Most Christmases, throughout the sixties and seventies, we would set off for Paris from our small Sussex village in a green Austin 1100, which in due course was deposed by an ugly blue Austin Maxi. Unfettered by seat belts, my sister and I fought in the back of the car. The Newhaven to Dieppe sailing, always aboard the Villandry or the Valençay, took four hours, and the cross country drive to Paris took the same time again. I cannot overstate the difference eight hours made, between the village and the city, the English and the French, the deeply rural and the utterly, compellingly cosmopolitan.
It’s a long time ago now but there are certain things I still remember about Christmas Day there. At Ninou’s, my grandmother’s, we ate oysters sometimes and drank champagne always. Lunch was long. Afterwards, my father manoeuvred the Austin along the Champs Élysées and around the Etoile with Ninou at his side, her face almost touching the windscreen, crying “à gauche! A gauche! Non, à droite maintenant!”. Crowds surged along the gorgeously lit avenue, all of us dressed in what at home we still called our Sunday Best. At dusk, on our way home to our grandmother’s, my sister and I delighted in the sight of bare breasted young women, their fur coats pulled wide open for all to see, hawking their wares at the side of the road in the Bois de Boulogne. After dinner, unbeknownst to my family, I puffed at a Gauloise from the attic window.
Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and followers of Prem Rawat: our French family came together for this most Christian of festivals.
This photograph was taken in 1970, and shows my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my sister and me. On the back, my mother has written ‘Quatre générations…. garde-la précieusement’.
My sister and I are keeping the memories of Christmases past preciously as our mother would have wished, and I am passing them on to my son as she would also have wanted. This Christmas is our third without her. In London, we will sit down with our father, and toast our family and friends with champagne, looking to our future as well as to the past.
Joyeux Noël à tous!