mardi 29 janvier 2008


After 4 months here, I think I have the hang of holidays in France. What happens is the other foreigners and I gather at someone's house, eat our foods, and discuss holidays back in the "old country." Oh no no, we're not immigrants, just ex-pats. It all started 3 months ago with my first major holiday here: Thanksgiving 2007. Thanksgiving in France was strangely reminiscent of the real thing. Though of course, we gathered on a Saturday, paid more for the food, and partied independently of the rest of the country. There was no prayer, no thanks to God, no pilgrim pageants, just food and people.

Not many have attempted to draw up an account of Thanksgiving '07 in France. Therefore, since I myself am an eyewitness of all the events from the beginning, I will introduce a brief orderly account. In the eleventh month of the year 2007, the day after real Thanksgiving and the day before fake Saturday Thanksgiving in Nemours, we met Scott. He was the only person who talked to our friend Sarah at the Créteil English assistants orientation in September. Sarah therefore saw it fit to invite him to her fête de Thanksgiving in November. Sarah and Jessi had arranged for a turkey at the American grocery store in Paris to be picked up in the morning on the day of the dinner. Reasoning that two people carrying a turkey from Paris to Sarah's apartment in the suburbs would be better than one, they solicited friends to assist Jessi in carrying out the operation. Scott volunteered to lend a hand and was thus scheduled to stay the night in Jessi's studio apartment so the turkey could easily be retrieved early the next morning.

To counterbalance the awkwardness of receiving a stranger in her tiny apartment for the night, which is very much comparable to a blind date in that each party hopes for maximum compatibility and minimum discomfort in a moment of exceptional trust, Jessi invited me to eat dinner with the two of them on the evening of his arrival. Scott waited for me at the metro station so I could direct him to Jessi's apartment. The first indication of trouble was our failure to find each other at the station. We talked on our cell phones.
"Scott, wait for me in front of the McDonald's. I'm across the street, where are you?"
"I only see a KFC."
"Cross, you're on the wrong side of the circle."
"Oh, ok, the McDonald's is there. I think I see you in the street." Click.
I crossed my fingers. Please let this guy be cool. I'll know it when I see him.
"Hi, nice to meet you." There was no way of knowing it at the time, but not being cool was actually the least of his problems. Scott was tall and plain. He wore a black coat like the rest of Paris, but void of any stylish insinuations. Black fleece sporting gloves warmed his hands and his jeans were an awkward shade of blue, neither dark nor particularly pale.

Back at the apartment, Jessi and I were unwillingly enrolled in an unexpected crash course in Scott 101. It was like listening to the radio with the tuner fixed on Scott FM, proud to bring you all Scott, all the time. Scott hailed from a small town in Iowa and was presently residing in a small town in France an hour and a half outside of Paris. He shared with us the joys of small town France life. In Provins, everybody identifies him as the town American. He plays rugby once a week with a local group, the bartenders refer to him by name, the students at the local high school scribble his name with hearts on the chalkboard, even the principle succumbed to the love of Scott by inviting him to join a school field trip to London in April. All this without speaking any French. The boy is a walking America, forcefully clearing his path of all things French, then tossing them aside like dead fallen trees only to erect a tower of English in their wake, this as a glowing example of American governance. I was certain that the space within a 6 foot radius of him was legally no longer France, but an American hybrid with laws and norms of its own in which everyone else was a passport-carrying visitor. All foreigners must present themselves to the Scott Embassy for further instruction.

The dinner table was square, one side against the wall, Scott at the opposite end, and Jessi and I seated across from each other. Eager to discern Jessi's opinion of our special dinner guest, I dispatched several telepathic messages disguised as insistent stares and peculiar grins. However, the three feet of cheap Ikea folding table between us proved an impenetrable boundary and no indication of her feelings could be deciphered from my end. What if she actually LIKES this crazed Iowan? We could no longer be friends.
"So Sarah tells us you're an ex-Marine?" Jessi politely inquired at the dinner table. Next came a story about his enrollment in the military and subsequent drop out following an incident of brutality. After being struck one day by one of his superiors, Scott simply decided to never go back. We simply could not wrap our minds around this notion of just up and leaving the military when you felt like it. Scott took no formal action; he just never showed up again at training. Such audacity was both remarkable and dangerous. I glanced at the time on the computer and patiently waited for the FBI to shoot down Jessi's door and slam Scott's face into his mashed potatoes. Jessi and I would stand idly by, stricken with equal parts fear and relief, as the feds patted him down and violently threw cuffs around his wrists. Suddenly we were harboring a fugitive.

Scott was a treasure trove of tales. He once smuggled pee into a doctor's office in order to cheat a urine test. He almost roughed up a kid that cheated him out of money in Provins. He didn't strike me as a liar, but his declarations were muddled and steeped in untruth. One minute, he was a big drinker and the next, he didn't really drink that much. Then the very next, he was casually stepping out to buy pot.
"Where, how?" we questioned. "Oh, you just ask any black guy on the street," he assured us. "Oh...okay." And off he disappeared into the night, sans winter gear, wearing only his blue and white plaid button-down summer shirt over a white long sleeve that I imagined to have debuted in Billabong's 1997 winter collection.

"AHH, I hate this guy!"
Oh, thank god.

We scurried into the bathroom for fear of being overheard from the corridor. On the rug between the shower and the sink, through hushed exclamations and cries of laughter and distress, we frantically emptied out of all the frustration and amazement that Scott had vigorously crammed into our existence. Jessi begged me not to leave her alone with this maniac. Naturally, I would stay. Or we'd just shut off all the lights and lock the door. No, I would stay.

Once back inside, Scott set to work crafting a bong from a can of Orangina. A few puffs later, he was back on the street, this time in search of vodka, which he found at the little grocer on the main street.

Jessi's fold out bed couldn't perfectly accommodate the 3 of us. I was fine, but Scott insisted that we sleep diagonally. Jessi disappeared into the bathroom to prepare for bed as Scott declared "cuddle time" the solution to our discomfort. "Oh god!" I winced in horror and inched closer to the bed's periphery. Unfortunately, the darkness did not break Scott's spirit. He rattled on as I prayed to god or the FBI to take him away.

The next day, Jessi, Scott, Elizabeth, and I boarded the train to Nemours. We had no objections when Scott chose to sit with some guys on the lower level while the rest of us sat up top. However, it was only a matter of time before we heard the singing. Loud, passionate singing drifting in from an adjacent train car. We dismissed the voice as that of a stranger, most likely someone drunk or mentally ill. Little did we know, this undiscovered talent was none other than France's American sweetheart, Scott from Iowa, making his regional train debut.

Dinner did not bring any surprises. Scott ate plenty of food and had his fill of alcohol that he did not pay for.

Thankfully, Christmas bore no resemblance to the Scott-filled Thanksgiving. I'd always wondered how I would approach the holidays once I was no longer obliged to celebrate them. Would I do away with Christmas altogether? Would I surrender to the forces of excessive consumerism and celebrate to the fullest? What better way to find out than Christmas in Paris a thousand miles away from anyone of blood relation.

I spent 2 hours Christmas Eve morning in a rich French family's swanky 16th arrondissement apartment giving private English lessons to 3 insanely lovable children. The oldest, Lancelot, was home on holiday from the boarding school he attends in England. The other two couldn't speak English to save their lives, but were polite and sweet as pie nonetheless.

After the lesson, Stephanie, Madison, and I headed over to the Monoprix in Boulogne in search of provisions for Christmas Eve dinner. We didn't even know what to make, let alone what raw materials to purchase. One thing about Stephanie is that she has no reservations when it comes to her lack of cooking skills. She has come to terms with it and accepts it gracefully. I, on the other hand, choose to deceive myself and everyone around me, feigning knowledge of food and food preparation while hardly knowing how to bake a potato or how not to melt a spatula. In the end, everyone suffers.

Fortunately we had Madison. Food-loving Madison. In essence, our savior. All the pain in the ass things that make Stephanie and I cringe and reach for another drink only make Madison love food more. Drawing inspiration from holidays spent back home with our families, we somehow came up with a sort of Christmas Eve menu. We picked up a bottle of Bailey's from the Nicolas liquor store and called it an afternoon.

Madison lives a few blocks away from me in a stunning and palatial apartment on the other side of Porte de Saint Cloud. While in my tiny lil' baby apartment, there is scarcely enough room to extend a finger without risk of injury, you could do cartwheels and somersaults in Madison's apartment, unburdened by fear of sharp corners or looming walls. The kitchen is immaculate and a perfect workspace for a mad chef to experiment with various concoctions and serums.

Lunch consisted of bread, avocado, and a cheese herb spread followed by 3 different sorts of ravioli. After lunch, sprawled out on the couches in the living room, food and drink slowly digesting in our bellies, it hardly seemed worth it to prepare the kind of decadent dinner originally intended for the occasion. After a very long pause, another trip to Nicolas for more Bailey's, and an incomplete viewing of The Royal Tenenbaums, the spirit somehow moved us to our feet and back into the kitchen, beckoning the 3 of us to bring to fruition a decent holiday meal, even if the clock already read 8:30 in the evening. It was Christmas damnit. We needed to get it right.

I don't even know how this happened, all hope and energy had been lost. This was our Christmas miracle. Not, like, miraculous, just cool. It must have been around midnight when we finally sat down to our feast. Everything felt warm--the mashed potatoes as well as the feeling in the air and in my body. The cause: undoubtedly a melange of friendship, celebration, and Bailey's. Stephanie and Madison were still chatting away when I stretched out on the carpet and closed my eyes.

The next day, Christmas day, our makeshift family of 3 trekked out to the suburbs, Bailey's and waldorf salad in tow, to join our fake relatives for a holiday gathering. Amin, a schoolmate of Steph and Madison, welcomed us into his home with open arms and holiday decorations galore. Soft lighting met red, gold, and green streamers, a Christmas tree, and a little nativity scene set up on the half-wall that led into the living room. My parents' house never looked so festive. Amin's roommates felt like estranged aunts and uncles of mine, just the kind that are white and don't speak English.

Amin was host extraordinaire and had some crazy philosophy about letting his guests be lazy and not do any work. He wined and dined us to the max, and we offered up our waldorf salad, which was a big hit at the table. Oh we just carried on as though the night would never end. However, unlike everyone else, I really wanted it to end. I had English lessons scheduled early the following morning. Sleep happened eventually, but not more than 3 hours passed before we had to drag ourselves out of bed and back into the cold toward Paris.

So we made special. Sometimes I actually like tradition.

Piña Colada

Christmas Eve dinner