Chapter 10: Holiday cheer, continued.
Did you know that Santa has a friend? We were at an outdoor German sing-along and the man in red appeared on the scene to make the kids happy (and to temporarily distract them from whipping icy snow balls at each other, three metres from where the brass band was playing.) His beard wasn’t too convincing and his Nana Mouskouri glasses a bit too stylish, but he was jolly and wearing a red Santa outfit, so it worked for me. But then I noticed this other guy carrying the sack: he was dressed in a long brown robe, monk-style, and a cap was pushing his bushy brown wig low over his eyes. “Who is this jerk?” I asked Gela, with possibly unwarranted hostility. It turns out he’s Black Peter – also St. Peter? – and I’m not clear on whether he’s a bad guy or not, because in France there’s something about whipping associated with him. But then again it might be wishing, not whipping, and he seemed really friendly holding that sack. Black Peter. Who knew?
On the 24th, Gela went to hang out with her family, so Mom and I were left to our own devices, which ended up being a pseudo-children’s show on French TV. We always laugh at their misguided attempts at reproducing American culture, and it turns out that their take on children’s entertainment is among the worst of the bunch. To wit:
The hostess is dressed in a skimpy cocktail dress, the between-song interview segments are self-conscious and dry and the songs themselves are confusing, wordy, tuneless, breathy, rambling, pointless and non-participatory. Sticking on a chicken or a spider costume does not children’s programming make, my friends. How about songs with harmonies and rhythms? with sing-along parts? with morals? with something – anything – that speaks to children?
The little ones in question were stuck around the audience in exciting hair and make-up, staring stunned at the jittery cameras and never once laughing. The adults, while singing badly and doing awkward movements, were self-congratulatory and schmoozing as they talked about this amazing show they were putting on. As far as I know, the subject matter was a lonely snail. Needless to say, we didn’t watch all the way through.
On Christmas we went for a walk in the Black Forest, up out of the valley, and realized that it had been grey and sad only because we were living directly under clouds. It was nice to breathe such clean air and to see this amazing light over everything, including the snow-laden fir trees, all bent out of shape and looking like a Dr. Seuss illustration.
When we got a little hungry we had bread and sausage – we were in Germany, did I mention? – so maybe it isn’t so surprising that halfway through our delicious Christmas dinner I hit the wall and couldn’t swallow another bite. This gave me left-overs for the next day, when I watched “Moulin Rouge” – which is just as effective in German, you can take my word for it – and went into town to buy ingredients for the crêpes I had promised to make. Everything was closed, unfortunately, and of course I couldn’t ask anyone where to find a grocery store. (See “I still don’t speak German,” Chapter 9.) I could say “milk” and possibly “vanilla,” but didn’t feel that this would jump-start a successful dialogue in Freudenstadt. I went home
That evening we went to a beautiful church to hear a Bach Oratorio. We were way in the back and couldn’t see the stage, which turned out to be a blessing; there were ten women dressed all in white who did interpretive movement throughout the concert and if I had seen their whole performance I wouldn’t have been able to keep from screaming with laughter, which might be considered rude. As it was, from my little nest in the back corner of the church, I saw them move up and down the aisles and then stand there, maybe with their arms above their heads or down at their sides, palms forward. Never smiling. Sometimes they would slowly turn in a circle. Or hold up their hands like castanette players. Or sit down with blankets on their laps and stare straight ahead.
One time, as they were making their way up the centre aisle and splitting off down the sides, they suddenly added a little hop to their walk – step, step, step, *hop* -- and Mom and I almost fell off our chairs laughing. Near the end of the concert, I walked to the back for a view of the orchestra and discovered that all the times the “dancers”’ disappeared from my view, they were up front skipping around the Christmas tree or standing in an outward-facing circle, swaying. At one point they all rushed forward and dropped to their knees, then came up one at a time like a chorus line. It was horrifying. I was glad that I had been at the back and behind a pole, so that at least half of the time I couldn’t see them and could actually – oh, I don’t know, listen to the music? Interestingly, the word “choreography” appeared four times in the two-paragraph liner notes, so it was evidently a big deal. And I forgot all about the off-pitch alto whenever the skip-and-hoppers appeared on the scene, so maybe there was something in it.
What intrigues me the most is how solemn they were, performing ridiculous choreography with such grave self-importance. I’m sorry, ladies, but skipping? Are you kidding me with this? Fascinating, that they could find ten women, young and old, with absolutely no sense of irony. Gela translated the notes for us and explained that the women were “interpreting the space,” then suggested that this was a new way to live. “Why don’t we go home and interpret my apartment? Honey, you take the kitchen, Katy will take the living room, and I’ll go up and down the hallway.”
We spent my last day in Germany at a chocolate museum, predictably enough. Ritter Sport makes a huge and delicious variety of square chocolate bars, so we first visited their square-themed art gallery. There were some really nice pieces but a lot of them were optical illusion-ish and made my eyes swimmy. By the time I got to a neon zig-zag square I felt world-weary and couldn’t go on. Possibly from the gallery’s lack of air? Or from my impatience to get to the chocolate; art, shmart – hook me up with some sweet Ritter magic.
We skimmed through some displays about the history of chocolate – the Aztecs, blah blah blah – and the Ritter empire (they get all of their peanuts from Oregon; who knew?) and finally arrived at my personal Mecca, the Ritter store. Just the smell was enough to make you lose your mind. Indeed, by the end I couldn’t stand it anymore – I was getting delirious and needed to get out before I passed out in the Cappucino and Almond aisle.
And so, suitcase laden with many a flavour of chocolate (Cacao Creme and Nugat are the best; you should get on it), I took an eleven-hour train from Strasbourg to Mont de Marsan, near which Julie’s parents live. Why so long? Well, first, because it wasn’t the TGV and so it went slowly and stopped a lot. Second, because I had to transfer in Paris, which means getting on a subway and changing train stations.
Now here’s the thing. Paris is a big city, isn’t it? Fairly important on an international scale, from what I understand? So why don’t they have escalators in their train stations? Hm? Why?
The subway, I almost understand. Oh, it’s a hassle, bumping your suitcase up and down the bajillion stairways along the hallways that connect the stations, but then you don’t usually have big, heavy bags with you and you should probably take a taxi if you’re not up for it. In a train station, however, most people are going to have luggage. That’s kind of the deal. You’re not going to work or to a party, you’re getting on a “grande ligne” and changing cities, and goddammit you need help getting to your departure quay on the fourth floor.
Sometimes there are escalators, which is nice, but then it’s even more frustrating when there aren’t. You go up the first one, following the sign towards “departures,” and it takes you to a snack bar. Then the arrows keep pointing upwards, but you’re on your own; three flights of stairs and a whole lotta sweating are in store for you, my weary traveller. Oh, you think you can take the elevator, you poor fool? Go ahead, then. Haul your suitcase across to the one marked “departures” and “washroom.” You might wonder at the frustrated faces coming out, but not for long; inside, you’ll discover the elaborate grid on the wall with many buttons, none of them labelled, and you’ll spend twenty minutes going up and down between floors, none of them with washrooms or departures as promised. You will finally emerge, haggard and old, on the floor where you started, and you’ll carry your bag up those stairs you tried so hard to avoid. By the time you actually get to your train, your head will be spinning from the hot box known as a train station, as there is still no such thing as “no smoking” in France. Some punk will be sitting in your seat but one look at the rage on your face will send him scurrying. Bon voyage.
It turns out that Julie’s family lives way out in the country, where the only signs of human activity are the gunshots ringing out across the fields. We mostly played cards and Scrabble (Julie kicked my ass in both, consistently), went for walks and ate. New Year’s dinner was a succession of delicious courses, the kind of meal that makes you swear you’re too full to ever eat again. Julie's mom made a filo pastry salmon and became my new hero. Unfortunately, I was suffering from cat allergies (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: every party has a pooper…) and had to take a pill, though the question remains: is it worse to sneeze through dinner and make everyone uncomfortable or to take medication and slowly fall asleep into your plate? Tricky. Very tricky. I held on until a little past midnight but then had to go to bed, where my Drixoral-induced anxiety slowly subsided into the night.
The next day was exciting because we walked up the lane to visit with Michel and Jeanine, the neighbours who had come over for New Year’s. Michel and his friend Maxime have this hunting fort, you see, and we got to explore. It’s called a “palombière” (the birds they’re going for are called “palombes”) and is a series of tunnels through the forest. There’s a camouflaged lookout tower, kind of like a tree house, and then when they spot a palombe they hustle through the tunnels until they have a good shot and they take ‘er down. There is whistling involved, as they must communicate with their fellow snipers to shoot at the same time and not scare away the birds, and there are strings and levers and other fun gadgets.
There are also decoy pigeons. They keep a whole little pigeon house and train them in a kind of boot camp, some of them learning to go up and down in the trees and others to go back and forth along a wire. I didn't understand the wire thing, but if you have any questions I'm sure I can find out for you. For the up and down ones, they tie their little pigeon-legs to a platform and then raise them into the trees. The palombes, which are said to be pigeon-like, see these birds hanging around and figure it’s a good place to be, so they come in and settle in the branches as well. And then they are shot.
I’m not so big on killing palombes, let's tell it like it is, but it was interesting – if slightly unnerving – to step into this world. Any anthropologist looking for textbook male behaviour, maybe writing an essay called “boys and their toys,” need look no further than Michel and Maxime. The tunnels, the signals, the secret passageways, the pigeon training centre… amazing. Thomas made a joke about cowboys and Indians that was almost funny but wasn’t; maybe it hit just a little too close to home? Then they fired a gun at a board to show us how the bullet spreads out (kind of cheating, isn’t it? What chance does the bird have?) and I jumped so much that I hurt my neck. And almost peed. I don’t think that palombing is for me.
My ride home was epic (twelve hours! without stopping in Paris!) and involved a lot of crying babies and generally irritating people, though my mood might be largely to blame. (See “twelve hours,” above.) School is the same as always and I fear that life will return to its non-eventful rhythm sooner than I had hoped, though today was “la fête des Rois,” where you eat a delicious almond-y cake in the name of the Three Kings (or something) and whoever finds the little figurine inside gets to wear the crown. Would you like to guess who found it? I’ll give you a hint: it’s between Franck and me.
It was me! Hooray! I’m the king! I wore it all day but took it off to come and do e-mail because there are hoodlums who hang around the internet centre and I didn’t want to call attention to myself. It’s waiting for me at home, though, so I think it’s time for me to go. If there’s one thing I love, it’s wearing a crown.
Happy New Year and best wishes to you all.