musical talent than is fair for one family. With Ben on piano and my dad on guitar, we sing our way through the carol books with cheesy cartoon drawings from the early 90s. After traditional renditions, we sing our way through many songs again, only the second time we inflict the tunes of the Gilligan’s Island Theme and House of The Rising Sun on the poor innocent carols.

Every year, sitting crammed in the living room, I remember why we celebrate Christmas. God became flesh and dwelt among man so that we may someday dwell forever with Him. We spend the day in with those we love, waiting in eager anticipation for the coming of Him we love the most. Merry Christmas.


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Hannah’s Booklist

One of the things I have enjoyed in Paris is that I have the time to read. I spent four years at Hillsdale reading, but there were still so many books I didn’t have the time to fit in. Plus, a lot of my Hillsdale reading consisted of French literature, which inevitably follows a pattern of disillusion, adultery, disillusion, and death, sometimes interspersed with pensive reflections on the vapidity of life and the futility of religion. I cleaned out my bookshelf to bring home at Christmas so as to make way for new arrivals next semester, and here is the final booklist, in case anyone wants a good read.

My Life in France, Julia Child: My airplane read coming to France, My Life in France made me so excited to come and live in Paris. Julia Child embraced life in France with every inch of her tall self, and she inspires me, not always to cook as in the movie Julie and Julia, but at least to enjoy all of Paris delectable pleasures, edible or not.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway: I have already given enough blog time to my friend of the sparse adjectives. I don’t know if I will ever feel the need to read another Hemingway novel, but I will admit that A Moveable Feast captured Paris after WWI in a way only disenchanted Americans in Paris can.
Villette, Charlotte Brontë: I did buy this book because I liked the cover and paper texture, so I guess I can’t complain for any disappointments. I loved this book, truly I did. Where Hemingway is sparse, Brontë floods you with more descriptions than you can handle. But she will not allow a happy ending and I found myself betrayed in the final paragraphs by the book that I had grown to love so much. I still haven’t all the way recovered.
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, Jean Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, and Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French, Stephen Clarke: If you want to read two books together to get an interesting picture of the French, I recommend these two. The first offers an insightful academic approach to looking at French culture through the lens of history, politics, etc. The second offers a hilarious satirical approach to understanding the French through the lens of biting wit, hyperbole, and amusing personal anecdotes.
Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens: In my opinion, Dickens is one of the most talented authors who has ever lived. I was trying to watch the BBC Little Dorrit miniseries online, but when I couldn’t find it, I decided to cave and read the book. At 836 pages, it also served as an imposing punishment for trouble-makers in my class who had to copy pages for overly rambunctious behavior. Dickens genius lies not in his story lines, but in his character descriptions. Every character, no matter how small, has a totally developed personality. Each character comes alive with fully fleshed backgrounds, quirks, and motives. I think this it what is missing from lots of modern books and movies. Dickens reminds us that every person has a story, and interesting story, a story worthy of being told. Every person has the potential to be captivating.

And my #1 pick of the semester: I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith. When I got to the final page, I considered starting over because it was just that good. A story at times poignant and humorous, it explored questions and thoughts we all have in a way innocent and refreshing. I will close with one of my favorite quotes:
“Perhaps he finds beauty saddening – I do myself sometimes. Once when I was quite little I asked father why this was and he explained that it was due to our knowledge of beauty’s evanescence, which reminds us that we ourselves shall die. Then he said I was probably too young to understand him; but I understood perfectly.”

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The First Snow

Paris turned bitterly cold last week. One would think that after 4 years at Hilllsdale, in the arctic tundra of Michigan, I would be totally adapted to cold. Even though I know that Hillsdale was much, much colder than Paris, it doesn’t feel that way. In the country, you deal with the cold in quick bursts, in running from car to shelter, or from building to building. You get to watch winter from inside. Cold in a city, on the other hand, proves a much greater inconvenience. I spend much more time outside walking between places, resulting in forever frozen appendages, which quickly turn uncomfortably hot in the metro, then re-freeze to an even more painful state outside.

What was Wednesday a cruel cold without recompense, with a sun and perfect blue sky mocking the frozen fountains, transitioned yesterday morning to a snowy cold, swirling flakes over my head. I love first snows, I love that excitement of seeing white slowly descend. I like seeing the faded nature replaced by dusty white and I love how excited the kids at school were to watch snow falling past the window. Even at Hillsdale where I never had to worry about not getting another snow, the first one was magical. Yesterday was the type of day fitting for the weeks leading up to Christmas. It makes me feel like Christmas is really here, which makes me eager to hop on a plane tomorrow morning and head for home. Last night the little girls I babysit and I made a snowman (a whopping 18 inch tall one with chic leaf pigtails) and caught snowflakes on our tongues. I turned up my Christmas music and settled into my cozy apartment high about Paris’ frosted roofs.

This morning I waded through slush to the train station, trudged through dirty snow to work, and attempted to engage kids who had already left on vacation in terms of their academic attitudes. When attempting to catch a bus to my afternoon school, I learned my bus line was no longer running due to inclement weather, aka the several centimeters of snow that had since melted. This same light dusting grounded most flights in and out of Paris, making me fear for my own tomorrow. By the time I walked the 45 minutes in the snow to my second school, I was perhaps slightly less positive in my First Snow Attitude. Yet now that I am toasty (or slowly becoming such) in my little apartment with my space heater running full force, I am reclaiming my perspective. After all, I am packing to go home for Christmas, and nothing brings more warmth than that.

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I suppose I look like a glutton because I am writing an entire blog entry about a single meal. But sometimes French cuisine necessitates undivided attention. And now that the Long Famine, as I “affectionately” refer to the period of my delayed paycheck, is over, I revel in the thrill of the occasional restaurant. This past week two of my best friends from home were visiting, so we allowed ourselves to fully partake of some of Paris’ finest things to eat. At the recommendation of the family I work for, we trekked to the farthest corner of southern Paris to a little restaurant called Restaurant du Marché. Three hours later, we left not only with the realization that we had eaten the best meal of our lives, but also with having experienced a perfect micro chasm of French cultural differences. In analyzing the differences between an American and a French dining experience, you can simplistically understand the differences between so much else.

We were considering turning back when we finally found the restaurant. Cute, but rather nondescript from the outside, it didn’t have a sign with a lovely font or twinkling lights illuminating the entryway like so many of the lovely tourist restaurants. We stepped inside to find a little room with 9 tables, most of them empty, and were given the last table open, as the rest were already reserved for the evening. I explained to Megan and Rachel, that eating here takes a long time. A long, long, time. There would be one seating that evening, as the people would arrive around 7:30 or 8 and stay till the last drop of wine ran out around midnight. This is why fast food, though loved in France (despite what they say, the lines in Macdonalds are NEVER short), is in my opinion a failure. They sit four hours eating their burgers, because fast eating is not done, regardless of quality or venue. The French love their pace of life, their love of relaxation, and they will force it on foreigners, like it or not. Knowing this, we chose to like it. I had tried to find a menu on line before coming, but like many French restaurants, the menu consisted of a little black board with approximately 4 options for each course. Not knowing what the seafood options were completely, Megan and I opted for duck in a truffle sauce and Rachel chose the steak. By the time our first course came, the restaurant was packed, with the coat tree at the door bulging so far you had to shove it to one side to get in. We were the only diners not French, and also the only ones who didn’t seem to intimately know the waiter. As we waited, we noticed the little details of what had first seemed a plainer restaurant. The salt came in small cast iron pots, each course was served in the brightly colored cookware, our waiter astutely chose perfect wine to compliment our meal. France is a country of almost anal attention to detail, an attention which means there are constantly little delights awaiting those who come to look for them.

Once the food started coming, many details were forgotten. There is no way to describe exactly why this meal was so good. I think Rachel’s response was the best when she slowly chewed, put down her fork, and calmly said, “This is the best slice of meat I have ever eaten.” There are two ways to impress, quantity and quality. In the US, we love quantity. We love restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory, where it takes you 20 minutes to read the menu once and then you have to ponder all the totally bizarre but intriguing combinations of flavors and ingredients. We Americans like to be overwhelmed, to be blown away by creativity, novelty, and proportion. In France, I find the opposite to often be true. Our meal was simple, with key ingredients chosen to lend sublime perfection by complimenting the already high quality of ingredients. Often when I eat out in the states, I am delighted and surprised by trying something new or bizarre, or I applaud the chef’s creativity. This meal instead delivered a sense of utter contentment in receiving the fruits of a chef’s perfect labor. We sat in that restaurant with 9 tables and approximately 12 menu choices for almost 3 hours. For the French, bigger is not always better. Better is better, simply put.

Of course, to counteract this very French experience, we also mounted the Eiffel Tower, squealed when it sparkled, and ate French fries at its base. C’est la vie!

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Janvry: Marché de Noël

I am a Christmas Market addict. I love them all, be it a tree and 2 stands selling roasted nuts and tacky ornaments, or markets that stretch for blocks decked out in perfectly matched lights. Paris has begun to dress for the holidays and I stop and gape at every new light and decoration. My little room is also decorated, though as 10 meters does not really leave room for a tree, I have opted for a Christmas poinsettia. One day the little girls and I sat in a tiny park near our house just watching them hang lights in the trees. Everyone becomes a little bit of a child at Christmas, and if they don’t, they are missing out.

I originally sought to go to the Marché de Noël in Strasbourg, said to be one of the most lovely in the world. Yet a recent purchase of The Boots (which I did find in brown) meant that a trip to Strasbourg was not the most practical investment. So instead, I am getting my Christmas market fix everywhere. The Champs Elysées boasts a lovely market, stretching in a long row of perfectly glittering trees and quaint booths selling vin chaud and gaufres (hot wine and Belgium waffles). I went with a friend and imagined that the pervading Parisian drizzle was snow as we wandered down the sparkling street. A chic market, and thus lacking in that small town feel that I love about Christmas markets, the Champs Elysées did offer a live nativity scene where anyone could pay two Euros to “discover the amazing Christmas crib and live animals!”

I was invited to go to the Marché de Noël in Janvry, a village of 300 people about 45 minutes south of Paris. Hosted in an old farm with stone outbuildings and barns, Janvry perfectly satisfied all of my Christmas market dreams. Not only was the setting perfect in every way – from the decked tree in the courtyard to the giant ornamental balls hanging from every archway, to the ubiquitous Christmas music, but also everyone was generous, solicitous, and friendly. One vendor spent ten minutes explaining to me the differences in honey types, while another encouraged us to try over a dozen types of tapenade, while another proudly explained exactly how she made her intricately quilted ornaments. In the background, children laughed as they took free rides through the crowds on the Christmas camel. Unfortunately, 22 year olds were denied camel access.

In one of Paris’ chic shopping districts there is a tiny Marché de Noël of no more than 8 stands. Not much, yet a cold drizzle and a chocolate crazing drove me there after the purchase of The Boots. The lady making the gaufres was in the process of dislodging one that had burnt, and apologizing profusely for the delay. My friend Jackie and I told her that it was of course, not a problem. In the states, this would speed the person up, but in France, she took this to mean it truly wasn’t a problem, and proceeded to give us all samples of nuts, pass off the discarded waffle to someone else waiting, tell us her life’s story, introduce us to her son, then search for empty paper towel rolls to give to a kid in line who needed them for a school project. All the while, she was telling us we were so nice, so nice, and that many customers would have gotten mad. I commented that that was often true, but sad as it is not at all reflective of Christmas spirit. Yes, she said, but it is the worst at Christmas, everyone is so stressed, so busy. As I walked away with my hot gaufre dripping nuttella and powdered sugar on my fingers, I thought how right she is. Everyone gets so stressed at Christmas, so busy, especially here in a big city where Santa is on every corner encouraging you to buy gifts and add more things to your to do list. We so often forget the real reason for the season, or if we remember it, it is in the commercialized form like that of the Champs Elysées, which would charge you two Euros for a glimpse at Him.

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