The great holiday pledge

I’m still here, although I feel that I’ve been living in the real world far more than on the Internet lately. It’s neither a bad nor a good thing, although I do miss writing more regularly. I miss a lot of things, in fact, but I suppose that this will keep happening forever, so there’s no point telling myself it will get better next year and I’ll have more time for myself. Things are good already, if exhausting. Let’s keep them that way.

I hope you all have a fantastic new year. Strange weather aside (it’s been very warm and cloudy since the beginning of December, and it’s starting to feel like we live inside a rather stuffy box), everything has begun well here. We threw a raucous non-alcoholic party with plenty of silly games involved, got up at eleven this morning feeling refreshed and glad, and we’re enjoying a quiet day at home before school starts again. One day at a time.

I’m not big on New Year resolutions, but I had one this year I wanted to share in case it might resonate in any way. As a non-religious person, Christmas has a somewhat blurry meaning for me, yet it does have meaning. We make Christmas trees and traditional Nativity scenes each year, we plant wheat and let it grow through December, we have traditional Christmas food. I enjoy it, I look forward to it, and I’d love to love Christmas, yet it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable when you go out in the city centre towards the end of December. People walk briskly, bumping into each other, looking for last-minute presents, some of them argue on the phone, stress is palpable everywhere. I could be wrong, but I hardly ever get a sense of happiness outside. What I do get is a sense of obligation, a sense that people run after time they don’t have to organise a celebration that will exhaust them before it brings them joy, and it’s a bit saddening. What people miss most during the year is a little time for themselves, a little peace and quiet, a good night’s sleep. And instead of indulging in all these things, it seems we forgo them even more forcefully around Christmas, for some reason nobody seems to truly remember.

I could feel sorry for ourselves as a society. I don’t. We’re choosing this, even if social pressures sometimes make us forget the meaning of choice. What really bothers me is the cost of this buying frenzy. Food will be bought, cooked and thrown away. Beasts will be tortured and slaughtered at an infernal rhythm, because few people imagine a vegetarian Christmas. Cheap presents will be bought because you need to make everybody happy, and never mind if they come from sweatshops or if they were made by people working in conditions we would never accept for ourselves. Trees are felled by the thousands just so there can be a Christmas symbol in every home, and thrown away a couple of weeks later. Even if all of this was enough to make everyone happy, it wouldn’t be right. We can’t buy a time of happiness by making other people miserable, we can’t buy joy with slaughter.

So my one good resolution is this: from now on, there will be no unethical purchases for Christmas anymore. I will only buy gifts if I can get some reassurance that they were made in ethical conditions (I know this is usually tricky to ascertain, but I will do my best at least), and make them myself if I can’t. Reusable Christmas trees have proven easy to make, so there will be no miserable felled fir tree for me from now on, and I won’t use any ornaments made in poor conditions on the other side of the world. I’ll cut back on meat even if I don’t go fully vegetarian, and I’ll encourage people around me to do the same instead of including one measly vegetarian option for the one non-meat-eater at the table, because there’s no reason a dozen animals should die every time a family wants a celebration (tasty vegetarian dishes abound, just use your imagination!). And I’ll remember that if end-of-the-year celebrations are to have any meaning at all, then I shouldn’t value my personal temporary comfort over the lives and safety of people making my Christmas purchases, or over the animal lives suffering so we can gorge ourselves.

Ideally, of course, this is what we should do all year long. But let’s face it, switching to an ethical lifestyle in a Western country is arduous work, as it is the exact opposite of the ideal consumer lifestyle that is being pushed on us on a daily basis. But since we have to start somewhere, here is my suggestion: between whenever the holiday season starts for you and whenever it ends, let’s make it an actual time of peace and joy, not by making perfunctory donations or by writing gift cards, but by truly thinking about our littlest choices and making them count for the best, not for the worst.

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The Christmas pine-olive-fir-apricot-cypress-fig tree

It was only after living in Canada that I realised how the imagery for some things, like the four seasons, has permeated even places where it was not relevant at all, like, say, the place where I grew up. The funny thing is that I always considered this imagery to be unreal on some level: part of me simply did not imagine that there were actual places in the world where you have snow in winter and crisp, white fir trees with dark branches peeking from under it.

Now that I’ve lived in a place where winter really looks like the winter from the picture books I had growing up, it feels even stranger when I walk through the streets of Aix or Marseilles and see plastic fir trees covered in foam snow, even as I have to take off my coat because I’m starting to sweat. I’ve also always felt a bit sad for all the cut fir trees crammed together on the pavement, in a southern country where they could never hope to last (when I was a child, we used to buy potted fir trees and then try to plant them in the garden, but only one of them survived–it was felled by a gust of wind after nearly twenty years). But we still bought them, because what’s Christmas without a tree? And plastic trees just don’t feel like the real thing. Until this year, then, we bought one doomed fir after another.

But now we’ve found a happier tradition to replace that one with. After all, the end of the year is about new life. This is why we plant wheat on a bed of cotton inside the house and watch it grow all December, why we make nativity scenes using bits of moss and pine twigs to recreate a whole village: Christmas is the celebration of life, of things that will regrow and be reborn, year after year. It’s an absurdity to kill things for Christmas. But we still wanted Christmas trees, so last Wednesday, I got together with my parents to make one tree for each. Here’s the one we made for my father:

And that’s the one for my mother:

Aren’t they lovely? And the best part is that they were both made from branches that were trimmed in the garden, some scrap material lying around, and little else. And they will last for years, no need to cut another tree newt winter!

So here’s how to make a wooden fake Christmas tree, to give old branches a new life:

For the one I made with my father, we took a steel bar, of the kind they use to make reinforced concrete. There’s no need to use a very thick one; one centimetre in diametre or so is enough, and since it won’t be perfectly rigid, your tree will be able to sway just like a real one. You need about forty to fifty straight-ish branches to make a reasonably tall one (the one we made is a bit taller than I am–admittedly, I’m not very tall). Drill a hole in a reasonably heavy log and stick the bar vertically in it. Then it’s extremely simple: sort your branches by length, drill a hole in the middle of each and run the steel bar through, arranging them so that they look like the branches of a tree. Different sorts of branches look lovely together. Our tree ended up having pine, cypress, apricot, fig and olive wood together, along with one branch from that one Christmas tree that manage to survive for a while in the garden. For the top, you only need to drill a hole lengthwise in a good-looking piece of wood to hide the tip of the bar. And there you are!

For the other one, we only used fig branches from the massive fig trees that hang from the neighbours’ gardens into my mother’s. She didn’t have a steel bar, so we screwed small branches on a larger one, arranging them in a spiral. It’s more minimalistic, and that’s just what she needed in her smaller living-room. We didn’t have a large log for the base either, so we used an old grinding stone she had in her garden to hold the tree in place. There’s enough room to hang garlands and decorations, and it will also stay here for a while.

Olive, fig, pine, apricot, cypress, and a little fir, dry as they get here and without an inch of fake snow. Now we’re talking about a real Christmas.

February traditions

February 2nd is a special day in France, as it marks the official end of the Christmas festivities, in other words, the day when you’re not supposed to gorge yourself full of Epiphany cakes. I was actually not completely aware of the connection until recently, although I’ve celebrated February 2nd on most years since I was a child. It’s also known as one of the two days in late winter when you make a big meal of crepes, the other being Mardi Gras (which is really mostly ‘crepe day’ now, as I haven’t ever met anyone who fasted in March). We call it ‘Chandleur’, from its Latin name ‘Candelaria’, or Candle Days (I’m not sure what the Romans did on Candelaria, although I suppose they lighted candles to ward off winter, wish for prosperity or fertility or something like that). As far as I know, it’s about the only Roman holiday that has retained its name, although of course the others are still there, under a new, Christian pretext. I think there’s a Christian explanation for Chandleur as well, I’m just not certain what exactly it is.

As it happens, Chandleur is not a thing in Québec. Neither are Epiphany cakes, actually (those are delicious cakes in which you hide a broad bean and a porcelain figurine, and whoever finds the bean is king or queen, with the discoverer of the porcelain figurine being their happy consort or heir or whatever strikes your fancy). So after making my own cakes–which turned out quite well aside from the colossal mess the almond cream made in the oven–I decided to have a big crepe night. And it’s moment like that that teach you not to take your own traditions for granted. As it turned out, even the notion of a ‘crepe night’ was something quite new. A crepe dinner, in France, is an evening where you put all sorts of savoury and sweet fillings and sauces on the table, and you fill up on savoury or sweet crepes until your belly explodes. As I was discussing the organisation with my roommate, she suddenly said:

‘I have a great idea! Why not make a kind a buffet with all the fillings and everyone can make their own crepes with what they like inside?’

‘Er… Of course? Yes? I mean, isn’t that what you normally do?’

‘Uh. No we don’t. We just put maple syrup on the table and eat the crepes for dessert.’

Turned out explaining the notion to the guests apparently confused everyone for a while. One of them was worried everybody would bring the same thing he did (we reassured him that we would call everyone and tell them not to bring more fruit and custard, which was a good idea in the end, as he had brought enough fruit and custard for a small village), another was embarrassed at the thought of having to choose something unusual to bring. In the end, as those things happen, the table was overloaded with food, I made far too many crepes and we got a generous breakfast off them the next morning, we played games, people argued over how the name of that day was supposed to be spelled, and everything was perfect.

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Carnival started about at the same time. My friends took me to see the parade, feet slowly freezing in the snow (that’s what happens when you’ve brought all the right clothes for once, and then left them at home because of a glitch in your organisation). It was dark already, and the cariages were decorated with lights and not always recognisable glowing things. That’s where I met Bonhomme Carnaval, a personnage I had not been acquainted with before, who looks like a giant snowman with a huge smile and a red hat and sash, parading around in a carriage made of ice shards. He was greeted with shouts and applause when he arrived. Strange to think that such an illustrious character was a complete stranger to me until I came here.

Coming back to work yesterday, we saw that our colleague had left us some heart-shaped Valentine sweets on the table. Apparently, celebrating Velentine’s day with friends here must be a thing? Funnily enough, I had no idea, and I was actually afraid that I would embarrass my friends when I offered them to go have a Valentine evening out together (it’s a purely romantic celebration in France). They weren’t embarrassed at all, especially since, in their own words, ‘it’s much better than watching a rom-com by yourself with a box of chocolate and a handkerchief’.

And on that we definitely agree: anything is better than watching rom-coms.

Autumn leaves, winter comes in

Canadian French and how it’s regarded is still fascinating to me. It must take a particular amount of entitlement and colonising mindset to pronounce a whole dialect ‘incorrect’ or ‘not proper French’, even when an extremely vast number of the turns of phrase in that dialect would in fact be considered downright literary in France. ‘L’hiver s’en vient‘ (winter is coming) is one of my favourite, for purely random reasons. In France you would find it in poetry, not in everyday speech.

The leaves are almost all gone. One funny thing you discover when living in a continental climate is how strong its influence was on the conception of time, weather and seasons. The picture books I had as a child showed four long seasons, with the landscape dramatically changing between them (there was an audio book based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which was particularly nice, and which depicted them as the four suitors wooing Planet Earth, all as different from each other as you could imagine): pastel colours in spring, strong vibrant colours in summer, oranges and browns in autumn, bluish-white in winter. It was all very lovely, but it had so little to do with what actually happened outside my home. In Provence, spring and autumn exist, but they’re somewhat perfunctory. The flowers on the trees last for a few weeks, and there is much that doesn’t change at all in the hills (there is not nearly enough water for plants to afford new leaves every year). In autumn, the leaves on the deciduous trees wither, dry and fall off without much ceremony; it’s all over in a few weeks as well, and then it’s time to get out the winter coats (the sort of coats that made my friends in Québec laugh uncontrollably when I told them that was what I intended to wear all winter). Summers are green and dry and hot, winters are green and dry and… well, what we define as cold anyway. There is no bluish-white, and autumn just adds a touch of brown in some places. Since it’s still a temperate place, I could draw parallels with what I read. But it never was quite exactly the same. I just assumed that life never looks as neat and colourful as it does in books and left it at that.

So it took me moving to Québec to understand what they really meant by the four seasons. Autumn has been red, and yellow, and orange, all bright light and fluttering leaves that took all the time they needed to change colour, then fall off. It’s not just a question of species either: even trees that are rather common in Aix changed much more softly and quietly here. This summer, the plants burst all over the place, taking all the space they could in the few months they had to thrive. Spring was slow as well, with flowers peeking under the snow and buds swelling little by little on the branches. It feels a bit strange to realise that I did not understand what the deal was about the seasons until my late twenties.

Now autumn is moving on, with rain and fog and all-around depressing weather. The cats upstairs kick up a party with the Halloween decorations every night at around 5 am, but since they’ve both been through a lot of stressful vet stuff recently, it’s only fair to let them play. I’ve bought earplugs instead, which don’t do much, because I hate sleeping with stuff in my ears and so instead of waking up before dawn, now I just plainly don’t go to sleep. Never mind that though, Halloween will be gone in a couple of days, and I still have to do my First Ever Halloween party and general distribution of sweets to the children of the neighbourhood, which is more important than cats partying at indecent hours.

Also, I’m hungry. All the time. I’ve decided to lose a dozen pounds, because I was tired of looking at myself in the mirror and being reminded every time of how my PhD was so stressful I tried to eat the pressure off and only ended up putting on weight and feeling worse. Since my eating habits are fairly healthy already and anyway I’m not big on complicated diets (to me, they sound more like a good way to add a load of unnecessary control and pressure to your daily life), I’ve just decided to take about one third off my normal portions, and keep exercising regularly so my body won’t assume that it can tuck into my muscles to make up for the lack of calories. It works, obviously. It also means I’m constantly hungry and thinking about food, even when I go to bed or finish eating. But the strangest thing about it is that it actually feels good. Hunger is uncomfortable, but I feel more motivated and enthusiastic than I have in weeks. I don’t even get cravings. I don’t get tired of it. I can’t wait to go back to a normal eating schedule, but at the same time, I just feel good, even with the lack of sleep and of daylight and the rain. Maybe I’ll keep doing that in the future: not permanently of course, but I might give myself a week of half-fasting every now and then, just to get my mood up.

Maybe it will even get me through the winter.

A collective valentine, because there’s no reason there shouldn’t be one

It is say that Valentine's Day is a day to celebrate love. Not celebrate red hearts, chocolate boxes or couples; just love.

Somewhere in Rome, there's a skull that is said to have been Saint Valentine's. It's crowned with flowers, red and yellow ones. It looks as cheery as relics go, and not romantic at all. But who said anything about being romantic?

So since this is a day to think about all the people who bring a little light to your life, here is a collective valentine for all my friends, family, loved ones, and perhaps potential friends, who knows.

Some of you I see every week at least, some no more than once or twice a year, but every single time, frequent or rare, is valuable to me. Some of you I've only met a few times in real life, some I will perhaps meet in person one day, some not at all. This doesn't matter; however we talk, and wherever we do, I'm happier for it. Some people I've known since the day of my birth, and some for less than a year or two, but just like we need deeply rooted trees and ephemeral flowers to brighten our days, I'm glad to have you all. I don't want to write about anyone in particular, because writing slows your brain down, and I might forget someone. Now my brain isn't slowed at all, and I'm thinking of everyone! If you're reading this, then I probably know you; even if we've never met or talked or heard of each other, we might become friends one day. I hope we do!

So, thank you all for being here. I'm so glad our paths have crossed.

Phones off the hook on Shabbath

Back to the bled, as I used to say, or in a less affected phrasing, to the family home in the hills of Provence. My brother is back from a trip in Israel. We spent the better part of the afternoon diluting the noxious products he uses to develop him black-and-white Leica pictures. After scanning the negatives, he showed me what looked like a mistake: a row of phone booths, with the receptors hanging at the end of their wires on the empty wall.

‘Awrh, that was SO disappointing", he said. "It was the first evening of shabbath, and there were those guys taking public phones off the hooks in case someone picks them up and breaks shabbath, and can you believe it, they left right while I was adjusting the distance scale…"

I stared for a second.

"You mean, that was in the kibbutz, right?"

While in Israel, he had been visiting our granduncle’s daughter in her kibbutz, and had found a lot to tell us about it.

"Not in the kibbutz, no. That was Jerusalem. Near the Wall of Laments."

"Near? Like, they have a security perimetre of holiness arount the wall or something?"

"Nope. They just do it around all the city. I bet the Arabs hang them up again once they’re gone, though."

Hum. Jerusalem must be a kick-ass place for any non-Jewish people to live in, then. There followed more pictures from the Wall of Laments, with people lamenting, praying and occasionally falling asleep on their Bibles. Never saw that many hats on the same picture. The picture of my brother’s room in his dorm at Lyon with all his hats on the same shelf doesn’t count.

The negatives turned out to be rather good. While we were hanging them on the cord in the middle of the bathroom and wiping the last drops of water off their shiny surface, we exchanged some news of our respective weeks. I told him of my upcoming conference in Maryland. He told me about dissecting mice brains for his neurology class. I remembered that dissections tended to put him off somewhat when he was at school, and asked him if he had actually done it. 

"Yup. And I even had to do it for the girl sitting next to me. She was scared she would mess up."

"So girls get squeamish about cutting up mice, then?"

"Not squeamish. It’s just that they don’t want to mess everything up and have to go fetch another mouse in their little cage. But nobody really wants that, you know."

"Oh. Makes sense."

So, one advantage of studying humanities at last. You don’t get a job, but at least if someone asks you whether you would have the guts to kill a mouse and then cut up his brain, you can just answer, "Oh, sure. All for the good of science, you know. I’m no sissy.", and simply prepare the poultry in advance the next time you invite them over, so they don’t see you making faces when it comes to cut out the little birdies’ heads.

And after those pleasantries and useful afternoon well spent for the sake of art, we ended the day with a wonderfully non-vegetarian dinner in honour of my brother’s belated birthday. All hail Andalusia that gave birth to pork in whiskey sauce.

UPDATE: and for dessert, framboisier with caramelised meringue on top and just enough whipped cream. Aix-en-Provence beats Andalusia.