Knowing that I was going back to the US for the holidays, and that I would be seeing almost my entire family during that time, I began to think about some gifts that I could bring back with me. Gifts that could serve as a Christmas present but with a souvenir flair, something that said, “I was thinking about you while I was away in this foreign country”. If money was no/not much of an object, I could think of millions of things that I would bring back: silk scarves and boxes of macarons, decadent chocolates and salted caramels, luxurious face creams, lusciously scented Diptyque candles, vibrant Provençal linens, chic and slightly wacky fashions, beautiful artworks and tiny jars of mustard in exotic flavors. As it is, though, I was forced to stick to a budget. I began researching gifts that were affordable, useful, and beautiful. Above all, these things had to feel French, ideally being things that French people love and use in their daily lives (ultimately landing far away from the items in the souvenir shops plastered with “France” or “Paris”, with one small exception). These are the things I found and not one of them is priced over 10 Euros. They can be combined in many different ways to create gifts at all price points and for various audiences (one such combination below) so that no one is left out. They can even be added to a more luxurious gift as a little something extra. I waited until now to share them since they were the actual gifts my family and friends received. Since my family and friends are unfailingly polite, I don’t know what the real response was, but I’ve seen many of them used, and I stand by all of them!
I like these soaps because they smell delicious, come in a wide variety of authentic scents that are sure to please a panoply of noses, are so pretty, and the Marseilles region of Provence has been known for its (exacting) soap-making for centuries. These are Compagnie de Provence, but there is a wide range of brands with various packaging, scents and price points, as well as very famous solid laundry soap worth looking into.
Fleur de Sel
When I said in French class (en français, of course) that I had bought salt as gifts everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I may be, I never know if my proclivities with food are normal (in fact I remember my mother being bemused by Guillaume’s and my excitement about some watermelon radishes that came in our CSA box and that we had pickled. She said, “What is the big deal with radishes?” I say, if one cannot get excited about beautiful concentric circles of hot pink in a giant slice of vegetable, crunchy and tangy from a pickling in vinegar, then I don’t know what one can get excited about. Personally.) Fleur de Sel, like many food items in France, is something that is taken completely seriously, and also completely for granted. It is in everyone’s cupboard, is very affordable, but is harvested in precise locations, with exacting standards, the same way that it always has been. I don’t think many people in the US keep fleur de sel, but it is very useful for finishing dishes, salads, or even desserts. I focused on fleur de sel from Guérande, near where we had been in Nantes, and Camargue.
Vichy Mint Pastilles
These mints, very French, made with Vichy water, and available in most supermarkets, were probably originally made to cure all sorts of ills. Now they just taste nice and freshen breath and are the perfect thing to tuck in to a larger gift or with other items, like the little satchels below, especially when elegantly packaged.
Early on I came up with the idea of several smaller items wrapped up in another gift as a little parcel. I toyed with scarves, tote bags, tea towels, but then I found these napkins at a popular mid-range French department store, BHV. They are very French Country; a little kitschy while still being something that certain French people would use. I wrapped a soap, a container of fleur de sel and some mints in a napkin with some pretty ribbon in the colors of the French flag to really bring home the theme.
Eiffel Tower Keychains
The pièce de résistance (if you will allow a bit of exaggeration), I attached one of these to each of the parcels I gave away. This is definitely a Souvenir with a capital “S” and it even says Paris on it, but I bought my first Eiffel Tower keychain in 2001, and it has been on my keys ever since. It is the perfect size and shape to find in the depths of a bag or pocket, and reminds me of my trip every time. OK, so maybe a person who has not been to Paris would not want a remembrance on their keys, but it’s a little thing, and I think they are so adorable, especially attached to the tie on the parcel. They come in several different colors and designs, including some very kitschy ones, but I prefer this sort of vintage-y color, and simple design.
Candle from Notre-Dame de Paris
This might not be for everyone, but I discovered that Notre Dame Cathedral has candles that you can take with you for a suggested donation.
Tote bags are infinitely useful, are often seen on the shoulders of (especially young) Parisians, and are available in many places. These are from the Rodin Museum, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and the Compagnie de Provence store, respectively.
These market baskets were actually the first thing I purchased in France. I noticed them at the large covered market in Nantes and they looked so French, so utilitarian and un-stuffy, indeed I saw them all around me overflowing with carrots and strawberries and being strapped to the backs of bicycles. They were also very well-priced (not being the very fancy kind that you buy at William-Sonoma) and I couldn’t resist a few for some family members. They definitely proved a bit of a challenge to tote around, especially since I wanted to keep them protected, and I learned a good rule: only buy things that will definitely fit in your suitcase.
Who can’t use a notebook? Cute, useful, evocative.
Is it cheating that these are sort of free? These absolutely adorable pots come filled with yogurt at the supermarket. Only one brand that I’ve found still uses colored clay pots, although many still use glass, and they change colors and flavors as the seasons do. Right now the flavor is vanilla, and the pots are this gorgeous red color with “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays) scrolled in the clay. I cannot think of a single person who would be, if not delighted by this piece of French crockery, at the very least find some clever use for it. Pencil cup? Bud vase? Custard cup? To hold salt on the countertop? Coffee cup? Shot glass in a pinch?
Herbes de Provence
A traditional French spice blend from, as the name suggests, Provence. Oftentimes containing lavender, a staple product of the area, I learned that they only began including it when the tourists requested it. With or without the lavender, a nice choice for the chefs in your life.
Finally, I knew I was looking for some tags or labels to distinguish the packages, and I thought I wanted them to say “Merry Christmas” in French. After a lot of searching I found these absolutely perfect ones at BHV, at Hôtel de Ville. I also liked the old-fashioned tags as well, which have a certain “je ne sais quoi”.
To cite “I’ve been busy” as the reason that I haven’t posted in a while wouldn’t be particularly accurate. The truth is that when you don’t have to go anywhere and don’t have to do anything, it’s probably more realistically called leisure. But the holidays always feel very busy, though, don’t they, and for the week or so around Christmas and New Year’s my parent’s house was bursting with my entire family plus husband, wife and significant others (9 people, 2 dogs and a cat, altogether). We were busy indeed enjoying one another’s company and going hither and thither. For one thing, the house operates on a well for water (actually two) and we’ve discovered that it supports exactly 3 people without running dry. My mom purchased guest passes at the local gym so that we could shower and ALSO run the dishwasher and you know, flush toilets and whatnot, so we spent some time driving down there, at least perfunctorily exercising, and sauna-ing and showering. To me, there seemed to be the pervasive sense that we don’t quite know when we will all be together again. We are spread out across the country (and world) and only have plans to spread further. So it’s bittersweet. We’re packing years worth of chatting, fun, hugs, games and heart-to-hearts in a few short days. It can be a lot and every day is full. I often think it would be so nice to all live closer together so that we could have multiple low-key, relaxed meetings instead of trying to cram it all into one week.
It has been so wonderful to be “home” for the holidays. Home is such an interesting concept. When I lived in New York City for eight years, that felt more and more like home, and it still does in a lot of ways. Boston never felt like home at all. And Paris, although lovely to visit and even stay for some time, feels very transient. They say “home is where the heart is”*, and I remember as a kid puzzling over this like it was a koan. I think it can be taken two ways: one is that one’s home is where he or she loves to be and is happiest, and the other is that home could be anywhere the person or people you love best reside(s), whether it is a mansion or a cardboard box. Both of these things are true for me, actually, and so home has been various European cities (I ask not for a violin, tiny or otherwise). So not having any physical place to hang my hat, my parent’s house fills that kind of grounded presence. I grew up in this house from the age of 8, and there are countless memories echoing within its walls. I’ve found it comforting to spend a bit of time here. It helps that I never once have to give the blank and slightly wild-eyed stare of mingled incomprehension, panic and rapid translation when someone speaks to me in a shop.
When this year began (more than two weeks ago, how can that be), the internet, magazines and other media were all abuzz with the change in numbers on the calendar and all that it entails- assessing the old year and reminiscing, reevaluating and taking stock, and looking forward to the year ahead-making plans, promises and premonitions. Around the holidays, at the various parties and gatherings, I answered many questions about “how I am” and “how Paris is”. So, I’ve been thinking about the past seven months or so, trying to define the experience, and even put it into a short concise sentence. Being away from the United States for longer than 3 months, hearing a foreign language constantly, attempting to learn that language, traveling to different cities around Europe- how do I sum that up, beyond using the word “amazing”? I do know that 2013 felt big. It was so exciting, and yes scary, to pack up all our belongings and move to Paris. And it has turned out both more wonderful and also as difficult as I imagined it to be. 2014 promises to be a roller coaster, with many things that I have planned, some that are about half-planned and some that for whatever reason I have no/ little control over and I have to just let happen. But, oddly for someone who tends towards the anxious, I love roller coasters. I am ready.
*Apparently attributed to Gaius Plinius Secundus, otherwise known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.