10. Décembre – Noel en neige – Christmas in the snow


I have just begun to light the fire on a regular basis. We have a great hybrid open fire/woodburning stove with a nifty slide up front so that we can watch the flames dance throughout the evening and shut it up at night to slow burn throughout the night ready for stoking in the morning! It wasn’t until the middle of the month that we finally turned on the central heating. It is hugely satisfying to have lasted so long without it, and indeed to have enjoyed the left-over wood from the last tenant. At last, mid-december it was necessary to order more wood. We ordered three steres – the unit for a metre cubed of wood and had it delivered later that week by a local guy who was able to tell us where our wood had come from – many pieces being from the pollarding of the city centre trees. It was good to know the wood was from a sustainable source and not only that but it smelt delicious and burned well! We took to foraging in the forest across the road for kindling, piling it onto our trolley and stacking it daily into the basket next to the fire to dry.

And then the snow began to fall! As we reached the penultimate week of term the roads iced over and our pathway became a death trap. I am used to the British system of gritting the roads. Here in France the system seems a little more haphazard. Our road was not gritted, despite being generally a well-used route into the city. The ploughs cleared one lane of the ring-road, and the route into the city centre and school appeared to be un-gritted! The French also have a dubious system of building basement garages on steep slopes below the bulk of the house and ours was no exception. Hence, on that first fall of snow, the whole exercise of getting the car out and making the school run was almost an impossible dream! Harry made the run, his car being further up the slope of the drive than mine, and I had only to hope that there was a brief thaw in order to pick them up again for lunch. The thaw came and at 4pm I once more set off to collect the children. Parking up, the half an hour wait was enough for the wind chill to refreeze the wet and slushy roads. Rouen is a city on a series of hills, essentially a series ravines carved out by the tributaries of the Seine. By 5pm havoc ensued, cars, including my own were simply not able to get out of parking spaces nor negotiate the tricky sloping bends and road junctions. Some cars were seen sliding sideways around cambered junctions, whilst others simply failed to stop at “Give Way” signs at a sloping junction, careering into passing cars on the main road!

Having resorted to ringing Harry at the office to help rescue the car from its icy position, we spent 10 minutes finally manoeuvring  it to the centre of the road. Being an automatic, and not  known for handling icy conditions well, it was agreed that we would have to reverse the length of this narrow one way street rather than negotiate the sharp inclined junction at the top. It was at this point that a black Renault pulled up behind us hooting loudly for us to pull over to let him pass. These are early days for my language skills, and the word “reverse” was not amongst them. The burly Frenchman was not going to give way to an obviously illiterate foreigner and eventually forced us back into the kerb, only – and to my delight- to be beaten back himself by the steep slippery inclined junction. We managed to achieve the centre of the road again and reverse our way back, barely containing our smiles as we watched him do likewise whilst all the time avoiding eye contact!

The snow lasted a month and is probably the longest duration of snow that I have encountered. The roads were generally cleared and  the children generally managed to get to school, but as the bad weather continued we wondered if we would be able to leave France for our brief trip back to the UK at Christmas.

One of the delights of the French build up to Christmas is the lack of decorations from October. Autumn remained autumn, and Christmas became Christmas mid-way through December. The department responsible for Christmas lights sent out its “technicians” during the rush hour to install the lights on the traffic lights at the main intersection, complete with “cherry-picker” to bring the traffic to a complete standstill and a multitude of mini Christmas trees were installed in various paved areas around the city garnished with a series of ostentatious fabric garlands and oversized bows in various shades of silver!

What a great Christmas – This has been the first Christmas without all the family, and as such I wasn’t sure how it would be. The snow gave on a magical quality, the tree stood in a corner looking fabulous after a few mishaps in buying the wrong sort of Christmas lights from the supermarket thanks to my missing vocabulary. Starting with a fish laden chowder, thanks to our excellent fish market, followed by a plump turkey, and finished with Christmas Pudding, thanks to our local Comptoire Irlandaise. I had every intention of making my own Christmas pudding, buying packs of sultanas and mixed peel, but I came unstuck on the suet. The French haven’t heard of suet which translates as Rognon de graisse du boeuf. Eventually I found a small butcher who knew what I wanted but only had Rognon de boeuf. I wasn’t convinced that it would work, and neither was he. So I thanked my luck when I walked into the Comptoire and discovered not only Christmas puddings, but also Golden Syrup, Marmite, and Rowntrees Jelly. Of course all were at fabulously expensive prices, and next time I shall get suet sent out from England, but we bought two puddings and two jars of mincemeat. Angus’s teacher cooked up one of the puddings for his class to try towards the end of term, which went down with mixed results, and I had a baking day and made loads of mince pies, which were taken into Harry’s work and the kids school as a little taste of England!

Peaceful and good-humoured, Christmas day continued with a fabulous snowy walk in the forest across the road, and finished with mulled wine in front of the fire and a fabulous new board game we’d bought the kids called Taxifoli – a race to drive clients round Paris with specific missions in mind – and all in French!

The weather cleared sufficiently for our brief spell in the UK. We opened up our house again, stoked up the fires and brewed up another vat of Mulled Wine for all our old friends. A fabulous round up to a busy four months in France!

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