The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present


Everybody (even French children) has read or heard about ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. I’ve read it at least a thousand times and I still do from time to time. I love the story, the three Spirits and Tiny Tim and Scrooge of course because in the end, he starts a new life. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is not really ‘dickensian’. But that’s ok. I love the story.

«‘I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me... Scrooge was better than his word... His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.’»

In our Judeo-Christian world, Christmas should be a time of rejoicing, a time of giving, a time of forgiving, a time filled with happiness.

Our lives should be bursting with joy and good will.

This is probably the reason why Christmas can also conjure up painful memories. Why else do we tend to suffer more from the unfairness of life and feel so deeply hurt by it when it is Christmas time?

We’ve had many very happy Christmases. But you tend to remember more how hurt you felt when things went awry at Christmas. I guess it seems terribly unfair. Christmas caroling which I love so much doesn’t fit worries and stressing times.

I’ll never forget Christmas ‘05. We went to some very good friends’ home to wish them a very Happy Christmas. There was a brand new beautiful granddaughter there and lots of happiness.

But we also had to let them know that cancer had struck back and that I needed to undergo surgery again as soon as we’d get back to Paris. Somehow the blinking lights of their Christmas tree didn’t seem very cheerful.

This year, we were getting very excited because we’d be spending Christmas with our son who had managed to get a few days off from Caltech, in our refurbished home in Brittany. We were delighted my cancer tests had come out more than perfect... We were talking about getting my sister over for a few days too.

But little did we know that Christmas would be this teary and sad.

On December 17th, at 8 a.m., my sister was getting ready to cross the road, right in front of the high school where she works. A car stopped to let her cross. But a second car going too fast didn’t stop and hit her so badly that she did a somersault, fell back on the windshield and hit the ground, a few centimeters away from the sidewalk.

By then she had lost consciousness and she was so badly hurt and bleeding so much that the main witnesses to the accident did not realize who she was even though they knew her quite well.

She spent 10 hours in a hall in the main hospital in Béziers, waiting for radios, scans and medical attention, waiting, waiting and waiting, all alone. She had no means to let us know about her plight. 10 hours. This is the way it goes in French public hospitals especially in a provincial town.

One of her sons who was in Paris at the time finally got a phone call very late at night but no explanations whatsoever about what had happened. By then we only knew that she had been very badly hurt.

He left Paris in the morning and called me as soon as he got to the hospital. (I couldn't go along with him because I still had appointments at the AmH.) She was suffering from a shattered pelvis and an open skull fracture (which required 30 stitches). And she couldn’t see at all. (Her vision came more or less back 4 days later.)

The following morning, I got to talk to her. She was conscious and not under sedatives because of the risk of coma. She told me not to come because she had many friends around. She was afraid too much stress could be bad for me.

So I stayed in Paris, waiting for my husband to come back from Bulgaria. I was very restless because she had started telling me about severe abdominal pain. I did everything I could to get in touch with her doctors  because I knew that such a trauma could induce internal bleeding.  Who hasn't heard about a ruptured spleen? I kept asking for a scan of her spleen, liver, etc. They did laugh at me, saying that she was just suffering from post-traumatic stress.

On the 23rd, we were in Brittany. I called my sister in the morning, something I’d been doing for the past 5 days (I called her several times a day). No answer. I called again. Still no answer. Then someone got on the phone: a nurse who said that they were taking care of my sister and ‘Please, call later.’ End of phone call. So I called the hospital later, again and again. Nobody knew anything about her. She had disappeared just like that.

By then, her son had left to spend Christmas with some friends 500 kms away. I was frantic with worry. I knew something was terribly wrong.

I finally managed to talk to the lady who was sharing her room. She told me to get in touch with the ICU. I really broke down right then.

She no longer was in the ICU. She was having some last chance surgery (which lasted over 4 hours). Ruptured spleen. Very bad internal bleeding. I was going out of my mind. The doctor I talked to had the nerve to tell me then and there: ‘We are very sorry. We only thought about bones.’

People, please wake up. I had been calling the hospital for the past 5 days, feeling that she couldn’t have suffered such an impact without any damage
 to her organs. And I am not a doctor.

She was extremely lucky to go into shock while the nurses were washing her and not during the night.

So Christmas wasn’t really Christmas, this year.

Swee'Pea had the hardest time to get to Brittany. He flew from LA to Paris through Chicago which wasn’t a very wise choice in wintertime. But he got here safely, 28 hours later.

Popeye and I, we had decorated our Christmas tree while we were waiting because we were feeling so down and lost that we needed to cling to happiest Christmases. And happiest Christmases included a Christmas tree with Christmas decorations dating back from Swee'Pea's childhood.

Meanwhile I was allowed to call ICU twice a day but only after they had made sure I was my sister’s sister! The exchanges were very short: ‘How had her night/day been?’ ‘Has her temperature gone down?’ ‘Please tell her I love her.’ And the line would go silent.

Her son came back yesterday only to discover that someone had burglarized the house. A few things were missing. Among them, the few jewels she ever possessed. She doesn’t know anything about it yet but I’m terribly afraid of her reaction. It almost feels good to know that she won’t be out of ICU before a few days still, protected from a cruel world.

When she still was in her room, we had a few ‘long’ talks, as ‘long’ as they could be. One of them was about surviving and not feeling the same ever, living a different life, actually a much better life.

I’ve had a few close calls myself during those past few years (and I’m not talking about cancer). I almost died from a DVT after surgery, etc. And I remember thinking: ‘This is the first day of your life. Try to make the best out of it.’

So now, my sister and I, we both are survivors... never the same again but bonding a lot more than before.

But I still wish all this hadn’t happened at Christmas time.

Next Christmas will be better... no doubt about it.

Remember old Scrooge: ‘His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.’

Happy Christmas to all of you, wherever you are.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


SNCF on strike...

How nice it is to live and/or to travel in a ‘right-wing-socialist’ country!

France is a really surprising country to live in. Even if you don’t really live there anymore. And how mysterious and unbearable it has to be for foreigners and tourists!

Ever since November, France has been experiencing strike upon strike. Who is going on strike? Well, mainly the state employees.

It started with the museums. Which museums? Can’t tell!
Strikers are tricky. It’s just like a big game.

You want to go to the Louvre. Well, it’s closed. For how long? Nobody knows.
The Louvre reopens but two other museums go on strike. For how long? Guess what? Nobody knows.
Why are they going on strike? Nobody knows either. The reasons vary from one newspaper to another one. The unions keep mum.

Sometimes it is because people are retiring and not replaced. Sometimes it is because they feel they’re not getting enough money. Who is? Especially going through such a terrible financial crisis. Most of the time, it is because they are afraid they may loose outrageous benefits inherent to their civil servants’ status.

Strikes used to be very popular in France but this is changing a lot. People are getting tired... Those who are not civil servants, that is. Those who want to go to work and are terribly worried that missing one day of work is going to cost them their job in a stricken and restrictive work market notwithstanding the exhaustion of everyday life!

There is one fast subway line called RER A. Everyday, more than one million people use it to go to work and to school to Paris and back. If its employees go on strike, what happens? Just imagine.

When all means of public transportation quit working, the government does its best to defuse the crisis, which is to say: ‘Ok, you guys, sorry. We were wrong. So let’s go back to work, pleeeeeaaaaase!’

But nobody goes back to work. There is to be a show-off like: ‘We are really strong and united. You made a mistake playing with our benefits. Now we’ll show you!’

This is how at the end of this week, our train system was almost at a complete standstill even though the unions had negociated ‘successfully’ with the government and had won their way back to old regulations!

Why the end of the week? Quite obvious, my dear Watson.
Most people who work in Paris and other big cities do not live there permanently so they leave home to go to work on Monday morning and get back home on Thursday or Friday afternoon.

Let’s take one example: Brittany.
Lots of Bretons work in Paris and commute twice a week.

Well, the railway employees announced last week that they would go on strike starting on Thursday. All of a sudden, unions and government officials entered quickly into negociations. Things usually go very fast... when you get close to a week-end and/or holidays.

Two days later, all unions announced that they had reached a favorable agreement and the strike was over. The announcement was made on tv, radio, internet...

So people started to resume their life and journeys. They were going home on Friday night, as usual.

Hold on, hold on! We have unwavering civil servants in France. Their unions had agreed to go back to work but not the workers, at least some of them, enough of them to keep part of the country crippled. ‘Ah, ah, we’ll show them.’

Whom did they show their teeth to? The government officials? Oh no!

Hundreds of people, not to say thousands, were stranded all over France, just the way it happened at the Montparnasse station, trying to go back home. I know about Gare Montparnasse because we were there.

Our train was the only one to leave. We had reservations on it so we were lucky to have a seat... The train carried people standing up in every car, squashed like canned sardines since it was the only train to go to Northern Brittany from Paris. Trains going to Southern Brittany had stopped running once and for all. Too bad.

Lucky adventurous us. We got very late to Les Tertres since the TGV stopped at every station on the way. But we got home allright.

The Milky Way was very beautiful.

By the way, we still don’t know whether or not we’ll be able to go back to Paris on Monday night... since now we have ghost strikes.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


A tribute to Copenhagen 2009 - Christmas 1999 - Hurricane upon Les Tertres

Once upon a time, Les Tertres were surrounded by trees. They had been planted by the former owners. All of them were conifers, very trendy at the time because their growth is very fast. They actually are completely unsuitable in Brittany because they don't fare very well in storms. Brittany is often swept by winds exceeding 80 miles per hour, summer and winter alike.

In 1999, we were at Les Tertres at Christmas as usual. We had friends over. Strong winds had been blowing and temperatures fell.

On December 25th, around 9 p.m., it was so stormy outside that we decided to go take a walk on the quay in Val André. We went there allright but all we did was to watch huge waves crashing on the quay. The sea was raging.

So we went back home, feeling really weird. We spent a couple of hours talking about storms, of course and then we went to bed.

In Brittany, you'll find a barometer in almost every house. It's very useful when you're planning a boating trip or whatever anyway! We checked ours before going to bed. It was falling allright but what could you expect with such a stormy weather.

Around 4 a.m., we awoke to a sudden blood-curling shriek followed by some kind of explosion that shook the house from bottom to the top. The cats scurried away from our bed and went instantly into hiding, one under the bed and the other one in a cupboard.

Then silence, long enough for me to keep cool and check the outside temperature. It was quite wintery when we went to bed: 40°F (5°C). I just couldn't believe the number I was reading and I remember thinking: 'This is IT'. The outside thermometer displayed 77°F (26°C). So I ran to the barometer a few feet away from our bedroom. Well, it couldn't fall any lower!

And then, everybody came running downstairs (the guests' rooms are upstairs. Ours is on the first floor.)
'Any idea of what's going on out there?'
'Nope and nobody is going outside to check.'

There were several young adults with us who were extremely excited about the whole thing. But when it started again, the shrieking and the blows and punches against the southwest side of the house, everybody fell quiet. Someone lit a candle (the electricity was out already) and we huddled together on the sofa.

I remember watching the shutters swelling, almost to the point of being pulled out from the house. 'Is this really happening? In Brittany?'

We all knew that once the shutters would be torn away, the windows wouldn't resist very long either. We talked about getting down into the basement except that we didn't know whether the windows were still holding down there... (afterwards, we discovered that some of them hadn't).

We stood there, frozen with, well, with fright. The whatever was going on outside kept on going for more than two hours... A lifetime...

When the monster gave signs of moving away, one of us went to the bathroom (on the northern side of the house) and opened carefully one shutter. Lo and behold. He came back and said: 'Well, Marie (one of our friends), I don't think you'll be able to leave today. There are fallen trees all over the place and I'm pretty sure some of them are jamming the gate.'

Around 6 a.m., we got our flashlights and out we went! The house was allright so was the roof (thanx to the way the former owner had built the house) but outside, there were twisted trees, broken trees, uprooted trees, trees that looked like they had been thrown away like javelins... It was a terrible sight.

But we were alive. The house has weathered the hurricane. Of course we had lost more than 80 trees, all of them over 50 years old. I remember I cried.

We walked back to the house: no phone, no electricity. The lines had been buried when the house was built. Good idea except that the roots had uprooted the whole system! Well, anyway, all the lines were down.

Then we heard people calling. Our friends had come over. They knew we had to be 'rescued' somehow. Some had walked over since the roads were covered with fallen trees. One of them had driven his tractor through the fields, hoping to help towing the trees away. Well, he did open a breach in the fence. Yes, we had a fence (a very short one but long enough to prevent us from getting out).

It felt so good. We all went back to the house and while Marie was packing, now she could drive through the hole in the fence, we talked about the night and tried to assess damages. Most of the roads were closed. A few houses had lost their roofs. There were lots of damages in the harbors, of course. But there had been no fishing that night, being so close to Christmas. Nobody had been killed (at least in our area) since it had happened in the middle of the night.

We were told that the hurricane had hit France from our coast on a 150 kms (90 miles) width and was still at it at an average speed of 200 kms/hr (125 miles/hr). It hit Les Tertres while going at 232 kms/hr (144 miles/hr). We know because there is a meteorological station very close to our place.

Then it badly hit Paris and part of France then went on to Germany. But at the time, we didn't know anything about it.

Pretty soon, our friend and 'gardener' came with his team and started getting rid of what was packed in our way. It took days and days. And there was no other way than to burn everything right there.
Night and day... Day and night...
Trees were burnt everywhere... I still remember the smell lingering for at least two years later. There is nothing else you can do with that kind of conifers.

Hurricanes were quite unknown in our area but ever since 1999, France has been severely hit several times, again and again. People have started to talk about these events as proof of global warming effects. All I know is that our storms in Brittany are getting more and more violent.

What I want to remember tho from such an experience is the fact that there was a great fit of solidarity and generosity. At least in our area. While Yves was working on our trees, Popeye went to help Bernard on his farm. Henri and Jean, even tho they were a lot older than most of us, helped around. People came from all over France to rebuild the electricity and phone lines. And so on and so on! It was a great lesson of life.

Was this hurricane (named Lothar by the way) a direct consequence of global warming?  I still don't know. But if it was caused by global warming, we do have a lot of worries on our hands. I know I've become much more concerned about environmental issues ever since. We've been trying to change things at Les Tertres which is our personal environment but what we did may have an influence on global environmental issues. Remember the importance of fluttering butterflies on the other side of the world (it's a nice story anyway).

Two days after the hurricane, we saw this incredible rainbow I want to share with you maybe as a token of hope.

(to be continued)

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


'Les Tertres'

Everytime someone comes to 'Les Tertres' for the first time, we always hear: 'Wow! I've never seen anything like it before. What an incredible place!' (Meaning a house with such a view.)
We do agree. The scenery is amazing. And we never get bored watching the sea.

The house stands on a cliff, 30 meters above a vast and mostly deserted beach. Right below, the sea is studded with tiny islands or should I say, clusters of rocks which mostly appear at low tide. Every one of them has a name of course. Further away, you may see a remote coastline since this is a bay.
On wintery days when the air is crisp and limpid, the coastline gets so distinct you can see trees outlined against the sky, 20 miles away from you. It is magical.

At night, from the other side of the bay, villages send funny flickering signals, showing people are indeed living there. You also see quite a few twinkling buoys because beauty sometimes hides terrible dangers for boating, mostly fishermen.

 Twenty years ago, we wanted badly a 'family home' where we could put family roots down once and for all. We wanted a 'happy' house where we'd welcome our friends, our friends' children and our son's friends. It took us a long time to find the right place.
One day we saw the 'perfect house' in a real estate agent's window. It had been for sale for three years. We went and took a tour of the estate (at the time, the house stood over 15 acres of gardens, woods, moor and small fields and boasted one private access to the beach, on a completely protected natural site).
Sounds perfect like a dream come true, doesn't it?

Well, actually, as soon as I got there, even tho the scenery was appalling, I got scared!
What? Are we going to live in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the earth? (The closest village is three miles away even tho we see the church steeple from the house.) I pictured poor me with several children lost in the wilderness during school holidays. And I just couldn't say yes! I loved the place but it took me one long year to surrender!

 I remember our first summer there, the house filled as anticipated with 'tons' of friends and children... running back and forth, I should say up and down from and to the beach with our shepherd dog, Branwen.

During the day, it was allright. Anyway, nobody seemed to fear anything around there. Half a mile from us, our closest neighbours left their doors and windows open day and night...
It started getting hard at night, especially when a full moon started shining all over the rocky moor.
I can't remember who was the first one to ever talk about 'the hatchet man' who'd be coming up the cliff from the sea and... someone, usually a child, would start screaming: 'He's coming! He's coming!'
The moon and the rocks would create weird and scary shapes... and since we have huge picture windows on the first floor, guess who'd get scared and tried to remain as calm as she could be (and sometimes didn't quite succeed at it)?

I don't like to feel like a coward so I decided to make the best out of our 'home'. (It no longer was 'our house in Brittany'.) I did manage to stay there on my own with the children and I ended up loving it after all.
We proudly discovered we belonged there during the first winter when we weathered a few very strong tempests and survived!

Later on, it became a truly safe place for all of us, safe from problems or illness or worries, despite several burglary attempts (times were changing), all of them while we were away and despite the 1999 hurricane (we were there).

Now I go live there by myself without fear. We no longer have a dog but I still keep forgetting to lock the doors.

We no longer are considered as 'summer vacationers' (the worst insult ever). We have many friends in the area who come to visit us in Brussels and Paris. Imagine!

We do belong to 'Les Tertres'. We do.

(to be continued)

*Good Night, and Good Luck*