“Wasted and wounded, and it ain't what the moon did,
I got what I paid for now...
Throughout our entire trip to France for Christmas, I had one song stuck in my head, playing over and over. To be sure you understand: I had a great time with my French family. I can’t say for sure why I had such a sad, rainy waltz on my mind amidst the merriment and an avalanche of cultures colliding in a frenzy of fried fish, créme fraîche and packaged chocolate Santas. It must have been something different that brought the melody to my mind, sitting there next to my very French, soon-to-be husband; inside a small flat, on a dark street, in a rural village surrounded by frosted bean fields, dotted with hay bales that looked like little packaged tufts of chèvre. For anyone needing a reference, check out “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” by Tom Waits, or, alternatively, “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilda)” sung by Rod Stewart (for the string part alone).
See ya tomorrow, hey Frank can I borrow
A couple of bucks from you?
We curled around the mountains of Comté and Alsace, having been routed away from C’s beloved rest stop McDonald’s by Google in an effort to spare us the holiday traffic. The drive was foggy, like a gray haze had crept through the countryside to descend upon the weary travelers who dared disturb its tranquility for their Christmas commute. Our car was, again, nicer than we’d planned for (well done, Sixt!), and about three quarters of the way through the journey my hand fell between my seat and the door, only to discover a hidden button, that when pushed, controlled back massagers inside our seats. I adjusted mine to a ‘wave’ pattern, turning my seat warmer up to full blast, and nestled in for the time remaining listening to C’s road mix, comprised mostly of ELO, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper.
I'm an innocent victim of a blinded alley
And I’m tired of all these soldiers here...
Little did we know that just a stone’s throw away, there were major protests occurring in the city centers we had been routed to circumvent; the “yellow-vest movement”, now in full force in France, is protesting wage gaps and the nation’s disproportionate distribution of wealth. Thankfully we were spared the brunt of the conflict over Christmas, including the waves of angry, shouting mobs and policemen holding the opposing line in Paris, dogs on taut leashes at their sides. The most we saw was at a busy roundabout outside a large rest stop: a gaggle of middle-aged men in work vests standing on a median, stepping out at times to block the path of oncoming cars.
No prima donna, the perfume is on
An old shirt that is stained with blood and whiskey...
We pulled into the mega mart of a town called Baume-les-Dames for a rest stop and a replacement lunch, now that our burger dreams were definitely dashed. After searching fruitlessly for the bathrooms, worrying that we had found the one Wal-Mart-esque supermarket that had no public toilets; we spotted a tiny sign tucked behind some vending machines. For the first time in my life, I would use a co-ed public restroom.
One thing about rural restrooms in Europe: at least from what I can tell so far, there are no remaining public toilets in Europe still with a seat. Somehow, the seats have all been detached, and then chucked into the ocean for a passing tugboat to catch in its net. This is my theory. Because nowhere did I find a seat, and there is frankly nothing more intimidating than an adult coed public grocery store restroom with no seats on the toilets, just a naked basin too low to the ground and too close to the wall to save you from anything gross. I emerged from the room the opposite of a sterile surgeon but in the exact same sterilized position, hands up and where I could see them, until I found the nearest squeeze bottle of hand sanitizer (there was no soap in the bathroom).
Before leaving, C and I walked over to the Scotch aisle for something take to Christmas dinner at his aunt’s house, as is his tradition every year. We grabbed a bottle of Chivas Regal 18 Year, and a pastry near the register to tide us over, as we were on our way once again.
Now I lost my Saint Christopher now that I've kissed her
And the one-armed bandit knows...
We rolled into the neighborhood shared by C’s mom and sister; the sun setting on Christmas Eve. Hungry enough to eat the couch cushions, C lost his patience waiting for dinner, and turned on the oven, slipping inside the mini meat pies that were our first course of Christmas appetizers. When the smell wafting from the kitchen became unbearable about 30 minutes before dinner was supposed to start, C’s mom kindly relented and opened a bottle of sparkling rosé, serving us the flaky meat pies and careful to save a few for her daughter and daughter’s boyfriend when they would show up a half an hour later.
We continued sipping wine and enjoying Christmas-themed game shows (C laughing at random intervals, I catching a word or two here and there, still entertained by the host’s animated facial expressions). C’s sister arrived at 7, her one-year-old under her arm, bearing gifts for the family. We opened our presents in one huge, destructive paper storm (very different from my Texan family’s customs, where you open one by one, person by person). We then headed to the table for our first of three Christmas feasts. At C’s mom’s house, we had: fois gras, smoked salmon with crème fraîche, and roast beef with mushrooms and potatoes, with each course coming about 30 minutes apart from the other. This is the secret of French Christmas: time, and the confidence to elongate pauses between courses. For dessert, we had a frozen Buche de Nöel, which was built of two different sorbets, strawberry and raspberry, within a pillowy vanilla ice cream outer layer. It looked like a dessert from the cartoon “Rainbow Brite”. It was sweet, but the kind of sweet that only comes once a year.
No one speaks English and everything's broken
And my Stacys are soaking wet...
This was the line swimming in my head that first night, cementing the song into my subconscious for the following 48 hours. Something came over me, as I sat at C’s mom’s table, watching my tiny, grumpy niece play with her billions of toys strewn out across her grandmother’s once spotless floor, the tv in the living room playing familiar holiday melodies, but sung with French lyrics on a game show with the premise of, probably: “anyone who can passably sing this song they don’t know gets 10,000 Euros”.
The new parents were exhausted, C’s mom was exhausted, and C and I were tired from our car ride. I thought about my family, and more broadly, my country, and I realized how far I’d traveled to be in that particular seat at the table on this, my 28th Christmas Eve. It was a tradition I had never realized I kept so tirelessly, celebrating Christmas in America. I had now parted with that tradition for the first time.
Now the dogs are barking and the taxi cab's parking
A lot they can do for me...
The next morning we arose late, far later than we usually do, at about 10:30am. Emerging for some panettone (a light-as-a-feather Italian holiday cake baked with everything from dried fruits, or injected pastry creams, or this one, which was made with candied chestnuts), we sat at the table and drank our Nespresso coffees in relative silence. C and his mom put water in their extra-large mugs of coffee for dipping the panettone, but I didn’t bother with any of that. Knowing the day that was ahead, if I could have mainlined caffeine directly into my bloodstream, I would’ve.
We stood up, and C’s mom informed us that we only had 20 minutes until we needed to leave. I bolted for the shower.
Our Christmas Day lunch would be spent at C’s sister’s boyfriend’s family home. He is of Portuguese heritage, and upon arrival we were informed by our hosts that they had prepared an authentic Portuguese Christmas spread for us newcomers. They did not disappoint.
For the next 5 hours, we sat at their table munching firstly on an assortment of fried pockets containing cod and shrimp. Next, a plate of assorted breads topped with various garnishes was served, among them fois gras, salmon roe, caviar, butter and jam, and beef tartare. The main course was ready soon after, comprising of salty, fried scalloped potatoes, and fried with them a white fish hiding underneath, encrusted in the center like a fishy jewel. We ate in silence, the scraping of knives on ceramic our only interplay, until at last we saw the bottoms of our plates and the conversation came back up to speed. When we had arrived earlier that day, the matriarch and chef de cuisine told me that their youngest, a teenage girl of about 13 years sitting on the living room couch, only spoke Spanish. Mustering up all the limited linguistic knowledge I had retained since high school, I spoke a few broken sentences to her in Spanish, ultimately resulting in another inevitable bout of miscommunication between me and a stranger. She was a nice person, from what I could tell, and let whatever nonsense I tried to say just float away into the ether, un-pursued.
And the maverick Chinaman and the cold-blooded signs
And the girls down by the strip-tease shows...
I’m not even kidding about this next part. We were halfway done with our lunch when the din of chatter was sliced clean through by an unexpected moan emanating from the television. The sound had been flipped on by C’s sister’s boyfriend, who was setting up his new SmartTV present to pair with his parent’s television; a device that can turn appliances on and off via iPhone. What C later surmised was, that the tv had already been on an advanced channel showing holiday movies, and the device had just flipped to the next available channel...which just so happened to be the porn channel.
I looked over and immediately averted my eyes. All I’ll say is that on the screen were no faces—just lower halves of human bodies—like some weird living science diagram. Not something you are expecting, or wishing to see the first time you are visiting another family’s home on Christmas. In the end, the Frenchies were, true to form, 100% unfazed.
And you can ask any sailor and the keys from the jailor
And the old men in wheelchairs know...
At 6pm, we were in the car and on our way to the grand fête, the big Christmas dinner with all of C’s family.
We were the first to arrive and stash away our coats, smelling the scrumptious smells of the kitchen; we watched C’s aunt putting the finishing touches on the first round of hors d’oeuvres before placing them on a serving platter. Nearly thirty seats were prepared at the Christmas table, complete with little nutcracker figurines next to everyone’s water glass, a white and red long stem for the evening’s different pairings, and next to that, a champagne flute. There was a piece of bread on every plate, and poinsettias and glittering baubles strewn playfully across the negative space. The table was dotted with small chocolate characters in plastic and boxes of frosted Christmas cookies just begging to be eaten.
C’s cousin arrived, a man of his same age and one of the few who can speak English with me fluently. We’ll call him Victor. Victor and C grew up together like brothers in the same hometown, often sleeping over and watching the same American movies, and playing the same American video games late into the evenings, until both of them left for college. C was visibly excited to see him; he had been annoyed by Victor’s lack of answer given to C’s numerous texts on WhatsApp. As soon as Victor passed through the door with a big beard, cheery cheeks and a wool knit cap, my fiancé’s frustration dissipated into the cold winter air. C ran up to him with a loud “Hey!” and a laugh, and was met with a big bear hug. It was good to see.
Before long we were seated with the call of a large dinner bell, which would later signal the meal’s progression to its numerous courses. The hors d’oeuvres were as follows: light dough balls baked with fillings, one with olive tapenade and one with sun dried tomatoes. Next were bites of rolled white bread with smoked salmon spread and topped with bright orange salmon roe, as well as rolls of wheat bread with earthy, aged French cheese inside. Lastly, a small bite of corn cake baked with boysenberries was offered. As each new platter was produced, I looked at C, my eyes wide.
“This is amazing! How does your aunt do this?!”
“She prepares recipes all year, and it’s never the same. She tries versions on the family to decide which will be best for tonight,” he said, matter-of-factly. Victor chimed in:
“She had me taste this one! (Referring to the corn cake.) I told her it was definitely a keeper.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Wow.”
The next course was a warm turnip soup garnished with a single, juicy scallop. It was exciting and evocative, the perfect amuse bouche.
C’s uncle moved around the table with a jar and tweezers, dropping a single preserved hibiscus flower in syrup into each champagne flute before filling it, creating the quintessential Christmas cocktail of France, the Kir Royale. We sipped and laughed, and when the people my age grew tired of speaking slowly to me in English, they fell back into their native tongue while I drifted in and out of vaguely understanding, and just flat-out not paying attention. About 15 minutes after the soup bowls were cleared, I heard a distinctly different, higher-pitched jingle coming from upstairs and slowly beginning to descend.
It was one of C’s uncles and his annual portrayal of Père Nöel, a role he was born to play. Carrying a large velvet sack, he made his way down the stairs shouting mirthfully, “Joyeux Nöel! Joyeux Nöel!” and ringing his bell, as the crowd excitedly returned his salutations. He made his way to my baby niece, who was just a newborn last year, now looking shocked and a little confused at this big man wearing a bright red robe of crushed velvet, with a droopy hood completely obscuring his face, save for a long white beard hanging down. Picture a very festive, far plumper ghost of Christmas Future.
After declaring the baby to have been good all year, he proceeded to turn his attention to the crowd, hurling insults at lightning speed and receiving groans, but little protest in return. The French love to give each other flack, especially when everything seems a bit too saccharine. In fact, as the evening rolled on, C grew more playful, yet biting in his manner of speech, now effectively in his natural habitat. I didn’t mind so much. Everything was so, so different; nothing was boring.
When Père Nöel ran out of insults, he passed out small parcels to each person at the table, before returning up the way he came, ringing his bell all the way. Inside each of the parcels was a different pair of Christmas socks; mine were silky snowmen with a big snowball garnishing my toes. Super cute.
The next course was then brought, one I considered to be the most mesmerizing of the evening. It was a snowman made of choux pastry, the larger base split and filled with a slice of delicious, melty fois gras, topped with another smaller profiterole injected with caramelized onion jam, that ball then topped with a little chocolate cap and piped with a tiny chocolate smiley face. It blew my mind. Bringing the entire plate up a notch was a small swipe of preserved mirabelle jam, a yellow plum famously grown nearly exclusively in their small area of France.
I begged you to stab me, you tore my shirt open
And I'm down on my knees tonight
Old Bushmill's I staggered, you buried the dagger
Your silhouette window light...
The bell rang with another course, this time a crisp white wine followed by a ramekin with puff pastry crust baked on top, hiding the goodness within: a bubbly langoustine chowder. With each luscious bite I sank down into my chair a little, each langoustine like a mini lobster tail, sweet and buttery. I kept looking around, trying to find someone else who was freaking out over the food like I was, but was only met with tempered, yet appropriately satisfied looks on the other diner’s faces. Nobody else had a goofy grin like mine. Bah, oui...story of my life.
Père Nöel, now back in street clothes, came round to poll the family on which wine to open with the main course, a roast of baby venison, stuffed squash blossoms, crispy potatoes, and a chestnut sauce. The choices were a Burgundy, or a Morgon, which is a village in Beaujolais that makes easy-drinking, well rounded and lighter reds. I was feeling playful; I sprung for the Beaujolais. When I tell you I devoured that food...people, it was over in mere minutes.
Finally, the dessert was another chilled version of a bouche de Nöel. This one had a lemony zing which cut through all the richness we’d had over the past 6 hours of dining. It sounds like an eternity, I know, but it really could’ve kept on going, with the way everything was so perfectly planned out. I sat back in my chair and listened to the hum, the chittering of the relatives and the general flurry following the fantastic meal we had shared.
The night dragged on, the engine chugging slower, the wheels groaning as inertia pulled us into the close of the festivities. I, C, Victor and Victor’s girlfriend we among the last to leave the party, sipping Chivas Regal and all piled side-by-side onto one loveseat at 1:30 in the morning. C’s aunt was tireless, still tending to the revelers and cleaning as she went. All in all, we stayed until nearly two, finally climbing into bed at 3am with echoes of the evening still ringing in my head.
Waltzing Mathilda, waltzing Mathilda
You'll go a-waltzing Mathilda with me...
No, I don't want your sympathy
The fugitives say that the streets aren't for dreaming now
Manslaughter dragnets and the ghosts that sell memories
They want a piece of the action anyhow...
On the night of Christmas Eve, the first evening we were there in France following the dinner we had at C’s mom’s place, I found myself alone in mine and C’s room while he was still getting ready for bed. That feeling hit me again, the same one I’d had before at the dinner table amidst the baby and the French game shows, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to work through it alone. Doing a little backwards math in my head, I grabbed my phone and called the man I knew I could talk it over with.
“Hey honey, what’s up?” He said, slightly concerned, having obviously jogged to catch the phone call from another part of the house to his office.
“Hi Dad. I—I don’t exactly know. I’m fine—I’m absolutely fine—“ a slight quiver invaded my speech, an unwelcome betrayal.
“What’s going on?”
“I think...I guess I might be a little homesick. It’s been great, it’s just bee—“ I was stifling back tears now. I didn’t have to say much more. He understood.
“When I was younger, I found myself bawling my eyes out, all alone in Alaska. I felt cut off from everything I’d ever known, and everyone I loved, and it was hard. But you know what? I just had to tell myself that there was nothing I could do but go forward.”
“That’s really nice to know you’ve been there, Dad. You never told me about that, and you’re right...also, I’ve had a song stuck in my head since we got here, I’m not sure why...” I sang him a couple bars.
“Honey, don’t you see that this feeling, the one that you’re having right now, is a rare gift? This is the feeling that inspired Tom to write that song, and one I’m sure can inspire you, too. Not a lot of people get to feel this feeling. And you’re lucky!” He said it with so much joy and conviction, it shook me completely from my mood. I now felt like an adventurer in search of distant treasures that could enrich my art.
That Mathilda's the defendant, she killed about a hundred
And she follows wherever you may go...
To me, Waltzing Matilda is to live, and to explore, seeing the world for what it is, warts and all. One can experience the fullness of one’s dreams, each one an undiscovered mystery, a 3D image replacing the 2D fear that once held one back. Waltzing Matilda is lying face down in a gutter in Copenhagen after a night of too much fun; or a secluded cabin in the woods of Alaska amidst the lonely mountains and the sky; or perhaps spending Christmas in a new country, experiencing differing cultures and languages to one’s own; but they serve unexpected foods, drink good wine, and try their best to communicate with you, even if it’s just with a pat on the back and a smile.
The thing with Matilda is, she’ll never again leave an adventurer alone. One will dance and dance, but there will always be new directions in which to go, a new corner of the floor left to find. Once she has him or her, leading them out under the spotlight and offering her arm, one must only realize there’s nothing left to do but go forward.
And goodnight to the street sweepers
The night watchman, the flame keepers...
and goodnight, Mathilda too.
Goodnight, Mathilda too.”