On Thursday I went shopping. At two different malls. And it was good.
In fact the longest line that I saw was at the Intermarché seafood counter, where fifteen people waited patiently to buy oysters - the big Christmas treat in France.
Yes people were buying gifts, and yes people were filling up shopping carts with food for the coming week-end, but one thing was lacking: the obsessive consumerist stress that surrounds North American Christmas.
People are just relaxed, and looking forward to a few days of food, wine, and fun with their families and friends.
France is a Catholic country, so obviously Christmas is one of the biggest days of the year. And streets everywhere are decorated with lights and trees along the sidewalks.
Houses though are bare - we’ve seen none of the insane illumination that Canadians install to demonstrate just how much they love Christmas. And, as far as I can tell, the French don’t feel moved to spend thousands of dollars on multiple gifts for every living breathing person in their orbit.
The holiday is restrained, and the emphasis is on family, and on taking a well-earned break. We like this.
Over on Twitter a number of old North Vancouver acquaintances are making a big deal of shopping local this Christmas. After two and a half months in France we’ve learned that there is a better way to do this: stop importing everything from other places.
Instead of making a big deal out of buying French products, France has somehow managed to just keep producing everything right here in the country. While Canada was off-shoring the production of everything from clothes to toys to wooden matches under the guise of “Free Trade,” France still makes almost everything within its own borders.
And because, somehow, miraculously, they have also managed to not have every business sold off to a multinational company they also have a wealth of successful, local producers.
So the vegetables that we buy are all grown within a couple of miles, regardless of whether we’re shopping at a farmers’ market or a supermarket. Fruit is almost all grown right in France. The duck that we roasted for Christmas dinner (pictured below) wasn’t vacuum packed in plastic and flavourless, it has been killed and plucked the day before, and we were offered the option of having the head and neck whacked off before we took it away - wrapped in a chunk of white butchers’ paper.
Our wine of course was regional, but so was the truly magnificent cognac, bought, again, from local producer about an hour north of here. And the baked goods - baguettes, brioche, and frangipane, all made by the village baker five minutes up the road.
I really need to stress that what France has managed, despite being part of the giant European Union trading block, is to keep small and local producers alive and healthy, and seems to have done that by keeping the multinational behemoths at arms’ length. That may have been because French people really don’t like the kind of homogenous garbage that people buy in Canada, but I have to think that it also reflects a governmental choice to preserve the local even it if costs more and seems less efficient.
Christmas trees don’t seem to be quite the big obsession that they are in Canada, but we did pick one up for 7.50 €, then decorated it without buying endless strings of lights and tons of Disney themed decorations.
At the end of the day we have learned that Christmas can be relaxed, and slow, and low-key, and stress-free. And that, arguably, is the best gift that we’ve received this year.
That, and some truly wonderful new Christmas music.