It was Christmas Eve, and no one was telling me what to do. I wasn’t following traditions or making excuses for not going to church. I could do what I wanted, and what I wanted was a big, wine-sodden dinner with the Reid family at la Pistache.
We planned a non-traditional Christmas dinner of beef tenderloin, a tantalizing cut of meat Carol and Michelle chose that morning at the Meat Nazi. They stalled the Meat Nazi’s famous lineup, which snaked out the door, past lecherous Monsieur Bon Appetit’s stall, as the male butcher brazenly flirted. He ignored me, pretending I wasn’t married to one object of his desire. Everyone was meat shopping for Christmas dinner, but no one looked upset by the delay, placid faces of tolerance all. A combination of “it’s-their-turn-so-they-can-take-as-long-as-they-want-and-I’ll-take-a-long-time-when-it’s-my-turn-too,” and “it’s-a-man’s-obligation-to-flirt-with-pretty-women-so-who-am-I-to-object?”
We started our party at the Reids’ house, champagne and amuse-bouches: crab cakes with lemon slices, rolled smoked salmon cigars with caper-dill relish, and tiny leek tarts. We continued our moveable feast at la Pistache. The children trampolined on beds upstairs, and the adults crowded our kitchen to watch Carol make dinner.
“Get out of here, you guys, or we’ll never get to eat,” she said after 15 minutes letting us help. “Let me finish this and I’ll be out in a minute.”
We settled around our dining room table for more champagne and roquefort mini quiches I prepared that morning. Carol bustled in the kitchen until calling out the five minute warning. I said to Michelle and Jordan, “Would either of you like to influence the choice of wine?” I held a bottle to my chest, label side in.
“Uhh, what? No, of course not, you choose,” said Jordan.
“Don’t mind him,” said Carol, stepping from the kitchen. “That’s an inside joke. Remember we said Nickipedia knows everything about everything? That goes double for wine. He picks the wine because everyone knows he’s the expert. One time we were in a Paris restaurant and we assumed he’d choose the wine, and he assumed he’d choose the wine, but he didn’t want to look arrogant. So he said, ‘Would either of you like to influence the choice of wine?’ and we’ve laughed about that line ever since.”
“You’ve already chosen, so what is it Bill?” asked Jordan.
“A Clos de Vougeot pinot noir. It should be good with the beef.” I handed the bottle to Jordan so he could examine the label.
“How do you know that’s the right wine?” asked Michelle. “But I’m sure it is.”
“I’m pretty sure pinot noir is the right grape, but I’m no expert. I chose this one because I dated a girl from the winery in Burgundy. You were in high school, Carol, so I can say that.” I poured wine and the four children came to the table, red-faced from laughter. Carol brought in steaming plates of beef, wild mushrooms and ratatouille, to the mouth-watering of all. We passed serving dishes and plates were filled. Once the baguette basket made the rounds, Jordan stood and raised his glass.
“I want to propose a toast,” he said. “We’d like to thank the Crows for celebrating this Christmas dinner with us, while we’re far away from our families in Canada and the States. We’re lucky to be living this incredible life in our adopted country. To good friendships and all we have to be thankful for. Santé!” Everyone touched glasses. The children leaned dangerously over the table so they could reach the far side with their sirops.
“Santé!” “To the Crows!” “Santé!”
Yes, I thought, I am lucky to be right here, right now, with my family and these wonderful people. This is my happiest moment in Aix, which is odd, coming so soon after one of my lowest. I must hold onto this feeling, appreciate what’s right in front of me, not agonize over everything I’ve messed up. I must use this feeling of contentment to move my life forward. I can do it. I have to do it. I want to feel like this all the time.
“We’re so happy to be here, you guys,” said Michelle, once everyone sat. “I’m starting to feel at home in Aix, and with our families making such a great fit, it’s so much better.”
“You’re happy to have someone to complain about the French to,” I said.
“It’s more fun at soccer games when we make snide remarks in English, Bill,” said Jordan. “What was last week’s record? 1:12?”
“1:12?” asked Devon. “What does 1:12 mean?”
“It’s a ratio, Dev,” I said. “Do you know what a ratio is? It means you played soccer, say for 20 minutes, but all the other time we spent waiting for late people and driving around lost and waiting for everything to start because your coach gave us the wrong time, and waiting for you after the game and driving home and everything else connected to French organizational ineptitude was 12 times as long. So if you played for 20 minutes, the total time we invested in soccer was four hours.”
“What does ineptitude mean?” asked Devon.
“It’s the reason France hasn’t been the centre of the universe for hundreds of years,” said Jordan.
“That’s not what they teach at school, in history class,” said Sophie. “France is the centre of everything.”
“Let’s not focus on negatives,” said Michelle, ever the brimming optimist. “It’s good to learn patience, and we have so many great things going on here. Let’s look at what we’re thankful for. What does everyone like about living here? You start, Bill.”
“Me first? Okay. Well, I love the food. Thank you ladies for everything you made for dinner tonight.” I leaned over and gave Carol a kiss on the cheek.
Carol pushed me away gently and said, “Is that your real answer, or are you sucking up?”
“My real answer,” I said, “what I love the most, is never saying ‘no, I’m too busy’ to the kids. I have time to do whatever they want. In Vancouver I was constantly thinking of other stuff I had to do instead of enjoying aimless fun with the kids.”
“That’s not true,” said Sophie. She put one hand on her waist and shook her finger like a school marm. “You tell us you’re too busy here, too. Like two weeks ago when you weren’t talking to anyone and you were mad all the time. You didn’t want to do anything with us. What happened to Vacation Daddy?”
“Thanks Soph,” I said. “I’m sure everyone wanted to hear that.” I felt heat rise in my face, because what she said was true. Despite my enviable French life, I experienced short bursts of depression as my sabbatical quickly flowed past me. Each time I blinked, another day, another month rushed by without resolution to my professional crisis. Not a “mid-life crisis,” because that suggested I experienced contentment for a long period, and only felt working-life malaise as I aged. I had been in crisis forever, and ran halfway around the world to solve it. I wasn’t sure I could solve it, but I would drink better wine while I tried.
“Most of the time you’re fun here, daddy,” said Sophie, with a smile no father could resist.
“Nice save attempt, Sophie,” I said. “Anyway, I’m sticking with my answer. What about you, Michelle?”
Michelle put her glass down and scrunched her brow before her face brightened. “I’m feeling like a local now, so that’s been great. People ask me for directions, and I know the answers!” Michelle worked diligently at bilingualism, but what she lacked in perfect French was compensated by lovability.
“Me too,” I said. “I think I have the right clothes and I know how to shrug, so I look local. Until they hear my Québécois accent.”
“Did you say, ‘the right clothes?,’ ” asked Michelle. “I think you have a scarf deficiency.”
“I know, I know. That’s been tough for me, but I’m almost ready for one. I want to be immersed in this society. Despite my scarf issues, I have to say, as soon as I was back in France, hanging out in cafés, I felt like I did 20 years ago. I was immediately comfortable. That’s what I love here, feeling like I’ve adopted French relaxation and coolness techniques well enough to fit in.”
“You took another turn,” said Carol.
“Sorry, but there are so many positives here, I need more than one turn. Go ahead, Carol.”
“Oh, me? Okay.” Carol looked at our children, who beamed at her. “For me, it’s all the time with the kids, and you, Billy. I’m not as comfortable as you guys in Aix because my French isn’t as good.”
“It’s getting a lot better,” I said.
“Thanks,” said Carol. “All that extra time also allows me to reassess what is important to me. In my old life I’d say, ‘If I had time to do yoga every day, I would.’ But now that I can do yoga every day, I’ve realized it gets boring. When we’re back in Vancouver, yoga three times a week will be great.”
“Is no one going to mention the wine?” asked Jordan, pouring Carol another glass. “I think everyone’s lying. The wine is by far the best thing here. I should probably be a bit more careful.”
“Our consumption is up quite a bit too,” said Carol, taking a sip.
“Mum, remember when you got drunk in Paris?” asked Sophie. She giggled with her brother. The Reid girls looked shocked Sophie would speak that way to her parent.
“I didn’t get drunk. What?”
“Yes you did,” said Sophie, “At that apartment, La Bohème, remember?”
“Oh yeah, you’re right,” said Carol, “but it wasn’t my fault.”
I felt it time to teach the children a lesson, so I said, “No Carol, you know each person is responsible for their own alcohol intake. You can’t blame your drunkenness on anyone else.”
“But we had dinner with Nickipedia that night,” she said.
“Okay, I forgot about that,” I said. I twisted the corkscrew on another bottle of pinot noir, and popped the cork for emphasis. “That’s the exception to the rule. Each person is responsible for their own alcohol intake, unless Nickipedia is involved. Then it’s clearly Nickipedia’s fault if you get drunk. The wine he serves is too good.”
“I think that rule is fair,” said Carol, holding her glass for a refill.
“What about the teenagers In Aix?” asked Michelle. “They aren’t part of the Nickipedia rule, but their drinking is crazy.”
“I haven’t seen it as too terrible,” said Carol.
“Wait until the festivals,” said Michelle. “During spring carnival, Proxi on Richelme sold full-size, glass bottles of rosé to drunken teenagers for five euros. They set up a big cooler, right on the square.”
“Good idea!” I said. “What could possibly go wrong?”
“Downtown was broken glass everywhere.”
“That’s another good thing about Aix,” I said. “Everyone goes a little crazy once in a while, there aren’t any rules, and the next day city workers clean everything up. I like the idea of letting loose, living, you know, the joie de vivre as they say – I’ve spent so much time following rules and doing everything according to plan and worrying about everything.”
“You want to get drunk downtown daddy?” asked Devon.
“No, Dev, that’s not what I meant. I meant it’s a good way to live your life, paying attention to your experiences, having fun, living in the now.”
“But aren’t we always living now, since it’s….like, you know…..now?” asked Devon.
“Living in the now, Dev. That’s different.”
“Whatever,” said Devon. “I kinda get it. But when do we get the 13 desserts? I wanna live in the now, so I want them now.” The 13 desserts were a Provençal tradition we adopted. As the name implied, 13 different desserts were trotted out each Christmas Eve, 13 being the number of the birthday boy and 12 apostles. We cheated and bought a pre-packaged assortment of 13, but at the market that morning it was obvious many locals did the same.
“You probably won’t eat all 13 tonight, Dev,” I said. “Tradition says the desserts stay on the table for three days.”
“Dad, you said we should live in the now. Who knows what desserts will be left in three days? I’m not waiting.” Devon sidled up to the buffet where I had left the 13 desserts.
As everyone laughed, I wondered exactly when my son became smarter than me. He was right – I had to enjoy what was right in front of me, at that moment. Take those feelings of gratitude, joy, optimism, and love, everything I felt about that night and the people in that room, and let those feelings wash over me, bathe in them, revel in them. If I could do that every day, I had the recipe for a fulfilling life. Hours later, we stood on the terrasse on a surprisingly warm night, making many-kisses goodbyes. I stood on tippy-toes and kissed both cheeks of the towering Jordan, aware I was drunk and realizing I wouldn’t be kissing him if I wasn’t. Maybe I would have – I was that happy. I wondered whether it was my best Christmas ever. Even better than the Christmas seven-year-old me received a Great Garloo robot, after it was on my list for three years. A story for another time.