International Writers Magazine Christmas rites: From Our Archives
Back when I lived in Paris, one of the most incongruous things I
saw was Pere Noel peeing in the snow on the Boulevard St. Germain.
Father Christmas in France gets some getting used to.
But hey! Pere Noel isnt fat. He resembles Jolly Saint Nick,
except he isnt that fat bastard were used to seeing
at Macys; instead hes something of a rail-thin
rake or roué in a tailored red suit.
This Santa was
drunk as a goat. Still my friend Annick and her beau the gendarme managed
to run up to Pere Noel 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-hos
echoing through the night like a department-store security klaxon.
Wherever you go in the world they do Christmas
differently. In Holland, for example, Santas 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 was purchasing a Bouche
de Noel (Christmas Mouth)without knowing what it is or even
how you eat itand unwrapping only cartons of Gauloises.
With everything closed in the city and a
light snowfall, its no wonder I ended up drunk in the slightly
dodgy section of Barbés Rochechouart, which is the unofficial
Muslim quarter of Paris. A while back on a sidestreet, I had eaten at
the sere Restaurant Islam, which featured dry desert fare
and contained absolutely no alcohol. Un, what? In the distance I thought
I heard the sound of unfamiliar Christmas carols. I went to investigate.
Entering the oven whoosh of the brasserie,
in the shadow of Montmartre Cathedral, which resembles a whitish mammoth
marzipan masterpiece, I noticed that everyone 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, actually
drinking biere pression scientifically measured up to a white line on
Biere, siil vous plait!
The Arab bartender sized me up, and after
trying French, then German, he settled on erratic English: I said,
You are not scared to be here?
Not at all, I said casually and
carefully. In America Im used to new experiences.
Really, you are the 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 like a harem fly,
then ran out the door. When she returned, she had a small Christmas
tree under her arm, which she 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 Camuss The Stranger is one of my favorite
books. I like existentialism.
Oh, Letranger! 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 didnt remotely resemble Christmas
music. In fact it sounded like all the moaning and ululating singers
had been punched in their stomachs for blasphemy. What mattered was
Christmas cheer, peace, love, hope, and good will. Beyond that, all
I remember is I woke up with a painful start the next afternoon to the
irate garbage collectors energetically crashing cans outside my window
in the Marais. Yeah right, thanks for nothing, Santa. Sacre bleu! Imbeciles!!!!
© John M. Edwards December 2008
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus),
with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being
caught in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines
as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape,
Endless Vacation, Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Artdirect, Verge,
Slab, Richmond Review, Borderlines, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan
Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA
(North American Travel Journalists Association) Award and a Solas Award.
He lives in New York City.
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