Yesterday was the first day since we moved to the Charente Maritime that temperatures failed to get above 0 celsius all day. The bitterly cold weather was accompanied by freezing fog which – like the mercury – failed to rise; it silently swirled around us all day long and anyone we saw on the street outside the boulangerie was hurrying along without a sign of dawdling. Bisous on either cheek to say ‘Hello’ and that was it – definitely not a day for outdoor leisurely conversation.
In the afternoon I had a meeting in Rochefort and before I drove home I desperately wanted to wander around the Christmas market. People were braving the cold, bundled up in hats and scarves, but after half an hour of walking, talking, and taking photos, my fingers turned blue; the tips had lost all feeling and I was frozen.
There were several food stalls selling the usual crêpes and beignets (doughnuts)
and another offering vin chaud – hot mulled wine of course or there were roasted chestnuts (marrons) and wine for 5 euros, a cone of chestnuts on their own for 4 euros, or a glass of hot mulled wine on its own for 2 euros. If I hadn’t been driving I know what my choice would’ve been!
At the stall below it was 50 cents more; perhaps the glasses were bigger! But then I thought an afternoon snack might have been a better bet, for the pain perdu on offer is one of those French names that I cannot resist; the literal translation is ‘lost bread’ but it is actually what we all know as ‘French Toast’; delicious slices of bread soaked in egg and then fried in butter, very yummy. The name, pain perdu, originates from the tradition of using old bread that was no longer good enough to eat on its own – in other words, it had lost its place on the table and another use had to be found for it; makes perfect sense!
There were stalls selling homemade cakes and festive treats
and others offering jewellery, handbags and candles.
I passed a couple of homeless people and stopped and dropped some coins into their bag and I thought how lucky we all are; we take warmth and shelter for granted but what will their Christmas be like this year?
Christmas charity is a recurring theme for us, for back at home we have been trying to do a little of our own. Yesterday after morning school Gigi and I took a little walk in the hope that we could make someone of our own choosing happy – it’s a long ongoing story, which I’ll explain.
For some time this year when we’ve been at our tennis-court on the outside of the village amongst the wheat fields, we’ve see an elderly man taking his daily walk around the adjoining football pitch. For several months we had been aware of him. He always minded his own business and we never really said anything. His progress was always slow and every few steps he would stop and take a breather and look around, obviously a local person with perhaps 80 years of memories to look back on.
But there was something about him that I admired a great deal – not just that he walked every day, but in his general demeanour and tenacity.
Then, one day in October, our worlds slid into orbit; our eyes met his at an opportune moment, and we waved to him – and he waved back. We’d broken the ice. The next day he called out a cheery “Bonjour” and we replied with a wave and “Bonjour” back. After that, each day we saw him taking his walk he would call out hello to us and then he would add some comment about the weather; “ Il fait beau aujourd’hui,” (it’s lovely today), or “Le vent, il fait froid” (the wind, it’s cold). Some days he would be wearing his blue coat (always the same one) and on other warmer days there would be no need for an outer garment. The comment about the weather on those days would be different too. He was difficult to understand for he spoke in thick heavily accented French. But these past couple of weeks we have only seen him once and that was only a glimpse; he didn’t even make it to our side of the football pitch; he just took the briefest of outings and waved from a distance. We assume it’s become too cold for him, for it has been really bitter for an unusually long number of days.
Gigi and I decided we would take him a Christmas gift of some homemade shortbread; a gift chosen quite carefully since it is not only typically English but it’s also soft – and that may be advantageous for a man of his age; in truth I have no idea. However, we had a problem in that we didn’t know where he actually lived. We know the direction where he seems to always come from, but that’s about all.
In the freezing fog we set out. Banging on strangers doors is far from my idea of fun and yet I knew we had to do this and feeling really nervous and very self-conscious we knocked on the door of the first house in the road that we’d decided was the most likely area where he lived, if nothing else someone would be bound to know who we were talking about and point us in the right direction. There was no answer. We headed to house number 2 and a lady we see out jogging quite often came to the door. She recognised us cheerfully, and I explained that we were looking for the elderly gentleman who takes a walk around the football pitch every afternoon, but it seemed she had no idea who we were talking about. “He often wears a blue coat?” we said helpfully, “And he has a moustache and is probably in his 80’s? He walks out each mid afternoon, at the same time?” Still she had no clue as to who it could be. Dejected we knocked on a couple of other doors, but drew blanks with both occupants and we returned home shortly afterwards, feeling rather deflated and quite amazed that no one seemed to know our elderly man.
Obviously we needed to do some further thinking, after much discussion, we set out in the early evening whilst we still had a good half hour of daylight left. I am not good at talking to complete strangers, a situation not helped by the fact that the moment I utter my first sentence my accent gives me away as a foreigner, not always English, I’ve been asked if I am from a vast number of different countries, but certainly not French; despite people kindly saying it is utterly charming, it still makes me feel somewhat awkward at first. Gigi was too shy to speak despite the fact that she would instantly be taken for a local French girl, so I agreed I would talk and she would hold our box of shortbread and the little card she had made.
Finally as we were about to give up and as night time was falling we found our target at a house down a lane not far from where we had tried in the morning. We had encountered a gaggle of very angry geese and a shaggy wet sheepdog who being over friendly had covered us in mud as he jumped up to say hello. A woman who we presumed was a daughter opened the door and nodded sympathetically at our request and came back to the front porch with our old man who seemed quite startled to see us – not surprising, really. Rushing out my little prepared speech, we handed over our small gift and explained that we had missed him and just wanted to wish him a “Joyeux Noël“. I am sure his eyes moistened a little, and he gave Gigi a kiss on either cheek and warmly shook my hand. As we left, I think some freezing fog finally got into my eyes and made them all blurry for a moment. Gigi said she felt it too…..
We walked home in some silence after that, deep in thought. No more needed to be said. Truthfully it had taken so little effort on our part, and hopefully brought something a little different to the old man’s day. However, alarmingly, a dissection of the affair amongst the family over supper turned into a long angst-filled debate about refugees, religion, Christmas calendars and then began a slow slide into the merits of Santa Claus – the latter period of conversation a time during which Gigi quietly slipped onto my lap and cuddled me in eager anticipation of his visit!
Because of the cold it’s been a week better suited to indoor activities and we’ve been turning our thoughts to Christmas more and more. Even the mornings that have dawned with a brilliant sunrise
have been an act of trickery, for whilst there is some warmth in that lovely orange glow it takes a while to thaw the frost, which – whilst not severe – coats the grass and shrubs in a veil of white; these are mornings when our dog walks are brisk.
We have started to think about decorating the house and while our Christmas Tree is always very traditional with the same decorations every year, the kitchen table is a place where I love to play a little and change things each season. This year I came up with the idea of having a clutch of trees in silver and gold which we would make and paint. I knew we had masses of pine cones, previously sprayed silver in years gone by, and I thought we could use them to set the scene. I managed to find some polystyrene tree-shapes in a local store and armed with a couple of glue-guns and some willing helpers, we started what has turned out to be a very long-winded affair.
For my idea, one of the trickiest parts is removing each scale from the cone; some are prickly and really hurt and some are so well attached that I needed pliers and scissors. Needless to say this was my job until I realised I was too slow and Roddy was called in for some reinforcement! He reappeared with a Dremel and a cutting disc which made life far easier! I know it would have been much easier just to go and buy something, but it would’t be half as much fun!
Hours and days later, we are still working on our trees, out goal is six in total, the two larger ones will be sprayed gold and the four smaller touched up with a little more silver.
Hopefully they will be finished by the weekend, when our village lights will be turned on and very slowly the festivities will begin.
And in case you are still looking for a few Christmas gifts for friends or family or if you want to treat yourself to a little Frenchness, don’t forget our Etsy Shop. We are adding lots of new items this weekend for our “One Day Christmas Shop Special on Sunday”. What’s more all items will have a 10% reduction.
Anything purchased on Sunday will be packaged very carefully and dispatched on Monday afternoon with postage that should guarantee delivery in time for Christmas.
If you want something gift wrapped, just let us know and we will happily oblige at no extra charge, and if you want to add a card with a personal message, we can take care of that too!
From 2pm Sunday afternoon (French time) / 1pm UK time / 8am USA EST time / Midnight Melbourne. The Christmas Special will run for just 24 hours.