This past year has been a hard one. Like so many people I know, death has hung over me. Last year we stayed home and watched the family open presents via zoom. My husband had just lost his brother and I was frozen by the loss of my mother. So making merry was not in the schedule. But, as I have written before, my favorite Christmas stories are not about Santa Claus. Nor have they involved decorated trees and presents.
I’ve been rereading a book I published (via Booktrope) back in 2014. It was based on the year I spent in Europe as a witless, clueless blunderer and, besides a lot of really bad writing (sigh), I came across this memory of another favorite Christmas:
And so once again, I packed my duffel and hit the road, only this trip to Paris would be quite different from my first. My aunt lived in an apartment in Ivry, a working-class suburb south-east of the city. The apartment had just three rooms—a kitchen, a living room/dining room, and a bedroom. No bathroom. There was a communal bathroom down the hall—for the primarily Greek residents of the fourth floor—and a bucket in the closet for “emergencies.”
We arrived late in the evening having taken a wrong turn or two. Then, exhausted and unable to find suitable parking, we abandoned the car in a dark alley and made our way past overflowing garbage cans to the apartment building. Lover boy greeted us at the door but didn’t offer any help with my aunt’s massive suitcases. I could understand why he’d gone AWOL. He had the scrawny physique of someone who would flunk basic training so why even try. Upon seeing her lover after a week’s absence, Auntie, overcome with passion, dragged him into the bedroom where he would have to pay dearly for her efforts to get him asylum in the United States. I curled up on a couch near the window. Above my head hung a birdcage covered by a table cloth. I watched as snow fell on the colorful umbrellas in the square below until finally falling asleep.
The next morning I awoke covered in birdseed as the parakeets above me demanded to be uncovered. “Alright, alright,” I said uncovering the cage. Two parakeets, one yellow and one green, stopped their squawking to marvel at the sun pouring in through the window and then changed their tune to something more pleasant.
“I’m making cherry pies! Get freshened up and come help me!” My aunt yelled from the kitchen. She’d already assembled three pies and was covered in flour.
Lover boy, evidently exhausted by a night of passion, slept until noon. He stayed up most nights, Auntie explained, drinking red wine at a neighbor’s apartment, chain-smoking as he and his compatriots debated politics in their native language. They were all socialists and not communists, she said. Your uncle is wrong. She’d fallen in love with Che Guevara. So romantic!
I helped her make pies all day, rolling dough and sweetening fruit. That night, Christmas Eve, we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower and wandered down the boulevards, oohing and aahing at the Christmas lights and holiday decorations. Most of the restaurants and stores were closed, but there was a vendor on almost every corner selling roasted chestnuts. They smelt better than they tasted.
Christmas in France is a daylong feast. People of all different nationalities came and went from my aunt’s apartment, either crowding around the table to eat and drink or, crowding around her small television to watch the horse races. First we laid out platters of cold cuts, salamis, olives, and pickles served with a pink Chablis. Then a fish broth with baguettes. A few hours later, someone brought a roast goose and spinach quiche. There was a brief respite mid-afternoon as the ladies chatted and the men watched horse races. At the end of the day, we ate my auntie’s pies and drank champagne. I thought we were finished, but then someone arrived with a fruit and cheese platter.
I gained not only several pounds but a new boyfriend: a Frenchman in his late eighties or early nineties, who would only admit to being forty.
“Je suis âgé de quarante ans!” He boasted, throwing his short arm over my shoulders as we sat side by side sipping cognac.
“Mais oui, bien sûr!” The others laughed as someone brought forth a Polaroid camera and took pictures. My face looked swollen and my stringy hair unwashed. But he kissed the photo and swore he would keep it always. A picture of his amour. And then he grabbed my face with both of his crusty hands and gave me a passionate and juicy kiss, sending all the other guests into giggling fits.
They took Polaroids of that too.
The day after Christmas, I caught the train back to Gunthersblum, leaving my aunt happily peeing in a chamber pot for love everlasting. It was the last time I ever saw her. Glowing as she baked her signature cherry pies for unemployed socialists. Cheerfully planning a future that would include a loving and faithful husband all the while with a twinkle in her soft brown eyes and her dimpled cheeks pink with joy.
I probably won’t get the chance to add another post before Christmas so Happy Holidays everyone. Be safe and warm and surrounded by love.
35 thoughts on “Christmas in Ivry”
Ahh!!! What a brilliantly told and illustrated tale! Just look at you! I’m so glad that you have included this photo. A classic. I’m sorry for your bad year. By the way, what happened to your aunt? Why didn’t you see her again? Of course we were socialists, and still are. 🙂
Thank you. My aunt married Lover Boy and they moved back to the states where sadly he dumped her for a younger woman (he was fifteen years younger than her). She died not long after. At least I have one happy memory of her.
I love when you share such memories. And I’m sorry for your loss.
Making merry is often not in our schedule.
I wasn’t that close to my aunt but I am happy I have that memory of her.
You had an unforgettable holiday. And your mention of roasted chestnuts reminds me that I haven’t had any in ages. They are delicious.
The best Christmases are always those with few expectations! I didn’t really care for roasted chestnuts but perhaps I got a bad batch. I’ll have to try them again.
You’re so beautiful, Jan. Inside and out. Happy holidays and let’s hope 2022’s a good one. BTW, have you been watching the Beatles documentary “Get Back?” I thought of you the moment I learned it existed. If you haven’t seen it I think you’ll love it. XOX, mary
That picture was taken decades ago, Mary, but thanks! I haven’t seen the Beatles special. I’m not nearly as Beatles afflicted as I once was! Much love to you and your family!
That photo was taken very recently. It only depends upon your point of view. Who painted the rooftops? You inspired me to post something new. D.
Travelling always seems to lead to these great experiences. Excellent story. And Happy Holidays to you, too.
Extraordinary. And you gave up on M. Quarante Ans? How parochially Ameruxan of you!! Have a superCrimbo
I believe he had a wife and was just looking for a girlfriend. Happy Crimbo to you too!
“Can she bake a cherry pie…”
It’s been decades since I tasted her pies but they were legendary! Who doesn’t love a cherry/bourbon pie with a homemade crust!
Pie, any pie, far more than cake, in a close race with almond-crusted bear-claws.
Happy holidays to you, too, Jan. I loved your Paris story. I loved finding out you were quite an adventurer!! And a writer even in your beautiful youth xo
Thanks Cynthia – I’ve learned it’s much easier to be an adventurer when you’re young than when you’re old!
I like your photos to go along with your story. I can imagine how different it was in your Aunt’s world, compared to yours. A great story told with love. Happy Holidays to you and yours.
Thanks Ally. My aunt was a small town girl from New England who was easily conned. Happy Holidays to you as well!
Really a lovely post. Wishing you and your a Merry Christmas and a healthy happy New Year 💜
Thanks Willow. Happy Holidays to you as well.
Jan, your writing sounds like a scene from a movie…so vivid. The photo punctuates the story in the most perfect way. Thanks for sharing a beautiful Christmas memory that has nothing to do with Santa.
Thanks Suzanne. I hope your holidays are memorable in all the right ways!
What a lovely story this is, a great adventure in France. I’ve never done anything like this. You were very pretty, I can see why the ‘old’ Frenchman adored you.
I was very lucky! Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Hey JT – it was nice to read a sample of your travel writing – and the details were just enough where I could feel the flour on an apron – smell the cherry pie – and see all the smoke imagining those guys with red wine and chain smoking (Blah)
and 2021 was not my favorite year either – and looking forward to 2022
Thanks Prior. For me, memories that involve things like the smell of cherry pie and waking up covered in birdseed are the ones that are the clearest!
So well told, Jan. I loved the memories you shared with us. I know it was the last time you saw your aunt, but what a lovely memorial moment of a time you had with her.
Thanks Hugh. I am happy to have that memory of her.
And that photo is priceless. That gentleman must have thought all his Christmases had arrived at once.
Yes, I’m very happy to have held onto that picture through many moves! I hope you had a jolly Christmas time Hugh!
I love this story! Thank you for sharing it.
Thank you Kate. T’is the time to remember the good times, those fleeting moments of joy!