Oranges, Perdrioles, and the Six Books of Christmas

When I was a child I always found an orange in my best pair of shoes on Christmas Day.

The tradition went back to my parents’ own childhood when oranges were a rarity and thus a treat. I imagine that in grey, damp Normandy the fruit also symbolized sun and warmth, lacking there in the winter season. The oranges of my childhood came from Africa or Spain, and we only ate them in the winter.

Oranges, of course, have been part of my children’s daily life in the U.S., so I’ve never tucked one in their Christmas shoes. Instead, I’ve always slipped a book.

Often bought at the last minute since I am a late holiday shopper. Yep, I know. It’s not always good. This is how it happens.

In the fall, I envision myself browsing leisurely on a crisp midweek early December morning, a large coffee mug in one hand and a thoughtful gift list in the other. In reality, I start to gather ideas way too late and end up changing them, as we get closer to Christmas.

Though I am a late shopper I enjoy holiday special events. Last weekend, for example, I attended a Holiday Pop concert which ended with The Twelve Days of Christmas.

As it has been for most American things, I discovered, years ago through my American-schooled children, that The Twelve Days of Christmas is an American holiday classic.

Embed from Getty Images

The Holiday Pop offered a particularly successful rendition of the song, thanks to the amazing singer and orchestra. This moment triggered a blog post idea. I will write a “Twelve Books for Christmas” post, I thought.

But I managed to also be late for this plan.

However, when I checked the origin of the legendary song I discovered two facts.

  • The gifts to the “true love” are not given twelve days before Christmas but from Christmas Day to January 5th.
  • The song is credited for having British but also French origins, although the gifts in the French version are offered over the course of twelve months and not twelve days.

Intrigued, I dug a little more and found out that the partridge, called perdrix in French, is also included in the list of gifts. The French title is Une Perdriole, which I assume is a small partridge.

Here is a link to a version that includes the lyrics. Even if you understand some French, it can be a challenge to follow the song without them. I was myself a little lost between the names of these strange gifts offered to the “true love” in  The Twelve Days of Christmas🙂

In the end, as you see, I was not late after all, but I still decided to downsize my“Twelve Books for Christmas.”

So here is my “Six Books for Christmas,” in case you are also late, six days before Christmas.

Or if like me you always slip a book inside a loved one’s pair of shoes or … stocking.

For Little Ones

Aliens Get the Sniffles Too Ahhh-Choo!

Written by Katy Duffield and illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Aww… Little Alien is sick. Even with his parents’ extra care and out of space medicine, little alien is not feeling 100% himself. Until a loving puppy finds out what can pull a smile on little alien’s face again. Text and illustrations are equally filled with humor and tenderness. A unique twist on a plain cold.

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Such a gorgeous picture book! Both text and illustrations tap into the emotions that trigger a child’s birth. Love the author’s unique take on a baby’s place on earth. This picture book is so perfect that I offered it to a friend of mine who just gave birth to a baby. I could simply not find anything more appropriate to welcome a new human being on our planet.

For Middle Graders

Like her maman my #1 daughter loved fiction from day one, but # 2 wanted “true stories.” With her I discovered the world of nonfiction. There were less books in the 1990s for the lovers of true stories than currently. So for the child in your life who also favors nonfiction over fiction, stop by Jennifer Swanson’s website. I’m postitive that you will find more than one book to satisfy this kid. Since 2017 has been a remarkably important year for women, I especially like Cool Women Who Work With Animals.

Me and Marvin Gardens

Written by Amy Sarig King

I already reviewed this book, since I’ve read every new novel from the author. She’s brilliant and you can never go wrong if you select one of her numerous books crafted with talent and heart for any teen in your life. I love them all. This first-ever written middle grade novel is highly enjoyable and yet cleverly layered and very moving.

For Teens

The Librarian of Auschwitz

Written by Antonio Iturbe and translated by Lilit Thwaites

Based on the true life of a fourteen-year-old girl prisoner at Auschwitz who becomes a secret librarian there for the sake of books and humanity. I heard of the book from a blogger. As dark as the topic is, the story is filled with the best of human traits. A must-read for teens and adults alike.

For Grown-Ups

Gold Fame Citrus

Written by native California author Claire Vaye Watkins, it’s an exceptionally well written, bone chilling and amazingly timely dystopian novel about drought and the human thirst for more than water. It will particularly hit home for California residents. My French blogger friend told me that the novel is translated in French under the title Les Sables de L’Armagosa.

 

Now, even if your holiday shopping is finished, your gifts wrapped and hidden, remember that the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day until January 5th 🙂

Which is when I will see you on your blog and mine, since I’m hitting the pause button until then.

 

I wish EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU a beautiful Holiday Season.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Los Posadas, or any other holiday dear to your heart, enjoy this special time of the year with the people you love. Even those well chosen gifts cannot match these shared moments.

I also wish you a healthy, happy New Year!

 

 

French Friday: From a France I’ve Known …

Two famous French men died, only hours away, in the first days of December.

One was nicknamed the Elvis Presley of the French.

The other was an awarded author and the Dean of the Académie française.

These two men had little or even nothing in common.

Chance is you’ve never heard of them, unless you’re French or francophone or a really big Francophile.

And yet they leave a mark on the French collective.

Including mine, even though they have also little or nothing in common with me.

 

Johnny Hallyday, born Jean-Philippe Smet in 1943 to a Belgian father and a French mother, was meant to spend most of his life on stage. His mother was a model fitting and his father an actor, singer and dancer. Since his father left when he was only a child and his mother worked fulltime, Jean-Philippe spent a great deal of time with a beloved aunt and his two cousins, moving at an early age to London where the girls pursued a dual dance career. One of them will marry Lee Halliday, an American dancer who will quickly call Jean-Philippe Johnny. Johnny adored this man and took his last name, which he will keep as his stage name. A printing mistake on a record will transform the letter I in Y.

Johnny Hallyday was born.

His musical career didn’t take off immediately. Like for so many other singers of that period of time,  Johnny’s success will materialize in the 1960s when he decides to become a rocker. Thanks to Lee Halliday who receives American records directly from the USA through his family, Johnny is exposed to American music, still unavailable to the French. He will in fact record a complete album in English, in Nashville in 1962, a never heard of for a French singer.

With a career spanning over half a century, Johnny Hallyday could only be at some point the backdrop of my French life.

Was I a fan? No. But his songs played on the radio when my mother sewed and he was one of the most coveted television’s guests too. With a voice, a face, a presence Johnny Hallyday was inevitable and a genuine component of the popular French culture.

Although I favored British and American rock, Johnny Hallyday, often only called Johnny, had many female fans. I remember of a few girls who bought each and every of his records and clipped his photo from the fan magazine Salut les Copains, which I didn’t buy either.

For valid reasons Johnny was often compared to Elvis Presley. His public demonstrated similar adoration and his female fans also shrieked and fainted whenever he appeared on stage. In return, Johnny was also very loyal to his fans and even threw free concerts, as he did on Bastille Day in 2000 and 2009.

I suppose that Johnny’s fans were hit as hard when he died than the people of Memphis and Elvis’s fans across America when The King died.

Unlike Elvis, though, Johnny is little known away from France. He’s in fact sometimes called the only rocker nobody heard about.

Although his casket was carried along the Champs Elysées as it is for a national French figure, Johnny won’t be buried in his hometown like Elvis but on the idyllic island of St. Bart, where he owned a stunning villa.

This last note leaves many of Johnny’s fans disappointed. Most will hardly afford to stay on the most exclusive French Antilles islands to pay their respect to the man who’s been called an Everyday Man.

I never owned a Johnny’s record or a CD, but look what I found at home!

Back from 1986, only a matter of time before the owner of this single – 45 tours in French – and me shared a common Parisian flat. I suppose that Johnny’s fan base is more eclectic than I thought 🙂

 

 

 

 

Jean d’Ormesson was born Count Jean Bruno Wladimir François-de-Paule le Fèvre d’Ormesson in 1925.  No wonder he was called Jean d’O.

I’ve never been a fan of aristocrats, no doubt due to my working class upbringing 🙂

That said, Jean d’Ormesson leaves behind him an extensive body of literature, recently gathered in the prestigious La Pléiade Collection.

He was also for a while the youngest member of the Académie française, the preeminent French council for matters relevant to the French language and died as the Dean. A while back, I wrote a post about the hot debate related to the evolution of the French spelling and grammar and included the public announcement from the Académie – unanimously opposed to the changes that attempt to bring more gender equality. Jean d’Ormesson was also against this evolution, although he admitted that the French language, once dominent, had lost its power as France and Europe had lost theirs. He didn’t weep on that loss, though, since he believed in the natural changes due to time.

As I wrote my post last month, I was reminded that the Académie française has currently only four women on board for forty seats. Jean d’Ormesson is the one who brought the first woman to the Académie in 1981. He did so against the Gallic dismissive comments of his male colleagues who mocked Marguerite Yourcenar’s real gender since she was gay. According to Jean d’Ormesson, he rejoiced to finally pronounce a word so incredible and prodigiously so singular: Madame.

So, even though, d’Ormesson also directed the newspaper Le Figaro for many years, with a readership leaning more toward the right than the left, I remember him for this decisive step.

He was also a very educated, witty man who spoke like no one else. Even his enunciation, so articulate, was unique. No doubt born in a world where so few French came from. His piercing blue eyes were filled with genuine joy and humor. A favorite on French television his presence elevated any conversation.

And he left us with so many admirable sentences! I only select one that I prefer in French for its beautiful rhythm and that I humbly translate below, totally aware that I will never equal the eloquence of Jean D’O.

“Tant qu’il y aura des livres, des gens pour en écrire et des gens pour en lire, tout ne sera pas perdu dans ce monde qu’en dépit de ses tristesses et de ses horreurs nous avons tant aimé ».

As long as there will be books, people to write them and people to read them, not everything will be lost in this world that we have loved so dearly, despite its sorrows and horrors.

Re-reading the sentence I would say the same about music.

And maybe this is also what Johnny’s fans felt when he sang.

 

 

A last humorous note about Jean d’O. He’s credited for saying once that dying on the day a star dies is terrible. No doubt, Jean d’Ormesson’s death has been somewhat eclipsed by Johnny Hallyday’s.

These two French men could not have been more different. Their public and readers had probably not much in common either. At his death one received popular homage, the other national homage.

In their own way they incarnated my native France.

With them gone, another page is turned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Friday: We Are ALL From One Place

Of all people immigrants have an acute sense of what straddling worlds means. But the importance of the place that has seen us grow leaves permanent prints all over our heart and defines our beliefs and misbeliefs, regardless of being or not an immigrant. This place that shapes us – whether with good or bad events – matters to anyone of us.

Over the last ten days I read one memoir, a young adult novel and watched a movie, realizing only lately that despite the first impression all three treat of worlds that meet and collide, ultimately forcing the characters to face the importance of their first home.

In Hillbilly Elegy the author J.D. Vance writes about his childhood and youth spent between Middletown, Ohio where he was born and has lived most of the time, and Jackson, Kentucky where his family was from.

There are many reasons to love and to be wary of this book. The author has really lived among true hillbillies and has seen the worst and the best of the so-called Appalachian values. Substance abuse and violence counter balanced by unconditional loyalty and love of country make it for a confusing upbringing. But as a conservative, Vance shows little patience for the ones who have nothing, often making them responsible for their own misfortune. He claims his hillbilly-ness and seeks responses to the crisis that affect the American white working-class in this part of the country, but his ties to some of the bigggest Trump’s campaign donors can only trigger legit questions. The topic of his memoir is serious but the writing is approachable and I highly recommend the book so you make your own opinion. Here is a New York Times review of the book and here an opinion published in the Jackson Times-Voice. You can also hear the author’s Ted Talk.

The core of the memoir remains about the importance that geography plays in our lives, also the aspect that moved me most when I read it.

No one chooses her/his place of birth. Like one’s first name it is a pure accident and yet so powerful. So powerful that in fact most of us either spend our lives where we were born or close by or leave for an entirely different region, country, or even continent, sometimes to come back much later.

J. D. Vance for example couldn’t wait to leave the poverty of Middletown, a now-decaying Ohio steel town filled with Kentucky transplants. But he still spoke with obvious affection of his family living there and of the physical beauty of eastern Kentucky.  Lately, after living in San Francisco he has returned to Columbus, Ohio, where he studied at Ohio State before going to Yale Law School. Columbus is the city he calls home.

The author’s journey from poverty to professional and personal success is fascinating and very rare. He thanks his grandparents for being the reason behind. Despite their own excesses, they poured constant love inside little J.D. when his mother was abusing drugs and creating havoc around her with numerous temporary boyfriends. His grandmother was particularly loving and pulled him through. And four years in the Marines completed the transformation from a pure hillbilly to a guy who could venture in the world, says Vance.

He  drank, though, sparkling water for the first time at Yale, thinking it was Sprite lacking sugar. This is also at Yale that he learned how to dress for interviews, realizing that what looked extraordinary to him was banal for most of his classmates. Growing up in a hectic environment where conflicts were dealt with fists and not words, he also learned to express his feelings with honesty and not anger. Not an easy task!

Thanks to my parents, I have not lived an abusive childhood neither witnessed domestic violence or the consequences of substance abuse. But Vance’s discoveries of a sophisticated world echoed some of my own.

A whole pear served on my plate for breakfast as I stayed at a middle school friend for a sleepover puzzled me once. As I started to bite inside as I did with apples, I realized that everyone was using a fork and a knife to peel the fruit and then cut it in pieces small enough to be eaten without juice dribbling down the chin.

In my first year of middle school, located only a few miles away from my small village, I also pretended to be fluent in music notation when I understood that I was the only one who had not studied sight-reading. My one-room elementary school teachers had taught me how to read and gosh did I read! But musical education was not for working-class or rural kids.

Years later, a set of unknown cheese knives confused me, too, while they seemed so familiar to a college friend of mine.

In The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas writes about sixteen-year-old Starr Carter who lives in a poor black part of town by night and studies in a posh private high school by day. Her life is distinctly separated between these two worlds, creating from the very beginning issues in her neighborhood where she still has friends and at school where she has made new friends, primarily white boys and girls. Even her clothes and language are different whether she’s in one or the other place.

Starr is deeply aware of straddling two worlds and already struggles with the notion of allegiance. When one of her closest childhood friends, someone she sees less now that their worlds rarely meet, is shot by a policeman in her presence, these two worlds must meet.

The Hate U Give is first and foremost a novel based on the numerous police shootings of unarmed young African Americans, tragic events that triggered the movement Black Lives Matter.

The same question through the entire novel, however, is: Can you straddle two very different worlds and still remain the same person? Can you stay loyal to your kin while living away? Starr often finds herself in such different settings that she wonders who she is. In the white comfortable world of her school friends she is tempted to defend her neighborhood, her people, her tribe. At home, she also realizes how impossible it is for her people to understand that everything white is not always bad.

In the end, she has to find her voice and tells the truth about what happened the night her chidlhoood friend was shot. From a girl split between two worlds she becomes an activist or at least someone keenly aware of the deeply disparate lives people can live, only miles away from each other.

Lady Bird aka Christine McPherson is also a high school student in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut movie Lady Bird. The story tells of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence and of Lady Bird’s exceptionally strong but butt-headed relationship with her mother who we imagine being exactly like her daughter at the same age.

Since the story is set between 2002 and 2003, in Sacramento, California it is also a film about the power of a birthplace on human’s psyche. Anyone who has lived in post 9/11 California has also lived the rapidly changing American economic backdrop, largely due to the end of what was called then the dot.com boom.

Lady Bird’s family is directly impacted when her middle-aged father loses his job. They already live on the other side of tracks, as Lady Bird puts it. Her home is not set along one of those tree-lined Sacramento streets where the wealthiest residents live. Her mother can be a hardworking nurse, clothes are bought at thrift stores and money is tight, moreover since Lady Bird’s parents have sent her to a private catholic school – no doubt to get a better education. There, she meets economically and financially diverse kids.

Opinionated but big-hearted and impossibly likeable, Lady Bird has one dream: leaving Sacramento and California. She has harsh words against the city and the state. The delta has always been frowned upon as being agricultural. People there often argue that they are not part of Central California, a region even less desirable for many. Sacramento is still quite diverse and greatly benefits from the proximity of UC Davis, located about fifteen miles away. But as local kid, Lady Bird doesn’t want to attend UC Davis but study in “a place filled with culture.” A dream that I could easily understand as someone who has also lived in a French region considered rural and remote from cultural life.

Lady Bird sometimes lies about her address and even pretends living somewhere else. She goes great length to avoid being seen with her parents, mostly because they don’t drive a recent car. Again, these details rang so many familiar bells. I was so impressed by some of my middle and high school friends’ homes that I prayed they would never show up at my much smaller and less comfortable house.

I don’t want to brandish the Spoiler Alert flag, so I won’t go into more details, moreover since there are countless small details in this movie that tell so much and show the talent of the director.

As an example, just a brief conversation between Lady Bird and a boy she meets at a party, toward the end of the film when she has just started college.

“What’s your name?”

“Christine.”

“David. So where are you from?”

“Sacramento.”

“Where?”

“San Francisco.”

It is when she is in New York City that Lady Bird takes back her given name. This is also there that she understands the importance of place for oneself. And where she considers her mother’s feelings about Sacramento, a city that will forever tie them.

This short dialogue moved me since I also lied on occasions after realizing that the name of my hometown resonated with no one but me. Much later, of course, I understood that it shouldn’t have mattered.

We are ALL from one place. And even though we may leave it behind we are still from there. There is no particular pride or shame to draw from it, only perhaps respect and affection for a small corner of earth that shaped the person we became.

Besides the common theme of home that serves as a crucial backdrop, the role that one or more persons plays in a child’s life is very important in these books and movie. Whether it is J. D. Vance’s grandparents and particularly his grandmother or Starr’s mother and father but also uncle or still Lady Bird’s mother, each of the characters receive love, sometimes brutally bold, sometimes embarrassing, always unconditional.

Ultimately, as seedy or posh home is, love is still what defines it and what matters most.

From my home to yours

 

French Friday: Christmas in the French Quarters

At my local grocery store, there is a young friendly cashier. He often strikes a conversation about the weather, food, sometimes about France or still the American holidays.

Three days before Thanksgiving, he admitted loving that day and the fall season in general.

“I feel bad,” he started. “Now Christmas decorations show up in the stores the day after Halloween.” He lowered his voice as if other people could listen and disagree with him. “Even here,” he went on. “We start selling the Advent calendars with the pumpkins and cranberries.” He half-shrugged. “I guess that for business purposes.”

“I’m totally with you,” I said. “Way too soon. November is not Christmas. This weird trend started a few years ago.”

“First, it was just a few people  who put their Christmas decorations for Thanksgiving,” he agreed. “Now it’s like so many.”

Way too soon,” I insisted. “Well, Happy Thanksgiving to you! Enjoy the fall season, also my favorite!”

****

When our children were small there was a technical reason why my husband and I deliberately pushed the Christmas decorations closer to the big day.

“Is it Christmas today?” can be as frustrating for the kids and annoying for the parents as “Are we there yet?”

Also, we never understood how people could manage to cook an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner and put a Christmas tree up the following day.

Our upbringing of course helped. French people in their right mind would never have displayed a Christmas tree in their home in November. At least, when we lived there. I’ve noticed that fall tends to blend into winter, too, in France, moreover since Halloween is not celebrated everywhere and there is no Thanksgiving.

Even though my husband and I agreed that most Americans embraced the Christmas spirit much earlier than the French, we realized that we had not celebrated Christmas exactly in the same way when we were children either. So we mixed and matched our personal traditions, borrowing from each other, adding some distinct American flavor, to create our own family celebration.

* We were in total agreement about putting our shoes under the tree, a French tradition that we had both followed.

* I suggested including the stockings when I finally understood their role. The stockings, totally unknown to us when we arrived in the U.S., is now one of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions.

It’s definitely mine and I basically took over, overfilling my family’s stockings with small inexpensive gifts that vary from favorite candies to socks, from lip balm to funny or pretty Post-It notes…

* I accepted to open the stockings on Christmas Eve, since as a child my husband opened his gifts that night.

* He accepted to bring the other gifts under the tree only when our kids would be deep asleep. As they grew, it became a challenge 🙂

* We decided to build the suspense with phone calls from Santa, with bells that my husband rang from the backyard on Christmas Eve, evocating the sleigh, with carrots, cookies and a glass of milk that the children would display on a table before going to bed and would find half eaten and half full on Christmas Day.

* As much as most parents would love to keep their kids small and innocent just a little longer, we definitely agreed to tell them the truth when they would suspect that we could be Santa and Mrs. Claus.

* Naturally, our own Christmas could only be half French half American.

When we lived in Massachusetts, I fell for the New England candle-lit windows

* And we had a rule: Christmas would not enter our home before December 1st.

That day, the children could open the first window of their Advent calendars and eat their first chocolate piece.

Then, we would either go cut our own tree or buy one on a lot, usually not until the 10th or so.

Turning the house to Christmas mode took days, with holiday music playing in the background and countless cups of hot cocoa or tea to sustain us 🙂

Slower than Americans, the French-born were still ready by Christmas Eve.

****

But everyone knows that immigrants end up mimicking the natives. So, year after year, Christmas crept a little closer to Thanksgiving, even in the French quarters.

Until 2017, when it appeared for the fist time ever over Thanksgiving weekend!

 

 

P. S. I don’t think I’ll share the news with my young cashier, though.

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