Thursday, 27 December 2007

Curry favour

The freezer is full and the whole place reeks of cumin and coriander. I have six bags of turkey curry in the bottom drawer. This was leftover turkey curry leftover from the Boxing Day dinner with friends. The 'How to Freeze' advise I sought on the web stressed it was important to put dates on the freezer bags. I could not find a suitable pen and thought: "Am I really going to forget when I stuck a leftover turkey curry in here?" I was not in London in December 2006. The buy-one-get-one-free bags of clementines have been peeled and bagged too (second shelf). Ditto the special offer smoked salmon (top shelf).

I had to let one of the sprigs of fresh brussel sprouts leave with my best friends. The sprouts were delicious, grown by my stepfather on his allotment, but I could not see us eating another 50 or so in the next few days. Weeks even. I have no idea what he put on them but they had stood in a corner and no matter how many I pulled off they seemed to reproduce. I have sent my mother off with some eggs, tomatoes and, very generously, a half-eaten chocolate Christmas log which was in any case her birthday cake and is dotted with candle holes and specks of wax. The foie gras my mother-in-law brought is still in the fridge. The French were going to take it with them when the left, but forgot. They also left the rounds of turkey and tomato sandwiches I made them to eat on the Eurostar. "Thanks a lot," I told my apologetic husband when he called. "Now cold turkey which could have gone into curry is sitting between slices of bread cluttering up another shelf and I'm going to have to throw them away." This always makes me feel guilty.

My mother-in-law, whom my husband considers to be "a saint", caught my hand hovering over the dustbin with a out-of-date loaf of sliced bread. The French have a quasi-religious regard for bread. In some homes they still make the sign of the cross with the knife over a baguette before hacking into it. (English visitors should also be aware of the sin of prematurely cutting or wrenching off the other end of a stick that is already started.) I looked at the plastic-wrapped industrial loaf in my hand. It was hardly worthy of worship but I shoved it back in the cupboard anyway. Then on Christmas Day she gave a 'there-are-people-dying-for-the-want-of-that' look as I went to shovel the leftover brussel sprouts into the bin. I have never bought into this particular parental guilt trip. Ever since I was a child and was asked to consider the plight of wide-eyed Biafran youngsters with their balooning empty bellies I have failed to understand how eating up something will help the starving of Africa or, conversely, not eating it harm them. Not buying it in the first place, perhaps, but not eating it? Saint or not, I gave my mother-in-law a look back that said: "Nobody on this continent is going to be saved from expiring by my soggy greens and they'll be green of a different kind by the time I despatch them to Africa."

Now I have to deal with the box of handmade Belgian chocolates my mother-in-law also brought over. I will not call them a problem - that would be spoiled and ungrateful - but while After Eights and Quality Street appear every December like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, hugely calorific Belgian chocolates made with fresh cream do not keep from one year to another. They barely keep from one month to another. I tend not to have chocolate in the place anyway on the basis that if I do, I eat it and wear it (I might just as well slap the praline straight on my thighs and be done with it). Like the soggy sprouts I do not think they are suitable fare for the starving but it seems too spoiled and wasteful to consign such extravagance to the dustbin. I am resigned to living with them in the fridge chorusing "Eat me, eat me" every time the light goes on.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Ding dong merrily on high

The entente turned discordial Christmas Eve when the Frenchman and I had a furious row over who was giving what and when and the role of Father Christmas in this material exchange. Of course we had to fall out in front of the mothers who took the sides you would expect with the consequent rise in bilateral relations (already complicated because neither mother speaks the other's language). The Fille was asleep and my stepdaughter beat a diplomatic retreat to bed so at least it was even sided.

The Frenchman wanted to put the tinselled bike around the tree and make out Santa had brought it. I thought this was a bad idea. For starters the bicycle was not wrapped (no paper, however lurid, could have competed with its glittery paintwork). Secondly, I was sure if the Fille saw the bike she would be so dazzled she would lose interest in any other present. Thirdly, and perhaps selfishly, I felt there was a good chance she would spot the unwrapped bike while most of us were still asleep robbing us of the pleasure of seeing her face. Fourthly, I knew attributing the bike to Father Christmas would disappoint my mother who had bought it and was as excited as a child about giving it. In short: I thought it was not just a bad idea, but a very bad idea. "Let's keep it hidden until she has opened everything else," I suggested. I did not think I was being unreasonable, but maybe something went AWOL in the translation - we were all quite tired. In any case it went very hissy and "That's IT", very quickly. At one point the Frenchman returned from smoking his filterless Gitane on the doorstep - he is not allowed to light up inside - and I swear he was banging on about the importance of The Fille believing in Father Christmas and asking if I wanted her to be the only child in her future school class who did not believe in him. I just wanted Christmas to be magic and there I was having a very ugly, unmagical slanging match, and doing more than my share of the ugly, unmagical slanging. My mother-in-law went away and returned with her Christmas present for The Fille. She put it at the foot of the tree in the most prominent position. "I don't care if she thinks it's from Father Christmas," she said. "And I think you'll find she won't care either." My mother nodded. At least they were getting on.

This is the first year The Fille has been old enough for us to worry about Father Christmas: does he bring all the presents or just some? Are all the presents actually from him? Is he just delivering them on behalf of the giver? I found I could not answer these fundamental questions. Clearly I am going to have to do some research before next year.

As midnight passed and we were still lobbing verbal daggers, I thought: "This is ridiculous. We are having an argument over someone who doesn't exist." I am not sure exactly when but there was eventually a: 'Stop. Peace. Goodwill to all men and women' moment. By then it was already Christmas.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all

We are trying to decide when to give our Christmas presents. This is a cultural discussion between the French (husband, mother-in-law, stepdaughter) and the English (me, mother). The Fille is not included; she would vote to open them now.

The French normally give presents tonight after they celebrate Christmas with champagne, foie gras and seafood, among other things. My mother and I would give them tomorrow, when the English celebrate traditionally with turkey and plum pudding. I point out as I cannot find a local shop to come up with a platter of oysters, langoustine, crab, prawns, shrimps, whelks and winkles, and as we have a massive Suffolk turkey to feed the 5,000 we should save ourselves, food and present-wise, until tomorrow. I would also argue we have Father Christmas on our side as he does his rounds overnight, except everyone would think the Christmas spirit had addled my brain.

My mother would have put the presents round the tree days ago and is certainly not about to let anyone, least of all some mythical chap and reindeer, claim credit for the glittery tinselled bicycle she has bought The Fille. She wanted to put the presents round the tree days ago. She says we have always done this in our family. Her memory must be worse than mine; I clearly remember nothing went round the tree in our house before my brother and I were well asleep on Christmas Eve. Any earlier and she knew she would catch us burrowing around like famished moles to get the Mars Bars out of the selection boxes. She thinks The Fille is an angel.

The presents are hidden in various cupboards and we have agreed a compromise on when to divvy them out. I did not even have to use the 'When in Rome-rule' trump card: my mother's 'Christmas stockings'; elephant-size socks full of delightful little gifts she puts together every year, will be opened tonight. We will open the rest tomorrow. As it is her birthday, ny mother will be allowed to open her birthday presents, and my mother-in-law will be allowed to open presents because it is her saint's day. The Fille and my stepdaughter may be allowed, if they are really very good to open an extra present this evening. I am sure the latter, who is 21 will qualify easily, but am less certain the former, now two-and-a-half will fulfil the behaviour requirement. Still, I am happy we have reached an Entente Cordiale. I tell my mother: "We don't have to pretend Father Christmas brought the bike you know."

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Dear Santa...

I cannot believe I am trawling London in search of a blue teddy bear. It is my fault. Until we got here it never crossed my mind to ask The Fille what she wanted Santa Claus to bring her. I am of the opinion she will receive what she receives and be happy with it or not. Then I realised everyone else's children have either written to Father Christmas or been to see him and I started beating myself up about depriving The Fille of a little bit of Christmas magic and tradition. I rang around to find out where Santa was in residence and if we could go and see him. It turns out we could have done breakfast with Father Christmas at Hamleys Toy Shop except he was fully booked. We could have gone to his grotto at Harrods, but all the reserved slots were already taken, which would mean queueing for goodness knows how long. John Lewis apparently had one wandering around today but to be honest I could not face the crowds. Other stores and shopping centres I phoned seemed to be giving Father Christmas a miss so I gave up on a personal audience.

I showed The Fille a Christmas card featuring one version of the jolly fat man in a red outfit and explained who he was. Of course I gave her the usual tosh about him, the elves and reindeer and said he would bring presents on Christmas Eve if she was really very, very good. (Now I will have to change all the labels on the presents, throw them out or give in to pre-Christmas tantrums). As she cannot yet write I said: "Tell me what you'd like him to bring you for Christmas and I'll pass it on." She thought for a moment and said: "A gateau chocolate".
"Sorry. I don't think Father Christmas does chocolate cake," I said: "Anything else?"
"A gateau chocolate...and a blue bear."
"A blue bear?"
"Yes. A blue bear called Fred." As I say; where does all this stuff come from?
"OK," I say optimistically. I'll ask Santa Claus."

I have dug myself into a large hole. I have searched high and low and have seen brown bears, white bears, cream bears, black bears and even green bears; bears with blue scarves, blue noses, blue shoes and blue hats; but no bears that are actually blue. In desperation I nearly bought one with a blue T-shirt until the Frenchman said helpfully: "The bear isn't blue. She isn't going to be fooled you know."

Help! Anyone seen a blue bear who will answer to the name of Fred?

Saturday, 22 December 2007

'Tis the season to be jolly

Deck the halls with boughs of holly....we are off for Christmas in London and I am full of seasonal cheer and goodwill. The Fille is taking longer to get into the spirit. We arrive at British immigration control at the Eurostar terminal in the Gare du Nord just as she is having a hissy fit, screaming "Mama, mama" and "I want" various things, most of them edible and involving chocolate. (This is what you get if you listen to a French pediatrician and deprive your child of sweets and biscuits for the first two years of her life). I hand over our passports. Mine is still in my maiden name, The Fille's is in her father's name. Normally I have a copy of my marriage certificate in the back of my passport but it fell out in Prague and I stuffed it back in a bag or pocked somewhere and cannot now find it. I used to be super organised and efficient. These days I do scatty.

"Is this your child?" asks the woman immigration officer.
"Yes," I say as The Fille tugs at the hem of my coat, still nagging:"Mama, mama."
"But she has a different name."
"Yes, she has her father's name."
"Do you have anything to connect you to her?" she asks.
I think hard. Umbilical cord? No, that was cut some time ago. A photo of The Fille as a few month old baby? No, the woman looks scornful. The Fille's drawing book with dated pictures by 'Me and Mama'? No good. Perhaps her hanging off my clothes shouting "Mama" is a giveaway? Clearly not. "I'm sorry," I say. "I do this trip at least once a month with my daughter and nobody has ever asked me to prove I'm her mother before."
The woman glares at me. "Madame, have you heard of child-trafficking?"
I am needled by her officiousness. "Indeed I have, Madame, and I have written about it," I reply.
"Well you should know that the rules have been tightened. I say I understand, and I do. I am glad the rules have been tightened. I do not want any snatched or trafficked child being forced across any border anywhere. At the same time I am thinking, if I had snatched or was trafficking The Fille, would I have photographs of me holding her as a newborn baby, and spoon feeding the first solids and playing with her in an inflatable paddling pool at two years old? And would she be yelling "Look Mama, look" as she pulls out every single toy from the bag I have packed, while I say through clenched teeth: "Listen, I am already stressed, put Bear and Bébé and the rest back AT ONCE." Would I? Perhaps this is part of the child trafficker's kit. It strikes me maybe they think I am snatching The Fille from her father. I wonder if I call him on the mobile he will back me up or take the chance to have me put away. (You think you know someone but who knows?) My heart sinks. I can see Christmas in London disappearing faster than the new fast-tracked Eurostar. I begin calculating whether I have enough time to get home and find her health book. I decide I do not. The Fille has now emptied an entire bag on the floor and is saying: "Mama, mama, mama, mama," with different intonations each time as if trying the word out for size. She does this daily but I realise it might sound suspicious. I will her to be silent before we are arrested. By now a queue of huffing, shuffling passengers has built up behind me. The woman relents. "OK, I'll let you go this time, but next time bring some papers," she says.

I scoop up the scattered contents of our bag and find a wallet containing mine and The Fille's European Health Cards. I want to rush back and thrust them at the officious woman with a: "Look. She IS my child." I glance back at the long queue and shove the cards back in the bag with everything else. "Let it go. Move on," I tell myself. "'Tis the season to be jolly," I think. "Mama, what did the lady say?" asks The Fille. "She wanted to know if I am your Mama," I say. The Fille looks puzzled. "Why?"
"Who knows, who cares?" I tell her. "It's Christmas."

The spotless mind

With all the toing and froing across the Channel and the curious juggling of life in two cities, it was only a matter of time before it happened. I left my Paris purse at home in London. That is the one with all the French credit cards, euros, bus and train passes and La Fille's merry-go-round tickets in it. Luckily, I arrived at the Gare du Nord with my London purse and an Oyster Card, not in itself much use but behind which I had tucked a couple of metro tickets. (No, I do not remember why). I also had a few loose cents burrowing in the cruddy corners of my coat pockets, so La Fille and I were not entirely destitute. Still, it was odd and unnerving having no money and no means of getting any.

Then, a few hours later, I walked out of the Paris flat with the London keys. I heard the door click the very same instant I saw the Union Flag supermarket trolley disc on the keyring and my heart sank. Thank heaven La Fille was standing behind me and we were both locked out as opposed to me being locked out and her being locked in. I could not even try to slip a credit card in the lock - I hear this is what some thieves do - as I had left them all in the French purse in London. "Don't panic," I thought. "And don't let on." La Fille was due at the nursery, which gave me a couple of hours to find a way in. I dropped her off and called the nanny who has a set of keys but she was busy and could not come over. I wandered about forlornly. It was cold and I did not have enough money on me to spend the afternoon in a café. I had only one option, the option I had been trying to avoid; I called the Frenchman. I injected a semi-quaver in my voice so he would think I had walked out with the wrong keys because I was stressed and tired rather than just stupid and scatty. I was stressed and tired. I used my last metro ticket to get over to his office and collect his set of keys. He bought me a strong black coffee in a warm, smoky bar. "Are you all right?" he asked as he gave me his pin number, somewhat reluctantly I thought. "I hope it is not the start of something," I said gloomily.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Daddy's Girl

Funny what children pick up. Funny as in ha-ha but also "where on earth did that come from?" I have decided to stop talking about La Fille's eye problem in front of her. I had been doing so only when I thought she was not listening. Then I would notice her glance up with a sage face that said "I know, you know". It struck me I could be giving her a complex.

Sometimes she comes out with things that nobody, to my knowledge has said, and certainly not me; things I would not say in deepest sleep during a month of Sundays in a million years or even after several vats of France's finest red wine. Today La Fille wanted to take the lift downstairs. Normally we walk, but having refused point blank to give her a biscuit I thought: "Stop being such a killjoy". In the event, the lift was not working, so we had to walk. As we made our way down the stairs she turned a studious face to me, patted my arm and said: "Don't worry Papa knows how to make the lift work. Papa knows about lifts and lights and about...about all these things." Now this is quite simply not true, literally or metaphorically or even philosophically. In fact, it is so distant from the truth I almost tumbled down the stairs in astonishment. Papa does not know a thing about lifts or lights and even if he were asked his response would almost certainly be "I don't know" because "I don't know" is the Frenchman's default answer to most questions. What really infuriates me is not whether or not he knows, but the impression I have that he might do but cannot be bothered to think about it. In any case Papa has never, to my knowledge, shown any interest in lifts and would be the first to admit: "I don't know" about this one's failure to work. But La Fille will not let it drop. As we walk along the street she continues: "It's OK Mama. Papa knows about London. Papa knows about Paris. Papa knows about lifts. Papa knows about everything." As I am, in truth, the Queen of DIY chez nous (by virtue of Papa knowing nothing about it) I say: "But it's magic Mama that mends broken things at home so perhaps I can mend the lift." "No," she says firmly. "Papa will do it. Papa knows." I want to say: "Well that'll be a first", but I bite my tongue. What is it about girls and their dads?

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Water water everywhere

At 12.30 this morning I was hammering on our upstairs neighbour's door. I felt guilty about waking them, they have two young children, but water was coming through our bathroom ceiling. It was not a major leak, more a drip drip drip but this is not the first time we have been leaked on from above and it has cost us dearly so we are touchy about water springing from anywhere.

Most people in Paris live in flats - they find London terraced houses rather quaint - and this involves a level of 'cohabitation' between residents of a building. It is not necessary to love your neighbour but it is a good idea to like them or at least pretend to, especially if you suddenly discover the stopcock to your water supply is in their flat. Owners of each property are part of the 'co-proprieté' - a committee of owners - and pay a company, the 'syndic', to run the building, carry out repairs of the common parts, organise maintenance and pay for the electricity for the lighting, for the lift and for the concierge if there is one. These costs, and the syndic's charges, are divided between each owner according to the size of their apartment. It is a cumbersome apparatus as the co-proprieté and syndic meet only once a year to vote on works, so repairs - unless very urgent - have to wait. This is why most communal areas in nearly all buildings except the most chic, tend to be tatty; owners may not agree on decorating the halls or put it way down their list of priorities. Having a good 'co-proprieté' depends on the communal spirit of individual owners and finding a good 'syndic' is like looking for the Holy Grail.

Water is a big issue in our building. Thankfully it is not gas, though there was once a gas leak in the concierge's flat while she was away that could have blown us all to smithereens. It is an old building and although the exterior and supporting walls are thick, the floors and ceilings are wafer thin. A water leak on the sixth floor will, and has, run all the way down to the concierge's flat on the ground. In six years on top of small, irritating drip drip leaks, we have endured several serious floods, none of them our fault. The first happened when the elderly man living above grabbed a pipe as he fell over getting off the toilet. Our newly decorated bathroom become one large shower. A few months later one of the same elderly gentleman's relatives opened the water outlet on his boiler and left it running. Another shower. Then the old man died and we thought: "Well it's sad, but he was quite old and perhaps we're in the dry from now on", except a gormless removal man yanked out the washing machine without disconnecting the water supply sending another flood our way that filled up all the kitchen drawers and cupboards. (Said gormless removal man did not endear himself to me by telling my husband: "It's not that bad. It won't take your wife long to clean it up."). Although none of these were our fault, it turned out a sort of knock-for-knock insurance system applied and our insurance company paid up a piddling amount then fired us. Because we had been fired we suddenly became uninsurable, except by our own bank, which inserted a double whammy into the contract: double the normal premium and a promise we would not claim anything for two years.

We signed and crossed our fingers and toes. Then 18 months ago a plumber employed by the 'syndic' to repair the upriser feeding the whole seven story building decided, without consultation or explanation, to fit an entirely unnecessary stopcock on one of its branches in our flat. His reasoning? "You can't have too many stopcocks, my love." He was a real charmer and, it turned out, pretty gormless too. "Where are you from then with that lovely accent?," he asked after I had served him coffee. "England," I replied. "Oh really? I've never been to England. Never had any desire to. Wife's always wanted to but me, I don't like the English. Irish are OK, but you can keep the English." Taking the hint, I left him to the job only to find he had not only installed the stopcock but also removed a section of another pipe that disappeared into the wall. "It wasn't doing anything so I've taken it away," he explained. Five seconds later a furious next-door neighbour was hammering on the door complaining his lavatory no longer worked. It was Friday afternoon and Monsieur Charming the plumber suggested he was off and would come back on Monday to fix it (leaving neighbours and their three children without a loo all weekend). He had his coat on ready to go when the furious neighbour all but threatened to whack him with a monkey wrench if he did not reconnect his loo straight away. Later that night, some time around 1am, I was woken by an unnatural roaring noise. I leaped out of bed to find my stepdaughter doing an impersonation of a cross between the Dutch boy holding back the water from the dyke and a Miss Wet T-Shirt contender. The entirely unnecessary stopcock had blown off completely and the high-pressure upriser was spouting like a geyser. Within a few minutes the whole hallway and much of the living room was under several inches of water. The neighbours down stairs rushed up to shout at us for flooding their flat, the concierge was less than happy about being woken in the middle of the night to turn off the water to the entire building and the following day nobody was happy because it was a Saturday and of course the plumbers could not be raised to restore supplies. In the end we phoned Mr Mustapha, our friendly plumber who, although he was on holiday in Morocco, called a relative in the banlieue who came round and fixed the stopcock. Because of the two-year no-claim deal we could not tell the bank that the slats of our 205-year-old 'Hungarian-point' parquet floor, commissioned, like the rest of the building, by Napoleon's sister Pauline, had curled up like stale sandwiches. The floor has never recovered. Neither have we.

So it was 12.30am, the neighbours have young children and it was only a drip. Still, I am taking no chances.

Monday, 17 December 2007

A cold climate

I thought Paris waiters held the record for being rude and surly. That is why the city's tourist gurus spend millions trying to persuade them to be nicer to visitors without, let us be honest, much noticeable result. Then we went to Prague for a few days - my birthday gift to the Frenchman - and discovered restaurant, bar and hotel staff who make their Paris comrades look like they have a first class degree from Charm School.

Prague has to be one of the most magical cities in the world. I have photos from our visit that could come have from a fairytale picture book: Gothic cathedrals with terrifying flying butresses, sparkling Christmas trees, a massive white-walled castle bearing down on the city, Wenceslas Square, cobbled streets, pretty houses and stone bridges. Stopping on the the mediaeval 'Charles Bridge' to gaze along the banks of the River Vltava I venture the view, the essence of it, has changed little in a century or two. The Winter Market in the Old Square was a period piece; an enormous, tactfully decorated pine tree towered over rows of red roofed huts selling mulled wine, gingerbread Christmas trees and snowmen decorated with icing and buttons, wooden toys, and Heidi-style woollen hats. Huge hams and legs of pork were spit roasting over wood fires and wrapped-up humans strolled around eating orange sausages that smelled better than they looked. I could have stepped out in a flouncy crinoline and bonnet and not looked out of place.

Sadly all this magic and beauty does not appear to rub off on those whose forefathers created it, or at least not those in fleeting contact with visitors. I say sadly because while it did not ruin our visit, it did tarnish it. Apart from the couple who helped us get off the tram when La Fille fell asleep in her pushchair and the hotel doorman (he did not smile but nevertheless opened the door with a certain good grace), I am pushed to think of anyone over the three days who radiated much warmth or friendship, or even simple politeness. Outside the cold was varying degrees of bitter; the sort of to-the-bone chill that makes you want to retract your limbs into your clothes, but the physical temperature was more than matched by the glacial attitude of almost everyone we encountered. In that I include the tram driver who leapt out of his seat after we boarded by a middle door to grumpily order us to get off and on again using the back door: I promise you there was no difference in either the height or size of the steps or inconvenience to other passengers and we were utterly baffled why he had bothered. We had been forewarned that shop and restaurant staff could be indifferent. Indifference is neutral; unrelenting sullenness is negative. We were also advised there were two possible responses: to attempt to crack the ice, as it were, with a few words of Czech; or be indifferent back. I tried a few words of Czech, not an easy language to master even basics like 'Thank You'. Still, I tried. "Stop smiling," said the Frenchman, "It's not working." Being indifferent was harder. I like to be liked and besides it reminded me of my mother's oft-repeated admonishment that "two wrongs don't make a right". I kept on smiling and mangling the Czech language. It did not make any difference but it made me feel righteous.

Everyone I have mentioned this to has different theories why the Czechs are so surly. The Frenchman wondered if it was a second-generation legacy of Communism; an American woman I know suggested attitudes had changed since the cheap flights from the UK brought an invasion of stag and hen nighters intent getting drunk and annoyingly rowdly on cheap Pilsner; a dear Ukrainian friend living in Prague said it was a legacy of World War Two. I could not say who is right but it was very noticeable how, just one week from Christmas, there were remarkably few visitors carrying shopping bags, suggesting they had bought little if anything during their stay. What a pity for magical Prague. Perhaps someone should tell the sniffy locals about spite and severed noses.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Getting anywhere?

The Frenchman has arrived and thinks St Pancras is great and getting from it to us is "not that bad". He has taken the Underground, an overground train and then walked some. He adds, to really wind me up, that he is "pleasantly surprised".
"Not that bad? Not THAT bad?" I shriek. "Of course it wasn't that bad. You were on your own with an overnight bag. You did not have several bags and a heel-dragging, tired and sulky child."

He thinks I am being a drama queen. Now he is feeling so smug he wants to take the bus to Richmond. I am a great fan of London buses. They are, in my opinion, the only form of public transport in the city to have improved in the seven years I have been away. But in spite of bus lanes and the congestion charge they have yet to acquire magical immunity from traffic jams. I have been to Richmond on a bus. I tell him: "Trust me on this one. This is not Paris; the bus would be a mistake." But he is determined and I cannot be bothered to argue. So we spend an hour and a half inching through traffic in a red bus when it would have taken 15 minutes maximum by rail. He will not admit to being wrong and smiles throughout while I fume and La Fille sleeps. This is better than the alternative but means she will be fractious in the shops when I hoped she might have been semi-comatose.

We have a private appointment with an eye specialist for a second opinion on La Fille's squint. I suggest a taxi. The Frenchman has worked out that if we can get to a certain Underground station it is a direct line to the clinic. I tell him I am paying dearly for this appointment and do not want to waste half of it sitting in a tunnel under London. I agree, however, it will be equally pointless spending half of it above ground in a taxi. I give in again. We take the Underground. It is airless, sweltering, crowded and halfway through the journey the train decides to change destinations so we have to get off and wait for another. The Frenchman says: "I see what you mean". There is no pleasure in being proved right; I feel my head is going to explode from heat and stress. How is it the fares rocket and yet the Underground remains so relentlessly awful. Sorry to go on about it, but you would have thought a £4 single ticket would guarantee at least a minimum of service and comfort but apparently not. (So what is the money being spent on?) I have seen cattle transported in lorries across France in better conditions than we are enduring.

I hate being late and allowed plenty of time to get where we needed to go. We were still late. I ran the last couple of hundred yards carrying La Fille, who is no lightweight, so I arrived breathless, sweaty and looking as maniacal as someone who has a secret stock of green pens. The second opinion was not great. It was hardly the end of the world, though for an instant it seemed like it and I felt sick to the stomach. It turns out La Fille has good vision in each of her eyes individually they just do not work together and it seems unlikely they ever will or that the squint will improve. Apparently it will almost certainly prevent her being a fighter pilot or engaging in high level sports because she is less able to judge distances. A great loss of career prospects? Probably not, but even so I was distraught. I figure I am allowed to overreact. I am her mother. On leaving the clinic, I was so upset and distracted I could not have given a flying damn how we got home. The Frenchman pointed to a bus and we jumped on it. I had no idea where we were, but at one point we passed the National Autistic Society HQ. He looked at the building and at me. "Better a little squint, non?" he said.

Monday, 10 December 2007

The good, the bad and the very ugly. Part 1

I know I will think of more as soon as this is posted, but for starters:

Good things about Paris:
1) Affordable creches and nurseries (if you can get a place)
2) Free bicycles - Ve'lib
3) Public transport (when not on strike) particularly the TGV and the metro but also buses
4) Paris is walkable
5) The Mayor Bertrand Delanoe

Good things about London
1) One O'Clock Clubs
2) Free museums and art galleries
3) Londoners; especially shop staff trained to presume the customer is right, even if they are not
4) Oyster cards and buses
5) Doctors who discuss and explain

Bad things about Paris
1) Vehicles moving or parked on the pavements
2) Overpriced 'New World' wines (in fact any wine that is not French)
3) Parisien rudeness, offhandedness, unfriendliness, unhelpfulness
4) Pigeons
5) Doctors who are offhand

Bad things about London
1) The stress of trying to get anywhere (especially St Pancras to south London)
2) Horrendously expensive child nurseries
3) Overpriced French wine
4) Swearing
5) No route maps on buses

Very ugly aspects of Paris
1) Dog dirt all over pavements
2) Inconsiderate, careless and downright dangerous drivers with no respect for pedestrians
3) Peeing men

Very ugly aspects of London
1) The Underground
2) The traffic
3) The cost of public transport and parking

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Money, money, money

One of the problems of living in a newly Bugaboo-fied or the 21st century equivalent of a Yuppie-fied area of London is that everyone thinks you are loaded just because you live there, when you may well be broke and there entirely by accident. They also assume you have more cash than sense and try it on. If you are like me, you prove them right about the lack of sense if not the lack of cash.

The window cleaner came around, looked over the place and said: "That'll be £40 to clean inside and out". Because he was about two inches from my face and because the windows were so filthy you could have written the sort of witty message you see on dirty white vans along the lines of: 'My other place is a caravan', I agreed, though it seemed a bit steep. When it came to paying I said: "There's your £40" and he said: "But I said £45". I would not have given it much thought except the same thing happened with the gardener who said "That'll be £50 for cutting the hedge". Then when it came to paying he said "How much did I say? Really, £50? Well actually it's £60 plus £10 for taking away the rubbish. Is that OK?" What am I supposed to say? "No, it bloody well isn't OK." I know I should have done and I know those who know me would have expected nothing less. I am known as someone who can be a bit stroppy. But instead of saying "You said fifty quid. Here's fifty quid," I paid up. Afterwards I felt angry with myself, stupid and cheated.

It continues to the point I fear our London home has developed a bad case of financial haemophilia. The oven man arrives to effect what is supposed to be a simple repair. He is perfectly pleasant and I offer him a coffee before remembering he is costing me something like £6 every four minutes (or is it £4 every six minutes, I forget) so each sip of Fair Trade Guatemalan cocoa bean is setting me back more than I paid for the entire recyclable packet. For the 'simple' oven repair I find myself writing a cheque for more than £200. He asks if I want everything put right. "What do you mean?" I reply. "For £200 I want it not only right, but singing, dancing and performing Tantric sex if necessary." He pauses and tells me to have the oven lights working will cost more. I say I want them working. This is money I do not have spare because, like the oven lights, I am no longer working, but I write the cheque because Christmas is coming and I want the oven to work and perhaps it is a good idea to actually see what is happening to the stuffed turkey while it is in the oven, though on second thoughts perhaps not.

Finally, the builder says the roof needs doing. "Can't it wait until Spring?" I wail feeling the pain of a bank account already suffering grievous bodily harm. "Hmmm...wouldn't risk it if I were you," he replies. So I find myself paying another small fortune to a couple of his mates to repair the slates and the felt and the this and that...
At the same time I have returned to a messy - and of course costly - boundary dispute with one set of neighbours and those on the other side call to complain that the builders have been fixing the roof on a Saturday morning when they want a lie-in. I explain it is an emergency because the rainstorms they can hear wailing down the chimneys are set to drench us in our own home, but I have the impression they are so angry they do not care. I am a good neighbour and I apologise profusely. I tell the builder to stop work, to patch the roof and to leave it until Monday even if it means I am flooded in the meantime. Afterwards I think: "You know, you really are stupid." I only hope I qualify as a Good Neighbour in whatever life there is after this one.

Now I am being hounded by the television licence people. I have a very cheap, very tiny and very tinny television set that has an inbuilt DVD; the latter used exclusively to tranquilise La Fille with Pingu, Kipper, Jungle Book and Cinderella - Alice in Wonderland if she is really lucky. The shop I bought it from apparently reported me. They told the TV licence people I had bought a television; they did not say I had bought a cheap, tiny, tinny thing that would have trouble recognising a TV signal if it biffed it on the aerial I do not have. As well as having no TV aerial, there is no cable as far as I know, and while I confess I do have a satellite dish sprouting like a mutant mushroom from one of the Victorian chimneys, it dates from way back and I no longer have any kind of box to receive any kind of signal from it. I do not need a TV licence because I do not watch any television and even if I wanted to see what all the fuss is about programmes I have missed while in France like 'Big Brother' or 'I'm a Celebrity' I could not. I listen to BBC Radio 4 from a equally tiny and tinny radio in the kitchen but I do not believe this needs a licence. I have explained this about a dozen times by phone and email to the people in Swansea or somewhere out in the sticks, but still they keep threatening to send someone round. "Please do," I tell them. "Stop sending letters, send a person." I do not need to buy a TV licence, but given my pathetic form over last couple of weeks I will have the cheque book ready just in case.

I ask my mother, who is staying, if there is something about me that suggests I am filthy rich. She looks at my jeans, bag-lady t-shirt, grubby socks and uncombed hair and laughs. Perhaps, I venture, La Fille has written 'Cashpoint' in felt-tip pen on my forehead.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Oui can do


London has a can-do feel about it that is missing in Paris. It is not just that Londoners appear on a permanent deadline while Parisiens do dawdling like Gustave Eiffel did large metal landmarks. A favourite lunchtime game for one English girlfriend and I used to be sitting on brasserie terraces betting who would be first to spot a French person hurrying. Frequently, neither of us won. I am not talking about important national or global issues like the economy or markets or money in which most agree London is more dynamic. It is more a state of mind that seems to make mundane everyday things simpler and problems easier to resolve. (I just know I am I asking for trouble writing that)

Let me start by breaking a tooth on, embarrassingly, a pickled onion from Asda that had a stone in it. Can-do factor one was being able to see a dentist within half an hour of rear molar disintegrating. The guy saw me during what should have been his lunch hour. Can-do factor two was Asda reimbursing me the £65 for the tooth repair (not to mention the 78p or whatever it was for the jar of pickled onions) with fulsome apologies. This simply would not happen in France. Why? I will give you some clues: lunch hour; fulsome; apology.

Coincidentally, the next can-do also involved teeth. Last year, I bought one of those electronic thingamyjigs that clean your teeth - not altogether painlessly - by shooting jets of cold water at them. It lasted three months then the battery refused to charge. As I had become masochistically dependent on it but could not find the receipt, I bought a second. It lasted barely a month before the battery died. I wrote a polite email to the American manufacturers Waterpik, but although the United States claims to have invented can-do, nobody replied. So I took it back to Boots where I had bought it. A very helpful staff member from Photography said it was not his department but he took the dud machine (with receipt but no box) and offered a refund or a replacement. No questions, no "I'll have to call the manager/Head Office/the Chief Executive Officer", no "Tsk, tsk. Where's the box? I can't change it without the box", just one happy customer who went on to spend even more money in Boots. Again, I know it would not happen in Paris, but in case anyone thinks I am being Francophobic I will quote the Frenchman who was there and who said: "Ca ne passera pas comme ça en France". My words exactly.

Then there was the can-do Post Office parcel man that went off and rummaged around goodness knows where to find my undelivered books. He did not even mention that the postman's note instructed waiting 24 hours before calling so the parcels could be properly filed and therefore require less rummaging. He even rummaged with a good humour and did not curse, or at least not within my hearing. I also appreciated the can-do of the man from Sogatel who sent me a replacement battery for the faulty Skype phone, or the man from ukdigitalcameras.co.uk who phoned up to double check my order and dispatched a camera that arrived the following morning. I do not know if they did it with a smile too, but their calls and emails were sunny and friendly. (I will move quickly over the Amazon order for a replacement camera battery that was supposed to be delivered within a couple of days but has, a week later, still not arrived...)

I needed all the can-do I could muster after foolishly asked one of my best girl friends to cut my hair after we had both had several glasses of wine. You think you have grown out of doing stupid things in drink, like asking your girl friend to cut your hair. Then life draws out its scissors and says: "You may have a wrinkles and think you know it all, but you just don't get it do you?" I was pretty cool when she went snip snip then said: "Oh dear, it's a bit short." I was not even particularly alarmed when she added: "Perhaps I shouldn't have done this and should have done it when I hadn't had a couple of glasses of wine," though it could have been the red wine or the convoluted double negative that got me there. No, it was when she said "You've a lot of dead ends" and added that she had to hurry to watch Strictly Come Dancing that I started to worry. Still, she is a good friend and both her daughters have fabulous haircuts so I ruffled the inch or so of remaining fringe and thought: "It's really not THAT bad." It was only later when other best friends fell off their chairs with mirth and suggested I resembled an ageing Suzi Quatro (remember her) with a 1970s "mullet" that I had a good, hard look in the mirror and realised my exposed Frankenstein-style forehead made me look ever so slightly moronic as my mother, a fringe fan, always warned it would. But this is can-do London. The following day I went to the trendiest hairdresser in the area, blamed the Frankenstein fringe on a French hairdresser, and had the rest of my hair neatly chopped to match the tiddly fringe. My girlfriend has not called but she might be relieved to know another mutual friend took one look at my new style and said: "It's lovely, so chic. In fact you look so French."

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

The end of the line


I knew I would hate it. I dreaded it so much I went into denial and refused to think about it. At the same time I consoled myself with the idea that travelling from St Pancras to south London could not possibly be as bad as I feared. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It was not bad, it was worse. Much, much worse. It was hell with satanic bells on. I read the rave newspaper reviews about St Pancras and its official opening. All I can say is they must have put on a good show for the Queen then stripped away the facades quicker than you could say "Potemkin Village" as soon as the Royal limo had disappeared. Talk about emperor's new clothes.

The Eurostar journey itself was astonishingly quick. Once the UK side of the Channel, the train that formerly trundled embarrassingly through The Garden of England, flew into London in just over half an hour, a total journey time of two hours and eleven minutes. I was momentarily impressed, but only momentarily. At Waterloo, the Eurostar terminal was designed so even passengers sitting in the rear of the train could exit quickly. At St Pancras, it took ten minutes to walk from the carriage to the customs point (admittedly, this was with a recalcitrant child), but even so it was a hike.

As La Fille was being difficult, I headed directly for the taxi rank. I followed the signs even when they me into an abandoned corridor with a lone workman in hard hat doing something with wall panels. There was so much hammering and drilling going on nearby I thought I had taken the wrong direction. When I finally arrived at the rank there were some 50 people waiting for taxis...and no taxis in sight. Not one. Not one coming. Not one on the horizon. (A taxi driver later told me black cabs are avoiding St Pancras because of the hold-ups caused by the building work...great!). I took a deep breath and decided we would struggle our way south on the Underground. I was undecided between the similarly Hadean circles, the Victoria Line or the Northern Line, but on a whim chose Victoria from where we could get an overland train or taxi. It was another hike to the Underground from the mainline station along stifling, under ventilated passages dotted with flights of steps - not easy with a pushchair - so by the time I arrived on the Victoria Line southbound platform I was already sweating, cursing and ready to shout at someone. A train arrived but was so stifling that after just two stops I thought I was either going to pass out or be sick. La Fille, who looked like she was about to do both, was panting like a dog with her tongue hanging out. By the time we arrived at Victoria she was lolling from side to side with her eyes rolling back into her head. We collapsed into a taxi driven by a pleasant chap who probably wished afterwards he had not asked: "Come far today?". He was heading for a serious ear-bending when he suggested that the St Pancras move was a 'win-some-lose-some' situation. "North Londoners are happy about it," he said. I refused to reply. When we arrived the figure on the meter was half my 38,50 euros Eurostar ticket from Paris. I was red-faced, flustered and furious and had arrived more than an hour after that same Eurostar had arrived in St Pancras, the so-called centre of London.

Maybe it was the tip, maybe it my sulky silence after his remark or my evident distress as I struggled out of his cab that prompted a flicker of remorse from the driver. "You're right, this part of London is very badly served for public transport," he conceded. "Pity they couldn't have had kept a few Eurostars into Waterloo." He must have realised this was another 'Come far?' question and before I could begin another rant said: "Good luck," and drove off. Afterwards I was thinking; here is something that has not changed since I left London for Paris. In the great North-South London divide the south is still the poor relation.

Now my days are infected with worry about how I am going to get back to St Pancras. I think I need to lie down in a darkened room

Sunday, 2 December 2007

A corner of a foreign field

I just do not recognise the France I read about in the British press. (I do not recognise the fearful, timid, supposedly slithering down-the-pan Britain described either, but that is another story).

So what? Well, it is OK for me. I do not have much choice about living in France if I wish to remain married to the Frenchman, which I do. But for once this is not about me. I have just heard about friends of friends who decamped to France a few years ago and who have decided to return to Britain. They are disillusioned, disappointed and out of pocket. UK property prices have rocketed in their absence so they now face having to take out a loan in order to buy a much pokier home back home. If the predicted house-price crash happens they may be among a select few who cheer, but it is a sorry tale all round. As you can imagine, they have many gripes about France and the French, among them that French bureaucracy was worse than they imagined, that it was harder to set up a business than they imagined, that they felt more isolated than they imagined largely because their plans to learn French did not advance as quickly as they imagined. You get the key word here. I did not want to be too unkind but could not help asking my friends: "Did these friends of yours research anything before they came to France or did they just do a lot of imagining?"

I read that hundreds of thousands of Britons are going abroad for good, many of them to France. I am repeatedly dumbfounded by the number of people who set off on an ill-considered foreign adventure without the faintest idea what they are getting themselves into. Scores of otherwise intelligent, even cautious people appear to be sedating their common sense with newspaper and magazine articles depicting the French rural arcadia; leave the British rat race behind and go raise sheep and goats on a converted farm in Normandy, or run gites in a converted chateau in the Dordogne or weave vines in Provence (Peter Mayle has a lot to answer for)and you will be happy beyond your wildest dreams, they say. Of course these writers are going to make it sound a hoot, even when it is hell on earth and they would rather be sitting in a broken-down car in a rainstorm on the hard-shoulder of the M25 during rush hour with no battery bars on the mobile. That is what these writers are paid for. Believe me, there is no way they going to admit they do not want to see another goat, guest or grape ever, or say "Give me the North Circular over Place de la Mairie any day", even if it were true. One English language magazine about France told me it was looking exclusively for "inspirational' material, because it was not in the business of shattering its readers' illusions with reality.

So the Brits arrive and are surprised to find that:
a) France is a foreign country inhabited mainly by French people.
b) The French speak French.
c) El Dorado does not exist (and if it did it would be in South America)

Oh and French rues are not littered with gold and the sun does not shine all the time. This is pretty basic, but I have the distinct impression a considerable number of expatriates somehow overlook the obvious. And not just small, inconsequential obvious things, but life and death stuff. One former colleague, who had been living in France for five years, phoned me from hospital after an unfortunate accident and asked if I could talk to the French surgeon about to operate on her. "It's impossible. I've been trying to tell him I've just had a course of chemotherapy but I don't think he understands a word I'm saying," she wailed. "What doesn't he understand?" I asked. "My English of course," she replied. Another British couple bought a house at the end of a long and narrow mud lane in the isolated Normandy village where my mother-in-law lived. The woman was seriously diabetic and in need of regular medical treatment but they had moved to the most remote spot in the most remote hamlet that had no shop, no doctor, no pharmacy and no bus or train services and that was at least a 40-minute drive from the nearest town and hospital. Neither of them spoke a word of French. "What are they going to do if one of them is sick?" asked my mother-in-law, their nearest neighbour, who is a saintly woman but whose command of English stretches to "The Cat is Very Beautiful" a bizarre sentence she was taught in school 65 years ago. "I don't think I'd be of any help," she fretted. I told her not to worry: "If they have a cat I'm sure they'd appreciate the compliment."

Then there is the endless whinge in the readers' letters pages of expat publications "Why doesn't France Telecom (or the gas board/electricity company/doctors/plumbers/bank/boulanger) have anyone who speaks English?" I wonder if these people have tried speaking French to anyone at BT. (It is difficult enough for native English speakers.) I can guess what my wonderful Geordie builder would say if expected to speak French and it would not be repeatable in any language. As for the plumber; you could call a Polish one wherever you are. They seem so keen to work I imagine they would learn a smattering of Swahili if necessary.

And that neatly brings me to a somewhat distatesful aspect of this emigration wave: the hypocrisy. Happily for most who move to France it does not end in tears usually because those people have a) done their homework or b) learned French or c) not expected France to be an outpost of the UK or d) just landed on their feet. Back in Britain I hear and read about people moving to France, retiring to France, buying a holiday place in France. Some of them will, in other exchanges; letters to newspapers; unguarded conversations, complain about "immigrants" and "foreigners" and even about "rich Londoners" buying up beach huts and holiday homes in windy villages on the East Anglian coastline or shacks on sheep-dotted hills in deepest darkest Wales. They moan about Polish plumbers and Romanian builders and African nurses coming to Britain for a better life, or even 'incomers' from another part of the UK. Similarly, on the French side, it is rare for drinks or dinner featuring British expats or second-home owners to pass without someone complaining that Britiain is being "overrun by foreigners". Each time I check the irony meter and look for tongues in cheeks. There are never any.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Fat is a French issue

La Fille is due a visit to the paediatrician, a prospect that sends my heart burrowing into my socks. It was worse when the visits were once a month, but even every six months brings me out in a rash.

It is not sitting in the waiting room surrounded by delicate, fine-boned French children that gets to me; the moment I dread is when the doctor tells La Fille to hop on the scales. It is not what she says: she says nothing. But her lips purse like they could open bottles of 1664. I just know she is thinking: "You English mother, you are feeding her chips and sticky buns." Then she consults a chart, frowns, purses some more and says: "Hmmm...she's putting on too much weight. We won't worry about it this time, but the next time...". Cue much wittering from me about how La Fille rarely eats biscuits, and never - heaven forbid - cakes, chips or crisps and that she is force fed vegetables and fruit. In fact, this is not that far from the truth, but I can read her mind and I know she does not believe a word.

Thankfully La Fille, who is not fat but must have bones the weight of gold, is a cheerful soul blessed with toddler ignorance of this French obsession with weight that began while she was still guzzling amniotic fluid. Then it was the radiographer - another Frenchwoman as thin as a hungry rattlesnake - who declared La Fille-to-be "fat". Not "chubby", or "bouncy" or "chunky" or another euphemism but plain "gros" (fat). High on hormones, I wept into my scarf all the way home trying to identify which part of the ethereal little mite sucking her thumb in the scan picture was overweight. Later, I convinced myself I had misunderstood. But no, nothing had been waylaid in translation. The next scan brought the same comment, as did every subsequent one for the rest of the nine months. It was to be a recurrent theme of the pregnancy: at the very first consultation at the maternity hospital I was told she was going to be so very "gros" a baby that a natural birth was out of the question. I should have argued, but when the head obstetrician tells you the "fat baby" is coming out by Caesarian - emergency or planned - you think, "she must know what she is talking about". She did not. La Fille was a perfectly average 3.5 kilos.

Then the paediatrician started. Each month, we had a scales moment and the same conversation. At first I worried. Then I stressed. Then I became obsessed. Her creche chums scoffed butter croissants and pain-au-chocolat; she ate cardboard-flavoured rice cakes. Her grandmother bought her sweets; I ate them. She was 20 months old before she tasted chocolate. The sugar ban made no difference whatsoever. At one point in her second year, the paediatrician prodded La Fille's admittedly impressive sticking-out tummy and suggested I try portion control. "Do you mean put her on a diet?" I asked. "Not exactly, just watch how much she eats." "Isn't that the same thing?" I muttered to myself. A diet at 18-months-old? "Surely that way lie eating disorders."

As feeding her gallons of vegetable soup made no difference, I decided to loosen up and let La Fille eat cake and croissants and chocolate biscuits every now and then. This was before the last visit to the paediatrician and La Fille quickly discovered what she had been missing. I found the occasional chocolate biscuit a useful tool for those "won't" moments and especially for her regular eye tests. "Answer all the questions and you can have a chocolate biscuit," I would promise. I am not beyond outright bribery. I thought it best not to mention this to the paediatrician fearing she would carry out her threat to send us to a dietician. What I had forgotten was that I call the eye specialist "the doctor", so when I said we were going to see "the doctor" La Fille thought it was a chocolate biscuit opportunity. Two seconds into the consultation and she was cooing "gateau chocolat?..gateau chocolat?..gateau chocolat?..". "SHUT UP," I hissed in her ear. Pursed lips all round.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The City of Light


Paris really is beautiful, especially if you look up. It is no surprise it is called 'The City of Light'. London has its exquisitely beautiful moments, but for consistent super-model status, it has to be Paris. If it were a Miss World contest Paris would be sporting the crown and weeping into a winner's sash and London would be putting on a brave face as the first maid. The bridesmaid not the bride. Look up in Paris and you can wonder at gargoyles and Gothic figurines or stone masks and sundials and urns or stunning arches and carvings. If the historical architecture does not turn you on they you can simply marvel (jealously in my case) at the ornate balconies and lush roof terraces, some sporting greenery of rain forest proportions.

During my first few months in Paris I walked around, mouth open like a love-struck imbecile at the breathtaking beauty of the place. I was like a child who had been locked into Hamley's Toy Shop for the night; so wide-eyed with awe and so spoiled for choice of amusements and diversions, I did not know what to do or where to stop. Every corner I turned seemed to reveal another gem: a lion's head gurgling water from a wall; an ornate statue; a discreet carved niche; an elegant railing...

As with a love affair, Paris and I started passionately then settled into our love-hate routine; occasional moments of ecstasy punctuated with daily irritations, our ardour drizzled on by the mundane and the practical. Familiarity has bred a certain contempt. But just when I feel I am falling out of love with Paris, that we have had one row too many over parked cars or dog dirt or rudeness or hooting drivers or pollution; that I can no longer stand the city's sulky arrogance and shrugging dont-give-a-damn confidence, I come across something that evokes the early pangs of our romance and reminds me why I fell for Paris in the first place. Yesterday, I walked along a road I had walked at least a hundred times and just happened to look up to see, for the first time, Egyptian-style carvings and hieroglyphs on the upper facade of an otherwise nondescript building accommodating offices and wholesale clothing shops.

It was a coup de coeur. In plain English...I have been bowled over by Paris again.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Pink


La Fille has been asking for a pink scarf so I spent the afternoon looking for one. I knew she meant screaming pink; nothing subtle. As she rarely asks for anything that is not edible I decided to indulge her. I eventually found one in our local supermarket that should have come with free sunglasses in a shade described as 'Framboise' (raspberry). I hated it the moment I saw it. She loved it instantly. Her eyes lit up and the sight of her face rapt with delight as she pranced around the living room with the raspberry scarf around her neck made me warm to it. Slightly.

When La Fille was born I told everyone who would listen that, as I was not a girlie girl and did not want her to be, I would not be dressing her in pink or shades of it. My sister-in-law laughed and said: "You are joking; she'll be in pink sooner or later." To prove her point she sent my mother to Paris with the most beautiful girlie, frou-frou pink dress she could find, with matching pink socks and pink cardigan. I held out against pink, even though several friends completely ignored my no pink diktat, including one who spent an outrageous amount on a Christian Dior dress in what fashionistas would call 'powder pink'. I knew it had cost a fortune - enough to feed a small Indian village - because the price-tag was still on it. Staring at the three figures it seemed churlish to complain about the colour.

As the weeks passed, however, La Fille's head stubbornly refused to sprout anything resembling hair. Everywhere we went people would say: "Oh, what a sweet looking boy" or "What's his name?" and I would have to explain that La Fille was a fille and not a garçon. After a while it seemed easier to add a little pink to her outfits. It started as pink socks, then pink tights and one thing led to another and now she has a pink scarf to go with her pink coat, pink trousers, pink t-shirts, pink dresses and pink skirts. (The lack of hair meant no pink hair ribbons, thankfully.)

And still French people said: "What a sweet little boy." Mostly I would laugh about it, not wishing to revert to stereotypes, and say: "She's a girl." But after the nth time it began to grate. "What's the matter with you French?" I barked at my husband after one more playground parent had mistaken our nearly-bald daughter for a son. "I know you consider we Anglo-Saxons to be strange but even we don't dress our boys in pink."

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Street life: Part Two


I am well aware parents should try not to pass their bad habits and negative character traits on to their children. Heaven knows I do my best but some things will out.

I do plenty of walking in Paris. It is not easy with a toddler and pushchair, but it easier than the alternatives. As a pedestrian, top of my list of gripes about Paris are a) the amount of dog dirt on the pavements and b) the number of cars that park on the pavements or on pedestrian crossings.

To start with the dog dirt; it is everywhere and it is truly disgusting. You assume Parisians walk around staring at their shoes because they are a bunch of cheese-eating-misery-guts. Wrong. They walk around staring at their shoes to avoid stepping in poo. The more chic the arrondissement the greater the mess. I once challenged a well-to-do French woman whose poodle - sporting a bejewelled collar - had just done its business outside the building where I lived. "Excuse me. Would you please clear this up?", I called after her. She turned on her elegant heels and huffed snootily: "That's what I pay my taxes for," before clacking off. I cannot remember exactly how many tons of dog dirt are deposited on Paris streets every day but it is a lot. They used to employ men on scooters armed with a kind of dog doo vacuum cleaner to get rid of it, but they have now gone. I felt for those guys, I really did. How did they answer the question: "What do you do, Papa?"? Maybe that is why they have gone.

Then there are the illegally parked cars. This is what the French call "incivility"; I have other, less polite words for it. Cannot find a parking place? Never mind, stick the car on the pavement or across a pedestrian crossing so that it completely blocks the way forcing pedestrians out into the busy road. What a good idea. Paris is already a difficult city to conquer with a pushchair. Metro stations have stairs, lots and lots of them, many buses have large steps, sometimes there are even steps in the middle of the pavement. Add the bicycles, motorbikes, scooters and parked cars and even the shortest a-to-b on foot can become a perilous obstacle course. When La Fille was younger I decided to photograph every illegally parked vehicle I came across on our 15 minute walk to and from the creche for a week (sad, non?). On the first day, I was shouted at by a van driver making a delivery who had completely blocked a zebra crossing but who objected to me recording this fact. On the second day, I had so many photographs my phone memory was full.

Clearly, all this has gone straight into La Fille's pretty little head. This morning on the way to the halte garderie she pointed to some dog dirt and went: "Urgh, urgh, urgh...yuk". She then pointed to a car blocking the pavement. She let go of my hand, walked up to the vehicle, swung a pink zebra-print wellington boot (do not ask) and with a "naughty car" landed a swift kick on its front tyre. I could not have made it up. As I say, I do not know where she gets it from.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Monkey business


La Fille has entered the perfectly normal phase of having an imaginary friend. Except in her case it is not one but several and they are not exactly friends but monkeys. I am not sure how many there are as it seems to vary. She has mentioned a blue money, a yellow monkey, a red monkey and a pink monkey. Sometimes a black monkey puts in an appearance. I know very little about these animals except the pink one appears to be her favourite and the yellow one is "a bit mechant" (naughty) and is frequently banished to La Fille's room. (Where does she get it from?) To be honest, I am not sure if this is entirely normal behaviour. I looked up 'imaginary friends' in the French childcare bible, 'How to bring up a good Republican', and was surprised to find it did mention monkeys. It was in the last paragraph and was along the lines of: "if (note: if not when) your child should mention something so utterly fantastical as having seen a monkey in the street, don't say: 'no, I don't believe you', because she may have actually seen a monkey"; the subtext being that if you say "monkey, what monkey? Don't be so ridiculous", you will screw her up for life. Confused about what the French line is on monkey friends, as opposed to those one sees wandering the boulevards of Paris, I have avoided mentioning them at the halte garderie for fear of being referred again to a child psychologist (the reason for my giving up work and starting a blog in the first place).

Having so many new chums makes for a lot of extra work. At breakfast this morning, La Fille demanded I set out different coloured bowls for her, her favourite doll Bébé, Pink Monkey and Snow Bear. Sometimes they all turn up for cornflakes, orange juice and toast and imaginary food just will not do. Exhausted from feeding the non-existent guests, I was about to plonk myself down next to La Fille when she shrieked: "Stop, Mama! Pink Monkey..." pointing at the empty chair. For two pennies I would have said: "For goodness sake, there are no bloody monkeys," but I remembered the book's advice just in time. Not wanting her to grow up a deranged monster because I had questioned the existence of a monkey, I squeezed round the other side of the table; too far to stop Pink Monkey tipping orange juice all over the floor. The other day I left La Fille for a couple of minutes and returned to find her giving Pink Monkey a right old telling off, complete with finger-wagging, for spilling cornflakes on the floor. "That's it! I'm really not very happy with you," I heard her say. "Goodness, do I really sound such a harridan?", I thought. Afterwards it struck me this performance might have been staged for my benefit and that La Fille is a rather clever monkey.

Attempts to keep the monkeys our little secret failed spectacularly yesterday when La Fille decided Pink Monkey and Blue Monkey were coming with her to the halte garderie. Walking along the street pretending to hold a pretend monkey's hand was fine. "Who cares if everyone thinks I'm mad," I thought, but I did casually suggest it might be better not to mention the monkeys at the nursery. "OK," agreed La Fille with a reassuring smile. When I picked her up two hours later, one of the staff took me aside and said La Fille had been chattering insistently about something they could not understand. At this point La Fille grabbed my hand. "Come on, let's take the monkeys home," she said. "That's it, that's what she's been talking about all morning," said the woman. "Oh, um, well, er...that'll be the monkeys, her imaginary friends," I mumbled, grabbing La Fille and fleeing before anyone could call the French equivalent of social services.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Street life


It is Day Three of the national transport strike and the French have adopted what Britons would call the Blitz spirit; namely a stoic resolution to get to work by whatever means possible unless, of course, they are striking. Though the strike itself might be seen as confirming the notion that the French are a bunch of workshy layabouts, the fact that the vast majority of people are overcoming considerable obstacles to get to their offices seems to prove the contrary. I hope attendance figures are produced when this is all over.

I also hope records are being kept for the number of pedestrians killed or injured on the pavements during the strike. Even at the best of non-strike times Parisian pavements are dangerous places whose daily hazards include parked (and parking) vehicles, cyclists, motorcyclists, scooters and rollerbladers (mothers perambulating a pushchair without due care or attention do not count). Already the number of cyclists using the pavements has exploded since July when the city authorities installed around 10,000 free bikes under the otherwise brilliant Ve'lib scheme. I am a huge fan of Ve'lib but these bicycles should not be anywhere near defenceless pedestrians. Not only are their riders mostly people who have not wobbled their way anywhere on two wheels since they were teenagers (serious cyclists have their own bikes), but a Velib' bike weighs a hefty 20 kilos. It is quite a challenge keeping one eye out for that much speeding metal and one eye out for dog doo on the ground.

Broadly speaking, the strikes are over President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to reform the 'special' pension rights that enable train and metro drivers, gas and electricity works and even those employed by the Paris Opera house and the Comédie Française theatre to retire early, sometimes at the age of 50. The train drivers claim their job is arduous, though as The Independent points out, the days of having to fire up steam engines has long gone. In the Nouvel Observateur magazine a flautist from the Paris Opéra justified early retirement because, she said, after 50 the ear goes and musical standards decline. Hmmm. This argument opens up all sorts of possibilities: secretaries retiring early on full pensions because their fingers cannot type so fast; postal workers because they can no longer read addresses; journalists because they have forgotten what the questions are...And why not? It does seem below the belt to point out that French people work an average of 617 hours a year compared with 800 hours for the average Briton, but I am going to anyway. Having said that, if I was French I would be striking to hold on to those extra three-and-a-half hours of leisure a week and the right to give up work at 50.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

The customer is always wrong

I am loathe to trot out tired old generalisations about Parisians and their capacity for extreme rudeness, but sometimes it is so extreme as to warrant reporting. Here is an example. I will try to stick to the facts and not add my two centimes-worth of comment.

At 9.59 this morning - day one of an indefinite public transport strike in France - I was standing outside my local organic food shop with four other customers waiting for it to open. It was chilly; not razor-sharp icy but still cold enough to make your fingers feel brittle, and two of the other shoppers were elderly. The sign in the window said the shop would open at 10.00. The door was locked but the security grill was raised halfway and we could see a shop assistant inside counting money into the till. 10.00 passed and she continued counting. At 10.05 she was still counting as we shuffled a little impatiently outside. She did not pop her head out and explain that she was not allowed to open because she was alone - as she did later - but, given she was alone, perhaps it was understandable. At 10.10 she had finished counting and was shuffling pieces of paper. We were still shuffling from foot to foot in the cold. One of the elderly ladies stopped chatting with another would-be shopper and peered through the security grill. At that moment the shop manageress arrived. "What's the matter? For goodness sake, can't you see she's on her own," she barked, and I mean barked, at the woman. She then ducked under the security grill, opened the door with her keys, shut it and locked it again without another word. Not a "Sorry, we'll be open in a minute", or a "What a morning! I was held up by the strike." Just a bark and a door slammed in our faces. Even when the shop assistant, clearly no longer alone, opened the door a few moments later there was no apology. Instead, as I weighed out vegetables I overheard the manageress moaning about the waiting customers. The elderly woman who was barked at turned to me and said: "Astonishing isn't it? They really don't give a damn about us, the customers."

I will resist the urge to comment, except to say sometimes France reminds me of the Soviet Union.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Pants, pants, pants!

Returning to Paris, I feel very scruffy. I am not sure if I am in fact more scruffy than usual or have been made to feel it after reading more articles about how slim, sexy and super groomed French women are and how we Britons are a bunch of snaggle-haired lardy-bottoms by comparison.

The latest assault came from the spoof diarist Hortense de Montplaisir (at least I am assuming such a ridiculous name is spoof) whose book, 'Le Dossier: How to Survive the English', has provoked another airing of Anglo-French stereotypes so worn it is a wonder there is anything left on which to hang them. Descriptions of French women in British newspapers and magazines can nearly always be summarised thus: they are whippet-thin, immaculately dressed, coiffed and manicured, neurotic smokers who spend inordinate amounts on lacy bras, knickers and nighties to keep French men in general, and their husbands in particular, happy and to stop the latter from straying. (This is about as sweeping as saying all French men wear berets and have a string of onions round their neck.) I think we are supposed to infer from this that our Gallic sisters, untouched by feminism, enjoy more exciting, fullfilled and happier lives than we poor "sluts" - Madame de Montplaisir's term not mine - in pants the other side of the Channel. No bra-burning for the femmes of France, then, and who can blame them? Would you take a lighter to several hundred pounds worth of coordinated corsetry?

I am not sufficiently acquainted with the underwear drawers of enough French women to say whether this tirelessly repeated description is true or simply another urban myth, but I do question the implication in all this that they are more excited, fulfilled and happy for it. If this is true then why, sadly, do two and a half times more French women than British women commit suicide every year? And why do they - and the men they are supposed to be making happy in their extravagant undies - take more anti-depressants, tranquilisers and mood-altering drugs (sorry, I do not have the statistics for Viagra) than any other country in Europe?

Still, I thought, looking despondently at my grubby nails and bitten cuticles, perhaps I have let myself and my 'lingerie' drawer go a little of late. Maybe I should invest in a few pairs of frilly knickers to lift the winter gloom and give the Frenchman a good laugh.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Sunday shopping

I have no idea who said one should not talk about politics or religion at the dinner table to avoid disagreements, but they were certainly not French. During the French friends' visit to London we seemed to do little else but talk about politics and it struck me that this is a very big difference between us and them. For while I have difficulty remembering the last time my friends and I had a political debate over dinner, I have difficulty remembering an occasion in France when we did not. It is not as if the French I know are more intelligent or educated than my friends in the UK. In fact, if I was counting university degrees, I think the opposite would be true. The truth is they are more interested and engaged in politics than we are. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it does not make for relaxing meals.

Dinner table debates in France can be pretty ferocious affairs involving a lot of noise; shouting, thumping (the table), sometimes stomping off then marching back again and even the occasional insult. But it never gets really personal and it rarely ends in a fatal fall out. I spent a week with a group of French friends just after 55% of France had voted 'non' in a referendum on the European Constitution. Couples, split by the vote, argued so passionately, angrily and bitterly I left expecting divorce papers to be served. That was two years ago. The couples concerned are as deeply divided, politically, as they ever were and still capable of screaming at each other over the referendum, but they are all still together.

There was plenty of material for a verbal Waterloo in London. The visiting French have never made any secret of their distaste for what they call "Anglo-Saxon liberalism", meaning the free-market, nor of their even greater dislike of America. This is something of a leitmotif in France; unfortunately, more often than not it is based on dubious and trite stereotyping by otherwise clever people. (The same people who enjoy American literature, American films, and just occasionally, though they would never admit it, American fast food). Healthy criticism of America is one thing, but in France anti-Americanism has become a kind of received wisdom. Mostly it is a bit silly, but sometimes it is more dangerously perverse as when, just after the US-British invasion of Iraq, one third of French people polled by a newspaper said they wanted Saddam Hussein to win the war "from the bottom of their hearts". Boy did the Frenchman get it in the neck for that one.

In any case, a dislike of the free-market did not stop our visitors spending most of Sunday buying bras and smoking jackets in Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street. At dinner, having packed away their purchases, they were very keen to know whether the shop staff were paid a higher hourly rate for working Sundays and if they did so voluntarily. "I asked one shop assistant, but she didn't seem to understand me," said one guest. "I expect she understood you very well, but I also expect she wanted to keep her job," I replied.

Later, when recounting this to my mother who hates talking about politics because "you always argue with everything I say", I suggested this was an example of the French social conscience. "No, having spent half the day shopping I'd say it was evidence of hypocrisy," she concluded.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

A day to Remember


It is Remembrance Sunday. If I had a television in London I would watch today's parade past the Cenotaph and I would cry. When I did have a television the Remembrance Sunday parade never failed to reduce me to tears. I would start off determined not to blub and would hold out until the Chelsea Pensioners in their pillar box red uniforms or the dwindling band of 'Tommies' from World War One struggled down Whitehall. Watching them, their ramrod straight backs unbowed by age for just a few proud seconds, just long enough for them to muster a snicker-snack salute despite being in wheelchairs or struggling with walking sticks, my eyes would begin pricking. By the time the World War Two veterans were in full arm-swing to the tum-ti-tum of the military band, I would be snuffling my way through a box of tissues.

I was present at both the 50th anniversary and 60th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in France and spoke to many old soldiers. They were heroes to a man. I remember one of them, a Canadian veteran who was one of only three of his military unit to survive the landings. He staggered off the beach to discover the vast majority of his friends and comrades had fallen. Like him, most of them were volunteers. He told me that before he had signed up, and even after, he did not know exactly where France was. "Why did you join up to fight a war in a country you had barely heard of?" I asked him. "Because we were called to defend Britain, our Motherland," he explained. "Queen and country needed us and we were proud to go." He could not talk for long because he was not so good on his feet but, with the help of his daughter, he had made the pilgrimage back to Juno Beach for the first time after 60 years. He said he wanted to pay what would surely be his last respects to those who had not had the chance to grow old and have daughters - or sons - who would hold their elbows and fuss about whether they were up to standing to attention when some young whipper-snapper president or royal deigned to address them. When I finished interviewing him he said to me, as many other veterans had done: "Thank you, dear." I wanted to hug him. "No, thank you," I said. "Thank you."

I also remember many years ago taking a slow boat from Cape Town to the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena, most famous as the place where Napoleon died after being captured and exiled by the British. Many of the islanders on what was one of the British empire's furthest outposts, had fought for Britain during the World Wars and the Falklands War and were fiercely patriotic. Some still had pictures of Queen Victoria hanging in their living rooms. At the time I visited they were fighting British government moves to stop them coming to work and study in the UK. On the same slow boat was a young, ambitious British government official tasked with carrying out what was basically a cost-cutting study to justify slashing financial aid to St Helena. One evening during a discussion over dinner he thumped the table and said: "I'm so sick of these people talking about what they did in the war. Who cares what happened 50 years ago? It's history." So much for remembrance.

They commemorate Armistice Day in France, too but it is not the same. It could not be. Besides, they do not have poppies. This year as I was in London I bought two; one for my daughter, one for me. They were much flimsier than I remember and moments after I popped La Fille's into the buttonhole of her coat - I was not about to risk a pin - she had yanked it out and set about dismantling it. "Flower, flower", she giggled as it finally disintegrated onto the pavement, black button centre one way, plastic green stalk the other and red paper at my feet. It was dark and chilly, and the lady from the Royal British Legion must have been frozen after standing on the street for hours but she managed a warm smile: "Yes dear it is a lovely flower isn't it? Would you like another one?", she said bending down to La Fille's level. I looked at the crumpled scrap of red card on the ground, picked it up, flattened it out and put it in my purse as a reminder.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Food, glorious food

I am astonished at how cheap food is in British supermarkets. This has been puzzling me for some time; the paradox that French restaurants are much cheaper than British restaurants when the basic ingredients are so much more expensive to buy in Paris than in London. What started me thinking about this again, was the enormous box containing a full kilogram of cornflakes (yes, I realise French restaurants rarely serve cornflakes, but still) I picked up at the local supermarket. It became a centrepiece during the French friends' visit, mostly because it was so obscenely large it would not fit in any cupboard, so was shuffled from surface to surface always in view. Given their general astonishment at its size, I need not have bothered taking them to the Tate Modern or Covent Garden but should have put it on a table with a sign: 'Box of Cornflakes 2007 - Anonymous'. They had a point. It really was a monstrosity. I only bought it because I thought the boys liked cereals for breakfast. They do but not, it turned out, cornflakes.

Then there are the ever increasingly complicated offers: buy-one-get-one-free, buy-one-get-one-half-price, buy-two-get-the-third-free, buy-three-get-the-cheapest-free. I said to my husband: "Why don't they just make one item, half the price?", in much the same way I used to berate British Telecom sales people who cold-called with: "Why don't you just make all calls cheaper instead of allowing me to ring someone for half the price as long as they're a friend or relative and it's 3am on a Bank Holiday Tuesday morning?". The Frenchman scratched his head: "But then people would only buy one," he said. Exactly. So we buy twice as much as we set out to buy. Do we subsequently: a) eat twice as much in the same amount of time; b) make the double helping last twice the time or c) end up throwing the double portion away because it has gone off?

As someone known to scorn ready-made meals and fast food, I am ashamed to say I was waylaid in Marks & Spencer, while looking for socks, by some three-for-the-price of-two-curries with a couple of two-for-the-price-of-one nan bread and a pack of just-pay-the-bloody-price-on-the-label poppadoms to feed my parents who came to visit this week. As I was heading for the check-out I passed the cakes and was tempted. After all, my mother was looking after La Fille while my stepfather rewired the living room lights, so desserts were justified. I picked up one Swiss roll (priced £1.49) then noticed it had a glowing sticker screaming 'Two for £2'. I picked up a second, put it in the basket, then put it back. "We are not going to eat two Swiss rolls", I decided. But how could I resist paying just 50p more for a second pudding? I snatched a second. Later, the four of us, the chocoholic La Fille included, failed to finish off just one. The other I stuck in a very large bag for my mother to take home, along with the cornflakes.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

SOS. Save Our Station


It was a beautifully crisp blue-sky morning so I decided to take La Fille to Battersea Park on the bus. She had declared it to be a "lovely sunny day". Sometimes this statement is a true reflection of the weather; sometimes, given the grey clouds outside, I can only assume she is referring to her mood. This day, it was both so we jumped off the bus near Chelsea Bridge and,wrapped up in scarves and pointy woolly hats, stumbled through piles of browning yellow leaves as she shrieked with excitement and urged: "Run, Mama, run." Later we laid out lunch on one of the wooden tables in children's playground, which, like much of the park, was eerily empty. I loved Battersea Park when I lived in London. I loved the optimistic idealism of the Peace Pagoda, I loved the park's tranquility and detachment from everything around it. I loved feeding the ducks and rowing boats on the lake and I loved watching the wallabies, which have now gone. I especially loved being able to gaze out at the Battersea Power Station nearby, and to salute its defiance and triumph over both the Luftwaffe and the property developers who hoped if left to rot long enough it would simply fall down. Living in France for the last few years, Battersea Power Station has also come to symbolise something else: a return home. As the Eurostar trundled past it I would scan the distant horizon trying to identify the street where I bought my first flat or the pretty bridges along this stretch of the Thames - Chelsea, Albert, Battersea - their twee twinkling night lights since outshone by the wattage from a thousand luxury apartments. I feared for the station's future waiting heart in mouth for it to appear and dreading a day when I would gaze out from the Eurostar window and see nothing but a pile of rubble prepared for another of the dazzling housing developments that have sprouted around the station in stark contrast to its brooding splendour. While millions were being splashed out around it, nobody - except a few dedicated locals - seemed to care what happened to the magnificent centrepiece.

It is a long time since I lived anywhere near Battersea Power Station, but in recent years I have used it as a symbolic point of reference to La Fille. "Look, look," I would say, nudging her like an over-excited child and pointing to the chimneys. "That's where Mama used to live." Even at two-and-a-half she would give me that 'Oh-yeah-tell-me-another-one' look. Now I have left it too late to use this as an excuse to share a family legend with her: that my grandfather carved his initials at the top of one of the chimneys. This was not some staggeringly daring act of vandalism; apparently at the time he was working on the power station designed by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott, who, incidentally, also designed the red telephone box. When I was much younger and took everything literally, I wanted desperately to scale the chimneys - unfortunately nobody in the family knew which one grandad had left his moniker - to find out if this was actually true. I was even once tempted to write to 'Jim'll Fix It' to see if he could arrange a climb for me, but it seemed a tad naff and something you would not want your friends watching on a Sunday evening. As I grew older and accustomed to the the tinkle of shattered illusions I decided I would rather take the family legend at face value. That way, as the Eurostar trundled past Battersea Power Station I could conjure up a picture of my lovely grandad, puffing a Senior Service cigarette, scratching JWP into one of the white table-leg chimneys. As I read about the Queen opening St Pancras station this week I realised with a pang of sadness this is a pleasure I have experienced for the last time.

Shibboleth and still life



We went to the Tate Modern with the visiting French friends. They were horrified by the cost of public transport so bought the cheapest option: one day bus passes, which made getting there a mission and a half involving a circuitous route through parts of South London not normally on the tourist route. It was a false economy; instead of spending half the day steeped in Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism we endured the Gritty Realism of London traffic jams. It took so long to get anywhere near the Tate Modern that in spite of having had breakfast before they left everyone was hungry by the time we arrived. It was decided that Braque and Picasso would have to wait. The teenage boys would have headed for the nearest McDonalds had they known where to find one, but the parents wanted something better though not too expensive (quite a challenge on a South Bank heaving with tourists waiting to be relieved of their cash). We settled on a pub and sat outside where I helpfully pointed out London landmarks including the 'Cornichon', known to locals as the Gherkin building. Luckily they had all finished eating by the time the waiter revealed himself to be a disgruntled French student. He fell upon his compatriots like long-lost cousins: "How are you liking London? Food's not great here eh? I work 55 hours a week and get paid a pittance. I miss France and the 35-hour week and the minumum wage." I kept quiet. He assumed I was one of them. I pondered how much rope to give him, hoping he would feel ashamed at his whingeing diatribe against my home city when he realised I was not. The French nodded sympathetically; they looked at me. "Oh come on, it's not that bad," I said in French, knowing my accent would give me away. The student waiter did not seem at all shame-faced and actually gave a young man's slouchy version of the famous Gallic shrug. At that point, I am afraid I bit the bait: "All I am going to say," I said in French, "is what I say to whinging Brits in France: if you don't like it you can always go home." Even as I uttered the words I had a horrible thought: "I hope I don't sound like a card-carrying member of the Front National."

Tate Modern was a huge success. Everyone loved the 'Shibboleth' crack in the Turbine Hall floor. I made a valiant attempt to translate the leaflet we had been handed explaining what it all meant, while at the same time trying to stop La Fille, who was charging around like a demon (e-numbers in the pub sausages I suspect?) from actually falling into the crevice. The leaflet, which very sensibly advises visitors to "watch your step" describes this work by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo as representing, among many other things, division, racism, marginalisation along with the "brutal narratives of colonialism...and the stand-off between rich and poor, northern and southern hemispheres". Thought-provoking stuff, though most of the youngsters present seemed more interested in contemplating what was inside the crack than what it all meant. The most wonderful, evocative paragraph, however, was the explanation of the history of the word 'shibboleth'. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is 'a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly. Apparently this refers back to an incident in The Book of Judges in the Bible that describes how the Ephraimites, attempting to flee across the River Jordan, were stopped by their enemies, the Gileadites. The Ephraimite dialect did not include the sound 'sh' so in order to identify and kill them the Gileadites put each prisoner to a simple test by asking them to say 'Shibboleth'. Those who could not say the 'sh', and they numbered 42,000, were killed. Terrible, but you have to admit, devilishly clever. I could have tucked these details into a little pocket in my head and gone home happy, but the Cubists, Modernists and Vorticists were waiting on the 5th Floor. I knew I had a limited window of opportunity to interest La Fille, so I dragged her to the first Picasso in the room and began cooing in a way that makes me want to gag when I hear other mothers doing it: "Look at this lovely picture, what can you see?" in my most encouraging voice. But even as I wittered and tipped her chubby face up to examine Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle I knew it was a lost cause. "Games," she said pointing outside the exhibition room where a series of not-uninteresting (the first time at least) interactive games and models have been set up. "Games." And that is as far as I got. I left Tate Modern listening to the others talking about what they had seen, feeling a complete Philistine. All I had done was walked across a cracked concrete floor, gazed at one Picasso (briefly) and helped La Fille turn a knob to change a lens and distort the shape of a model cow inside a box oh, I would say roughly one hundred times.
Still, at least I had the 'Shibboleth' gem tucked away.