When I look back on my life, whether in a year or twenty, I suspect that the sheer insanity of how certain events unfolded will continue to amaze me. Sometimes the smallest decision can impact your life in such a profound way as to beg the question of a higher power or at the very least the true existence of ‘fate’.
When I decided to stay with the ‘locals’, I knew that it would be a useful research tool. What I didn’t know, was that I would find a friend without whom much of my transition to France would have been impossible. Dominique took me under his wing and provided for me a support system that remains with me still.
Every time I needed help with something, poor Dominique got a frantic phone call. I needed to find insurance for my American car and he connected me with his personal friend who jumped through seven months of hoops to keep the car insured through every red tape laden step. (Yes, it took that long to finally get The Hybrid to ‘conform’.) When one of the cats came down with a cold, he sent me to his vet. When yet another piece of paper from yet another department came in for The Hybrid, Dominique was there to help me translate and decipher it. And when Christmas rolled around, he made certain I wouldn’t be alone and invited me to spend Christmas Eve with his family.
I had no idea what was proper protocol for Christmas Eve dinner but my mother taught me that I was to never show up at someone’s house empty handed. So I decided to go my favorite patisserie (also a Dominique recommendation) and pick out a dessert. There were so many to choose from I basically just closed my eyes and pointed.
The weather had remained mild so unlike Christmases past, I wasn’t bundled up to high heaven and thankfully didn’t look like a polar bear when I arrived. I have never been one of those women who chooses to look good at the expense of being warm. Let’s be honest, rarely do the two endeavors intersect. You need to make a choice – Vogue with minor frostbite or Siberia in February but all digits firmly intact. Always having chosen the latter, it was nice to make a first impression that didn’t involve the words “My that coat looks really warm.”
I arrived around 7:30 pm and everyone was already there. Dominique’s wife, his 3 children and his mother-in-law and father-in-law were all seated in the living room. They greeted me as if I were a long-lost friend. Although Dominique spoke English fluently, with the rest of the family it was a French only affair but everyone took pains to speak very slowly and to explain everything in great detail.
As it turns out, there are some very specific traditions in France for Le Réveillon. (the term for the Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve celebrations) To partake in a true Réveillon you have to have the following: Champagne, Salmon, Fois Gras, a Bûche de Nöel – basically a Frenchified Yule log that is specifically for Réveillon, Scallops, Wine (of course) and Oysters.
Based on the list of dishes, you would be correct in assuming that someone born and raised in New York would be familiar with pretty much everything on the menu. This was true in my case as well except that I have always had an aversion to oysters – not that I had ever tried them, but…You know how you just know when you’re not going to like something despite never having tasted it? Yea, that. But I was in France and oysters are BIG here and are conveniently in season in December. So when we came to the oyster course, I politely declined. I was in good company though, Dominique’s youngest daughter, Sophie, shared my aversion. But as I watched everyone, I thought “Monica, you’re in France. It’s Christmas. Stop being a wuss.” So I turned to Sophie and said – “Si je le fais, tu le fais avec moi?” If I do it, you do it with me? Sophie glared at me. I’m almost certain, at that moment, she was gauging whether or not I was the right person to follow down this particular rabbit hole. But at this point, the rest of the family was cheering us on so there was no turning back.
They joyfully explained how to prepare the oysters…Open the shell, add a little lemon and vinegar and then slurp it down. Sophie and I exchanged cautious glances. I thought she might back out at the last minute but we had each other to lean on if this went horribly south so we prepped our oysters, took a quick glance around and down the hatch they went. My very first thought was “my god this is fishy.” That was followed by “man this is salty…..and sliiiimy” at that point my gag reflex was starting to kick in. I tried to convince myself to just chew and swallow but my brain was adamantly against this course of action. Meanwhile, I could hear the click of camera shutters and was only vaguely aware of Sophie’s disappearance into the kitchen. There was nothing left to do. There was no way I was going to be able to swallow it. I jumped up from my seat and followed Sophie into the kitchen. Showing off her multitasking skills, she handed me a napkin while she deftly spit her oyster into her own. We smiled at each other while shaking our heads and returned to a roomful of giggles and laughter. We were the entertainment for the evening.
The rest of the night passed without incident. Dessert, provided by yours truly, was the perfect end to dinner. I was the hero of the night for bringing the bûche. We spent a wonderful Christmas Eve chatting about Clara’s pregnancy, possible names for the eagerly awaited first grandchild, Sophie’s driving lessons and Pierre’s temporary reinstallation at the house. Dominique’s wife is an expert scrapbooker so, much of the family history had been creatively preserved in a perfect medium for storytelling.
I left about 15 minutes to midnight. Although not planned, I decided to go to the Cathedral for Midnight Mass. As you know, I spent many a Christmas Eve at Trinity where there is a grand celebration. I thought that given the importance of the Cathedral at Chartres there would be something on that level. I was wrong. Coming from such a rich and vibrant tradition, I was disappointed by the Mass. It had none of the grandeur I was used to. There was no music, nothing to distinguish it from any other mass on any other day. So, I stayed just long enough for the frankincense to envelop me and then I headed home.
The cats and I spent Christmas in the house playing with toys and binge watching movies. I popped in during the day to check on Bandit. All was well. I was content. I knew the best was yet to come.