It’s always apparent that the holiday season has arrived as the weather gets colder, people start thinking about gifts, and Christmas music is playing in nearly every store.
In France, they start just as early with the preparations. The new Justin Bieber “All I Want for Christmas is You” Mariah Carey remix was reverberating out of the H&M just a few days after Thanksgiving. The French listen to a lot of the same Christmas songs as we do. There are a few songs in French, but otherwise the music is the same, and sometimes I forget I’m in France.
With the images of Le Pere Noel in shop windows, the busy stores, and the need for scarfs and hats, preparing for Christmas is similar to the United States. However, there has not been any snow.
It doesn’t typically snow in Toulouse, but in the Alps and the Pyrenees Mountains, snow is way more common. My host family and I had planned to go skiing in the Pyrenees this past weekend but had to postpone the trip until January as there is not enough snow for skiing yet.
One difference however is Le Marche Noel (The Christmas Market). It’s not originally French, but actually German (Christkindlmarkt), but Toulouse has adopted it at Place Capital. It’s a village scene set up with little wooded houses where vendors can sell their products.
The variety is immense as one can buy almost everything from food – fromage (cheese), des gâteux (cakes), les marrons (chestnuts), and even un puree des pommes de terre (mashed potatoes), (Yes, there is a stand just for mashed potatoes) to des cadeaux (presents) and hand-crafted artisan wares.
Of course, everything is really expensive, as one le chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) is 4 euros (about $6), but it is delicious. I’m hesitant to even call it hot chocolate, because when I think of “hot chocolate” I think of the powdered Swiss Miss and hot water drink, not legitimate chocolate that is melted.
To make le chocolat chaud, they take a giant boiler and stick 80% cocoa chocolate in it with butter and a little crème. It’s like drinking pure chocolate fondue, but even better. Along with le chocolate chaud, one can also buy le vin chaud (hot wine).
Even though it’s expensive, my friends and I like to walk around Le Marche Noel, especially at night, and see all the decorations and lights. The decorations continue from Place Capital all around the city, with strings of blue lights zigzagging overhead from buildings and the trees illuminated with twinkle lights.
The lights and decorations forever continue, even in my apartment. We put up and decorated le sapin (fir tree) and have le crèche (nativity scene) set up in the same room.
One of my favorite things is when we light a fire and everyone is in le salon (living room). To me, that is the signifying factor that it’s the holidays, being together with the people you love, and it reminds me a lot of home in the states.
My parents back in America sent me pictures of our Christmas tree and decorations and such (I’m still trying to figure out if it’s to make me miss them or if they were trying to be nice). Of course the holiday season will be tough, but I have so much to look forward to.
Vacation from school starts Saturday the 17th, and during our time off, we have plans to travel to relatives’ houses throughout France and ultimately our final destination is Paris. In less than a week, my host brother and I will be on a train to Lyon where my host parents and sister will meet up with us.
It’s a dream Christmas, as I not only get to spend the holidays “French style” with my French family and see several French cities and the countryside, but I will also be in Paris for my birthday (I turn 17 on December 28th). So “Joyeux Noel” America! Sorry Mom and Dad… nice try with the pictures.
One of the most common questions I am asked nearly every day is “Tu comprends?” (Do you understand?)
Here’s my update on the language progression: I’ve been here a little over three months, and I still can’t understand everything people say. I constantly need to ask people to repeat or talk slower or sadly even to speak to me in French. (A lot of people can speak English to some extent and want to practice their English with me. Plus there are two other Americans in my classes at about the same speaking level as me, so English is pretty popular).
And comprehension is not the hard part; it’s the speaking and pronunciation I find most difficult. People can instantly tell I am not a native speaker when I talk because I have an American accent. But, however slowly, I am progressing, and each day it’s easier.
When I first arrived, I understood barely anything, and it was like trying to get reception to an outdated radio, but since then I have found a station with reception, it’s just a little fuzzy sometimes. And as aggravating as it is, living here is the only way to fully learn the language.
The human species has this incredible resiliency for adaptation, which makes it possible for me to slowly pick up the language. I’ve even come to the point where I think in French. (Not entirely, as it’s a weird mix between English and French, but it’s ok because it all makes sense in my head).
I find it so fascinating the process for adaptation and learning, and how what seemed like incessant noise at first now makes sense and actually has meaning behind it. It makes me realize that no matter where you are, when you go somewhere else, it’s different. Nobody thinks the same way you do, has the same fashion, or even speaks the same language. Even within one country, you find variation between regions and even cities. I guess what I’m trying to say is nothing is what you would expect, maybe you should never go anywhere with expectations.
Immersing yourself in a new language is a weird experience to try and explain. But I think it’s a necessary experience, as the world is so quick to judge and to resist acceptance of others, before they even can understand the reasons behind people’s actions. And the only way to understand other people is to “live in their shoes”.
Something that seems insanely bizarre to one person can be habitually normal to someone else. We live in a world where you can’t be ignorant of other people’s cultures. Rather listen, learn, try to understand, because without understanding, you'll never fully accept them or their culture.
Everyone wants peace for Christmas.