As we travel around the world, one of our most important goals is to connect with people and find out what common threads exist that bind humanity together. It is so very easy to categorize people and to explain away the worlds ills with generalizations and dinner table chats on politics.
But who are the individuals who inhabit our earth? Who are the people we talk about dismissively during those dinner table chats, sandwiched somewhere between the main course and dessert? How are they affected by the grander conflicts of our world? What do we have in common with them?
Does the key to changing our worst behaviors as a species lie solely in seeing people as individuals who are very much like us?
Recently, I had the honor of meeting a woman named “Katerina”, who chose to share her experiences during a very dark period in Guatemala history- a period many have categorized as genocide. Her experience is her own and her perspective is uniquely hers, though many suffered in a similar fashion.
The period in Guatemalan history Katerina talks about is very recent history. It was a period of brutality fueled by politics that affected the lives of every Mayan, every Guatemalan, at the time. Out of sheer panic over the possible spread of Communism, the US played a now well-known role in the events during this period, supporting a brutal regime and fueling anti-indigenous sentiment in the country. Guerrilla groups cropped up (some backed by Cuba) and, in their zeal to fight brutality from government backed groups, often tormented the local populace in their own right. The results were catastrophic with hundreds of thousands of people killed or “disappeared” and many more tortured and brutalized.
I was barely alive when this all took place but, as an American, I cannot help but feel remorse and utter helplessness over the horrific experiences Guatemalans were forced to endure due in part to my country’s politics.
Katerina said, in part:
“They would come in the night. They would burn buildings and start fights. No one had arms to protect themselves but they would still come. They would kill men, women, and children- they didn’t care. It didn’t matter if they were guerrillas or military, they were all the same.
My family was one of the lucky ones. There were police in disguise all over our village but my family had no one with the guerrillas so we escaped much of the problems. People where I lived were always afraid. The military was always demanding free food that we could not afford to give. They would rape our women; kill people as they went about their daily lives. My mother protected us fiercely and somehow, none of the females in my family was ever raped. The guerrillas were always causing problems and they were not much better than the military and police officials.”
Can you imagine what she is saying for a moment? Close your eyes and imagine strangers coming in the night and killing your child. Now imagine those strangers are dressed in the military uniform of your own country. Imagine that the greatest achievement you reach as a mother for over a decade was in protecting your girl children from being raped. Imagine, on top of all of this, that you have absolutely no idea what is going on.
“In Chichicastenango, there were military and guerrillas everywhere. No one knew where these people were from, they were strangers. The guerrillas dressed in the typical, local clothing of the Mayan people in Chichi and so the military was constantly coming after the Chichi people. But these guerrillas were not from Chichi, they were strangers who dressed like the Chichi people to fool the military. No one in Chichi knew who they were. It was very dangerous for the local people.
In the time of the guerrillas, there were still a few foreigners coming in and out of Guatemala. A friend used to drive these foreigners from Guatemala City to the Panajachel area. Along the highway between Guatemala City and Pana, you can often see sacks filled with crops, lining the side of the road, waiting for pick-up. One time when this friend was driving these foreigners, there was a stretch of road that had sacks upon sacks but there was not one single person around. The foreigners asked the driver what was in those sacks because there were just so many and the driver told them it was likely potatoes.
They dropped these foreigners off in Panajachel and turned around to head back to the city. On their return, they noticed the sacks were still there. They went on for what seemed like kilometers. The driver’s helper convinced the driver to pull over and see what was in those sacks. There were just too many and there was still not one single person in sight. When the driver pulled over, he opened the bags and discovered the heads of indigenous people stuffed into those sacks. Who knows what happened to the rest of the bodies of those people.
Why would anyone do this? It was political. It was always political. We had no freedom of expression. We were stuck in the middle of violence that wasn’t ours. It’s always the same but now the problems we see are different. There are really no more guerrillas now but extortion is a very real problem these days. But it’s always political.”
Why would anyone do this? How could they do this to fellow human beings? Simple. They stopped thinking of Katerina and her community as human. The perpetrators created a political problem, a threatening philosophy that happened to wear indigenous Mayan clothing. Katerina and her community became “collateral damage”. Today that political problem wears a turban and has a beard. Collateral damage still exists and lately, it seems to exist far too often at Middle Eastern weddings full of children and families.
I wonder sometimes what clothing our political problem will wear tomorrow? Who knows.
“The guerrillas and the military were all the same to us. They all wanted something, they all did bad things. The military would tell us we had to have documents [identification] an then the guerrillas would come and tell us “no documents!” They were always fighting. They decimated us financially. We are still struggling to support our families after all the fighting. We work harder to earn [the equivalent of] one dollar. Kids to take care of, no land, no work. When you live like this, you end up with no love for life.”
When you sit sit across the table from a woman like Katerina, sharing a warm empanada, and listening to her story, it is hard to view her, or her community, as anything but human. They are not a political talking point, they represent no ideology. Katerina, her family, and her friends are people. People who woke up one day to torture, rape, violence, murder, kidnappings, and abuse around every corner.
Travel brought me to Katerina’s table and her face is the face I will always imagine when I here the words “those people” fall off the lips of someone discussing politics at a dinner party. Those people have names, faces, feelings, and terrifying fears because of political ideologies. We create enemies, reasons to wage war, and imaginary barriers that divide humanity into “us” and “them”.
But there is no “us” and “them”. The very concept is an illusion.
Katerina is, at her core, absolutely no different than me. There is nothing at all stopping the horrors she faced from showing up on my doorstep tomorrow….. or yours.
Travel creates space for clarity. It pulls away the curtain of political ideologies and forces us to think for ourselves instead of internalizing the agenda of our next “leader”.
It creates the space to see our own hypocrisy and to see the simple facts in those situations we make far too complex, in a never ending search for justification.
Travel forces us to look “them” in the eye to see if our justifications, political talking points, philosophies, and biases hold up.
It creates the conditions where a citizen of, arguably, the most powerful country (currently) on earth can sit across the table from a descendant of one of the most powerful civilizations in history and discuss the very simple fact that there is absolutely no difference between human beings- no matter what corner of the earth they call home or what period of history their society inhabits.
When our common humanity is illuminated and we accept that there is no “us” and “them”, it becomes impossible to ignore the “collateral damage” anymore.
“Me, I am lucky. I like my work. I work everyday between my two jobs and I get one day off every 15 days. I don’t drink, not at all, for 9 years. My kids, my spouse, and my family are more important to me. But what about the others? They work in ways they weren’t meant to for money they do not care about. The kids are forgetting our culture. They drink to feel better. What about them?
We still have problems after what happened.”
Yes. We certainly do.
Southeast Asia is has long been a standard on the backpacking circuit and you’ll be hard pressed to find a country that doesn’t have it’s share of well worn boot tracks between hostels and suggested highlights. Laos is no exception. It is, perhaps, less traversed than Thailand and Vietnam, which sandwich it’s long narrow countryside between them, but it’s far from untouched. If you flip through your Frommer’s Southeast Asia you’ll find lots of recommendations for the ballooning north of the country, but the further south you go, the thinner the segments in the books.
To me, this is a good sign; anytime the guidebooks haven’t made a region a priority, it’s an indicator that there are still adventures to be had and some off the beaten path discoveries to be made.
If you’re headed to Laos, by all means, hit the northern highlights, but if you’re interested in seeing a less-trodden Laos, getting completely away from English speaking tour guides, and seeing some things most of your buddies on the backpacking circuit haven’t, may I suggest a self-guided tour down the Mekong River?
Pakse is a river town, about five hours south of Savannakhet, which is where you’ll have either arrived by bus from Vietnam, Thailand or the north of Laos. It’s a fair sized place that is fun to wander. The river walks are especially nice. There are a couple of good wats. Pakse is a great place to just wander, people watch and get a window into urban Laotian life. You’ll find the people open and friendly and you won’t have any trouble finding authentic local food!
Treat yourself in Pakse and stay at the hotel that is the refurbished palace of the last prince of Laos. The hotel is very nice by Laotian standards, but not spectacular. It’s fun to wander the grounds and explore the long hallways of the open air building. Be sure to wind your way all the way to the top of the building and go into the little ballroom perched at the apex. It has a spectacular painted round ceiling with characters from Laotian mythology running around the edge of the room.
Public river boats used to be the only way to travel to the south of Laos when the roads were disreputable and buses unreliable at best. Depending on the time of year you’re there, you may find the public boats running. During monsoon they run sporadically at best and often not at all as people have traded the inexpensive buses for boats on a swollen river. If there are no public boats running, you can still hire a private boat (look for some other travelers who are wanting to do the same, and make arrangements to head down the Mekong. You’ll see signs around town for boatmen, or, head to one of the docks and ask around.
It’s a beautiful couple of hours down the brown-green Mekong river, surrounded by walls of jungle, punctuated by little groupings fishing families on the shore. Naked children swimming, women washing clothes, men in boats fishing, or collecting the floating drift wood in their long reed shaped barks provide plenty of visual interest as you chug south. It’s easy to imagine how life has unfolded for generations on this great river, largely untouched by the wars that raged in the surrounding countries, an economy built around and dependent on the river.
Champasak isn’t even a one horse town. There are a handful of guest houses. If you need internet, the only choice is Inthira, it’s the nicest place in town, but there are other choices. You’re here to see the Wat Phou complex about 10 km from town. You’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk to get there, or rent bicycles if you’re energetic. It’s a good hike and a steep climb when you get to the ruins, but the view from the top is spectacular. If you’re headed to Angkor Wat, later in your trip when you get to Cambodia, these ruins are a great set to see first, as they were built by a similar people group.
From Champasak head downstream. You won’t have trouble arranging a boat for the next leg of your journey from in town.
There are several islands in southern Laos, where the Mekong widens before it tips over the falls into Cambodia, approximately 4000, in all. Many of them are tiny and uninhabited, but there are a few that are home to small communities and make excellent places to kick back for a few days, slow down, and catch a glimpse of rural life in Laos at it’s own pace.
Don Khong is one of our favourites. You’ll find several guesthouses in the main part of town, a lovely old wat, and bicycles for hire along the waterfront street. Rent a bike and ride the flat island. You can do it all in a day, or you can break it up into two loops, the northern half of the island being the longer loop and the southern half the shorter. Expect to see water buffalo wallowing up to their armpits in wet fields, families tending rice paddies and children selling things roadside. Everyone waves and says, “Hello!” If you’re lucky, you might even get invited into the field to help transplant the new rice plants, or walk behind the big, rattling rice cultivator with a farmer.
Spend a few days. Slow your pace. Open your eyes. Meet the mighty Mekong where she wanders.
Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.
You can trust me when I say that any morning beginning with vomit and a side order of anti-diarrheals with breakfast for two thirds of the family is a harbinger of things to come. Add the words “chicken bus” to the breakfast conversation and it’s the perfect storm of endlessly horrific possibilities.
Every single chicken bus ride is worthy of it’s own blog post somewhere. I’ve yet to ride one in which I did not have a near death experience, sit within a whirlpool of humanity that just begged for comment, or just suffered enough to feel justified in a good rant; and that’s without giving time to the animal passengers that enliven the experience from time to time.
There really are no words adequate to the experience of being whisked aboard an old Bluebird bus, painted like a time machine, pimped out like a seventies low-rider and covered inside with enormous neon coloured stickers of the Virgin Mary and others reading things like, “God bless your entrance and exit of this bus,” “Please don’t mistreat the signs,” “Your children’s safety is our priority” (a Bluebird original) “Jesus is my co-pilot” or “Driving slowly saves lives.”
Taking a page out of the Mayan mujeres book it seems entirely reasonable to genuflect slightly to the Mother Mary sticker, cross one’s self and say a quick prayer to the patron saint of the slightly insane for deliverance from this necessary evil.
The bus up from Antigua to Chimaltenango gets a gold star for being the most harrowing thus far. I really did see my life flash before my eyes, and I was reminded of the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz as I, like Dorothy, watched the swirl of cows, bicicleros, old men with goats and numerous small cars whirl just out of the way of the flying bus. More than one expletive was uttered, in more than one language by the passengers and there was a muttered undertone, that didn’t need translation, as to the appropriate description for our confident driver.
Getting seven people ON to one chicken bus is one adventure. Making sure you get the same seven OFF at the same stop, is quite another. I confess, on our previous exchange in Chimaltenango, to actually chasing the departing bus down the main street shouting, “HEY!! I’ve got one more kid on there!! Dang it!!” in Spanish before realizing that there were actually two kids, and Daddy too, being whisked away at lightning speed.
Tony was off circulating between the tiendas up and down the block looking for ginger ale with real ginger for Ruth and Ez, who were both feeling green, while the rest of us held down our piece of sidewalk with the crowd of hopeful passengers waiting for their next bus on the corner of Washington and Jefferson on the main drag when it happened:
Ezra groaned, threw back his head in his signature “Oh man!” look and announced, “I have a personal problem!” Which is quite an improvement from where he started at three, in Mexico when he had “a personal problem” and threw himself down in the Cancun airport shouting, “I’m POOPING TO DEATH!”
I rolled my eyes on the inside and asked, as cheerfully as I could, “I’m sorry, what it it?”
“Remember what Dad said about never trusting a fart… well…”
I rolled my eyes on the outside as the news passed between the children met with varying degrees of guffaw and disgust while Ruth just laughed. Tony wandered by, without ginger ale in hand, and muttered under his breath, “It’s a party now!”
After several moments of drama and debate that I’ll leave to your imagination I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with my red haired cousin, our backs to a niche in the concrete wall, giggling, uncontrollably.
“You know all those people that send us gushy e-mail, wishing they could travel and have our life? THIS is totally what they’re missing. EVERYONE wants THIS life!”
Ruth, also giggling uncontrollably nodded beneath her straw hat and we peered over our shoulders just in time to see Ez finishing his clean up with what was left of his underwear and getting back into his drawers, commando.
Emerging looking only slightly scathed he settled under his Dad’s big eyeball trained directly on his two little beady ones and they made the agreement, one more time: Never, NEVER trust a fart.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Sidewalks! Living in Latin America for the past year and a half, sidewalks are unseen and non-existent… but not in Antigua, they have sidewalks to walk on, even if they are skinny and crowded.
Describe a typical day:
In the morning we head out to walk around the city’s (cobblestone) streets. We explore the cathedrals and other colonial buildings, and gawk at the nicest McDonalds we’ve ever seen. Later, we visit the large local market to shop for produce and to eat lunch. In the afternoon we watch a procession celebrating Dia de los Muertos.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I love the overall cleanliness of the city, and the colorful homes and buildings. Antigua takes pride in it’s city. I didn’t dislike anything about our visit.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Trying to decide whether to stay an extra day so that we could do some extreme bungee action. (We decided to stay.)
What new lesson did you learn?
The city life can be a refreshing change after living in remote places for awhile. It’s good to have a mix.
Next we’ll be heading to the border of El Salvador and Guatemala.
I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.
You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!
As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.
At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
It’s ‘strange’ to observe the traditional celebrations of another culture as an outsider. Our family of seven is currently observing the holiday traditions of León, Nicaragua (and Las Peñitas, the nearby beach town.)
Describe a typical day:
The atmosphere in the city of León is becoming more festive as Christmas approaches. When we drive in (from Las Peñitas where we are renting a house), there is definitely and increasing hustle and bustle. Many weekends are busy with celebrations, starting with Griteria which is on the 7th of December. Shops are setting up selling fruit (especially apples and grapes), toys and other holiday trinkets.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
Our family was invited to the home of a local Nicaraguan family, where we visited and learned about local customs and traditions. Some of them include making a traditional dish called pollo relleno (stuffed chicken) that has potatoes, carrots, and raisins (another Nicaraguan family shared this dish with us on Griteria and it was very good!)
Nicaraguans usually celebrate more on Christmas Eve, having a meal with family and friends, opening some presents, and perhaps lighting fireworks. Christmas Day may be spent at the beach. (We drove into León on Christmas Day to watch Frozen — in Spanish and 3D — and there were few shops or vendors out.)
The family we visited showed us much love and kindness, and even gave gifts to my unborn child.
A typical Nicaraguan home
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
We love the colonial experience here in León — lots and lots of cathedrals and historical buildings. We love the beach and surfing (the family is just learning) in Las Peñitas. This is a great area!
Not a lot that we dislike. Costs are generally cheaper here than in El Salvador or Guatemala (except for apples!) Housing is a bit more expensive however.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Not having enough time to practice surfing this week, before we head to Costa Rica.
What new lesson did you learn?
It’s often those with less that are the most generous and giving. Time and again we are amazed by the liberality of people in developing countries.
Soon we’ll be headed to Costa Rica where we will be having baby #6!
In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.
Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.
A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.
Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.
I spent some time talking with local residents of Monteverde, asking about the history and traditions associated with their Christmas holiday celebrations. Everyone got so excited that they started talking over one another, but I had a translator, so I think we captured everything they wanted to share with me. Here is some unique insight on Costa Rican traditions, and more specifically, traditions of Monteverde.
Festival de la Luz is a holiday festival held in San Jose every year. The people of Monteverde view the big city as a bit intimidating, especially with young children, so seven years ago, they adapted their own version of Festival de la Luz, naming it Monteverde Brilla, translated as “Monteverde Shines”. On the first Thursday of December, the community celebrates culture, art, and healthy recreation for the whole family, with a parade made up of bands, floats, and performing groups. They hope every year to teach their children the history of Costa Rica, and form healthy traditions among children, families, and the local community. I heard school bands practicing everywhere I walked last month, as they prepared to play during this festival, and it is something Monte Verde is very proud of.
Costa Ricans have adopted a lot of American traditions, such as giving gifts to children from “Santa Claus,” and singing Christmas carols. But because this area is largely influenced by Quakers, who first settled in Monteverde during the Korean War, there are alternative traditions offered as well. The Monteverde Friends School recently built a new meeting hall where they hosted a beautiful holiday presentation by the children who attend the school. This meeting hall doubles as a place of silent worship. Quakers in the community hold a special yearly service where the whole community gathers, shares food, and trades cookies, after singing traditional carols.
Some Quakers and others in the community keep Jesus’ birth at the forefront of the holiday and teach children that Jesus wasn’t given gifts until days later when the Wise Men brought him Frankincense and myrrh. For this reason, some people do not give gifts to children until a week or two after Christmas.
At the beginning of December, families decorate Christmas trees and put out their nativity scenes. They do not place Jesus in the scene until Christmas Eve at midnight.
Families gather on December 22 and 23 to make tamales, which is a long-lasting tradition for them. During Christmas, they include various types and cuts of meat, rice, and vegetables. Tamales are also popular during Holy Week at the end of April, but meat is traditionally not included. In December, families cook and trade tamales, while drinking Rompope (their version of egg nog WITH alcohol).
At midnight on Christmas Eve, when families introduce baby Jesus into the nativity scene, they each eat a grape (I am told that some families eat a total of only 12 grapes, while others don’t have a particular number), and make a wish for the new year and the new season. They hug, and celebrate good things they are expecting in the coming season.
On Christmas Day, families gather with neighbors and friends, share food, drinks, songs, and gifts. I was told to look forward to eating tamales while drinking fresh coffee with them on Christmas Day. Tamales and coffee? I honestly cannot wait.
One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.
This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.
Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.
In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).
Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.
From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.