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My mother-in-law, whom my husband considers to be "a saint", caught my hand hovering over the dustbin with a out-of-date loaf of sliced bread.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 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.