Good food, togetherness, and joy and love for 2022

2022_cotton candy with log0

In this post:

I talk about my Christmas holidays in France, about good food and drink, and how I happened to add one more New Year’s resolution to my list. Between Lens and Paris, old boxes, new boxes and memories, some things change, one lives in another country like one lives on another planet, but everywhere I go joy and love are what I crave the most.

It is the end of January and this is my first post of the year 2022 which post, fitting enough, describes the last days of 2021.

Let’s talk about Christmas, I grew up with Christmas and even if I am not religious anymore I look forward to the season with lots of joy and love. Christmas for me is many things but mostly the season to be with family and when that is not possible, with close friends. We all have different families but similar ideas of what family is and is not. Sometimes families make wonderful safe environments, people who know us and accept us exactly as we are; they can be supportive, loving, the witnesses of the story of ourselves. Families can also be toxic and inflexible, even cold. You can move to another country and they start acting like you died or went to live on another planet and never call you even if video chats are free and they are constantly hooked up to their FB account—Yes, I’m talking about you, Mr. C!—But mostly, families are a mixture of many things and because they are composed of individuals and individuals have their lives and the ups and downs that come with living, sometimes spending Christmas with your family is better than other times. And other times, they can even be boring. That doesn’t face me, my philosophy is that whenever possible, Christmas is for family. If some days during Christmas are more fun than others that is still Christmas and there is joy even in being bored with my family because the most important thing is being together.

These last few years, Covid has made spending time with my family even more challenging. Usually, my husband and I take turns spending Christmas either with my side of the family in Puerto Rico or with his side of the family in France. In 2020 it was France time but we couldn’t travel because of the pandemic and also because we were in the middle of preparing our relocation to the UK and we couldn’t make the logistics work in a reasonable way. So we moved the year of our french Christmas to 2021.

There was chaos in the airports coming and going, especially with all the Covid testing, and with making sure that we followed directives that kept on changing and that seemed designed to ruin travel for holidaymakers. In the UK, the instructions were a little fuzzy but finally, it was easy to take a drive-by Covid test, rather comfortably, sitting in our car. Coming back to the UK from France was annoying, disorganized, we even had a crazy guy go off on us when we were making the line for getting the test before coming back. Fortunately, the crazy guy wanted to rant while we wanted to ignore him and things somehow worked out in the end. France has many wonderful things, good organization is not one of them. I could have more to say about this but it is not worth my time so I will move on now.

If there is any other thing that Christmas is about beyond family it is good food and drink. France is a weird place for me in that it is the place in the world where I eat the highest quality food and also where I get food poisoning the most often. Partly it might be my fault because I am a tenacious and adventurous eater; I am a person who'd try almost everything two or three times as some of my favorite food are acquired tastes. After several tries, some things stick and some others never really grow on me. Others even farther down my food chain, give me heartburn and/or food poisoning.

As a matter of fact, for the first few years that I had been married to my husband, I have always spent my French Christmas holidays in various stages of stomach discomfort. The last time we were in France a couple of years ago, it was my husband and his family who got food poisoning; they usually have locally-adapted stomachs that can process almost everything, but that year they all had oysters and they all got sick. Karma had it that I had already decided, after several tries, that oysters were not for me and only I and our nieces skipped the oysters and the food poisoning. Happily, everybody survived to eat another day. 

But seriously, I always eat well in France and the tastiness of the food always makes me forget the last bout of sickness and venture back with relish into the legendary wonders of French cuisine. I’ve been looking forward to it so much this season and I have not been disappointed. The traditional Christmas oysters were there, also many of my favorites, tarte au maroilles, welsh rarebit, foie grass with pain d’épice, pan-seared beef with brussel sprouts, cakes and rolls and pastries, chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate. I have to say that I am not a big fan of chocolate and that I tried to resists it, but while in France, I don't have much willpower. Especially tasty were some chocolate truffles that my sister-in-law made, with fresh cream, melted dark chocolate powder cocoa, and a bit of sugar. And the salads! Fresh and crispy and seasoned exotically, chicoree with pear, fresh garlic, pine cone nuts and toasted pumpkin seeds with homemade vinaigrette and olio al tartuffo from Italy. Bottles of white wine had been sitting in the cellar long enough to be sympathetically sprinkled with dust, the wine mellowed just a bit past its prime, looked golden in the drinking glasses and faded into subtle floral notes in my palate. I could write a treatise only on the good things that we drank and ate during the holidays, the water, the wine not only from France, but sometimes from Germany, Hungary, and other places in Europe that my mother in law orders for special occasions, the beers of the North of France and Belgium, the Perlé that we buy in the garden shop in Rovroi, and the apricot wine and flavorful fruit and vegetable chutneys that we brought from England to share with the family, and that complemented our foie grass so surprisingly well.

We spent five days in Paris before heading to my husband’s home in the Nord Pas de Calais region. The road between his hometown and Paris is rather monotonous, with a mixture of industrial zones that gradually give way to flat, industrialized agricultural landscapes which at this time of the year are mostly grey and wet.

We ate a lot of home-cooked meals but also meals at home that came from somewhere else, including some delivery pizza from Pizza Hut. 

“Pizza Hut,” you say, “are you kidding me?” Except that Pizza Hut in Paris has flavors such as fresh goat cheese and honey with a crème fraîche white sauce, or tartiflette avec lardons, pizza toppings that you cannot find out of France. It was as good as it sounds. No exotic Parisian restaurant for us, at least not this time, but don’t be disappointed, we did go out to eat once, in the north of France, to our favorite little restaurant in the whole region, Le Pain de la Bouche.

Le Pain de la bouche
welsh maroilles

Just a few steps from the train station in Lens, in a row of buildings that scream European, old, and lived-in, there is this charming little place, with uncomfortable chairs and rural early twentieth-century decor, which is not a touristy place, and caters mostly to locals and tolerates graciously the odd American femme that shows up with them from times to times. I could talk about it more but you better check out the pictures below; it is also on TripAdvisor, I put the link in the references.

After New Year’s Day, we went back to Paris. What did we do in there, beyond eating? Not much. We cleaned our flat, move things around, opened some boxes that had been sitting in the basement storage unit since the renovation. One thing about opening old boxes, even if they are labeled, the descriptions are in the most general terms; to open these boxes is like digging for treasure, and treasure sometimes you find. In one of them, I found framed pictures of myself and my family from the time I was finishing grad school and right after my graduation. You know, the kind which shows some of the most important people in your life, like your parents, your siblings, yourself in a younger, kinder frame of mind, and everybody is showing toothy say-cheese grins.

Perhaps that’s why a few days later I dreamed about my parents; they were as happy as I only saw them a few times during their long marriage. Not that they would have admitted to being particularly unhappy either, but the baseline of their relationship was always contentious, interesting too, one day I should probably write more about that. Anyway, I was with them in my dream and I was happy. My husband was there in the periphery of the dream, not seen but never far from my awareness anyway; due to the general atmosphere, I supposed rather than knew that he was happy as well. My older brother, also there and also happy. 

I turned to my dad and said “This is the first time that you visit me in Europe.” And then it hit me, all this dream-world happiness was not about anything in particular that happened in the dream but the fact that we were together.

Somehow in my dream, I knew that all that togetherness was a mirage but I held it tight in my dreamworld hands and it still felt warm, alive, made of gossamer and sleep and memories.

Fast forward to today when it is cold and rainy and there is nobody else in this flat but myself and a sleeping cat. This is what I know, togetherness is a soft joy, so soft that many times we don’t appreciate its true value. I think I am still allowed to add to my New Year’s resolutions, and I choose to add this one: to cultivate more togetherness in my life even if it can be a bit boring from times to times. Now I need to figure out exactly how I will do just that.

Happy New Year 2022, everybody!

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References and Resources:

1. Le Pain de la Bouche on TripAdvisor