As my host family told me, when French people say “we’ll leave at 10 a.m.”, in the end they always leave one and a half or even two hours later. I found out that it was true this morning.
Scheduled to leave at ten, we ended up pulling out of the parking a little after 12 p.m. The trunk was piled with suitcases, duffel bags and sacks filled with grocery and wrapped Christmas presents. There was literally no more space left. Our destination was Fontainebleau, which took about the same time to drive to Paris as the two places where pretty close.
Four hours later, we found ourselves in the lobby of the Ibis budget hotel, where we will be spending the night. To my surprise, there was no one at the reception counter. By the main door there was a self check-in machine. Soon, we received three tickets from the machine with the room numbers and door passcode. I was even more surprised and also content at the same time to have my own room with a double bed.
I quickly made myself feel at home, hanging up my coat and scarf then spreading my makeup across the counter. I only had a little suitcase and a duffel bag which was filled with presents that I’ve prepared for everyone. Soon, Papa sent me a message saying that they were leaving to attend a Mass with the children of Hélène, Maman’s sister. I had the choice to stay behind at the hotel and I gladly took it – for someone who is not religious, being in church for two hours or so and going through a long process without any idea what is going on… is pretty tiring.
I had almost three hours to myself. Good thing I brought my iPad with me (it is provided by our high school) so I could watch Youtube videos and write new entries for my blog. While skipping through Instagram stories I caught sight of an activity hosted by @exchangestudents_stories and it was to take a picture while holding a sign that said “Happy Holidays” in the language of your host country. I had no paper or pen with me, but the iPad takes care of all the problems… After a few brushes on the screen I had a decent looking electronic sign to snap pictures with. I sent it to the account but I have no idea what they’ll do with it though.
Two hours later, I started to get really bored and sleepy. So I thought… why not take a little nap? The hotel room was small and cozy so I curled up between the bedsheets and set an alarm to wake me up in half an hour.
When I got up, it was almost time that Papa came back to the hotel to pick up my sisters and me. So I did some last makeup touch ups, grabbed my stuff and met with everyone else outdoors.
Ten minutes later we parked the car in the quiet neighborhood. It was already 9 p.m. and all dark except for the shining decorations draped all over certain houses. Hélène and François’s house was at the end of the street and the only property decorated with multicolored Christmas lights. Cassandre knocked on the door and a few seconds later it swung open, followed immediately by a young boy’s voice saying, “Entrez, les filles!” (Come in girls!)
Papa had already told the children about me at the Mass, but they didn’t recall my name right on the spot though. It was funny to watch them try and think up a name that might fit me, but in the end I introduced myself. They were very little, with the oldest to be the boy, Calixte, who was seven years old. Young enough to still believe in Santa Claus and his gift delivery spree. I almost forgot about that, but thankfully Papa reminded me before I stepped into the house. During the entire dinner, we staged a bunch of white lies to fill the children with fascination of Santa Claus. Cassandre and Héloïse told about when they were young and how they tried multiple times to see Santa Claus but never succeeded. It reminded me of one time when I was little I secretly put a camera to film the entire night only to wake up the next morning to find it out-of-battery and holding almost no footage at all. Years later it suddenly hit me when I was sorting through old things and came across one of Santa Claus’ hand-written card, which had a handwriting that resembled that of the Tooth Fairy, which resembled that of my mother’s. Mystery solved.
The goal was to have the children believe that Santa Claus only came if they went to sleep and stayed asleep. One by one they got drowsy and went to bed. Calixte lasted the longest though, staying through half of the dinner.
Speaking if dinner, it was surprisingly simple, which I really liked. I worried that I would have to stuff myself with all kinds of platters and then top it all off with desserts, but that was not at all the case. The starters were salted breadsticks and peanuts, which were passed around the large table crowded with relatives (My host family and also the two families of the two sisters of Maman). Then came the onion soup accompanied by croutons and grated cheese.
The main course was my absolute favorite – smoked salmon with lemon slices, eaten with buttered toast slices. (There was also a big plate of raw oysters but I was too afraid to eat it…) Everyone made conversation but nobody talked loudly or made a lot of noise. The atmosphere was more nice and calm than exciting like those Christmas parties we see in movies. However, I was bombarded with questions from the relatives. After I answered someone, somebody else immediately posed another question. I guess everyone was curious about the exchange student, even the kids who thought I was Japanese. They pulled inquiries from any usual topic, for example, asking me if there were vineyards in Taiwan when they brought out the wine. Or if there are this or that kind of cheese produced on our island. The responses were usually no.
And that brings us to the long-awaited cheese tasting. Sylvie, Maman’s other sister, and her husband Jacques live in Auvergne, where there are the most numerous types of cheese. They brought with them a wheel of Saint-Nectaire, which Jacques claimed to be the king of cheese. There were also the usuals, like the Camembert, and also goat cheese.
Finally, we each took a cup of tea to pass some time until we went back to the car to get the presents. Everyone had their own pair of shoes places around the Christmas tree, and the idea was to put the gifts corresponding to the owner of the shoes. I didn’t know about this tradition, so I had to borrow a pair of flats from Hélène. We were sure to keep quiet while we went around setting the presents in piles here and there.
We were the Santa Clauses. When I was little, I went to sleep believing that the jolly old man dressed in red came sometime in the middle of the night with my present. Every year, I even left a bucket of water for the hard-working reindeers and some cookies to thank Santa Claus. And every morning the bucket would be half emptied, and only cookie crumbs remained under the tree. It was magic, the magic which I now knew was the responsibility of the adults to create. It has been four years since we have celebrated Christmas, and this year I’m in on the secret. A secret that gives children their best childhood memories.
When we quietly crept out of the house, it was already 1 a.m. I immediately crashed when I got back to my hotel room and tried to get as much sleep as possible for the gift opening event the “next” day.
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