First Christmas in the states

As expected, I have some conflicting feelings about our first Christmas in the states. I’m so happy to be figuring out the traditions our little family will create over the years, but so sad to be away from the traditions I’ve known for the past 8 years.

Even though I always loved the huge Christmas with my in-laws in France, it was nice to have a quieter celebration this year with just us and my parents. Having just 4 people (well, 5 counting Monkey when he wasn’t running around!) at the table instead of 25+ definitely sets a very different tone for the evening. Cleanup was certainly easier! And we were in bed by 10, instead of 2am, which allowed us to avoid the usual Christmas day bleariness.

Still, we tried to keep things as French as possible. Well, French/Italian. We did the big dinner Christmas eve, including foie gras and a bûche de noël. Christmas day was very chill, eating leftovers and broth with cappelletti. I spent the weekend before Christmas making them by hand, the way my husband’s mother, aunt and grandmother make them. They were a little bigger than their experienced hands manage, and I didn’t use veal, but my husband declared them to taste exactly the same, which was nice to hear.

Cappelletti
Homemade cappelletti
Christmas table
Moroccan tablecloth, great-grandparents’ china, and Ikea plates from college.
Christmas tree
Our tiny tree

A few Boston/our little family traditions seem to be emerging. My parents brought their grandparents’ china that we’d use when I was growing up. We have a little fake white tree that we’ve used the past few years, and I made sure to ship over from France. While my husband was finishing up some meal prep Christmas Eve, I took my parents and Monkey to see a nearby park all lit up, then we got donuts.

Christmas Eve lights
Lights in the park

My husband and I went to a movie for my birthday on Christmas day. We went last year to see Star Wars, so we did again this year, and it looks like we’ll be able to next year as well! The day after Christmas my parents took me to lunch in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Boston Common
Boston Common
Beacon Hill
Beacon Hill

We managed to Skype with everyone both Christmas eve and Christmas day. As important as I know it was for Monkey and my husband to see the family in France, I almost wonder if it didn’t make things harder. Seeing everyone, and how big the little cousins have gotten, I missed them and the craziness so much, so I can only imagine how hard it was for my husband. Though he did seem to appreciate a much calmer and quieter holiday. And travelling internationally at Christmas will hopefully be easier when Monkey is a bit older.

Like anyone raising a multicultural kid, we want him to grow up with a mix of American and French experiences. Our goal is to alternate France visits in spring/summer and winter, and we already have a trip in April 2017 planned, so we’ll hopefully make it to France for Christmas 2018. It seems so long to wait, but time is just flying by (it’s already been 11 months since we moved!) so we’ll be feasting with family before we know it.

New holiday traditions

Growing up, Thanksgiving meant spending the whole day with my aunt, cousins, and, when we did it as her house, her big dog. We alternated houses for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I always looked forward to the years she did Thanksgiving, since it meant we could sit around watching the parade in the morning instead of peeling potatoes. Besides that, there was nothing really amazing about the holidays that made them spectacular. But you get used to little traditions like playing the same games with your cousins, the same arguments between uncles, even the same ancient beaters mixing the whipped cream.

None of that happened this year, since we weren’t at my aunt’s house, but at my sister’s. And with two new babies in addition to an energetic toddler, to say things were a little crazy is an understatement. When we got there around 10 and saw the turkey still sitting on the counter, I wondered how we were ever going to eat at 2, as we always had growing up. But my sister had planned on eating at normal dinner time.

I wasn’t going to argue with a sleep-deprived new mother, but it got me thinking about the new holiday traditions we’re in the process of creating for our kids. Having been gone for nearly a decade means I didn’t create any new, adult traditions with my family. I am stuck a bit in my nostalgia for the holidays of my youth, and stressing about making sure my husband and son have the same memories. Which I realize is impossible, but it doesn’t stop me from worrying about it! While Thanksgiving is purely American and my husband has no particular notion of what it is “supposed” to be, I know that Christmas is a much bigger deal for him and as it’s his first Christmas away from his family, I am putting extra pressure on myself to make it special.

I keep reminding myself that Monkey is still too young to know one way or another what happens. He didn’t care that Thanksgiving was at 6 instead of 2. He won’t notice is we do an advent calendar this year and not next year. He certainly doesn’t care if I spend hours knitting him a Christmas stocking (though I hope he appreciates it in the future). But I’ve somehow convinced myself I need to figure it out by next year, when he might maybe start to remember things…

Holidays, family, nostalgia, youth. All sorts of emotions involved. I know the best thing to do is not to stress at all and just enjoy it, and they will too. Neither my husband nor my son will hate me if there’s not a picture of us with Santa Clause this year, or if we don’t see any Christmas trees other than our own. But their feelings about a grumpy and grinchy mother/wife will probably not be very positive and will have a much bigger impact on their memories of our holidays together.

 

More French visitors

My husband’s uncle and aunt were on vacation in New York for la Toussaint school holidays, and they took a bus up to Boston for the weekend. It was also open house weekend at the International School of Boston, and since they’re both  school inspectors (“inspecteur pédagogique”) we thought they’d enjoy checking out a French school in the states.

That’s not all we did, of course, but it was nice to have their opinion on the school, since it’s their job and they thought to ask the questions we never would have. We haven’t decided if we want bébé* to start there next year or not. He’s had so many changes in the past year, and we’ll probably be moving to a cheaper apartment in the spring, so I kind of want him to have at least one constant in his life. Everyone loves him at daycare, he has friends there, and even the teachers at the French school said that if we’re speaking French at home, starting a year later won’t really make a big difference with his language skills. So we’ll see.

Lexington
Lexington

Since vacation shouldn’t involve too much work, my husband took them out on the Freedom Trail, which is his favorite thing to do with visitors. We also went to his other favorite, Lexington, and walked further along the path than we ever had in the past. Not all the way to Concord, but enough for bébé to tire himself out running so he’d nap well. I made his Halloween costume while he napped, but he unfortunately refuses to put it on, so I can only picture how cute it’d be.

spider costume

For reasons too complicated to explain here, my husband is a Seahawks fan, which is not an easy thing to be in Boston. There’s a bar on Boylston street where all the Seahawks fans go to watch the game, and he’d been talking about going for weeks. He finally went with his uncle this weekend, though I don’t think it was the jolly, animated afternoon he thought it’d be (they lost).

We also ate, drank, talked, and all the things that are great to do with family that my husband is really starting to miss a lot. Our recent explorations as a trio have been fun (see below), but I know he really needs that big, rowdy family atmosphere from time to time. We just bought tickets to visit in the spring, so there’s something to look forward to. And while we’re waiting, hopefully Thanksgiving at my sister’s (which will include her new baby twins and her mother-in-law visiting from Central Asia) will help fill that “rowdy family” void.

Fall colors in New England
Fall colors in New England
Shelburne Farm
Shelburne Farm
Middlesex Fells Reservation
Middlesex Fells Reservation

*I think I need to start calling him something else besides bébé, since he is definitely not a baby anymore! “Monkey” would be appropriate given how much he likes to climb everything lately – furniture, people, fences, whatever!

Goals for 2015

I hope everyone had fun last night for New Year’s Eve! Ours was very low-key, since bébé is teething (like sleep wasn’t hard enough before!) and neither of us was up for trying to get him to sleep at a noisy party somewhere. It was just me and my husband and his brother at our apartment, watching funny movies and eating all the things we swore we’s stop eating once we got to 2015.

However, I am one of those people who sets goals for the new year, rather than make resolutions. Instead of saying “I won’t eat sugar/bread/chocolate/etc” it’s more like “I’ll eat veggies twice a day.” Easier to track, and easier to stay motivated.

I wanted to get them all written down today, just to make them feel “official.”

My goals for 2015:

– Monthly dates with my husband.

I read a lot about weekly date nights, but since bébé goes down pretty early, we get a fair amount of time alone in the evenings during the week. This goal is more about getting out of the house together on a regular basis. Hopefully as the year goes on, and bébé gets bigger, we’ll be able to go out more often. But for now, asking his mother or brother to babysit one evening a month seems like a pretty big deal.

 

– Monthly pampering time.

I got a haircut and my eyebrows waxed in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and it felt great to have someone else take care of me for an hour. Eating well and exercising are also ways to feel good, but those are things I do myself. I think I could do with a little more TLC from talented strangers: a manicure, a massage, a solo trip to the thermal baths . . . I’ll probably try to do it right before our monthly dates, so I feel extra special before going out. For this goal, more often seems a little selfish, not to mention financially difficult.

 

– A 10k or more in May/June, a 10k max in Autumn

Most companies in Luxembourg sponsor their employees for the marathon in the Spring. If there are enough people interested for me to join a team, then I’ll do that, otherwise, I’ll find another race. I know I’d be able to do another 10k, but if by March I’m feeling okay, maybe I’ll try to train for a half marathon. Training for a shorter race after should keep me motivated by changing my routine, and I’ll make speed my goal rather than simply finishing.

 

– Finish a Coursera specialization

I have taken MOOCs before, and really enjoyed them, but I wanted something more in-depth. Coursera has specialisations now, and one really caught my eye that I think will help with my future career goals. I started it last month and while I could technically finish it by this summer, I think by the end of 2015 is more realistic. Two online courses a month + running + bébé seems like a recipe for total exhaustion. But I’ll keep summer as a soft deadline, since I am the type of person who hears “by end of the year” and won’t start doing anything until December 15th.

 

Relationship, me, health, and career. All of them changed a lot in 2014 with the arrival of bébé, and it was too big of a change to really call it “good” or “bad,” if that makes sense. Is my health “worse” now than before I was pregnant? Was my career or mariage “better”? How can you even compare them before and after? It’s a totally new life situation, like starting from zero. So hopefully with these goals, by the end of 2015, these four areas in my life will be in great shape, and I can start to think about more long-term goals.

Favorite Christmas movies

It’s that time of year again! The time when lists of favorite Christmas movies start appearing in your newsfeed. It seems silly that if you like a movie, you only watch it once a year, but then again, it does seem strange to look out at a bright sunny June day and think “I could go for a little Miracle on 34th Street right now.” (That movie is not actually on my list, because it freaked me out a lot when I was little for some reason. Or maybe I was just upset that Santa never brought me my dream house for Christmas.)

So let me share what actually is on my list:

Elf – I feel like this is kind of the most perfect Christmas movie. It has everything. Elves, a scroogey character who has a change of heart, cute animated characters, Bob Newhart, New York City, Christmas music. Also, we’ve taken to calling bébé “buddy” and I can’t wait until he’s old enough to watch with us.

The Muppet Christmas Carol – Only version I’ve ever known, only version I ever want to know. I started reading the novella this year but without Gonzo narrating and RIzzo commenting the narration, it just isn’t as interesting. I used to watch this every Christmas eve, but in France that time is spent eating, so I watched it earlier this month.

Love Actually – A more “chick flick” choice that I intend to enjoy tonight while my husband it at a soccer match. While I’m sure he wouldn’t mind watching with me, if I’m alone, I can unselfconsciously sing along at the end. And dance with Hugh Grant.

Serendipity – Not a classic choice, but I seem to only watch it around this time of year. American + foreigner falling in love movies always get me. And despite my love for Love Actually, I’m pretty sure everyone can agree that New York > London at Christmastime.

Home Alone – As a kid, it would come on TV Thanksgiving night, to kick of Christmas TV season (maybe it still does).  Now I actually will watch it anytime during the year, whenever I’m missing life in the states. I’m not from Chicago at all, but the big American houses and the little town stores remind me of what life in the states “feels like” if that makes sense. Christmas and life in New York seem great, but my childhood memories are much closer to Kevin’s.

 

Feel free to share your favorite Christmas movies! Still a few days left to try and watch them all . . .

Thanksgiving in France

This past week was my 8th Thanksgiving in France. While the first few years I tried to participate in or host a big meal with friends and/or family, the past few years I’ve gone to the restaurant dinner organized by the Lorraine Etats-Unis group I belong to. It’s very French (three separate courses, small portions, not a cranberry or pie in sight), but it’s in a beautiful building, it means no cooking or cleanup for me, and I get to see my friends from the group.

This year I assumed it’d be the same, but because there was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Metz during World War II, there was a group of veterans in town (and their wives, children, grandchildren, etc.) So the traditional dinner was in an even bigger, fancier restaurant, with enough space for everyone. I was sitting next to a 90-year-old veteran, and we talked about all sorts of things. Mostly about cranberries, but there were a few war stories too. It was such a special evening, celebrating Thanksgiving while also thanking these men for what they did all those years ago. They all looked so much younger than 90, so while they all laughed nervously when there was talk of the 75th anniversary, I feel like they’ll all be back in five years for sure.

Me and my husband had a little mini-feast on Thursday, with stuffing, which we’ve done the past few years as well. His grandmother’s birthday is at the end of November, and this year his mom hosted it. What I expected to be a small lunch was actually a huge family gathering with all the cousins and uncles, etc, and bébé got to meet a few cousins he hadn’t seen yet. It all felt very Thanksgiving-y, sitting at a long table with family, talking over each other, telling jokes, little kids yelling and running around. It even started in the early afternoon, and continued into the evening, like the Thanksgivings I had in the states.

I was actually kind of sad thinking about bébé’s first Thanksgiving and how it would just be another Thursday. However, he’s still so little, I know he won’t remember his “first” Thanksgiving (or Christmas) anyway. I was thinking that next year, I want to start doing the dinner myself, so bébé can have a tradition similar to what I grew up with. But I managed to celebrate it three different ways this year, so maybe we’ll just make our Thanksgiving in France tradition to celebrate it as many times as possible during the last week of November!

Holiday birthdays

My husband’s birthday was this week, and I felt bad that I wasn’t in the best shape to fête it like we usually do. He was still on vacation most of this week, but went back to work on his birthday, which confused me, since if you have the choice, who wants to work on their birthday? But I don’t really know how people feel about “normal” birthdays, since I have a holiday birthday.

I was born on Christmas, which was a great present for my parents but has not always been easy for me. There are good things, like never having to work, and the food is always yummy, and people are in a festive mood. There are the bad things, like less presents, but as an adult you’re not really allowed to say that because by now you’re supposed to understand that Christmas is about more than just presents, right?

Growing up, my parents always said they would make me whatever I wanted if I didn’t want to eat the turkey with everyone else (though I rarely took them up on it; turkey and mashed potatoes is fine by me any night!) And I was very particular about my cakes (purple strawberry, cupcake cocktails). In France, since we don’t host the dinner ourselves, I have no say in terms of menu and dessert and even cake choices, which has been hard. But again, as an adult, you’re not supposed to make a big deal about things like this. It shouldn’t matter what you eat, Christmas is about being with family and celebrating other things besides whiny little you.

Despite not really knowing exactly when the bébé will come, he could theoretically be born on either July 4th or 14th. At first it seems like this would be pretty cool. But then I really think about it, and there would definitely be drawbacks. Yes he would have fireworks and we wouldn’t have to work, but unless we hosted a party, friends and family would probably already have other stuff planned that day. Or they’d all be on vacation (though this is a problem with all summer birthdays). And any party would pretty much have to be a barbecue. And if we didn’t throw a party, it would be hard to find a restaurant open that day if we wanted to go out. And eventually he would realize that all the celebrations and parades have nothing to do with him.

It seems like little, stupid things to care about, but if your birthday is supposed to be a special day just for you, holiday birthdays are hard because you’re automatically sharing it with everyone else. And it does seem like people try to avoid them as much as possible (though that might have more to do with hospital staffing than the mother’s choice):

(The chart and interactive table are just for the states; I would love if someone did something like this for France!)

In the end, birthdays are something you have very little control over, other than how you choose to celebrate. And holiday birthdays come with lots of built-in celebrations and traditions that you may or may not like.

But for my husband and his “normal” birthday, celebrations this year involved inviting his family over today and cooking for them, followed by a leisurely walk in the sun along the river. And really, when I think about it, that’s the same thing we do for mine: eating, talking, and spending time with loved ones. So no matter what birthday bébé ends up with, we’ll always try and do the same! (And if it is a holiday, and he doesn’t want barbecue, I’ll make him whatever else he wants to eat).

Poitiers and Bretagne

We were able to both explore and relax during our little vacation on the other side of the country. So often when we visit new places, we feel the need to do and see everything we can as quickly as possible. This time, we really took it slow, in part due to my physical limits (hello third trimester!) but also because we knew we both needed to chill out as much as possible. Visiting  Poitiers and Bretagne in the same trip was maybe slightly too ambitious, since it involved a lot of driving, but I’m glad we saw both, since they offered totally different experiences of France. (It also allowed me to check off two more regions for my goal to visit all of them!)

Poitiers has lots of great medieval architecture, and is easy to visit on foot. Our hotel was right next to the Préfecture and Hôtel de Ville, so we were well placed to explore. The weather was sunny, if a bit cool, so perfect for walking around.

Poitiers

 

We also visited the Futuroscope, a multimedia theme park, which is a short drive from the city. I couldn’t do everything, but my brother-in-law was with us, so he and my husband went off to do things while I enjoyed the sunshine and fairly reasonably priced snacks. And there were shows and films I could see, which were fun and interesting. The activities and films were pretty well timed I think to see everything in one day, but again, we weren’t trying to go at a crazy speed. Also, a lot of things were really more interesting for kids, in terms of theme and technology. So maybe in a few years we’ll go back when bébé is a little bigger!

After an Easter brunch in town, we spent Sunday with my husband’s uncle and his family, who he hadn’t seen in a very long time and I hadn’t met before. Even if they don’t celebrate the holiday, it was nice to spend Easter with family, chatting and eating and getting to know the little cousins. And since the previous day had involved lots of walking, it was definitely a good idea to just sit around all afternoon.

Then is was off to Bretagne! I say that like we visited the entire region, but we were only in a tiny part of the Côtes-d’Armor département. I kept calling it the “Côtes d’Amour” by accident, but I don’t think I’m the only one who makes that mistake . . . We stayed in Pléneuf-Val-André and visited the Côte de Granite Rose (Pink Granite Coast due to type of rock you find there). So this part of the trip was more about natural beauty than architecture, though there were a few megalithic structures to see as well. The weather was a little cooler and rainier, but still nice enough in general to enjoy being outside as much as possible.

Bretagne

 

Since we drove so much the previous days, and were looking at an eight hour drive home the next day, Wednesday we stayed in the hotel for most of the day. It was very rainy, so it wasn’t the best weather for exploring anyway. And as you can see in the top two pictures, our view was pretty great, so even if we were being lazy, at least it felt like we were being lazy somewhere special!

We drove home Thursday, which gave us another three days to relax at home, which we usually never have when coming back from a trip. It’s usually a Sunday return trip and then back to work Monday. Even coming back a Saturday is hard, because you have to try and cram grocery shopping and other things into one day. So this way, the easy pace continued through the end of my two-week break. I still feel like I got everything done I needed to, while not stressing myself out even more by trying to do everything in just a few days.

Now just 18 (!!) more days of work until my much longer, much more action-packed “break” . . .

Galette des Rois

The start of the holiday season varies, by country, by family, by individual.

In France, for me, I tend to wait until the town Christmas lights are lit before getting any gifts. It certainly feels more festive to go shopping when the streets are all dressed up. This year, in our new apartment, there were even lights on my street, which made everything seem extra Christmassy.

If I keep saying Christmas, it’s because that’s what it is here, don’t even bother mentioning that other holidays exist during December, all you’ll get is blank stares. Not that I particularly mind, since I do celebrate Christmas. But I’m always torn between how extra festive it seems here, without the constant debate about what word to use or whether the displays are offensive, and my ingrained American political correctness that cringes every time someone wishes me a “Joyeux Noël.” The more general “Bonnes fêtes” is like saying happy holidays, but it’s more to include New Year’s rather than avoid insulting anyone.

The end of the holiday season is a little clearer I think, with Epiphany on January 6th. In my parents’ house, this was always the day we took down the tree and packed up the decorations. This is also what I wanted to do yesterday, but I’ve been dragging my heels, enjoying how pretty our living room looks.

One thing my family never did, but that I would occasionally do in my French immersion school, is the Galette des Rois, or King Cake. It’s a cake with a little trinket in the middle, and whoever discovers it in their slice is the King and gets to wear a paper crown for the rest of the afternoon. (The internet can tell you more about what it means and why we do it; I am too grumpy because I did not get the crown this year.)

While very common all over France, I’m not sure it’s always the same type of cake. In my area of France, they look something like this:

Galette des rois

If that looks a little homemade, that’s because it is! For first time in the six years I’ve experienced this tradition, I made my own galette des rois, entirely from scratch. The filling is leaking out a bit and it’s not quite as golden as the nice bakery ones, but I was pretty pleased with myself. Especially for the puff pastry, which was not especially hard, but took a bit of time and involved a technique I’ve never used before. I had to roll out the dough, put butter in the middle, fold it all up, roll it out, refrigerate it, then roll it again, then more refrigerating and rolling.

I enjoy baking a lot, and it’s something that I am known for doing, particularly in my husband’s family, so I put a lot of pressure on myself when making French desserts. I could make the world’s worst cheesecake and none would be the wiser, but mess up madeleines and they will remember it for years.

Happily, I got all around favorable responses from the in-laws Sunday night, so maybe this will become a new family tradition, to have me bake the cake when we wind down the holiday season. It’s nice to think I’m adding to traditions here, not just experiencing them as an outsider/foreigner.

Now that the season is officially over, there’s nothing but a few bleak months of winter ahead. However, all the work on the pastry yielded enough for a few more tarts, so that’ll be something at least to look forward to!