Noël en France

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Christmas in undeniably my favorite time of year. The cold sets in, strings of lights trim every tree, and best of all, we stressed out students get to look forward to two weeks with no alarm but our Christmas morning anticipations waking us up before noon.

Somehow, though, this year, the Christmas spirit seemed to be lacking. I didn’t feel the tug of excitement at the thought of weeks without school, and Christmas morning, I woke up at 10. That being said, I thought that with Christmas rounding the corner and with me being so far from my hometown traditions, Christmas would feel sad. After all, I can say with absolute certainty that Thanksgiving was my worst day in France.

This holiday, however, I didn’t feel that Nostalgia might drown me or that I was missing out on a special occasion. Why? Because although we celebrated differently here in France, we celebrated all the same.

Allow me to walk you through the Holiday Season; France style!

Around mid-November, every city with a reasonable population size puts up their annual “Marché de Noël”, a formation of vendors selling everything from Christmas candle holders to German sausages and freshly fried doughnuts.  In the case of Lille, my home city in France, an entire village sprouts up in Grand Place, complete with a giant Christmas Tree and a Ferris Wheel.

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Next up: The family room transforms from casual living area to Santa’s Playground, with presents lined up by the fireplace and snowflakes covering the wall. When I arrived home from a trip to Strasbourg with STS, my host family had already put up the tree and decked the halls which made my homecoming ten times happier.

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Christmas reaches its peak here in France on the 24th, the night before Christmas. The table is set, full of every typical “French Food” you can imagine, escargots, foie gras, pain surprise, and of course, champagne, and in between each course, presents are torn open with greedy hands.

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The night draws to a close with a special speculoos cake “la Buche de Noël”. After each family member has had their helping, they sit down to watch a movie, unfortunately not Christmas Themed, or perhaps the “12 Coups de Midi” Christmas Special Edition before tucking into bed, stomachs full.

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The following day consists of a late wake-up, lazy morning, then getting ready for the family Christmas Lupper, a meal that lasts nearly four hours, and involves so many courses of appetizers that I was stuffed before the “plat chaud” even arrived at the table. A quick walk helps you digest before you eat yet another Bouche de Noël, a cup of coffee and some macarons.

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Christmas in France is a two-day affair, but each day brings with it a plethora of delicious food, holiday cheer, and family. It’s not quite my typical Christmas Morning celebration, but I see the traditions that my host family has created for themselves, and I can accept that although they are different, they hold just as much meaning as my family’s matching PJs and Christmas Carols.

Not-so Americana

See! I Told You I Speak French!

Two weeks ago, I began writing a blog post that was to be entitled “Dude, I Speak French!” and included many an anecdote about my various encounters with shopkeepers, baristas, and waiters here in France that had me red-faced and sweaty by the time I left the counter. When you begin learning a language, you’re eager to practice with somebody, and if you’re fortunate enough to practice in the country where said language is actually spoken, your heart starts fluttering before the girl at the register in Starbucks even asks for your order.

Just as we all know the excitement to finally practice our foreign language, we all know the nervous pit that eats all of our carefully memorized vocabulary and the following disappointment that arises when the waiter switches back to English or immediately recognizes that you’re American.  In these sorts of situations, I used to turn bright red and repeat my order in English, but as I’ve progressed in my French abilities, I’ve started simply repeating myself in French until the lady or man finally stops responding in English. I still encounter this problem sometimes, normally when I don’t quite hear what people say over the sound of coffee machines, or if there was just one word I didn’t quite get, and it can be frustrating to lose that perfect practice opportunity just because you listen to your music too loud and may have damaged a bit of your eardrum.

Anywho, this blog post was going to be a three page rant about that, but after spending a weekend in Paris with my American parents (which was absolutely amazing by the way!) I’ve decided to spin the second half of this article into something new. Maybe it was my new black boots, or the way I folded my heaping scarf, but I found myself walking into restaurants and being met constantly by French, even after I talked! You might be thinking, it’s Paris Dumbo, of course the French are going to speak French, but when the woman handing out pastries at a tourist trap café automatically speaks in English to the couple in front of you after a single glance but keeps up a conversation with you in French right after, you feel pretty proud of yourself. I even once got to a register where the girl did speak to me in English, but then apologized and told me that she was so used to Anglophones that English had become a reflex.

Now, I’m not cocky enough to believe that I have a perfect French accent, or am now fluent in French, but I can tell you straight up that living around native speakers for months on end really does affect the way you speak, even if you don’t think you’re improving.

I’ve picked up so much of my host family’s speech patterns and colloquial expressions that even if my American accent does poke through, the French know that I can understand them, and that I have more that a few expressions from a phrasebook in my pocket. That sort of ease of expression can’t be taught from a textbook or another Anglophone classmate or teacher; because no matter how hard we try, we’ll never speak perfect French, at least not like the French can.

It’s frustrating when conversations get flipped back to English, and it’s hard when the words seem lost when you need them most (It happened to me today!) but it’s important to recognize that we live in a world where English is a default language, and as Americans, our seemingly inescapable accents often give us away.  I can’t stress enough how stubborn you must be to get over it and give up the comfort of your mother tongue. You can do it though, it just takes time- and possibly a twelve year old host sister who speaks through a slur of abbreviations and trending hashtags on twitter-

My Current Bookshelf (Jess)

My Top 5 Favorite Books

I hate choosing my favorite books because I have SO many. But here are the 5 books I would consider my top 5. I’m not going to give a summary of the books, but the reason why I like them so much. If you want to find out more about them, read them! Or just google them.

  1. Pride & Prejudice Jane Austen. This is easily my favorite book. Once I started to read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s good, very good. However it’s not for everyone, if you don’t like romance or historical-fiction, you probably won’t like Pride & Prejudice, but if you do then you’ll love this book. It’s an easy story to get involved in and doesn’t require analytical analysis.
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez. I don’t know how to put my love and respect for this book in words. Márquez is the best author that I know of. His control of the words and plot is impressive. You feel like you’re in a dream as you read, you get lost in the story. It’s weird, but in a good way. Definitely the book I would most recommend.
  3. Half the Sky – Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn. THIS BOOK. This book is what awoke me. My goals and aspirations became clear and concrete after reading this book. This was the book of “realizing things” (Hi Kylie Jenner!). It opened my eyes to the injustices around the world and the desperate need for radical change. Before this I was a feminist hater (another story for another time) and after this I was a full fledged feminist. The style of writing and informational narrative is extremely educational. There is also a multi part documentary that is on Netflix. So worth the read and watch.
  4. Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card. What a book. Ender, the main protagonist, was who I wanted to be when I was younger, and still who I want to be today. There was finally a kid that was respected by his peers and adults alike. He is not just good, but untouchably good at everything he does. It was one of those books that just makes you feel good the entire time you read it.
  5. Blood and Earth – Kevin Bales. This isn’t really a “fun” book. It’s an extremely informative, well written account of human trafficking and its effects on humans and the environment. It’s a unique take on why we should get rid of human trafficking as well as engaging. Like Half the Sky it awakened something inside of me and has helped educate me in the ongoing fight against human trafficking, a topic I’m passionate about. Even if you aren’t interested in modern slavery the book acts as an important resource.

Relativity in Non-Astronomical Terms

Time, Space, and Relativity

If you’re wondering if watching Interstellar for the fourth time finally inspired me to become an astrophysicist, unfortunately not even Matthew McConaughey’s quantifiable love can make multi-dimensional physics appealing to a foreign language nerd. As an exchange student, I prefer to think of relativity in the context of travel; far less complex, far more comprehensible to an average human without the genius gene.

If you live in the US, how far is “far.” How long do you need to spend in the car or on a train to feel like you’re truly “traveling”. If you’re from a small-ish town like me, anything within 10 miles is “right around the corner”, while a shopping center 20 miles away is “a bit out of the way.” Something you don’t realize until you’ve spent time in a smaller country like France, is that the United States really is enormous. Flying from one end of the country to the other takes six hours, approximately the same amount of time it takes to fly from Boston to Paris.

Where I live in Massachusetts, it takes 6 hours in a car to reach the Canadian border, and God knows how long to get yourself all the way to Mexico. Those two countries are America’s neighbors, yet it still takes quite a bit of work to cross a border. In Northern France, I can hop in the car and buy my groceries in Belgium or take a one hour car ride, the same amount of time it takes me to drive to and from my rink back home, and wind up in the Chunnel on my way to England. Nevertheless, according to my host Family, Spain is very, very far away; a whopping hour long plane ride! With a flight like that, maybe I could fly a few states down the east coast to North Carolina.

I think that the differences in size of our two countries tend to influence the ways we think about time; and since time is the module through which we organize our lives, it can be interesting to look at the lifestyle differences between us. For example, I have no problem skating at a rink that’s forty five minutes away from my house because for me, that’s pretty close. In France, a forty-five minute car ride is practically a road trip. For that reason, all of my host family’s activities are within a 20 kilometer radius of their house, making it easy for my working host parents to pick us up from school, drive up to sports practice, and still come back in time for dinner. In the US, a forty-five minute car ride my not be far, but it does take quite a hefty chunk of time, meaning that I’m limited as far as the variety of activities I can participate in and the role my parents, aka my chauffeurs, play in my extracurriculars.

Since my mom doesn’t want to drive all the way home then back again to Boxboro, she stays at the rink, watches me skate, and has build a network of friends who are a part of the same community. That community may not exist if not for the inconvenience of distance. Trippy.

Anyway, next time you’re deciding how much time you consider to be reasonable, remember that every country has their scale of measurement and their own theory of relativity.