It’s always the things you don’t expect…

Yesterday’s heavy snow had disturbed me. I’d needed the help of my neighbour to get both up and down the mountain, and the snow was still falling as I went to bed last night. Would we actually make it to the airport tomorrow? Would we be snowbound for our departure?

But this morning, the day dawned clear. The snowplough had cleared the road and, while there was still a bit of snow in patches, it was going to be a manageable drive down the mountain. Doubly so because I’d arranged to drive down right behind my neighbour, secure in the car tracks of his heavy Volvo. It would have been the perfect end to our stay. But I wasn’t actually going to the airport.

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A few days ago, Delphine had arrived at school and promptly thrown up. We’d battled the snow back home and she’d spent the day with a mounting fever. We passed the night badly. Delphine had squirmed beside me in my bed as we waited for the panadol to kick in. It wasn’t looking any better in the morning. Yesterday, as the snow fell more heavily, I took her to the doctor.

“We’re booked on a flight to Australia tomorrow night,” I explained after I’d given the doctor a run down of her symptoms. Do you think we’ll be able to make it?”

“With the medication I’m prescribing, we usually say they can go back to school in 48 hours. So if you start it now, you should probably be able to catch the flight.”

So with script in hand, we slugged through the driving snow, heavy even in the valley, to the pharmacy. As I paid for the multiple bottles, I noticed how much the snow was accumulating even down here in the valley. I knew I’d need help to navigate the top of the mountain road. So I called the man who’s become my knight in shining armour – my neighbour. He came to my aid immediately, and bringing his girlfriend with him to drive my car back up the mountain behind his. The snow continued to fall, but Delphine had started to show some signs of improvement. So I prayed that the forecast for the following day was correct – snow being replaced by clouds – and felt like we were back on the homeward track.

It was 9:30pm. One last check of the email before turning in for an early night ahead of our big day. Email from British Airways (BA):

“Your flight has been cancelled.”

Thus began hours of painful communication.

I tried to call the customer service number for Europe provided in the email. Wrong number. I tried the UK number. Skype wouldn’t ring it. I tried calling the number from my phone. It ran out of credit. I used Skype to call Qantas, with whom we were flying from Heathrow to Sydney. “You need to talk to BA.” I tried to recharge my phone’s credit online. The system froze. I battled through the French language automated over-the-phone recharging system. Success. I finally got through to BA. One and a half hours later and we finally had replacement flights. It was 1.30am. For the last hour of flight negotiations I’d had the still feverish Delphine in my arms who’d been awoken by the sound of my exasperated voice.

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I finally lay down in my bed, exhausted. We wouldn’t be leaving for two more days. I’d written a list of all the cancelation, postponements and extensions I’d need to get onto the following day. I was too wiped out to think any further.

I had just four short hours of sleep before I was up and getting the children ready for school this morning. I looked out with chagrin at the clear day dawning. Just outside my front door, I saw my knight with his shining spade. He was completing his usual morning service of digging a path from our door, up the stairs to the car.

I poked my head out the door: “I’ve got some news…” I explained the whole sorry story. He reassured me that we could stay another day and asked whether I still wanted to follow along behind him to descend into the valley that morning. I nodded and half an hour later was waiting out on the road, engine running, ready for him to take the lead. He tapped on my window.

“I’ve forgotten my jacket,” he said, “I’ll just duck back and get it.”

Five minutes later he appeared again at my window. A big box of French chocolates in his hands. “I thought you might need this.”

My heart turned over. How do people become this kind? I felt so battle wearied from the last few days. This tender offering took away some of the sting.

The heartening helpfulness continued when we arrived at school.

“Oh Nancy,” said Delphine’s teacher, “that’s awful.” “Let me take Delphine all day tomorrow as well and I’ll organise for Silas to go to afterschool care too.”

“Don’t bother booking a hotel,” said another “I can put you up at my house.”

The grinding fatigue was still there as I drove off to get started on my long list of phone calls, but my heart felt a little lighter.

This is not what I’d meticulously planned. But the gaps between the itinerary and reality have left room for the best of human compassion to shine through. I still wish we were going to be on that flight tonight. But I know that when I look back on my time in Alsace, it will be these memories of being helped in my moments of vulnerability that will make my memories of this time so golden.

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A snow stop to our plans?

A week ago, I was feeling pretty calm about the impending long journey home. Now I’m wondering if we’ll even make it to the start line. Since arriving back in Alsace from our Belgian trip, the count-down to our departure home has begun. It’s been a bit emotional, but until yesterday I was still feeling pretty confident that I could pull off this return journey.

I’ve scheduled on the calendar all the tasks to be done to get us out the door, packed tight into the Peugeot and on our way to the airport to return the car and catch the flight. Tyre exchange booked-in to swap the snow tyres for the originals: check. Children registered for after-school care on departure day: check. Unwanted clothes and toys dropped off at second-hand store and “new” toys purchased there for the aeroplane journey: done. “Merci” cards acquired for writing messages of thanks: in train. I was working my way through the list and thought I had pretty much everything covered.

But what I haven’t counted on is snow. Lots of it.

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It started off as rain on Sunday night, but by yesterday morning a thick blanket of white lay over Geishouse. It was still snowing heavily as I worked my way around the car with the broom. I had the engine running in an attempt to de-ice the front and back windscreens, and the headlights were giving me some illumination in the pre-dawn light. I felt pressure to get down the hill because it was my turn to do the car pooling and I knew there would be two children waiting for me in the car park in Thann in just over half an hour.

The snowplough had just been, but already snow was building on the road outside our chalet.

The snowplough had just been, but already snow was building on the road outside our chalet.

So I welcomed the arrival on the scene of our neighbour, wielding his big snow shovel, come to dig me a path out of the parking spot. The snowplough had just been past and left a mini-wall on each side in its wake that needed to be removed for me to reverse out. I was hopeful the snowplough’s recent passage would clear our way along the mountain road, but with the snowfall so rapid, a fresh cover of white already lay over the street ahead.

The section of road that was my undoing looks so innocuous on a sunny day.

The section of road that was my undoing looks so innocuous on a sunny day.

I went through my plan in my mind. I’d done the maths on revs and gears with my engineer dad. “Get into second gear,” I said to myself “and ensure at least a 18km/hour speed up the hill to get up the incline.” Our chalet is connected to the main route down into the valley by a narrow road that winds itself around the internal cleft in the mountain in which Geishouse is nestled. This road begins with an uphill rise that I’d never really noticed before the first significant snowfalls. I’d had trouble at this spot the previous time it had snowed like this, loosing speed, accelerating at the wrong moment, careening into the banked up snow on the side of the road. I’d managed to free myself but it had been disturbing. So yesterday morning I approached the incline with resolution.

“No! Not again!”

Despite my technically perfect plan, the execution failed. Again I lost speed and the power drained from the engine in that deadening diesel way. I stalled. And try as I might, I could not regain traction on the snowy road. We were stuck. With Delphine whimpering in the backseat, I had to react fast. “OK, Silas,” I said calmly, “You need to run back and get Monsieur. Explain that mama est coincée dans la rue.” I waited. The window wipers rhythmically batting away the snow. The engine revving as I kept on trying to gather forward momentum.

A friendly face appeared at the window:

“Merci Monsieur!” I exclaimed in relief “I don’t know how this happened, again. I stayed in second like everyone said. Would you be able to drive us out?”

“I’m happy to try Madame, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to succeed either.”

I moved to the passenger seat and let this veteran of decades of mountain living take over behind the wheel.

Putting the car into first, he applied his foot to the accelerator with a fortitude I’d never have dared. We shot forward through the dark. Engine growling. Up, up and up to the flat.

“You just have to give it a bit of juice” he said as he stepped out of the car to let me take over.

We made it down to school to drop off Silas but the journey home with a sick Delphine in the backseat was sobering. Even more snow had fallen and, for the first time, I slid on the main route. The snowplough couldn’t keep up. Even the main route at the top was becoming snow-logged.

I knew I’d exhausted my driving ability. I’d need help to go and get Silas. In the end, in my neighbour’s absence, another Geishouse local came to our aid and drove me in our car down the hill. It was enlightening when he too almost stalled on the same part of the road that had been my undoing in the morning. “When it snows like this,” he explained, “everyone finds driving difficult.”

Driving down the main route to pick up Silas.

Driving down the main route to pick up Silas.

I felt both better and worse. It wasn’t just me! But equally, what will happen if it snows like this the day of our departure in just two days time? How will I get us all safely to the bottom of the mountain if I encounter just the same scenario as the frightful morning I’d just experienced.

It snowed for the rest of the day and the night. After his impressive performance saving us that morning, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see my neighbour pull in at around 8pm. He’d done in the dark and in more snow the drive I hadn’t been willing to attempt in the daylight.

“Bonsoir Madame” he greeted me when I popped my head out the door to give my thanks again for his help that morning. “I wouldn’t try going down the mountain tomorrow. Best to stay at home.”

When I expressed my concerns about my impending departure and fears for getting down the mountain, he responded with his usual “bah,” “I will help you. Please don’t concern yourself, Madame.”

This morning, the day dawned clear. A celestial sky presided over a magical white fairyland. Presented with such uplifting beauty, I feel almost able to share his confidence that my concerns are unnecessary and that all will be well. But I’m keeping a close eye on the weather report, just in case.

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Taking my two brussel sprouts to Belgium

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I’m writing this blog with a mug of Australian roasted coffee and a Mary’s Belgian chocolate by my side. We’ve just arrived back “home” in Geishouse and I’ve been trying to make sense of the last few days. Oddly enough, this pick-me-up combination seems to have hit the spot – in both ways.

Through school connections, we’ve made friends with two Belgian-based families: one we’d met at the French school in Canberra where Silas first went and the second through the Steiner school where he now goes. As luck would have it, both families just happened to be in Brussels at the same moment in time. The French-school family had just returned from their Canberra posting and were re-installing themselves in Brussels and the Steiner school family were on a brief visit home to check-in with grand-parents. We caught the Steiner school family just the day before they left. What were the odds?

The journey into Belgium had been illuminating. As we crossed what I supposed to be the border – hard to tell these days when there are no customs crossings – we were greeted by tall metal sentinels.

“Look!” said Delphine “Wind blowers!”

Although it’s kind of the reverse, I got her meaning – wind turbines. Huge, up close and serious.

What was also serious was the speed that drivers were now going at. They whizzed passed me in the fast lane at well above the speed limit. When I momentarily dared to venture, through necessity, into the inside lane to allow a car to merge, I was immediately flashed at by angry headlights. “Well, I’m not in Alsace anymore,” I thought with chagrin.

But our Belgian dad and daughter met us warmly at the large museum complex known as the Musée de cinquantenaire. I never succeeded in correctly pronouncing this but I did succeed in eventually tracking them down at the right museum in this grand building that houses several.

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As we sat eating our lunch in the café, I was bemused to notice the difference context makes. Whereas in Australia our children spoke with each other in English, here, at the dining table it was a purely French experience. I smiled to see Silas launching into the conversation in French, not at all intimidated to be talking to someone’s father in another language, just keen to be part of the interaction. It was also a pleasure to see this family in their own home environment – subtly more assured and at ease as they relaxed a little more deeply into their chairs.

We parted with les bises and a “à la semaine prochaine!” Odd to think that when we do indeed see each other next week, it will be in the dry heat of a Canberra school playground.

But it was snow on the ground that met us at the home of our second family. They’re in the process of settling back into their Belgian lives after a four year posting in Canberra. Exchanging the big blue sky of Australia for the clouds and rain of a Belgian winter had been tough. But Belgium has other benefits for families: a strong health service and one of the best education systems in Europe. We had a brief glimpse of this as we tagged along for the school pick-up and heard about the children’s school-day: the hot lunch had been pretty good, it was fun to start learning Dutch (one of the three official languages of Belgium alongside French and German) but the paved-over playground was a bit of a disappointment after the wide ovals of Aussie schools.

It was a delight to watch our combined five children playing together in the rare snowfall in the garden. It gave time for the parents to discuss world affairs. We’d both just traversed from one side of it to the other, and there were so many contrasts to make. Immigration: Australians are very concerned, but in a borderless Europe the numbers here are of an order of magnitude greater. Environment: Europe is trying to come up with ways to measure the emissions of all the products we consume, in Australia we’ve signed up to the lowest possible emissions target. Politics: all leaders are struggling with the challenge of staying in touch with everyday people’s concerns while they put in place measures to address complicated problems that are difficult to explain.

After dinner that night, as we sat sipping the last of the excellent French Burgundy, deep in conversation, it was hard to know just where I was. I could hear our happy troop of multi-nationality children playing upstairs. Yesterday I’d been in France, today I’d travelled through Luxembourg to arrive into Belgium. Tonight I was dining with good friends in the centre of Brussels, chatting about her day at work in the European Union.

As my dad says, these days our bodies can travel faster than our brains can catch up. I could definitely feel the lag. But I was also so glad I’d made the 5.5 hour driving effort to see these friends on their home turf. I’ve experienced them in a subtly different way. All of them, more masters of their own domain. Or perhaps it was me. This time, meeting them, I was the one dislocated from my normal surroundings. But either way, our friendship now seems more balanced. And when we video-call them to keep in touch from the other end of the earth, I’ll be able to see them in their more rounded reality despite the flat-screen.

Nancy goes to Nancy

I’ve been itching to write this blog title. You can see why. How often do you come across a town that has the same name as you? But even though this town of around 100 000 people is just two hours north-east of our Alsace home, I’ve never had a reason to go. That is, until we received an invitation to visit friends in Belgium. Pulling out my map, I was thrilled to discover that Nancy is en route. So, I decided to break the 5 hour car journey in this town that is famed for its elegant architecture.

We arrived on a snowy, low-light afternoon. I’d been following road signs announcing my name for the past hour of the drive and I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole seeing buses, trams and shops adorned with my signature as we pulled into our city centre hotel. Checking in, the receptionist welcomed me to “my town” – he’d clearly noted the connection between my prénom and my location.

Once we’d deposited our luggage in our room, I deployed the pram and out we went. I didn’t really have a plan. I hadn’t thought much further beyond coming to my namesake town. But the difference with Alsace was striking. In place of clusters of timber-beamed homey houses, we strolled through geometrically governed roads lined with cream-coloured apartments and exquisitely constructed churches. I noticed with a smile the number of references to quinoa on café blackboards. A word I’d not seen in my three months in Alsace. There was also a large number of “bio” (organic) stores and fancy looking tea purveyors. This was clearly a town where le mode reigned.

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We finally found ourselves at the UNESCO heritage listed Place Stanislas – the great achievement of the father-in-law of Louis XV King of France. All golden gates and sharp corners. It was an impressive town square – but for Silas, it was sufficient space to test out his paper aeroplane. I could feel the building need for more child-friendly activity.

Note fountain in background.

Note fountain in background.

This is where the plane landed.

This is where the plane landed.

I made a bee-line for the park I’d seen mentioned in the guidebook – La Pépinière. I was hoping for a playground but the Parisian-style perfection of its layout wasn’t encouraging.

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Then we spied it, a collection of wooden structures. About child size. Yes! A playground. Thank you Rotary: those wonderful community-minded business-people who fund such facilities. The local chapter had donated this fantastical playground 20 years ago. I sent up a little note of thanks to my aunt and uncle who have been involved in their local Sydney chapter for decades. The playground was the highlight of our day.

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With my children in tow, I’ve had to accept that elegance is generally a mode of life that is out of my reach. For mutual happiness, we have to find common ground. And playgrounds are often it. So while I was only able to view from afar the refinement of Nancy, I could get up close and personal with this wooden wonderland of carved play equipment.

I’d like to think I’ll be elegant Nancy in a couple of years, but for now, I willing to accept I’m more the homey colourful cottages of Alsace.

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It’s time to talk: Macron’s Grand Debate

It had been coming for a while. The unexpected tenacity of the gilets jaunes, and their evolution into a protest movement against inequality, demanded a political response. At the end of last year, France’s President Macron delivered. He announced that in the New Year, France would engage in a “grand debat” across the country that he would launch off with a letter to the people.

At a time when our own politics seems a bit mired, I’ve been keenly looking for ways to enliven democracy and bring some faith back into the relationship between electors and their elected. And what better place to do this than in the land of bastille-storming, strike action and political philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French know how to do politics. And it seems, they keep reinventing how to go about it.

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On Monday, the President delivered his letter to the people. One and a half full broadsheet pages. He was thorough. It took me three mornings of breakfast cereal reading time to get through it. I was impressed by its clarity: I didn’t need a dictionary and only had to re-read a handful of phrases. It was clearly written to be accessible to all. But at the same time it covered his main issues: taxes and public services; State institutions, democracy and citizenship; immigration; and environment.

Macron hopes for huge participation and, although there are regional meetings and a website, he’s relying heavily on the most local level of government – the mayors.

“The mayors will have an essential role because they are your elected officials and so are the most legitimate intermediaries to express the views of citizens.”

Apparently, 68% of French people are satisfied with their mayor, which is perhaps also why Macron has emphasised their role. The mayors themselves have responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The sceptics will only offer an open book for citizen contributions, while other more enthusiastic mayors are organising public feedback events.

The varied responses are understandable. They’ve never been in this position before. In my catch-up with my local pastor today, I explained how new all this was to me.

“It’s totally new for us too.” She replied with a wry smile.

“But I’m really keen to get the parishioners involved. It’s a chance for us to emphasise the importance of social justice. It’s the first time everyday people have had the chance to make these points directly to the President.”

This man, accused of being aloof and elitist, is now trying to get in touch: to hear the truths of the people. These people who elected him in hope. When I ask locals here about their view of the President, many respond: “I voted for him. I liked his plans for change. But I don’t think he’s been going about it the right way.”

He seems to have got the picture. In his letter, he explains that his commitment to his overarching plan of reform hasn’t wavered. What’s on the table now is how these principles should be turned into action. And he’s open to every and all ideas. Nothing is forbidden, except violence and insults.

Will it work? Who knows. There’s sure to be an unmanageable amount of content. But I can’t help but admire this big move to throw it all open. To invite every French person to air their concerns and propose their solutions. I love the thought of all those tiny mayor’s offices I’ve passed in the hilltop towns and valley villages around here, being involved in national policy-making.

This is the only way I can see to rebuild people’s faith in democracy – bring them closer to the decision-making. Bring together politicians and public servants, with everyday people for a respectful conversation about what matters and how to make things better. Let the highly educated share their deeply-researched views, and let the citizens share their accumulated lived experience. It’s only when these two sides find the intersecting space, that both will feel they’ve found the right path towards a better future for all.

Vive la démocratie ! Liberté, égalité, fraternité !

My run-in with the Swiss Gendarme

Last weekend we went on a road trip to visit my cousin and her family who live near Geneva. It’s a little over a 3 hour drive from here “Just the same as from Canberra to Sydney,” I reassured myself.

But the journey did not begin well. After picking up Silas from school, I went to tap the address into the GPS: “aucune adresse trouvée” replied Henriette. Hmmm, I tried several different approaches. Nothing. She refused to recognise the street name. The best we could do was the suburb. So, conscious of the passing time and the plan to arrive for dinner, I decided to get going in the hope that the closer we came to our destination, the more accurate Henriette would become.

Delphine slept at the beginning but at about 1 hour in, the screaming began. I don’t need to go into the causes. Suffice to say it was with frayed nerves that we rolled into the rest station for a toilet stop and another go at finding my cousin’s address in the GPS. Again, nothing. So I tried to call my cousin. The phone system didn’t recognise the number. I tried to text. My darn phone would only send as an iMessage and I didn’t have wi-fi. We trooped into the rest station in the hunt for a public phone. Nothing. The wi-fi promised by the rest stop came up on my phone as “internet not available.” At least the toilets were open.

With rising desperation, I approached the kind-looking lady behind the boulangerie counter. “Is there a public phone around here?” I asked in French “No. Not any more,” she replied. I explained my dilemma. She looked at my two little children and the worn expression on my face. “You can use ours,” she offered. I accepted with deep gratitude, the call went through and I wrote down a bunch of hand-written directions.

Feeling on slightly firmer ground, we marched back to the car and were just buckling on our belts when they appeared. Two blue-uniformed Swiss gendarmes.

“Bonjour. Where are you from?”

Somewhat surprised and a little nervous I explained my complicated origins: from Australia but living in France for a couple of months and now in Switzerland for the weekend to visit my cousin in Geneva.

“Do you realise you have been using the Swiss autoroutes?”

Flash of memory: two and a half years ago, transiting through Switzerland to France, we had had to buy a yearly pass to be able to travel the Swiss autoroutes.

I felt a tide of emotion rise up and over me. I didn’t even try to stop the tear that welled in my eye and started to run down my face.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I stammered “I like to be a law-abiding person, and I’ve just realised what I’ve done.”

I had completely forgotten that in Switzerland you have to buy an annual autoroute pass before travelling on the country’s freeways. Even if just for a couple of days.

“In France you pay as you go.” I explained. “But of course I know that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.”

“And now, I’m sorry for being so emotional” I was starting to lose it a bit by now “But this has been such a tough trip: my daughter’s been screaming for half an hour, we can’t find my cousin’s address in this stupid GPS and my mobile just won’t work here.”

His facial expression started to soften as he watched this woman – probably almost twice his age – fall apart in front of him.

“OK. I can see it was an honest mistake. So I won’t charge you the 200 Swiss franc fine. But you do need to buy a pass just inside the rest stop here. We’ll go help you do that and then we’ll see what we can do about that GPS.”

Back in we went: me, my two children and our Swiss gendarme guard. Under their watchful, but kindly eye, I duly bought my autoroute pass. We returned to the car, where he affixed it in the centre of the windscreen and then sat down in the passenger seat to poke around at the GPS with me. His partner started trying to find the address on her phone. No luck there either. It’s when I spied the street name finally pop up on his phone that I saw the problem. There was a preposition “du” in the version we had but not in the google map street name. Once I tapped in the name without this errant “du,” Henriette became compliant.

It had taken one Australian and two Swiss Gendarmes to solve the problem. They sent us off with a friendly wave and good wishes for a pleasant stay in Switzerland.

From an encounter that had begun with official displeasure at presumed free-riding, we had ended as a convivial band of problem solvers with the joint mission of getting this waylaid family of Australians back on route.

Contrition on my part: comprehension and compassion on theirs. If only all tangles could be resolved so satisfyingly.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

An epiphany in Alsace

Yesterday was Epiphany. While this is a purely religious observance in Australia, here in France it’s taken on the same broader cultural significance as Christmas. That is, there’s a cake on offer, a surprise for the children, and you don’t need to be Christian to play along.

The cake is called a galette des rois, and it’s kind of a cross between a cake and a sweet pie. There’s pastry on the outside that surrounds a dense frangipane filling of almond meal in which is secreted one little fève– a small hard object. The fèveplays a role similar to that of a silver coin in a traditional English Christmas pudding. But in this case, the person in whose slice the fève is found, gets to be the king for the day and wear the crown that is generally provided along with the cake.

I’d decided to follow local custom and had resolved to buy a galette des rois at our regular Saturday market. I wandered around the stalls and spotted a mound of rounded tomes accompanied by a stack of gold paper crowns. This had to be it. I confirmed with the shop owner that these were indeed for l’Epiphanie and handed across the euros. He placed it in the bag and, glancing at Silas and Delphine, observed that we’d soon be having a little king or queen at home.

As it turns out, I’d made a bit of a mistake and had actually bought a gateau des rois instead. This is round and comes with afèveand crown too, so my confusion was understandable. But this version is made of brioche and sugary icing. It was a mistake but not an unhappy one. We all agreed that in its buttery, doughy goodness, it was delicious.

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The next morning we travelled down to Thann for church, or “temple” as it’s called here to distinguish it from the Catholic kind. We had the usual readings for epiphany – where Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist and God’s voice resounds through the clouds pronouncing his divinity – but we also had a guest speaker of the more visceral kind. Someone who brought a different kind of epiphany for me.

Our speaker works for the regional government to promote inter-religious dialogue and he’d come to speak about his work. It turns out that Alsace is one of the most religiously diverse regions in France. There are practising Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians of all sorts here, including many more protestants than is generally the case in the rest of France.

He was passionate about his work, and an unrepentantly proud proponent of the depth of inter-religious tolerance in Alsace. He spoke of how the respectful interaction here extends beyond just the larger cosmopolitan towns to also be found in country villages such as our own. Newly arriving rabbis, imams and priests are regularly invited to the worship places of the other faiths to be welcomed to the local community. Perhaps, he opined, this religious diversity and respectful interaction, has been made possible by the openness of Alsace’s geographical location, sharing borders with multiple countries. He imagines Alsace as a “corridor” through which people of many backgrounds have passed over the centuries, and even millennia.

He closed his presentation by clarifying that he didn’t believe the objective of inter-religious interaction was to generate one shared belief system. “Inter-religion is instead a question of dialogue between different faiths. The point isn’t to create one unifying religion, but to build bridges between them all.”

That night, we finished off our gateau des rois. I cut a chunk off for each kid and retreated to the kitchen to do the washing up.

Silas called out, “Mama, I think she’s found it!”

Delphine rushed to explain “I found it in my kouglof.”

Wrong cake, right region.

“I dug in. And I found it.”

“And now I can wear the crown.”

She posed it on her head “I’m King Louis!”

Wrong king, right season.

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Car city

I knew many things about Alsace before we came, but one thing I didn’t know is that it’s the home of automobile manufacturing in France.

10 years ago the Peugeot factory in Mulhouse (40 minutes down the road) produced its 10 millionth car. Today, it makes the car that we’re driving around in – the Peugeot 2008. But it all started much earlier.

The Mulhouse Peugeot factory only dates from the 60s, but Peugeot has been making cars in Alsace from almost the beginning of automotive history. And of course, its location here on the German-French border has complicated the story. In the late 19thcentury, Alsace was under German rule and so, although the Peugeot factory in this area was geographically close to Alsace, it had to send the Phaetonnet Type 8it produced to the Daimler factory in more central France from where they were then shipped back to Alsace for sale.

This long history of car manufacturing is celebrated at Mulhouse’s flagship museum “cité d’automobile” – Car city – which claims to be the largest car museum in the world.

Knowing Robert’s appreciation of cars – an avid “Wheels Magazine” reader and passionate enthusiast of electric cars – I decided that his visit was the perfect occasion to make the trip downtown and check it out.

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It is immense. A huge hall filled with rows and rows of cars greeted us as we crossed the threshold. They’re mostly a selection of cars that were once ordinary in their day, with just the occasional supercar to spice things up. Robert was delighted to come across his parents’ first family car in the line up – a Peugeot 404.

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His father had been a true Peugeot faithful right up until he was taken from us too soon. I remember him driving us as newly weds from the church to the reception in his burgundy Peugeot. The car’s glossy sheen his reverent acknowledgement of the significance of the day.

The old family chariot of my own family – a Datsun 180b – was not present. This was a French museum after all. But my own father wasn’t far from my thoughts either. How enraptured my mechanical engineer dad would be by these rows and rows of engineering innovations. By the steady evolution from “horseless carriages” that really did look just like a cart lacking a horse, onto the long-bodied roofless numbers with their sweeping wheel arches, right through to the space-aged Martian-like experiments of the 70s aiming for maximum aerodynamics.

The historical motoring through car models seemed to end there, at that era of bellbottoms and big hair. As Robert observed, from the 1980s onwards, cars took on the shape that now characterises almost all vehicles on the road today. Evolution has definitely slowed. But not completely. In the far corner of the hall, like a full-stop to the seemingly endless rows of cars, was a car on a pedestal: the Bugatti Veyron – the world’s fastest car.

It looks like a bullet and goes at 407 km/hour. I watched my own father-child moment taking place as Robert, Silas and Delphine stood mesmerised by the video image of this car reaching top speed. It was of course impressive. But apparently, unsustainable. As we walked away from the display, I overheard Robert telling Silas that after 15 minutes at this speed, the Veyron would explode. But there’s a failsafe, at this speed the car will run out of fuel at 10 minutes. Detonation avoided by 5 minutes.

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The cars were beautiful and such a testament to human beings’ scientific skill. But what I was left with at the end of our visit was a mind full of images of the voyages that we take in these cars: the seaside excursions, the family holidays, the trips home from the airport, the first time behind the wheel, a kiss snatched in the backseat. For me, it was these human moments that really populate our car cities.

Inns of the high country

Today we celebrated New Year’s Day in the mountains behind our home. Last week’s rain had washed away the snows and, with them, our hopes of a New Year’s ski. But when there’s no snow, there’s a ramble to be had instead and so as the day dawned mostly clear, I decided we’d bring in the New Year with a walk around our local ski resort of Le Markstein. We could familiarise ourselves with the resort before snow’s arrival made the terrain harder to interpret and we could also get out in the fresh mountain air.

It was also a chance to finally peer inside the doors of an Alsace institution – the ferme-auberge. These farm-cum-inns dot the landscape of the high Vosges mountain range. According to the glossy coffee table book tucked under the television, there are at least 68. I find the text difficult to understand, the author couldn’t resist literary flourishes in his nostalgic and poetic description of their history and present day reality. But the photos tell it all – flower bedecked in summer, snow-iced in winter, these family-run hostelries combine farming activity with offering a warm welcome to mountain visitors, including hearty meals for hungry walkers, skiers and snow-shoers.

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So my eyes lit up when I noticed our proposed walking route led right past one of them. And I was thrilled when, after a quick phone call, I could confirm that it was open on New Year’s day and serving lunch. We had a reservation for midday.

With the rosy sun touching le Grand Ballon, we headed off, backpack bulging with all the essentials for high mountain walking: jackets, overpants, drink bottles, snacks, beanies, gloves, map. Our preparations were necessary. As we arrived into Le Markstein the weather closed in and we all layered up in respect of the changeable mountain weather.

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A few backtracks and map re-reads later, we found ourselves moist and mist-haloed at our destination: Augberge S. Before pushing open the door, I read the sign “90% of all our meals are home made with our own or local ingredients. So, understand that our menu changes regularly.” Encouraging.

We stepped immediately into the dining room: true Alsace. Solid wooden chairs, red and white patterned table cloths, wood beamed ceilings and a Christmas tree in the corner awaiting the 12thday of Christmas. Our hearty host welcomed us and gave us the menu in verbal form. No need for a written version when it changes daily.

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Robert couldn’t resist the offer of escargots – snails. So I had to choose the equally French option – onion soup. For mains, we chose another local speciality of a potato and cheese dish featuring the local Munster cheese, from the eponymous town just 45 kilometres down the road.

We chatted happily with our hearty host as our meal was cooked by his wife, who came from Geishouse. And yes, he knew our neighbour, who just happened to have been president of the committee that runs Le Markstein. We talked about our neighbour’s generosity and how we had found that to be characteristic of the Alsaciens in general.

“Up in the mountains we’re all solidaire: we share, exchange and help each other out.”

“Alsace is known for its warm welcome but also for its good food and wine, beautiful countryside. That’s why it’s such a popular tourist desitnation here in France.”

Then he added with a cheeky grin: “We say that the French come to Alsace for their holidays, and the Alaciens go to France for theirs.”

It turns out that he and his small team had worked for 24 days straight. I expressed my surprise and said that sounded pretty exhausting. He shrugged and replied “but that’s what we’re here for: to serve people in the mountains.”

Our meal was tremendous: Delphine couldn’t get enough of the snails, soaking up the last remaining juices with her chunk of baguette.

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Everyone had a go at my basin of onion soup. And in the end the Munster potatoes defeated us, despite their rich, cheesy flavour egging us on to eat just another mouthful.

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It was with warm tummies and even warmer hearts that we walked away with a happy wave to our host.

“Au revoir – perhaps we’ll see you in Geishouse the next time.”

“No, I don’t think so.” He said resolutely, very much the proprietor as he stood at the entrance way to his own personal kingdom. “But I’ll always be very happy to have you back chez nous.”

The fullness of four

Robert arrived on Christmas eve into an airport bubbling with the joy of families and lovers reuniting. The emotion was too much for Delphine who, at the sight of her much-awaited dada, collapsed prostrate on the floor. With the writhing weight of a three-year old between us and a seven-year old skipping excitedly at his side, there wasn’t much room for husband and wife to tenderly reunite. I envied the lovers; eyes just for each other as they moved together for a welcoming embrace.

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But who could feel melancholy for long in the company of two such jubilant children, and a father thrilled to be in their midst. I herded the joyous trio to the car, installed Robert in the front passenger seat with a welcome bretzel to nibble and navigated our way out through the milling holiday traffic of the airport carpark and onto the highway.

Finally cruising freely, I could begin to notice the changes around me. Our Peugeot, always compact, had never seemed small before. But now it felt filled to its four corners with human life. Then, as we entered our little Alsacian chalet home, I felts its dimensions shifting around me to accommodate this much-awaited visitor. The ceiling in the living-dining seemed a little lower, the seldom-used coffee table and couches was now a playspace for dad and kids, my bedroom – formerly a solitary and minimally furnished space – became a room for two: a spread of other clothes on the bed, and a book and glass of water on the far bedside table.

Later that evening, sitting in church for the Christmas eve carol service, we were specially welcomed by the Pasteur as “la famille Waites” – her warm words then repeated to the congregation in English by an American parishioner who welcomed “the Waites’ from Australia.” I felt like the Royal Family. Another difference. In all the previous Sundays, I had been the Australian woman sitting at the back keeping her eye on her two young children playing in the corner. Now we were a family of four filling a pew.

At dinner on Christmas night, we lit the four candles in our Advent couronne for the last time. This year the fourth candle had had a double significance: the usual one of marking the last Sunday in Advent meaning that Christmas is imminent, and also, this year, the fourth Sunday candle-lighting moment had meant “dada arrives tomorrow!” So on this Christmas night, here was another difference: as I looked up from my plate of bûche de Noël Christmas cake, I no longer saw a vacant fourth chair opposite, but my husband’s face.

Just one person more, but we’ve gone from the lightness of three to the fullness of four. We no longer feel like a parent and two young children cast adrift from accustomed shores and on a sometimes precarious adventure. Instead, I feel the familiar moorings that hold our family in safe harbours.

So this is a time of restoration, a chance to replenish energy, before we say farewell to our fellow traveller in just a few days time. I will make the most of this chance to share the load of parenting. I will savour the moments where I can step back and watch my children from the middle distance, knowing that their dad has got them covered at close proximity. I will perhaps even appear in a photo. But more than all this, I will relish the rare opportunity to ponder, with an immediacy previously denied, the wonder of our experiences here with my fellow traveller for life.

‘tis the season: celebrating Ecole Steiner style

Steiner schools know how to celebrate Christmas. It’s all in the build up. Rudolph Steiner was a big fan of marking the seasons – partly as a way to imbue children with the wonder of the world around them, and partly as a way to help them understand the passage of time.

The season of Advent (the period marked by the four Sundays before Christmas) provides a rich supply of material. The first sign at Ecole Steiner Haut-Alsace was the appearance of the Christmas couronne in Delphine’sJardin d’enfantskindergarten room. Not the “crown” that I’d thought when I’d first heard the term, but instead a table decoration: a Christmas wreath adorned with the four candles of Advent.

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Each morning in the dim light of wintery morn, early arriving children would sit around the couronne watching the warm flame and singing Christmas songs. Once experienced, I was enchanted. For the whole month of December I set my alarm clock a little earlier to get on the road a bit sooner and arrive at school in time to enjoy the whole tender tiny ceremony.

An important waystage on the way to Christmas here in north-eastern France is the celebration of St Nicolas on 6 December. Of course the school celebrated. For days before, we’d added songs about St Nicolas to our traditional Christmas ones. This child-loving gent is known to secret bon-bons (sweets) into children’s slippers to greet them on 6 December. In the jardin d’enfants, little children arrived on the day to find tissue-paper parcels bound with fine silver thread stuffed into their “inside shoes”. Excited fingers discovered walnuts, mandarins, a spiced biscuit and a little bell inside. Delphine wore hers on a string around her neck for days afterwards. My own little reindeer.

The excitement lifted another notch with the arrival of the school’s marché de noel – the first in the school’s new building. In fact, the building itself looked like a Christmas present, beribboned as it was in its red bunting and green pine boughs. I’d helped out with the decorations the previous day, working alongside my fellow craft group parents.So it was with a feeling of belonging and a faint proprietary air that we turned up on the big day.

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It was a cold, overcast morning but nothing could dampen the mood. The whole school was there to celebrate its achievement of moving into their new school building, as well as opening their doors and warmly welcoming the local community into their new home. We ate enormous amounts of home-made cake, watched an exquisite puppet show, ventured into the magical “grotte des lumières” (cave of lights) and perused stalls of lovingly-made objects – including the most delicately detailed beeswax candles I’ve ever seen. I even managed to buy Delphine’s Christmas present with the quick understanding of the stall-owner of my hand-gestures and pointing.

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But last night was the turning point. In so many ways: The last day of school for the year. The winter solstice bringing with it the darkest day of of the year. The official beginning of winter in this part of the world. And the school’s nativity play.

Apparently this is an annual tradition that had been postponed for two years running as the school was relocated from temporary home to temporary home during the purchase and then elongated restoration of their current home. But last night, it was back on. In this school, it’s the staff who dress up as all the usual characters. There was a bubbly air of expectation as we walked into the hall, proper stage-lights illuminating the stage setting of decorated pine tree, manger and hay bales. Windows flecked with rain drops adding another wash of stars to those hanging from the ceiling.

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I looked around the room as families and children filed in. So many familiar faces now. I knew at least a third of the children by name. I could match them with parents, whose names I mostly didn’t know but whose personalities were now warmly familiar. It suddenly hit me. I’d looked at so many of these faces for over a year as I’d poured over the Facebook page of this school, steadily falling in love with the spirit of its community. And now here I was, in the midst of it all. I felt doors sliding. A sensation of having stepped out of reality and into the pages of a beloved book.

So although Delphine squirmed on my lap and later sclathed on the floor, and Silas had to be relocated away from an irresistibly chatty neighbour, I could feel the magic of Christmas shot through the fabric of pragmatic parenting like golden thread in silk woven from warp and weft yarns.

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Chateaux on plateaux

As we drive around on our explorations, they watch over us like sentinels – ancient castle ruins high in the hills.

They are many in number and diverse in their degree of decay. I knew nothing of their existence before arriving here. And so, yet again, I’ve been surprised by another delight of Alsace – it’s home to the largest number of mediaeval castle forts in France.

They started being built from around the 12th century. The weakening grip of the Holy Roman Empire left a power vacuum in the region and local lords were keen to protect themselves from the disorder. They built great chateaux forts to be their home and safe hold, both for their family and their followers. In time, some became the central administration for the region, which is why some towns here are still centred around their chateaux today.

Silas loves castles. So he’s been thrilled at their regular appearance on the skyline. He’s enchanted by stories of knights jousting, sharp-eyed archers perched atop ramparts and the possibility of dragons lurking in the dungeon. So he was begging to visit one soon after we arrived.

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The first castle we visited was Chateau du Hohlandsbourg. It’s been fairly recently restored from an overgrown sleeping beauty state to a pristine semi-ruin.

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The view from the ramparts was astounding: to the west, the Vosges mountain range rippled all the way to the horizon and to the east lay the city of Colmar below. We could hear its church bells pealing at 11am to announce the 100thanniversary of the end of WW1. It felt fitting to be in this place, once a site of ancient combat but today a peaceful place of gentle pleasure, on this day of remembrance.

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Our second chateau was closer to home and lesser in remains. But its story made up for the lack of apparent castle. L’oeil de la sorcière – the eye of the witch. This castle had been deliberately rendered a ruin, and by King Louis XIV no less, who had ordered it to be destroyed in 1673. The walking notes from the tourist office in Thann hadn’t explained just why Louis had felt so inclined, so I was left to ponder with Silas and Delphine what could have possibly made the King so angry. What ever might have been the cause, the result is, a-hem, eye-catching. The explosion caused one of the towers to break apart and fall on its side, becoming a great ring of stone jutting out from the side of the hill. As we approached it in the late autumn afternoon sunlight, it was eerie in its beauty.

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Castle number three came after a visit to Kaysersburg Christmas market last week. At the last minute, we had decided to continue by foot through the village and up the walking path to its hill-top castle. I was feeling tired. I’d skipped our usual lunchtime rest and refresh at home, and had instead picked up the children from school and headed straight out on the one-hour drive to Kaysersburg. I hadn’t expected to do a bushwalk and so had said yes to Delphine when she’d asked to go in the stroller for our wander around the town. But here I was, half-way up a mountain path, folded stroller on one shoulder, camera slung on the other and marching up the stairs in my heeled boots. My eye was caught by two laminated plaques attached to a rock by the side of the path. I stopped to read:

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“Out of breath or not… You are in !

The effort engaged – important or not in your eyes – nobody would have done it in your stead, and nobody else other than you will reap the benefits…”

The message from French philosopher, doctor, musician, and native of this village, Albert Schweitzer continued on for several paragraphs. It spoke straight to my heart. To that part of me that had decided to embark on this three-month long Alsace adventure.

Something settled inside me. I resolutely straightened the pram strap on my shoulder, reached out my hand to help Delphine up the rocky stair and followed my castle-loving son to the summit.

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All Christmas Markets Great and Small, but which is the fairest of them all?

One of the reasons I chose to make Alsace our home for the northern winter is its famous Christmas markets. And it had delivered. In fact, I’m overwhelmed. There is a dizzying number to choose from: everything from high-production value events featuring multiple differently-themed markets in the one town, through to a few craft stalls in a local community hall.

I dropped by our local tourist office in Thann last week to pick up some information to help me navigate. There was a rack groaning with brochures. With Delphine about to pull apart the Christmas decorations, I gathered a random armful and made a speedy getaway.

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But glossy brochures aren’t the only source of information. I’ve also been gleaning the details from posters and flyers pinned up on telegraph posts as I fly by on the way to school. These are for the more local, low-key numbers. But I’ve actually found this type of market to be more charming and approachable than the larger scale stunning kind.

Take the Christmas market at the Kruth Ski Club. It was held on what I consider to have been the “opening weekend” of the Christmas market season: the weekend of 24-25 November. I’d already had to make a choice between at least five other village markets that weekend, but the appeal of a Christmas market in a ski lodge had been irresistible.

Up, up into the mountains we went following the occasional sign. I was grateful for the directions I’d received the night before from my neighbour’s friend. We’d been invited around to eat Baeckeofe cooked in our honour. Over the steaming plate of three types of meet and tender root-vegetables I’d mentioned my plans for the morrow. “Ah,” she’d said, “it can be hard to find. You need to turn left at the church in Kruth, follow the road up the mountain, turn right at Frenz then pass on through the village.” Her instructions were spot on, and we arrived to a fanfare: a quartet of musicians playing the long wooden alp horn.

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It was a delightful market with local ski lodge volunteers serving up tarte flambée, crêpes with nutella and presiding over a steaming cauldron of vin chaud (mulled wine).

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The following week’s excursion to Colmar was a completely different affair.

Last year Colmar won second best Christmas Market in Europe. It is indeed beautiful. And big. There are five separate markets spread out over the historic centre of the town all with different themes: artisans and antiques, land and tradition, children’s delights, specialities of the region. The multi-coloured, cross-beamed mediaeval houses make for a charming backdrop to the cluster of wooden cabins in which all these various delights are found.

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But on a Saturday morning, it was mayhem. As the French would say, there was the world. And indeed there was. After a month of living in France, I finally encountered tourists. In the café where we escaped for morning tea, we listened to a group of Spaniards singing happy birthday. Stepping out the door we encountered a bus-load of Chinese tourists and pushing through the crowd I heard the unmistakable twang of Aussie English.

I thought with Colmar we’d seen the worst of the crowds. I’d been asking for it going to such a famous market on a weekend. So I didn’t think twice about going to another one that was in a village, rather than an internationally ranked town, on a Saturday. And how could I resist the call of a mediaeval Christmas market? So in all innocence, we set off early the following Saturday morning for Ribeauvillé.

I started to get a sense of what we were in for when I noticed roads lined with parked cars kilometres out from what “Henriette” (our GPS) said was the market’s location. The closer we got, the thicker the traffic became. We circled around the village looking for a car park. Gendarmes in evidence at roundabouts and event staff everywhere. Eventually we found a spot in the local sport’s oval that had been requisitioned for the weekend as a public car park. We had to walk 20 minutes up the road.

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An oh, mon dieu, we couldn’t move! A slow moving snake of people was jostling along, pushing their way through the canyon of mediaeval buildings leaning towards each other over a winding cobblestoned passage. At times we were completely at a stand still. The pram was not an asset. Even the charming mediaeval garbed performers and the surprise arrival of a flock of geese following their fowl pied piper through the crowd couldn’t entice us to stay. I found a side road and we made fast our escape.

Driving back home in the car, I reflected on how wrong first impressions can be. I’d been disappointed when we’d gone to our very first Christmas market. It had been the small kind in a community hall: local crafters were selling their lovingly-made wares, small-scale farmers were selling their best cheeses, yoghurt and dried sausage, and there was a small “restauration” in the hall’s kitchen where you could pick up a plate of choucroute and sausage with a glass, of course, of vin chaud. It had all seemed a bit low-key. After all, I’d come to the Christmas market capital of the world. I’d expected more.

But now I’ve come to recognise these types of market for the true gems they are. What you see there is real. Made by the people in the room, with love and care. In Colmar and Ribeauvillé I saw the piles of merchandise that is immediately recognisable as products designed only ever to be souvenirs. Bought in the moment, discarded when the suitcase is too full.

I cherish the things I’ve bought at the three local markets I’ve been too: a chocolate butter paste I bought from the young women whose mother proudly told me her daughter had made them all herself, a spiced fruit compote that I’ve been eking out on my breakfast cereal each morning, and the gorgeous hand-made Christmas card that is destined for a lucky recipient at home. My only regret is that I didn’t buy more of these cards. At all those glossy large-scale markets I’ve been to, not one Christmas card have I see. So that’s it. I’ve decided to frequent the big end markets no more. Because now I know which type of market is the one where I feel the true spirit of Christmas.