The following is a true story from our last Christmas in France.
Christmas for expats is the loneliest time of the year. You’re far from home, no family, few friends… I’m not a very social person by nature, but the feeling of being locked out in the cold is inescapable. It’s Christmas Eve night, 2008, and we’re going out for a midnight walk through our small village of Herbignac. Around me, the stone walls of our house encompass a little pocket of warmth – The den is decorated with lights strung through the ceiling beams, holly on the mantle, and our Christmas tree stands in the corner decked out in the best we can manage, with LED lights doing their slow fading, color changing dance.
I’m waiting for my wife to get ready. Christmas Eve midnight always seems like the coldest night of the year, and it’s impossible to dress too warmly. While she bundles up, I stare thoughtfully at the tree, thinking about Christmas and where our lives are going… We’re not staying in France, we can’t afford it. Crippling taxes have crushed the life out of our business and we’re done – We know there’s no way we can carry on into 2009, and we’ll be returning to the states one way or another. I watch the lights, thinking about the house around me. Home for seven hard years. We did our best to bring it to life and shape it into something good, but I know in my heart that this is the last time I’ll be standing in this den in this foreign land… Still strange and alien, in so many ways, even for all the time we’ve been here.
When Emily is ready, we’re out the door into the frigid night. There’s no snow here, but the cobblestone streets glisten wet from the unending rains and reflect the colorful holiday lights above. The whole village is strung with decorations, their colors echoing a human defiance of the brooding grey winter all around. It’s like that here at Christmas… The town is empty and dark after sunset, no people ever seen, but the lights shine on through the night. You’d think it was a ghost town, or some deserted European village set from a 1940’s Frankenstein film. Sometimes the streets and stone buildings seem carved from one single gigantic rock, a hollowed out chunk of impervious granite.
We cross the rond-point and start the walk uphill to the center of the village. I know the church has a midnight service but that’s not what draws us. It’s more a strange, wistful longing just to see someone… Another human being, people with families, friends wishing each other goodnight and happy holidays, all the warm social connections we’ve felt so apart from for so long here.
Overhead, flag cables clang against their poles with that mournful ringing that always sounds so much like ship’s rigging. I know this bell sound is something I’ll carry for life, it and the faint sea salt smell of the air, whenever I close my eyes and remember this moment. Up the hill, the immense church looms against the black sky and our footsteps echo on the sidewalk stones. The emptiness is so strange, something I still can’t wrap my head around… Walk downtown at midnight in most US cities and if you don’t get mugged, you’ll find open restaurants, clubs, bars, and all the signs of civilization as nighthawks jostle past you living their after hours lives. Here, the evening village looks like a child’s playset with all the dolls removed… Perfect, scenic, quaint, “action figures sold separately”.
The street into centre ville runs up past the church and opens into the center square, lit up with green and red lights that cross over the road like paths of stars. The church service is just letting out and it’s a unique experience – Literally the only time in our seven years that we’ve seen anyone but ourselves out on the sidewalks at this hour. On the church steps, friends and family talk, argue, and say their goodbyes. We slip through them and step inside and for a few moments, we’re almost warm. The vaulted ceiling won’t ever let it be cozy in here, but at least we’re out of the freezing wind. We wander idly around the entry, invisible to the locals immersed in their private lives and closed circles. It’s a beautiful church on the inside but I can’t help but wonder, “Where is god in all this grandeur? People have made this a building worth seeing, true, but is it to impress a higher power or just ourselves?”
No easy answers. “I’ll never see any of this again”, I think, and try to absorb the entirety of the scene somehow, pulling it in through my skin and freezeframing it in my memory, even the bits that cut. After a while it starts to empty out and we’d best be on our way. Outside, it feels even colder now, but at least the wind has stopped. The last cars are driving off and that preternatural Breton stillness is descending. It won’t be long before the village is empty again, a deserted movie set with all the crew gone home. Silent night.
Our footsteps echo quietly as we cross the square to head back toward home. Unexpectedly, there’s someone else on the sidewalk ahead of us. It’s startling… We never meet anyone out walking like this, not in seven years. It’s an elderly lady in a heavy coat. She stops at the edge of the sidewalk, waiting. As we pass by her, she looks up at us and speaks in a tired but friendly voice.
“Joyeux Noël”, she says.
For a second I don’t even know how to respond… I was expecting her to ignore us like the people at the church did. Then we both recover and answer, “Joyeux Noël” in return, in sync. She smiles, we smile, and then we’re past her, walking down the hill. I’m tempted to turn and look back. Will she still be there, I wonder, or will she have vanished like some Christmas ghost? Is the street behind me empty?
I don’t turn and look. I’d rather not know.
At the bottom of the hill is our house, lit up by the streetlights and serenaded by the clang of the flag rigging. I wonder where I’ll be sleeping this time next year. I wonder what the new year will bring. And I look up into the black sky at the million stars overhead and think to myself, “Merry Christmas.”