Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Take me to your Leader


Dear Compatriots; Frenchmen and Frenchwomen

2008 will be remembered as an historic year for many reasons. It was a year of trials and tribulations for many across the globe, of conflicts, of 'le crunch economique' of raised hopes and shattered dreams and other platitudes for millions of ordinary people who are not the president and do not live in a palace but whose suffering I feel personally. But most of all it was a year about me, me, me.

And it was the year I got to marry la babe Carla.

2008 was the year when certain people who had previously been heard to murmur: "France, that's somewhere in Texas n'est ce pas?", realised what a grande nation we still are. Thanks to me, me, me the land we call France is back on the world map and we can stick two fingers up to the critics who said we were nothing but cheese-eating-surrender monkeys. Thanks to me, me, me the cynics who thought we were fini, kaput, toast, drowned in a lake of second rate wine we couldn't palm off on the British, have been forced to eat their weasly words. Thanks to me, me, me and my stature on the stage mondiale they look up to us once again...especially Carla but me, me, me too when I am wearing my sacré big heels. Thanks to me, me, me La France is, yes, La France.

And do not forget, 2008 was the year I got la babe Carla.

2008 was my first full year as your president. I was also president of Europe and, if truth be known, I am president of the world entièr. It was the year I went to London and met a troll like man called Brown (who thinks he can solve the financial meltdown when his pound is worth salted cacahuètes) and his wife who was lovely but not as lovely as Carla. I also met my royal cousin La Reine Elizabeth II. Carla told me she was more important than the Pope so I should turn off my mobile phone, but as Carla was with me I didn't need it to bombard her with SMSs.

And let me remind you that in 2008 those drooling rosbifs with their stiff upper lips and afternoon tea and bowler hats and Australian wine saw that it was not that Mick or Eric or Oncle Tom Cobbley who got to marry la babe Carla but me, me, me.

In 2008 I stopped the tanks in Georgia, I saved Madame Bettancourt from those lefties in Colombia, I advised Barack; where do you think he got that 'Yes we can' from? Seems familiar, non? Remember my slogan: 'Avec Sarkozy Tout Devient Possible'. And if it wasn't for that Ehud Olmert whose name sounds like une anagramme, peace in the Middle East would have been down to me, me, me too. Still, I am planning to go there right after Carla and I have celebrated our first wedding anniversary to kick his fesses.

As we approach the fin de 2008 you may not be sorry to see it go, but me, me, me, I am not. I have been forced to pass the EU to the Eurosceptique Czechs. I did not want to but the accordian music stopped and I was told I could not unwrap any more layers. I have saved France, steering her through the choppy waters that threatened to send her to the bottom of what the English call the Channel and we call La Manche. I have saved Europe. I am ready to save the world. It's no wonder I am called "SuperSarko" I have asked my friend Karl to design me a special suit with this on the chest and underpants on the outside for when I am on le jog. Karl, whose middle name is Otto, thew up his hands and said non, non it will send the wrong message and Carla thought it would look ridicule but I don't care, me, me, me.

2008 has been a great year as far as I'm concerned. Vive Le President (that's me, me, me). Vive La France!

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Wrench's Prologue and Tale

I once earned the undying respect of an astonished boyfriend by mending the starter motor on his VW beetle. Some years later I was bought drinks by eternally grateful male colleagues after fixing their battered car in the middle of a Bosnian battlefield using the Swiss Army knife I always carried in my pocket or handbag (until airport security decided it made me a terrorist).

This weekend I did it again.

Monsieur Mustapha our friendly plumber came and fixed the leaks. Watching him I realised I could have done it myself. He was, I thought, a little heavy handed with the pipework given its age and propensity for springing leaks. I winced but said nothing. He added a second washer to the washing machine feed pipe. I said: "The thread's gone. The hose needs changing." He agreed but explained he couldn't change the hose because if he pulled out the machine the rotten cupboard around it would collapse. He stuck in the washer gave it a quick spin, double checked everything and cheerily pronounced us leak free.
Of course it wasn't. You don't live in a 200-plus year-old building commissioned by Napoleon's sister that has not been properly maintained for a large part of the last century - if ever - and get off that lightly.

Not ten minutes after Mustapha left we turned on the washing machine. Drip, drip, drip. "The hose needs changing," I said. To cut a long and boring story short, after the Frenchman emptied and cleaned the crud out of the cupboard next to the machine, I squeezed into it and bent double and twisted managed to loosen the "unchangeable pipe" with the monkey wrench and, yes, change it. It's true the plumber, a splendid but portly chap, could not have prised half his lardy backside into the cupboard and at over six feet tall the Frenchman was similarly handicapped even had he known which end of the wrench was which. We turned on the machine. No drips. How true it is: if you want a job doing, do it yourself.

The Frenchman hugged me as if I'd just performed pioneering heart-surgery. He said in English, and I quote: "What a wife?" I put away the wrench. Respect; it's the same in English and French.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Sodden Nigella.

On Christmas Day in the morning there we were sitting at the breakfast table recovering from the traditional French Christmas Eve meal the evening before, when my sister-in-law says: "Isn't that water leaking from your boiler?" I check. It is Christmas Day and there is water leaking from the boiler. Water has been leaking from the boiler for a few hours judging by the sodden state of the cookery books below. Delia is sodden, Jamie is sodden, Nigella, Nigel, Madhur, all sodding sodden.

Everyone stands back so I can take a closer look at the boiler. I am the resident DIY-er. The Frenchman offers to get the pipe wrench. Two joints - the in cold pipe and out hot pipe - are drip, drip, dripping. The dripping gets faster every time someone does the washing up or takes a shower. (Do not believe what they say about the French: for my lot, not spending an hour in the bathroom is out of the question.) The Frenchman tells La Belle Belle Fille to keep the showering short (30 minutes is her usual average). I say: "Well, I'm pretty confident I could change the washers, but if it all went horribly is Christmas Day." We stick a Tupperware underneath the drips and dig out the telephone number of Monsieur Mustapha our saviour plumber.

This feels like a last straw, but I said that about the last leak two days before Christmas when the washing machine pipe popped off and flooded the kitchen. In the last seven years we have been flooded on at least six times from various upstairs neighbours, had two mains pipes burst in our apartment, and leaks all over the place, some at the same time and almost always at weekends or holidays. These two are the seventh and eight washers to go in the past six weeks. This is more than coincidence or bad luck. Something is very wrong.

Standing in front of the boiler holding sodden Delia in one hand and a wrench in the other I am tempted to hit something. But it is Christmas Day; the Frenchman is looking at me wondering if I'll cry or scream or hit something and, I suspect, wondering who will prepare and cook the large castrated bird we have for lunch if I lose it.

I can hear water plopping into the Tupperware and think of Chinese water torture. This, for no particular reason apart from random thought association, brings to mind a friend who has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in Somalia. I put sodden Delia on sodden Nigella and sodden Jamie, hand back the wrench and shrug. "Worse things happen," I say. Was that a general sigh of relief or the boiler hissing at me?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


I cannot write more. The in-laws are here and they'll be out-laws if the Frenchman catches me posting. On second thoughts....(only joking)!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Christmas Crackers

At La Fille's school Christmas Party the headmistress made all the children line up in a group in the playground and sing a few songs. Parents were ordered not to clap between songs, not to sing along, and not to approach their child to take photographs. I did not hear her instructions above the hubbub of excited children and did all three.

The first song was about being 'mad about chocolate', the second about three lambs from a merry-go-round getting lost in the snow. Then the children sang a song about writing to Father Christmas to ask for various musical instruments. One of the verses calls for a request for 'clochettes' or bells that go ting-a-ling-a-ling. La Fille sang 'clochards', which means 'tramps'. In short, La Fille, following in her mother's gaffe-prone footsteps, announced to all and sundry that she wanted Father Christmas to bring her some down-and-outs.

If anyone can send me some good old fashioned English Christmas Carols I'd be very grateful...and relieved.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Pound of Flesh

The Frenchman is demonstrating a certain schadenfreude about sorry state of the British pound. Evidence: he is now very keen to go to London for the sales.

For the rest of us living in the Eurozone but paid - when indeed paid - in nicker into banks in Her Majesty's realm, it is not good right now; though admittedly not half as bad as having your home repossessed or losing your job. I read that some are saying the currency slide is not an unmitigated disaster for Great Britain Ltd. Certainly the Frenchman is not alone in his rush to cross the Channel; everyone I know and their friends and friends' friends are planning to jump on the Eurostar and do the Christmas and January sales now that their shiny euros go further. That should get things going again.

Here, the Frenchman is not just verging on gleeful but has turned into a living, breathing Shakespearean Shylock. As it is December, I have to cough up my share of our joint income tax bill for last year. The problem is I don't have enough money in my French bank account to do this and I'm not planning on transferring money from the UK any time soon while the euro is at the rate it is and the French bank continues to levy hefty charges for accepting my hard-earned. So my dear husband says I can give him the money in Sterling, but as I point out that's no great favour as the tax bill is in euros and if he wants it in Sterling the exchange rate is still the exchange rate. Aha, he says but he's willing to offer me a "preferential rate"; not you understand the approximated rate at which we have previously done our exchanges and not, admittedly, the parlous current rate, but something in between. Yesterday he offered me one figure; today another, lower one. Then this evening I said: "Shall I just keep the money I owe you in pounds in my bank and you can spend them in London?" and he replied: "Well, that depends on the exchange you're offering." I do hope he was joking but sometimes it is difficult to tell.

So it now appears I'm the Paris branch of the bloody Bank of England.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Not Faire

It is now clear to me that I have been put on this earth, in this country at this time, to amuse the French. It is a good job I am English and do not have the French hang-up about appearing "ridicule", but even so. Oh Cimon did you really have to point out that what I wrote on the recipe that is possibly going to every parent in La Fille's class is that they could "crap without syrup"? Groan, groan, groan.

Thank goodness I did not spark up the computer until I had returned from making the Chocolate Cornflake Cakes or I don't think I'd have been able to face the class of three-year-olds. Just what did I do in a previous life to deserve this: steal sweets from blind orphan chimney-sweeps? Thank heavens the recipe may not be distributed and if it is it will be on the last day of term so all those Mamas and Papas can have a thoroughly good snigger over Noel and just may have forgotten it by January. Then again, would you forget something like that?

I rang the Frenchman in a panic and shouted at him. "You looked at the recipe why the hell didn't you tell me I was making an arse of myself?" He seemed genuinely puzzled by Cimon's interpretation (Hmmmm. Cimon's latest post reveals this is on his mind at the moment, which might offer me a face-saving explanation) and insisted "Vouz pouvez faire sans sirop" was fine. Then just as I was calming down the Frenchman went: "Oh yes," as if he'd just realised something then said he had to go, and hung up.

Whatever. The sad fact is I have form for this sort of thing. The staff at La Fille's nursery never quite got over me referring to "safe-sex" raisins. I bet it still springs to mind every time they see dried fruit.

I hope nobody tells La Fille. She looked so proud of her Mama making chocolate cakes with syrup this morning.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Back to School

I have been asked to go to La Fille's school tomorrow and show her class how to make Chocolate Cornflake Cakes. What fun...I think. Her teacher, who insisted the CCCs were really called Roses des Sables, asked me to write out the recipe and, if I had time, do a few drawings of the ingredients because after all the children are only three years old and cannot yet read. I agreed. The Frenchman whose approach is that schooling is entirely a matter for the state and parents should get involved as little as possible clearly thought too much was being expected. "You're doing the cakes, writing out the recipe AND doing drawings," he grunted as I sat down to do my 'homework'.

So this morning I went to school proudly clutching what I considered a beautifully illustrated recipe - in French - complete with drawings of happy faces and details added by La Fille. I returned considerably less proud, with the same beautifully illustrated recipe corrected by the teacher and a gentle suggestion that I might want to do it again.

How humiliating is that?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Here. There. Everywhere.

We were in London for the last week staying with friends and a major difference between family life in London and in Paris that filled me with a wave of homesickness was suddenly revealed to me: London life is horizontal, Paris life is vertical. It was one of my best friends who came up with the notion over a few glasses of wine one evening. This was after a day in which half a dozen adults - not including the builders - nearly a dozen children and a dog had passed through the house. At one point finding myself in charge of five or six young children (I lost count exactly how many) the doorbell rang and there were another three on the step. I went upstairs to find four of the children in a tepee they had constructed in a bedroom and La Fille punching one of my best friends' boys in the head. He is nine years old and much bigger than La Fille but was clearly too well brought up to thump her back so he was taking a pasting. She seemed to be enjoying herself and he wasn't crying so I left them to it.

Over the wine I remarked to my friend and his wife, who live in a terraced house in a tree-lined street, that their home was like a train terminus with a steady stream of people coming and going, popping in, popping out, popping next door, over the road, over the fence; depositing children, collecting them. It made me think of the close-knit communities of old the demise of which is often lamented in the press and in wistful television series. I hastened to add to my friends that my comment was not a criticism. Far from it; it was an expression of envy. "In Paris nobody drops in on us," I said. It is true. Sometimes someone will ring and make an arrangement, but nobody just drops in for a cup of tea or pops in to ask if they can leave their offspring for half an hour/day/week or so. I have several friends with children in Paris but have never heard anyone suggest a sleep-over. "That's because in Paris you live vertically in flats and in London we live horizontally in houses," said my friend. How right he is, I thought in what was a small, eureka moment that almost made me tear up my return Eurostar ticket.

When my friends and their children and their friends and their children weren't popping in and out of each others houses, they were going to carol concerts at schools - not allowed in France's secular education system, going to the Christmas sales - against trading laws in France, putting up fairy lights in their gardens - hardly anyone in Paris has a garden, and heading for that singularly British Christmas tradition, the pantomime.

And for those who also lament the boorishness and dumbing down of British youth I would like to report that the death of manners is greatly exaggerated. I met two nearly teenage boys - comprehensive school classmates of my friends' eldest son - for the first time when they arrived to collect him for the walk to school. On the morning of the day we were returning to Paris both of them turned and said: "Goodbye. Pleased to meet you." How lovely is that?

Sunday, 7 December 2008

A French Tragi-Comedy

We are in a recession. Everyone agrees on that. They do not all agree on the best way out of it but most people are trying their best. Having said that there are, it seems, some people in what is known as the 'service industry' who do not seem to have noticed that times are tight and call for an extra effort or do not seem to mind or care if they go out of business or - and believe me I hesitate to write this - almost deserve to. These are people who seem to be courting disaster, bringing it on with a 'come-and-get-me-if-you-think-yer-big-enough' fingered gesture by not making any discernible effort whatsoever.

This afternoon, we set off for the Guignols on the Champs Elysées. It is the second time we have attempted this - the last time it was raining so much we gave up half way. This time it was cold, but no rain. The Guignols, or puppets, of the Champs Elysées claim to be the oldest in Paris dating back to 1818. They sell themselves as the "Vrai Guignols" the one and only true puppet show in Paris. This may well be true but it is not enough to attract 21st century crowds I can tell you. We, however, really wanted to go. We really wanted to see this show. Don't ask me why, but we did.

We arrived, hopping with enthusiasm and frozen feet, by way of the Christmas Market that was surprisingly good given the bad write up it has received. En route, we bought La Fille a Peruvian knitted hat - to add to her collection of Peruvian knitted hats - and under great protest a fluffy dog - to add to her collection of fluffy dogs - as well as a pair of cheap but warm gloves for the Frenchman and a pair for me - to add to my collection of gloves all of which had been left at home. We went on the traditional merry-go-round (twice - La Fille voluntarily, me press-ganged) and La Fille took a turn on the trampolines and ate a crepe before we set off for the nearby Guignol Theatre well in time for the 3pm show. At 2.55pm we were outside the shut gate when a man with a mop of white hair and a creased face signaled to us. The Frenchman and I disagree on exactly what it was he signaled; the Frenchman is convinced he signaled that we should wait a further three minutes, I say the signal was the inquiry that we were just three people. In any case five minutes later we were still standing, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands from the numbing, slicing cold. And we were still just three people, which may explain why we were still waiting, standing, stamping and rubbing.

I said to the Frenchman: "If it's just us, let's not go in." Like Punch and Judy shows, their British equivalent, the Guignols are a spectator sport (think, "it's behind you-ooooo!"). They lose much of their fun and purpose if you are the only child present screaming warnings about a monster in one hand to the puppet on the other. Yet less than 100 metres away from the theatre were dozens of children of all nationalities strolling the Christmas market with their parents who were hungry for 'The real French experience'. Clearly most of them had no idea the Real Original Historic Paris Guignols were just behind them.

"Why on earth hasn't the guy leafleted the whole street. It's a captive market?" I asked the Frenchman who shrugged his shoulders. We waited until 3.05pm willing more people to arrive. We were still the only ones waiting.

We sneaked away feeling guilty. Mr Guignol was not behind us. With apologies to Mr Punch... "That's not the way to do it."

Monday, 1 December 2008

Lingerie for Giraffes

La Fille has decided what she would like from Father Christmas. She seems to be taking the credit crunch to heart because all she says she wants is a toy giraffe. "Great", I said to myself. "Just a giraffe. Not a spoiled brat after all." They she started describing the giraffe and I thought: "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer a real one, Madame?"

She did this to me last year. I had wrongly assumed she was too young to have an opinion on Christmas presents and would be happy with what she was given. Then a couple of days before the Big Day she announced she wanted a Teddy Bear and not any old Teddy Bear but a Blue Bear called Fred. I traipsed around London looking for such a bear answering to such a name and eventually found one. Day saved until a few months later I left Fred on a TGV along with all La Fille's favourite dolls.

So this year it's a giraffe, any colour, any name will do, but it has to have long string legs. Yup, "long string legs". Legs are not good enough. Long legs are not good enough. It has to be long string legs. (Apparently she saw a child in the park clutching such an animal.) I pointed to the photos of real giraffes we took in the zoo and said: "Something like that?" But no. Silly me. Real giraffes do not have long string legs. I did some research on the Internet, I looked in a couple of catalogues, I visited a couple of shops: no giraffes with long string legs. I phoned one of the department stores. Unfortunately just as they answered my brain pulled the plug and down the mental drain went the French word for "string" (corde). For want of anything better I used the word "string". This meant I was asking for a toy giraffe wearing skimpy knickers. The woman on the other end of the phone sounded puzzled, then shocked as I kept repeating "string, string, you know, string", then began sniggering. I made my excuses and hung up. If you happened to be toy shopping in Paris this week and wondered what a group of shop assistants clutching their ribs and rolling around were laughing about, now you know.

Since then I have been playing the Get Out of Jail (and other awkward situations) Card saying she will have to write to Santa Claus and it will depend on whether he can find one. I am good at shifting the blame. This option also allows me to a) buy any old bloody giraffe and blame the Fat Bearded One, b) trot out the old childhood chestnut about "not always getting what you want".

This morning on the way home from school she asks: "Can't we just phone Father Christmas and ask for the giraffe." I say: "He doesn't have a telephone. He lives at the North Pole where it's cold and snowy and there are no phones, no communications, no computers. That's why you children have to send him letters." She gives me one of those 'Oh-for-goodness-sake' looks in which three year olds seem to specialise and sighs: "Wouldn't it just be easier if we bought Father Christmas a telephone?" She's right; it would. Then the Fat Bearded One - or one of his doubles - could tell her himself: "Sorry, no giraffes in or out of lacy lingerie."

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Early warning

Been busy working and had no time to write a full post, but felt I should publish this photograph as a salutary warning to those buying Christmas presents for children, wherever you are.

This was given to La Fille last Christmas as part of a toy "shopping" set. The fact that it has taken me until now to notice the mistake is something else.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Wet, wet, wet

I feel such a weedy weed. I used to be intrepid, adventurous. I used to boldly go, and even to go boldly to assiduously avoid split infinitives (until someone suggested it wasn't even grammatically incorrect). Now I read Jaywalker's adventures to the circus with her boys in the snow and think: "She describes herself as an 'unfit mother'. What does that make me?" I do not expect answers on an e-card, thank you.

We did try to take La Fille out yesterday, really we did. We decided to go to the Guignols puppet show on the Champs Elysées and perhaps take a stroll down the Christmas Market nearby. We looked out of the window and noticed it was snowing, or more accurately, raining soggy ice but it did not look that wet. We dressed accordingly, though for some inexplicable reason the Frenchman forgot to wear a hat or bring gloves and neither of us bothered to grab one of the half a dozen umbrellas next to the front door. "It's just a bit of rain," he said, as he always does. We jumped on the Metro heading for the left bank of the Seine so we could take a pleasant stroll over the river, but in the 15 minutes it took to get there the drizzle had turned into a downpour. We ploughed on valiantly the Frenchman and I walking around huge puddles, La Fille through them to reach the Seine. It was only 100 yards or so but by the time we on the bridge we were completely drenched. The rain was osmosing up my trouser legs and the Frenchman complained he was "frozen". When La Fille said she was cold I discovered her trousers were making their way to her knees - taking her knickers with them - because I had forgotten to tighten the elastic in the waist. Consequently the bottoms were so soaked they were dripping water into her boots. To make me feel even more guilty she wailed: "It's all my fault, Mama. I forgot my umbrella," as her glasses steamed up under an oversized hat.

We were by now half way across the bridge over the Seine with the Eiffel Tower, half shrouded in cloud behind us, and the coloured lights of the Christmas Market stalls half shrouded in rainy snow in front. The idea of watching a puppet show in soaking wet clothes did not seem a great idea but I didn't want to disappoint La Fille. "Where's the puppet theatre?" I yelled at the Frenchman who was in charge of logistics. "Don't know," he yelled back. "Well which direction?". "Don't know." "What, no idea?" "Not a clue." I said: "Let's go home." I looked at La Fille: "Home?". She nodded. Water ran off her nose and dripped into her sodden scarf.

We came home. Pathetic really.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

A Rosbif goes shopping

So the butcher says to the man in front of me who is ordering a succulent-looking joint of beef that costs an arm and a leg: "You could always do boeuf à la ficelle like the English do." He looks at me. "You're English aren't you? That's right isn't it?"

I reply: "Haven't got a clue what you're talking about. Really"

He says: "Boeuf à la ficelle. That's what the English do with a joint of beef. They tie it with string and hang it in water and boil it." He looks at me again. "Tell him, they do don't they?" By this time the customer in front is managing to grimace and look superior at the same time.

"Well yes, I've heard of boiled beef, though I've never cooked it myself and you wouldn't do it with an expensive piece of meat like that," I say. "We're not completely mad."

The Frenchman interjects. "Shall I buy some Beaujolais Nouveau or do you want proper wine?" he asks. Laughs all round.

I say: "I thought it had all been sent to England."

PS. I should have said (thank you Dumdad): "Not unless it's Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais."

Saturday, 22 November 2008


Went to the theatre to see Molière's 'Malade Imaginaire' Thursday evening. The tickets were La Belle Belle-Fille's birthday present to her father and I got to go too.

There were several groups of schoolchildren some only about ten years old in the audience. Now we know what is on the French syllabus this year. There was much door clacking, jumping up and down and giggling the rest of the audience could have done without, but they were generally well-behaved given that it was not as interactive as the new WoW. They asked questions of their teachers during the interval and led the applause and cheering at the end: in short they evidently enjoyed themselves.

Shakespeare had been dead for six years when Molière, real name Jean Baptiste Poquelin, was born in 1622, but the pair are widely regarded as contemporaries. The plays, plots and characters they created still resonate centuries on: unrequieted love; sibling jealousy; greed; ambition; more greed; wayward children; unreasonable parents, internecine warfare. It's all wicked stepmothers, ugly sisters, bonkers royals, ruthless politicians, avaricious bankers, foreigners - even a few Scots for heaven's sake - and various forms of idiocy from one end of the Complete Works to the other. How much more relevant could it be?

The 'Malade Imaginaire' (Imaginary Invalid) is about a hypochondriac (how French) who arranges for his elder daughter to marry a doctor to have a physician in the family. I even learned the French for "enema" - un lavement. I hope it will never come in useful but you never know. Molière was dying of pulmonary disease when the play was first staged on February 10, 1673. He played the lead role himself and managed four performances before coughing so hard he burst a vein in one of his lungs and shuffled off the mortal coil. His scorn for the clergy and medical profession meant neither priest nor doctor was prepared to attend his deathbed. No chance of a home call in those days either, it seems: fascinating stuff for current exam papers. Shakespeare and Molière came up with some cracking stories. I once saw King Lear (bonkers royal) in modern costume complete with machine guns (internecine warfare) and a gum-chewing, leather-jacketed Goneril (wayward daughter). Great stuff. And if you've never seen actors dressed as trees make Burnham Wood come to Dunsinane, (bonkers and Scottish) well, you haven't really lived.

Perhaps those who decide the content of Britain's school syllabus and judge Shakespeare too elitist or exclusive and the language too difficult, might like to visit Paris and see how French children appreciate classic literature. I don't speak 17th century French, any more than I do 16th century English verse. I had no idea what 'un lavement' was before Thursday evening. Nor, I suspect, did the 10-year-olds, but we had all worked it out by the end thanks to numerous references to "derrières". Anyone who thinks this is elitist and exclusive is, in my humble opinion, talking out of the same region.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Left, left, left, right, left...

British friends living in France have been asking me to explain what the hell is going on in the main opposition Socialist party. "It's a bit complicated," I say, not knowing where to start. By popular demand here is a cut-out-and-keep aide memoire of the most salient points.

* The Socialist Party will elect a new leader today.

* The 200,000 party members will decide between three candidates:
a) Ségolène Royal, glamorous, failed presidential candidate
b) Martine Aubry, Mayor of Lille, architect of France's 35-hour working week and daughter of Jacques Delors, once the most hated Frenchman in Britain and the target of The Sun's "Hop off You Frog" and "Up Yours Delors" campaigns.
c) Benoit Hamon, a young left-winger who few people had heard of up until now and even now

* Ms Royal used to live with the current leader of the Socialist Party François Hollande, with whom she has four children. She threw him out last year, after she lost the presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy, allegedly because he - Hollande that is - had an affair with a political journalist. (Confusingly Mr Sarkozy also had an affair with a political journalist).

* Bertrand Delanoe, the gay Mayor of Paris was a candidate and was mean about rival Ms Aubry - and she about him - before he decided to withdraw. He now supports Ms Aubry.

* Mr Hollande supported Mr Delanoe as his successor. He does not support Ms Royal. This is an understatement.

* Ms Royal can talk for France. And talk, and talk, and talk. During the presidential campaign she appeared utterly incapable of giving a straight, succinct answer. (I followed the campaign and by the end I wanted to saw my wrists with a blunt ballpoint every time she spoke).

* Mr Delanoe, who is very popular among Parisians, had his own Hillary Clinton moment last year when required to support publicly Ms Royal's presidential campaign.

* Ms Royal is the favourite to win the leadership battle decided by a vote of party members, but was booed and jeered at a party conference last weekend at Rheims filled members.

* Mr Hollande, a bespectacled Billy Bunter-ish figure who was right-hand man to Lionel Jospin, the Socialist before Ms Royal to have a go at being president but who was knocked into third place by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National, was forced to cancel the conference closing speech as the whole event turned into a viper's nest of insults and mutual loathing.

* Ms Aubry is the French equivalent of Old Labour and Ms Royal, New Labour. They do not like each other. This is also an understatement.

* Ms Royal has hinted that it might be a good idea to let Mr Hamon, who is young but Old Labour, lead the party, to thus thwart rivals Aubry and Delanoe.

* If Ms Royal wins it will probably split the party and destroy any hope of an effective opposition in France for the immediate and foreseeable future.

* Ms Royal still wants to be president and wants to challenge Mr Sarkozy in 2012. If her party carries on as it is, she stands about as much chance as I do of leading France.

There we are. Clear as mud I fear.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Mama don't preach

As I will be on a training course for a few hours on Saturday I have been inspired by Madonna to draw up a list of dos and don'ts for the Frenchman regarding La Fille. Unlike the soon-to-be ex Mrs Ritchie I will be only a kilometer from home and not the other side of the world, but quand meme; one cannot be too careful. (Incidentally, you'd have thought a woman whose religion preaches love and peace would avoid dressing her boys in combat trousers, non?)

So far, I have come up with the following.

1) La Fille is not to spend the day in her pyjamas even if they are 100% natural fibre pyjamas.

2) If I forget or do not have time to leave out clothes please note: orange tights of any fibre whatsoever should not be matched with skirts, dresses or trousers of a fluorescent pink hue. Try turning the light on before you choose clothing. (Oh, and by the way: her clothes are in the wardrobe in her bedroom).

3) La Fille is not allowed to watch Bambi, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast or Shrek in French. If these characters were intended to speak anything other than English they would do so and not require dubbing.

4) Do not take advantage of my absence to have a sneaky cigarette next to the kitchen window. (Opening it makes no difference as the smoke blows inwards).

5) Do not say: "Oh it doesn't matter your mother's not here" if La Fille eats with her fork in her right hand.

6) You are absolutely forbidden to leave La Fille outside a public WC while you go inside for a pee.

7) If I should be delayed you will not keep La Fille up late in the evening in the erroneous belief she will give you a lie-in Sunday morning. She will wake up, as she always does, at 7am, but will be grouchy all day. You know this to be true.

8) It is your responsibility to ensure that La Fille is not photographed by either paparazzi or private detectives or the fashion police in orange tights and a red dress on her own outside a public toilet.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Being vulgar

A guide to etiquette in the UK advises not to clink glasses during a toast, put salt on food without tasting it first or discuss sex or politics at the dinner table. Apparently these are top of a new list of social no-nos.

Oh well, cross the French off the guest list then.

It goes on to advise against such faux pas as: obtrusive underwear; crumpled, frumpy, tarty and lazy clothing; tucking your napkin into your shirt, deemed the height of vulgarity.

Hang fire, some of those stylish Gauls can come after all.

Diners should apparently stick to conversational safe subjects such as the weather, food and nature. Dinner, it says, is never a forum for debate.

No. Sorry, changed our mind. The French definitely can't come.

And if you should - heaven forbid - drop your napkin on the floor, do let the butler retrieve it.

Quoi? Knickers? Nature? Butlers? I'd rather stay at home with a takeaway and a piece of kitchen roll.

Friday, 14 November 2008

One think leads to another..

It is strange how random thoughts form the occasional cluster.

La Fille stuck the paper poppy I bought her in London in her school book alongside a felt-pen drawing of mamie her French grandmother. She and her classmates are expected to explain their "homework" presumably to stymie pushy parents who do squiddly à la Picasso drawings for them, and I asked her what she had said about the poppy. "I said it was a flower from London," she told me. I asked if she had explained it was for the soldiers in the war (I admit, I coached her) and she gave me a withering look. "The teacher speaks French and I don't know the French for 'soldier'," she said then added: "And I don't know what war means." Fair point, I thought.

Anyway, one thought led to another...and while she was at school explaining her paper poppy, I finished reading David Golder by Irène Némirovsky, whose most celebrated book Suite Française was written just before she was transported from France to Auschwitz where she was killed. Published a decade before World War II, David Golder is a bleak story full of such irredeemably awful people I felt I was being physically mugged as I read it. I had a frisson of sympathy for the main character Golder, but only because he is comprehensively done-over by his beloved only child, a daughter, and as the mother of a beloved only child, La Fille, I am appalled by the idea of beloved only children doing over their doting parents. (It's a solipsistic and intellectually dubious response I know, but I can't help it).

And when I think of Irène Némirovsky I always think of her two daughters Denise and Elisabeth who, their mother having been shipped off to the Nazis' most notorious but by no means unique, concentration camp, find themselves, aged five and ten, being hunted down by the collaborationist French police.

Perhaps it was this subconscious train of thought that led me to look up as I walked through the park huddled into the collar of my coat and notice the memorial for the first time; a park I have visited dozens and dozens of times thus a memorial I have walked past dozens and dozens of times without noticing.

It reads: "Arrested by police of the Vichy government, complicit in the Nazi occupation, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944 and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jews. More than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris among them 85 of the very youngest who had not even reached school age. In passing read their names. Your memory is their only resting place." There follows the names of 85 children, the eldest of them six-years-old, the youngest, just two months, several from the same family.

And I thought of La Fille and her paper poppy and blissful ignorance of war.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The kiss of anarchy

The French TGV is truly a wonder of the modern world: slick, streamlined, punctual, reasonably clean and fast. It is not called a 'train à grande vitesse' for nothing. This weekend's trip to Normandy by train was so far removed from my last experience of trains in the UK as to be a civilisation apart.

France first: the pointy nosed - and pointy tailed - TGV (they do look like they are kissing when coupled) left from scheduled platform at exactly the scheduled time. It was full and the Frenchman had been given a seat in front of La Fille and I because we had booked late, but the seats were clean and the middle armrest came up so La Fille could stretch out and sleep. You could have eaten your lunch off the drop-down table. So we did. When the train was about to stop we were clearly and audibly told the name of the station as well as the length of time, in minutes, we would be stopped. There was plenty of luggage space. It was tranquil enough to read and what a blessed relief to be no wiser about our fellow travelers when we got off the train 90 minutes later than we had been when we boarded it. A couple of people took mobile phone calls but whispered and kept them short. Others appeared to have heeded the signs asking for phones to be silenced. Conversations between passengers were discreet. And, and, and...the train arrived on time.

Britain: La Fille and I took a train recently to East Anglia. At the ticket office I asked when the train would be leaving and from which platform. On arriving at the designated platform not two minutes later I found, contrary to what I'd been told, there were no trains leaving. Not one. Services on the first part of the line had been replaced by buses. We jumped on a bus about to leave. It smelled of sick. We arrived at the station part-way in the rain. Just as the bus pulled in the train pulled out. Station staff could not say when the next one would leave. Questions were met with ignorance and indifference. An hour later a train arrived and we were advised to change further up the line. The carriage was British Rail rolling stock, which shows how old it was. There was litter on the floor, the tables were filthy with encrusted food and drink stains. We changed trains. It was the same: the seats were so claggy with God knows what I told La Fille to try to keep her hands off them. (I know, a little dirt never hurt anyone but this was something else). I discovered when I stood up that my seat was covered with short white dog hair that had attached itself to my clothes. Several passengers made and received calls and openly chatted about their private lives in gruesome detail. The guy sitting behind made several calls in which he swore every other word. La Fille asked why he was so angry. When we finally arrived I couldn't open the train door because I couldn't lean out of the window far enough. Our 90 minute journey took more than three hours.

These are not lucky/unlucky one-off experiences. It may not always be so exceptionally good/bad, but this is the general pattern.

Earlier this week members of an anarchist group were arrested and accused of trying to sabotage TGV lines with blocks of concrete. From the news reports I discovered the TGV's pointy nose is not just for attracting other trains, but is designed to absorb much of the impact in a crash and even push aside obstacles on the track. That is why a French anarchist might want to damage or cause chaos on France's TGV network: a British anarchist, if such a person exists, would surely think: Why bother.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning...

This morning in a small Normandy village we stood, like countless others, and remembered those who never made it home. I find Remembrance Sunday in Britain moving but at least the French commemorate the end of The Great War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and not, as we British do, the nearest convenient weekend. It does seem almost disrespectful to arrange the day to suit modern calendars and working practices as opposed to the actual day the war ended.

I get very weepy seeing ex-servicemen weighed down with revived memories and clinking medals and thinking about what they and their comrades did for us. "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave life today". Today was no exception. The local pompiers were out in force standing to attention with their shiny helmets in one hand and decorated Tricolors in the other. The mayor read a statement from the minister thanking foreigners who had come to fight and die on French soil in la der des ders (the war to end all wars). When he made particular mention of the British and Commonwealth soldiers, the Frenchman patted me on the back, and I took refuge behind my sunglasses even though it was threatening to rain.

A local bugler played the Sonnerie aux Morts - the French equivalent of the Last Post - and there was a minute's silence. The silence was broken only by a middle-aged café owner who decided to sweep his terrace at that very moment. A small local band played a valiant if somewhat weedy rendition of La Marseillaise. My mother-in-law told how during the Second World War people from the village successfully hid British and French Canadian servicemen from the Nazis in secret mushroom farms. (The Frenchman advises me to be wary of local legends about wartime heroics. He may be right - I cannot find any reference to this - but who knows?) I wished I had brought my paper poppies from London.

After the ceremony, I put a couple of euros into a tin being rattled by an old soldier who, judging by his age and medals, was a veteran of World War II. He takes my hand in both of his. They are worn and weathered, their fading veins like smudged lines on an old battle plan. They are surprisingly warm. He smiles and says: "Thank you. Thank you."

I say: "No. Thank you."

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Groundhog Day

Did I mention we came back from London to find we'd been leaked on again? No, I thought not. There is such a sense of relentless inevitability about it I cannot even raise the energy to scream. If you could be bothered to go back through the posts you would find it has happened, on average, every three months and, mostly, when we have not been here or are asleep. It does it when we go on holiday, on the rare occasions we go out to dinner and in the middle of the night. It does it when our friendly plumber is in Morocco. It is as if the plumbing in this building has a perverse combination of a mind of its own, access to all our diaries and a very personal grudge.

This time the water did not come from the neighbours upstairs, but the neighbour one floor above them. Or, more accurately, the ex-neighbour's place as the elderly owner died a couple of months ago so it was possibly caused by one of her family, which means you cannot really shout at them as they are still in mourning and that wouldn't be very nice or neighbourly. In any case it apparently came from some pipework in the wall so it possibly wasn't even their fault anyway. It was, I was told in a call from Paris to London, "dirty water". I did not ask exactly what this meant. I hope it was sink "dirty" as opposed to toilet "dirty" but I have tried not to think about it too hard. This building must really hate me.

We are going away again this weekend. The Frenchman asked La Belle Belle-Fille who is staying behind to do her best to avoid any more leaks or floods. It was a joke. None of us laughed. I will be waiting for the call.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Bob and Barack

I hate to mention this but...does anyone think a certain British handyman called Bob might have a good case for plagiarism against Barack?

"Can we fix it?"

"Yes we can."

Sounds familiar?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Zipidee Doo Dah...

Almost exactly one year ago during a visit by French friends to London the inevitable dinner argument broke out over America. Any Briton living in France will know how it goes...Why are you British so fond of America? versus Why do you French hate America? The widespread anti-America sentiment in France always winds me up but this spat became particularly animated when one of the French friends sneered after I said - and the Frenchman agreed - that however you feel about the United States you have to admit it is the greatest democracy on earth. Our anti-American friend said the French for "rubbish": America was not a democracy because poor blacks had no political voice and elections were all about who had most money. I thumped the table and said the French might be in a better position to give lessons on democracy if their own black and North African citizens were better represented. He stuck to his argument that America was not democratic, the "American Dream" was rubbish and a black man could never be president. This was half way through the two-year presidential campaign when the Democrat candidate had not yet been decided and everyone's money was on Hillary Clinton. It was when Barack Obama was still raising campaign funds with $5, $10, $20 donations from members of the public before, it is true, the big bucks waded in. It was also well over half way through several bottles of red wine.

I said: "Perhaps you are right but at least America has Barack Obama."

And he said: "Barack who?"

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Getting Away From It All.

Sorry for the radio silence, if anyone noticed. We were in the UK and discovered there are still places in the so-called civilised world - ie Suffolk - where you cannot always get access to the world wide web.

We spent the last few days in London where the Frenchman joined La Fille and I and during which I spent more time than I might have wished in a particular café because it was next to our hotel. We ate baguettes and croissants for breakfast and poulet breton and canard for dinner. We listened to Georges Brassens and Jacques Dutronc over red wine and coffees. We were also treated to some Charles Aznavour, which just shows how desperate it was. We were served by staff who were French (apart from one Hungarian). There were cards on the table advertising a Christmas party menu. La Fille grabbed one and said: "Oh look it's Mama and Papa." I was flattered (look at that waist) though the Frenchman said he could not remember the last time his hair was this colour or if he ever had such an angular nose. Note the Eiffel Tower in the background.

I thought: "I am in London. I have paid good money to get away from this."

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Beau Jest

I had a chuckle over the newspaper story about the MoD planning to recruit female Gurkhas from 2009. Apparently they fear an equality suit from Nepalese women unless they agree to let them enlist. I am not convinced recruiting women to fight wars is a fundamental step forward for feminism (in the same way fighting for the right to send your sons down coal mines has always perplexed me). But each to their own.

As a child, the tomboy in me wanted to join the French Foreign Legion when I grew up. I loved the idea of turning up at the gates of the FL barracks in Paris and whispering conspiratorially to the man on sentry duty that I wanted to be let in. I would then be whisked away to be fitted with a white kepi, issued my leather apron, red blanket and axe and taught to march at 88 steps per minute. OK, the pay is not great; not even 1,000 euros a month for a foot legionnaire, but I figured I could go without in return for some twiddly fringed epaulettes. Besides it seemed impossibly romantic - and attractive - that your own mum could turn up at the gate begging to know if you had enlisted and were off to fight for France and, if you didn't want her to know you were there, she wouldn't be told. This was before I became a mother myself. Beau Geste has a lot to answer for.

The Gurkha story reminded me of an announcement some years ago by the French Ministry of Defence that to conform to European equality laws the Foreign Legion would be accepting women recruits. Had I still been a young tomboy this would have been joy unconfined; as it was I realised I couldn't join even if I wanted to having passed the recruitment age. Nevertheless, I thought it might be a wheeze to try, so I phoned up the Legion HQ to ask when women were being drafted.

The commander on the other end of the phone sounded like he was being choked by his waxed moustache when I posed the question.

"Madame. There will never be women in the Foreign Legion," he spluttered.

"But the French government has said...

"Madame. There will never be women in the Foreign Legion."

"Do you mean I cannot join?"

Splutter. "Madame. I can assure you, whatever the French government has told you, there will never be women in the Foreign Legion.

"Well there is this new law that...

"Madame. Do you hear me? Women. Foreign Legion. Never. Ever. Ever."

I'll take that as a no then.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Mad Moiselle

The owner of a French café called me "Mademoiselle". He made my day. Make that week. I wanted to hug him, except by the alarmed look on his face he guessed and gripped his chipped metal tray as if ready to hit me over the head with it if I took one step towards him. "Mademoiselle"! I haven't been called "Mademoiselle" for years. Look it up; "Mademoiselle" is reserved for "young" women. It means: "You are young". It means the person addressing you has looked, yes looked, and decided, if you are not obviously under 30 that you are at the very least young enough to accept "Mademoiselle" as a compliment and not a lack of respect. If they had the slightest doubt, they would say "Madame" as calling a Mademoiselle "Madam" is less insulting than calling a Madam "Mademoiselle".

"Mademoiselle" is also used for the unmarried but not any old singleton; only the young unwed. This makes it very different to the English "Miss", used for the single of any age but which, after a certain age, transforms its subject into a sniffing, fussy, tragic, sexless spinster - think Miss Haversham, think Emily Dickinson... An unmarried Frenchwoman of advanced years would never expect to be called "Mademoiselle". If she was she would probably snatch that tray and whack the person addressing her over the head. Except, of course, if she is easily flattered, short-sighted and still feels 18 in her head, in which case the "Mademoiselle" is probably sarcastic and the person using it having a bit of a joke. He may, in fact, think she looks something like a small silvery drumfish.

I went to the loo and caught a look at myself in the mirror. "Bastard" I thought.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Mean Streets

I met my friend whose dog was hit by a pavement cyclist for a coffee this morning. She was breathless and after the 'bises' launched into an account of her most recent pavement confrontation. She said: "You'll never believe it." Apparently, shortly after asking a man if he intended to pick up the cigarette packet he had chucked on the ground, she came upon a dog owner whose animal was, at that very moment, fouling the pavement.

Friend: "Excuse me, you are intending to clean that up, aren't you?"
Man: "No."
Friend: "But that's disgusting."
Man: "Yes, isn't it."

She said: "Can you believe it?" We fell about laughing at the awfulness of it which shows we have not become humourless hormonal old hags. Well not entirely. We spent the next hour ranting - again - about the invasion of Paris's pavements by motorcyclists, cyclists, dog poo and people who drop litter, (with a short diversion for the tale of a rude waiter who refused to accept 20 centimes in 1 and 2 centime coins) until we rendered ourselves speechless. Can you believe it?

We discussed options for combating the daily death threats. My friend is still all for going to see the local mayor and perhaps the local police chief. We considered letting down tyres - alternatively putting nails into or glass under them when parked - sticking an umbrella in their spokes (thank you Jaywalker), kicking them then running away. We agreed that shrieking, manic or reasoned remonstrating and swearing while simultaneously narrowing our eyes have no effect whatsoever and do not even make us feel better. "I try to confine the anger to my head and not let it go to my stomach," says my friend. "Do you think we're getting a bit obsessed about this and making ourselves ill?" I ask.

We 'bise' goodbye. I walk off and dodge a motorcyclist weaving along the pavement while looking back over his shoulder. Can you bloody believe it?

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Cluedo Part Two

With all the skill of a Cluedo detective I have found out who suggested La Fille would be "prettier without her glasses" for her class photo. It was dirty work. La Fille refused to snitch even when offered an amnesty of sweets, ice-cream and lollipops to name the guilty party. Since torture was not an option and dangling her upside down while tickling her feet did not work. I gave up on her. La Fille's teacher was an easy touch; I didn't even have to turn hissy before she fingered the culprit. Under questioning she admitted she had also been surprised to see La Fille was not wearing her spectacles. It was the directrice wot did it, she informed me.

Turns out it was indeed the headmistress in the gymnasium with the camera. Yikes. What do I do now? Perhaps it was a good job I had the weekend to climb down from the ceiling.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

"Example is the School of Mankind..."

There are times I hear the news and realise the slip of water between Britain and France is less a channel than a cultural chasm. This week there were two events: both involved French president Nicholas Sarkozy who is turning into Sam Sam on a mission to save the world, and both seem to have been pulled out of a political drawer marked: Making It Up As You Go Along.

The first was the president's decision to revoke the extradition order against an Italian woman, a one-time leading member of the Red Brigades convicted of kidnapping and murder in Italy. Whatever the pros and cons of the woman's case - and these things are always more complicated than reported - the most astonishing thing was that Mr Sarkozy apparently made this unexplained decision after some heavy-duty lobbying by his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and her sister. Can you just imagine the headlines in the UK if Sarah Brown and family were to use such influence on her husband? Good Gordon, it would be apoplexy all round.

The second was a presidential edict that the next time football fans at a match boo or whistle during La Marseillaise, the game will be cancelled and the stadium emptied. This followed the dissing of the national anthem at the start of a France v Tunisia friendly in Paris; perhaps as some suggested, because French-born fans of North African descent object to its call to shed "impure blood"; perhaps, as other opined, because they do not feel French. It seems to me this dictat will have two sure results: 1) It will become an act of provocation - nay honour - for some fans to whistle during the Marseillaise; 2) Tens of thousands of hyped-up football supporters subsequently denied a match will invade the streets of Paris. In Britain such a ruling would be considered -rightly or wrongly - an infringement of freedom of expression.

Having been elected a "deputy" school governor (the results of the vote have not been announced but there was only one list of candidates) I promise not to let the (non-existent) power go to my head (too much). I solemnly swear to try to engage brain before opening mouth (as often as possible); I will not let the Frenchman influence me unduly in any decisions I am required to make (he has already said words to the effect of: you're on your own, love) and I will not shut down the entire school if a single three-year-old points at the president's official portrait and asks: "Who's that strange (small) man?" But please do not expect me on fund-raising duties the next time there is a France v Algeria match at the Stade de France. I shall be on the Eurostar out of here before the first whistle.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Eye of the Beholder

It is Friday so La Fille brought home her school book to do her "homework" - a drawing, picture or collage - over the weekend. In it were photocopies of photographs of children in different classes. La Fille is there. She is pictured without her glasses.

I ask her why she is not wearing her glasses. I have spent two years impressing on her how important it is to wear her glasses. She always wears them. She is not wearing them in the photo. She umms and ahhs, as she does whenever asked about school. Then she says "they" - she has sensed the tension in my voice and will not say who - told her she would be "plus belle sans lunettes" - prettier without glasses.

I am speechless, and believe me, that is rare.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Point de Suspension...

On the morning of my wedding I went with La Belle Belle Fille to the hairdressers. They had double booked the appointment. Instead of apologising, they made it plain - in the way only Parisians can - they thought this was my fault. After much huffing and tutting, the hairdresser snatched the flowers the florist had prepared for my hair and scolded me that they were not prepared properly. My fault again. She then set a hapless trainee to work on my head and went into raptures over La Belle Belle Fille promising to create the most wonderful, original, knock-out coiffure for her. I wanted to say: "Excuse me, it's ME who's getting married", but I was very, very stressed and worried if I opened my mouth I would cry. That was a few years ago and the hair turned out fine in the end. The wedding too.

This scene flashed back today when I sparked up the computer and discovered what is interesting (the) three readers of this blog, my blog, is not me, my week, my hopes and fears and feelings. No. They want to know about my meeting earlier this week with Jaywalker. "What's she like? What's she like?" squawk the emails. "What's she like?"

Well sorry. I have three minutes and 20 seconds to find a recipe for Chocolate Cornflake Cakes to make and sell for La Fille's school's 'solidarity fund' so you're just going to have to wait...!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Speaking in Tongues.

Just over one month part time at French school and as I feared La Fille's English has gone Gallic shaped.

She knows better than to speak to me in French if she stands a hope in hell of wheedling success, but the English is coming out all over the place. Before she did not seem to have much problem with the grammar in either language. Now she appears to be translating sentences from French to English. Adverbs and possessives are particularly tricky.

"I would like absolutely for you to buy me a dog black real".

"That is the shirt blue about Papa".

Yesterday she wanted to watch Bambi (sob).

"Why do I have to watch it in English?," she said. "Because Bambi SPEAKS ENGLISH," I said my voice raising from hiss to near hysterical.

What am I saying?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Ad nauseam.

Saturday morning happenings in no particular order:

*A friend calls in great agitation. Her dog has been hit by a cyclist on the pavement.

*The lift in our building is out of order. The doors are broken. Someone has been sick inside.

*Two winos sit in the children's playground part of an otherwise empty park. They swig from bottles. Children watch.

*The sand pit is full of rubbish.

*There is dog dirt right outside our back door.

*A cyclist on a 20kg Vélib' jumps a red light.

*A motorist ignores a pedestrian crossing.

*Demonstrators march down the Boulevards. The roads are blocked.

*I reflect on my friend's suggestion we complain to the mayor about threats to life and limb on Paris' pavements.

*I think: Good idea. We will fall about with uncontrollable mirth at the very idea next week. Probably in front of the mayor.

*The estate agent is closed. Again.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Madly, truly, politely.

A close London friend phoned to say she was on the Eurostar and suggested dinner. Did I hesitate? I put a roast in the oven for the Frenchman and La Belle Belle Fille, ordered the Frenchman to take over reading La Fille's bedtime stories, kissed everyone goodbye and went out. Hoorah! I felt like Marty in Madagascar.

My friend and her colleague could hardly splice a word in edgeways (I don't get out enough with English speakers. Actually I don't get out enough stop) but did manage to explain it was a business visit to their company's Paris office. The staff here speak French (they are French after all). My friend and her colleague do not.

Aware of the cultural divide exposed by my previous post I thought some advice on being polite might be useful. I suggested: "It is a good idea to say 'Bonjour Madame/Monsieur/Mademoiselle' whenever you're introduced to anyone and before you begin blathering in English."

The truth is however sniffy the French might be about the American 'have a nice day now' reflex or however hypocritical they perceive it, they have exactly the same formula. You go into a shop or restaurant or office or wherever and you say "Bonjour Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle". (After eight years I only recently discovered that just saying "Bonjour" is not enough, which is probably why people are so rude to me). You do your business and exit with a: "bonne matinée/apres midi/soirée/fin de semaine (good morning, afternoon, evening, weekend) or whatever followed by an "Au revoir" (goodbye) with or without a second "Madame/Monsieur/Mademoiselle". The shopkeeper or whoever replies in kind.

I love it, I really do. It may be a verbal tic and it does depend on the other party playing the game, but to me it is the sort of exchange that lifts everyday business out of the curt, mundane and grubby. I love it so much, I reflexively do a version of it back in London. "Good morning" I chirp, followed by a "thank you so much" and "goodbye" (I can't quite bring myself to say "have a nice day").

Sadly, people in Britain seem to view this as a cross between verbal harassment and lunacy. The flicker of fear that crosses faces translates as: this woman is stark staring mad.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Crise? What Crisis?

Live in Paris and you get used to having a curt "No" barked at you from people who should be trying to sell you something but frankly do not give a stuff. What is genuinely surprising is that they are doing it even now.

Twice in the last few days - in a popular children's clothes shop and a High Street electrical store - I have faced what is, in current circumstances, particularly astonishing rudeness. In both I was about to spend up to 100 euros (£67). I was so fed up by the surly attitude of the staff when I asked simple questions, I put down what I was going to buy and walked out. Both times I thought: "I'll order it online." In a third shop I returned an item because it was too small and was told off by the harpie-voiced manageress because the wrapping was damaged. I pointed out it was damaged when I bought it. "No it wasn't. You damaged it," she said.

What planet are these people from? Have they not seen the newspapers, listened to the radio, watched the television, had a pep talk from their stricken bosses? After a certain Schadenfreude here about the 'American' financial crisis, people have woken up to discover France is not an economic island. "Yes guys, it can happen here," I say in sorrow not smugness. Even in a boom I have difficulty understanding how one becomes so far removed from reality as to not realise that if you are employed by a shop it is in your personal interest to encourage people to spend money in it. If you cannot do it for sensible economic reasons, for God's sake do it for selfish ones.

It truly baffles me. I would not wish unemployment, hardship and misery on anyone so why do these people behave as if they wish it upon themselves?

Saturday, 4 October 2008

It's a Long Way to Tiperra West

Paris: In a park full of French children La Fille, who is yet to enter a sociable phase, strikes up a friendship with a delighful Australian girl. The mutual admiration is forged when they discover they speak the same language.

La Fille stops hanging off my jacket and runs off with her new friend, who, I discover, is a couple of years older than her. They play hide and seek, tag and chase thudding into the sand with much giggling. They walk around barefoot holding hands and stand arms around each other forming an united front against the French children monopolising the see-saw. Then when they secure a place they sit tight and refuse to get off. As this has given the little girl's mum, also a writer, and I a chance to make friends too - and as none of the French mums have noticed the foreign takeover - we pretend not to have seen either.

I have noticed that La Fille has an uncanny knack of spotting a kindred fish out of water. In London playgrounds and even in the Anglophone Caribbean she was able to find the only French speaker for miles around, and possibly the whole island. But this is the first time I have seen La Fille become so firmly and instantly attached to another child. Sadly, it was the briefest of friendships: three magical rencontres in the same park and then time for goodbyes.

The next morning, from the moment she wakes up La Fille starts badgering to go to the park to see her friend. I explain, as gently as I can, that she will not be there. I say: "She has gone home to Australia." Realising that La Fille has not the faintest idea where Australia is I add: "And that's a very long way away, in fact the other side of the world." La Fille's face falls then perks up. "Never mind," she says. "Let's go there anyway. I don't mind walking."

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Do the Hustle

I was pounced on and found myself up for election as a parents' delegate at La Fille's school this morning. I protested. I pretended I did not speak French. I nearly said: "Do you realise I am someone who talks about safe-sex raisins in front of children". I did say: "But I don't even know what 'parent délégué' means." To no avail. My name, my telephone number, my email have been noted. "Can you make cakes?" asked the woman who pounced on me with a wild-eyed look. "Well, sort of," I said not wishing to appear a complete foreign dimwit. "You'll do," she said. Let us pray nobody votes for me.

Then I came home with La Fille and burned the fish fingers while dancing to the marionettes' song in the living room. Fish fingers and puppet impersonations. How sad is that?

Ainsi font, font, font,
Les petites tra la la la la.

I cannot explain why I was dancing to this. I cringe every time I hear it. I once asked the Frenchman why there was this nursery rhyme about toilets (ainsi font = un siphon = a U-bend). I thought the mishearing was quite funny but he looked at me as if I was raving bonkers even after I had explained.

Sad and mad. Would you want me involved in your school?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

French Fries at Dawn

At La Fille's parent-teacher meeting on Saturday we learned there is "lots of aggression" in her class. I am not sure what this means but the plastic giraffe and lion have been banished to an out-of-reach shelf. Apparently the weapons of choice for these oppugnant youngsters are not flick knives and knuckledusters, thank God, but plastic carrots and chips. The teacher, who has 30 years experience, seems to be struggling. Afterwards, the Frenchman, having established that La Fille keeps well out of any embrangle and thus there is no threat to her glasses, is unsympathetic. "How difficult can it be? They are only two and three-year-olds," he says. I, who have difficulty controlling one willful three year old, say nada.

I am not comfortable with three-year-olds being described as "aggressive". I suspect a teacher in the UK would be sacked or severely reprimanded for this choice of words. I would prefer "high-spirited" or "energetic" or "hyperactive", but then that might be because so far La Fille has escaped having her head stoved in by a wild animal or toy vegetable. My French friends say this is evidence of British hypocrisy and political correctness and our growing habit of calling a spade an earth displacing implement.

The French teacher's comments would make lurid headlines back home where there seems to be a hunger for anything that talks Britain down. I was astonished by how, long before credit and crunch and crisis became the new 'c' words, people were so pessimistic and determined to badmouth everything about the country. My theory is it is why nobody will have a word said against France. Tell them it is not El Dorado and they go 'La, la, la, la' with their fingers in their ears. Perhaps is it is a safety valve: life in Britain is crap, let's cross the Channel.

God knows what the UK papers would make of the outbreak of legume rage among French toddlers. Instead they are full of interesting things you did not know you did not know.

*According to a medical group Belfast is the city in which you are most likely to have had a tummy tuck; Chester a face lift; Nottingham a nose job, Newcastle and Bristol (how appropriate) breast augmentation and London botox.

*The cost of cheese in the UK has gone up nearly 50% in the last year.

*One in ten British people would rather go to the dentist than host a dinner party.

*A wedding dress made of rubber washing-up gloves the artist turned inside out is on display at a Cumbrian museum. The curator said: "The work demonstrates both the young girl's dream of a white wedding and the mundane reality of household." No...really!

Homesick yet?

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Word is Out

Britain has no equivalent to the Académie Française to protect its language and perhaps it does not need one given the prevalence of English. But as someone who loves words, I find the idea that several are on the brink of extinction very disturbing.

Of course words, unlike creatures or plants, can be brought back from the dead. Apparently certain entries in Dr Johnson's 1755 dictionary are making a comeback including: 'fopdoodle' (a fool; insignificant wretch); 'curtain-lecture' (a reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed); 'bedswerver' (one that is false to the other words a deceitful philandering git); the topical 'traveltainted' (harassed, fatigued with travel) and 'wordling' (a mortal set on profit); and my particular favourite 'perpotation' (the act of drinking largely).

However it is with great consternation that I report the threat to 24 words the Collins Dictionary is about to drop through lack of use. Personally I would rather a dictionary contained every word that ever existed and anything less was considered shortened or abridged or concise but there we are. Does anyone care? If they do I think we should start using some of these words and persuade the boffins at Collins that we will not let them go without a fight.

Unfortunately posts like this will not count as the subject is the campaign to save these words. However, if they are used elsewhere in print, broadcast and online before February there might just be a reprieve; a last minute call to the agrestic editor at Collins wielding an abstergent pen ordering him to stay the fatal striking out. I realise we are not saving lives or villages or rainforests or the planet here, and I do not wish to be oppugnant or become embrangled in controversy, but surely the two are compossible. Who knows when one of these nitid gems will serve to illuminate the caliginosity of our caducity and be a roborant in the days when our heards have turned griseous and we have become niddering and fubsy?

You have been warned. Use them or lose them.

Thursday, 25 September 2008


The sky looked moody and metallic yesterday so my friend and I took our children to the Paris Aquarium. What a good idea that turned out to be. The place was so welcoming, so well organised, so pleasant and so clean we nearly fell off the high-heels we were not wearing. It is often the case that those who work in the French public services, and that includes aquariums or aquaria or whatever, can err on the side of grumpiness. I am trying hard not to be negative or racist here, but it is so often the case that the Frenchman would be the first to agree and indeed complain about it. At the Paris Aquarium they were to a man and woman, pleasant, friendly and welcoming.

The fish were fantastic. The girls squealed with an almost hysterical combination of delight and fear every time a particularly large ugly mug fixed them with its beady eye and were so excited that one of the crocodiles moved they almost wet themselves. Some idiot had thrown a coin onto the back of one of the crocodiles and it had stuck there; why do people do that? Still, these reptiles have been in the aquarium since 1948 so I imagine they have become inured to the spectrum of human stupidity. Been here more than half a century, seen it all, eaten the t-shirt. La Fille skipped from tank to tank jumping up and down going: "Oh look it's Nemo, it's Nemo, it's Nemo,"..."Oh look it's Dory,"..."Oh look it's the one from Shark Tale"..."Oh look..." as if real life was one big rolling Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks production. Meanwhile, my friend was saying to her daughter: "Oh look it's a clown fish like the one in your favourite book."

There was more astonishment to come. In the corner of the entrance hall there was a café, actually it was more of a large counter, offering salads, sandwiches and drinks. Not only was the man behind the counter extremely friendly, but the food was good and as the sky had cleared we sat outside on the terrace enjoying the tenuous sunshine. Then one of the girls wanted the loo. This is the moment you wonder whether it might be better to find a quiet corner of a nearby street rather than use the public facilities. Again surprise, surprise; modern, super-clean, working loos. Couldn't ask for more really.

On the way home my friend and I laughed like drains over a sign in a local brasserie for "Milkshakes with or without alcohol". She said: "Do you think we could ask for a milkshake without milk?"

Later I told the Frenchman about the aquarium. He seemed genuinely surprised. I said: "Do you know I think those toilets were the cleanest public ones I have seen in the whole of France. You could have eaten your dinner off them." The Frenchman who was in fact eating his dinner at the time, almost choked.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

You couldn't make it up

Nothing to do with Paris OR London...

I was just looking on the blog statistics (a word that it easier to write than say according to British researchers) to find who was reading and from where and came across something very disturbing.

Someone in Denmark found this blog after typing: "smack smack smack bare bottom man in public over mrs knee" into a Google search. I promise I have not made this up. I went down the results this inquiry produced and I cannot for the life of me see any reference to this blog. Phew! I know readers are hard to come by, but even so.

For some reason it made me think back many years to a very funny story told by a good friend and former colleague, working on The Sun, who swore it was true. A woman reader called in to moan and complain about something in the paper and was giving the young newsdesk trainee a hard time. The editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, passing the newsdesk and hearing enough of the exchange to gather what was going on, grabbed the telephone and shouted words to the effect of: "Madam, that's enough. You are banned from reading The Sun. You are banned from buying The Sun. You will never read or buy The Sun again, do you understand?" I'm not sure who hung up first, but a few moments later the same woman rang back. She said: "Excuse me, but does the ban include my husband?"

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Answering my own questions.

It is Saturday, it is sunny and frankly I don't know why I'm bothering because I am clearly talking to myself. Oh well, just call me Alice's new best friend...

La Fille: "I don't want to go to school."
Me: "You don't have to. It's Saturday."
LF: "No, I don't want to go to school again. Not just not today. Not any day."
M: "That's different. You have to go to school. Everyone goes to school."
LF: "But I've been. Several times. That's enough. I don't want to go any more."

Oh dear.

The French have a strange way of trying to persuade their children to go to school. Here is a selection of book titles I have spotted over the last couple of weeks to help with La Rentrée.

"The teacher. She punished me".
"School. I'm not going".
"The Infant School Monster".
"How Stressful for the Teacher".
"A Day Far Away From Mummy".

Friday, 19 September 2008


I am not going to wade into the French education system of which I have limited experience. So I am relying on those who know more than I do, like the erudite and unfailingly reasonable Cimon, who comments here, to tell me if the following is what I can expect over the next 20 years.

We have organised our entire month around the first parent's morning at La Fille's school. It was supposed to be tomorrow. It went on the calendar in big black capital letters encircled by a big black jaggedy line. Everything else fell into a subsequent place: a trip to the UK; a weekend in Belgium; a visit to a much-loved friend with a long-term illness. We were told not to bring La Fille so we had to arrange child care.

This morning, not first thing this morning but shortly before midday, less than 24 hours before the planned meeting, I was handed a slip of paper saying it was postponed until next Saturday. There was no explanation for the last minute change. We don't have busy social lives however there is something on the calendar for next Saturday. As it doesn't boast a jaggedy line it will have to be cancelled. But wouldn't you know it the babysitter cannot babysit next Saturday morning. I am trying not to swear.

The Frenchman has been warned

Paris is especially beautiful in early Autumn. Today was a fine example; one of those near perfect crackly mornings when the sun has undergone some magical alchemic transformation from burnished gold to platinum and is bright enough, but not quite warm enough, for of course I'd forgotten mine. The city's poor trees forced out of parks and sidelined to stand permanent guard over busy boulevards and rues are still green but their leaves have tell-tale signs of tarnish which means they will soon copper and fall. Window boxes are full to bursting with flowers that no longer smell and have arrived at the point of no return; the metallic air has turned the sounds of the city into tinny chimes signaling the imminent arrival of winter.

It's an uneasy time for wardrobe choices. A summer jacket or cardigan is fine when racing along dragging a child who is late for school but stop at traffic lights and an unexpected whip of air, hanging around looking for the underdressed, will chill you to the bone. This morning I dug out a crumpled wool coat from the back of the wardrobe for the aller-retour to school. It was like running a marathon in a ski suit, even at red lights. Back home was chillier inside than out because the Frenchman had opened several windows before leaving for work on the principle that rooms need to be "aired". I put the coat back on.

Actually it wasn't an aller-retour this morning as I diverted my return via the gym to check out how much it would cost to join. I used to be a member - and I used to go - before I had La Fille and promised myself I'd join again after she was born. Then when she went to the creche. Then after we found a lovely babysitter. Then when she went to school. That's a lot of unkept promises and extra kilos, so I promised myself I would join today. I didn't because it seemed an awful lot of money and I told myself I needed to work if and when I would find time to go before forking out that much.

Autumnal Paris is beautiful but spoiled by the niggling inevitability of winter. From now it will get gloomier and nippier by the day and the mornings will turn from crisp to brittle and the trees from burnished to bare and the chill to a breathtaking, numbing cold. And it will be me, not the Frenchman, taking La Fille to school at the gloomiest, nippiest, brittlest, most freezing brass-monkey time of the day. And I will not be able to warm myself up with a quick 60 minutes of Body Combat because although I really, really love pretending to punch and kick and knee-groin some poor unsuspecting imaginary person, I'll still be dithering about joining the gym. And the Frenchman will still be leaving the windows open even after the central heating has been sparked up and even after I have asked him one hundred million times not to. On second thoughts maybe the extra layer on my thighs might save me from hypothermia and I could practice the Body Combat at home and save the money.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Do as I say...

A friend used to have a favourite t-shirt with a picture of some fish, a fishing hook and "Three Second Memory" printed underneath. I know it's an urban myth, and deeply insulting to man's earliest ancestors but I need to get La Fille one anyway. She refuses absolutely to tell me what she has done in school. All she was say is "I don't remember". If I am really lucky she will tell me she did a drawing of a dolphin - always dolphins - especially for me. (Even this will 'Papa's picture' as soon as he arrives home.) But that's it. If I say: "You can't possibly have spent the whole morning painting dolphins, what else did you do?", she changes the subject or precociously affects a furrowed brow of theatrical proportions and says: "I don't remember."

It struck me sitting in a chilly, shadowy, pigeon-poo splattered corner of the park today that we know very little about what our children get up to when they are not with us; and even less about what the people supposed to be looking after them get up to. If you meet teachers, nursery nurses, nannies, babysitters face to face they are charm itself. If you see them with the children in their charge they often morph into something entirely different as if some time after you left they nipped into the pharmacy and downed a vial of foaming green liquid.

Today being a Wednesday there was no school. Before France became officially, and tub-thumpingly secular - something you'd never have guessed from the Pope's visit last weekend - Wednesday was appropriated by the Roman Catholic church for children to learn their catechism. I read somewhere the priests chose Wednesday because they thought nobody would go if it was a Saturday. Consequently, no classes on Wednesday but classes on Saturday until now when they too have been dropped. French children do a four day week; you can imagine how easy this is for working mothers who juggle.

We were going to go to the children's monthly reading session at the American library in Paris but first thing this morning La Fille developed fluorescent green snot and started sneezing and coughing. Somehow I didn't think we'd be welcome with other children in a confined space. So I wrapped her up warm and we went to the park. This was not the cleverest of ideas because the first thing she did was take off her shoes guaranteeing day-glo snot for at least a week. Also, it being Wednesday and there being no school, everyone else had decided to go to the park too. This included organisations that look after groups of children on Wednesdays when their parents are working as most are Wednesday being a normal working day. One such party of five or six year olds from an out of school playgroup arrived. The woman in charge organised them in a circle in front of the park gate and began railing at them like a demented silver-haired witch. From what I could guess from the way she was wagging her finger, crossing and uncrossing her hands and sticking her pointy nose centimeters from their faces, most of the French language's most fun verbs were being garroted by a 'ne...pas' (don't) and once or twice drawn and quartered by an 'absolument pas' (absolutely don't). Of course, the kids ran in and immediately congregated in knots behind the bars and ropes to do all the things they'd been ne-pas-ed from doing.

But was she magnificent. Having boot camped her own troops, she then marched in and like a Gallic Boudicea set about the other kids. While we had all mumbled under our collective breath but said nothing about the boys throwing sand she marched right up and turned them all to stone with a single "Arretez IMMEDIATEMENT". When one of her charges ran up wailing because sand had been thrown in his eyes she held him at arms' length and told him briskly: "It's not too dramatic. Keep crying and it'll get rid of the sand." And when one of her boys picked up a fistful of sand, her assistant - a younger graduate from the School of Scaring the Pants off Children - yelled: "Oi, I just told you not to throw sand. Are you taking the piss out of me?" Rules on bad language anyone?

Monday, 15 September 2008

That's Showbiz.

Not having satellite television I've missed a tranch of British and American culture since I've been out of the UK: The Office, The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Friends, Big Brother, Desperate Housewives, The X-Factor, et al. As a result I have no idea who half the people featured in British newspapers and magazines are or what they have done, if anything. It's like pop music and computers and maths; you miss one step in the evolution or equation and from then on everything is a mystery.

Last time I was in Britain I stumbled upon a programme on 'Daytime TV' that I found very disturbing. It centred on a confrontation between a young girl with a baby daughter, her boyfriend who may or may not have been the father of the child and the boyfriend's two sisters who did not like their brother's girlfriend for various reasons. It was a staged catfight: there were tears, insults, shouting, and an almost breathy anticipation of physical violence. The participants were young and, frankly, not very bright. If they were guilty of anything it was surely the fecklessness and foolishness of youth and a misguided wish to have their 15 minutes of fame at any price. It was truly horrible; pure bear-baiting or as I imagine a public flogging might be.

The highlight of the TV programme, if you could call it a 'high', was the outcome of a DNA test. This was dangled in front of the audience like a piece of bread before a starving man. "Coming right up after the break, the DNA results. We'll find out if X really is the father of x". Television producers say those who appear on the show are volunteers and are helped to overcome their problems as if the production company was an offshoot of social services or some benevolent society. What rubbish. It is entertainment. And it appears people are indeed entertained watching troubled fellow being flaunt how foolish and feckless they can be. There are no heads rolling or lifeless bodies dangling from a rope, but it's still pretty gory and bloodthirsty.

I don't think this programme concept has crossed the Channel yet, but sadly it surely will. When the first Big Brother reality show aired in Holland and then in Britain, the French went all superior and said such low-life "trash" television could never happen in France. It did. Of course it did - it was called Loft Story. It was a huge success.

In 1846, Charles Dickens witnessed a hanging. Afterwards he wrote: "No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious. I hoped, for an instant, that there was some sense of Death and Eternity in the cry of 'Hats off!' when the miserable wretch appeared; but I found, next moment, that they only raised it as they would at a see the stage the better, in the final scene."

A journalist who witnessed the recording of another of these reality daytime television programmes recently suggests, 162 years on, audiences are scarcely more compassionate towards fellow human beings. Plus ça change, as they say in the land of cultural superiority.