An Impromptu Carol Squad in Paris

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It isn’t easy to get into the Christmas spirit on a damp evening in Paris, where the lights don’t shine as brightly and cheerfully as they do back home. But sometimes something magical happens that rekindles the holiday spirit, as Claire Fallou discovered one evening while trudging back to her apartment after a long day’s work.

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By Claire Fallou

It gets quite drab in late autumn along the bleak parking lots and grey slabs of concrete that make up the back of Gare de Lyon. The sun has long set when I get out from my work at the French Ministry of Finance, and the only light is provided by a few street lamps which cast meager halos on the black pavement. The rain is falling in a cold drizzle; I pull my hood over my head, shove my hands down my pockets and start making my way up Rue de Bercy, along the grey train station, to get to my little sublet near Bastille.

Some of the street lamps are now wearing their Christmas fairy lights. That’s new. I guess they could look nice, but for now the garlands are just hanging sadly, like wet hair in the rain, and there are yet too few of them to convey much of a Christmas spirit.

I pass many bus stops on my way, small glass sheds that glisten in the night, each bearing the number of a line that would take me home. I don’t waver, though, because I need the walk to clear my head after a long day’s work.

FR Carol 1Today has been quite rough. I love my job and I consider it a privilege to be a small part of the team that strives to decide how France should best address the Eurozone crisis. Yet the pressure and complexity get tiring now and then, and some evenings all the emails and phone calls from the day keep playing in my head until well into the night.

Should we wait for the new paper by the Commission before sending that briefing to the Minister?

My stomach gives a rumble. The good Chinese might still be open if I hurry.

No, we can’t wait that long. We need to persuade the Germans to go with us on this, as quick as possible.

A hot soup would be nice too.

A few silhouettes are walking the other way, their heads invisible under large umbrellas whose stretched black canvases are shiny with raindrops.

Let’s discuss it with François tomorrow.

The office towers on my left are empty and black.

I should have planned something fun for tonight.

FR Carol 2Suddenly a woman passes me, walking briskly, leaving behind her a heavy trail of musky perfume that covers the smells of gas and dusty rain. Behind her I see a line of well-wrapped children on scooters, four or five of them, ranked by height like a neat little duckling brotherhood. One by one they pass me, serious and fast, their faces as delicate and shiny as ghosts’. The speed of their motion makes the air move against my left flank and the rubber on their wheels squishes on the wet ground.

And they’re singing. My left hear catches a hum through the motion, the French version of a song I know: Les Anges dans nos Campagnes – Angels We Have Heard On High. My favorite carol, coming out of their chests in a very approximate high-pitched unison.

The eldest is gloveless and standing straight on his scooter, pushing hard on his vocal cords, which gives a dramatic Russian vibe to the result. A second one comes, then a third. The youngest at the end is a red-cheeked little girl in a pink coat and white beanie, whose body leans defensively backwards and small hands cling to the handlebar with both hope and terror. Her mouth is so tense that she can only manage the vowels on the cascading Glorias, without much of a tune at all; but her rhythm is okay, and she sounds like a reedy little bell on a Christmas carriage. All the while her tiny legs are pushing hard against the pavement; in truth she seems more focused on keeping up the pace than on celebrating the angels. But still she’s trying.

Nobody in Paris ever sings in the street. I’m not surprised that the only ones who do would turn out to be children.

FR Carol 3Angels We Have Heard On High is the one carol we used to sing all together at Mass, my three brothers and I, every year at Christmas. When the first well-known notes sprang up from the organ, at the end of the service, we would exchange knowing looks and huddle close together, aware that this was the very last hymn and that we’d soon be tearing open the golden wrap around our presents. In the warm candle-lit stone chapel we’d sing the words at the top of our voices, shoving and smirking and trying not to giggle. Only little Adrian would work seriously from beginning to end, frowning deeply over the paper booklet, as independent and unshakeable as ever. Meanwhile the elders’ voices would playfully rise and swell on the Glorias and the De-eee-ooooos, amid the prayer of the entire congregation; I would race them to the chapel’s arched ceiling, pushing hard inside my throat, and lose. Later on my vocal range moved to a whole other part of the keyboard, which nicely completed theirs, but that was the last year we attended Midnight Mass together.

The children disappear behind me as fast as they came. The last note I hear is followed by silence.

I’m in the mood for home and joy now. My own temporary dwelling will do fine; I will light some candles when I get there, perhaps bake some gingerbread.

© 2013, Claire Fallou

Claire Fallou is a travel writer who writes in both English and French. Two of her pieces can be found  in Vignette & Postcards: Writings from the Evening Writing Workshop at Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, Paris, edited by award-winning Erin Byrne. Her reporting on economic and cultural affairs has appeared in La Tribune, The Financial Times and various culture-oriented websites.



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