The absence of Thanksgiving combined with the nearly tropical weather in Nantes has my normally way-too-Christmasy spirit confused. This years’ “Christmas decorations” have me even more muddled. The city started putting up huge light fixtures about two weeks ago, but saved the grand reveal until the 28th of November (almost the first of December). When unlit, they look quite like feathery angle wings. I had high hopes. In my imagination, they’d light up all gold and twinkly, maybe with some flecks of red here and there. I thought, “Maybe if I focus on the lights, I’ll forget that I’m wearing capris.” So, I went downtown this weekend with my child-spirit on my shirtsleeves only to find the center turned into some Hope College Halloween party. The lights are ORANGE and BLUE. And, if that isn’t bad enough, big light bulbs, which are sprinkled amongst the tiny twinklers, flash intermittently with the enthusiasm of Princess Diana’s paparazzi. Some light posts have two “angle wings” attached to them that, when lit, look like evil winking demon faces with horns. Happy Holidays!
“Well,” I thought, “so the decorations are ridiculous. But at least there’s an outside Christmas market that is sure to feel deliciously festive!” I went to the market expecting Germany: stalls of handmade decorations and toys, spiced wine, old ladies selling home-made gingerbread. From afar it looked promising: raw pine stalls trimmed with garland and twinkling white lights. But, surprise! Imagine the love child of Centennial Park’s annual Midwest craft show and a rest stop gift shop somewhere in New Mexico and you’ve got it. If anyone wants a resin fairy, a miniature Buddha head fountain, a fish tank shaped like a house, a sand painting that recasts itself every time you turn it over, or a miniature ceramic sheep, just let me know. I’d be happy to make your Christmas wish come true. If the merchandise isn’t random enough, the music and the people advertising various things fill in the gaps. When I first arrived Justin Timberlake’s voice filled the air with gender confusion, but it was soon replaced by an upbeat-translated version of “Jingle Bells” that went something like this…. “Dingle dong, dingle dong, tous les dingle dong.” Then a person trapped inside a giant clear plastic beach ball wearing glowing pink and green alien suit rolled in front of me advertising some concert. I’ll have to make sure not to miss that one.
Bound and determined to have my holly jolly Christmas one way or another, I decided that what I really needed was a Christmas tree. That way at least the holiday spirit would fill my apartment, even if it wasn’t filling the streets. Thankfully an IKEA advertisement stopped me from sneaking stealth-style in to my neighbors’ garden in the middle of the night and hacking of the top four feet of one of their bushes with a butter knife. This year, IKEA is selling real Christmas trees for 20 euro and if you bring the tree back after the holiday, you get back 17 euro as store credit, the other three get donated to some charity, and the trees get composted. This way you get to pretend that you’re not the typical Christmas consumer. The trees arrived December 1st, so after I got out of class, I hopped onto the tram that leaves the French-looking part of Nantes and heads to a sprawling shopping complex that could be anywhere suburbia USA. I spent the tram ride repeating to myself, “mixing bowl, towel, decorations, christmas tree. mixing bowl, towel, decorations, christmas tree,” but - this happens every time - as soon as I crossed the border from sanity into the insanity that is the IKEA display floor-set maze (family, do you remember the Amazing Maize Maze??…) I instantly forgot why I had come and what I was looking for. Did I come to buy a set of decorative pillows? Did I come to buy an alphabetical laundry organizer? No, I know, I came for this oven mitt that also looks like a hedgehog puppet! By the time I made it to the part of the store where you can actually buy things, I was totally frazzled. I think I stood in front of one of the kitchen displays for about seven minutes trying to determine whether or not I needed a tart pan...and the miserable thing about IKEA is that, somehow, the combination of fluorescent lighting, high ceilings and random Swedish vocabulary words incapacitates any decision-making ability you might possess. I finally made it to the special Christmas display and the giant pile of pines wrapped in what appeared to be white fishnet pantyhose. With their needles poking out, they looked like a pile of French women’s legs in wintertime. (I present this stereotype only to avoid making you feel uncomfortable by saying that they looked like my legs in wintertime.) While this type of tree-packaging is practical for transportation, it keeps you from determining the shape of the tree. Since I couldn’t bear the thought of getting home, unwrapping my tree, and finding that I’d gotten stuck with a true Charlie Brown, I ended up choosing a tree that someone had already completely unwrapped because it was leaps and branches better than the rest.
If my tree and I got in a fight in a dark alley, I’m not sure who would win...I’ve got a good 8 inches on it, but its girth easily octuples mine. I left IKEA with one bag on each shoulder and my tree precariously balanced in my arms. The entrance to IKEA is about 4 blocks and 5 intersections away from the nearest tram stop. During this brief jaunt I learned that, the next time I’m in a dumpy self-depreciating mood, I need just walk around carrying a giant plant. Some women try to attract men’s attention by wearing high heels or short skirts or lots of shadowy eye makeup, but, as it turns out, what men are really attracted to is trees (maybe someday I’ll do a “study” to see if this pertains to all men or just French men). Me and my tree, we got waved at, honked at, whistled at, yelled at. “Beau sapin!” (“Nice tree!” Well, technically “nice evergreen of the sap producing variety,” but that doesn’t seem integral to the translation). All of this attention had me anticipating an eventful and hilarious ride home, but most of the tram passengers we encountered insisted on being ridiculously French. Apart from the woman who asked me if Christmas trees are expensive in Nantes, a woman who stroked some lower branches and said it smelled good, a homeless couple who said they’d never had a real tree, and a man who backed into it and proceeded to apologize (to me or the tree, I wasn’t sure. I was in such a jovial mood that I wanted to pretend to asked the tree if it was ok and then assure the man that he hadn’t offended/hurt it, but by the time I’d mustered up my French wit, he had already replaced his earbuds) the ride was typically uneventful, which made it even more hilarious. There I was, crammed into the back end of the tram with a giant live tree for goodness sake ready to share an “isn’t this quaint” smile with anyone who acknowledged me, but the other passengers would get on, give me one glance and say with their eyes, “What? Zo you are on zee tram wiz a sapin? Ziss ees very normal. I am French. I am shocked by nozing. Ze laces of my shoes ees just as interesting.”
One of the major, or at least most noticeable, differences between French and American culture is the way in which people create personal space in public situations. In the US, we establish distance and decrease tension between ourselves and others by speaking. If you’re in a crowded waiting room at the orthopedics office or in a post-Thanksgiving Khols’ line, you’d probably small talk with the person next to you. You’re more comfortable if the people around you aren’t “strangers.” It’s not that you are really all that interested in the details of how wee Harvard broke his tibia skim boarding backwards at the DeVooker side family barbeque on Lake Michigan, but you’re more at ease being around people you don’t know if you have the impression that you do. It’s basically the opposite here in France. Speaking to someone you don’t know adds tension to almost any situation. Conversation invades privacy rather than creating it. This difference is probably responsible for roughly 86% of the stereotypes about French people. The other 14% - such as men wearing scarves, 14 year olds riding around on mopeds, people walking about with baguettes, and the superiority of cheese and wine - is mostly true.
Anyhow, me and my tree, we finally made it to 3, rue du 3eme Dragons, and it suddenly looked a whole lot bigger in my 55 square meter apartment than it did in the hangar sized IKEA warehouse. For the last seven or so years - ever since my mom watched an especially heart-wrenching episode of Rescue 911 - our Christmas tree has come out of a box. Thanks to Dad Inc., who color-coded the various length branches with my sister’s and my leftover multicolored fingernail polish from the late 90’s, setting up the tree is a pretty simple affair. Having forgotten that real trees don’t come with snap-on intersecting plastic feet, I failed to buy any sort of tree stand at IKEA. The poor thing looked thirsty and I didn’t like the idea of scraping sap of my hardwood floors, so I declared that it was time to get creative. By this I mean that I literally say out loud to myself, “Ok, Brianne. Get creative.” The end solution to my tree stand experiments involves one plastic IKEA trash can, three wine bottles filled with water, and one rotisserie chicken attachment to a small oven (what would we have done if we weren’t vegetarians?!). It’s been four days and the tree is still standing…
Lauren and I decided to make a whole evening out of decorating the tree. We had an American friend and a New Zealander over for a make-shift Christmas dinner (fyi: turns out green bean casserole’s “French onions” are in no way French. I tried to make the delicious crunchy topping by battering and panfrying dehydrated onion flakes, which, unsurprisingly, didn’t come out quite right). We then spent hours decorating the tree with homemade popcorn garlands (tedious), paper snowflakes (also tedious), some random Santa’s from my host family, a handful of red and blue balls that we decorated with paint pens, and a bunch of the mini candy canes that my mom sent me in a Christmas package. I had my heart set on white lights, but the only ones they had at the store were rainbow colored. Lauren and I convinced ourselves that rainbow lights were better than no lights. I plugged them in when we got home and by the second second of our “Oooooooh” they had started flashing. No way. When I read the back of the box, I found that I had indeed accidently bought flashing lights but, the box assured me, of the non-musical nature...what?! I can hardly imagine anything more annoying than a Christmas tree whose snow-cone colors blink on and off to the tempo of “Dingle dong, Dingle dong.” In the end, without lights, the tree looks like a real life model of the cover to an American Girl Doll’s book called “Kirstin Saves Christmas.” I absolutely love it! The only down side is that we had to unwrap the candy canes in order to tie them to the tree, and now, since Nantes is about as humid as Houston, TX, instead of scraping sap of the wood floors, I have to wipe up pink peppermint puddles. The candy canes are literally melting off the tree. No more pretty red and white stripes. At the moment, they’re all solid pink and, judging by the sugar pools each morning, I anticipate they’ll have gone completely white by the 15th.
If you’ve made it this far, I congratulate you. I also add my apologies for having just read David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice (Thanks Jeremy!) and therefore having tried to match his wit, tone, and humor. I guess you can be thankful at least that I didn’t just finish one of the farmer-peasant episodes in Anna Karenina….
I miss you all, and I miss the land of snowflakes and 24 hour Christmas carols (except for the 6-9 pm segment that’s hosted by Delilah…)