Critique & critic
Christmas is the occasion to bond tightly with the family. You see your differences, your resemblances… And more often than not, what you swear you will not be like them one day.
I barely see my family, as I live in London and they are spread around France, Switzerland and Germany. So, when the occasion presents itself to spend a bit of time with my mother, I jump on it. Even with all the effort in the world, I often struggle to understand her. The gap of 36 years is the difference between getting a rap on the knuckles at school and playing Gameboy in detention. When she was 6, my mother used to write with a nib and an inkpot. When she was my age, she managed to live one week without electricity in the Alpes, when avalanches destroyed the power cables. She talks about it is like she enjoyed every minute of the experience! The last time my internet connection broke, I called Pizza Hut after ten minutes only to hear a human voice.
Christmas has another meaning in my mother’s memory. At that time, Coca Cola was still unknown in those far away villages and Santa Klaus’s sweet name was Hanstrapp. Forget about the sympathetic old man with his sack of gifts. My mother has peculiar remembrances of a villain with a chain. The 1960’s Father Christmas came to the family home to punish my aunt “who has been a naughty girl all year”. Threatening to kidnap her on his sledge – conveniently parked downstairs – he traumatised the poor child. I do not know if Freud would see a link, but my aunt is now so stingy that she cheats on the tube at 63 years old. My mother suspects my grandmother to have been part of the trick but no evidence has been found yet.
Apart from “what is that stain I see on your face, come here”, the statement I have heard the most in my childhood must be “look how meagre you are! Neighbours will gossip if you do not eat more!”. At her time, being fat was a sign of wealth and luxury. The direct translation is “if you are overweight it must be that your family has means to feed you”. I guess it is in that idea that each time she stops by my place, it is always with provisions for a month. I do not know whether she is afraid of the content of my cupboards, or of a sudden famine. This year, I did not say anything when it was about chocolates and cakes, they are always welcome, but when it came to cheeses I had a brief fright. To give you an idea, the French army is currently undertaking a chemical weapons project based on extract of Munster and Reblochon. My mother sounded so enthusiastic about the durable properties of stinky cheeses (“one or two months easy”) that I had to feign a smile to hide my thoughts. It is only when even my orange juice smelled like old socks that I dared to complain. I tried to explain that my partiality for food usually follows it having at least an appealing smell; unfortunately the only thing she got is that I am an “unpatriotic cheese racist”.
Amongst all these differences, my mother and I still have some common points. Last summer we went to the Perigord, a region of France famous for its foie gras production. Do not judge me, but the suffering of the geese will unfortunately never overcome their taste once cooked. Anyway, we both took away many jars with us. What happened to mine is a very sad story including a romantic dinner with five different types of breads and a huge disillusion when none of the jars would open at the crucial moment. If you did not know it, it means that the content is mouldy, as I discovered after numerous efforts and tears. So imagine my joy when my mother brought with her the last jar. And my disappointment when it would not open… I started to suspect a plot. The merchant must have flogged his rotten merchandise to us! My mother was ready to take up arms, when I asked her few questions. After a short enquiry I discovered that understanding electronic is not in our genes, and that playing with temperature is definitely not a good way of conserving foie gras.
If our relationship is not always full of comprehension, I never forget that my mother, as far as she comes from, is not without good philosophy. Like when I asked her what was her best Christmas memory. She always reminisces with pleasure when she was a little girl singing with the family in front of the Christmas tree. Maybe it is not the wise thought you were expecting for a conclusion, but I found it far better than my aunt’s response; “1995 Tesco promotion, one log bought, one log offered”.