In the hustle and bustle of a badly-signposted Paris on a Saturday morning in December, my family and I arrived at a bus stop at Gallieni to commence an eight-hour bus journey that took us down to Poitiers (for only 15 euros return!). Despite the comfortable seats and routine breaks every couple of hours at service stations, nothing could relieve the tedium of the journey as it took us from the excitement of the capital city, through picturesque Versailles and eventually into the boringly flat surroundings that make up the French countryside. The final destination of the bus was in Portugal. To those that stayed for the entire duration from Paris, God help them.
My grandparents retired to a very rural part of north-west France called Nanteuil nine years ago, and it was to visit them that we braved this eight-hour bus journey. When they took their dogs for a walk the morning after we arrived, I decided to join them to take in the surroundings. Despite being firmly rooted in the countryside, there were plenty of local shops scattered around and the views surrounding us of French hills and mountains totally contrasted with the flat lands that we endured throughout the journey from Paris. My grandparents said ‘bonjour’ to the few people that we passed by, and the area had the pleasant air of a quaint village community.
In the few days before Christmas, my grandparents drove us to Saint Maixent, Poitiers and La Rochelle. Saint Maixent’s beautiful Abbey Church and impressive history as a border town between Catholic and Protestant parts of France made it an ideal location for a gentle wander (and, being a student of French, a perfect way to improve my poor translation skills as most of the signs were not translated into English); Poitiers, on the other hand, is a charming city full of little cafes and twee shops where you can lounge about and relax, whilst La Rochelle was full of bustling market stalls and, of course, its famous beach – perfect for a spot of sunbathing and forgetting all thoughts of essays and dissertations (or it would be in summer).
Not that we could complain about the weather. Gone were the bleak Irish (and no doubt also Scottish) rain, hail, sleet and, well, more rain; we discovered, to our surprise, that the French weather had performed a Christmas miracle that is even unusual for that part of the world in this time of year: sunshine, blue skies and temperatures of around ten degrees, and that was on Christmas Day.
Spending Christmas Day away from home was unusual, but still being around family meant that the experience was not that unusual – we sat around, drank very nice French alcohol and had a traditional Christmas dinner. Though turkey is not normally a tradition in France, my grandparents managed to buy a frozen one in the supermarket. The only thing missing? The Christmas crackers. We just replaced them with normal crackers and plenty of French cheese, which no-one could complain about.
But what was the experience of spending Christmas in a different country like? Well, after the meal we transported ourselves (alcoholic beverages in hand) to le salon, permanently rooted ourselves into a comfortable seat and watched Casablanca, whilst I inwardly complained throughout about how much I hate that bloody film and would rather watch The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. All in all, not that different to what normally happens.