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


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.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The communications business

Of course I was asking for trouble by telling anyone who would listen that British Telecom was not that bad. In my recent and limited experience and up to that point it was true. When I came back to London I spoke to a delightful BT operator with a northern (do not ask me where) accent who called me "Love" a lot and promised she would reconnect my telephone line at a specific hour on a specific date and with the specific telephone number I wanted, then asked if there was anything else she could do for me. Being of little faith and listening to friends' horror stories I was a doubting Thomasina, I but I was wrong. The "Love" lady delivered everything she promised: a working telephone number and a bill to prove it. Signing up for BT's Internet service seemed only reasonable. I was all ready to tell my friend whose travails with BT are recorded at Salut! that he was just unlucky. "Just think," I was on the point of saying: "You could be dealing with my French telephone company, an outfit with a number of unspeakably rude operators that cut you off, that has in the past charged me more than £30 for calling the over-inflated helpline where I have been put on hold and then still cut off. The same outfit that once took six weeks to answer an emailed helpline request and has one from me outstanding from a couple of months ago." Indeed, I was prepared to go as far as to say that, by comparison with them, BT displayed the efficiency of an ant-colony. As I say, I was asking for it. I ordered my BT broadband service on the Internet in France. BT sent me emails and text messages to say my order had been confirmed and was being processed. Everything was on track.

Then hold the phone! It all started going horribly wrong. I received a letter saying my order had been mysteriously cancelled and I should ring a certain number. I did. There was no answer. I found a dozen other BT numbers in the telephone directory and dialed them all at regular intervals until after a couple of hours of automated responses I reached an apologetic and helpful operator who told me she would reorder my order. The broadband hub would be delivered before 6pm the following day, she said. I believed her. In fact, it was not delivered by 6pm, nor by 9pm nor 11pm. I rang and rang and rang, holding on while a cheery and increasingly irritating recorded voice told me how important my call was; so important that nobody could be bothered to answer it. The same cheery voice mentioned that in the event I actually got to speak to a human being, any exchange might be recorded. Fast losing the will to live, I was ready to demand it was, and played back to me for good measure. In between robot responses, the few humans I spoke to told me a) to hold on, b)to hold on then cut me off c) they had already tried to deliver the hub but I was not in (I was, they did not), d) it would certainly be delivered by 8pm (it was, by now, 8.25pm and La Fille who had not been out all day, was stir crazy, the French I was supposed to be cooking dinner for were hungry and I was imploding with stress and rage) e) told to ring another number that did not exist. Finally, I bullied a number for the delivery department from a man at BT's call centre in India. It actually rang and someone actually answered. That someone said she would call up my order on screen, then declared she could not understand why I had been told my equipment would be delivered that day - or even that week - because it had not even reached the depot and would not be sent out until Monday or Tuesday at the earliest. At this point I really had lost the will to live. The French had cooked their own dinner and were having a good laugh about the failings of the "Anglo-Saxon free-market". I decided life was too short to speak to British Telecom ever again save to cancel the order the next day and went to bed.

At 9am the following day the hub was delivered. At 9.30 a nice man from BT India, returned one of the previous day's cut-off calls. I asked him: "What was it all about?". He said he did not know. Needless to say the French friends are displaying a good deal of Gallic schadenfreude.