Christmas time is here!
Paris is decked out in Christmas lights. Some of the roundabouts are quite impressive.
It hasn’t snowed here yet, and it hasn’t been very cold either. It rarely snows in Paris; during the winter it tends to be cloudy and rainy. I hope I get to enjoy a white Christmas when I come back to Minnesota next week.
In most of my English classes we have incorporated Christmas. In some classes we learned “Santa Claus is coming to town.” I have also taught a few classes how to sing “We wish you a merry Christmas”. They are going to sing it at their school showcase on the last day before vacation. It is little bit easier for them to learn than other Christmas carols because the lyrics are repetitive and several of the students already know the tune because it is also a carol in French.
One teacher asked me to prepare a typical Christmas dessert with her classes so tomorrow we are going to bake my favorite Christmas cookie, chocolate star kisses (aka peanut butter blossoms). No Christmas is complete without them! The teacher had never heard of these kind of cookies or even eaten peanut butter so this will be a new experience for her and the kids. She is very excited, ‘We will call it Cooking in English; it is going to be so much fun!‘ I have to modify the recipe a bit because it was very difficult to find Hershey’s kisses or Brach’s stars here. I found a few kisses at an american grocery store in Paris, but they cost their weight in gold and there weren’t enough to make a 120 cookie batch. So instead I am going to break apart chocolate bars for the chocolate center. I guess the kids won’t know the difference, but I think it is very sad that they are growing up without Hershey’s kisses!
Sometimes it is strange for me because the English language education is focused on British English and British culture ( I guess they are the original English speakers..) and sometimes the teachers want me to talk about British things that I really know nothing about or I use the American word instead of the English word. One teacher last week gave me some pictures to teach the children Christmas vocab. First picture was Santa Claus. I told the kids ‘This is Santa Claus.’ The teacher stopped me, ‘I thought it was Father Christmas?‘ ‘I guess maybe in England?‘ So I taught the kids both Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Another picture showed a weird looking cake. I asked the teacher, ‘Is this supposed to be Christmas pudding?’ She confirmed. It is funny because I have never eaten it myself, only heard of it. One of the other pictures looked like a piece of candy in a twist wrapper, so I told the kids, ‘This is candy’. The teacher stopped me, ‘No it isn’t candy, it is something else.‘ She looked it up in the teaching manual. ‘It is called a cracker.’ She explained to me that it is much bigger than a peice a candy, it is more like the size of someone’s arm and inside are candy or toys. Two people pull at the ends and it breaks in two with a loud crack. I had never even heard of that before!
Last weekend, to really get in the Christmas spirit, Cyril and I went to Alsace, a lovely, unique region of France to visit our friends Elsa and Mickaël. Alsace is the region that borders Germany and has been passed between the two countries a few times in the past 200 years. As a result, its culture, food, and architecture are influenced by both countries. Everyone speaks French, but in addition many older residents speak Alsatian, a regional language that is more germanic than romantic in root. The language is dwindling because younger generations don’t use it. Our friend Mickaël can understand Alsatian, but he doesn’t speak it, although his parents often do to each other.
Alsace is a famous wine-producing région in France, and vineyards are as common a sight as cornfields back home. It was so beautiful to drive through the countryside on our way to visit the different cities. Many of them have German-sounding names. I got super excited when I passed signs saying Pfastatt and Pfaffenheim. ‘I am so close to my homeland guys!’
We were in Alsace at the perfect time, because that Sunday, the 6th, was the feast day of Saint Nicolas. Saint Nic is the traditional Santa Claus figure in the region (like in Germany). Mickaël reminisced about how Saint Nicolas used to come to his elementary school and give the him and his classmates candy and clementines on the feast day. After I saw a Saint Nicolas giving out clementines in the street, a few fuzzy memories of Saint Nic visiting my catholic elementary school came back to me too.
Alsace is famous for its Marchés de Noël, or Christmas Markets. They are an experience! The city centers of the villages and cities are filled with booths and booths of Christmas-themed (and sometimes not-so-Christmas-themed) wares. One can buy Christmas decorations, ornaments, art, trinkets, chocolate, children’s toys, lights, traditional sweets, meat, jewelry, winter hats, cheese, Alsatian food, regional wine, and hot beverages. It smells wonderful and looks magical, especially because many residents like to deck out their homes with decorations and lights. In the US, people go all out on the lights, but Alsatians tend to decorate more with wreaths and fake presents and ribbons and Santa Clauses.
Strasbourg has the most famous Marché de Noël, but our friends dismissed it as overrated and touristy. They had planned another itinerary for us instead.
Our first stop on Saturday afternoon was a small village, Kaysersberg, which has a lovely marché de Noël. It wasn’t too crowded and we sampled a lot of food and drink. In a fit of nostalgia, Cyril bought a big loaf of pain d’épices, which some people liken to gingerbread, but it was different than anything I had ever tasted before. He was in heaven, ‘It is just like I remembered it!’
Hot beverages are a necessity, the most popular of which is vin chaud, or hot wine. I tried the traditional vin chaud and I was not a fan, the spices they add to it are quite strong, but I liked the vin chaud with honey. There is also hot chocolate, hot apple juice, and coffee, all of which were available with a shot of a little something extra;)
Each of the city markets in the region has its own special consignment cup. When buying a beverage it is costs a euro or two more because one pays for the cup too, but it is easy to get the money back by returning the cup to any stand afterwards. What a simple way to cut down on waste at a large event! It isn’t obligatory to return the cups- they make for a nice, inexpensive souvenir.
Next stop was Colmar, which had five distinct Christmas Markets spread throughout the city. Walking from one area to another allowed for plenty of time to appreciate the buildings and decorations and nativity scenes, which became more striking as the sun went down. School children sang Christmas carols from boats that floated on the city center’s canal.
Saturday evening we were invited to Mickaël’s parents’ house for a special Saint Nicolas dinner. The meal was only a light salad in order to reserve room for the special dessert, manalas. They are pastries in the shape of a person, made out of the same kind of dough used for brioches.
We ate the manalas with different spreads like jam and nutella and drank hot chocolate. Our hosts were so sweet and even gave us a goodie bag of candy, clementines, manalas, and christmas mugs to take home. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention their pet rabbit Oreo, a funny little guy that has free reign of the house and is basically their dog:)
The next day we finished off the trip with Mulhouse’s Marché de Noël; by night I was so full I didn’t know if I would ever be able to eat again!
Joyeux Noël mes amis!
À très bientôt!