An expat Christmas in Paris: eating and shopping in the city of lights

4 Nov

Recently I was interviewed by Lucy Cousins, Deputy Editor at Australia’s InsideOut Magazine, for their special Christmas issue. InsideOut’s feature showcases five creative Australians living overseas and how they spend their Christmas. Below is the printed magazine extract, and you can find below the full interview which includes my favourite current addresses for shopping, dining and staying warm in this magical Parisian snow globe – otherwise known as the city of lights. Photo for InsideOut Mag by Carla Coulson

Rachel Bajada InsideOut Magazine

Excerpt from InsideOut Magazine Christmas Issue, 2011. Photo by Carla Coulson

What does Christmas mean to you?

Normally for me it’s all about family, but since mine is now on the other side of the world, Christmas is all about ‘coming together’. Making time to spend quality moments with the people we love, showing generosity and being grateful for the things we have. It’s also a time to embrace and honour traditions and customs whether they be religious or cultural – the important things which bring richness and diversity and meaning into our lives.

What do your Christmas celebrations in France usually involve?

I can summarise this one in about 3 words: eating, drinking and freezing!

What is your favourite part of the festive season in your adopted country?

The observation of intricate, rich customs and practices and seeing how the city changes as everything moves around these. For example in December all the patisserie shops are filled with impressive displays of the ‘Buche’ (a gateau in the form a of a log), then in January the window displays are filled with les ‘Galettes des Rois’ to celebrate epiphany. At Christmas dinner, they serve 12 kinds of small sweets such as truffles, biscuits, chocolates etc. at the end of the meal- 12 to represent the 12 apostles. It’s an endless procession of traditional practices, which as an expat unaccustomed to all of this, I find constantly fascinating.

12 sweets - noel

Christmas cake accompanied by 12 sweets to represent Christ and the twelve apostle

What is a custom or tendency that you don’t understand?

There are many customs in France that continue to perplex me. For me France is the ultimate country of paradoxes… the main set of customs that continue to baffle me are all the hidden codes and procedures when it comes to dining.

Once thing that still gets me is how a dinner party will wait till the last guest arrives, no matter how late they are, to open the champagne and start the aperitif.

Last Christmas Eve, many domestic flights were delayed due to snowstorms and some guests didn’t arrive at the house until around 11.45pm. By this point I was ravenous after a long journey myself, and I had been staring at the 10 bottles of champagne and aperitif snacks all lined up in the dining room, which the host refused to open or serve until all the guests had arrived. We ended up finishing our meal at 4am because we started at midnight!

Waiting for champagne

Patience is a virtue… champagne remains unopened until all guests arrive

How does it differ from your Christmas in Australia?

The difference is enormous. Everything is the opposite. The weather, the food, the way of celebrating, the people I share my time with and the language I speak. The cold weather is a real challenge for me being a real sun-lover, but Paris is so beautiful under the snow at that time of year, that it compensates for the weather. And as much as I love Christmas time in Paris, it just doesn’t compare to the familiar feeling of walking through the patio door at my parents house on Christmas Eve and seeing my Dad sweating at the BBQ with a big smile on his face wearing the same apron he has worn for the last 10 years!

What do you miss about Australia in general?

Things that just work! I didn’t realise it or appreciate it until I left Australia- but in Oz, thing just work. Administrative services, systems, etc are in general more efficient and reliable. Here you post a letter to the other side of the country, and it may arrive a week after something which was sent from the US. Banks and government call centres close spontaneously…

The other thing I really miss is SPACE. Large open living spaces, coastlines, vast beaches and national parks in Oz are all so close and accessible. I loved the relaxed attitude in Sydney- I miss being able to walk to my yoga class or walk in a supermarket dressed in my gym pants and sneakers without anybody glaring because you look so out of place… and of course the lifestyle I enjoyed being able to ride my Vespa to the beach after work and running in the sand then meeting friends for BBQ’s at the beach over long summer afternoons.

What is most stressful to you about Christmas and how do you deal with that?

Waiting in lines. The sheer population of Paris means I am always waiting – I queue to queue. I’m a terribly impatient person, (of course I’m working on it) but the frenzied crowds in department stores, the push and shove on the crowded metro and waiting 20 mins in a line at -4 degree temperatures just to buy your favourite bread on a Sunday morning can be unbearable.

Paris bread queue

Typical sunday in Paris: the bread queue

What is one way you ‘cheat’ at Christmas…(do you make your own wrapping paper or gifts, have you got a fool-proof recipe for pudding etc)?
For years now I have had my own little tradition of making Lebkuchen- a spicy iced German gingerbread (recipe here). Each Christmas I make an entire day of it and bake and ice about 200 cookies. It’s a great way to give a small gift to friends, colleagues or people you have been meaning to catch up with. Each year I package them differently depending on what nice boxes or papers I find in the shops. When you personally deliver them it’s a good excuse to have a cup of tea together and make time to catch up.

Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen – Christmas Gifts

Can you tell us three shops in Paris that are good to visit at Xmas (they might make great cakes, or sell amazing flowers etc)?

1. Go to Gontran Cherrier’s boulangerie in Montemarte and buy the special Christmas bread “La couronne de pain”- a bread wreath with 8 buns made of 4 varieties- wholegrain curry (for foie gras), chick pea and lemon (for oysters and seafood), nature/traditional (for meats and charcuterie) and the fourth is made with chestnut flour to serve with the cheese board.

He also makes a great Pistachio and Citron Confit “Galette des Rois”, which is traditionally served to celebrate at Epiphany in early January.

Gontran Cherrier Artisan Boulanger
22, rue Caulaincourt 75018 Paris
Tèl : +33 (0)1 46 06 82 66
http://www.gontrancherrierboulanger.com

Galette des Rois et La couronne de pain

Galette des Rois et La Couronne de Pain chez Gontran Cherrier

2. You must pay a visit to one of my favourite fromageries/affineurs in Paris- La Ferme Saint Hebert in Paris 9th.

When you walk in this cheese shop, the mere odour of over 200 varieties of French cheeses is just sensational ( I think so anyway) and you instantly know you’re in France. Owners Paulette and Henry- complete the typical Paris experience- right down to their white aprons, hanging Corsican charcuterie and the shop walls that are lined with jars of duck confit, foie gras, confiture, fruit pastes and patés.

At Christmas time we indulge in a winter mountain cheese like Mont d’Or. It’s a seasonal cow’s milk cheese packaged in round wooden boxes. You can eat it at room temperature, or pour white wine into the box, wrap it in foil then bake it for 25 mins. When it comes out of the oven it’s oozes with creaminess on the inside and melts like liquid heaven. The French like to pour the melting cheese over baked potatoes or eat it with fresh baguettes. Mmmm calorific ecstasy.

La ferme Saint Hubert Fromagerie
36 rue Rochechouart 75009 PARIS
Tel : +33 (0)1 45 53 15 77

http://www.la-ferme-saint-hubert-de-paris.com/

La Ferme Saint Hubert Fromagerie

La Ferme Saint Hubert Fromagerie – Image from Bonbon Magazine, Summer 2009 lebonbon.fr

3. Treat yourself to a new fragrance at a French perfume house.

Dyptique on Blvd St Germain is just divine (my favourite is the ‘figue’ scent), Nicolaï Parfumerie on Rue des Archives in the Marias, or the official Geurlain fragrance house on Champs Elysées are three of my favourite boutiques. Fragrances are so sensory, when you buy a new perfume at Christmas time each time you wear it will bring back all those fond memories of those particular moments in your life. It’s also a great way to sharpen your sense of smell – just in time for appreciating all the great wines you’ll be drinking over Christmas.

What are three activities that you must to do in Paris at Christmas time?

1. Walk from place Colette (métro Palais Royale Musée du Louvre) through to the gardens of the Palais Royale and do some window shopping (if you can resist buying a pair of designer leather gloves, foulard or handbag) and walk all the way up Galerie Vivienne. At Christmas time they put out an impressive lighting display complete with draping red velvet curtains at the entrance – the interior is just stunning at this time of year. When you’re there you can have tea and scones at A Priori Teahouse to warm up and talk yourself out of buying those designer heels you fell in love with 10 minutes ago.

Galerie Vivienne Christmas

Galerie Vivienne is transformed by an impressive lighting display at Christmas

2. Visit the Galerie Lafayette and Printemps department stores and gaze dreamily at the window displays. It brings me back memories of my childhood in Melbourne when ever year my grandma would take me to see the Myer window displays. Only in Paris it’s packed with Louis Vuitton, Chanel, YSL… serious eye candy.

3. Go to the Marché des Enfants Rouge (Paris’ oldest open- air market dating from the 1600s) and located in the Marais. It’s filled with stands providing specialties from all over the world. Eat some spicy Moroccan couscous and tagines followed by sweet mint tea then at the flower stand opposite you can choose and buy a REAL Christmas Wreath. The wreaths are real – made of real holly leaves and berries, pinecones, fresh stone fruits – and they’re only about 7 Euros a piece.

Christmas Wreathes at Marche des Enfants Rouge, Paris

Christmas Wreathes at Marche des Enfants Rouge, Paris. Image courtesy of http://cinderellapatch.blogspot.com

What is your favourite Parisian Christmas moment?

My best Parisian Christmas moment was the first time I saw snow in Paris – and it was around Christmas time. I was at my local little Christmas market on a Sunday (organised by the local town hall) and it was absolutely freezing. All of sudden it started snowing and the whole place was transformed. There were children riding on a gorgeous traditional the carousel and little stalls selling spicy warm red wine, fruit cakes and hand-made gifts. One of the stallholders insisted I tried their hot chocolate with a piece of pain d’épice, and then in that moment everything was just magical… I felt like a young girl who had been transported into a snow globe and then whisked off into a page of a children’s fairy-tale.

Paris Christmas Markets

Snapshot moment of a Parisian fantasy snowglobe

What do you like most about living in Paris?

The innate appreciation of beauty.

Paris terrace sunset view

Designed for detail: view from a typical Paris terrace

Where would you recommend visitors go for a special lunch or dinner in Paris on Christmas day?

Le Gallopin Brasserie. A classic and beautiful French bistro where they have been serving bankers, journalists and Parisians quality French brasserie cuisine in a stunning turn-of-the-century setting since 1876. The prices are very reasonable too – book 2 weeks before Christmas to avoid missing out.

40, rue Notre-Dame des Victoires 75002 Paris
Tél : +33 (0)1 42 36 45 38

http://www.brasseriegallopin.com/

What are your current favourite Paris restaurants?

Au Passage (Paris 11e)
Rossi et Co (Paris 2e)
Itinéraires (Paris 5e)
MaSa (Paris 17e)
Le Galopin (Paris 10e)
Avant Comptoir (Paris 6e)
Toyo, Yen (Paris 6e)
Le Pantruche (Paris 9e)

Join the conversation! Have any similar expat or stories to share from visiting Paris? Drop a comment below.

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5 Responses to “An expat Christmas in Paris: eating and shopping in the city of lights”

  1. helen January 12, 2012 at 5:03 am #

    I have just been reading inside out this month (Jan 2012) As I am catching up on reading. I love your blog, but sadly it makes want my heart wants really hurt. That is a visit to paris. It has been my obbession for the last year to come to paris. Your blog makes it 100x worse.

    Thanks for all the wonderful pictures.

  2. Frank Amoros December 23, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    Thanks for the great tip French For Foodies!

    My family has made Christmas dinner reservations at Le Gallopin Brasserie.

  3. chocolate cake recipe November 29, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Very great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really loved browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I’m hoping you write once more very soon!

  4. Shannon November 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    Awesome article :) Totally have some familiar experiences here… Xmas in Paris is not the same, but beautiful and wonderful in its own way.

  5. Martin November 7, 2011 at 12:43 am #

    Hi Rachel – spending a northern winter is one of our ‘to dos’ in the near future and I cannot think of a prettier place than Paris. Embracing the cold is certainly a challenge but nothing that some good old fashioned long johns and a ball of wool on my head can’t overcome. Keep up the good work.

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