I interpret my interpretations of places, people, cultures. As much as I try to avoid second-guessing myself, neither do I want to fall into certainty. Living between Paris and New York upends my tendency to think I’ve got it all figured out. One of the reasons for my dividing my time between Paris and New York has been to avoid what Montaigne calls a contraction of the mind, by never stopping to be content with what I know or what I think I know, but always to aspire and go beyond, to see if I understand correctly, or to question my assumptions about what I’ve seen. This holds true even for holidays.
Since I divide my time between New York and Paris, I usually just miss Christmas in Paris. I tend to arrive at the start of the New Year, when it’s more likely that the apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine in the 17th arrondissement, where I stay, will be available. The city remains decorated for the holidays usually until the end of January and you can get a continuing sense of the not-quite-faded festive season. In fact, the holidays fade gently if inexorably in Paris, as the height of winter loosens its hold, when the carnivalesque lights are gradually removed as if they were bright recollections receding from the memory. In the U.S., the Christmas season starts early, drags on and then it’s done with. It begins in earnest after Halloween but it’s over just after the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In New York the holidays are pretty much declared dead as soon as the second day of January falls, when you begin to see the sad skeletons of Christmas trees lying strewn amid their fallen needles on the sidewalks, as if the families who had hung their stockings with care couldn’t wait to get rid of any tinselly vestige of having actually celebrated.
But I like landing in Paris as Christmas lingers, in the dark days of early January, in the shadow of other people’s celebrations. As much as I tell myself I enjoy the holidays, I’ve always marked them as someone who’s there but not there, a stranger to my own enjoyment, perhaps. So arriving in Paris just when the year is new, when the revels are ended, seems more suited to my frame of mind. I like this time of year, but I allow myself to be alienated from it somehow, as if I’m not worthy of living in a moment of joyous connection with someone else. So in a way I can appreciate the faint melancholy of the early days of the month, the twinges of regret for the year gone by, and the temporary newness of the familiar, as well as not being present for events to which I would not have been invited anyway.
And yet, I marvel at the lights, the décor, the insouciant glee (even sometimes the anxiety) of this time of year. Paris can be as luminous at Christmas as any other big city, but it remains somewhat staid, although along the Champs-Elysées the decorations can appear more extravagant than those in New York, apart from the incandescent year-round mayhem of Times Square. But Paris is overall quieter, even down to its traditions. You certainly have Christmas trees, or sapins de Noël in France but they’re generally smaller (and scrawnier) than what you find in the U.S. Over-the-top isn’t really a French trait, and this applies to Christmas as well as many other holidays.
You don’t get Christmas cards for the most part in France. You send cards (if you do still send cards) to wish people a bountiful new year. Christmas is for being with loved ones around a table, perhaps one where you have un repas bien arrosé (a meal with wine freely flowing) rather than foisting one’s artificial merriment on acquaintances and strangers. And where families in the U.S. are more likely to congregate around Thanksgiving (though, of course, Christmas is for families too), Noël in France is when you see your parents and siblings. Not the only time, of course, but an important one.
And yet, France being France, the season of good cheer is not unbridled. The U.S. has endless uplifting Christmas movies and holiday specials, as well as raunchy comedies and even violent horror films to mark the season (it is America, after all). But while France certainly has no shortage of Christmas concerts, you’re far less likely to be showered with the pabulum of false bonhomie than you are sometimes in the States. It’s more probable that you’ll look forward to a showing, perhaps, of Le père Noël est une ordure (or Santa Claus is garbage, though ordure can also mean excrement). It’s a movie that involves a bungling suicide-hotline service on Christmas Eve, sudden violence and disastrous infidelity, deaths accidental or not, and a sense that no matter whether the season says we’re to live in peace, reality says that life is cruel and comedy is crueler. I certainly warm to its puncturing of Christmas pieties.
I realize that even as I become more attuned to the niceties of French local traditions and cultural habits, I haven’t become more French than American (I’m still a sucker for sentimental holiday fare), and although I am not fully at ease in taking it easy, I can appreciate how Paris continues to bide its time even as New York gears up for the next big thing. And I’m more open in my outlook as a result of seeing how life plays out differently and similarly in Paris and New York, whether that’s during the holidays or not, though I have yet to come close to mirroring the French appreciation for the art de vivre. But that’s unrelated to knowing how to live in France, and more about learning to live in one’s own skin.