The Christmas Gift

My memoir of Christmas in Paris in 1963 was just published in Beneath the Rainbow.


The December mist was turning to sleet as I came out of the Sentier metro station and stopped to get my bearings. I got out my map and turned it so the streets lined up. My quest, the Central Post Office at 52, Rue du Louvre, certainly was “central”—equidistant from three metro stops in the geographic middle of metropolis nowhere. I started walking up Rue d’Aboukir and hoped I was going in the right direction. My trench coat with the handy zip-out lining was getting soaked, and I shivered.

November had been a bad month. On the 5th I was fired from my au pair job when I returned the three year old twins in my care an hour late for supper, dirty and triumphant from playing in their first leaf pile. Les enfants Parisiens were not to play in filth, I was informed; Madame was désespéré with worry; and I was told to be gone by morning. The job had only paid five francs a day, but it put a roof over my head and provided breakfast and dinner. Now, with my last two francs and a metro carnet, I headed back to the Left Bank and the fifth floor walk-up I’d found with Helen, another American stray from Redlands, California.

These were not the plush digs of the 16th arrondissement. The place had no hot water but was reasonably warm if you wore sweaters and stayed away from the windows. We shared the bathroom in the hall with the seven other people who lived on the floor, and I showered once a week down the street at the public baths. I stepped over winos to visit the crêperie on the corner at midnight if I studied late and ignored the whistles and whispered obscenities of vagrants who followed me home. After opening the heavy wooden doors and crossing the dark, deserted courtyard, I’d yell up the stairs and hope someone would hear me and turn on the hall light to guide me to the top floor. The light only stayed on for two minutes, so I always arrived breathless, sometimes stumbling up the last flight in the dark.

Helen and I had a quid pro quo arrangement with the two American guys who lived on the same floor. We cooked and cleaned for them; they bought the groceries. We all ate dinner together if we didn’t have a date, and on the 22nd, Mike from Tucson had just asked me to pass the bread when his roommate Peter from Detroit told us to shush as the words “blood on Jackie’s clothes” and “Dallas motorcade” came over the radio and into our consciousness. We sat stunned as the BBC announcer said the President had been taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital; they were operating; there had been a sniper. . . . A short time later the sonorous, very proper British voice intoned, “I am sorry to inform the world that President Kennedy is dead.” Then, incredibly, he added, “And now, I believe we should all take a moment to compose ourselves.” And with that, the BBC went off the air.

Broadcasting resumed 20 minutes later, with moving tributes by members of Parliament and other dignitaries. The four of us stared at one another in grief, anger, denial. It was incomprehensible that this could happen. Not in America. Not to our President.

The next day on my way to the Sorbonne, the French flags on government buildings were at half-staff, and the front of the buses had both a French and an American flag in their brackets. I thought I looked like a native after months in Paris, but apparently not, since total strangers stopped me to say how sorry they were, as if I had lost a member of my family.

And, of course, I had.

Now it was December 23rd. Peter, Mike and Helen had gone to Mykonos for the Christmas holiday. They asked me to go, but since I had neglected to tell my mother that I’d been fired, I had no money.

My neglect also led to my pilgrimage today. Because she thought I still worked for the family, my mother sent my Christmas presents to their address. Madame had refused the package, but told the postman I was enrolled at the Sorbonne. Three weeks later, I received word in class that it was at the post office in the suburbs. I made the trek on the 22nd but was told it had been transferred to the Bureau de Poste Centrale.

Presents from home! Santa/Mom hadn’t forgotten. Truth was, although I tried to stay busy, with school now closed for the holidays and my friends gone, I was desperately homesick. At 19, this would be my first Christmas away from home. I longed for something familiar, something American, something real. And tucked in the package from home, amongst the real and American and familiar, there might even be some money. Merry Christmas to me!

I entered the large building, found what I thought was the right queue to ask about my package, and took the slip of paper I’d been given the day before from my pocket. It was damp and smudged from the rain, but you could still read the ID numbers that showed the transfer. When my turn came, I gave it to the clerk. He squinted trying to make out the numbers, glanced up with a frown, and left the window. He was gone for several minutes, and the people behind me began to mutter, impatient to mail their packages and get on with their holiday. The clerk returned empty-handed and rattled off something in rapid French. “Pardon, Monsieur, mais je ne comprends pas,” I answered.

“Mademoiselle,” he said, changing to slow, somewhat sarcastic semi-English, “Your package arrived il y a trois semaines. Three weeks. It is returned to the sender. Il n’est pas ici.” He shrugged, the Gaelic equivalent of “it’s not my problem, and anyway, who cares?”

“Not here?” I asked, unbelieving.

“Pas ici,” he confirmed, relieved that I understood and could be dismissed. He turned to the customer standing behind me. “Madame, vous voulez?”

I waited until I was back in the rain to cry. No presents. No money. No home. I walked the long blocks to the metro wondering how I would survive the next few days. My teeth were chattering and my nose was running. I absently wiped it on the sleeve of my trench coat. Ick. Had I really done that? I walked a little more purposefully through the door of the metro station, but I was still crying.

The Sentier station had seemed closest to the post office, but it was out of the way, and I had to change metro lines twice to go back. It might have been quicker to walk, I thought miserably. But it was warm underground, and I really had nowhere to be. I was negotiating the labyrinth under Les Halles trying to find the Porte de Clignancourt/Porte d’Orléans line that would take me to the Left Bank when I heard a familiar tune. Someone was playing “Jingle Bells” on a wheezy, dinged-up saxophone. The blind street musician was on the last notes as I approached him. “Encore une fois,” I asked hesitantly, “s’il vous plait?”

The old man smiled at my American accent, bowed slightly, and gave a rousing encore of “Jingle Bells” while I sobbed. When he was done, I thanked him and dropped my last two francs into his battered open case. He smiled at the sound of the coins and nodded to me.

What was I doing? I needed that money even more than he did. But I’d heard “Jingle Bells,” a tiny piece of home.

When I came out of the St. Michel station, the sleet was coming down harder than before. I put my head down and started walking more quickly, then slowed as I realized I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t even pass the afternoon nursing a café au lait in a restaurant. The wave of depression made me dizzy and sick to my stomach. I knew I couldn’t face the prison of the apartment, the stained green paint on the walls, the windows rattling.

I felt in my pocket where the two francs had been, and pulled out an envelope I had carried around for a week. Inside was the watch I bought in Switzerland the summer before, along with its stem, which came off one day when I wound it. I’d been meaning to take it to the repair shop, and I had to break this depression before it overwhelmed me. I would find an horlogerie, drop off my watch, and feel I had accomplished something, no matter how trivial. The errand would also put off going home for another half hour.

I remembered seeing a watch maker’s shop on a side street off Boulevard St. Germain. With my hand closed tightly over the watch in my pocket and my cheeks stinging and chapped from sleet and tears, I set off down Rue Danton.

By the time I found the horlogerie, I was drenched. The shop was just below street level, unmarked except for a small weather-beaten sign. The windows wore a patina of Paris grime, but the light was on, and I could see movement inside. I must have looked like a shipwreck survivor as I stood in the entryway dripping and trembling from cold.

I had entered another world.

The tiny shop was snug and welcoming with a small pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room that seemed to glow. Beside the stove were two stools. At least I thought there were two. All I could see of one of them was four wooden legs beneath the massive hulk of a woman whose bottom overlapped the seat by what seemed a foot on all sides. In her arms was a Chihuahua wearing an orange handknit sweater that matched the woman’s hair. The dog was trembling as much as I was, and the woman crooned and fussed over it like a brood hen.

“Mademoiselle?” The voice startled me. A small, balding man had come up to the counter and was peering at me through coke bottle spectacles that made his eyes look enormous—like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, I thought. I stood tongue-tied, realizing I had no vocabulary to cover broken watches. I took the envelope out of my pocket, showed him the stem and the watch, and said, “Elle ne marche pas,” a ubiquitous statement for anything that didn’t work.

“Ah, oui,” he agreed, nodding. “Elle ne marche pas.” He studied me a moment, then took the watch and headed for his workbench. “Asseyez-vous, Mademoiselle,” he called over his shoulder, gesturing toward the stove. “Asseyez-vous.”

Not knowing how to say I just wanted to drop it off and would come back later, and exhausted from my day’s disappointments, I obeyed and sat down gratefully on the other stool. I nodded to the woman with the Chihuahua, and she nodded back before returning to cluck over the tiny dog which seemed all the more miniscule in her fleshy embrace.

I was actually getting warm, and I unbuttoned my trench coat and let it fall to the floor around the stool. The shoulders of my sweater were wet, and I imagined if I stayed here long enough the wool would start steaming in the heat from the stove. I smiled at the mental image of myself steaming and realized I was relaxed for the first time all day.

As I settled in, the room seemed to come alive with sound. All four walls had shelves at varying heights with clocks on them—hundreds of clocks. The shelves appeared to have been built when new clocks were added, just the right height for the clock each shelf held. I’d never seen such a collection of clocks, but soon I realized I couldn’t tell the correct time from any of them. Periodically one would ding, or clang, or give sharp metallic reports without assuming any of the temporal responsibility of proper time pieces. They seemed, instead, to be performing out of pure joy. When they weren’t announcing random hours and half hours, the room was filled with their heartbeats—fast, slow, clicking, thumping—a gathering of kindred souls.

Suddenly a chime, low and melodic, filled the room, so resonant that the floor trembled. I turned to see a magnificent grandfather clock in one corner—Zeus in his Pantheon of timepieces. I was utterly charmed and found myself silently joining the clocks’ conversations, imagining what the personality and story of the individuals might be. Over there was a harried businessman, ticking loudly and hurrying to get the dinging behind him. On another shelf was a true lady, soft-spoken and demure. I imagined her wearing a pastel flowered dress. The strident voice of a fishwife called from across the room, while a dapper gentleman in a swallowtail coat emerged from the mantel clock near the door. Occasionally the jesters of the assemblage would bleat or cuckoo, nodding through their open doors before disappearing back inside. I wanted to have a cup of tea with them, and I found myself acknowledging ones who spoke with a look or a nod.

I don’t know how much time passed—and the clocks certainly weren’t concerned—but I became aware of the little man watching me embrace the magic. He smiled. “Elles sont belles, n’est-ce pas?”

“Oh oui, Monsieur. Elles sont très belles,” I answered, wishing I could tell him about the party I was imagining.

“Et voilà, votre montre marche maintenant,” he said and held the repaired watch out for me to take.

I blushed as I struggled into my coat and explained in terrible French that I had no money and would have to come back for the watch. I tried to tell him I was sorry I had imposed on his time, his hospitality, when I couldn’t pay.

The little man took my hand and pressed the watch into it. “C’est votre cadeau de Noël, Mademoiselle.”

All I could manage was, “Merci, Monsieur. Merci beaucoup. Vous êtes très gentil.”

As I opened the door he called, “Joyeux Noël, Mademoiselle,” and I returned the wish to him and the woman near the stove.

The sleet had turned to soft pillowy snowflakes in the dusk of late afternoon. I walked along the boulevard feeling warm and blessed by the little man, his gift, and his magical clock shop. I would go to Notre Dame tomorrow night for the Christmas Eve service. I would clean out all of the leftovers in both apartments and make a fine soup for Christmas Day. And when I got back today, I would ask the concierge if I could use her phone to make the confessional collect call to my mother so she wouldn’t worry when the package she sent was returned to her.

Joyeux Noël, indeed.

– Sarah Russell
First published in Beneath the Rainbow
Photo source

This story is in Beneath the Rainbow’s Christmas story contest. If you enjoyed it, please visit their site and add a comment.  Most comments and hits on the story wins!  Thanks, and Merry Christmas.


15 thoughts on “The Christmas Gift

  1. This story was nail biting – how hardships matured the .young you and how Christmas gifts are often the most unexpected – thanks for sharing this insight into yourself – so well told I felt all the up and down emotions – totally unrealted but it had something of ‘the legend of the holy drinker’ about it – also set in Paris.
    Oh and wishing you a warm and homely Christmas


  2. Thanks so much, Laura. I don’t know the story you mention. I will seek it out. Anything set in Paris is a favorite before I even start reading! And thank you for your Christmas wish. I hope your Christmas is lovely too.

    PS. I see it is a movie and a book. Which would you recommend?


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