Friday, 29 February 2008

Never again, until the next time

La Fille is having two birthday parties; one in London, one in Paris. I know it seems rather spoilt brat-ish but it is not her idea: most of my friends with children live in London and most of her friends live in Paris.

Flushed with the success of the butterfly wings I have been making a pinata . I know I said "never again" to papier maché only a couple of weeks ago. I know there are more useful, profitable things I could be doing with my time. I know I once had a career. I was thinking all this as I stuck strips of glue soaked newspaper on a balloon and thought "never again" again. Actually the fish pinata turned out to be a work of art; far too beautiful to be smashed to pieces by stick-wielding toddlers. So even as I was muttering "never again" I was getting stuck into the paper and glue to make a second, less beautiful model bee.

One of the other English-speaking mothers commended my bravery, especially as there are quite a few windows in our appartment. She also warned my efforts may not be fully appreciated: "The French mothers won't know what it is and the American mothers will hate it because it's full of sweets," she said. In her view I was especially brave - or mad - because most French parents expect to leave their children at the party, even toddlers. She assumed I was aware of this. "Didn't you know?" she said. "They come up with all kind of mendacious excuses to disappear for a couple of hours." What? Call me naive and inexperienced in the etiquette of children's parties - we had to cancel last year's celebrations because La Fille had chickenpox - but no I was not aware. I was hoping for at least one adult reinforcement, if not two, for each blind-folded, marauding three-year-old hell bent on destroying a papier maché bee full of E numbers. I may just have to leave them in a windowless room with sticks and sweets.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Science: making things work

We went to the Parc de la Villette in Paris with La Fille to have a look at some of the highly recommended workshops and entertainments for toddlers. Unfortunately we did not think to buy tickets in advance and it was sold out. Still, the park, running alongside the Canal de l'Ourcq, is full of grass you can walk on - unusual in Paris - and interesting follies. La Fille particularly liked the old-fashioned wooden horse merry-go-round which turns for a full four-and-a-half minutes each go, a good deal more than some other merry-go-rounds we frequent. I know it was rather retentive of me to have timed it, but I was curious.

The 55-acre Parc de la Villette, the biggest park in Paris, sits on the north eastern side of the city on the site of the former meat market and central slaughterhouse. You can still see the railway lines which brought trains carrying cattle into the glorious iron and glass former livestock hall to be turned into steak. In the 1960s enormous amounts of money were spent building a giant new abattoir at La Villette, but new refreigeration techniques developed just before it opened meant it was redundant before it went into operation.

The theme of the park, opened in 1986, is music and science so we went to the City of Science and Technology, which looked fun. Unfortunately the 'science and technology' did not extend to the basics: half the the escalators, walkways, lifts and loos were out of order. I am not sure there is any excuse for this. The Natural History Museum in London is, unlike the Parc de la Villette, a very old Victorian-era construction and a very marvellous one at that. (It is worth visiting for the building alone). The animals on show look a little worn but then you can hardly go out to shoot and stuff new exhibits these days. The touchy-feelie animations for children are also a bit basic in this age of computer animation, but they are almost charming for being so. The bottom line is you may have to physically turn a handle or wiggle something, but they work, which is more than can be said for the toilets at the Parc de la Villette.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Cigarettes and suppositories

As well as British germs being more benign than those in France, I am pondering the unlikely idea the air might be healthier in London than in Paris. I have not a jot of scientific evidence for this, but La Fille has stopped coughing.

For at least half her young life she woke up in the morning and began to cough. Hack, hack. Hack, hack. Half way through the morning: hack, hack. The afternoon: hack, hack. The evening: hack, hack. Sometimes it was a dry hack, sometimes a chesty hack. It never seemed to bother her but it sure as hell drove me mad, mostly with worry.

The Frenchman said she sounded like a 20-a-day smoker and as unreformed puffer of filterless Gitanes, he should know. He was already banned from lighting up in the apartment, but every time he nipped outside for smoke (not even sub-zero temperatures can cure his nicotine addiction) he was expected to stand on the doorstep flapping his arms and slapping his clothes It made no difference to the hack, hacking but it entertained the neighbours. Her paediatrician thought she might have asthma or an allergy so we dragged La Fille to various doctors and even a homeopath and a reflexologist. She had tests, x-rays, scans; nothing showed up. She had massages, gallons of cough syrup and honey and lemon; nothing worked. I steamed her bedroom with the kitchen kettle until it resembled a rainforest. The warm humidity lasted a couple of seconds then it just felt cold and damp. A French friend gave us the Gallic standby for all ailments, suppositories. I took one look at the milky white slugs, the size of a medium-calibre bullet, and told the Frenchman: "No way is that going anywhere". I threw the box in the back of the cupboard with the inhaler, the homeopathy paraphenalia and the balsa parrot.

Then we began spending half our time in London and suddenly La Fille stopped hack, hacking from dawn to dusk to dawn. I find it hard to believe there is that much difference in air quality between the two cities; we do live in one of the most polluted triangles of central Paris, but in London we are also near several busy roads. Still, there is no denying it it; La Fille has stopped coughing. The other morning the Frenchman woke up and said: "Do you know we haven't heard La Fille cough in weeks." They he started: hack, hack, hack. I have told him he has a choice: smokes or suppositories.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

It is a good job there is no equivalent of Norman Tebbit's 'Cricket Test' in France. I would have failed it miserably tonight. I was delighted the English rugby team whopped the French and doubly delighted Jonny Wilkinson not only did his bit on the pitch but flummoxed a French TV interviewer at the end of the match. Having given a comment in English, Wilkinson was asked if he had anything to say in French. The interviewer clearly expected our national hero to go: "Um, err, no," but quelle surprise, he praised the Gallic side in what my husband described as "perfectly good French".

Norman Tebbit's mythical test was supposed to be one way of discovering whether immigrants or their descendants had abandoned support of their - or their parents' - country of origin and become truly English or British, whatever that meant. Had this happened they would, when asked by some market research organisation, profess their support for England in the World Cricket Series of test matches and not Pakistan or India or Sri Lanka or any of the other sides that usually win. As if.

I do not know about them, but I always support England against France in any sport. I would do so if an English team pitched up for a game of boules against the local team that plays in the park around the corner from us. Years ago, I even put red, white and blue ribbons in my hair and ventured into a French bar to watch an England v France rugby match. We lost and I slunk away unnoticed. Afterwards I realised of course, red, white and blue are also the French team colours so I could have switched sides without anyone noticing.

In my defence, I do feel sorry for the French, and particularly the Frenchman, when France loses. I am writing this quietly and I did not gloat tonight. There are too many times when the Frenchman has behaved graciously when the situation is reversed; in other words, more often than not. There is no equivalent of the Cricket Test in France, but given the plethora of immigration laws being introduced at the moment, I expect there to be one any day. Then I will have to throw myself on the mercy of the Frenchman to not denounce me and have me deported back over the Channel. Besides, in a few hours time we will be woken by drunken English fans chanting, making an inhuman noise supposed to pass for singing and falling over each other in the street outside our flat. When this happens, as it always does whenever there is an England game at the Stade de France, I will not be feeling very patriotic.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008


A knowledge and love of cheese seems to be in French genes. At dinner table I asked La Fille, who is not yet three, if she would like some cheese. She took a deep breath and said: "Some Camembert...some Brie...some Cantal." I asked: "Haven't you forgotten something?" She looked pensive for a couple of seconds and added: "Some Comté." Seeing my stern face she added: "Please." Hmmm, I thought. The Frenchman has been coaching her in cheeses if not in magic words and good manners (French dinner table etiquette rule 11: no more than three selections from the cheeseboard in a restaurant or polite society). So I set her a test. I cut a slice of Camembert and a slice of Comté and put them on her plate. "Which do you prefer?" To my astonishment she took a bite out of one, then the other, looked for all the world as if she was doing a tasting and waved the Camembert. "The Camembert," she said.

She won round one, but there is plenty of scope for a rematch. It was Charles de Gaulle who said: "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese". The General is also said to have said: "One can't impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of cheese." I have no idea in which order these were uttered but either 19 cheese were gained or lost in between, or de Gaulle was plucking figures out of the air on the assumption that nobody had actually bothered to count the number of cheeses in France. Whatever, there are far too many for La Fille to have memorised.

I have often wondered who in America decided "cheese eating" - as in the jibe "cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys" - was an insult and why? I mean why pick on cheese? "Snail-eating" or "frogs'-legs-eating", (a bit of a mouthful, I admit), even "garlic-eating" would have been more logical. I love garlic but it does linger, as indeed does a lot of French cheese. "Cheese-hating" would be more of an insult here or even "Perrier-sipping-surrender-monkeys". President Nicolas Sarkozy is said to prefer water to wine and this is regarded as at best odd and at worst suspicious. He will probably take a hit in the opinion polls for shunning the Louis Roederer and Dom Pérignon and toasting his recent nuptials juice (the man from Del Monté he say "yes"), but he could almost certainly wave goodbye to any hope of a second term if it turned out he was not a turophile.

I am looking forward to a repeat performance of La Fille's expertise this Saturday in the fromagère where one of the ladies has taken a shine to her. It will make a change from her usual routine of turning all doe-eyed and bleating: "Fromage, Mama?" in an unusually small voice. This one-act play, clearly intended to convey deprivation and starvation, would be more convincing if the cheese-eating-clever-monkey looked a little less well-fed. But still, it works every week.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

A Non-Scientific Study of the Comparative Mechanceté (Horridness) of Gallic and Anglo-Saxon Germs... other words: I Don't Feel Well.

I have been wiped out by a bug; completely flattened. Maybe it is a revenge attack for something I said about the French, but Gallic germs seem more vicious than Anglo-Saxon ones. I swear I never felt this ill this often in London. My French friends blame it on the "collectivité", which means "community" but is used for groups of people, in this case children; in short La Fille picks up bugs at the nursery and passes them to me. In that case it should also happen when we are at collective nurseries in south London. So far it has not.

The Frenchman said: "Why don't you stay in bed." I thought he might be having a laugh. He was not. I said: "And where exactly is La Fille's 'pause' button?" Instead of cutting his losses he continued: "You know what it is? It's weekend flu; it's well-known that people fall ill at the end of the working week when they relax." Unable to shout because of the sore throat, I hissed: "It is not the weekend and there is no end to my working week." (The "end" and "working" were especially hissy.) Then he said what he always says: "Go to the doctor." This is very French. I have only once gone to a French doctor about a cold and then only after the Frenchman nagged me until I felt worse. The doctor diagnosed a cold and wrote a prescription for five medicaments, three of which I could have bought over the counter at the chemist next door but because I had a prescription were reimbursed, ie., free. No wonder France's health service is broke. In any case they did not make me feel better.

So, in spite of having one hour's sleep and feeling as if there are shards of glass in my throat every time I swallow and suffering a low-level throbbing in my head and a permanent snivel, I am carrying on heroically. I refuse to go to the doctor and because of this I have lost all sympathy from the Frenchman. I said: "I took what he prescribed the last time. It hasn't made me feel better." He said: "It's probably past its use-by date." He is right, but I feel too wretched to point out it did not work even before it decided to lose all effectiveness at 11.59pm on the 31st December 2007.

I took a Fervex, the French equivalent of a Beecham's Powder - prescribed and paid for by me - and felt slightly better. There is nothing like a dose of self-righteousness.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Dancing in French

This bilingual business throws up some interesting ideas.

I overheard La Fille talking to one of her toys:

"Do you speak English or Français?"


"Oh, Français."


"OK. We'll dance in French."

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Sorry Affairs of State

I tend to avoid writing about politics or current affairs here. That was another life. It seems negligent though to make no mention of the ongoing soap opera starring President Nicolas Sarkozy - currently the only topic of conversation at Gallic dinner tables. "Delirant", which means frenzied, is the description of this saga I have heard most often. Even the president's supporters have criticised him publicly for demeaning the dignity of his position. During his whirlwind courtship of the model-turned-singer Carla Bruni, 'Speedy Sarko' was accused of not having his mind on the job of running the country - well there's a surprise! The Prime Minister turns up for a meeting about the economy to find to his boss has decamped to a chic restaurant with Carla and friends. He says, with dismay, that the President seems distracted. As I say, quelle surprise. Every day brings a new rumour or revelation. Did the president really text his ex-wife saying words to the effect of: "Come back and I'll dump the Italian chick"? Was he really messaging girlfriend Carla from his phone while in the presence of the Pope? Did his son, 22-year-old Sarkozy junior, really believe he could follow in Dad's footsteps and become mayor of a rich Paris suburb?

It is entertaining but not very edifying. The French, who were expecting action outside of the bedroom from their leader, have expressed their disapproval in opinion polls. But each time his popularity plummets, Mr Sarkozy comes up with another distraction: his marriage; a plan to save civilisation and now teaching every French school child the story of a Holocaust victim, an idea that has appalled some who survived the Nazi genocide. All these distractions are like a firework show being worked by thieves: everyone is so busy looking up and going "ooh, ahhh" they do not notice their pockets are being picked. But they will notice sooner or later.

Nicolas Sarkozy is behaving like a man in quicksand unaware that all his wild flailing is making him sink faster. Next month he visits the Queen in London (reportedly the real reason for his hasty wedding to Ms Bruni; a spouse being less problematic in terms of protocol than your latest squeeze). I wonder what the Queen makes of all this: upstart politicians; glamorous girlfriends; trophy wives; disastrous marriages; bitter is not exactly new territory for her, but then Mr Sarkozy is not family. When I first came to France I was constantly asked if the Queen had really described 1992 as her "horrid bottom" year. (Me: "Sorry...what on earth are you talking about?" Them: "You know, annus horribilis." Me: groan.)

Still, Mr Sarkozy will make a light change from Gordon Brown at Buckingham Palace. I once saw the two men together at a press conference. It was hilarious; funnier than Little and Large. The short Mr Sarkozy fidgeted, hopped from foot to foot, waved his hands in the air, displayed his trademark tic - a jerking neck and shoulder shrug - and wittered about friendship. I think he may have even slapped Mr Brown on the back. He certainly leant over and touched the British premier's grey-suited arm. The solid Prime Minister delivered his speech as if he had been dunked in concrete on the way into the Elysée Palace and it had hardened leaving only his hands and mouth free to move, and even them only slightly. He talked about serious things like global warming and the world economy in a dour, sincere voice. Mr Brown kept saying "President Sark-cozzie" (to rhyme with swimming cozzie) and Mr Sarkozy kept saying "the English" (as opposed to the British). The third time he did it, the PM, a Scot, lost his cool. Well he lost it as far as a man encased in concrete can: he winced and glared.

I am not the only one wondering what the Queen will make of the man they call "President Bling Bling" and his new wife. The following was posted by a reader of  The Times website in response to a piece on Nicolas and Carla. I had a chuckle over the final image.

As a French person, I wish to apologise for our embarrassing presidential couple... Our "political" scene looks like a bad 80's American soap...Carla Bruni may be 40 years old but it seems she is as mature as a spoilt 12 year old. In this respect she and Nicolas Sarkozy are a perfect match... both full of themselves and painfully lacking subtlety and culture... I wonder what the Queen will make of them when they visit her in March this year... they have as much class as a pair of furry dice.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Mademoiselle Butterfly

I love La Fille to bits. A couple of days ago I would have said I would do anything for her. After spending much of the previous 48 hours preparing a fancy dress costume for carnival celebrations at her nursery, I am having a rethink. It was the butterfly wings that did it. With her eye-patch I felt she made a natural pirate. I would jag the legs of an old pair of jeans, top them with a stripy t-shirt and tie a scarf around her head. Easy peasy. I could do all that before breakfast. Accessories such as toy cutlasses and swords were banned, but I felt sure we had an old balsa wood parrot in a cupboard somewhere. No girlie frou-frou fairy or princess costume for La Fille, I thought smugly.

But of course she did not want to be a pirate.

"How about a ladybird?" I suggested after a rummage through her clothes; black leggings and a red t-shirt, perfect. All I needed was a cardboard oval cut out of a cereal packet that could be painted red with black spots perhaps if not before breakfast then certainly between dinner time and breakfast without losing much sleep.

She did not want to be a ladybird either. She wanted to be a butterfly.

In London, I would have probably succumbed to Competitive Parent Syndrome and bought a butterfly costume. Here in our corner of Paris, this would have been a faux pas of walk-on-the-moon proportions: not in keeping with the spirit of things; worse, Mum a bit of a show-off. Besides, how difficult could butterfly wings be? Stupid question. For starters I assumed making papier-maché was easy, the sort of thing any handy mother - and I am pretty handy - could do. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I put the newspaper IN the paste instead of the paste ON the paper so I ended up with a sodden mess that stuck to everything except the butterfly wing-shaped coathangers, then the finger-paint refused to cover the newsprint, then the glittery sequins and the strips of metallic sweet paper I had stuck on for decoration fell off and finally, after hours of carefully painting butterfly patterns on the wings, I used the wrong varnish, the paint ran and everything began cracking. At one point I nearly threw the whole lot in the bin and wondered if I could borrow my stepdaughter's silver stetson (don't ask). "She can go as a one-eyed cowboy," I thought.

I gritted my teeth. "If she wants to be a butterfly, then she will be a butterfly." The next morning La Fille got up, saw a pair of lovingly crafted wings and went: "WOW!" A couple of orange ping-pong balls stuck on pipe cleaners attached by safety pin to a ski hat and voila, La Fille was a butterfly; A sort of Orange Admiral. It was worth the effort for her reaction; I am just not sure I would do it again. There is now a battered pair of butterfly wings in the back of the cupboard with the balsa parrot.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Tickets please

An outing in London. The bus stops at the stop and stays stopped. The driver is refusing budge because three people have got on via the back door and have not paid. At first, the three buscrashers - two guys and a girl - are so busy chatting they do not hear the driver. They may be pretending not to, but to be fair I am next to them and I cannot hear what he is saying. True, it is harder to ignore the glares from other passengers and the fact the bus is not going anywhere, but they chat away seemingly unaware. Finally, the driver opens his door and yells: "I'm not going anywhere until the three people who got on the back get off the bus." The three culprits look a tad shamefaced and have the good grace to get off without yelling, swearing or making a fuss. "What's his problem?" says the Frenchman nodding in the direction of the driver.

In France, half the bus has got on by the back door and not paid. If you get on at the front you can walk right past the driver without a bus pass, a ticket or the equivalent of an Oyster Card and nothing will be said. You are of course supposed to pay and in the unlikely event an inspector gets on before you have time to jump off you will be caught and fined. Or so they say. I think the fine is 25 euros (about £18.50) but I have never seen an inspector check tickets or issue one, so I would not know. Once I asked the Frenchman: "Why doesn't the driver make sure everyone pays." He replied: "It's not their job. Their job is to drive the bus."

I believe this tells you more or less all you need to know about the British and French approach to rules.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Baywatch Chicks

Sundays in Paris we eat roast chicken, sometimes but not always marinated in sage and mustard à la Nigella, with roast potatoes, sometimes but not always crispy. It reminds me of family Sunday dinners, which were always at lunchtime, as a child. The Frenchman and his family knew nothing of roast potatoes before we became acquainted, but are enthusiastic converts: my mother-in-law calls me "La Reine de la Pomme de Terre Rotie" - Queen of the Roast Potato. Sometimes we buy a whole chicken, sometimes just the legs or breasts depending on how many we are feeding, but we always pay extra for what they call 'farmer's' poultry that has been raised 'en plein air' (free range). The label - or the butcher - will tell us it where it has come from, what it ate (usually corn or cereal), and when it was slaughted. It costs more - around 12 euros (£7.50) for a medium-size bird - but we know what we are getting.

In London I worry about chickens. Not in a Jamie Oliver way; I dislike factory farming and would prefer their lives to be decent but as a well-known TV critic pointed out recently, if every British chicken had 1 sq m of personal space they would occupy Wales (in his view a better use of the principality). No, I am more worried about what the chickens, and therefore we, are eating. One supermarket is offering £1.99 chickens while another, my local shop, has cheap packs of Chernobyl-sized chicken legs and pneumatically plump breasts that could have come from a new breed of surgically enhanced Baywatch birds. "Just look at the size of those breasts," I said to the Frenchman whose eyes swiveled on stalks around the supermarket. (To be fair they are called 'the whites of chicken' in French not 'breasts'). I look at the labels; they tell me the weight and price and that is about all.

Cheap food is an sensitive political and social issue, but whatever we pay for it surely we should know where it has come from and what has gone into it. I have no particular fondness for live chickens and do not expect my Sunday roast to have been lovingly hand-reared on organic milk and seed, but who can forget that Mad Cow Disease was caused by cattle being fed mashed-up sheep? My skeptical mother would say: "Aha! How do you know your French farmer hasn't stuck any old label on his chicken?" I don't know. But at least the bird's breasts look normal.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Child's Play in London

A newly discovered joy of being in London is the One O'Clock Club in Battersea Park. One foot off the Eurostar and La Fille starts chanting "Wan-ka-ka, Wan-ka-ka". The first time she did this I ignored her, even though she got louder and louder. To tell the truth I thought she had picked up an awful swear word while I was not paying attention and wondered, guiltily, who she could have possible got it from. Then the penny dropped. "Oh, One O'Clock Club," I said with relief. And there was I thinking my two-year-old had turned foul-mouthed and feral after only a couple of visits to London.

For the uninitiated, or childless, One O'Clock Clubs, or Centres as they prefer to be known (I prefer too; Wan-ka-cen sounds less like a chant from the football terraces) are supervised playgroups run between 1pm and 4pm across London. They are funded by local authorities and free to parents and children. On a desperately miserable, rainy "I want, I want, I want," day they are not quite the parental pause button one might pray for as you have to stay with your child and cannot disappear for a couple of hours to do a step class or down a bottle of wine with friends. But for those of us who used up our reserve of responses to the "What Shall We Do Now?" question some time ago, they are an answered prayer.

The One O'Clock Centre at Battersea Park is by no means unique, or even our nearest. But I love Battersea Park and we have got to know the club and the people there now. To La Fille it is a magical place with its 'sensory room' and rack of brightly coloured dressing up clothes and its painting easels. She especially loves the Thursday afternoon sing-alongs where she has added 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat', 'The Grand Old Duke of York' and 'Down In The Jungle', to her repertoire of - until now - mainly French songs like: 'Marie Soak Your Bread In The Sauce', 'My Father Has A Field of Peas' and 'Ma Michel Has Lost Her Cat'. (I am in no position to criticise the apparent madness of Gallic nursery rhymes having just sung 'Michael Finnigan' and 'Three Blind Mice').

To be honest, I never, ever saw myself getting down and dirty with the Copydex, but the other day I was persuaded to make fridge decorations out of coloured paper, glue and sticky-back magnets (very useful when you have a built-in fridge). This was the day after I had helped make 'monsters' out of raw potatoes and pipe cleaners, and shortly after I assisted in churing out Scottish flags to mark Burn's Night. The Burn's Night tape was still being played in the 'sensory room' a couple of days later. I doubt this was what the Dutch inventors of the Snoezelen Multi-Sensory Environment had in mind when they suggested it be filled with calm music, tranquil lighting and tactile objects, but I had huge fun belting out 'Donald Where's Yer Troosers' ("Let the wind blow high, Let the wind blow low, Through the streets in my kilt I'll go, All the lassies say 'Hello'..."). Fortunately La Fille and I were the only ones experiencing this sensory extravaganza. (No, I'm not a Scot which is why I had to consult my friend and former colleague known as 'The Animal', who is, to establish whether I should have been singing 'ladies' or 'lassies' and whether it was several winds or just one whooshing up Donald's nether region.)

I have dragged the Frenchman to various One O'Clock Centres in the last couple of months. He was reluctant at first, but is now also a fan. It is true overall child care provision in France is better than in the UK, but they do not have anything like this - open to anyone and free to those using them - and that is a pity. The centres also offer advice, support and contacts. Perhaps Londoners with no children, or grown-up ones, regard them as a waste of public money, but for those who cannot afford £60-a-day private nurseries they must be a sanity-saver. And if one poor mother's sanity is saved, then it is surely money well spent.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Nanny hits the bottle

My friends complain Britain has been turned into a "Nanny state" whose citizens are treated as imbeciles. They are not alone.

France is the first European country to insist wine has to carry a health warning. A new law says bottles must be marked with the silhouette of a pregnant woman holding a glass to her lips over which is superimposed a forbidding black cross. Alternatively, bottles must carry the words: "The consumption of alcoholic drinks during pregnancy, even in small quantities, can seriously damage the health of the child."

Given the verbosity of the latter (at least cigarette manufacturers could get away with: "Smoking Kills") most Gallic vintners have gone for the catchy pictogram, but they are not happy. Granted, they are rarely happy, even after a vat of their own produce, but this has made them especially grumpy. Surely, they say, moderation and intelligence are the key. Now where have we heard this before?

Monday, 4 February 2008

Park life

I had forgotten how wonderful the green spaces are in London.

I walked between Wandsworth and Clapham Commons on a very chilly and damp morning. The skeletal trees were so laden with fat dewdrops they looked like nature's chandeliers, their bare branches overladen with crystal tears while the mist languished like tissue around their trunks. It was a bracing walk and I was glad I had put on the hat, two jumpers, two scarves and gloves, even if it made me feel like the Incredible Hulk. I was tempted, for the sake of my shoes and the fact I had an important meeting, to walk the paths, but could not resist taking a more direct line across the sodden grass. To hell with it, I thought. Later, I took La Fille out to the Common to run around in the middle and take deep clean breaths. It is remarkable how she has not had a single cough since we started coming to London. She fell over muddying her knees and her just cleaned coat. Oh to hell with it.

Later, the Frenchman, La Fille and I visited St James' Park and had lunch with friends before strolling around the lake looking for pelicans, swans and squirrels. We had let the men take La Fille while my girl friend and I finished our coffees and paid the bill (are we modern gals or just gullible?). As we walked to catch them up at the lake she tugged my arm and said: "oh er! Look at that child, someone should grab her before she falls in." I looked and just behind the child in question was another jumping up and down millimeters from the edge of the water, surrounded by birds. It was La Fille. "Oh dear," I said with a gulp. Thankfully, drowning was avoided by our arrival and swift removal of La Fille from the melée of ducks, seagulls and pigeons. The chaps, replete from free lunch, were too busy gossiping and, I think, smoking, to have noticed.

Then it was off to Greenwich to see a good friend and walk through the Royal park there. We climbed up to the observatory, La Fille's little legs trotting to keep up on the steep slope. She arrived all ruddy cheeked and excited about feeding the ducks. More excited than the overfed birds who were very fat and turned up their sniffy beaks at my friend's wholemeal bread. Their livers must be delicious. "Perhaps they've got expensive tastes and only like ciabatta," I joked to another mum whose little girl was desperately trying to raise some interest in her crusts. "Here, have some monkey nuts. The squirrels are less spoiled," said the woman who very kindly gave us some. She was right: we crept across the grass and had squirrels almost eating out of our hand.

What I have come to appreciate about London parks is that they have grass, instead of the formal gravel of many of those in Paris. Not only do they have grass, but you can actually walk on it. One of our favourite parks in Paris is the Jardin des Plantes, which boasts a menagerie with an odd assortment of animals loved by La Fille. Once we went armed with home-made salads and sandwiches and chose a shady spot under a tree right next to the gravel path to spread a tatty old towel to sit on and have our picnic. There were no 'Keep Off' signs but I had only just taken all the lids off the salad pots when a uniformed park keeper ordered us off the grass. I said: "Is there ANYWHERE we can sit down and have a picnic?" He directed us to a faraway corner of the gardens to a bald scrap of ground; so overused it was bereft of a single blade of grass. It was also right next to a very busy dual carriageway with cars spewing fumes and packed solid with schoolchildren and other picnic refugees. It was the most joyless and depressing corner of a large and beautiful park, more so for being so close to vast tracts of lush untouchable grass.