Stopping By − Holiday traditions: Foie gras and champagne for Noel

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.

 

Clement Hossaert, photo by Marcus Larson/News-Register

Marcus Larson/News-Register
Clement Hossaert, who is spending the year in McMinnville on a Fulbright scholarship, is looking forward to returning home to Lille, in northern France, to spend New Year’s with his family.

Dec. 14, 2015
By Starla Pointer of the News-Register

With Christmas and New Year’s coming up, Clement Hossaert has been thinking about how he grew up celebrating the holidays with his family in northern France.

Enjoying capon, foie gras and his dad’s freshly prepared Coquilles St. Jacques during a Christmas lunch with his grandparents. Watching his favorite Christmas movies, the Disney version of “A Christmas Carol” with Scrooge McDuck and “The Santa Clause” with Tim Allen.

Listening to his parents read Christmas stories or tell him about how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien helped develop our legends about the elves and reindeer. Asking for Christmas gifts such as radio-controlled cars, books and movies when they took him to the mall in his hometown of Lille, a city with medieval roots about two hours north of Paris.

This year, Hossaert won’t be home for Christmas. He’ll be spending the holiday in New Orleans with fellow Fulbright scholars. But as the year draws to a close, he will return to France for the first time since he came to Linfield College in August.

“New Year’s is way more of a holiday for me, anyway,” he said, explaining that Christmas is a secular, not religious, event at home. “It’s important to be with friends and family on New Year’s,” he said.

He’ll welcome in 2016 with friends and spend time with his parents and two older brothers. His folks may throw a big party on New Year’s Eve, as well, serving their traditional onion soup late in the evening.

On New Year’s Day, everyone will watch concerts on television, such as a program of Strauss waltzes broadcast live from Vienna.

And, of course, they’ll pour Champagne. “We have Champagne for every celebration,” he said.

Hossaert, 23, is spending the year at Linfield as a Fulbright teaching assistant. He said he’s here to improve his English while helping Linfield students master French.

He also plans to take a Spanish class in the spring.

This fall, he’s led two conversation classes and met individually with some students to practice their conversation. He talks to students about French civilization and culture and encourages them with activities such as role-playing, debates and a Halloween party planned entirely in French.

Hossaert, who majored in French and American literature in college, plans to become a professor.

He’s enjoyed reading since he was a child. As a teen, he said, he began reading books from other French-speaking countries and from the U.S.

“American literature was more … genuine,” he said. He loved novels such as “The Scarlet Letter” and “Moby Dick.”

He loved American movies, as well. When it came time to write his master’s thesis, he chose a combination of those two loves: He compared the writings of French author Flaubert and the films of American moviemakers Joel and Ethan Coen.

He applied for the Fulbright program so he could improve his English skills.

When the program told him he’d be going to McMinnville, he looked it up on the Internet and discovered the UFO-related history. Now he’s looking forward to experiencing the UFO Festival next May.

Four months into his U.S. stay, he said he finds that “here people are awfully nice.”

His fellow French citizens aren’t open like Americans, he said. They are polite and return greetings, but shy away from interacting with strangers.

Americans are more casual, as well.

In France, Hossaert said, he uses the formal form of his language to address people who are older or in positions of importance — a teacher, for instance — even if they’re his own age. But here, he’s getting used to using people’s first names.

Linfield Professor Peter Richardson, for instance, has chided him for calling him “sir” instead of “Peter.”

Hossaert also has been surprised by how overtly Americans show off their ideology — displaying their political leanings on bumper stickers or T-shirts, for example.

In France, people keep their positions to themselves most of the time. They might have a heated discussion with friends in a bar, perhaps, but the arguments are about concepts, not the worth, or lack thereof, of those who believe in the concepts.

“In France, values of course exist,” he said, “We can tear apart someone’s values. But we don’t tear apart the people.”

Another difference is Americans’ readiness to take offense at mere words. The French sense of humor is different, Hossaert said. People can joke about almost anything without being misunderstood, while Americans have many topics that are off limits.

“If someone jokes and insults what we do, we come back with an insult, then move on,” he said. There’s no point in taking the joke too seriously.

Hossaert also has been interested to see how Americans celebrate holidays, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In France, Halloween is for children only, he said. Here. he saw people decorate and adults dress in costumes and attend parties.

It reminded him of the French celebration of Carnaval, a raucous February party comparable to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

People wear masks and dress in costume, including outfits that would be considered politically incorrect in the U.S., he said.

“Mildly controversial is OK,” he said. “Costumes just let you assume a different personality for the evening. You’re not making fun of people.”

Thanksgiving was new to Hossaert. He embraced it by getting together with friends for a traditional American meal of turkey, cranberries and all the trimmings.

He loves the tradition of people inviting friends to the dinner, he said. “That ‘more the merrier’ spirit is a spirit I really like,” he said.

While the U.S. Christmas season was in full swing by the day after Thanksgiving, in France it didn’t start until Dec. 12. Occasionally you see decorations earlier, he said, but not right after Halloween, as in the U.S.

Some areas of France still mark St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. It’s a holiday with religious origins.

Hossaert described St. Nicholas as a “tall guy with a staff,” who brings chocolates to good children. He’s accompanied by “Father Whip,” who punishes bad children and gives them coal.

Northern France also has an old tradition of St. Martin’s Day, which honors St. Martin of Tours, who is said to have helped lost children return home. Later, he turned his donkey into chocolate, much to their delight.

On St. Martin’s Day, bakers in Lille prepare “La Coquille de Noël du Nord” — a pastry shaped like donkey droppings. The rich pastries may sound strange, Hossaert said, but, “They’re actually really good.”

The French recognize the Christian origins of Christmas, calling it Noel in reference to the good news of the birth of Jesus. But it’s become a mostly secular holiday there, Hossaert said.

“It seems more overtly Christian in the U.S.” he said, noting that France passed a law creating “a clear separation between church and state” in 1905.

Their Papa Noel, or Father Christmas, is more like the American Santa than a saint, he said. The star that tops most Christmas trees is simply a star, not a reference to the Star of Bethlehem.

Songs such as “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” are popular because they’re traditional, rather than because of their religious lyrics. Another popular song is Tino Rossi’s “Petit Papa Noel,” which expresses a child’s guilt at making Santa work so hard, Hossaert said.

Despite the secularization, he said, some people go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. And during the season there are many opportunities to hear choirs, such as the one he was in as a boy.

France doesn’t have big Christmas markets, like Germany and other neighboring countries. But toy catalogs arrive in the mail. As a boy, he spent hours poring over them, carefully choosing what he hoped to receive.

“For about four years, I thought Santa really brought the presents,” he said. “But then I said OK, ‘I know now … there’s no Easter Bunny, so there’s no Santa either.

“’How could there be? The poor guy wouldn’t have time to go all over the world.’”

As a youngster, he didn’t give gifts to his parents or older brothers, but he does now. “It’s part of the fun,” he said, musing that he’ll find a book or a recording of classical music for his parents.

Back then, he and his brothers opened presents on Christmas morning. That afternoon, they looked forward to the arrival of his grandparents, who lived in Dunkirk, where his grandfather was a baker.

Having them visit for Christmas was a big deal, he said, because they had to drive for an hour — considered a longer trip in France than in the U.S. French people don’t drive that far on a whim, he said, while he sees students and McMinnville residents regularly “run up to Portland” or over to the coast.

Those Christmas lunches usually included capon, considered more moist and tender than turkey.

Capons, which are roosters that were castrated young before being fattened up, are readily available in France. Here, they’re a special-order item.

Along with the bird, Hossaert’s family served either foie gras, which is a rich pate of goose liver, or salmon with oysters. His father might also make his famous Coquilles St. Jacques, which he often fixes for holidays or birthdays.

The dish, prepared moments before serving, is made with scallops, apples or pears, creme fraiche, a little foie gras, and juniper berries.

“Delicious!” said Hossaert, looking forward to tasting French food again during his New Year’s visit.

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or spointer@newsregister.com.

 

Thinking about Paris

When Clement Hossaert announced he was heading to the U.S. to teach French and improve his English at Linfield College, his parents were concerned.

For one thing, his father warned, he wouldn’t be able to find any decent wine or beer if he left France.

That turned out to be totally untrue, the 23-year-old said. He said he’s developed a particular appreciation for Oregon beers.

More importantly, his parents worried about America’s propensity for gun violence. And their worries seemed justified within weeks of his arrival, when a campus shooting occurred in Roseburg, just a few hours from McMinnville.

But no one had anticipated the mass shooting that happened in Paris on Nov. 13, when a coordinated attack by several terrorists killed 130 people. “That just doesn’t happen in my country,” Hossaert said.

Of course, there have been mass shootings in France before, notably an attack on the staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo earlier this year. But they are as uncommon in France as they are common in the U.S.

Hossaert was on campus that Friday when he learned of the Paris shootings via Twitter. It was mid-afternoon here, late evening in France.

Horrified, he watched the terrible actions unfold through live reports from friends on social media.

“Some of my good friends were in the 10th arrondissement,” one of the districts hard hit by the terrorists, he said. “It’s the living heart of student life.”

He didn’t know any of the people hurt or killed that evening, he said, but he knows people who did.

He feels the devastation. And it gives him a new perspective.

“When 9-11 happened, we were deeply saddened and mourned for the U.S. But we wondered, why did the U.S. react so fast?” Hossaert said.

He described the French people’s surprise at how quickly America struck back against the Taliban, and their feeling that, perhaps, the U.S. government should have gathered more information first.

But when terrorists struck Paris, the French military struck back against ISIS just as quickly. Then, he said, his countrymen understood the drive for decisive action.

 

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996.