I'm getting ready to film the first in a series of videos about our home renovation. Don't miss a clip! - subscribe to our YouTube channel. Forward this and tell a design savvy architecturally-minded friend about the channel. They might have fun following us on this project in the sunny South of France (...meantime we are freezing in this heat-challenged home). Photo taken in Serre Chevalier, near Briançon.
Sapin (sah-pahn) noun, masculine
fir tree, Christmas tree
A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse
When Max came into the kitchen announcing, "Papa a acheté un sapin," I folded the dishtowel, set it down and took a deep breath. I knew the Christmas tree would be trunk-size—all the better to fit into the back of our economy car—and not tall, like the spruce my mom used to whisk home (space limits were not an issue... Mom had the tree tied to the top of her '68 Camaro).
"Cela suffira," I reminded myself, hoping to have finally learned a lesson. The tree, whatever it is, will be just what we need, and failing that, it will at least be real! Only, when I saw what my husband, The Nonconsumer, brought home this time, every nerve in my body became a live wire.
There in the center of the salon stood the most abominable tree that I had ever laid eyes on. I knew better than to open my mouth lest the bassesse of language, French or English, should spew forth. Meanwhile my nerves began to short-circuit, and it was only a matter of time before the sparks reached my tongue, causing it to ignite.
"How much did you pay for it?" I questioned, teeth clamped.
"Twelve euros," Jean-Marc answered, jaws relaxed.
Twelve euros! That's 15 dollars... about how much he would spend on a decent bottle of wine—one that we might share in a single night. But a Christmas tree—that's something we could have spent a little more on, as we would enjoy it for an entire month!
After a moment of silence so thick you could hang tinsel on it, Jean-Marc challenged me: "You can take it back if you don't like it." His remark was delivered with the coolness of a peppermint candy cane.
"It is not for me to take back. YOU take it back!"
My husband's next response was to slam the door. I watched the ripple effect as the tinsel fell to the floor.
My attention drifted back to the artificial arbre. A Christmas tree should be at least as tall as a child! I reasoned. Staring at the sapin de Noël, I noticed its mangled branches and its missing foliage. It was a fake fir, one so cheap that it came with its own styrofoam ornaments! And was that "presto tinsel" stuck to the branches?
I thought about the nine-foot-tall Colorado spruce that was Mom's joy to decorate. The ornaments were not automatically glued to the branches. They were handmade! One year Mom covered the tree with white colombes and pheasant plumes. She took the ordinary blue boules and dressed them up with peacock feathers (using only the fancy tops, or what she called the "eyes" of the feathers). Her zeal for holiday decorating didn't stop at the giant tree—she had those doves "flying" from the branches to the front door!
My eyes returned to the bedroom door, which had just been slammed shut. I looked back down at the Christmas tree. The longer I stared, the uglier it appeared.
"It is the ugliest tree that I have ever seen!" I grumbled, pulling off what decorations Jean-Marc and Jackie had put up. I yanked apart the tree and shoved it into the stupid bag from which it came. Still smarting, I returned to the kitchen and slammed the dirty pots and pans around in the sink, the sink without a garbage disposal! Only in France!
"You're so complicated," my Frenchman used to say as I struggled to adapt to his country, to his ways, to his small-treed holidays. Over the years, I began to suspect that he had a point. Indignation turned to industry as, little by little, I began ousting the surplus and the superflu—learning the difference between want and besoin, all the while simplifying, simplifying!
The sum of all that effort now stood before me, concrete in form, via this, the simplest tree.
"But I want a COMPLICATED Christmas treeeeeee!" I cried out, shoving the sponge back into the pan as I scoured and glowered. "I want a showy, superfluous, SUPERCALIFRAGILISTIC spruce!"
Just then I heard the rustle of faux branches and a whisper....
"Il est beau!" Max was saying to his sister.
"Oui, regarde," she agreed, softly.
I listened to the clanking of aluminum bulbs.... Peeking around the corner, I witnessed the scene. Max had pulled the tree back out of the bag and reassembled it. The branches, still tordues, now had a colorful array of bulbs, some chipped, some dusty, some new—all carefully hung. There were so many decorations that the empty parts, where branches seemed to be missing, were now filled in.
Jean-Marc was on his knees searching for an electrical outlet. Finding one, he plugged in the tree lights, but when he turned to reach for the switch.... my hand was already on it. Our eyes locked.
My husband smiled as I flipped the switch. When the tree lights went on, the room came to a swift hush. In the silence she appeared: La Joie—an étincelle here, a sparkle there—happiness filling the room, its presence so real, so palpable, you could hang tinsel on it.
P.S. Special thanks to the readers who helped edit today's story! You can see their comments in the original post, from the archives.
Papa a acheté un sapin = Papa's bought a Christmas tree
çela suffira = that'll suffice
le salon = living room
la bassesse = baseness
un arbre = tree
le sapin de Noël = Christmas tree
la colombe = dove (read about the kind-hearted "dove man" I met in Sicily! click here.)
la plume = feather
la boule = ball
le superflu = superfluity
le besoin = need
il est beau = it is beautiful (tree)
oui, regarde = yes, look
tordu(e) = twisted, bent
la joie = joy
une étincelle = spark, sparkle
sentir le sapin = to have one foot in the grave
passer un sapin à quelqu'un = to dupe someone
le sapin de Noël = Christmas tree
*sapin also = coffin
*sapin is a color (vert sapin)
Avec un morceau de pain, on trouve son paradis sous un sapin. With a hunk of bread, one finds his paradise under a fir tree.
Listen to French: hear Jean-Marc recite today's proverb:
Avec un morceau de pain, on trouve son paradis sous un sapin. Download sapin4.wav
Thank you for the time you've spent reading my post. If you have learned more than a little vocabulary here and find yourself looking forward to the next story, please know that ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue doing what I love most: sharing these missives from France. Your support is vivement apprécié! Donating via PayPal is fast and easy when you use the links below. Merci infiniment! Kristi