Musing at this time of year and trying to keep with a “count your blessings instead of sheep,” outlook, I am still given pause by how many people said or wrote to me about time passing so rapidly, “where did the year go,” or another classic, “I don’t know where the days went.” I don’t know why,” I remember saying to Edward, “it feels like Sunday.” It was Monday. “That’s nice, it is a sign of good mental health,” he said glibly. Probably it was. While I confess that with no office to go to on Monday morning, I now sometimes lose track of days or end a day with “I better study my Italian, I can’t believe I got so little done, and it is already evening.” Actually, I get a lot done, but there is never enough time, with life being so sumptuous and me being so “curiouser and curiouser.”
I am most reminded, though, of how change is inevitable and life is such an evolutionary journey. Christmas for us this year was in Paris after spending the last few in New York. Happily, that meant oysters. Huîtrerie Régis, the oyster restaurant that I used as the anchor to my Meet Paris Oyster book about Paris, has been sold. The new owners have kept the same look and the same highest quality oyster providers—and I can taste the glorious pousse en claire I recently had there—as well as keeping the same name and a few of the same staff. But Régis, the man with the name above the door who was the passionate personality inside the door is off on another adventure and passes by occasionally, bringing at times his celebrated apple tart. As a true sign of friendship and appreciation, he made us an apple tart to take home as a Christmas present—delicious. It also made a regular customer inside the restaurant very angry as there was none for him to end his meal that day. It must be said that some of the changes at the “new” Régis make sense—you can now have a proper three-course meal of your choosing with oysters just part of it. Progress? Evolution?
Sometimes change and evolution are not so carefully curated as Régis has accomplished. As was reported all over the world, this was the first Christmas since 1808 when there was no midnight mass at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. But one of the comforts of the holidays are the rituals serving as palliatives to change and the dangers of the world. Good year, bad year, there is reassurance in the foods we prepare and eat at the festivities we embrace, the things we do, the people with whom we connect and share.
In France, midnight mass is a staple of the experience of the year-end holidays. In a country where weekly church attendance is plummeting, Christmas Eve is the Super Bowl event. But it is evolving as well. Services at precisely midnight are increasingly rare. Now there are pre-dinner family services (or children’s services as some are called) at around 7 p.m. and then a post-dinner service at around 10:30. This year the priest at St Germain-des-Prés in our Left-Bank neighborhood began his service by thanking the celebrants in the packed church for coming…and for leaving the Champagne in the refrigerator. We come for the spectacle, pageantry, old stories, and singing traditional Christmas songs—enjoying some in Latin. But we left the service before its conclusion to head to nearby St. Sulpice, a huge and famous church where the truly glorious organ is one of the seven wonders of the music world. It never sounds better than when it booms and sighs on Christmas eve. But at both churches the marked change was in the singing. The large and gowned choirs are no more. People like you and me try our best to make up for the mostly lost sound, but you know…
In reflecting on our past year, marked in part by the publication of Edward’s Lewis Carroll: The Worlds of His Alices, I found myself expressing to him, “you know, 2019 was the best year of my life.” I am glad I believe it. I know I have said it before, but to be able to say it again fills me with gratitude. Our extended vagabonding has gone even better than planned. I am sensitive to having a great year when many have had the opposite. Plus, isn’t it difficult to confess happiness in a world with seemingly grave issues surrounding us? Have I been too selfish? A taxi driver in Martinique recently said to me, “I try not to listen to the news as it is always so bad and depressing.” It has been that way in our world for quite a while, of course, and despite the immediate world in our smartphone hand, travel and preoccupations do provide a buffer, relief, and perspective.
Oh, I am even more in love than ever with Rome after our extended stay there in December. Systematically improving my Italian is a guiltless pleasure, and the restaurants have never been better. I even shopped; there were so many beautiful things in the windows! I love to be in New York and Provence and Paris, until I land somewhere else. I count my blessings whenever possible. This year I am most appreciative of living the moments in Ischia, Providence, Philadelphia, Tangiers, Modena, Florence, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Malta, Malaga, San Diego, Brittany, the Camargue—what am I forgetting?—Rome, a very special universe and highlight, and seeing so many friends, people, and sights that resonate in me. Probably something fundamentally different enriches and rewards you. What, you don’t delight in visiting forty-two ornate churches in twenty-four days? But as I muse on a new year and new decade, I am projecting an optimism for opportunities to be had and shared…and for peace from pain. S’Wonderful.