“Don’t go to the Christmas village near Champs-Elysées!” my friend Fabien chided me in a message. “It’s so contre-facons, so fake!”
Well, yeah. Sure. It’s totally cheesy. That’s the whole point—the point my Parisian friend missed completely. The French may have perfected cheese, but they don’t appreciate cheesy like an American. We’re from the land of Las Vegas, Six Flags, Disney. The cheesier the better. Cheesy can be nostalgic, heartwarming. Cheesy is…well, dammit, just plain fun.
There are Christmas markets all over Paris this time of year, but the Marché de Noël on the Champs-Elysées is the ultimate in holiday consumerism. It lines both sides of the avenue from Métro Franklin Roosevelt to Place de la Concorde, American Christmas music blaring from strategically placed speakers as you mill about with the masses. Tacky to a Frenchman, maybe, but festive to a cheese-loving American girl like me. There is every kind of purveyor along this endless stretch of road—from gifts to food and drink. Lots of food and drink. In fact, there is more food and drink than anything else. But, hey, this is France we’re talking about. There are even a few full-scale restaurants, and a food court of sorts.
And that was precisely why my friend “K” and I were there. We weren’t interested in the tchotchkes made in China, we were there, quite simply, to “spend the day drinking vin chaud and eating roasted chestnuts then more vin chaud and tons of junk food” as was the prescribed plan I received in a message from my friend the night before. We were going full-cheese.
I should mention that my friend owns a nightclub in Paris, so he really brings the party. He does nothing halfway. And a larger-than-life Christmas market on the largest avenue in Paris was the perfect setting for a giant-sized day of abandon.
After a kick-off glass of Champagne in a hotel lobby on the Champs-Elysées, we headed for the market and those roasted chestnuts. A man in a stand near the entrance of the market roasted them by the hundreds it seemed, scooping up large cupfuls into paper cones.
“Are we splitting an order?” I asked.
“I don’t share chestnuts,” K said.
So we each took our own cone and munched on chestnuts as we browsed the pop-up boutiques, peeling the chestnuts as we walked along, the heat from them keeping our hands warm.
“Vin chaud?” K asked, when we approached one of the many stands selling a hot mulled wine. I nodded, and a tall plastic cup imprinted with “Les Villages de Noël Champs-Elysées” was placed in my hand, filled with a piping hot liquid that smelled of grape and cinnamon. Christmas in a glass.
We parked ourselves briefly at some tall tables that looked out at the Grand Palais, sipping our wine as we gazed up at the glass dome of the palais, and gawked at the passersby—a mix of tourists and French. Everyone was in a happy mood, couples and families enjoying the sunny Sunday, getting into the holiday mood like we were, perhaps embracing the cheesiness of it all, like we were.
But chestnuts and a glass of warm wine were just the starters. Once we hit the food court my friend’s plan really kicked in. First, raclette (or the carnival facsimile), which was essentially melted cheese over potatoes. Yes, it was as good as it sounds. This was followed by a cheese-covered bretzl—or pretzel—which we had the good sense to share.
After all that cheese and starch, well, we needed a glass of Champagne. And of course, wouldn’t you know that when the French do a food court, they have a Champagne bar smack in the middle of it? Vive la France!
Twenty minutes browsing a few more shops (and by browsing I mean we strolled past them slowly), we then wandered into one of the large eateries, a kind of cantina, its beams festooned with holiday swags, Christmas trees in each corner of the hall.
Now, you’d think after a raclette and cheese-covered pretzel and vin chaud and chestnuts—oh, and Champagne—we’d be sated. You’d be wrong. Because we absolutely, positively had to share some frites—French fries—and wash them down with hot chocolate. Because it’s France, and it’s Christmas and, you know, you gotta.
Of course, this was over the course of six hours. Well, seven, because after we left the market, we had another glass of Champagne at Hôtel Le Maurice, and a nightcap at the Hôtel Régina.
It was a totally hedonistic day, a day spent in an oversized market some might find cheesy—but in it, we enjoyed the little pleasures of life. Simple pleasures reminiscent of those spent on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights when I was a kid. In fact, except for the wine and Champagne, there was little difference between us and the children at the market. For one day, we let ourselves be cheesy, and enjoy what came without expectation, or affectation. To just have fun and not care. One day without worry. It ended up being the best gift I could have given myself this Christmas. Calories be damned.
Market memories (cheesy and otherwise)
Dedicated to the victims of the Berlin Christmas Market attack. My heart is with you and your loved ones today.
Learn more about the journey that led to My (Part-Time) Paris Life in my memoir of the same name ON SALE NOW!