Joyeux Noël à Tous!
I love the Parisian Christmas Markets. When they start showing up, you know Christmas is just around the corner. And you can spot one a mile away. Whenever you see dozens of white tents clumped together like Santa’s mobile workshop, you know you’re in luck. Those white tents remain the same from one market to the next, but each of the markets has its own feel, and as a result, its own special charm.
The Champs Élysées Market feels like a quaint, small town carnival. It comes complete with a giant slide, a spook house, a huge ferris wheel and even its own ice skating rink. Most of the tents in this market are filled with “State Fair” kinds of foods done gourmet style: freshly made waffles, crepes, sausages, paella, shawarma; you can get almost anything here. Gift ideas though, are almost an afterthought at this one. The Champs Élysées market is all about the rides and the food. It feels like something from another era….perfect for a romantic date night in the city.
It stretches from the Champs Élysées all the way to Place de la Concorde. And when you’re standing in the middle of the market, the view is amazing in either direction. Look one way and you’ll see the length of the Champs Élysées stretching all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. Lining either side of the famous boulevard are all those beautiful, square trees, twinkling with blue and white fairy lights. It’s beyond gorgeous.
A look in the other direction, and the white tents lead you straight to the giant Ferris Wheel called “The Roue” -outlined in brilliant white light. During the Christmas season, it sits smack in the middle of Place de la Concorde marking the end of this Christmas bazaar. The Champs Élysées market, with its small town feel and its beautiful views, makes for a perfect, and very different date night out in Paris.
Saint Germain has its own Christmas market as well. Window shopping is one of the main draws of Saint Germain in the first place, and this market lives up to its neighborhood. Its theme is more boutique wines and cognacs with all the fun things to go with them: cheeses, candies, roasted nuts. It’s lovely.
But, my favorite of the Christmas markets is the one at La Defense. It’s HUGE for one thing. And it feels more Christmas-y, somehow. I think it’s the bright red carpets. They run everywhere you go, connecting about 100 white tents at the foot of the Grand Arch. And when you get to “walk the red carpet” from tent to tent, it really puts you in the holiday spirit.
There are the food tents, of course, filled with all sorts of items for stuffing stockings and entertaining for the holidays. They have fois gras, pâté, and every flavor of nougat and Turkish Delight that a child could dream up. For those cold winter nights, there are booths filled with cognacs, armagnacs and wines. And of course, they have French cheeses, but not just the ones that typically come to mind. Yes, they have camembert and brie, but they also have artisanal cheeses flavored with everything from lavender to wasabi, basil to sun-dried tomato…even coconut. I’ve tried (and bought) all of them. And they are absolutely divine.
If you want to have lunch while you shop, you can grab a raclette sandwich or even sit down for a plate of smoked meats & sausages. For your sweet tooth, there are crepes and waffles, sugared fruits and homemade hot chocolate. Or you can just warm up with a cup of mulled wine while you shop.
La Defense also has dozens of tents with ideas for Christmas presents: beautiful umbrellas, vintage toys, artisan lamps, scarves from India, perfumes and lotions. It’s like the mother of all flea markets, but everything is brand new and filled with promise. There are strings of twinkling lights woven into silk flowers, perfect for decorating the rooms of lucky little girls. There are booths devoted to Russian nesting dolls. I’m guessing those are for the little girl who’s all grown up. There’s even a wonderful little booth that deals exclusively with the jazz greats. Here you can find double CDs of everything from Miles Davis to Nina Simone. And they pipe the music into the market so you can groove while you browse.
As you stroll the red carpet exploring the booths, you are constantly being offered samples of the most wonderful treats -things like crystalized pineapple, nougat, chewy dried figs, chocolate truffles and fresh nuts coated in cinnamon and sugar. Trust me. This is a great way to enjoy a Saturday.
I’ve been to the La Defense market three times this year…It’s that good. My favorite purchase so far has been a gorgeous, red toile umbrella made by a company who has been in business since 1785. Now, when we walk the dogs in the rain, none of us will get the least bit wet.
Merry Christmas…and Joyeux Noel!
(Footnote: The people of Paris are looking forward to Christmas. They’re making plans, shopping for gifts and spending time with family and friends. They’re leaving the terrorist attacks of November 13th in the past -where they belong. So I’m going to make a right-hand turn here as well, and talk about something altogether different from my last two posts.)
Politeness is a lost art. Americans in general tend to think of it as a silly formality or a waste of time, something quaint from a bygone era. But Parisians have a concept they actually call “l’art de la politesse” and they live by it every minute of every day. Let me tell you, it makes a HUGE impact on your life here.
Being polite, if you do it correctly, absolutely forces you to be present in the moment with the person in front of you. It is a magical concept really, if everyone embraces it as a way of life. And here in Paris, everyone does. The best way I know how to illustrate this beautiful principle is with a comparison. So I’m going to give you two illustrations of a trip to the bakery. The first will be done the American way. The second, will be the Parisian way.
As an American, you tend to be busy, running through your “To Do” list each day. So, as you pull into the parking space for the bakery, you grab your purse and run into the store. And quite often, you are talking on your cell phone as you enter. When you get to the front of the line, you might say hello to the person behind the counter, but even if you do, you are usually looking directly at the bakery case, deciding on the things that you’d like to buy. (You may still be on your cell phone at this point.) As the clerk rings up your total, you start pulling out your wallet, already beginning to think about the next errand on your list. You pay, and you usually throw out a “goodbye” or “thank you” over your shoulder, as you are running out the door to get to the next errand. It’s efficient. It’s hurried. And your mind was hardly present for any of it.
As a Parisian, you walk into the boulangerie, wait your turn, and as you arrive at the front of the line, a social encounter takes place. There is a ritual to these interactions. This is how it’s always done, so everyone knows how to do it. You make eye contact with the person behind the counter…and you smile at each other as you say hello back and forth. You both mean it. Before anything else happens, two people make a personal connection with each other.
Only after that’s done, you point out what you would like. She looks at you and asks if there is anything else you need. Then she boxes up your things, and goes to the cash register to ring up your total. This entire time, neither of you is doing anything else but this. You pay your bill. And before you leave, there’s a goodbye ritual as well. You and the woman behind the counter make eye contact again. She smiles and says “Merci.” You reply with “Merci.” She says “Bonne journée” (which means “Have a good day today.”) You say something along the lines of “á vous aussi.” (which means “to you as well.”) And then you both say goodbye to each other. Only then, does she move on to the next person and you leave.
I’ll point out that this version has taken almost no more time than the distracted, disjointed American way. But instead of just scratching something off of your “To Do” list, you have had a real moment with another person. You can recall almost every detail because you were actually present in your own life for that period of time. And since “l’art de la politesse” is so important to the French, this happens all day, every day, wherever you go.
Dining is made infinitely more fun by this commitment to politeness as well. In Paris, when people share a meal together, they are sharing their lives for that moment in time. There is no wolfing down the meal, no checking your cell phone at the table, no video games for the kids. You are just there to BE with the people you are with. You tell each other stories about your day. You relish every sip of wine and every bite of food that goes into your mouth. You laugh. You take time to really SEE each other, to share yourself with your friends. It’s beautiful.
You find that after a very short while, you start to do this automatically, everywhere you go. Even the homeless men on the street engage this way. They don’t shake a cup in your face as you walk down the street. Whenever I walk by, they look at me, nod their heads, genuinely smile and say “Bonjour, Madam.” And I make eye contact with them and smile as I reply “Bonjour Monsieur.” They get called “Sir” throughout the day. I can’t help but think that feels good. It makes the world seem very sweet.
And this politeness, this kindness made it very hard for me to understand why American tourists constantly complain about the rudeness of the French. So, I started paying attention and I noticed something.
The French don’t react well to our self-centeredness. Many tourists never even bother to learn a word of french before they get here…not hello, not thank you…nothing. And, when someone walks into a shop here and immediately starts dictating what they want, without ever making eye contact, smiling or saying hello, it throws the French for a loop. They feel as if they aren’t being treated as a person. It shocks them, and they feel almost assaulted. So, they don’t respond well to it. They frown and shake their heads and just try to get through with the encounter as quickly as possible.
It’s a shame. We’re the ones being rude -and yet we get offended.
I think we as Americans should try to slow down and see each other as people. If we could learn to do just one thing at a time, we would have so much more LIFE in our lives. Europeans have known this for centuries. When will we ever learn?