Monday, 29 October 2007

Not now Bernard

La Fille insists I stop tapping at the computer and read her new best favourite story, 'Not now Bernard' by David McKee, before she goes to sleep. Actually, what she really wants is to read it to me, so I am ordered to sit on the floor by the bed as she flicks through the pages emphasising the "Not now Bernard" bit. Without wishing to spoil the suspense for other parents, 'Not now Bernard' is a story about a boy called Bernard whose parents are so busy doing other things, like cleaning the kitchen cupboards, watering flowers and reading the papers, they have no time for him. They do not even notice when he is eaten up and replaced by a monster. The Frenchman thinks it is evidence of Anglo-Saxon child abuse. It has been translated into Dutch where it is 'Nu niet Hendrik' and was turned into a play a couple of years ago by one Nottinghamshire theatre group. Children love it. La Fille loves it. As an adult, it is unspeakably sad and guilt provoking.

Perhaps she is trying to tell me something.

See here

We took our daughter for her monthly check-up with the ophthalmologist this morning. She has been going for more than a year and I have stopped wanting to cry each time we leave with another prescription for glasses and patches, but it is still an ordeal. The doctor was recommended as one of the best for paediatric eye conditions by our neighbours whose three children saw her. "By the way", they added: "She's very disagreeable". If a French person remarks that their doctor is disagreeable you can guarantee they are because Gallic patients have remarkable tolerance for doctors who are brusque, uncommunicative and unfriendly. You often hear people describing their GP or specialist as "sec"(dry, off-hand), and that is considered normal.

We chose her anyway, on the basis that professional skills outweigh personal charm. I admit I was a little concerned by her state-of-the-Ark equipment and impatience with La Fille, who performs eye-tests with remarkable patience and humour given her age, but had never found her particularly disagreeable. That was until the last visit. After peering into our daughter's eyes she announced: "Hypermétropie, astigmatism, strabism". "What?" I asked trying to contain my panic,"Is hyper-whatever?" (We already knew about the strabism, otherwise known as a squint, and I had heard of astigmatism, but "hyper" anything had to be bad). Now I know for a fact, because I have seen it with my own eyes, that this is the point where an NHS specialist gets out his pen, draws a detailed diagram of the eye, then explains the mysteries of human vision in words of less than three syllables. Reassured or not, at least you have a reasonable idea of what is wrong. The French ophthalmologist rummaged in her desk and brought out a single sheet pamphlet, which she thrust in my direction, with a: "Read that." I asked her the chances of the hyper-whatever it was being corrected by glasses. "Don't ask me, I'm not the sun queen," was her faithfully translated response. It was only when I returned home, trawled the Internet and phoned Moorfields Eye Hospital in London that I found out that "hypermétropie" is long-sightedness. Why could she not have just said that?

Why? Because in my experience that is not what French doctors do, or feel they should do. If I have ever dared to ask about, and I mean ask not question, a diagnosis or treatment I have been given the sort of stare that says: "How dare you?" The attitude is: "I am the doctor, I have been to medical school. You are the patient, you have not." Of course this is true, but since when have doctors been infallible . When I once politely asked a specialist if a certain treatment, well tried and tested in the US and the UK, was worth a go, he regarded me as if I was completely mad. "We don't do that here," he replied sternly. I was not sure if he meant they did not do the treatment in France or that patients did not ask.

French doctors and dentists, particularly those in Paris often do without receptionists. This means they spend half your appointment answering calls and making appointments for other patients. Those who have receptionists seem to be unaware, or do not care, that most have attended a patient aversion course. Here is a typical exchange; this time me trying to make an appointment with La Fille's chest specialist after she was suspected of having asthma (she did not).

Me: “Can I make an appointment with Dr Doodah.”
Receptionist: “She’s not here.” (Note: not “Sorry, she’s not here”)
Me: “When will she be back?”
R: “She’s on maternity leave.”
Me: “So she won’t be back for a while. Does she have a replacement or a stand-in?”
R: “Why?”
Me: “Because I’d like to make an appointment with him or her.”
R: “Why?”
Me: “Because Dr Doodah said it was very important she saw my daughter in three months. It is now three months."
R: “Why?”
Me: “Um, I don't know why. She just said to come back in three months.”
R: “Hold on.” (Note, not “Please hold on.”)
Twiddly music....several minutes later.
R: “Hello?”
Me: “Hello.”
R: "Yes, hello. Can I help you?"
Me: Deep breath. “Excuse me, I was holding on to make an appointment with Dr Doodah’s stand in.”
R: “Why?”
Me: “Well, as I just explained the doctor said...look can I please just have an appointment with Dr Doodah’s stand in? Please?”
R: “What’s wrong with your daughter and why does she need to see Dr Doodah?”
Me: “Look, I don’t know. I’m not the doctor. All I know is that three months ago the doctor said it was very important she saw my daughter in three month. Now can I please see somebody?”
R: “Hold on.”
More twiddly music.
R: “Hello?”
Me: “Hello”
R: “Yes, hello?"
Me: "Oh good grief."

Click. Beep,beep,beep,beep.

I promise you this is not unusual. I could go on...and on, with many other personal and anecdotal examples, but you get the idea: bashing the NHS is a British national sport but it is not all bad and indeed there are - shock, horror - aspects of it that are actually much better than in France. Having not lived in the UK for several years I could not say if one is globally better or worse than the other, but I know they are very, very different and difficult to compare fairly. In all the years in France I have come across only one doctor who is always on time with appointments (as opposed to up to several hours late), always friendly, always chatty and always willing to discuss and advise. She is my GP...and she is English.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Wake-up call.

It is 6am when our daughter scrambles into bed with us. The clock says 7am but it has not been changed. She is as warm as a lightly toasted brioche and exudes that sweet vanilla smell common to toddlers. I bury my nose in her silky hair. A chubby pyjama-clad arm shoots around my neck. “I lub you mama”, she says. My heart pangs so intensely the pleasure is painful. “I love you too,” I whisper, trying not to wake her father. She turns to him, strokes his cheek and says: “sh tem papa”. Surely even a morning do-not-disturb grump like the Frenchman, cannot resist. It is what you get with a bilingual child; love in two languages.

However dog tired I am, and these days I am usually so tired in the mornings I feel sick, there is no better way to start the day than a two year old’s declaration of love. It is better even than pulling the curtains to sunshine; the sort of alarm call that makes you vow to keep everything in perspective for the next 24 hours. So I try not to be too tetchy when five minutes later she announces: “I veut my lait avec you”, a perfectly symmetric Franglais demand, but a demand nonetheless. This means one of us (and just recently it has been me because of course I do not work any more) has to get up and warm her morning milk. Today she wants her milk at 6.09am. I drag myself out of bed, shove the milk into the microwave on autopilot, sway sleepily for one minute until the oven goes ‘ping’, stumble back to bed and hand it over without a word. Out of the darkness comes a "Zank you". When she was younger and just weaned, I used to hold her in my arms, as she guzzled her morning milk from a bottle, sitting uncomfortably in the bed, rigid back supported by a flaccid pillow, praying she would drink quickly before my spine gave out. Nowadays, she sits on her own and I utter silent prayers for her to take as long as possible. “Oh, just one more minute, one more minute,” I implore. It never works: seconds later she thrusts the empty bottle imperiously in my direction and utters the first of the day’s many sentences starting: “I want, I want” or "Je veux, je veux". They say babies immersed in two languages are often slow to speak. We have not noticed this with La Fille. In fact, as well as French and English she has recently developed a third language that may as well be Greek, Double Dutch and Croat combined for all we understand. I do not have a clue what this babble is, or where she learned it, but I wish she would stop because I am getting it in the neck from her grandmothers. She babbles down the phone to England and my mother says: “Goodness, she is speaking a lot of French” in a voice that suggests this is definitely not a good thing. She babbles down the phone to my French mother-in-law who says: “Oh la, she speaks a lot of English", in a tone that suggests this is not good either. I joke that neither her father nor I know what on earth she is talking about, but I have the distinct impression they do not believe me.

Back to this morning and, half a minute after I have done the milk round, the demands start: “Mama, Mama, MAMA, I wan do sum draring”, “Mama, Mama, MAMA I wan a puzil.. jeux jeux…”. Sometimes I try to ignore her, but she holds an ace.

“Mama, Mama, MAMA. PEE PEE.” This, she knows, is guaranteed to have me leaping out of bed and rushing to find the potty. From there it is just a short walk to the kitchen and breakfast.

Today, the Frenchman, twitches an eyelid and grunts: “Go back to sleep, it’s still night time.”

“Give her a break,” I say. “How is she to know the clocks went back at the weekend?”

Friday, 26 October 2007

Pee back time

I was already a huge admirer of Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris, when I heard about his latest brainwave and felt like starting a fan club. I have no idea how this charming, dapper Frenchman does it, but he must have a bottom drawer full of brilliant ideas.

The latest is a cunning plan to persuade Frenchmen to stop peeing in public, or at least hold it in until they get out of Paris, the city limits unfortunately being as far as Mr Delanoë’s influence extends. Why men here – and it is not just those living on the streets – believe it is OK to relieve themselves in front of everyone else is a mystery, but it is another of those particular 'French exceptions'.

Peed off with having the walls of his elegant City Hall liberally sprinkled during the Rugby World Cup (the thanks he got for erecting a huge TV screen outside the building to relay matches and 62 - yes, sixty two - free toilets), Monsieur le Maire has decided enough is enough. Since free facilities and fines are having no effect, Paris officials have developed a special type of "undulating wall" (or rather, I suspect, wall covering) that sends the pee right back from where it came. Think of those annoying sinks in toilets where you turn the tap on and the water bounces up and over onto your trousers or skirt making you look like you wet yourself, and you get the wonderfully awful picture. Except in this case, the offender really has wet himself. As I said; brilliant. I only wonder who was volunteered to test these walls.

I was going to detail some of Mr Delanoë’s previous brainwaves: Paris Plage; les Nuits Blanches; Vélib'; but I am wordless with admiration. Anti-pee walls. I love it.

The picture? Noddy is known as Oui Oui in France.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Lost Battle of Waterloo

Eurostar is counting down to the launch of its new terminal at St Pancras on November 18. As I write there are - according to the website - just 19 days 9 hours and 23 minutes to go. I wish that clock would stop. I can wait. I do not mind staying on the train to Waterloo even if it takes 15 minutes or even an hour longer.

Forgive me for not cracking open the bubbly. Call me selfish but redirecting the Eurostar to ‘St Pancras International’ is not a cause for celebration as far as I am concerned, however big or bright or beautiful the new station is and despite it having 'The Longest Champagne Bar in Europe'.

Right now I can do Paris to London door-to-door with literally no sweat, even with baggage, pushchair and a toddler insisting I carry her and her Dora the Explorer backpack. From November 18, I will have to cart the above across or under the whole of Central London. I am so depressed and in denial about this I have not yet bothered to work out how it can be done apart from stumping up a small fortune for a taxi. I fear I will be forced underground into that particular circle of hell, the Northern Line, or the awful Victoria Line. On a recent trip, realising I needed to face reality, I asked a Eurostar person how I could get from St Pancras to south London. She looked at me blankly and said it was “up to passengers to make their own way to and from the Eurostar”. Very helpful. Another Eurostar employee said he thought “British Rail” (does it still exist?) was planning a link from St Pancras to the south and south west. He added it would not be built for several years. "If ever," I thought.

Part of the thinking behind putting the Eurostar terminal in north London – the opposite side of the city to the nearest point of France – is to give visitors access to the north of England. The Eurostar website boasts “London and Beyond”, vaunting the accessibility of Rugby, Leicester, Peterborough, Luton and Cambridge. I have nothing against these places, but I would venture a bet that the majority of people on a London-bound Eurostar are going to London to see London. The majority, I said, not all. A large number of passengers are either on business and their business is in London – otherwise surely they would fly – or they are tourists. Tourists may want to visit the north, south, east and west extremes of England, not to mention Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and why not? But most will do so after they have ‘done’ London. I have had countless conversations on Eurostar trains in the last few years and I have yet to meet anyone planning to leap off and immediately head north. As for St Pancras being easier for those in the north wanting to get to France, no-frills airlines are even easier and cheaper.

In Paris, there is a logic to the location of railway stations: trains from the Gare du Nord go, you guessed, north; trains from the Gare de l’Est, east; from the Gare de Lyon, south and from Gare St-Lazare, west. Why, when some Eurostar trains stop at Calais, some stop at Lille, some stop at Ashford and some are going to stop at a new station in Kent called Ebbsfleet as well, is it not possible for some Eurostar trains, just one or two, to stop at Waterloo?

The very thought of struggling across London with that Dora the Explorer rucksack – the last straw - makes me want to lie down exhausted. Why I am ranting when I should be saving my breath?

It is now 19 days 7 hours 55 minutes and counting.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Nanny State

Hooray for the nanny state!

We have found a place for La Fille at the Halte Garderie, a sort of drop-in nursery, in Paris. The way it works: she can go for up to four hours in the morning or up to four hours in the afternoon up to five times a week. Each four-hour slot costs the princely sum of 10,28 euros (£7.15). The place is run by an exceptionally friendly woman and is remarkably flexible. They do not mind her dropping out for a fortnight at a time, and will not even charge us for missed days, if I give them 24-hours notice. Frankly, it is the least I can do. I was keen that, having taken her out of the full-time crèche, she should still have a chance to play with children her own age and this is perfect.

State child-care facilities in France are really very good. The crèche, run by the local Mairie or town hall, cost us 23,75 euros a day (£16.51). It is less for children from large families or parents on low incomes. It, like other state-run crèches, took infants from birth and was from 8am until 6.30pm. Lunch, an afternoon snack and nappies were included. The charges were tax deductible.

Given this, it is hardly surprising that every new French mother’s dream is a place in a crèche. Each adopts her own tactics for persuading the civil servant that heads the Mairie’s committee for allocating places, that her life depends on getting one. Some cry, some ring every day to cry, some picket the offices crying. Mothers who had places advised me the key was persistence and being a pain in the rear. So I rang almost every week for several months and made appointments at which I wailed about having no friends or family in Paris to look after my poor child and would lose my job if she did not go to the crèche (the sad thing was it was almost all true). I delivered this sob-story in increasingly hysterical pidgin French, punctuated with regular sniffs into a damp tissue. After several repeat performances at the Mairie, La Fille was offered a place. There was no explanation of how or why I had succeeded while other parents, whose performance skills were probably equally good and who were probably equally deserving, had not. I did not push my luck by asking.

In London, most state-run nurseries I have found will not take children before they are three years old. Private nurseries I contacted charge between £50 and £60 a day. How can ordinary (ie not wealthy) parents afford this? At that rate full-time nursery care for someone working 222 days a year (252 working days minus 30 days of holiday) comes to around £13,000. One French friend, considering moving to London, refused to believe me until I slapped the glossy brochure for one private nursery under her nose. “What the hell are giving them for that money?”, she wanted to know. “Caviar and silk nappies?”

In Paris, although demand far outstrips supply – only around 25,000 crèche places for an estimated 72,000 under-3s – the capital boasts more than 320 public crèches offering good, safe and affordable child care. The Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe has promised to build more each year and, while it is not happening fast enough for everyone, he is keeping that promise. This is the state behaving like Nanny, but in a positive way.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Shoot the Messenger

There are many, many good things about living in France. I regret to say, the French press is not one of them.

From September onwards every year you can lay money on what subjects will be on the front pages of the news magazines in the coming weeks. Every year it is the same: wine, property prices, the Masons (as in funny handshakes and aprons, not trowels and mortar). Wine and property prices, OK, but what can there be to say that is new about Masonic brotherhoods that was not reported the year before, or the year before that? Unfortunately I cannot answer that because I gave up reading the articles several years ago. It is lazy journalism; boring and repetitive.

Equally irritating is the French media's habit of attacking the foreign, usually British, press. Instead of putting their own house in order and addressing pretty basic problems, such as why nobody reads them, French newspapers and magazines prefer to snipe at “les medias Anglo-Saxons”. It is not grown-up, properly thought out or even cleverly targeted against those tabloid publications that might be considered fair game even in Britain. It is more often than not a wild lashing out at the British press in general – ignoring that the British press includes among others the Financial Times and the Economist as well as The Sun and The Daily Mirror (both of which sell many times more copies every day than France's three main daily papers put together).

The most recent salvos came as the French media went into bi-polar spasms of self-doubt and self-congratulation over its coverage of the divorce of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cécilia. Of course it tiptoed around the story hiding, as usual, behind the country’s strict privacy laws. (Surely it could have challenged them in this case; Mr Sarkozy is hardly publicity shy?). French newspapers, on the whole timid, over-deferential and prone to self-censorship, printed the story but chickened out on hard statements taking refuge in “rumours” or “speculation”. Last Thursday, for example, the French daily Le Figaro spoke of continuing rumours of a “possible” divorce, while The Daily Telegraph declared confidently that Mrs Sarkozy had asked for a divorce. Later that day a presidential statement announced a divorce had been finalised, revealing the Telegraph, which has one full-time correspondent in Paris, to have been closer to the truth than the native Le Figaro with an entire newsroom of reporters.

British press coverage was criticised as inelegant and prurient. An extraordinary editorial in the current issue of Le Point, a respected news magazine, praised the discretion of the French media: “Voila, a French exception for which we have every reason to be proud when in other countries, notably Anglo-Saxon, the newspapers grub around in the gutters while outrageously hoodwinking their readers", it read. (For the pedants, after taking advice from French friends I have used "grub" for the French verb "se ventrouillent" used in the article but that I could not find in any French dictionary I own.) I am not sure even the most virulent critic of the British press would go as far as to suggest its journalists are, en masse, deliberately tricking and misinforming readers on a daily basis.

Attacks on the British press in the French media? True, it is hardly man bites dog. Newspaper references to Britain are frequently prefaced with the phrase 'Perfidious Albion’, like some involuntary editorial tic. It is true that British tabloids can do Frog-bashing as an Olympic sport, but here snide or sarky Anglophobe comments appear not in the Gallic equivalent of a British red-top because there is no equivalent, but in supposedly serious, respected publications.

The same serious, respected publications, by the way, that decided the French public did not need to know about their former president François Mitterrand's secret double life – ie. mistress and daughter – paid for at the taxpayers' expense. That was his ‘vie privée’ too. Journalists who, it was feared, might break the omertà were bugged and bullied by the secret services. Nothing was written about that either. Paris Match eventually published the first pictures of the president's daughter Mazarine in 1994 when she was nearly 20 years old, but did so only after asking Mitterrand for permission.

I am not especially interested in the minutiae of the private lives of politicians and presidents but I would rather have a press that is but whose excesses are tempered by some of the finest investigative reporting in the world, than a press that neither intrudes nor investigates. As Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s celebrated philosopher-in-chief and a fierce defender of the sanctity of 'la vie privée' nevertheless pointed out in a television debate tonight; it took three days for reports of the torture and abuse of prisoners as the Abu Ghraib Iraqi jail by American military personnel to go around the world. It took 40 years for French torture and abuse in Algeria to be reported in France. Touché.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Frog and the Rosbif

The Frenchman has come up with some more things he likes about London.

These are:
a) How “sympa” (nice), polite and helpful Londoners are.
b) How numerous and well-equipped the children’s playgrounds are.
c) How parks and commons are filled with kids playing football at 8am on a Saturday morning.
d) The pubs (which are not called something like 'The Frog and Rosbif' as they are in Paris, but have proper names like 'The Queen Victoria' or 'The Bricklayers Trowel').
e) The pubs (again, even though he is no longer allowed to polute the atmosphere inside with his filterless Gitanes).
f) The pubs (yet again)
g) Salt and vinegar crisps.

Talking of Frogs and Rosbifs; I may just get away with England beating France in the Rugby World Cup if England beat South Africa tonight. Then the French can salvage some national pride after being trounced by Argentina yesterday evening, by claiming they were knocked out by the world champions. Mixed marriages can be very complicated.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Glue-says-stair Rod

Silly me. There I was standing in front of the ticket machine at Gloucester Road Underground station clutching a £2 coin and staring inanely. I wanted a ticket to go just three stops on the Circle Line. The button for the cheapest ticket was marked £4, twice what I had in my hand.

FOUR POUNDS for three stops for heaven’s sake. My first thought was that I had come to the wrong machine; the one selling season tickets or all-zone travelcards or annual passes to the Outer Hebrides. For a nano-second I considered asking a member of London Transport staff if this was a mistake. I did not. Firstly, I could not find anyone to ask and I did not want to lose my place at the machine. Secondly, the queue at the nearby ticket window shuffled out onto the street. In the end there was no point. The square button was clearly marked: Single ticket £4.

Since when did it cost £4 to make one journey on the London Underground; how did I miss this spectacular public transport price inflation? Had I known it was going to cost me £4 to go three stops on the London Underground I would have taken a taxi. It would have been cheaper. I could travel the length and breadth of the Paris Metro six times for the same amount.

I paid up, as one does if one can and wants to get anywhere in a hurry, convinced that for this extortionate price the Tube must have undergone remarkable improvements since I last took it. Silly, silly me. The platform was heaving and the next train was not due for several minutes. Parisians rarely run for a Metro because a) it is simply not cool and they have a horror of looking ridiculous and b) because there is almost always another train along in a minute. With the Underground it is imperative you run for the train, ridiculous or not, because the next one will be ages. Then again you cannot run because it is too crowded.

Back in Paris at a party, a friend of a friend who claims his brother drives a London black cab, tells me Londoners have started taking taxis to make short journeys. This makes a nonsense of attempts to reduce road traffic by encouraging people to use public transport. Another friend of a friend says it is entirely my own fault for not buying an Oyster Card, then disappears before I can find out what this is and what it can do for me. I promise you, I have never heard of an Oyster Card.
One guest, overhearing our conversation, suggests dark forces are at work trying to get rid of London’s black cabs. He claims to know this for a fact because someone "high-up's bird’s bruvva” owns a mini-cab firm. It all sounds a conspiracy theory too far and I would have taken issue with him, particularly over the “bird” word, but I notice he has several front teeth missing and he has admitted to being a Stamford Bridge “hooligan” in a former life. I decide, for once, to shut up.

Back home from the party, I wake up my husband to ask how he would pronounced Gloucester Road. I have to spell it out. He says sleepily: “Glue-says-stair Rod”. I feel better already.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Smiles apart

There are quite a few French children in our nearest playground in London. Consequently there are quite a few French mothers. You can tell them from the English mothers, Scottish nannies, Polish au pairs and Russian grandmothers because while the others are trailing around after their offspring or charges, the French maman tend to keep their distance. They are usually sitting on the benches or – when it is dry enough – the grass as far away as possible from any children and looking in the opposite direction. They are nearly all stick thin and elegantly dressed (OK so I'm jealous), smoke and have a tendency to toss their heads like overbred racehorses. They are nearly always in earnest conversation with another French mother or on their mobile phone. Often, because they are busy nattering and looking in the opposite direction, they do not notice when their child nosedives from the climbing frame with a “Maman. Regard, Maman”, or when same child is lying on the ground underneath the climbing frame from which he or she has just plummeted, and is not moving. Only if another concerned mother approaches the child to check if they are breathing and not paralysed, will the elegant French maman finally notice and stop nattering. Invariably, she will then stand up and glare the sort of glare that could start another Hundred Years’ War. I wonder if they are the same at home.

This is not gratuitous French-bashing; take a look at a playground near you where there is a Gallic presence and tell me this is not true. There are exceptions but on the whole I have found French mums in Paris and in London to be unfriendly. There, I have said it. In their defence I suspect it is yet another Anglo-Gallic cultural difference and nothing personal. Nor does it apply to French mums in the French countryside who, in my experience, will talk to anyone. When I first moved to Paris, a French acquaintance explained that, "unlike you Anglo-Saxons", the French do not smile at strangers. This was pure hypocrisy on our part, she declared, since there was no reason for us to smile. French people, she added, smile when someone deserves a smile. You have to earn it; as a result it is genuine. So that explained it; the French were not glaring, it was just they were not smiling. Since then this acquaintance has become a friend, and a mother. She is not stick thin, does not smoke and we both like a good natter, so I asked her why other French mothers come across as so unfriendly. She said she had never really noticed. Wishing to remain friends, I dropped the subject, but it is something that still perplexes me.

Like many playground-frequenting parents, I have tended to no few little people who have eaten dirt after going head first down the slide faster than they expected. I have stopped babies scoffing the sandpit and prevented toddlers from running into the path of swings and having their heads stoved in. Last week I stood guard over a disgusting, excrement covered bench in the playground to stop anyone treading or sitting in the mess and, at the same time, phoned the local park’s authority to ask someone to come immediately and clean it up. The two English, one Welsh, and two Eastern European women I headed off from the merde thanked me. The French mother I warned looked at me as if I was personally responsible for it and turned on her elegant heels without a word. I was not expecting a medal, but a smile would have been nice. I think I earned it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

First Impressions

Over dinner, I ask the Frenchman what he thinks are the main differences between Paris and London. It is not a fair question as we have only been in the UK a few hours - this time - but I want a first impression.

As soon as I ask, I wish I had not. Usually, when faced with this sort of question, his response is either infuriatingly ponderous or “je ne sais pas” which, I tell him, is the lazy option. In any case, this sort of question invariably provokes a row. Harsh words are averted, however, because this time he has already thought about it. He ponders aloud on the considerable number of station staff he noticed at Waterloo, which he says compares extremely favourably with the Gare du Nord where the queues are long and slow and half the ticket machines are more often than not out of order. He said it, not me.

He points out that at Waterloo there were ticket office people behind counter and staff with ticket machines slung around their necks, like old fashioned bus conductors without the bus, on the station concourse. There were also several other uniformed chaps – on this particular day they were ALL male - hanging around to chivvy passengers at the automatic ticket machines supposed to replace them. (I find their presence reassuring, as it tends to silence the grumblers behind when I am faffing over what button to press and trying to pay with my French supermarket loyalty card.) He ponders further and declares this must be the secret of Britain’s relatively low unemployment. I tell him they may have jobs but they are probably precarious and low paid ones, unlike in France, but I am secretly pleased he has something positive to say.

He also remarks that:

a) The train was new, almost empty despite it being rush hour, on time and had helpful guards. This is not the image of London’s transport system we Brits have.

b) Nearly everyone was reading a newspaper or magazine compared to almost nobody on a Parisian metro or suburban train.

c) Nobody assaulted us with tunes from raddled accordion or rattled off their life’s tragedy in expectation of a coin, cigarette or a luncheon voucher.

d) Complete strangers, who did not appear to be barking mad, talked to us. The fact they were talking about the weather did not bother him or seem evidence of a certain British madness.

Pardon my French

This is not a good start. We are on our first foray as a family to the UK so La Fille can learn English. We are just ten paces into Waterloo mainline – as opposed to ‘International’ - station, and all I can hear is wall-to-wall swearing.

Above the ambient noise of a Friday afternoon rush hour people are f-ing and blinding loudly down telephones, in shouted conversations and even across the heads of other passengers. A suited City type walks past opining to his mate in a foghorn voice that their friends will “be in the f****** boozer.” My toddler daughter looks at him. She looks at me. I stare straight into her lazy left eye. Today, the equally indolent right one is covered with the flowery ophthalmic patch. Tomorrow it will be the left one’s turn. She knows I want to say: “Don’t you dare”, but she also knows that since she started repeating: “Don’t you dare” back to me, I do not dare. I quietly pray what she has just heard has not entered her pretty two-year-old head. It would be just my luck for her to repeat it to her grandmother who is already horrified that La Fille laughs like a drain every time Shrek farts on the television. Hearing the f-word from that rosebud mouth would probably kill her. Instead she says: “Gateau chocolat”. She is a clever monkey who can spot a biscuit opportunity a mile off. Here, she has me over the barrel. Still, it seems a small price to pay for her to keep quiet.

French husband, who is somewhat sceptical about the ‘let’s go to England so daughter can learn English’ line is positively honking. In fact he is mock clutching his sides and doing a rather good impersonation of Marcel Marceau in hysterical mode. “Ha bloody ha,” I mumble out of daughter’s hearing. Swearing has its uses. And so it continues: the cussing and the husband gloating all the way through south London. By the time we arrive, I am exhausted with leaping up and down to put my hands over La Fille’s ears on the pretext of adjusting her glasses. I realise this is not a long-term solution.

The French use the f-word quite a lot, probably because they have heard so many English people saying it. They also do not realise that it is actually quite offensive even to those who have not turned into their mother, unlike me. In France people use ‘merde’ pretty liberally, but rarely in front of their mothers. If it slips out they will make great play of disguising this slip of la langue by exclaiming loudly “zut”, or “ooh la la la la la la” (no idea why six las). One might come across the occasional ‘putain’, France’s f-word, which actually means ‘whore’, but again rarely in front of maman and, in general, not in loud conversations into mobile phones on the Paris Metro.

Since when did the British become so foul mouthed? I can swear like a foot soldier but I tend not to very loudly in public or in front of children – mine or anyone else’s – or my mother. I used to work with a very posh girl who used to exclaim “Oh, shoot”, which seemed faintly ridiculous at the time, but was a million times better than “sugar”. Perhaps I am just noticing it more. I still recall standing behind a woman in a supermarket till queue years ago as she berated her young son for swearing. “How many f****** times have I told you, you little b******, not to f****** talk to me like that. What the f***’s the matter with you?”, she screamed with genuine surprise. It was sad and I should not have laughed. But I could not help myself. At which point she turned and swore at me.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Vive la Difference!

When my toddler daughter threw her first major tantrum as we arrived at the Paris crèche one morning the staff, who had previously complained she was introspective and had clearly inherited an "Anglo Saxon stiff upper lip", came out to watch open-mouthed.

My English friends laughed and said welcome to the Terrible Twos. My French friends shook their heads and tut-tutted. When she threw another wobbly, same time, same place, a few weeks later, the crèche directrice helpfully suggested we see the in-house psychologist. He would, she informed us, explore how my barely out of nappies daughter felt about a variety of "issues" including her older half sister's mother; a woman who had died several years before she was born. My French friends agreed a visit to the 'psi' was probably necessary. My English friends were horrified. Maybe, they ventured, she just did not like the crèche. At this point, I realised my daughter needed a healthy dose of Anglo-Saxon common sense rather than referral to a shrink.

So I have decided to take a year’s sabbatical to split my time between France and the UK where my daughter can learn to throw her tantrums in English and we can escape the French obsession with Freud.

It is a daunting prospect, especially the sudden absence of income. I keep telling myself it is only money and, in any case, it has to be done. In September next year La Fille will start school and enter France's relentlessly competitive education system. If she has even half a brain she will be expected to stay in full-time education for at least two decades and perhaps more. She will learn to put pen to paper so that she has exactly the same handwriting as every other French child. She will learn to compose her essays according to a strict template and she will be imbued with Gallic ideals and culture - not a particularly bad thing - to prepare her for life as a French citizen.

But what about her English half? I fear if I do not spend part of the next year in the UK, my half-English daughter will grow up not knowing what Shepherd's Pie, Worcester Sauce and Shakespeare are - in my view a very bad thing - and not even being able to pronounce them. Worse still, she will be convinced raw mince, moutarde and Molière are culturally superior.

So while tens of thousands of Britons are flocking to France to find a corner of this foreign field to buy up, build on or convert, I am Channel-hopping in the opposite direction. Is Britain really going to hell in a handcart as all my friends that side of La Manche insist? Are the streets awash with the vomit of a hundred thousand binge drinkers and are we going to be murdered in our beds unless the front door is triple locked, alarmed and I have a baseball bat under the pillow? I hope not.
I am not entirely convinced the grass is greener in London - though there's more of it than in Paris - but I am about to find out.

Ambitious UK friends think I must be mad giving up work in a business - the media - where you are out of the loop and forgotten if you go on holiday for a week let alone take a year off. French friends who would cut off their wine-drinking arm to get their child into a creche, think my madness lies in giving up my daughter's much-coveted place.

Perhaps it is mad. But surely not as mad as suggesting a perfectly normal two year old go for counselling?