The Joys of spending Christmas in Rome with a French Family
23.12.2011 - 28.12.2011 10 °C
When in Rome… or so the saying goes. This year, we spent the Christmas holiday with my husband Eric's French side of the family, which meant A) traveling to Rome, i.e. not being in France for Christmas, and B) celebrating the big event on Christmas Eve - complete with Santa's arrival before dinner time!
To be honest, I found the entire holiday season to be a bit baffling, starting with the absence of our usual Thanksgiving festivities in France (aside from our Thanksgiving dinner with Americans, as described in our previous post). This was great fun for our new American friends and us; however, without everyone else around us celebrating Thanksgiving, how would we know when to begin the holiday season? How would we (I) know when to put up our Christmas tree?! Or start baking holiday cookies?! Or buy holiday nuts to go with the nutcracker? Wrapping paper? Christmas cards? Christmas cards in particular are difficult to sort out in France, and require a bit of detective work just to find them. It seems they are more of a British tradition here in France, whereas the French are more likely to send New Year's cards - if they send anything at all.
During the last week in November, we did start to see holiday items in the stores and decorations around town. So maybe that's when people start getting ready here, the last week of November, even if there is no Thanksgiving. This year, the holiday lights decorating all the official town buildings were blue and silver, not only in our town but also in the towns around us, and elsewhere in France. We heard that this was completely different from last year but had no clue why, and couldn't find any explanation online anywhere. In the end, we decided it was probably some Sarkozy mandate.
In keeping with my annual tradition, I put up a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. Our new tree was a generous gift from our friend Sherry, who along with her husband Jerry moved back to the United States in November. I'm sure they had a real tree this year in Oregon that was ten times bigger than ours, but I was absolutely delighted to have this tiny tree in our tiny apartment, complètement chez nous. Due to space limitations, we had exactly one shelf to dedicate to our entire Christmas festivities. No problem! Note that the tree stands nicely on two legs!
Our Christmas tree
So back to Rome, due to various travel uncertainties and last minute planning, we flew from Nice to Rome on EasyJet just two days before Christmas. EasyJet is a great budget airline, except for the fact that they allow precisely one carry-on bag per person, and one bag only - no "personal item" which is always a thinly disguised excuse to bring along a second bag. They are super-strict too, which is especially annoying at Christmas time.
Are we expected to just show up empty-handed without Christmas presents, or worse, without an adequate supply of socks and undies for the duration of the trip? Although one can always hope that new undergarments might be waiting under the tree, it's usually best to arrive prepared. (Actually, it's probably best just to buy your own underwear.) In any case, we were lucky because we could send ahead some things with Eric's Aunt Claire, who drove with Fanette to Rome several days ahead of us. And she was gracious enough to pick us up at the airport too.
Aunt Claire's new car
The night we arrived, we had a pretty mellow dinner, and we even got to watch our favorite French tv show Plus Belle La Vie as a family, thanks to Aunt Sylvie's French satellite TV stations. It wasn't until after we arrived that I discovered that you can't watch earlier episodes online because the web site is blocked from showing videos outside of France. Quelle horreur! So it was very important that we watch the show during its regularly scheduled time slot (8:15-8:35pm, five nights a week). Full disclaimer: Eric and Sylvie refuse to succumb to the allure of this exciting dramatic sitcom that describes the great joys and sorrows, the heavy secrets, the tragedies, and the lovely people of Le Mistral quartier in Marseille. Their loss.
Sylvie's Christmas tree
The afternoon of our big Christmas Eve celebration, we gathered all the gifts together in one place and taped pictures on them representing for whom the gift was intended. This was necessary for les petites, Eric's cousin Adrienne's daughters Sara and Laura, especially Laura as she can't read that well yet.
The plan was for us to begin the evening with l'aperitif or cocktail hour, and then distract the girls by asking them to take Fanette outside for a walk. When they came back, they would have just missed Santa Claus dropping off all the presents under the Christmas tree.
I guess if you still believe in Santa Claus, you don't question how he could show up on Christmas Eve for a French cocktail hour instead of jumping down the chimney for cookies and milk.
L'aperitif - champagne and snacks
After our little cocktail hour, Claire, Marc and the girls went out for a walk with Fanette. Having drunk a couple glasses of champagne and having only eaten a handful of peanuts on an otherwise empty stomach, it was really fun to jump into action and start putting out all the presents under the tree! We weren't sure how much time we would have, so it was quite the mad dash to get everything done quickly. It was a real Christmas Eve frenzy, simply because there were bags and boxes of gifts EVERYWHERE!
Finally the gift bags were empty
Look at all the presents under the tree
Everyone survived taking Fanette for a walk in the rain
Good thing Fanette had a raincoat, although it made her look more like a lightweight boxeuse than a Yorkshire terrier
So with the raincoat, why did Fanette still get soaked?!
The girls are ready…set…
Girls picking up presents
I see some familiar faces
After Sara and Laura posed for a picture, they didn't sit down again except to open presents. One would think the doling out of presents would be a slow and orderly affair, but not with this crowd. The girls were running back and forth at top speed, supplying everyone with one present each as directed by the rest of the family. If they forgot someone, they had to go back before anyone - including them - could open presents. At that rate, the gifts would last all night, and last all night they did. In between dinner courses, that is.
Cheering from the Peanut gallery - ONE present each!
Eric got an exciting gift - the French version of How to Find a Job for Dummies
Here's one for me!
Ooh-la-la, French perfume
Adrienne received some very nice wine glasses
The girls got a pink dog that looked an awful lot like Fanette
Meanwhile, Fanette got some socks! She kicked them off right away!
Round two - a calendar from Eric's dad and wife Mary Ann
The calendar was a big hit with the family
Nonna Sylvie helps Laura find a present for someone
Another "French" gift - an emerald green scarf!
The tree and presents after the first few rounds of gifts
So then in an extreme exercise of self-control that I have never personally witnessed before in the United States, everyone miraculously got up and moved away from the exciting Christmas tree, with its many unopened presents just lying beneath it. It was time to eat dinner. In traditional French fashion, we had white wine and feasted on appetizers (not to be confused with l'aperitif) of smoked salmon and foie gras. And that was just for starters!
Foie gras and accoutrements
Another round of gifts continued at the table.
Eric received a "book" of chocolate bars...
while I received a sparkly necklace that reminded me of a Mardi Gras mask
Cecile was very excited about her new crumb sweeper!
On to the main course!
Eric, Cecile and Sylvie served up the chicken, which they apparently tasted along the way
Cecile's sausage stuffing
Artichokes for Christmas!
Homemade mayonnaise with ENORMOUS whole shrimp that looked like they might get up and run off the plate
See? Two of them got away!
After an enormous dinner, it was time to head back to the tree
Eric can't believe how many more gifts there are to open
Nevertheless, the gifts continue to arrive
Eric's cousin Jean Marc, after receiving several cans of pâte, received something that, well, wasn't pâte
Sara received a new Nintendo!
And now for some real excitement - new hand-knit sweaters from Eric's Aunt Thelma
Cecile and Claire were very excited about the sweaters
This is fun!!!!
Fanette quickly tired of all the gift-opening
Back to the table! Seriously! I think it was about 10:30pm at this point. It was exhausting, all the shuffling back and forth, and gift-opening, and eating, and drinking, and being merry, but somehow we managed it.
Fancy cheese course
Dessert came next, and we had a Bûche de Noël or Yule log that was actually Eric's grandmother's recipe. Of course I copied the recipe.
Bûche de Noël with snow and awesome decorative mushrooms
Marc looks like he got enough loot, including a new camera, and meanwhile Fanette's passed out!
Fanette really liked Claire's sweater from Thelma
Sara and Laura used their new markers to make a family drawing with Fanette
For breakfast on Christmas morning, we had the traditional Italian cake Pandoro, which is found through Italy and is also popular throughout Europe and Latin American countries. According to Wikipedia, Italian bakers produce about 117 million Panettone and Pandoro cakes every Christmas. That is a lot of cake!
Fanette was excited about the Pandoro for breakfast
After all the excitement of Christmas Eve, the rest of our visit in Rome was pretty mellow in comparison. On Christmas Day, we drove to the hillside town of Tivoli, where we visited the Villa d'Este and surrounding gardens.
Eric looking out at the sights
View from the village of Tivoli
Ceramic jar in the garden
Claire being chic
In the Villa d'Este gardens on Christmas Day
Villa d'Este waterfalls
Photo Credit: Marc Chavanne
Marc used his new camera to capture some goofy shots
Photo Credit: Marc Chavanne
Christmas Day menu
Rome from a distance
Marc at the keyhole overlooking the city
View of Saint Peter's Basilica through the keyhole
Eric with Rome behind him
Trees in the orange garden
Postcards of Rome
The day after Christmas, we went to the seaside town of Ostia to visit our friend Claude, who's 80-some years old and lives on a boat!
Claude on his boat
Eric doing his best Titanic impression
Happy hour on a nearby boat
Claude treated us all to gelato
Mmm cherry gelato
Fanette didn't get any gelato ☹
Strolling on the boardwalk
Christmas tree in Ostia
Cecile steals Marc's camera for some sunset shots
Eric marvels at the amazing sunset before him
The rest of the time we spent hanging out at the house, as well as doing some sightseeing in Rome. We went out in search of the "best" coffee in town and the very "best" gelato. The coffee was good, but the gelato was magnificient. You can always tell by the line at the restaurant!
Waiting for coffee
Waiting for gelato
Pantheon and horse carriage
Window box in the square near the Pantheon
Looks like this apron is just Eric's size
Musicians playing in the Piazza Navona
Vendor selling donuts glazed with Nutella
Donuts that are seriously the size of your head
Merry Go Round
Adorable little Fanette
Photo Credit: Marc Chavanne
Fanette and entire gang wish you a very Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! All the best for a happy 2012!