The last day of the year and the last day of the month are also the last day of La Garde’s Hivernale. Hiver is French for winter, and I assume the ‘nale’ is appended in the same manner as another, better know celebration – Carnival, without the trailing ‘e’. The Hivernale is the winter festival here, and for the record there no Printempsnale, Éténale, or Automnenale. For the holiday season, this year from November 30th until December 31st, the Place de la Republique, and all the nearby spaces in the town center, are populated with 101 little cabins, chalets, which if you’ve ever strolled between the booths at your town’s annual art and wine festival, then you’re familiar with the concept of the Hivernale.
There are other Hivernales in other cities. Our first Christmas in France was in Marseille, and there were chalets in various places downtown, not far from the old port. Given that Marseille does not feel very much like France, it was a little incongruous to see the Christmas chalets, more representative of northern Europe, not of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. I don’t think we bought anything from any of these chalets. Closer, in Toulon, there are about forty chalets set up in a place in the downtown there, but these, like those in Marseille, lack the charm of a village like La Garde. Our small town, with no heavy traffic and the central place, all dominated by the rock pile with the castle ruin and church on top, attracts many people, and the Hivernale is very crowded on the weekends.
My first experience with a European Christmas fair, and what remains for me the definitive and archetypal Christmas fair, was the Christkindlmarkt in Heidelberg, which is now called the less religious term – Weihnachtsmarkt. Like here, there were little chalets set up, mostly as I recall, in Universitätsplatz, and I remember best the food and drink chalets: the drink of choice for that cold locale during the short December days was glühwein (heated red wine, sugar, some spices, and never too sweet) and the food was some sort of braised wurst on a roll. Indeed, between the introduction of the Christmas tree to the English by the German Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, the writings and adaptations of Charles Dickens, and being East coast raised, Christmas had always been a thing of the cold, the dark, warm red wine, needled trees, white lights and snow, and heavy food. Moving to California changed (ruined?) much of that, but prepared me for Christmas in the south of France.
This is our third Hivernale in La Garde, and most of the chalets here this year we’ve seen before, and they can be divided into two groups: those selling food and those selling things. A sampling of things being sold includes candles, scarves, small musical instruments, gifts from Poland, Hindu and Buddhist gifts from India, exotic crafts from Africa, more scarves, little battery powered red Santas (Santa climbs a rope, Santa does a cartwheel, Santa climbs a ladder, Santa does downward dog), santons (small figurines representing characters from old Provencal village life, usually with a creche – people collect these and have dozens or even hundreds of them), and many chalets selling jewelry. The chalet selling music cds (that’s compact discs with music on them) was not here this year, although it had been here for the previous two seasons. The first year I bought an Éditions Nocturne two cd set of Christmas Jazz (Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.), and then last year I bought an anthology of Blind Lemon Jefferson. This year there was nothing to browse, nothing to chose from.
Unlike so many North American art and wine festivals, the following items were not for sale: fine art photography, new age music, anything made from hemp, bird feeders, an assortment of hammock contraptions, and mixed media art.
Of those chalets selling the food, there are further ways of categorizing these: those selling food to eat right there, and those selling food to take home; meat, cheese, sweets, or beverages. These all vary in quality. When walking Catherine home from school right before the holiday vacation started, I bought some aged comte (a cheese), pricey at 47,50€ a kilo, but even buying just 400 grams lasted us a while – expensive but quite good. Yet on that same walk, we also bought some small dried sausages made with goat cheese – one of the samples tasted good, but after that one, the odd combination of the cheese blended with the meat did not taste good. One night, after the day got away from us and no dinner was ready, we decided to meet our friends and neighbors, the Baldicinnis, down at the Hivernale, for a take out stand up dinner. The Baldicinni’s lived in another part of La Garde, but in November they moved to a two floor apartment here in the old village, just around the corner from us. The chalet we chose to eat at sold cuts of meat, either to take home or else served on plates and eaten there. We order two plates of various sliced meats, and were surprised when these were served, in contradiction to the pictures on the chalet, without an bread, cheese, or cornichons (pickles), so it was a plate of meat with meat. Not since we ate at La Casa de Carne de Catalonia in Barcelona, famous for its nine meat platter, have I felt like becoming a vegetarian. In another part of the place there is a chalet selling hot spiced wine, but there’s too much sugar in the wine, and it’s undrinkable – the Germans know how to make this properly. The same chalet also sells a holiday ale, bier de Noël, but there’s nothing particular about it and at 2,50€ for a rather small cup, it’s like buying a beer to a Giant’s baseball game in San Francisco.
It’s unclear why some businesses even bother to set up a chalet. The chalet for the Bier de Monde (beers of the world) has been there for the past three years, yet in typical French fashion it seems uninterested in selling beer and actually discourages business. The guy running the chalet, in his early thirties with a blonde pony tail, seems to always have six or seven of his friends hanging around, drinking beer (it’s unclear if they’ve paid for it or not), blocking access to the counter and a view of the beers for sale. Even walking up to the chalet and trying to edge in closer results in the conversation stopping and getting dirty looks from the drinking buddies. But part of my annoyance is they don’t have what I want. Last year Bier de Monde did have Anchor Steam’s Holiday Ale, which I bought several bottles of, but this year they did not import any, so given that the selection is mostly mediocre French and Belgian beer, we’re giving this chalet a pass. We’ll see what he has next year.
Today, New Year’s Eve, the vendors are open but not for business. The merchants are packing up their items, rushing to get done in time for whatever celebrations are planned for tonight. We’re having raclette with some Dutch/German friends, a quiet affair with Champagne, Cremant de Alsace (like cava, a cheap alternative to Champagne) and some tasty red wines. Bonne année, glückliches neues Jahr, and Happy New Year.