In Praise of the American Christmas

Right after thanksgiving, Americans are often torn between two contrasting sentiments.  The first is "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year", where one abandons oneself to the pent-up desires to play Christmas music and decorate the tree while drinking egg nog.  The other is disgust and often complaining about the rush and distractions of the uber-busy and psychotic consumerism embodied in violent mega-store incidents at 2am on black friday.

And yes, there are things amiss in the way Americans generally celebrate Christmas.  But I would like to take a moment to celebrate the vision of Christmas that most Americans hold, because I personally find it wonderful and even wonder-filling.

Ask anyone to name five things associated with Christmas and you could easily get five different things.  Name twenty Christmas songs?  Easily.  American Christmas is amazingly multi-dimensional, considering that it's traditions are relatively short-lived (compared to European counterparts, that is).

Christmas is, of course, foremost the celebration of Christ's coming, but it is also a celebration of gifts.  Family.  Generosity.  Parties.  Lights.  Winter.  The passing of another year.  Music.  And food:  Cookies of scores of holiday varieties.  Egg Nog. Custard.  Cocoa.  All things flavored with nutmeg.

Can all these things distract from our understanding and contemplation of the incarnation of Christ?  They can, but I am not convinced that they must.  Because I think that all these things are the traditions, the fabric, the stuff of celebration.  They can create the picture frame for the image of the incarnation, reminding that this really is the same old story whose importance and wonder makes it worth telling over and over again, year after year.

All the unique caroling melodies, color combinations, pine smells, peppermint flavors, and lighted homes come out just one a year to add to the thickness of our celebration, just as the winter season itself calls for an increase in layers.

The diverse visions of American Christmas go on and on.  The Currier and Ives and Norman Rockwell.  The 1950's Coca Cola Santa Pictures.  Jimmy Stewart and Bedford Falls.  Clay-mation Rudolph.  Bing Crosby and his crowd of crooners in the ski lodges.  The Peanuts gang sliding around on the ice with their too-short legs.  All of these are some kind of ideal, and probably none of them have really existed.  But they fill our imaginations and we watch their movies and put together jigsaw puzzles which bear their diverse images.

Thus, if you ask me, I would say, that if all these things bring you joy, embrace it as the joy of your celebration of the birth of Christ, as disparate as it may seem.  The milieu of the American Christmas can be a blessing, and it's our own and others' expectations that will run us over,  not your favorite snack or your favorite movie.


Our Wee-Home Whilst in Paris

Some of you have heard us mention our digs in Paris.  Great city - Famously expensive.  Rachel discovered Housetrip.com, where you can rent people's homes, mostly studio apartment, for your stay.  At the last minute, the tiniest (and least expensive) place opened up, and we grabbed it.

Here were the photos we saw online:  As  you can see, it's a one-room studio with a loft, and a couch downstairs, with a kitchenette and bathroom to the left.  Note the fish-eye lens.  I don't think this is used primarily to make it seem bigger.  I think it's impossible to photograph the room while inside it with a normal lens.

But you can't beat the location.  We were "A".  The Louvre is "B" and Notre Dame is "C".  Google mapped the A-B-C route as 30 minutes walking

So, what was it actually like.  Well, the building has the most awesomely irregular stairs.  Ben loved to slowly climb them each day.  The wood was totally polished.  Our flat was on the 3rd floor (by the American nomenclature).

Note the lack of anything of anything level.

Here's a regular view in the front door.  The back of the room is right there.  Maggie slept on the couch, and Ben on a duvet cover on the floor next to her.  So, every night at 8pm, Rachel and I retired to the loft to study, read, and plan by the light of a single lamp until we went to sleep.  It was actually quite nice.

The bathroom wasn't insanely tiny, and the kids loved playing in it.

You can see here the back of the front door.  Note the window.  It opened into a 4'x4' space, where one could see the sky if you looked straight up a few floors.  I'm in the "kitchen" here, where we cooked breakfast every morning, and a couple dinners.  The TV table folded out to become a dining table, but then I was trapped in the corner by the table and ladder until eating was done.

So, all in all, it was perfect for our family, and we're thankful.


Less Famous Glimpses of Paris

We certainly filled our days in Paris with the most famous of sites.  There really are just so many famous places there that, in four days, it's hard to move on to anything else.  

But, in contrast to the more classic Madeline views, we thought we would try and provide some views of Paris that are not so ultimately familiar.

Looking up the Eiffel Tower from the 2nd deck.

These two in the subway chairs.  Ben loved them to the point of we wouldn't sit in them for just a couple minutes, because he was apt to cry when leaving them.

This is from in front of Sacre Coeur.  We had been told that there were a bunch of street performers there, and there were.  This guy was the best.  He was juggling a soccer ball on the concrete platform below.  Very impressive by itself.  Then he started spinning the ball on a little pen, stuck it in his mouth, climbed the lamp post, and swung from the light, with the spinning soccer ball outstretched with a great view of Paris at dusk behind him.  Click on it to enlarge.

If you asked the kids for the highlights, they would probably mention quacking at the ducks here.

Or maybe playing in the nearby playground in Luxembourg Gardens.

 This is looking out of Musee d'Orsay at the Louvre, on the opposite side of the Seine.

 The immensity of the Louvre was staggering despite expecting it to be huge.  This was looking out a window of one wing, looking at the other wing.

Notre Dame Cathedral turns 850 years old next year.  I think my favorite part of the exterior is the endless statues.  Here, above the doorway, there are just rows and rows of statues.  Do we know who they all are? Is it lost to history somewhere?

On a few of the bridges across the Seine, people take a lock, bind it to the bridge, and toss the key into the river, generally as a sign of undying love for someone.  This was the most lock-encrusted.

In this case, the rainbow came right before the rain.  The Hotel de Ville, under the rainbow on the left, was 2 minutes walk from our place.

Thanks to Nicholas Cage and National Treasure 2, I knew that there was more than one Statue of Liberty. We saw 3 in Paris alone.  I think this one didn't really count, because it was a model, but I think it's been here in Luxembourg Garden since the early 1800s.

From inside the Louvre pyramid.

I guess this is pretty famous, but Saint Chapelle's stain glass really was breathtaking.

Given the soft spot in my heart for buskers, I thought it was great when 3 accordions and a sax boarded our train for Versailles and started playing.


Our Travel Map from Last Year

I went to the trouble of making this map a couple months ago, so I figured I should post it.  This is our year in the US, at least the major travel points.  The red is plane flights.  The black is our boat to Alaska.  Whoa.

(click to enlarge)

(by the way, this is our 600th post on this blog)


Madeline's Paris

Well, we're back from our little foray to Paris.  It was a good and tiring time, and we'll probably put up a couple of posts on it.  For a general perusal of some of the famous sites of Paris that you probably already know, I thought we could do it through the eyes of Madeline.

To try and prep Maggie for this trip, we would read her copy of Madeline and point out some of the places that we were going to see.  Other people have done this kind of thing on the web already, but here you go:

First off, the cover shot, with the Eiffel Tower, the one Maggie was most excited to see.
It was blustery, but we did go all the way to the top.

Place de la Concorde is actually on the inset in the front of the first Madeline book, but I couldn't find a copy of that one, so this illustration is one of the later books.

And here, our photo of the same.

 "Invalides", or what Maggie calls "The Golden Dome".  I guess this was a home for wounded soldiers.  In Madeline, this is where the girls were "sometimes very sad".

We didn't have time to go into the courtyard, but we walked around it, while waiting for the Rodin museum to open.

Luxembourg Gardens: The girls took their walk "in rain or shine"

This is us sitting by the pool, with the same mansion behind us.  The kids loved the ducks as well as the nearby playground.

Maggie chasing the pigeons.

 Notre Dame is where the girls go walking "in rain"

This is the closest en face shot that we have.

Tuileries Garden, between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde, is where Miss Clavel decides that it's a fine day to visit Madeline.  You can see the Louvre in the background with its big arch.

Here's the Louvre from the other side of the arch.  We didn't take a lot of pictures in the gardens, because...
 ...we were doing this instead.

Sacre Coeur, in the background here, really is beautiful.  "Madeline loved winter, snow, and ice."

Thankfully, no ice for us, but rather a carousel, Maggie's absolute favorite.  Ben went on too, but just wanted to keep switching animals.

Place Vendrome is where the girls "frown at the bad". 

 And the thief knew what he was doing, since these shops are expensive.  Rachel found earrings starting at 13,000 Euros.  I saw diamond skeleton Halloween earrings.  Really?