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.