This week I have done my bit to help rid my widowed mother-in-law of the ghost of Christmases past. It’s been three years since her husband died and she is now starting to move on with her life.
Coming to spend Christmas with us in France was part of the healing process. Well, I say ‘us’, but in fact, Damon worked all over the holiday period.
So, she spent Christmas with me.
The Eurostar whisked her from London to Lille on Christmas Eve, and when Damon came home from work, we put on a traditional réveillon de Noël spread: seafood. The table was full with snow crab, wild langoustines and razor clams – and by the end of the evening, so were we.
Christmas Day itself was unlike any other.
“After 9 courses over 3 hours, our Christmas dinner reached its end. Sadly, the same is true of Maureen’s hearing aid”
In the morning, Maureen and I went to the local park, but her hip began to hurt, so we cut short our walk. We spent the afternoon more sedately, watching a film, Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang.
Things cranked up a gear in the evening, when Damon joined us for dinner at the acclaimed Le Vagabond. The restaurant is named after its Michelin-starred chef, Nicolas Pourcheresse, who has swapped the large kitchen at the Clarance Hôtel, where we’ve eaten before, for his own eaterie.
With just 16 covers and the kitchen in the dining room, it’s a very intense, intimate experience. The food was mainly seafood, with plenty of surprising and original touches and flavours.
After 9 courses over 3 hours, our Christmas dinner reached its end. Sadly, the same is true of Maureen’s hearing aid.
It’s fair to say that its demise had made conversation difficult over the course of the evening.
Damon and I vowed to return for dinner à deux sometime soon. Possibly when Nicolas and his team have forgiven us for the bellowing and gesturing.
On Boxing Day – a concept unknown here in France – I drove Maureen up to Ghent for the day. The town brought back happy memories for her of a birthday trip to Bruges with her husband 20 years earlier.
“I’m not sad anymore,” she told me over lunch. “I know he’s always with me and I have to go on with my life.”
On Thursday, her final day with us, I took her for a gentle stroll around Lille’s Christmas market and then, after lunch, to the Palais des Beaux Arts. An exhibition of Matisse’s Jazz series was something both of us fancied.
Matisse had spent time in Lille. In fact, during a period of self-doubt, a couple of paintings by Goya that he saw in the museum here motivated him to continue painting.
It’s nice to think that Lille had played a role in his life – just as it’s nice to think I’ve played a part in Maureen’s rehabilitation.
But before you put me forward for beatification, I have something to admit… I was happy when her Eurostar left Lille for London that evening.
Restaurant photo © Le Vagabond