Now that Steve and I have experienced Paris at Christmas — a Bucket List item if ever there was one — I can confirm that the city puts on a great show at this time of year. The window displays in the huge department stores near the Opera were as grandiose as reputed. The theme along one side of the main Galleries Lafayette this year was Chaud Show Noel (“hot show Christmas”) — a bizarrely charming mix of scenes from various movies and shows: mice and dolls singing to the music of Mamma Mia, other woodland creatures and Barbies and pigs dressed as frogmen cavorting to Singing in the Rain, the Soldat Rose, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, other tunes.
I loved the small shop decorations at least as well. Several cafes that I noticed had taken Christmas trees and painted them black, then adorned them with red bows.
One place had erected two clear plexiglas structures, about the size of old-fashioned phone booths, except much higher. These were filled with flocked boughs of fir trees and pine cones and silver ornaments. They stood on the street, bearing no commercial message on them.
The Champs Elysee is always an impressive sight, but at night, in winter, with the trees illuminated and twinkling, the giant merry-go-around erected at the Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower psychedelically sparkling, it surpassed itself.
On this trip we did things that were the stuff of legend to me: bought hot chestnuts from sidewalk vendors and munched on them. strolled under the snowflakes and dashed into cozy shops to buy tea and chocolate and little presents for each other.
On Christmas day, after Steve and the boys and I had opened those, we bundled up and took the metro to Trocadero. For the first and only time on this trip, the sky was cloudless, the sun strong even though the air was frigid. We got the glorious view of the Eiffel Tower that one gets from the Palais, then we walked to the tower and climbed to its first level. There in addition to the legendary views, an ice skating rink offered additional entertainment.
Both Mike and Elliot wanted to skate on the Eiffel Tower on Christmas Day. (Steve and I had visions of injuring ourselves dancing in our heads, so we refrained.) But although the rink was full when we arrived, within a few minutes it had been cleared of everyone except a figure lying prone on the ice, covered in a thermal blanket and surrounded by paramedics. After a while, we could see that it was a man whose ankle had ballooned grotesquely. When the pompiers tried to move him at one point, he emitted horrible screams. His rescue seemed to stall, but finally a stretcher arrived and he was wheeled off, and the skating recommenced. It took Elliot only a few minutes to gain enough confidence to be zooming around (and smashing into the side boards; a few minutes weren’t enough for him to remember how to stop.) Mike skated more confidently, if less flamboyantly, and it gave me unadulterated pleasure to watch my sons flashing by.
A few things were missing from the Parisian Christmas — the ubiquitous canned carols in the stores, for example, or Christmas trees like we have in the States. We saw plenty of trees: for sale in nurseries, or erected in the Gilon/Ville’s apartment and at Olivia’s and in stores. But most were tiny, if beautifully shaped. (The ones I priced on the street were about 45 euros apiece.) Also missing was the materialistic restraint that I somehow expected to find, once out of the US at Christmastime. The crowds on the streets around the big department stores were enormous, as dense as anything I’ve experienced since Shanghai, and the shopping as intense. When I told Olivia I was surprised to see so much frenzy over present-buying, she rolled her eyes and said she couldn’t imagine how I’d been so misinformed.
On Christmas Eve, we exchanged small presents with Olivia and her family, but she also gave us an enormous and priceless present: she created several evenings for us in her home that will forever glow in my heart and memory (and I imagine in those of all my family.) On Christmas Eve, her Neuilly apartment was decked out like a scene from a storybook: beautiful tables welcoming 8 young people in one room, and six elders in the living room. We feasted on mushroom and chestnut soup, and stuffed partridges, and sensuous cheeses, and Buches de Noel that were as pretty as they were delicious. Sadly, because I was recovering from food poisoning that had struck only the night before, I could eat only a small fraction of what I would otherwise have gobbled up.
But as my crew and I made our way home on the metro, the memory of that small shadow on the evening was already fading. At this moment, barely two days later, I’ve almost entirely forgotten it.
What I remember is the lovely young woman playing classical airs on a violin in one of the underground corridors of the #1 metro line. She’d been there when we had journeyed out to Olivia’s early in the evening, when a crowd bustled past her and the African guys selling light-up Santa Claus hats. On our return trip, well after midnight, the vendors were all gone, and the crowds had thinned to a trickle, but the violinist was still there, still playing. I dropped a handful of change in her violin case, she looked almost as merry. It seemed like a true Christmas miracle, but I believed it.