Thursday, 31 January 2008

Oh do shut up

I am learning more than I need, or want, to know about the private lives, preferences and habits of British people who are total strangers thanks to the combination of mobile telephones and public places. I know, for example, that the boyfriend of a young blonde girl who looks about 15 on the 319 bus is being "a right bastard" and a strange middle-aged man on the number 35 talked someone out of violence - to self or another was not clear - by shouting "Hang on, I'm coming. Hang on," all the way through south east London to London Bridge and the young mother in the children's playground clearly has problems with a female relative or friend because she spent 30 minutes railing on about "her" at the top of her voice while her toddler son walked in front of swings, fell off his bike and rammed into several babies. (Any concern I might have for her problem is negated because she is always railing into the phone about something or other whenever I see, or rather hear, her.)

On the Eurostar a blonde woman announced to the person she was calling and the entire carriage that she was "so excited, so, so, sooo excited" about seeing them she "couldn't wait". Then the young man next to her blathered on about the Paris fashion shows and how he "couldn't take any more" and had told "them" he had to come home because it was his mother's birthday. Two rows back a woman passenger was shouting at someone at their bank. They were all so loud you could hardly hear the train manager requesting mobile phones be used "with consideration".

On a train to Richmond I learned that a thirty something woman had "had a bad day" but would still be cooking dinner if she could get to Tesco in time to pick up something. On the bus back a foppishly handsome young man whose designer look was spoiled only by the fact that it stopped at his ankles, just above scruffy trainers, explained he had been to the gym where he had done x long on this machine, and y long on the other and z number of power lifts or whatever and consequently he was not sure if he was up to partying or even leaving his home for the next week (another girl getting the brush off?)

Several people yelled into mobile phones in various foreign languages but at least they had an excuse; presumably they thought their voice had to carry all the way to Poland or the Philippines or Africa or China. At one point on one bus there were so many people shouting, and I mean shouting, into phones the Frenchman said he felt he had stepped into a lunatic asylum. Why is everyone is getting in such a twist about the government or its agents listening into their conversations? Forget phone taps and bugs, secret agents would learn all they wanted to know spending a week sitting behind people on buses and trains.

I do try not to listen, but this seems a rather bizarre reversal of responsibility, and in any case it is hard not to. It would not be so bad if it was interesting stuff, but mostly it is details of daily minutae we all deal with but usually keep to ourselves. Mostly it is just irritating. Occasionally you hear a gem. A recent favourite did not involve a mobile but a very loud conversation between two pensioners on a bus.

Her: "How's your wife?"
Him: "I haven't seen 'er for three years and I don't want to neither."
Her: "Oh that's a shame. I liked your wife. She's a good woman."
Him: "She's not a good woman. Good riddance, more like."
Her: "Well at least you've got a wife."
Him: "I haven't got a wife as far as I'm concerned. Not for the last three years."
Her: "Well you have, whereas me, I miss my husband dreadfully. Dreadfully. Wonderful man he was. Wonderful. He looked after me, he did, and he took me places. He took me to Guernsey and he took me to.....where was it again?...oh dear, it began with 'b'."
Him: "Belgium, the Bahamas, Abu Dhabi?
Her: "No, no. I remember now, he took me to Bolton."

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Going places...or not.

It is only four months since I started coming to London regularly and now I sympathise entirely with those who moan about public transport in the city. Apart from being expensive, it strikes me as being like Longfellow's mythical little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead: when it is good it is very good, and when it is bad it is horrid. And not just ordinary horrid, but infuriating, frustrating and so irredeemably horrid that it makes you forget that it is ever good. Perhaps I had forgotten, or perhaps I never knew as I had a car when I lived in London, just how long and how much effort it takes to get anywhere, be it half a mile away or ten.

I was standing on a chilly platform at Clapham Junction with the Frenchman and the Fille. We were caught in an icy, teeth chattering wind; the kind of wind anyone from Suffolk, used to bone-chilling blasts from the east, would call a "lazy wind" as in "it don't go round you it go through you". We were waiting for a train to Teddington due, according to the board, a few minutes later. A few minutes passed and no train. A few minutes more and still no train. The board changed to a later time, then a later time, and a later time. I asked a guard when he thought the train might come. He said: "It's gone". He consulted his clipboard and, true enough, there was a big cross next to the Teddington train. "It's gone," he confirmed. I said: "I don't think so. I've been standing here for half an hour and I think I would have noticed the train coming and going." (I may have been out of the country for a few years but I know what a train looks like). He said: "It's gone." I said: "Aha, it's on the board as due in another ten minutes." He looked at the board and frowned. "That's wrong. It's gone." He said the next one would be in another 20 minutes, but could not reassure me that it would not come and go without anyone noticing like the previous one. In the end it took a train and taxi to get to Teddington and we were an hour and a half late for dinner.

The Underground - as I have already complained - is creaky, chaotic, crowded, extortionately expensive and unbearably hot. Trains stop for ages in tunnels or inexplicably decide to go somewhere other than the destination you expected when you boarded them. Because you never know if a ten minute journey is going to take ten minutes or an hour you invariably end up late and stressed or stultifyingly early.

The buses are much better, but even they have their moments; drivers suddenly deciding not to go all the way to the destination marked on the front, but stopping half way and throwing everyone off; drivers that stop too far from the kerb for you to get a pushchair on (or squashed against railings when you are trying to get off - though at least the buses do not have steps as many do in France).

I am tempted to write to Transport for London with some suggestions and questions.

a) Could buses, trains and tubes do what it says on the packet ie: go where they say they are going and stop where they say they will stop?

b) In addition to the above could drivers actually stop when would-be passengers at a 'request' stop shove out their hands - as opposed to sailing past as we wave our arms about like demented human windmills?

c) Could bus drivers please be taught to drive - as I was taught - with maximum consideration for passengers. This does not include chucking the double-decker round corners and standing on the brakes at every red light, junction and stop. Heaven knows it is bad enough trying to hang on to a pushchair on the roller coaster ride most bus journeys have become, it must be utterly terrifying for the elderly or infirm?

d) Somebody please install air conditioning that works in Tube trains?

e) Can and will someone explain why there is often a change of bus driver mid route and not, as in any other country, at the terminus either end (this one baffles the Frenchman every time)?

f) Is it really so difficult to put a route map in every bus as they do in France?

g) Anyone who has the money to waste on an overpriced four-wheel-drive pushchair the size of a small car should be made to pay twice the fare. (It is almost impossible to get enormous pushchairs on Paris buses so nobody who wants to take a bus buys them - hence no need for the two-pushchair limit enforced in London.)

h) Please kill the endless stream of moronic and nannying advice: I think we know that if the bus is stopping there is a reasonable chance the doors will open thank you.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Spice of life

One of the things I look forward to when heading from Paris to London is a decent curry. It is sad but I start fantasising about a medium hot chicken jalfreizi or spicy rogan josh or a something dopiaza with a tandoori or tikka dish as soon as I set off Eurostar ticket in one hand and La Fille in the other. I love the ritual of ordering poppadoms with 'condiments' - onion, mint sauce, mango chutney and the tongue-stripping lime pickle - and a Singha beer, but to be honest, as I do not get out to restaurants - Indian or otherwise - as much these days as when I was single and childless I am more than happy to settle for a take-away or delivery.

I have found many unexpected things in France, including a husband, but I have yet to find a decent Indian curry. This is not a whinge or criticism but a statement. There may well be one, but after a number of disappointing experiences I prefer to save myself for an Indian meal in London. My friend and former colleague at Salut! was more determined and methodical in his quest for a good 'ruby' and received many suggestions on his blog. To no avail. The best curry he found in France was produced lovingly at home by Mrs Salut!

In Paris's Indian 'quartier' the Passage Brady, handily near the Gare du Nord, restaurant staff leap from doorways to accost passers-by with the promise of a free kulfi or glass of impossibly sweet, unidentifiable aperitif. The restaurants have Indian names, smell Indian, waft Indian music across the dining room, have lush crimson cushions and statues of Shiva and are run by very friendly Indians who serve, how shall I put it...some of the blandest curries you will ever taste. For curry lovers like myself, the disappointment is immense. It is like being presented with a Ferrari to drive then finding it has the engine of 2CV. I asked one restaurant owner, who tried to fob me off with a dish of "spicy sauce" with my curry why he did not serve genuine Indian food. He replied: "You are English, you like real curry. I am sorry, but the French don't like spicy food." It is true. Most French people cannot stomach dishes involving spices or chillies. Indian restaurant owners in France are only doing what they do best wherever they pitch up outside of India; adapting to the local market. When in Rome and all that.

So curries are out in France. Not just because it is hard to find the genuine article but also because the Frenchman, being French, does not like hot food and makes out he is about to expire when I put so much as a half a teaspoon of chilli sauce in the leftover chicken curry. I used to enjoy a mild chicken tandoori with my French stepdaughter who, as an exception to the general rule, likes Indian food, but she is now away at university and unavailable for a girlie dinner in Passage Brady when I get a craving for curry.

It is true, I have not helped extend the Frenchman's culinary horizon: once in a local Lebanese restaurant I waved a green chilli under his nose in jest thinking he knew what it was. He did not. Consequently, he sank his teeth into it. He has never forgotten this nor entirely forgiven me. Every now and again the "green chilli incident" raises its ugly head.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Skin deep

As they say: you can take the girl out of the country; you cannot take the country out of the girl. I am perpetuating the long tradition of eccentric behaviour by English women incomprehensible to women elsewhere, especially those in France. This behaviour includes washing your hair before going to the hairdresser (would not want them thinking you walk around looking like that), hoovering and clearing up before the cleaner comes (would not want them to think you live like a slattern as well as look like one), and shaving your legs before a wax.

This week my personal version of this eccentricity was to obsess about getting rid of an outbreak of spots and improve my complexion before going for a facial. The French equivalent of Murphy's Law (I have no idea what it is called but it probably takes a pop at Belgians) means my skin looks as if I have caught the pox. My eyebrows need a good pluck and my nails...hmmm, like the war they are best not mentioned. I have not done any pampering for ages and I would not be doing it now except my stepdaughter very generously bought me a treatment for my birthday a few months ago. I am booked into a chic 'beauty and spa centre' a few paces from the Elysée presidential palace. I do not know the place but the address shrieks of money; it would have been on the top of Robespierre's list of 'places to pay a visit', for sure, and not for a moustache wax either. I will walk in and they will think: "Bag lady". I try to make up for the nails, a dead giveaway, by putting on my best bra, a well-cut shirt and several layers of foundation to cover the spots. I wonder if my legs are suitably smooth, then tell myself if my face has sagged that far I need more than epilation - or a 30 minute facial for that matter. I even polish my shoes to make up for the fact they are flat and practical as opposed to vertiginous and elegant. I cannot believe I am getting so wound up about going for a facial.

French women have, on the whole, a more holistic and applied approach to grooming. It is tosh to suggest they are all elegant and stylish, though if you spent your time in some of Paris's chic Left Bank arrondissements filled with women of a certain age, social class and wealth, you might be under the mistaken impression they are. (This would be like thinking all London women looked like those shopping at Harvey Nicks). No, these women clearly do not worry about spots, sprouting brows or scuffed shoes. But even young Parisiens seem to find the time and money to spend on their appearance. Around where we live, which is far from chic, there is an extraordinary profusion of nail bars and beauty salons and they are usually packed.

In the end, I go to the salon and it is fine. If the very young and beautifully made-up and manicured girl at the salon thinks "Bag lady" she has the good grace not to let it show. I hide my nails under a towl and apologise for the spots. The best bit is being left to lie for a few all too brief minutes in a darkened room, face plastered in perfumed goo, transported to a tranquil glade full of twittering birds and tinkling water - the same tranquil glade recreated by 'relaxation' music in beauty salons the world over. Afterwards I was walking past chic shops in the chic street in the chic arrondissement feeling I had scrubbed up well after all, when I realised the beautician had taken off all my make-up. I know, obvious really. This is not a good look. "Bag lady", I thought burying a spotty nose in my scarf and scuttling past the presidential palace.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Positive thinking

This morning I told myself: "Be positive. Nobody likes a whingeing Brit and certainly not the French". This morning I thought: "It is not that bad." It was not raining, I had not been kept awake all night - unlike the Frenchman - by the concierge's miniature dog yapping his head off and there was no nauseating smell meandering its way through our apartment.

The smell is a real downer. On top of the water problems in our building, there is also a drain problem. Several times a week I am assaulted in my own home by the perfume of rotting cabbage and waste. I know this smell: when I was a child we lived for some years in the countryside, surrounded by farms and, I seem to remember, downwind of a sewage plant. Of late the smell from the drains has been so bad it made me want to be sick. When visitors come I launch into a long explanation about it not being our smell but a collective pong, even before they remove their coats (in case they decided not to stay). I have even explained to the cockroach control man who comes twice a year even though he never takes off his coat and I do not want him to stay. The worse thing is the smell comes from the sinks in the kitchen. Who wants to be preparing and eating food in a room that smells of putrefying greens or poo? I have poured all manner chemicals (I started with environmentally friendly ones) down the sink and nothing works. I complained to a member of the co-proprieté (the Frenchman). He said what I already knew: the building is ancient, the drainage system too. It was, he suggested, the French equivalent of "one of those things". I said: "But it's making me ill. We'll have to move." He looked at me as if I had just beamed in like a Prince Charles hologram from another planet as opposed to across the Channel. "Don't you think that your are over-reacting?" he said adding that he could not smell anything. Of course he cannot; his olfactory whatevers have been destroyed by years of Gitanes sans filtres. He promised he would mention it at the next residents' meeting. This is in seven months. I will have built a time machine and beamed myself to another planet before anything gets done about the drains.

There have been times recently - mostly on cabbage smell days - I have felt I could stand it no longer. Last week, having reached the frayed part of the tether after a run-in with French administration, I found myself wailing at the Frenchman: "I hate living in France." This is not generally true; but was the moment I said it.

Still, this morning I was feeling positive and cheerful. I said to La Fille: "Let's go to the park." OK, so this 'park' is actually a patch of gravel less than half the size of a football pitch squeezed between two main roads and is where the local drunks and tramps pee and hang out. So it does not have an inch of grass that you can put foot on and boasts two fountains that are not working and a small children's playground covered in pigeon droppings, but it is a park to us. La Fille loves the slides and grubby sandpit and besides, I was feeling positive. La Fille and I put on our coats and felt zippedy doo-da as we skipped down the stairs instead of taking the lift. We walked out the back of the building and straight into some dog poo deposited just outside the door. Sometimes I really do hate living in France.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Sunday's child

I like Sundays in France. I like that most of the shops - except the boulangerie and a few food shops in the morning - are closed, even my favourite DIY stores. I like that it is different to the other days of the week and therefore seems a proper day of rest. Paris is not France and London is not Britain, but the laws of the land are the laws of the whole land, and in France most shops are not allowed to open on Sundays. It makes a difference.

When I was young and we lived in the countryside, I hated Sundays. It seemed an agonisingly boring day that tick-tocked slowly towards evening bath time and the even more agonising Monday morning and school. Mostly there was nothing to do and, because we lived a long way from our school friends, nobody for my brother and I to play with or see. There were a dozen houses in our lane all owned by people who were either old or 'well-off'. We rented our house. This was not mentioned but was known, in the way such things are known and judged in country lanes. We were occasionally invited to play with the children of a neighbour, but even though I was too young to put a finger on exactly what was wrong, or not right, I sensed somehow the invitation was inspired more by charity than choice. When we had not been invited anywhere, my brother and I were sent to "amuse ourselves" in the garden. In those days we did not have a television, and even later when we did we were certainly not allowed to spend our Sundays in front of it "watching rubbish". I am not complaining; not having a television meant I developed a love of books. I can see my young self, curled up in an armchair, sucking my finger (I preferred it to my thumb) escaping into one magical world after another. In those days none of us, not even our rich neighbours' children - had Playstations or Nintendos or Gameboys. Amusing myself meant trying to climb a tree faster than my younger brother and making sure he lost by foul means or fair; usually by pushing him around (this was the all too brief brief window when I was bigger than him. Later he would get his own back). We used to fight almost constantly. The only time we declared a ceasefire was to gaze curiously and longingly between the wooden slats that boarded the air raid shelter hidden behind the gooseberry bush in a gloomy corner of the garden. We were banned from going in it, and we never did, mostly because we had been told it would fill with water and instantly drown us, or would cave in suddenly, or was deadly dangerous; the sort of fearful nonsense parents tell children to stop them doing something. Still, its mystery kept us entranced for a good part of our childhood.

Then, Sunday was a dull, interminable day when the world was closed and boring. Today in France they still shut up shop on Sundays. I like it that way.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Bedside manners

I had dinner with a very good French friend who was in hospital in Paris recently for a minor operation. It was not life-threatening but boy's stuff so a tad embarrassing, but he was so angry any bashfulness went out of the window. It was, he said: "an example of everything that is wrong with the French health system".

In short: he goes to his GP who diagnoses the problem and refers him to a specialist surgeon. The specialist-surgeon confirms the GP's diagnosis and says it requires an operation but seems more interested in finding out if our friend has a good 'mutuelle' - a kind of private insurance - to cover his higher than usual fees and pay for a private room at a private hospital, than in explaining what the operation involves or the hoped-for results and possible consequences. Given that this operation involved taking a scalpel to parts of the body very dear to our concerned friend this was not very 'sympa' to say the least. Then, the night before the operation, our friend arrives at the private hospital designated by the specialist-surgeon to discover he is expected to sign a legal form saying the procedure has been fully explained to him by same surgeon. It had not, but he signs anyway fearing he will be refused admission if he refuses. His 'private room', costing 205 euros (£152) a night turns out to be the size of a large cupboard, and dinner - lukewarm soup, shepherd's pie and a plastic tub of apple purée (no wine - do not believe what they tell you about French hospital food ) is served at 6.30pm. At 10.30pm as he is trying to get some sleep - there being little else to do - a nurse comes to take his blood pressure and shortly afterwards a second nurse arrives and orders him to shave himself. I will spare you the details; suffice to say it was pure Carry-On Nurse only less funny and much more painful.

After the operation the surgeon pays a brief visit. He does not hang around to answer our anxious friend's even more anxious questions but says he will explain all the following day when "you can pay my bill". He arrives the next day with a bill, not for 700 euros (£520) as previously advised, but for 2,000 euros (£1,488). Seeing our friend's jaw drop, the specialist-surgeon says: "It's OK. I've checked with your mutuelle and they will pay." Our friend hands over a cheque but after the doctor disappears he discovers the reference number for the operation, which he has specifically requested several times and is necessary for the medical fees to be refunded, is not on the bill. Since then the specialist-surgeon has been unreachable by telephone so our friend does not even know if he will be reimbursed. When I saw him he was feeling rotten, both physically and psychologically; in discomfort and worried silly about the unexplained surgery as well as increasingly convinced that somehow he or the system had been had.

It was not the worst hospital horror story I have heard. A French girl friend was in a Paris clinic in labour with her first child at the age of 42 when doctors decided she needed an emergency C-section. As she was prepared for the operation the surgeon slapped her thigh and said: "My, just look at those broken veins...that's what you get having a baby at your age." It would have been appalling enough had he said this just once, but just in case she had not heard him - after all she was in quite a lot of pain and distress - he repeated it four times.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Wine whine

I made a complete hash of pulling the cork out of a bottle of red wine this evening. I broke it, first in half, then into several more pieces and ended up with annoying bits bobbing in my glass like miniature lifebuoys looking for a distressed fruit fly to save. For once this is not a French-Anglo Saxon cultural thing. Once upon a time I could have open bottles of wine with a Swiss Army knife, blindfolded and with one hand behind my back. And did. I hope none of my friends or former colleagues are reading this because they will think I have become a wine wimp instead of just being out of practice. I rarely open bottles at home (think about it: what is the point of being married to a Frenchman if you have to open your own vino?) and in London we tend not to drink French wine; the Frenchman says it is grossly overpriced and these days most other wines even, surprisingly, half decent ones, seem to be plugged with plastic corks or have screw tops (we are not talking Chateau Petrus here).

Tonight the Frenchman is away so I had to open the bottle myself. I realise this second admission is possibly even more embarrassing than the first. Not only am I incapable of extracting a wine cork but I am opening a bottle to drink by myself (not necessarily all of it). Having said that, I am enjoying the wine and not sloshing it back to drown any particular sorrows or to get drunk (though it crosses my mind that drinking while in charge of a sleeping child might be considered irresponsible parenting by some).

What would condemn me as irredeemably sad here, and this is where the cultural difference does comes in, is that I am drinking wine but not eating. Actually I am eating but not as the French would understand the act of consumption; that is to say, having had a good lunch, I am eating something between a couple of slices of bread (thank you Earl of Sandwich). Think about it again; what is the point of being married to a Frenchman who loves rich, heavy French food if you do not use his absence as an excuse for an impromptu diet?

Oh how wonderfully, rebelliously English. Forget solitary drinking, this is truly heathen behaviour of which I really should be ashamed, but am not. I am going to have to practice my cork extraction skills though.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Shop until you drop

Saturday is shopping day. Not just this Saturday, the first of the French sales, but every Saturday. And not shopping for clothes or stationary or shoes or iPods, which might be interesting and which I could do all day every day, but for the comestibles and household goods that will keep our little family going until we shop again the next Saturday.

Recently I was asked by a French woman what is the biggest difference between living in Paris and in London. "Here we go again," I thought. It is one of those whimsical "what's your favourite colour?" questions children like so much that has no right or wrong answer (except perhaps, "none") and whatever you say usually just reinforces a preference. "Blue? Oh me too," or "Blue? That's interesting, I prefer red myself." I could have said anything: "politics", "art", "culture", "everything". I said: "Food shopping." She said: "Really? How interesting," with a look that conveyed the opposite. OK, so how many ways are there to buy an egg? But it is true; shopping for food has always seemed to me to be a huge cultural difference between the French and British.

When I lived in London I drove to the supermarket and stocked up for a month. I had the shop down to 30 minutes maximum if I was not waylaid by kitchen utensils or knickers. True, I was always amazed to come back after a fortnight working abroad to find the tomatoes as perfect and free of rotten pockmarks as the day I left. I expect I did think: "I wonder what has gone into or on them", but in those days it was not top of my list of life-threatening worries.

In France, very few people, and usually only those who have no local shops, do all their shopping in the supermarket. As a result shopping for food takes time and legwork. In our case it takes almost an entire day.

Today was a typical Saturday. First it was Monoprix for the boring stuff: kitchen roll, toilet paper and toothpaste; basics like sugar and coffee and bottles of fizzy water. I can still get round in 30 minutes, if not waylaid by kitchen utensils or children's clothes (OK, priorities have changed), but I usually leave it to the Frenchman. This task is currently complicated because the nearest Monoprix has been closed down because of a structural problem with the building next door, and the second nearest has been closed down because the roof fell in a month after it opened. To lose one supermarket in the same High Street is unfortunate, to lose two...

Then it was off to the butcher who hachéd us some steak, cut up three legs from corn-fed free-range farm chickens (birth and death dates, social habits and diet stated on the label), sold us a bigger filet mignon than we wanted and gave us two lamb steaks from a filetted leg. The total came to the euro equivalent of £30 as it does most times over the last few years. This has not earned us a smile or a particularly welcoming "Bonjour", let alone better cuts of meat.

They are friendlier at the cheese shop. The staff that is. The owner, a woman whose face has been chiseled out of granite, gave a young assistant a reprimand once for inappropriate gossiping after I had asked about her pregnancy. The shop sells fresh butter and cream as well as hams and whisky. Recently it began stocking British cheeses. "This is Stilton. It's made in England but even so it is really very good," I caught one of the servers telling a sceptical French customer.

Fruit and veg are a problem. Do we buy from the fabulously friendly reasonably-priced Moroccan greengrocer who takes the credit card and often throws in a chocolate cake, biscuit or punnet of out-of-season unnaturally perfect strawberries for La Fille, but does not have a huge choice? Or do we defect to the huge greengrocers just a few yards away that has every fruit and vegetable found on the planet but is unfriendly, demands cash and offers no freebies? The third option is the greengrocer in the local market who has plenty to offer, takes credit cards and offers La Fille a clementine but is as expensive as he is jovial. This is the subject of a pavement debate every week.

We used to buy fish from the poissoniere near the cheese chop, but since the grumpy fat owner and his jolly wife who used to tickle the Fille under the chin every week - whether we stopped to buy or not - sold up we have preferred the fishmongers in the market, another schlep unless we are getting the fruit and veg there too. Then we visit the boulangerie for pain aux céréales and sometimes cakes, the organic shop for eco-friendly cleaning stuff as well as La Fille's favourite fruit purée and organic raisins and finally the wine shop. In the last six years, the Frenchman has spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds here. He should be not only on first name terms with the owner and his wife, but inviting them for dinner. Instead he returns miffed every week that he has not been offered so much as a free tasting or a corkscrew. Sometimes I also make a detour to the Indian shop to pick up some baked beans, mint sauce, tandoori paste and - if I am expecting visiting Brits - some English tea.

All these shops are dotted about the 'quartier' and some are closed for three hours at lunchtime, even on Saturdays, so what used to take me 30 minutes with no organisation, now takes several hours and requires the planning of a military exercise.

When, just before Christmas, I told the Frenchman I had done the entire seasonal shop (except for turkey and ham) in the supermarket at 11.45pm he was amazed. "Are you sure you have everything?" he wanted to know. "I have everything, but you won't like the bread," I told him. "Never mind, I'll go to the boulangerie," he said when he arrived. "Where do you think you are?" I asked.

There is certainly something missing from - or not added to - the food we buy in Paris. I would not dare leave the tomatoes in the fridge for more than two days. The last time I did the salad tray resembled a biology project. This begs the question: is putrefaction more or less of a health hazard than pesticide?

Friday, 11 January 2008

Five-hour lunch

I do love a good stereotype. I was watching the film Flushed Away with La Fille (who calls it the "Eeek Eeek film"). Baddie The Toad calls in his cousin Le Frog and half a dozen French henchmen to help with his dastardly plan to wipe out all the mice. Le Frog takes a mouthful of British wine and spits it out in disgust. He listens to the plan and says: "Right men, we leave immediately." A little French henchman voice pipes up: "Errr boss, what abaht lunch?" Le Frog replies: "OK, we leave in five hours." Laugh, I nearly changed the audio to see what Le Frog says the French version. (I did this with a Shrek film and I swear the unctuous French Robin Hood sounded Italian.) I was still chuckling when I recounted the Frog joke to the Frenchman. "Oui, et alors?" he said in his best so-what voice.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Eye eye

We had to take La Fille to her eye specialist and tell her what they told us at Moorfields, which was not exactly what she had been telling us. Or in her case, not telling us. The Frenchman and I rehearsed what we were going to say and how we were going to say it the night before. We ran through it again in the morning after a restless night, and again on the way to the appointment. It was all very stressful. I was convinced La Fille's radar had picked up the stress and she would not cooperate with the vision tests. The last time we were all sent to the waiting room so La Fille could "reflect" on her behaviour (at two years old). We returned and she was as good as gold. The specialist put this down to successful "reflection". I knew it was the promise of a biscuit.

In the end it was fine. I said: "They said her eyes don't and won't work together." She said: "Of course they don't she squints. If they did she'd be seeing double," as if this was so blindingly obvious we were plank stupid not to have realised. Then for the first time in 18 months we had a proper discussion and questions answered. At the end she said: "Were the people you saw in London child experts?" I said: "Oh indeed they were." She smiled: "Oh well, we'd better fix her eyes before you return to England again." A joke; we could hardly believe it.

Before we left we wrote her a cheque. This is something I will never get used to and which every time makes me appreciate the free-at-the-point-of-service-to-everyone ethos of the NHS. I know Britons often believe France's health service is infinitely better than the NHS, but I am a huge fan of the NHS and those who work for it. It is like a very best friend: always there to pick up the pieces; to apply the salve, to comfort, to reassure, even save you. What is more the NHS will do this even if you spend all your time using and abusing it. I once spent a week doing a fly-on-the-wall report on the Accident and Emergency department of a major London hospital. Even now I remember how staff battled to revive a middle-aged man who had keeled over after a heart-attack in the street. I went home and cried over this stranger's death and their disappointment. I watched nurses pick tiny fragments of glass from the jagged wounds on a youth's face. He had fallen through a window. Accident...pushed...jumped? Nobody, except me, asked. Nobody cared. They were too busy putting his face back together. There were children with various objects stuck in various orifices, diy-ers who had done for themselves and patients with broken bones caused by games involving a ball. There was also the young man who had been injured in a knife fight and the youth in a drunken coma whose friends arrived brought him to hospital in the boot of their car after he polished off a bottle of whisky as a bet. A man was rushed in by ambulance claiming he had taken an overdose of epilepsy pills. He refused to let doctors pump his stomach but asked them to call his ex-wife to tell her he was dying. It was pretty obvious this was a performance, but staff spent more than an hour trying to persuade him to be treated. I was all for throwing him out for wasting valuable time. The junior doctor pleading with him, who had been working almost non-stop for more than 36 hours, said: "We cannot do that. He may have taken the pills."

I do get fed up with hearing British people moaning about the NHS. I cannot say my experience of hospitals in Britain or France has been particularly pleasant and the NHS is far from perfect, but overall it is not worse than what is on offer in France and it is considerably cheaper. In many ways you do get what you pay for. People can say: "Ah but what do you know? Things have changed. You don't live here", but recent experiences in the UK and France have not altered my view. Anyway this writer knows what he is talking about better than I do.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Smoke screen

I went into a café-bar just opposite where we live, with La Fille. In the past I would have hesitated to go in if she was with me. I would have glanced enviously into its snug trysting corners and hurried on. We went in and sat in wicker chairs taking long, deep, clean breaths. We smelled the cinammon and nutmeg of the vin chaud. We caught the trailing whiff of a ripe cheese giving up its defences at it sailed past on a wooden platter. There was the very faintest odour of ground coffee mingled with duck cassoulet. We drank our drinks - a fizzy water for me, an apple juice for the Fille - and we left. It was such a pleasant experience I could have hung around all afternoon listening to snaps of other people's lives as they came, kissed, shook hands, whispered, chatted, joked and gossipped, then kissed again and parted. But we had other important things to do; things involving paint and crayons and stickers and glue and play dough. We arrived home as fragrant as we had left; not so much as a sniff of cigarette smoke lingered in our hair, on our coats or clothes.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of state-subsidised nicotine gum over the smoking ban here but it has to be said French smokers had it coming. The surprise is that it actually happened; that the government did not cave in to the right-to-puff lobby and angry tobacconists and postpone the law as they did last year. Then again there are no elections coming up.

I have not had a cigarette for years but I would call myself a "recovering smoker". It sounds a bit New Age, but in my view once a smoker always a smoker with addiction only one puff away. I am not 'anti-smoking', though I would prefer the Frenchman did not because I do not want him to die of lung cancer. He has a weakness for the filterless Gitanes favoured by the late crooner and chain smoker Serge Gainsbourg. Still, I defend his and anyone else's right to smoke as long as he and they keep it to themselves as much as I defend my right not to have to smoke his or their smoke. Consequently, he is banished to the street if he wants to light up, even in his own home.

France's smokers are a selfish tribe, in my experience. The sight of them huddling on the rainy streets, rubbing cold hands, hopping from chilly foot to chilly foot and whingeing like mad elicits no sympathy from me. It might have done had they not banged on about their rights ad infinitum and lit up whenever, wherever without the slightest concern for anyone else. When I was pregnant with La Fille and even the suggestion of cigarette smoke made me feel sick, it was almost impossible to eat or drink out. Just one month before she was born, ie clearly very pregnant, I went out for lunch with visiting English friends who watched open-mouthed as a woman at the next table pushed her chair back so the smoke from her cigarette did not disturb her dining companion and dangled her cigarette right under my nose. In Paris restaurants where tables are edge to edge and a injudicious fidget could leave you sitting in a stranger's lap, smokers often lit up in between courses while those inches away from them were still eating.

There have been some ridiculous claims from smokers and smoking sympathisers. One French writer living in London lamented the ban saying it "stigmatised" smoking and suggested smoking is a rite easily avoided. I do not know where she has been living, but it is certainly not France. Smoking is not easily avoided, even on the streets. I have lost count of the number of times La Fille has just avoided having her face and hair singed by a feckless pedestrian strolling along with a cigarette in hand. Or, for that matter, the number of times I have brushed casually, indiscriminately flicked ash off her face and clothes as she sat or slept in her pushchair. Once, when I threw a party for the Fille, I put a table, chair and ashtray along with some magazines in the hallway immediately outside our front door for the benefit of smoking parents. On the door I stuck a big 'No Smoking' sign. Even so, one friend's French husband still lit up and had the gall to tell another friend who remonstrated with him where to go.

More nonsense is being spouted here about it being the end of 'liberté' and the death of 'French culture', while it is noted that Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir et al all smoked (Gainsbourg once claimed God was a smoker). This kind of childish reasoning takes me back to when I was too young to know better and was told: "Just because so-and-so does it, doesn't make it right and doesn't mean you have to do it."

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Pulp Fiction

Sometimes I wonder what planet the people who carry out market research inhabit. A new survey claims 45 per cent of Britons admitted a fondness for fast-food while only 19 per cent of French admitted liking what they like to call "malbouffe" (rubbish food). I think someone should tell the researchers the key word here is not the 'f' one - or even 'f-f' ones - but the 'a' one as in "admitted".

Apparently they asked 9,000 people in 13 countries if they liked fast food "too much to give it up?" I have no idea who the researchers asked or what food they cited; "fast food" covers a multitude of culinary offerings from quick-fried crickets rustled up on a Phnom Penh pavement to parathas and samosas on the streets of Delhi. Did they take cultural differences into account or did they ask everyone from Hong Kong to Brazil via Romania and the Czech Republic if they could not give up "burgers, pizza and wings" or "fish and chips", the only fast foods cited on the research company's website?

France's McDonald's restaurants do more business than those in any other European country, including the UK. A recent survey, by McDonald's claimed nearly half the French population had visited one of its restaurants in the past 12 months. True, this research was carried out by McDonald's but I wonder if it is any less scientific than this latest survey?

So British people admitted they like fast food a lot and the French claimed they do not. What a surprise. The French have a different attitude and approach to food to the British and it is true, on the whole they do eat better. But they also like fast food; they like burgers, they even like Le Big Mac judging by the number they eat. They just do not like to admit it.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Plus ça change

A curious thing happened on the way back to Paris. The Eurostar stopped at Lille; not unusual in itself except on the opposite platform another Eurostar - bound for London - had also stopped. We were told "technical problems" meant we had to get off our Eurostar immediately and board the other Eurostar. Passengers on the other train were told the same. We struggled with sleeping children and bags and got off. The "immediate" bit was problematic: the two platforms were separated by a glass partition and nobody thought to open the doors in it. We Paris-bound passengers stood our side looking quizzically at the London-bound passengers looking quizzically at us. It was like being on either side of a fish tank except less colourful. Eventually, we boarded their Eurostar and they boarded ours and both set off 40 minutes late. There was no explanation for the bizarre train-swop just a cursory apology over the intercom. One smartly dressed young Frenchman suggested "technical problems" might be an euphemism for a stroppy Gallic traindriver who had done his 35 hours and wanted to go home. He said: "We still have strikes in France you know." I nodded as if I did not know.

I do wish Eurostar demanded of all staff a minimum standard of politeness. The young Frenchwoman at the Eurostar help desk at St Pancras watched me struggling with several bags (containing among other things two dolls, one Peppa Pig, one cuddly dog/bear toy and a blue teddy called Fred - yes I found one) and La Fille. I told her I had lost my ticket somewhere in the departure hall and asked if it would be possible to have a duplicate. She responded curtly: "You'll have to go back and look for it." I told her I already had. She said: "Well go back and look again. I can give you a replacement ticket but it'll cost £15." On arrival at the Gare du Nord, I approached a French Eurostar employee to ask where I could get the compensation claim form for delays. She snapped: "There's no reimbursement. It has to be an hour late." In contrast, a couple of months ago a stupid error meant I arrived three hours early for the Eurostar at Waterloo. A young woman member of staff, seeing I was slightly distressed and seeing I had a toddler, dashed off and returned with a replacement ticket for the next departing train. "You don't want to be hanging around do you?" she said.

The recent combination of delays and rudeness is particularly galling as we are Channel-hopping regularly and giving Eurostar quite a lot of business. Between the Frenchman, his mother, my stepdaughter, La Fille and I, we took five separate Eurostar trains over Christmas and New Year. Three of them were between 45 minutes and an hour late. Sparkly new station and "high-speed" line opened by the Queen; sullen staff and trains with "technical problems". Another triumph of style over substance.

All in all it was a rude journey from start to finish. I began on a bus to get to the Underground to get to St Pancras (part of the hike getting to and from Paris now involves). It was standing room only and nobody stood up to let the Fille sit down. A woman with a child at the back shouted: "Isn't anyone going to get up and let that little girl sit down?" Nobody moved. The manic driver, who had clearly mistaken south London for Monaco, threw the bus around and braked with the finesse of a novice performing an emergency stop. As we veered round a corner the Fille landed on her bottom at the feet of a middle-aged man in a tweed cap who did not appear to have any physical disability preventing him from standing. "Oops!" she said. He looked at her and began a detailed study of his brogues. "Shame on you all," said the young woman with child at the back.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

New Year reel

I woke up this morning to a spinning room and the urge to be sick. I could not make out the time on the radio alarm as it was veering in and out of peripheral vision like a drunk driver. Closing my eyes was worse. This has nothing to do with over-indulging last night but who is going to believe me? It is the third successive morning I have woken up with what the French call 'vertiges'. I am not sure what this is in English but I am going to have to find out. If I were to guess I would say it was vertigo but I always thought that was an uncontrollable urge to throw oneself off tall buildings. Perhaps I should stay away from parapets.

Whatever it is called, it is very unpleasant. It is early morning and I am behaving like someone who is falling down drunk; staggering around, clutching the furniture and ricocheting off the walls. I seem to have mislaid a dimension. I am not slurring my words because I am too busy trying to stay upright and not throw up to talk. I am definitely not in a fit state to chew gum.

The first time I had one of these attacks was in the summer when we were holidaying in Provence and I had the sensation that I was falling off the beach towel and nose-diving into the sand. At the time the towel was on the sand. I stood up and immediately did a nose-dive. There was only one local doctor so the Frenchman accompanied me to his surgery. He - the doctor not the Frenchman - seemed to know everyone else in the waiting room and shook their hands. When it was my turn he was gruff. He asked a few questions, checked my heart rate, shone a light into my eyes and gave his diagnosis in the curt way French doctors do. He said: "You have crystals in your ear. You'll have to see an ear, nose and throat specialist." "What now?" I wailed figuring a town that had only one doctor was unlikely to have an ENT expert installed in the visitors' centre. He said: "When you get back to Paris." I thought: "Maybe he doesn't like Parisians." This is quite common in the French countryside. Then I thought: "How am I going to get to Paris hundreds of miles from here when I can't even negotiate the distance between the beach and the towel on it?" He gave me a prescription on which there were two things clearly written. I knew he did not like me. It is almost unheard of for anyone to leave a doctor's surgery without a totally illegible prescription (requiring a call from the chemist) and at least three drugs. Some patients complain when not given enough medication; one of the reasons the French health services is ruinously in the red. Before I left, clutching my mean prescription, I asked him: "How could you tell it was my ears by looking in my eyes?". He waved an index finger. "When I did this, there was a flicker," he said. I was glad I had asked. I picked up my two lots of pills at the pharmacy in the town and headed to the nearest café with the Frenchman and La Fille. I hate taking any medicine but I hated feeling the world going pear-shaped around me more, so I took a pill from each box, as prescribed, and waited to feel better. Instead I felt suddenly much, much worse rushing from the table to nose-dive into the facilities. When I returned I tried to focus long enough on the pill boxes to find out exactly what I had taken. The first seemed fine; something for 'les vertiges'; but the second seemed to cover a curious range of conditions including chest pains and tinnitus. I phoned my English GP in Paris. I said: "What has this man given me?" She looked up the drugs on her computer and was also confused about the second lot of pills. "It seems they open up the blood vessels," she told me. "I think they gave you a sudden rush of blood to the head." She added: "If it's vertigo you may find alcohol makes it worse." I thanked her and threw the pills in the bin.

That was several months ago and of course I should have seen an ENT person in Paris. Although the crystals cannot be removed, they can be relocated to a less troublesome corner of the inner ear with some neck-twisting physiotherapy. But the problem seemed to have gone away and I did not bother. Now I am suffering the return of the crystals and have spent much of the first day of a new year lying in a darkened room that, even though I cannot see it, is still spinning. I realise a lot of people are doing the same thing, but at least a hair of the dog will make them feel better.