Destinations Magazine

Brr-cold in Barbes-Rochechouart: Christmas in France

By Davedtc @davedtc

monmarteIn Paris’s Muslim quarter, Barbés Rochechouart, John M. Edwards finds ho-hum Christmas cheer, but no champagne or beer. . . .

Back when I lived in Paris, one of the most comically incongruous things I saw as a temporary expat was a pathetic Pere Noel with a guelle de bois (“face of wood” = hangover) peeing in the snow, with an excessively painful grin, on the legendary Boulevard St. Germain (namedropped ad infinitum in Hemingway’s elegy to the “Lost Generation”: A Moveable Feast).

Verily, “Father Christmas” in France takes some getting used to.

But hey! Ici, Pere Noel is neither plump nor merry. Yes, he sort of resembles Jolly Saint Nick, except he isn’t that fat bastard with a foot-long beard we’re used to seeing at Macy’s; instead he is something of a rail-thin rake or roué in a tailored red suit reminiscent of a prissy Renaissance bard wowing Le Roi Soleil.

This Santa was obviously always drunk as a goat. Still my friend Annick and her beau, the gendarme, managed to run up to the Pere Noel doppelganger and catch this expressionist Norman Rockwell moment on camera, the yellow stream glistening in the flash like Silly String ™. We laughed first and best, our hearty “Ho-ho-ho”s echoing through the night like a Galleries-Lafayette security klaxon.

Wherever you go in the world they do Christmas differently. In Holland, for example, Santa’s sidekick is an obliging fey helper known simply as “Black Pete.” Still, with all the Yuletide ornamentation up along the rues, the City of Lights reminded me a little of home. But while my friends and family in New York were dining on turkey and opening prezzies, I found myself like the pale somnambulist played by Conrad Veight in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari absentmindedly purchasing a “Bouche de Noel” (Christmas Mouth)—without knowing what this, er, “novelty” is or even how you eat it—and unwrapping only endless cartons of Gauloises des Blondes Legeres.

Hence, with everything fermé in the firmament, and a light snowfall, and a significant drop in temp (brrr!), small wonder I ended up drunk in the slightly dodgy section of Barbés Rochechouart, the unofficial Muslim quarter of Paris. A while back on a cobbled sidestreet, I had eaten at the sere “Restaurant Islam,” which featured dry desert fare (only damned kebabs and rice pilaf)–and absolutely no alcohol. Un, what? In the distance I thought I heard the sound of unfamiliar Christmas carols.
I went to investigate.

Boldly striding into the oven whoosh of the brasserie, in the shadow of marvelous Montmartre Cathedral (a mammoth marzipany masterpiece), I noticed that everyone inside had a slightly swarthy complexion. Meaning: I was the only white guy there. Hey, this is cool! I thought, wondering if there were any Algerian pied noirs (I love that term) who could stand me a few.

I was surprised to see a few people, sinister-looking Middle Easterners and Magrebis in loose-fitting blue suits and white djellabas, actually drinking biere pression on the sly, or maybe it was ginger ale, scientifically measured up to a white line on the glass.

“Biere, si’il vous plait!”

The vaguely terrifying-looking Arab bartender, with a jagged lightning-shaped scar on his right cheek, sized me up, and after trying French, then German, he settled on erratic English: “I say: you are not scared to be here?”

“Not at all,” I said casually, carefully. “In America I’m used to new experiences.” This was right during the worst of the Gulf War, after all, in which incidentally France also participated.
“Really, you are first American to ever come in here.”

“I like Barbés.”

One of the female staff smiled at me, a lively young woman with long brown hair who flitted about in her dark chador like a harem fly, then ran out the door. When she returned, she had a small Christmas tree tucked under her arm, which she busily proceeded to set up on the bar.

“For you, our American guest,” she said. “Happy Christmas!”

She told me she was “Kabil,” and that in Algeria (a former French colony) they celebrated both Christmas and Ramadan. I searched my mind for a famous Algerian and came up with, “Albert Camus’s The Stranger is one of my favorite books. I like existentialism.”

“Oh, L’etranger! Just like you!” The Kabil woman, bosoms baubles, threw back her head and laughed.
I drank until the evening got as fresh and fuzzy as a frozen sorbet. No matter that the Arab pop music called “Rai” wafting in the cigarette haze didn’t remotely resemble “Jingle Bells” or “Frosty the Snowman.” In fact Rai sounded weirdly like all the moaning and ululating singers, pounding tomtoms and blowing flat oboes, had been punched in their stomachs for blasphemy.

But at least the “Oriental” cacophony did indeed sound vaguely like festive party blowers!

After all, in the end what mattered was Christmas cheer, peace, love, hope, and good will. Stuff like that. Beyond reverie, all I remember is I woke up with a painful start the next afternoon, sweating cryogenic icicles, to the exceedingly irate garbage collectors energetically crashing cans outside my window in the Marais. Yeah right, thanks for nothing, Santa. “Imbeciles!!!!!!!”


You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Notes on Jake ~ 10 Months Old

    Notes Jake Months

    It's hard to believe that we've only had Jake for a little over four months. This summer has flown by and Jake has become such a part of the family that it feel... Read more

    15 hours, 50 minutes ago by   Hikingwithheather
    OUTDOORS, TREK
  • Banana Coconut Bread

    Banana Coconut Bread

    (recipe adapted modify slightly from Cuisine Paradise)Ingredients:3 large eggs120g ripe bananas, mashed3 Tbsp maple syrup40g coconut oil1 Tbsp rum1/4 cup... Read more

    16 hours, 7 minutes ago by   Cathysjoy
    FOOD & DRINK, RECIPES
  • Learn How To Write A Blog With These 13 Tips

    Learn Write Blog With These Tips

    The idea of creating your blog has been around for a long time. For many companies, blogs have become a tool that increases the potential of an online... Read more

    The 20 August 2018 by   Kharim Tomlinson
    BUSINESS, SOCIAL MEDIA
  • Play It By Beer, Brad Saunders Interview + 5 Quick Questions

    Play Beer, Brad Saunders Interview Quick Questions

    Brad Saunders has had a busy year. And the latest buzz, thanks to his most recent single Play It By Beer, has him planning on staying busy. We caught up with... Read more

    The 20 August 2018 by   Phjoshua
    LIFESTYLE, SELF EXPRESSION
  • Dan Lawson’s JOGLE FKT Record Attempt Over

    Lawson’s JOGLE Record Attempt Over

    British 24 hour international, Dan Lawson set off from John O Groats on August 13th at 6:00 am and is currently in the Mendip Hills south of Bristol. This... Read more

    The 20 August 2018 by   Abichal
    OTHER SPORTS, OUTDOORS
  • The European Union Just Made Bioenergy Worse for Biodiversity

    European Union Just Made Bioenergy Worse Biodiversity

    While some complain that the European Union (EU) is an enormous, cumbersome beast (just ask the self-harming Brexiteers), it generally has some rather laudable... Read more

    The 20 August 2018 by   Bradshaw
    ENVIRONMENT
  • The Romantics

    Romantics

    These two words conjure an image in my mind of running through fields with flowers in my hand and my beloved running after me, very much like the Bollywood film... Read more

    The 20 August 2018 by   Ashleylister
    BOOKS, CREATIVITY, CULTURE, SELF EXPRESSION