Monday, 31 March 2008

It Never Rains, But it Pours

As a showcase for the generally very good French railway network, the Gare du Nord is a big disappointment. Arrive off the Eurostar here and head for the Metro - as most people do due to a shortage of taxis in the city - and your first stop is most likely to be a long queue for tickets. There is usually only one ticket booth open and a couple of ticket machines that, as well as being complicated for visitors, are frequently out of order. It is a pity this is many people's first experience of Paris. When friends tell me they are coming I send them a couple of tickets so they do not waste their first hour. (In fairness, I should point out in Paris a single metro ticket will cost 1,50 euros or £1.18 - 11,10 euros or £8.72 if you buy a 'carnet' of 10 - as opposed to £4.00 for a single ticket on the London Underground, but didn't someone say time is money too?)

Even more surprising is that the Eurostar terminal, the pearl in the showcase, is as bad. On Sunday only one of the automatic ticket machines was working and there were a dozen people waiting to use it. Inside the Eurostar office there were about 15 people waiting but three positions open. I did a quick calculation (OK, not quick, but maths was never my forté) and waited inside. And waited. And waited. Several passengers appeared in a panic, dashed in, took a look at the queue went "Aaaagghhh" and ran out again. In the supermarkets near where we stay in London if more than three people form a queue at the checkout someone rings a bell and someone else appears to open another till. Yet this is the international terminal of one of the biggest stations, if not THE biggest, in the French capital, and as I wait people are casually setting out their "position closed" signs and disappearing.

I got my tickets eventually. Meanwhile it had begun to rain; more heavily than I thought when I set off to walk home. All in all, it has been a wet weekend.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

We'll Always Have Paris

I had an uncharitable thought. Maybe Monsieur Mustapha is not in Morocco but is fed up with being called to our repeated emergencies so is pretending he is. We get on well with him and have great political discussions over coffee every time he comes. But even so. If I were him I'd be making out I was a very long way from France.

Still, having cut off everyone's water supply, we feel it only fair to get up at the crack of dawn and do something. Another call to Monsieur Mustapha who is still apparently in Casablanca, results in the name and number of a plumber pal. Unfortunately this chap turns out to be at least two hours' drive from Paris. It would be quicker for Mustapha to fly back to fix our broken pipe. I call the 'syndic' that runs the building and, as instructed by the recorded message, fax a letter marked URGENT in big black underlined letters to its so-called emergency line. While waiting for someone to call back, the concierge and I pad around the dripping damp, stone vaulted cellars below the building trying to identify various stopcocks supplying various flats so we can get water to some of our neighbours enabling them to at least have a shower and a cup of tea. Each time we think we have succeeded, water pours out of the broken pipe under our sink. In the end we give up. "When's the plumber coming?" she asks. "When he can get back from Morocco," I tell her.

The 'syndic' never calls back so while the Frenchman trawls the Paris equivalent of the Yellow Pages, I knock on doors to see if anyone knows of a plumber. Eventually we find one who agrees to come within the hour. More than an hour later he has still not arrived and we call again. He is caught in a massive demonstration near us and the police have closed all surrounding roads. He gets through the barricades by explaining to seven riot police officers in a row that he is on a mercy mission. It starts at the first road block as a flooding emergency, but by the seventh the entire building is in danger of fire, collapse, acts of God and total destruction involving massive loss of life for which he tells the aforementioned police officers they will be found personally responsible if they do not let him pass. It works. he gets through, arrives, fixes the leak, asks if we want a special 'pressure regulator' added to the pipe to stop future crises - of course we do. Then he presents us with a bill for over 1000 euros ( £785). As I gasp like a landed fish over the size of the cheque the Frenchman is writing from the joint account, the friends we were dining with last night phone to find out if we are waving or drowing. "That plumber saw you coming," they say. I decide not to tell Monsieur Mustapha when he returns. I think of the conversation between Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) after Sam had played it again in Casablanca.

Ilsa: A franc for your thoughts

Rick: In America they'd bring only a penny, and, huh, I guess that's about all they're worth.

Ilsa: Well, I'm willing to be overcharged. Tell me.

Da da de da da dum, da da de da da dum...(piano music fades)

Water, water everywhere (Part 159)

The Frenchman and I went out for dinner with friends leaving La Fille with her regular babysitter. It was the first time we had done this in a long while, almost as long as it had taken to organise. It was such an event our friends opened a bottle of champagne before we went to the restaurant.

We were just finishing the starter when my mobile phone rang. It was our Portuguese concierge who said a pipe had burst in our kitchen and was flooding her out. She sounded as if she had or was about to burst into tears.

The Frenchman and I groaned in unison. This happens so often chez nous I am surprised we are still surprised. The Frenchman jumped up from the table and set off for home, a good 15 minute walk away. As soon as he disappeared I knew I should have gone instead or as well. The Frenchman has many qualities but a knowledge of, or indeed interest in, the way anything physically functions is not one of them. In short, he would not know a stopcock if it was red and had 'stopcock' written on it (which in this case it is and has). I said this to our friends, who knew the Frenchman before I did. They nodded sympathetically. I waited 20 minutes and called him. "We've turned off the supply to the whole building, but the water is still coming. It seems as if the upriser for all seven floors is emptying back into the cupboard under the kitchen sink," he said. My comment about the stopcock had been unfair. This was, it transpired, spot on. The water was coursing back down main water pipe that supplies the entire building out into our kitchen through the floor, giving our neighbours downstairs an unexpected shower, before drenching the ground floor cupboard the concierge calls home. "Have you called the plumber?" I asked. We have a fabulous plumber called Monsieur Mustapha who often bails us out of water disasters. "No. Have you got his number?". I gave up, apologised for abandoning our friends and left the restaurant taking up the waiter's offer of the Frenchman's main course in a plastic container.

When I arrived, the concierge's normally affectionate little dog scampered out from underneath the damp sofa where he had been hiding and yapped at me. Even he thinks it is my fault, I thought. Upstairs I found the babysitter, the concierge and the Frenchman peering into the cupboard under our sink. Someone, the concierge I suspect, had ingeniously wedged the dustbin lid under the broken pipe to catch the water. I replaced it with a plastic bucket. The Frenchman called the plumber and launched into a long explanation. "For goodness sake; just ask when he can get here," I said. He put the phone down. "He can't come. He's in Casablanca." When something similar happened last year it was also a Friday night and Monsieur Mustapha was in Morocco then. Perhaps our old pipes are in on his travel plans and do it on purpose.

Friday, 28 March 2008

A Sense of the Ridiculous

The question of how and why you rarely, nay never, see a French person struggling down a ski slope has been bothering me.

I ask La Belle Belle-Fille, who is a prime example; as elegant and beautiful on the piste as she is off it; think raven-haired Grace Kelly on skis. Irritatingly, she does it - including black runs - without any apparent effort or single drop of sweat. She says: "In France, you either learned to ski when you were young or you didn't. Those who did, ski. Those who didn't, don't." Blindingly obvious really.

It is not a cliché but a cultural truism that the French have a horror of being or appearing ridiculous. To be "ridicule" is about the worst thing you can say of someone; worse than insulting their mother. It is, again not a cliché, one of the reasons why many French people who can speak English well pretend they are unable to utter a word. Well is not good enough; unless they can do it perfectly they fear attracting ridicule and would prefer to remain silent, silence being, in this case, less "ridiculous" than making a mistake or having an accent. I once suggested to La Belle Belle-Fille, then studying English, that it might be a good idea if we spoke English for ten minutes at the dinner table once or twice a week. Once or twice a week there were ten minutes of pin-dropping silence. I swear, she uttered not a single word. I knew her written English was almost faultless and challenged her reluctance to speak it. "You cannot pass notes when you are in London," I admonished. She admitted finally she was afraid if she spoke English people would find her "ridiculous". I said: "Listen. You are tall, thin, young, very beautiful, elegant and you speak English with a French accent. "Believe me; the last thing anyone, especially young English men, will be thinking when you open your mouth is 'ridiculous'."

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

A Long Way to Fall

I was having a chuckle over a story about Saga Louts in one of the British newspapers and, wouldn't you know it, there they were, up the Alps in force, bawling their heads off at 2am. At first they seemed quite far away and, unable to put any detail to the noise, I prayed they were German, but no. As it got nearer the bawling took on the mangled strains of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot". I curled into a ball and tried to block out the racket. The trouble is ski resorts are, by virtue of being ski resorts, high up in mountains. As a result sounds ricochet off the slopes and amplify through the silent valleys, especially at night. I vowed not to speak any English to La Fille at breakfast and hoped everyone else in the hotel would think I was American, Canadian or even Australian.

At the same time, it struck me that getting wasted in an Alpine village is a pretty risky pastime. They are the potentially lethal combination of mountainous and slippery even for the stone-cold sober in broad daylight. Fall down drunk at night and there is a good chance it will be into something considerably deeper, colder and more difficult to climb out of than a ditch. I noticed on one of my many stops down the perilous red run, that a few chalets backed directly onto the piste; not a good place to be after a glass of après ski or ten. Believe me, it was hard enough getting down on skis. The picture postcard views were deceptive. Sides of roads and paths appeared pretty and benign enough until you realised that what looked like dwarf trees poking through the snow were in fact just the tops of massive firs.

Then there is the morning after. All that dazzling whiteness and brightness on post-party eyeballs; attempting to use a button lift, instruments of torture at the best of times, while unable to coordinate brain and limbs and skiing - swish turn, swish turn, swish turn - with a queasy tummy. It made me feel ill just thinking about it.

For a brief moment at 2.30am I found myself hoping the noisy swing-low-sweet-charioteers would indeed fall into a ravine or crevasse or down a piste never to be heard of or from again. I told myself off for wishing such a fate on anyone. Instead I hoped they would wake with rotten, head-splitting hangovers to the sound of a dozen snowploughs and a parade of plastic-booted skiers clomping past their door shouting a cheerie "Bonjour".

Monday, 24 March 2008

Snow Bear

La Fille took to skiing like a roasted duck to orange sauce. We stuck her on skis for a little shuffle around before enrolling her at the French ski school in case she hated it and threw a wobbly but we need not have worried. She loved it.

I am always amazed at the apparent ease with which French parents leave their children with complete strangers without a second thought, but we did it anyway. There was no checking the school out, making sure we liked the place and staff, or that La Fille liked them. We arrived with her and her kit, paid up and left her in the care of a group of men and women with crevassed faces wearing red ski suits. My stomach did a couple of turns and half hitches walking back to the hotel. "What if she hates it?" I asked the Frenchman with genuine anguish. "What if she hates them?" I said, nodding to the red-suits. As the other parents clomped off in a hurry to the mountain lifts, I dragged my plastic-booted heels in the hope of spying on La Fille to make sure she was OK. Then we spotted her; white helmet (the only one that fit), pink goggles (her choice), yellow boots (you do not get a choice when you hire) and slightly too small sky blue padded jacket (borrowed). My heart almost stopped as I watched her shuffle to the top of the baby piste and set off in the instructed position - hands on knees, bottom out, head up - all by herself. When did my little baby learn to ski and be so independent, I thought all choked up.

I stuck my mobile phone in jacket pocket where I was sure to feel it vibrate. I had told the woman who enrolled La Fille that she had never been on skis before and asked her to ring me if there was the slightest problem or the very merest indication she was not happy. She entered the mobile number in the computer but looked at me as if to say: "Don't be ridiculous; you will be up a mountain."

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Why am I doing this?

I launch myself into the abyss; what else can I do? I try to head for the side of the piste that does not appear to end in a hundred foot drop. The Frenchman has gone the other way. He says: "Follow me". Why would I do that?
Let me tell you, a terrifyingly steep, icy red piste is not a place for a nervous skier to be on their first morning of the holiday, nor a place to hone your technique. I decide not to look down the slope, but concentrate on going across it, though this does involve veering towards the hundred foot drop every other turn. I would be thinking: "Why did I think a skiing holiday was a good idea?", except that I can only do this when I stop as I am unable to concentrate on getting down the mountain without breaking my neck and thinking about anything else at the same time. Believe me, if I had some gum I would not be able to chew it and ski at the same time.

At some point on the way down, I lose the Frenchman. I stop and when a French family stops at the same spot I say: "Excuse me, I don't suppose there are any green or blue runs around here." Fear has robbed me of any pride or sense of embarrassment. The father laughs and points at red batons as far as the eye can see. "Take it slowly," he says. "You can follow us if you like." He and his wife swish off followed by their two young children, all perfectly balanced and all perfectly at ease on their skis. Why is it the only people I see struggling down the slope are British - from what I can hear? Do the French have some secret place they learn to ski so nobody can see them making fools of themselves?

It takes a while, a huge amount of effort and a lot of merdes, but I make it to the bottom. It was not an elegant performance and not a pretty sight. As I look up I notice the left half the slope I have just skied is fenced off. A red sign says: "Piste de Competition". It looks much the same as the right half. The Frenchman is waiting for me by the lift. "See, I knew you could do it,' he says. "But try and be a bit more relaxed and go with the flow instead of stopping every five minutes." He turns towards the lift. "Come on," he says.

I say: "You are definitely trying to kill me."

Friday, 21 March 2008

What am I doing here?

I have a nightmare: I am standing at the top of a mountain staring into the abyss. The only way off this mountain is on skis down a terrifyingly steep, icy slope. I look around. Every direction down this terrifyingly steep, icy slope involves a red piste (one step short of a breakneck black run, the most difficult). I have not been on skis for four years and only about half a dozen times in my entire life. I have forgotten every single thing every single ski instructor ever told me. I am rigid, not with the cold though it is several degrees below zero, but with utter fear. There are French people on skis and snowboards closing in on me, silently urging me to get on with it and wondering what I am doing at the top of this steep, icy slope, which clearly holds no terror for them, if I cannot get down it. The Frenchman says: "Come on, it's not as difficult as it looks" and launches himself over the precipice. I want to scream.

I wake up.

I am standing at the top of a big snowy mountain staring into the abyss...

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Sloping Off

I had to scream, shout, swear - in English and in French - and slam a few doors in the Frenchman's face, but we are finally going on holiday. This, believe me, is a result.

The Great Vacances Saga started last July when we decided we would not take the whole of August off like almost everyone else in France, precisely because almost everyone else was doing so and the prices are crazy. Instead, we decided we would go away in September when nobody else would be on holiday because they had all gone back to work and school. So we ended up Family-No-Mates spending August in Paris alone. Then September came and the Frenchman said: "But it's La Rentrée and everyone is going back to work. I can't possibly take time off. We'll go in October." Then October came and he needed dental treatment that dragged on into November. Then it was Christmas followed by the February school holidays and before you could utter: "Show me sunshine or I'm going to bite your head off", it was March and I was biting heads off. I had asked the Frenchman numerous times after the New Year about booking something but each time he said: "Oh, I left my diary in the office". His best friend's wife asked why we never went on holiday. They have managed a trip to America, visits to Malta and Belgium, several stays in Normandy and have just booked another fortnight in the States and four weeks in the south of France this summer in the time we have dithered and gone nowhere. "Why doesn't he want to go away? she asked. I had never looked at it like that; I had blamed laziness rather than a positive decision not to make a decision. But after she said this I was ready to believe anything, including that he had a secret girlfriend demanding his attention in Paris. When I suggested this loudly late one evening, the diary came home the next day. I am not sure what this proves, but I got a date. Unfortunately that date was roughly five days ago, giving me less than a week to arrange something. The days ticked away and I spent fruitless hours on the internet trying to find a holiday that did not involve dragging La Fille to the airport at 5am and taking out another mortgage to pay for it. It was at this point the Frenchman suggested going to Brittany. Cue more shouting, screaming, swearing and slamming doors. "I live in France, I have spent the last three summers in France. It was cold, wet and miserable. What makes you think I want another holiday in France?" I raged. I stomped out and he went off to work, leaving a note saying "not everything is always entirely my fault". It went to the wire; he was on the point of postponing his week off for another month when, in absolute desperation, I found something.

We are going skiing, which, incidentally, is what I wanted to do in the first place (the Frenchman had ruled it out because La Fille was too young). I have checked out the ski school/nursery and it looks good. We will leave it to them to teach La Fille to snow-plough and will stick to pulling her around on a sledge. We are all very excited, though I keep catching sideways glances from the Frenchman. He knows, the shouting, screaming and swearing are not all over just yet. Some time on the first morning he will take me up a baby slope that to me, at first glance, looks Olympic standard neck-breakingly steep. I will accuse him of trying to kill me and with a childish mix of fear and fury will take off my skis and stomp down in a huff (unfortunately, this is actually harder than skiing down). A couple of hours later I will have gained confidence and be tackling the same slope with ease. The Frenchman knows this will happen and takes it all with remarkable Gallic stoicism.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Falling Down Water

I went to the memorial service of a dear friend who died suddenly aged just 54. After the church ceremony, which several of us blubbed through even though it was supposed to be a celebration (not a good look when you have been asked to do a reading and are wearing non-waterproof mascara), we piled into various Fleet Street watering holes as we had done in a previous life, and drank. Goodness, I had forgotten how out of practice I am with the liquid lunch, a concept that does not exist in France. Had anyone noticed me clinging to my half-full second glass of wine, refusing refills as if my ability to stand depended on it - as it did - they would have thought I had gone soft, which I clearly have as far as alcohol sloshing around an empty stomach is concerned. Thankfully nobody noticed. There were moments when I longed wimpishly for a sandwich, or even a bowl of peanuts, but none appeared.

Given the bottles of wine I consumed in this aformentioned previous life, I have nothing to say about Britain's so-called 'binge-drinking' culture, which seems to be causing great concern among the chattering classes. If inbibing so much alcohol that one is in danger of falling over or being sick is what 'binge-drinking' means, it is nothing new. Ask any journalist who worked on national newspapers 20 years ago. Today, everyone has a laugh over what they got up to; one dear friend and former colleague returning from a liquid lunch uprooted a temporary bus stop to the astonishment of those standing at it, hauled it into his newspaper building and up to the newsdesk. In the process he stoved in part of a spanking new car parked in the reception as a promotion. The first ever Ford Mondeo, I believe. We giggle now, and the best drunks were certainly imaginative in their naughtiness, but I bet our elders thought we were just as loutish as today's bingers.

Do the French drink as much? I suspect they do, but there are at least two major differences in their attitude towards alcohol: few French, even youngsters, would dream of going out with the express intention of getting drunk (neither did we; it was an unfortunate side-effect of being sociable) and, the French rarely drink alcohol without eating. They can, and will, consume litres, gallons, pints (measure it as you will) of wine in a single lunchtime or evening (it is usually wine but it can be beer or cider depending on the region). They may start with a whisky aperitif, follow with wine and finish with a calvados or vieille prune as a digestif; I have even seen hunters gather for a very well-oiled breakfast - the local firewater downed with huge chunks of bread, cold meats, cheeses - before setting off shamelessly with loaded guns to terrify some poor defenceless birds. I have been with plenty of French people who given the quantity of drink they have knocked back must certainly be 'drunk', but do not appear to be, though whether they are as capable of driving as they think is another matter. While drinking the French will nearly always be eating or have eaten; not necessarily a 15-course meal, sometimes just a baguette with a slice of brie or a tartine (open sandwich). In other words something we would consider 'solid' as opposed to 'liquid' (though ripe brie might stretch the definition). Even at home if we open a bottle of wine for as an 'aperitif' before going out for dinner, the Frenchman will be rummaging around in the cupboard for the bag of moth infested pistachios I chucked in the dustbin weeks ago.

I have no idea if this is better for the liver in the long run. Perhaps it just pickles it more gently.

Friday, 14 March 2008

French Chemistry

In London they say you are never far from a rat. In Paris you are almost certainly the same short distance from a rodent as you are from a pharmacy. And from any single pharmacy you can probably see two or three others, their large neon green crosses winking at you seductively from all angles.

French pharmacies sell prescription and non-prescription medicines along with herbs and homeopathy and a curious array of unproven products that would fit neatly into a charlatan's briefcase: pills to give you a tan, pills to make you slim, pills to rid you of cellulite, pills to cure baldness, miracle face creams, to name but a few. French pharmacies are usually arranged so you have to ask for what you want. You cannot pick a product off the shelf, as in Boots or Superdrug in Britain, you have to say: "I would like something to cure the boil on the back of my neck", or "I need something for the pain in my wherever." Of course you can guarantee as you ask this there are at least a dozen other people behind you in the pharmacy and the girl behind the counter goes: "Quoi?" so you have to raise your voice. In the end the whole street, because you can also guarantee all your neighbours are there too, is looking at the back of your neck or knows you are going home to stick something up your bottom because she has also waved a huge box of suppositories in the air as if she has just produced them from a hat and expects applause.

French people are generally on good terms with their local pharmacist. They are like the old family GP. You go tell them your symptoms and they recommend something. If it needs a prescription they will point you to the nearest doctor. Sometimes, if they know you and you are a good customer, they will give you the drug without a prescription on the basis that you will produce it later. I am on good terms with my local pharmacist, even though once when he should have given me a darning-size needle for an injection I had to give myself, he popped one the size of a crochet hook into the bag. When I returned in a panic he at first insisted it was the right size then said in any case he had no others so I had no choice.

Now French pharmacists are protesting because the government plans to let them stock common over-the-counter medicines in the shop as opposed to behind the counter. Note, there are no plans to allow supermarkets or petrol stations to sell cough medicine as they can in the UK, but just let the chemist shops put these and other products on their shelves. The change, which is pretty feeble by most people's reckoning, is considered radical by French pharmacists. It is aimed at opening certain everyday medicines up to competition to force prices down. In announcing the measure, France's health secretary actually used the words "a significant reduction in retail prices" - in French - prompting the pharmacists to take out full page ads in the national press. Apparently they are concerned the general public is far too stupid to know whether to self-medicate even paracetamol or ibuprofin or aspirin and as we will not know what to take, when or how much even though it is written the the box, they say the government's proposals are a threat to our health. I don't think we are that stupid. We know what it means when a group of people in the business of selling something starts being overly concerned about us, the buyer. It usually means they are more concerned about themselves.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Tea Party (Part Two)

Phew! La Fille's cross-Channel birthday bonanza is over. The Paris party was smaller than the London one - it was the school holidays and most of her friends were away - but still fun. The pinata was a huge success as is, I imagine, any game that lets toddlers loose with a wooden stick and permission to hit something.

There was a brief moment when I felt like snatching the stick and whacking one of the French mums when I overheard her being sniffy about my home-made Pink Milk Flans (thank you Charlie & Lola). She said: "How very English." I said to her: "There's jelly later." The French just don't get jelly. They don't get Pass the Parcel or Musical Statues either, I discovered. So I had my revenge and made them join in jigging to The Grand Old Duke of York: how very English.

I knew La Fille had been watching too much Charlie & Lola when she started dancing around the cake singing: "Lucky, LUCKY me. Lucky, LUCKY me." She was indeed very lucky and ended up having two and a half parties as I took a chocolate cake into the nursery on her actual birthday and they went through the whole Joyeuse Anniversaire routine again. I told La Fille she was like the Queen, having two celebrations; one actual birthday and one state birthday. I thought: "She has no idea what I am talking about." But she ran into her sister's room, grabbed a plastic tiara-style hair clip La Belle Belle-Fille keeps next to the silver stetson (don't ask) stuck it on her head and charged around singing "Look, look. Lucky, lucky me." So much for her being a child of La Republique.

As she left party the French mum who had turned her nose up at my 'English' food asked: "Can I take one of these?" She was brandishing a Pink Milk Flan. How very French, I thought.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

School for thought

I am so glad I am not sending La Fille to school in London. I would not mind at all living in London, but when it comes to education I do not think I could bear the stress; the middle class preoccupation of studying Ofsted lists, ranks and reports, worrying about where catchment areas begin and end and dragging La Fille to church on Sunday mornings. I can sense the competition even among the pram pushers in the local park. It makes me weary just thinking about it.

Walking past a preparatory school in central London recently I felt homesick at the sight of pupils charging about the playground in their smart uniforms. The boys were in caps and the girls had boaters. Straw boaters with ribbons! I would die to see La Fille in a ribboned boater but French schools do not do uniforms. Then I shuddered. If I lived in London I would be beating myself up about whether I should, could, would send La Fille to a private school . Would it give her a head start or just make her think that everyone's Mum has a 4 x 4? Could we even borrow enough for the swooning fees (probably not)? One friend who sent her now grown-up children to private schools says there were months when she wondered if they would have enough money to eat. Other friends moving back to the UK from abroad are congratulating themselves on having got their children into a private school charging what they consider bargain basement fees of £3,300 a term not including uniforms, lunch and extra-curricular activities. Another friend worked out that if he sent all three of his children to private schools it would cost between £75,000 and £90,000 a year. Net.

In France, I was relieved to read, only the thick go to private schools. I do not know if it is true, but it is generally acknowledged that state education is best, on the whole. There are still frustrations. We registered La Fille at our local mairie (town hall) for 'maternelle' or nursery school starting in September. School is not compulsory before the age of five but there is something like a 98 % take up for the free state-run maternelles for three-year-olds. Anyone who does not enrol their child is considered a bit weird. As an English mother I am already considered weird so I have less room for manoeuvre. As with most brushes with French administration, registering was not as simple as it sounded. We assumed La Fille would be assigned to the nursery school just around the corner. Instead, apparently we come under the catchment area of another school further away. When we challenged this we were told it was the same distance. It is, as the crow flies. But as neither we nor La Fille had grown wings the last time I checked, it is further away. If we want to change we must apply for a "derogation". This involves making an appointment to see the head of the school La Fille has been assigned but that we do not want her to attend to ask her for permission to apply to the nearer school. Great, bet the heads love that.

I have just learned that friends of friends are moving to France for the sole reason that they want their children can be educated there. Good luck to them. I am not an unconditional fan of the French education system. From what I have deduced from the experiences of my very clever and beautiful stepdaughter (La Belle Belle-Fille) it is tough and demanding but also unimaginative and formulaic (my conclusion not hers). I have the impression it is the kind of rigid learning by rote popular in the UK in the 1950s. It does not encourage original thinking or sports, arts or music, but concentrates largely on maths and science. The three main Baccalaureats - in science, economics or literature - are supposed to carry equal weight but in reality are rated in that order; a Bac Science being considered much more prestigious than a Bac Literature. I was horrified to learn that although La Belle Belle-Fille was doing a top notch Bac S and studying English as a first language (German, second) she did not need to learn how to speak it. She told me there was no point me forcing her do so over dinner because there is no oral in the Bac. I said: "Great. So when you go to London you're going to pass notes to everyone instead of opening your mouth." I was doubly horrified when she said bilingual classmates were marked down because they were considered to have an "unfair advantage" over the others. This is very French but not very logical. Surely, you are either good at a subject or not?

My first reaction was: "This would not happen in the UK. Imagine Stephen Hawking's children being marked down in science because their dad wrote 'A Short History of Time' and has a brain the size of a planet." Then I pick up the papers and learn they are doing away with oral tests in GCSE exams. I take it all back. It would happen in the UK. It is happening.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Tea Party

La Fille's London party went really well. Then again, it turned out to be less of a children's party and more of a grown-up's gathering. I invited all my friends with children who I had not seen for ages and we had a lot of fun catching up and let the offspring get on with whatever they wanted to get on with, while keeping a watchful eye that whatever it was they were getting on with was not life threatening. Having reassured ourselves that even after consuming large quantities of chocolate cake, biscuits and crisps they were not killing themselves or each other in an e-number frenzy but had, in fact, discovered the DVD player, worked out how to operate it and were watching Pingu, we adults set about drinking.

Well, it was technically drinking but not as we used to know it. While some of us set upon the red vino like thirsty nomads on an oasis, I noticed that several friends had boiled the kettle and had even found an elderly teapot in the forgotten corner of a kitchen cupboard in which they had brewed tea (as opposed to my normal teabag in a cup). It was noted by a number of guests that never, in the history of parties thrown by me over many years, had so little alcohol been drunk by so many.

In London, I am almost ashamed to admit that by 7.30pm everyone had gone home.

I am not expecting the same thing to happen at the Paris party next Sunday. In my limited experience of children's parties in France - mostly observation of someone else's - adult guests will arrive, say it is far too early for them to drink alcohol then set about quaffing anything, red, white, rosé or bubbly offered to them. Any suggestion of a cup of tea will be greeting with guffawing and side-clutching mirth, especially by French guests. As the afternoon progresses, ex-pat English parents will start fussing over their children's behaviour, American parents will try, unsuccessfully, to stop their youngsters eating anything sweet or chocolate-covered and French parents - thankfully - will not notice what their children are doing or eating.

The last time we threw a party for La Fille in Paris, several guests were still there at 9pm and were invited to share our Sunday chicken dinner for two.