Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Pots and Kettles

We had some French friends staying and there was a suggestion we all go out for dinner. I suggested I cook. I am never sure how the Frenchman's friends react, in private, to the news that I shall be producing dinner, but I can imagine the apprehensive conversations:

"I hear she's cooking dinner?"
"But she's English?"
"Wouldn't it be better to eat out?"
"Hmmm, probably but it's too late now."

So they arrive filled with trepidation, expecting boiled lamb and soggy potatoes (half of France still think this is this is our national dish). They leave, hopefully replete with reasonable wine, good food and pleasant surprise as well as disabused of one small cross-Channel stereotype. Or not.

This time, I did a 'Roti de Porc' in the cocotte. It is a lazy - and pretty foolproof - way of producing a delicious meal involving slow cooking meat in a large and heavy cast iron pan with a large and heavy lid. My mother-in-law very thoughtfully gave us one of these a couple of Christmases ago. It weighs a ton. Shortly afterwards I dropped it. The Frenchman seemed less concerned that it nearly took off a couple of toes than that it lost a chunk of enamel. I told him "enamel we can replace. My toes we can't" but he fussed about the cocotte in a way he did not fuss about my feet. The brand name of the pot is a Doufeu (Doux = gentle, Feu = fire/heat) and that is the principle; you put the meat, vegetables, potatoes in the pot with a very little water, slam on the heavy lid, put ice cubes (or in my case cold water) in the lip of the lid and set it on a gentle heat on the cooker for several hours. The whole thing becomes the culinary equivalent of a self-supporting eco-system though hopefully without the single cell amoeba: the kind of moisture cycle involving evaporation, precipitation, condensation, clouds, plateaus and mountains I vaguely remember from school geography lessons centuries ago. It leaves the cook free to chat to guests and escape the slavery of the steaming stove. Perhaps the slang word 'Doofer' used for something you cannot remember the exact name of, stems from this cooking pot.

So far, it has always turned out a fabulous meal with very little effort on my part and this weekend was no exception. While it simmered away on its own, I was able to spend time with our friends instead of slaving over a hot stove. The big chip in the red enamel made no difference to its efficacy, as I was at pains to point out to the Frenchman. In the early hours of the morning our guests left with congratulations and compliments to the chef - me. I am not sure if I was imagining silent sighs of relief and surprise from those I had never previously cooked for but I could imagine the nub of a subsequent conversation: "Not bad for an Anglaise, but it was a French pot."

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Clash of Civilisations

Restaurant etiquette is one of the biggest Anglo-French cultural divides. In my experience, Rule Number 1 in London is: The Customer May be an Awkward So-and-So but is Paying so Give Them What They Want while Rule Number One in Paris has to be: Just Order What is on The Menu.

The flipside of British Rule Number One is that customers can get away with being difficult. They can say: "May I have the Anchovy Pizza without the anchovies?" or "Would it be possible to have a salad without any green stuff?" and the restaurant (unless it is Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White who may well tell you where to get off) will do its best to produce what has been requested. So it comes as a shock to British diners, clutching wads of euros or waving credit cards, that in Paris restaurants they are handed La Carte and all but told to take it or leave it. Even if it would be theoretically possible for the chef not to put a raw egg on top of the pizza that comes with a raw egg on top or to replace the French beans with French fries or visa versa, they are disinclined to do so. La Carte has been carved in stone and could have been produced by Moses.

This is not as unreasonable as it sounds, given that most French restaurants and bistros are chronically under-staffed. I try to head off potential problems by explaining this to visitors before we sit down to eat. Sometimes my advice falls on deaf ears. Once a visiting relative ordered two fried eggs. I looked at the menu. No fried eggs. She reckoned that a restaurant that could rustle up an omelette clearly had a) eggs and b) a frying pan. The waiter looked at her as if she was green and had beamed in from faraway planet. She said: "What's the problem? They have eggs why can't they just fry them?" I said: "It's not that they can't do it. It's that they won't." She said: "But I'll pay." I said: "He doesn't care. He won't do it."

As both waiter and customer stared at each other with utter incomprehension I felt I was witnessing a minor clash of civilisations.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Fare's Fair

I had to renew La Fille's railcard. It's called Enfant Plus and enables her to travel for free on the French rail network (sadly not the Eurostar) and gives up to four other people travelling with her reductions of between 25% and 50% of the price of their tickets. We bought her first one three years ago just after she was born to take her to her grandmother's in Normandy. It made me chuckle every time we used it recently because they kept renewing it with the same picture and, as with her passport, she now looks nothing like the pastel-cheeked month- old baby in the photo. "Smile at the immigration officer," I always instruct La Fille trying, usually in vain, to raise a smile. They must go on special courses these days to spot people whose photos have been airbrushed out of recognition. A few years ago I was once caught out by an eagle-eyed official at the British Embassy in Paris trying to renew my passport with a decade old photograph. Strangely, it was not because I looked older that I was rumbled (well that's what I told myself) but because the old passport picture and the new one were from a favourite set and she noticed I had the same shirt on in both. Then she peered at me, handed the paperwork back and suggested I go to the photo booth round the corner. Quite apart from the humiliation of having my vanity exposed, it was a bad hair and spots day but I had no choice as we were going on holiday 48 hours later.

Anyway, I knew the price of the Enfant Plus card would have gone up and it had. From 68 to 69 euros: one princely euro - at current exchange rates 78p. As an extra bonus, the young man at the SNCF ticket office who renewed the pass, Diego according to his name badge, was friendly, helpful, efficient and even smiled. "What a lovely surprise," I said aloud. He thought I meant the one euro price increase.

Friday, 25 April 2008

"Just one more thing..."

La Fille's shoes went missing at the nursery. Luckily it was a rare day when we had used the buggy otherwise she would have been forced to do the dog-poo slalem in slippers. Unfortunately, wouldn't you know, it was a rare day when she really, really, really wanted to go to the park on the way home. (Normally I'd have to drag her there because it is the opposite direction to the bakers). Annoyingly the shoes were new ones bought in London not because I think British shoes are superior but because I have yet to find a shoe shop in France that measures childrens' feet thoroughly or stocks toddlers' shoes in different width sizes. Even those famous old-fashioned lace-up ones in leather so stiff they are outgrown before it gives can be bought off the shelf without a proper fitting. Much as that surprises me, it does not surprise the French mothers I know and as their children do not appear to be sprouting bunions or walking on their hands perhaps it's not that important.

The nursery staff did not seem too bothered about the missing shoes. "Oh, It happens all the time," said the deputy head. "It'll be a new nanny who's made a mistake. You should have put a name in them." I asked: "Are we likely to see them again?" She said: "I hope so", which was not very reassuring. One French friend cheered me up by telling me she had once had her shopping pinched from under the pushchair at her son's creche. She was more cynical. "I bet someone took a liking to them," she said.

After the second day when they had not turned up I began to think my cynical friend might be right but was not entirely convinced the nursery was on the case. "How can we possibly know who might have taken them," said one of the childminders. "Easy," I said. "There were only three or four other girls present that morning and whoever it was had big feet (La Fille is a size 8) and left behind a pair of green suede boots. I wager that narrows it down to a couple of phone calls. Find the owner of the green suede boots and we find who took La Fille's shoes." As we left I had a thought: had anyone checked if there was a name in the boots? It was more Clouseau than Columbo but the following morning La Fille's nearly-new Clarks were back in her bag.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Is that corned beef you're carrying...?

Being something of a news junkie, I read nearly all the British and French papers and quite a few of the news magazines too.

Often I have only enough time to read the first few paragraphs of any article, but for some reason I stuck with the tribute to heroic Battle of Britain veteran Wing Commander Paddy Barthropp, "Spitfire pilot, PoW and bon vivant who tried the patience of his superiors", in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. Thankfully. I say that because had I not read his obituary in full I would have missed the following paragraph. Tucked away about three quarters of the way down, it described Wing Co Barthropp's successful seduction technique after he was liberated from the Gestapo at the end of the Second World War.

"On January 28 1945 the prisoners were herded from their camp and marched westwards during the intensely cold winter. They eventually reached Lubeck, where they were liberated in May. Barthropp managed to acquire a Mercedes fire engine and he and a friend drove it to Brussels via Hamburg, where they met two ladies who were happy to spend the night with them in return for a tin of corned beef."

A tin of corned beef? Happy? I humbly suggest there are two words missing from the account of this laddish jape. Those words are: "he claimed". Am I the only one curious to know the ladies' side of this story?

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Taken for a Ride

I thought London sales were bad enough. That was before I experienced the fray at a children's merry-go-round in Paris. I took La Fille to Buttes Chaumont, one of the city's larger parks and one which, if you are lucky, you might be allowed to walk and sit on the grass. If you are unlucky there will be signs saying the lush and verdant lawns are 'resting' (as they seem to be in many Paris parks for most of the year); like they need it more than the rest of us. At least Buttes Chaumont has grass, which is not always a given in Paris' parks.

I should have known it would be crowded on a mild April afternoon, but I had forgotten it was still the school holidays here so it was heaving. In the scheme of merry-go-rounds the one at Buttes Chaumont is pretty basic. No large gaudily-painted undulating horses or rolling carriages; just a dozen or so somewhat sad features not all of which even move, except to go round of course. Even so, when it stopped the elbows came out as parents charged forward splaying children in their wake to secure their offspring a place. It was horrible. Still, more civilised than park's previous use as the site for gallows where criminals met their end or its subsequent reincarnation as a city waste dump.

The park, which incidentally has swings that cost 1,50 euros - about £1.20 - for a five minute go, is also the only place I have actually seen a proper queue that nobody dares jump. It is for the pony rides. In my experience adults tend to mutter and grumble but let it pass if someone pushes in front of them in a queue. I once heard a very polite and elegant French woman point out to a middle-aged well-dressed British man and has two grown up sons that the end of the queue for the Eurostar was in fact some way back from where they had sneakily pushed in. The man replied: "I know." and stood where he was. His sons looked smug. You could not get away with that with kids waiting for a pony ride. You can be as smug and well-dressed as you like; there would be a mini riot.

Monday, 21 April 2008

No Smoke

Just before he left Paris after six days of the 'French Experience' that included going up the Eiffel Tower, a trip on the Seine, dinner with Mickey at Disneyland and a lot of traipsing about, Eldest Boy delivered his verdict on France's capital.

a) Mad drivers
b) Lots of cigarettes
c) Even more chemists

A propos the last, he asked me why there are so many pharmacies. Since I am not about to let an 11-year-old think I do not know everything, I said: "Because the French are hypochondriacs." (I know it is a generalisation, but it is also reasonably true given the amount of mood-altering drugs they take.) He looked pensive. As I said before he is a thoughtful boy. He asked: "But why does having so many chemists make them feel better?" Then he added: "Perhaps they should just stop smoking."

So young and yet so wise.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Out of the Mouths...

Stereotype has it that French women put a lot more effort into attracting and keeping their men than do we British (as La Frog says: "You Ingleesh girls, you are sooo aggressiive."). Stereotype also has it that French men are a naughty, unfaithful bunch; the latter stereotype explaining the former. If true I'm in deep doo-doo as a Briton married to a Frenchman, but it would explain a lot about French 'feminism'.

I have no idea if these things are innate or acquired, down to nature or nuture, but even at her tender age La Fille has been demonstrating, how should I put it?... an original approach to the opposite sex. She has been spoiled for attention by my friends' boys over the last few days. She adores all three of them, but this time took a special shine to the middle one; a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed eight-year-old chap with freckles. Early the other morning when all four children were huddled under a duvet on the sofa watching a DVD, I saw Middle Boy tuck his head on to La Fille's shoulder while she stroked his flaxen hair. They have been walking the streets with us hand-in-hand drawing Aaahs and smiles from stony-faced passers-by. We have have been fortunate with the weather, but these two were our very own little sunbeams.

Then Middle Boy abandoned La Fille to set about wheedling an ice-cream out of his father. La Fille called after him; loud, increasingly plaintiff wails, drawing the last syllable of his name out with all the agony of a mini Juliette. But he would not come back. I whispered to her: "Let him go". I said to him: "She's not used to being dumped". It made no difference; he was on a mission and besides he and I knew it was not entirely true. He dumped her at the Science Museum too.

La Fille changed tack. She marched right up to him, pulled him round to face her and screamed: "HOLD MY HAND." The panic-stricken lad looked at his mother then, realising he was on his own, stuck out his arm as instructed. I wonder if it would work for me.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Drive me mad

My best friends from London have been visiting with their three boys. Walking around Paris the children's expressions became increasingly wide-eyed at the invasion of pavements by motorbikes, scooters and cycles. One scooter speeding up the pavement headed directly for us, all but thumbing his nose as we jumped to one side and he whizzed by. I am so used to this I hardly noticed but Eldest Boy was genuinely perplexed. He said: "But really...why doesn't anyone stop them?" I said: "Do you see a police officer anywhere around?" Then he asked why there are no cameras to catch them. I explained that in France cameras are controversial; considered an infringement of individual liberty and rights. He thought for a second; he is a thoughtful, intelligent boy. He said: "So....that means someone has the right to jump a red light, kill you and because there is no evidence you couldn't prove it?" I said: "Yes, that's about it." He concluded: "But that's crazy."

The boys' father succumbed to pedestrian rage within hours of being here. He whacked a car whose driver, holding a mobile phone to his ear, not only failed to stop when we were on a crossing on a green pedestrian light but even took his other hand off the steering wheel to flick an obscene gesture as he aimed the car to cut a swathe between my friend and two of the boys and the rest of us including La Fille and Youngest Boy. "Did you see that moron?" said my friend (though he might have actually said something ruder).

He was right to be furious. I am all the time. I said: "You should live here. It drives you mad."

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Children of the Revolution

The staff at La Fille's nursery are on strike. This is the fourth or fifth time this year. I have no idea why; there is nothing in the news. I am still cringing over the raisins-sans-condoms incident so I am ashamed to say I could not bring myself to ask.

I took La Fille to the Pompidou Centre hoping to catch one of its children's workshops or something interesting in the Children's Gallery. I came away feeling decidedly lowbrow: it was far too clever-clever for me.

The current exhibition in the Children's Gallery consists of four rooms: the first invites children to build something out of small bits of material - wood, pipe, plastic - then to see it in another perspective by looking at it through a lens against a backdrop of photographs of grim urban landscapes; the second instructs them to put a variety of plastic objects - including a My Little Pony, dinosaurs, plastic food - on a series of glass shelves with a projector underneath and look at the effect on a screen; the third is an aerial film over a 3D model of a map; the fourth, a muzzy film of someone piling miniature cars on what looks like a small plastic slide. (Stay with me, I am making this as simple as I can but it is not the Tate Modern). We tried all four but La Fille was quickly bored. Call me Ms Philistine but I thought she had a point. The leaflet on this exhibition said it: "examined the confrontations between the real world and the world of small objects...introduced confusion into the order of things and questioned the world of values that a child becomes accustomed to from an early age." La Fille looked at the box of objects, made a value judgment and stuck a fluorescent pink My Little Pony and a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex on the glass shelves. Perhaps three is too early age, but I do not think there was much questioning of values going on in that pretty head. I had a sudden pang for the user-friendly populism of the Tate Modern's interactive games, but there were half a dozen French youngsters engrossed in making mini constructions who seemed to be having a good time.

I dragged La Fille up to the Contemporary Collection. She liked a blue splodge that she said looked like a crab, dived into a contoured white cave painted with black lines and went "Wow!" very loudly at a life-sized shiny red plastic rhinoceros. Room 34 (Inflatable Structures) was an ordeal because she wanted to sit on a blow-up orange armchair and I had to drag her away with one of the curators shouting: "Don't Touch" as we beat a hasty retreat. We never made it to Level Five to see the Matisses, Miros, Man Rays and Picassos. As we headed for the lifts, La Fille started chanting: "My Little Pony, My Little Pony, I want to go back to My Little Pony". Make that the Philistine Family, I thought as I frogmarched her in and pressed the 'Down' button.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Fruits and Preservatives

They tell me one of the reasons French people are sometimes reluctant to speak English, even when they can, is a real fear of appearing ridiculous if they make a mistake. I can understand this. Every now and again I make a stupid and spectacular error in French that not only makes me appear ridiculous but that I know will be the subject of enormous glee and hilarity over French dinner parties for weeks, months maybe even years to come. It is usually one of those infamous "false friends" words that sound the same in both languages but mean something entirely different.

It has just happened again. I was tired, a bit stressed and pushed for time but even so; it was a ridiculous mistake to make. The directrice of La Fille's nursery had asked me about the miniature boxes of raisins I supply for La Fille's afternoon snack. They come from London and I buy them because they are 100% fruit with no glazing agents, oils or whatever and come in old-fashioned cardboard boxes. I told the directrice this. "Ils sont bon parce que ils ne sont pas couverts de préservatifs," I said. There was a momentary look of shock from all adults present and I felt my face contort into an embarrassed grimace as I realised my mistake. "Conservateurs," corrected the directrice quickly. What I had basically said was I liked the raisins because they didn't wear condoms.

There's no way back from a mistake like that. I laughed it off and so did everyone else - they were being polite - but even as I write this I am cringing.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Call of Nature

I took La Fille to the Science Museum. What a wonderful place, right next to the dinosaurs and, unlike French museums, free. So wonderful I vowed to go back when half the children of Britain, France and a dozen other countries were not there at the same time. You would think European leaders could at least agree to stagger the school holidays.

We went with my best friend and two of her three boys. La Fille adores them in that wide-eyed innocent way tiny girls have with older children. Happily for her, the feeling is reciprocated. They smiled with precocious indulgence as she hoppity skipped around, pulling them this way and that by yanking on their pullovers. Like proper little gentlemen they took her hand and put their arms around her shoulder gently steering her where they wanted to go until they came to the really interesting bits and she was abandoned. Just like that. Pretty as she is, La Fille couldn't compete with all that exciting hands-on stuff. She was left standing empty handed in a jungle of children as tall as trees as the boy hunters caught the scent of science and set off on the trail of things that could be pulled and pushed and biffed and bashed; things that flashed or lit up or could be taken apart or best of all went 'bang' very loudly. "T'was ever thus, sweetheart," I thought. "Boys will be boys. Before you know it, it'll be cars and football matches."Still, she got over it pretty quickly. She looked crestfallen for a nano-second then took her disappointment out on a magnet and metal washer sculpture. I made a mental note to get one.

Every so often one of the boys would shout "Toilet, toilet, toilet." The first time it happened I grabbed the nearest hand and headed for the loos. "No, no we have to go to THE toilet. They wanted to see a model toilet or more precisely the plastic poo in the model toilet. "You flush it and it never goes away," they explained with great excitement. We went to the top floor in search of THE toilet. They were right. Each time it was flushed a metal contraption scooped up the poo and plopped it right back in the bowl. And each time they almost wet themselves with glee. As I say, boys will be boys.

Saturday, 12 April 2008


The Frenchman is impressed by British 'phlegm'. Well that is what he said but it is not as revolting as it sounds. 'Phlegm'in this case is the French 'flegme', best translated as 'stiff-upper lip'.

Apparently extremely rigid upper lips were required for his Eurostar ordeal and they were in abundance at St Pancras when the whole service seemed to implode from an unlucky combination of technical problems and bad weather. The Frenchman - whose train to Paris was three hours late and who missed several important work meetings - says there was also evidence of the equally famous British 'black humour' when announcement after announcement contained nothing but bad news.

He says, with considerable surprise, that nobody made a fuss even when the seats ran out and they were forced to sit on the floor, even those traveling with young children. What is more he reports, with astonishment, there were even wry smiles and joking.

I ask if it would have been so different at a French station. He says without a second's hesitation: "Ah oui. If it had been a French station people would have been angry. I wouldn't have wanted to be wearing a Eurostar badge." He adds, ominously: "There would have been violence; not physical but verbal." I know this must be true because normally he has to think for ages before answering a question and because five days later he is still talking about British 'phlegm'.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Johnny Etranger

There are a lot of French people in the area where we stay in London. When I arrive at one local park where the Frenchman has taken La Fille he gives me a look that translates as: "Watch what you say." Later he jokes: "You wouldn't want to be caught going 'Look at that ugly-bug child over there' in French would you?" I am horrified he thinks I would dream of saying such a thing.

The other morning I was chatting to a different Frenchman in the park as our girls charged around like dervishes. He told me the place is sometimes known as Little France and sometimes Nappy Valley because of the number of babies and young children. He announced, with some authority, that it has the highest birthrate in the whole of Europe. I have no idea if this is true or, if so, how it was worked out. Still, there has certainly been an explosion of young children; run-down parks that I recall being used mostly by clusters of spotty youths with nothing better to do are now spring-clean and packed to the railings with toddlers. Whatever else, it has possibly the highest number of ridiculously large pushchairs or curious children's names, or 4 x 4s on the school run. You can tell there has been an influx of money, not just by the amount spent on luxury perambulators but by the number of buckets and spades left in the sandpit at nightfall. What's more...nobody else nicks them. In Paris, La Fille's plastic playground tat is marked with her name.

I bumped into a former neighbour and had one of those 'hasn't-this-place changed' conversations. He wasn't worried about who was listening and complained about the area being invaded by the French. He said our old street was now less friendly. To be honest I do not recall anyone being particularly friendly - apart from this guy - when I lived there, but I just said I was the wrong person to complain to: "There are quite a lot of us in France too." He stopped me: "No, it's not the same. We arrive with one or two children, they arrive with tribes and take up so many school places our kids can't get in." I tell him the French accuse Britons of going there to take advantage of the health system and complain they are forcing up property prices. "The French are doing that here too," he said.

It just shows: Johnny Foreigner is always going to take the rap for something. Meanwhile it is getting dark and the unfortunate little girl whose mother has called her Tatiana but shortens it to Tatty appears to have left a Dora the Explorer bucket in the sandpit. I am tempted: if caught I could always pretend to be French.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Off the rails

When I was young there was a television star who claimed he had psychic powers that enabled him to bend metal forks, spoons and other implements. After a Warhol moment of fame he disappeared from our screens, presumably to continue mangling the contents of a kitchen drawer in the privacy of his own home.

I am beginning to think the Frenchman has a similar effect on public transport. I am not saying it is his fault, but every time he goes near it something goes pear shaped.

He rang to say his Eurostar returning to Paris was three hours late. This was unconnected to snow storms or anti-Chinese Olympic flame protests, but due to technical problems with the trains, the track, the tunnel, technical things. He was extremely fed up. It was not the first time: his Eurostar was held up for hours at Christmas and we once spent three hours on a blacked-out Eurostar in a pitch-dark tunnel somewhere in Kent after a total power failure.

A couple of weeks ago we boarded a train for Normandy to see his mother. The bags were on the racks, La Fille had taken off her coat, scarf and shoes and was in the process of emptying the contents of her bag and the Frenchman was on the platform smoking a last Gitane. Suddenly a man ran into the carriage and shouted that we were all on the wrong train. There had been a mistake in the platform announcement and our train was about to leave...several platforms away. We had to grab everything and run. "I've never known that happen before," said the Frenchman. It should have been a clue, but I was slow to put deux and deux together.

In London we set off to visit friends. On paper it did not look too difficult; a bus, a tube, a train. The bus was fine; the usual stamp-on-the-brake driver, but otherwise OK. Then the Northern Line. One branch of the Northern Line was closed for the tracks to be renewed. Of course, it was the branch we wanted. So we went to Waterloo where I imagined we could take an overground train, but Waterloo was completely closed because of a general power failure. Back into the Underground and on to London Bridge. Up to the surface and onto an overground train. Uh oh. The opposite door in the carriage was out of order. The Frenchman is perpetually astonished that it is hard to guess a) from which direction a train will arrive - in France Metro trains always arrive from the left and mainline trains always arrive from the same direction - and, consequently b) which doors will open when the train eventually arrives. "What if we need to get off that side?" he asked nodding at the 'Out of Order' doors. "We'll be stuck on the train," I said. "Let's get off at the next station and run to the next set of doors," I suggested. "Will we have time?" he asked. I was not sure. I asked a few passengers and they thought we would be OK. "Let's risk it," I said. The Frenchman looked doubtful. "OK. Let's not." Given our form we would be stuck on the train for the rest of the day. I said this. He said: "There's no need to be over-dramatic. The situation is difficult enough as it is." I shut up and decided to ram the pushchair through the narrow space between seats saying: "Excuse me, excuse me", and, in case anyone thought I had flipped: "Those doors aren't working." The Frenchman's face grew longer. He grumbled: "It would have been quicker to go to lunch with your parents." They live in East Anglia.

It was lovely to see our friends and the lunch was fabulous; easily eclipsing the grief of getting there. It reminded me of one of La Fille's favourite books. We're Going on a Bear Hunt, we're going to catch a big one. What a wonderful day, we're not scared. Oh no. A crumbling train. We can't go over it. We can't go under it. Uh oh, we'll have to go through it. Groan moan, groan moan, groan moan...

Today, I added it up: the Frenchman doesn't know it but he is a psychic trackbender. It sounds unlikely, but not half as mad as some of the excuses we have been given for the above.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Once upon a time...

La Fille woke up, pulled the curtains and shrieked with delight: "It's snowing. It's snowing. Look. Il neige."

I looked out of the window. It was blizzarding; clumps of whirling snowflakes dancing along the street like the ghosts of Christmas cards past. Everywere had been magically sprinkled white; fresh, untouched, virginal white. A few weeks ago we were in the French Alps and woke to a similar snowstorm, but this was April in south London. Curiously, only the previous afternoon we had been making pretend snowmen in the kitchen, hauling pretend balls up to make heads and sticking pretend carrots in them for noses.

La Fille stopped jumping up and down and shrieking. Her face clouded. "Oh no," she said. "I haven't brought my ski boots." What a very French reflection, I thought: see snow, think piste.

Out in the park there were real snowmen with real snowball heads and real carrots for noses. La Fille danced down the path past them squealing with delight again: "It's him, look it's him." "Who?" I asked. "THE Snowman."

Saturday, 5 April 2008

To: Best Friend in London
From: Parisgirl

Am on Eurostar heading for the tunnel. Police officers hurtling up and down the train. Urgent announcements for a man whose name sounds like the French word for 'war'. Are you in office?

To Parisgirl
From: Best Friend in London

Not in office. Why? What happening now?

To: Best Friend in London
From: Parisgirl

Train slowing down. More urgent announcements for passenger 'War'. More police up and down. Overheard suggestion train might return to Paris. Thought you could phone Eurostar. Can't move to ask what is going on. La Fille asleep on lap.

To Parisgirl
From: Best Friend in London

Gawd. Glad I'm not there. Sounds worrying. No announcements?

To: Best Friend in London
From: Parisgirl

You are joking!

Some time later....

To: Parisgirl
From: Best Friend in London

What's happening?

To: Best Friend in London
From: Parisgirl

Panic over. Train speeding up now. Police walking not running. No more calls for Mr War. Presumably they found him. I hope so.

To: Parisgirl
From: Best Friend in London

Any clues what happened? Any announcements?

To: Best Friend in London
From: Parisgirl

Ha ha ha...bonk (me laughing head off). Nothing. We're going into a big black hole now. See you in London.

Friday, 4 April 2008

What a Toad

I was watching Flushed Away again - for the nth time - with La Fille and spotted some more funny Anglo-French stereotypes. I still think the first one was funniest but these are not bad.

The bad guy The Toad calls in his mechant French cousin La Frog to help wipe out the entire underground population of rats including our hero Roddy St James of Kensington and Rita who La Frog calls "My leetle chocolat croissant".

The Toad: "Ahhh, La Frog. You're late."
La Frog: "Fashionably late my annoying English cousin. I know no other way."


The Toad rants about wiping out the rats.

La Frog: "Don't you think this obsession of yours is turning you into what we would call Le Fruitcake?"
The Toad: "You laugh at my pain?"
La Frog: "I laugh at everyone's pain but my own. I'm French."


La Frog orders his men, dressed in rubber wetsuits, to action.

La Frog: "OK men. Action."
La Frog's frogmen throw up their arms and shout: "We surrender."
La Frog: "Not that action you idiots; the Kung Fu thing"


La Frog: "You stupid English with your Yorkshire puddings and your chips and fish."

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Facing the Pipe Music

We are about to find out how much our Paris neighbours like us or, if they like us enough to give us some money? It is a question that throws the 'Love thy neighbour' business into a difficult light depending as it does on the general unselfishness required of communal living; basically how most people live in Paris.

We are asking our neighbours to chip in and pay for our recent plumbing repairs. This is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Technically speaking, and God knows when it comes to Parisian plumbing I have learned to speak technically, the leak that landed us with a massive bill sprang from a pipe considered part of the fabric of the building and therefore the responsibility of the co-proprieté (the owners). Normally the 'syndic'(management agents) would have sent along their plumber and would have added the bill to our quarterly charges.

Unfortunately the leak sprang on a Friday night and left us with two choices:

a) to leave our neighbours without water for the whole weekend and disappear to Normandy until the management agent's plumber could be called on Monday morning.

b) to call out an emergency plumber who, in the absence of Monsieur Mustapha, was clearly going to rip us off because we were nice enough not to have done 'a'.

But will our neighbours appreciate this?

Today I am thankful I have never hammered on anyone's door to complain about a noisy party or made a fuss when empty boxes, old furniture or even unwanted kitchen cupboards were dumped in communal parts of the cellar or attic or sometimes the landings. To be honest, I do not think any of our neighbours, even those with whom we get on best, like us enough to hand over a wad of hard-earned cash, but we are relying on their neighbourly spirit.

"We'd be in a better position if we'd asked them before we put the water back on," I tell the Frenchman. He says: "Don't worry. We'll tell them we'll leave them in the merde, literally, next time." His strategy might just pay off. The one thing we all know is that there will be a next time.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Je ne sais what?

It is a bad time to be commenting on 'style' - whatever that is - after Britain fell in love with French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the bevy of glamorous French Mesdames ministers who traipsed to London last week. As one newspaper commentator, commenting on the Gallic charm offensive, commented: "Since when did Britain become such an easy lay."

When I first came to Paris I refused to buy the cliché that French women are keepers of some mysterious 'Je ne sais quoi' that bestows on them more inherent style and elegance than the rest of us. It was not jealousy; to my just-off-the-ferry eye the majority of them looked no different to the majority of us. It was, I decided, a clever and self-fulfilling trompe d'oeil by our Gallic sisters. We believe they are so much more stylish and elegant than we are and, since looking good is also about confidence, quelle surprise they are.

I have only two things to say here about the three main women hailed as French style icons during the London visit; Carla Bruni is Italian, the glamorous justice minister Rachida Dati is the child of Moroccan/Algerian parents and Rama Yade, the beautiful secretary of state for human rights was born in Senegal. So, if they have some innate, as opposed to acquired, ability to be chic it has curiously little to do with France. Secondly, how could they fail to look good? They were dressed in Dior. You would have to be pretty set on looking like a bag lady to ruin a designer classic.

Still, this 'Je ne sais quoi business' has got me thinking because, let us face it if there is some secret to looking good we want to know what it is. Plus, after Channel hopping for a few months, I have noticed a difference between the appearance of British and French women. Frustratingly, I cannot put my finger on it, which I suppose makes it a genuine 'Je ne sais quoi' for me.

I am still tempted to dismiss it as a figment of British imaginations: the majority of my clothes were bought in London; my hair is cut in London; my 'style' such as it is, and it is nothing to write home about, is according to French friends "So British". (As far as I can see this conclusion is based ont the fact I am a "Pale Anglaise" who wears hats.) If anything I make less effort with my appearance than I did when I worked in an office in London. Then I come to London and my English friends say: "Oh you look so French." I say: "Kensington High Street. Actually."

Does it matter? Not unless you are a rainforest.