Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christmastime In Nantes

I plan to make this entry shorter, with more small paragraphs, quotes and suspense. See, I didn’t get as many comments on my last entry, so I figured folks are holiday busy and need some classic short-attention-span reading.

"But Katie," you might be thinking, "will it still culminate with the heart stopping unveiling of your latest photographs from Nantes and elsewhere?"

"Mais oui!"

Christmas in Nantes:

Christmas markets in Nantes, and more famously in Eastern France and Germany, are small wooden chalets where various artisans, gourmands and kitsch-pushers sell their wares. In the heart of Nantes, chestnuts roast on open fires, a carousel entertains small children, and a Pere Noel (Father Christmas) booth allows those with an American bent to get their pictures taken. All the while, the scent of vin chaud (hot spiced wine), hot chocolate and warming pretzels wafts through the chilly environs. And in the other Christmas Market square a few blocks away…more ugly jewelry, bad art and wind chimes. Oh, and a giant, steamy vat of Tartiflette – a tasty Savoie (French Alps region) treat of roasted potatoes, cream, Gruyere cheese and bits of smoked ham. Next-door, you can get a dessert Guafre (Belgian-style waffles) with your choice of chocolate, Nutella, caramel, or just plain sugar. But enough about food…

Christmas in Nantes…the streets are adorned with lights and many store windows with trimming. Music is piped through the busier-than-usual pedestrian streets. However, not the Christmas standards you may imagine, but rather a strange mélange of salsa, American pop and adult contemporary. I guess traditional Christmas music is bound to step on somebody’s toes? Oh well, it makes for a nice little soundtrack for shopping, but makes me itch for some Bing Crosby crooning.

There are some organ concerts and other sacred music events at local cathedrals. We visited the city’s main St. Pierre Cathedral last weekend. No Christmas carols, but we did witness the lighting of the third advent wreath candle, and as a bonus, the priest was a stunning likeness to St. Nick. Speaking of St. Nick, he is not Santa here. Santa is Pere Noel (father Christmas). St. Nicholas’ day has already been celebrated earlier this month. Our Romanian friend Daciana brought the class chocolates to commemorate the day. Also part of the French saintly celebration is the eating of the Galette des Rois (King Cake). Yes, the concept is similar to the Mardi-Gras season King Cakes…something is hidden in the innards of the confection and he (or she) who finds it is not only “King for a Day” but must also make the cake next year. Well, I was fortunate to ascend to Kingship last Friday evening.

"Oh...I think I've found it!" I cried when I spotted what I thought to be the traditional crèche (manger with baby Jesus) in my 2nd piece of Galette. I delicately picked the pieces of marzipan and pastry off the figurine to reveal...not the Christ child, but a tiny likeness of Bob l’Eponge…aka - Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Okay, first no Christmas music, now Jesus has been replaced by Sponge Bob? I almost makes me miss the uber-Christian cultured U.S. South. And it made us all laugh really hard.

Christmas in Nantes means some people get trees. In fact, I think my favorite moment from the last week was sitting on a comfy couch in the home of one of the French students, Thomas. His family welcomed us for a “Big French Meal” (to be referred to as BFM) last Sunday afternoon. (Pictured above at Chez Thomas, pictured center) Given that an imbalance of this blog’s words have been about food, I will sadly omit detailed explanations of each superb bite, but will only say….it was a gift to be in a loving, welcoming home… with a lighted, decorated Christmas tree. And in true Franco-American style, we even sang a few lines of "O Tennenbaum.

“So, are you happy to be returning home?” Many have asked us this question, and we Americans have asked one another. Honestly, the idea of leaving behind this ephemeral French life that we've enjoyed for four months - BFM’s, cheery well-walked streets, welcoming friends and countless other joys - is saddening to us. We anticipate the culture shock of being swept back into “real (American) life.” But of course, the treasure of family and friends awaits. And for that, I will continue to let my emotions wrestle. I may even cry as when we lift off from Nantes-Atlantique airport, as what was the unreal present becomes memory, and for how excited we will be to have our old bed back!


Friday, December 02, 2005

Feast On This

1st: Apologies that my last (newest) entry actually appeared BELOW the previous entry…a snag of blogger. I had actually started them on the same day, and the order got caddywhompus. I.E. I actually went shopping before I got sick. And speaking of that, I'm doing much, much better.

And now...
I’ve felt frankly overwhelmed by cultural experience and opportunities to reflect and write about. Thus, I’ve put off this latest entry until it could be perfect, or reflect exactly what is marinating in my head. But it won’t.

However, speaking of marinating. I’m going to write about food again. There are countless things to cover…the great “Mexican Pizza” we’ve discovered at the local joint, the two entire rows devoted to yogurt and like products at the local grocery store, why vegetables here are so cheap and good here, but no one seems to eat them, etc. But rather than vent or brag about particulars of the local eating habits, I want to rave, and reflect on the act of eating, the art of the French meal, and what we can learn. Particularly in light of Thanksgiving and the current Christmas season which will provide us opportunities for feasting with friends and family. I hope we do it well.

Le jour de l'Action de Grace (Thanksgiving) came and went here in Nantes without much great fanfare. I heard echoes of certain restaurants or home gatherings that would feature turkey (or some sort of available fowl) and other fixins. Jeff and I had a good friend from Atlanta in town, and decided to spend the evening with her, being thankful for being in France by enjoying a long, delicious French meal. I had a sumptious Boeuf Bourguignon and in true Thanksgiving style, when I was sure my stomach could hold nothing else, I still topped it off with a warm apple dessert, a la mode. In this case, it was Tarte Tatin - a regional specialty.

But what has my mind really spinning about the joy of communal eating and gathering at a common table, is our trip to a friends hometown the weekend following Thanksgiving. The drive itself merits a tall tale as it involved a freak snowstorm, iced-over highways, roadside snowmen, strange foreigners (that’s us!...well, just Rocky) pushing cars up a slippery hill which evidently locals deemed impassable. Ultimately, the trip which should have gotten us to the warm fires of Sylvain Le Mauff’s home in L’Hermitage Lorge at 9pm, drug us in around 11:15.

Despite our extreme tardiness, Sylvain’s family had let the set table sit for those 2 or so hours, and the feast commenced upon our arrival. Aperitif and snacks for an hour or so. Dinner served around 12:30, and we somehow managed room for dessert around 1:45. Come 2:30 or so, we realized we were quite tired. Spanish, Greeks…eat your heart out! (Well, actually the Spaniard and Greeks would have gone to the disco afterwards).

L’Hermitage Lorge is a lovely, quiet, Breton (in the Brittany province) town. I suppose viewing our little slideshow will do as much to describe our trip as my words could. BUT BEFORE YOU LOOK…You will notice a common theme in many pictures: food. The table of community, of feasting. Particularly in this weekend of being served as we were, of being in community with others, of paying no regard to time or calories, enjoying good food and wine, I am convinced again that sharing the table is in many ways a spiritual experience.

To Christians, this points to our celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s table where the community gathers, as Christ did with his disciples, to celebrate mystery, and to remember the Sacrifice which happened just a few hours after that first “last supper.” But as was discussed on a recent edition of Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith”, Christ was just initiating a ritual that was already rich within Jewish and other mid-eastern cultures. In many religions and faiths, the act of sharing the table holds a significance that is easily taken for granted in our distraced, high-speed culture.

A Native American “Speaking of Faith” listener wrote in that “There is an ancient belief held by many First Nations people in which the act of taking and eating food is a kind of covenant between two beings.” Eating with one another is relational, and I have experienced this joy in France many times now. And for that, I am extremely thankful, and humbled.

And, in case you don’t visit the SOF website to read about this particular episode, I will highlight another important feast tradition: “in the earliest churches, which gathered in homes, the community meal was afterwards shared with outsiders and especially the poor. Communion was inextricably linked with service.” I hope that as Jeff and I have been served in the homes and apartments of our friends here in France, so we can give that gift to others, just as in bread and wine we recall sacrifice, and are spurred toward it at the grace-full table of Eucharist.

So now, take a peak at our Mobile Home table, Brittany Raclette communion (a little bread, plenty of wine), and other memorable experiences with friends. Hope to sup with many of you when we return…we’ll provide the table and the Pastis ;-).