Weeks 30-31 Only a week until Christmas!
Christmas preparations continue apace here, with even more plastic inflatable Santas climbing the walls and multi-colour flashing lights everywhere. Even our staid neighbour Mme Laine has many gaudy foil decorations on her balcony rails and the village shop has a large illuminated reindeer decoration on one outside wall. When we first came, twelve years ago, I used to think how tasteful French decorations were, with just white lights in the trees and nothing gaudy – how things have changed! I decorated one of the apple trees in our orchard with white fairy lights. But when the temperature started to drop below freezing, John’s decorations of bacon fat, nuts, and seeds proved far more attractive, and the tree is brightened during the day by colourful jays, finches, tits, and robins.
I mentioned a charming village Christmas market in barns in our last newsletter. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that Alsace is really better at Christmas markets in the quality of items for sale, with very tasteful stalls in the German tradition. Most of the Lorraine markets have had rather a lot of crochet and lumpy plaster decorations (village fête style).
This year, for the first time, we visited the famous market in the shadow of Strasbourg cathedral (Alsace), which now also extends to several other squares. We had fun looking at the gem-like glass candle bowls decorated with near-translucent pictures in Fimo, Russian painted wooden eggs, ceramic Alsace village miniature houses which were also scented oil burners, along with many tempting Christmas decorations. (Sad to say, the police were also in evidence because of pick-pockets and terrorism alerts).
The following Sunday, John’s cold was still bad, so I left him in the warm and went over with Nicola to Eguisheim and Lapoutroie (both in Alsace) for their Christmas markets. We stopped at a bakery on the way and bought angel butter biscuits, then had warming glasses of mulled wine in Eguisheim. The Lapoutroie St Nicholas Market was organised by one of the schools, and lots of the children were there and there were also charity stalls supporting children’s education in developing countries. The atmosphere reminded me of the old Christmas card sales in Beeston – though Lapoutroie was outdoors. Nicola bought a wooden bird box from one class and a delicious apricot cake from another, whilst I bought a pretty wreath for our front door from a third class. (It was so cold and windy that night that I’ve hung the wreath indoors in the hall, where we see much more of it!).
Last Saturday we went to the St Dié Christmas market, which was in a modern hall so has little of the charm of the Alsace ones, though there was one excellent dried fruit stall, and our friendly Entre-deux-Eaux bee keeps had a stall selling honey, beeswax candles and various honey-based preserves. But I think the sour note of my comments about Lorraine markets may be due to Sunday’s experience. The stall holders at rain-swept Raon l’Etape had all vanished by the time we arrived at 2.30, although the newspaper said they’d be there till 7pm. Many other disconsolate people were wandering aimlessly round the deserted small town. However, the neighbouring village was an honourable exception; Ste Marguerite held their market in their large sports hall (where I do keep-fit on Thursday mornings). There we spotted some exquisite pottery by a local amateur potter, and bought a greenish vase with an imprinted fern pattern .
However, what Lorraine does do well is St Nicholas processions. St Nicholas is extra special here as he is the patron saint of Lorraine. On Saturday December 7th, he processed through many of the big towns. He had already visited children in various schools and village community centres the previous day and had earlier visited Entre-deux-Eaux, where the children were encouraged to sing and recite for him and for the old people (we didn’t go as we didn’t think we qualified, despite having received an invitation!). The procession in St Dié was very festive, with floats, bands, dancers (both demure traditional Lorraine style and exuberant scarlet and black can-can girls). Bringing up the rear, St Nicholas looked splendid on his huge white cloudy float surrounded by diminutive angels (children). The nasty Pere Fouettard had been consigned to a cart and horse behind so that he couldn’t upset the children. At the end of the route, St Nicholas vanished through the cathedral doors to the accompaniment of fireworks.
We haven’t spent all the last two weeks at Christmas markets though. We’ve spent several days at IKEA in Strasbourg! The first visit was the afternoon after we’d visited Strasbourg market. We selected all the beech shelving units we wanted, Nicola tried all the tilting office chairs for one that suited hours at the drawing board (and selected one with a striking zebra pattern) and then we all contemplated the birch wardrobe units, and we decided on ones with folding doors to deal with our space problem. Then we discovered that delivery dates were towards the end of January, so we enquired about hiring a van. However, by then it was too late to late to load up, drive back over the Vosges and return the van by store closing time, so we arranged hire for the following morning. Hence our second trip, the next day. We arrived a few minutes before opening time, but it was nearly an hour and a half before we were loaded and ready to go, largely due to the fact that workers had rung in sick and one poor lad was dealing with handing over large items to customers as well as the van hire. IKEA is very near the motorway, and joining the motorway to the left whilst giving priority to a lane simultaneously filtering in to the right in an unfamiliar van with no rear window was not something I envied John! After the motorway, the single lane main road was busy with huge logging lorries going in both directions, some taking tree trunks from Lorraine to Alsace and others from Alsace to Lorraine – we felt the need for some rationalisation. We unloaded all our cardboard packages (we currently have a flattened cardboard box mountain) into our first floor living room using our (former) hay ramp, which is a real blessing for bulky items which won’t go round the stair bend. We had a snatched lunch (how unthinkable in the land of gourmets) and drove the van back to Strasbourg. At IKEA I twice had my handbag searched, which had never happened before. It wasn’t until we switched on the news as we left IKEA that we heard that there had been a huge security alert after bombs in the Netherlands branches of IKEA, and that branches were closed in the Netherlands and on high alert in France! (Perhaps that’s why the large box handlers had reported sick!)
John spent the next few days assembling the shelving and wardrobes, whilst I unpacked the books and china which have remained in boxes since our move. You can imagine the bliss for an ex-librarian of getting all our books systematically arranged as they’d got really higgledy piggledy over the last years as we squeezed new books into the old shelves in Nottingham. And it was good to arrange the familiar ornaments and china in the glass-fronted units. And after the weekend we set out over the mountains yet again to exchange some items, to collect the drawer units for the wardrobes which we’d ordered the previous week, and to buy an additional two shelf units. You’ll be relieved to hear that after all that to-ing and fro-ing, the large sitting room still looks light and airy despite being book-lined, John has his records shelved, although the CD storage has still to be finalised, and we’ve even got to the stage of hunting out pictures.
With the underfloor heating now turned up fully, we’ve celebrated the latest stage progress towards completion with a couple of meals up there. But perhaps I should add that John cooked the meals in the old farmhouse kitchen and carried them up, as the proposed new kitchen comprises a fridge, a heap of tools, ladders and packs of plaster, a capped water pipe, a drain hole pipe, and bare plasterboard walls. A little project for next year!
The workmen have now finished the new road – well as much as they are going to before Christmas (the French don’t have long Christmas breaks and obviously other roads need attention). They’ve sprayed a thin layer of bitumen on the earth surface and laid a thin layer of pebbles. However, a couple of days of cars, tractors, and lorries have resulted in a pitted surface requiring someone to slap dollops of tarmac in the holes. Whether it be flat enough when they return in the New Year to lay the final surface is open to question!
And now our thoughts are turning to spending Christmas with the family back in the UK. We’re aiming to reach Nottingham by the evening of 22 December. On our summer trip we so much enjoyed our stop-over in Broadstairs (where I passed my teenage years) that we arranged to borrow my school-friend Jessica’s family house there once more. John has volunteered to do some work around the house, so we’re setting out on 19th and spending 3 nights there (it will also give time for a bit of non-IKEA pre-Christmas shopping), then stopping off to see John’s mother and sister on the way up to Nottingham on the 22nd. Sadly we’ll miss Toby as he’s spending Christmas and New Year in Mexico visiting an old University friend who is now teaching there. We’re spending 22nd to 26th with my mother, then travelling south with Leila on 26th, stopping in Essex to see John’s mother and sister again, and staying until 29th at a friend’s house in Putney. On 29th we’ll return to Nottingham. We haven’t fixed our return date to Entre-deux-Eaux yet, but it will be soon after New Year.
Thank you to everyone who’s shared and commented on the newsletter during 2002 and written and encouraged us in our new venture. A very happy and peaceful Christmas to you all. And we hope all your plans for 2003 are fruitful.