Thursday, 29 May 2008

Penguin English.

It is raining and I have a hundred million things to do so I relented and let La Fille watch a DVD. I can justify this if it's in English. I said no to the Teletubbies: "You're far too old for them," I told her (besides it is hardly a masterclass in received pronunciation); I said no to Noddy, because the only DVDs of him we have are in French so Toyland is the Pays des Jouets, Master Tubby Bear is Nestor and Noddy is Oui Oui: "Sorry, it's non, non to Oui Oui," I said. She glared at me. Dora l'Exploratrice was ruled out for the same reasons as was Barbapapa. Her sulky pet lip came out. She thrust a DVD box with a picture of a penguin on it and assuming it was the one about the tap dancing birds I said OK.

My mother rang. I told her La Fille was in front of the TV watching penguins. "It's not Pingu is it, because if it is it's not going to help her English." I said: "It could be." I went into the living room; La Fille turned and shouted "Narp, narp". "Yes, it's Pingu," I said.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Counting thoughts.

There I am worrying about La Fille learning English when clearly I need to brush up on my French and in particular phrases such as: "What? Call that a Mother's Day present?" I don't wish to sound ungrateful, but in honour of my having produced La Fille just over three years ago - admittedly with the Frenchman's help - I was given...groceries. Yes, bread and butter and cornflakes and camembert and kitchen scourer and toilet rolls from Monoprix, the French equivalent of Tesco. It did include a small bottle of face oil - my official present - which cost somewhere around five euros (£3), but even so the weekly shop has to rank on the marital harmony scale alongside buying your wife a frying pan or a red basque and suspenders for Christmas.

I have myself to blame. When the Frenchman asked me what I wanted, I was preoccupied with booking holidays and Eurostar tickets and sorting out boring tasks like tax returns and unpaid bills, so I said "Oh t'inquiete pas" (don't worry) meaning, as women do when they utter those words in French, English or Martian Swahili: "Do absolutely worry and use your imagination". So Sunday morning comes and the Frenchman drags himself out of bed to fetch La Fille's milk and she sets off behind him. (I should add the Frenchman thinks he deserves a medal for getting her morning milk when what he actually does is deliver the warmed milk, get back into bed and go back to sleep leaving me to get up and make La Fille's breakfast.) There is a closed door between us but I can clearly hear urgent whispers from behind it. Then silence. Then a crash as La Fille flings open the door and it slams into the wall. "Bonne fete, Mama", she says in a sing-song voice, jabbing me with a card and waving the small bottle of face oil that now has the purple ribbon from an old chocolate box wound tightly around it, under my nose. I recognise the ribbon my husband has used. It has been hanging around in the kitchen for months. I hug La Fille and say "Thank you, it's lovely." She looks at the small bottle and looks at me. I can tell she thinks it's a naff present because for one thing, she doesn't ask if she can open it. "It's not really your birthday is it Mama?" she asks.

I say nothing to the Frenchman and he goes back to sleep. Later he peppers the day with excuses: "Well I didn't get you flowers because you're going to London"; "Well, I didn't get you chocolates because you're on a diet", "Well, I didn't know what you wanted and you didn't say." Still I say nothing. When one of his oldest friends, who was best man at our wedding, arrives from the south of France for dinner, the Frenchman admits to him his Mothers' Day offering might have fallen somewhat short of expectations. He points out that his Father's Day present - bought by La Belle Belle-Fille and me on behalf of La Fille - was a mini music centre. His friend says he bought his wife, on behalf of their two teenage boys, a decorative glass cage in which she can keep stick insects. Now that's imagination.

Later, after La Fille has gone to bed and the Frenchman and his friend have hacked their way into a wax-topped bottle of vieille prune, which at 40% alcohol could fuel a space mission, he is more daring and defiant. He says: "Well after what the doctors said five years ago about you never having children who'd have thought we'd be celebrating Mothers' Day?" It is late and I decide it's probably best not to say anything. I rub some of the oil on my face. It's the thought that counts.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Learning to fly.

We visited the French school La Fille will go to in September last week. It was a nice school. The directrice was smiling and friendly and had long abundant hair; the sort of hair I imagine features largely in her pupils' drawings. She gave La Fille a scrapbook with pictures of the teachers and sketches by other children of the celebrations and festivals and lots of blank pages for her to fill in. As she spoke, La Fille burrowed her head in my summer skirt and hummed. I don't think the directrice or the Frenchman heard her, but I could feel the vibration of her agitation against my leg. She was doing the equivalent of putting her fingers in her ears and singing 'la la la la' very loudly. "Don't worry," said the directrice as I encouraged La Fille to turn around. "I'm sure she's listening." We had a tour of the school with La Fille still hanging off my skirt and the playground where she briefly flew solo, had one go on the plastic slide, then resumed her detailed study of the warp and weft of Mama's clothing.

I walked back home with a lump in my throat and I've been trying to swallow it since. In a few months she will let go and trot off on the long road to becoming an educated French citizen. Nothing wrong with that, but where will her English half find expression outside the home? Will my dragging us both back and forth over the Channel have made sure the language of Shakespeare is stamped indelibly on those young neurones? Can I even hope to keep half of her English or will it be eroded word by word by the relentless tide of French she will bathe in every day, until she becomes just 40 per cent, or 30 per cent or a quarter English? What difference does it make, we are all Europeans now? some would say. I would reply: "Don't you believe it. We may be Europeans but we are not the same." Then there's the inevitable separation. One of the French mothers at La Fille's nursery, whose son is going to the same school, said it is this she is dreading most about September. And she doesn't have the language and culture element to deal with. We have made a pact to have a coffee and a cry in a nearby café on the first morning.

The lump refuses to be swallowed because I know September is just the start of the slippery slope. These days La Fille's sister La Belle Belle-Fille, now a young woman, stiffens at her father's paternal hugs and I look at La Fille as if to say: one day you won't want me to pick you up an smother your silk-smooth tummy with kisses while you giggle and squirm. One day I won't be able to. But will you remember when you did and I could? And will you go: "Stop, Mama!" or will it be "Arret!"? Sometimes I feel like scooping up La Fille and running as fast as I can to a Eurostar.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Off the rails.

When I lived in London it seemed entirely normal that different Underground trains, like overground ones, left from the same platform. I could never understand why this baffled visitors; you checked the board, simple as that. Then last time I was in London after nothing more than a glass of water over lunch (I was driving the pushchair) I boarded a Tube, sat down to read my newspaper (the pushchair occupant was asleep) and failed to notice I was on the wrong line heading in the wrong direction until I looked up and found I was in the middle of nowhere. This does not happen in Paris. Only one line arrives - from the left - and departs - to the right - from any given platform. If you have identified the right line, you cannot catch the wrong train, you can only go in the wrong direction. I blamed the London incident on having been out of the country too long.

Then there was the 'TGV incident', which I promised not to mention again.

Now I have notched up a hattrick. I had to take La Fille to her optician to get the lenses changed in her glasses. I have been to the same shop at Place de la Nation more than a dozen times, by metro, by bus and even on foot when I am feeling especially energetic; it is a three mile hike. For some reason, however, I took a metro to Place d'Italie in an entirely different part of Paris and some way across the other side of the River Seine? I don't know why, any more than I can explain London or the TGV incident. I am not normally so dozy. It gets worse; I didn't notice my mistake this time until I left the Metro at Place d'Italie where there just happened to be a mass demonstration and march. The station and surrounding streets were packed with students protesting against education reforms and making a lot of noise about "social solidarity".

Was there a single show of solidarity as I struggled up the station steps La Fille in one hand, pushchair in the other as they jostled and shoved past me? Was there hell.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

This will hurt.

I went to the dentist. I go regularly and have not needed anything major done for years. How I wish I had not even had that thought to tempt the fates. As I squirmed with imagined pain in the plastic lounger chair the dentist snapped on his latex gloves, poked around and said: "You need an inlay, you need some root canal work, there's a cavity under a crown and on the tooth behind it." He drew breath and added: "We'll have to kill a nerve and you may also need a bone graft." So much for regular check-ups. He attempted a joke: "I'll have to see you a few times; perhaps you should take out membership." I tried to laugh but all that came out was a half-strangled gurgling sound. He took his fingers out of my mouth and summoned me to look at the x-rays on his computer. I slid off the clammy plastic. He waved a pointy instrument at the screen: "Look, we have problems here a cavity here and this region here is giving you pain, non?" I made another gurgling sound.

This is going to take months and be very expensive. The dentist explained the inlay has to be handmade and I may have to see a specialist about the root canal work and possible bone graft. It also involves lots of choices, which always throws me because then I have to research everything down to the smallest detail. It has been part of my job for years, now it is a reflex. The dentist says inlays are "very badly reimbursed". This means the French health service will pay very little towards the treatment. He asks if I have a "good mutuelle" (health insurance). I say I think so, but as I'm on the Frenchman's policy and it's arranged through his job I am not certain. He taps at the computer and produces two estimates; I feel like I'm haggling with the plumber again. The first, for a ceramic inlay, is for 440,00 euros (£350) of which the princely sum of 41 euros (£32) will be reimbursed by the health service. The second is for a resin inlay costing 360 euros (£284) of which precisely 0 (£0) is reimbursed. This means the mutuelle is unlikely to pay up anything either. I have no idea how much the bill is going to be for the other work; he didn't say, I didn't ask; but I suspect I am going to need a credit plan. The French health system, known colloquially as the 'Secu' reimburses 70 per cent of what it deems the "official" fee of a particular dental treatment. The problem is dentists can charge up to ten times the official fee, which they consider too low to make a living. I am told that much as the British come to France for medical treatment, the French go to Hungary or Morocco to get their teeth fixed.

I ask the Frenchman what French people do about replacement teeth if they have no health insurance; that means about a third of those on low incomes. He says: "That's the problem. They don't."

Monday, 19 May 2008

Whodunnit? L'Anglaise on the landing with a copper pipe.

This morning the plumber arrived to drill a hole from top to bottom of our 200-year-old building to install a new cold-water riser. This is a noisy, dusty and expensive job that even divided between property owners is costing us a small fortune each. Still, it will hopefully avoid someone being inundated every few months as happened when the old pipes burst. I have a bit of a touchy history with French plombiers what with being flooded out by an absolute incompetent and ripped off by a fast-talker so thought it best to steer clear of this one until the unavoidable moment he has to connect up our flat and add to our already labrythine collection of pipes. I passed him on the stairs and, head down, mumbled "Bonjour" before dashing in and slamming the door.

A few moments later the bell rang. I knew it was him because of the Cluedo copper pipe in his hand. "Ah, you're in," he said, displaying the impeccable powers of observation and humour I have come to expect if not from French plumbers, than the French plumbers who have worked in our building. He said he had been trying to contact me for "weeks." It turns out one of his copper pipes needs to pass through the ventilation hole in our cellar (every flat owner has their own damp corner of the "cave" under the building). It is that or find a way through six feet of two centuries old solid stone, so I don't suppose we can refuse even if we want to. "You haven't been in," he said. I told him I had been away in England for a couple of weeks. He said: "Goodness, you picked up that accent in just two weeks?" I didn't know whether to laugh or sob.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Out of the Mouths

What La Fille has picked up from me is nothing to what she has picked up in French.

This morning in the time it took to put our coats on to go to the park it started raining; fat glassy globules growling at the windows and jumping off the sills. "Change of plan," I said cheerfully, "Coats off. Let's think; what shall we do now?" We did a jigsaw and read a book. Then we emptied the toybox of maracas, tambourines, a mini xylophone and the recorder a made a racket to the 'Mozart for Children' (why 'for children'?) CD the Frenchman brought home with one of the dozens of how-to-be-a-good-parent magazines published in France. I binned the magazine (headline: Understanding your Child's Emotions) and kept the CD. That's what I call good parenting.

I left La Fille for five minutes and came back to find her standing in her room surrounded by toys, games, and a multitude of other things to do, arms crossed across her chest. "Je m'en fous. Je m'ennuie", she announced adopting a sulky pout. At its most inoffensive - it is never polite - this means: "I don't give a damn. I'm bored." That said, the "fous" bit from the verb foutre can mean much worse. One French site even translates it as "not to give a rat's ass". I flinched. I feel sure the parenting magazine would have said not to react. Where on earth did that come from? Under cross-examination I might concede that some of her English idioms might have come from me, and only some and only might. But not the ennuie; I have no time to be bored. I would have blamed the Frenchman but he does not do boredom either; if he has nothing to do - and sometimes even if he has - he sleeps. The Frenchman tells me she said the same thing in front of a dozen people at his friends' garden party last week. I said: "Well at least they won't think it came from me."

And so the bilingual experiment continues. I expect to be able to report soon that La Fille can swear like a trooper in French and English. What progress.

Friday, 16 May 2008

The Prodigal Doll

That's it. I am done with feeling guilty.

I replaced Bébé with another exactly the same doll and pretended it was the lost one, then felt guilty for being dishonest. In any case La Fille is not fooled even though I used the sheep and orphan lamb trick and dressed Bébé 2 in Bébé 1's tatty old clothes. I also replaced the two rabbits but she sussed them as imposters at once.

I was pleased about Bébé. This is the absolute favourite of the missing toys, or so I thought. The 'miraculous return' took place while La Fille was at the nursery. I was punch pleased all the way there, marched jauntily through the door and was about to sweep her up with a "Hey, guess who turned up?" when one of the staff asked: "Did anything happen while she was away?" Apparently she had cried. Now La Fille is not a crybaby. She didn't cry even on the first day I left her at the creche; nor when another child shoved her over and she cracked her head on a table, and not even when she fell flat on her face in the snow when skiing. She cries, but mostly when she cannot get her own way or her father goes "Arret" in an ever-so slightly raised voice. More guilt.

We arrive back home and La Fille insists she did not cry, then announces she doesn't want to take Bébé to bed because she only loves her "a bit" and not "a lot". I am crushed but the Frenchman morphs into a child psychologist. "She thought Bébé was lost and accepted it and grieved. Now Bébé has apparently come back and she's a bit confused," he says. I say: "I'm just doing my best."

Now I'm calling time, what Americans call 'closure', on the whole business. In future the dolls and toys are treated like Royal princes...they don't travel anywhere together.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

House Party

We had a lovely few days in the countryside staying with the Frenchman's friends, cruel jibes about mothers who leave their child's toys on the train and the French equivalent of "Call Social Services" jokes, notwithstanding.

At one point we were among a dozen guests staying in our hosts' stone farmhouse not including them, their two grown-up children, two cats and a dog. The highlight was a barbecue for which another twenty friends and locals appeared. Just the thought of that many people descending for lunch makes me want to lie down in a dark room, but it was all very French. Guests given house room were enlisted to lay tables, organise music, man the barbecue and take some of the pressure off the hosts; the local boulangerie produced an industrial-sized apple tart and a round of milky white farmer's brie on waxed paper the size of a car wheel wound its way from table to table. Two of the guests, both retired, trundled up the drive in an old Citroen 2CV whose clackety-clack engine we could hear coming a mile off (make that a kilometer). Conversations stopped and heads turned as the car the British called the Tin Snail, the Germans The Duck and the French 'Four Wheels under an Umbrella' spluttered to a halt on the gravel drive and a trim-waisted woman in her sixties wearing a wanton crimson dress and with waist-length flaxon hair jumped from the driver's seat.

Later, hours after the sun had set, around 20 of us moved inside to the kitchen table and began eating - and drinking - again. Some time in the early hours of the morning the singing started. This is a ritual that begins with someone saying something along the lines of: "40 Brel", "25 Gainsbourg", "17 Aznavour" suggesting the number of songs they know by a particular singer. Other guests then raise bids as in an auction. Thankfully they sing only snatches of each, but it still went on until 4am or 5am, as it always does. I can't be more precise because I bailed out, as I usually do, before someone pointed at me and said: "Ze Beetles", which they always do.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

We're going on a (guilt) Trip.

I told La Fille we would be taking the train back to Paris. She said: "Oh good, we can find my bag with Bébé, Charlie and Fred," and skipped off. I gulped. The Frenchman commended her logic. The staff at SNCF have been helpful and patient, even when The Frenchman asked if their cleaners were "trustworthy" (very diplomatic). But what can they say? It is not called a Lost Property Office in France, but a Found Property Office, and our lost toys have not been found.

I think I can buy another Bébé exactly the same as the original. Now I don't know whether to buy it and pretend it is Bébé or own up to it being a replacement. Instinctively I am for being honest, but I think I'd prefer to pretend that by some miracle Bébé had returned. While I'm feeling guilty about leaving the case on the train, the Frenchman is feeling guilty he didn't jump in his friend's car and head for the railway terminus the moment we realised. Hell, this parenting lark is one big guilt trip. The friend we are staying with tried to make us feel better by saying the experience would teach La Fille that life is hard. I said: "Don't you think she's going to discover that soon enough?"

La Fille caught me checking the toy websites. "Oh look it's Bébé," I said pointing to the exact same doll. "Do you think that's her?" She looked again and said: "No, that's definitely not her. Bébé is on the train."

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Lost Innocence

I cannot forgive myself. I left La Fille's bag containing her favourite toys on the train. Favourite toys? We are talking about Bébé, her very first doll, Charlie, her second doll, Fred the blue teddy bear delivered by Father Christmas and two rabbits called Mama and Papa. She never goes anywhere without them. And I left them on the train. How could I?

I had been to the dentist earlier and it was not a pleasant experience. I had arrived 90 minutes early for the train leaving my mobile phone and our coats at home. It was hot and nobody helped me as I struggled with several bags and La Fille in her pushchair up the numerous stairs in the station. I am making excuses.

I forgot the bag. Point. End of story. I have phoned the train terminus, one step along the line from where we got off, to the point they could quite reasonably class me a nuisance caller in the hope someone might have handed in a pink princess case containing La Fille's precious toys. I was optimistic, we were in first class (it was only £10 more than second), so I said nothing to La Fille figuring it was only a matter of time before she, Bébé, Charlie, Fred, Mama and Papa were reunited. "Who would be so mean as to steal a child's bag when they can see from the outside there are only toys in it?," I asked the naturally pessimistic Frenchman. He was right. Someone has taken it and our extended stuffed family and I've had to face the music. I sat down, took a deep breath and a tissue and announced: "Mama has lost your toys. I am very, very sorry." There were tears: mine. It was ridiculous. I told myself: "It's not life or death", but then burst into fat, guilty tears while La Fille, bereft of her best toy friends, patted me on the arm and said: "It's OK Mama, it doesn't matter".

I have bought her a blue stuffed elephant from the local supermarket. It was all I could find. La Fille cuddled it and looked delighted. I would have been convinced except she patted my hand as she took it.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Speaking in Tongues

La Fille's English has improved enormously since we began Channel-hopping and she realised her mother was not the only person to speak it nor that I was being difficult by insisting she did. I never doubted I was doing the right thing giving up work to bring her to the UK regularly; it has been enormous fun and a huge success on the linguistic front. We've had our moments: if I have explained once I've explained a thousand times that Noddy is a little English toy and not the French-speaking Oui-Oui whose best friend is Big Ears not Potiron (Pumpkin). Dora the Explorer rhymes. Dora l'Exploratrice does not. And the bloody mouse is really Maisy not Mimi. In any case, she now shouts at me in English, screams at her Father in French and sometimes does one after the other to show she can.

Unfortunately she has picked up some strange phrases for a three-year-old in English. These include:

"Just give me five minutes"

"Shhhhh I'm on the telephone"

"Now, listen to me"

"Sorry, I can't do it right now, I'm busy"

"You are beginning to annoy me"

"I'm very cross with you"

"That's really not funny", and the classic that has everyone - except me - rolling about:

"Just give me a break, will you?"

I really don't know where she gets it from.

Gun Crime

My father, who has lived in South Africa for 40 years, was in London and the news he brought with him was not good. It was not as bad as it could have been but it put reports about unbridled gun and knife crimes in Britain into a certain perspective. My half sister, who has been car-jacked twice in recent months, was held up in her own home by armed robbers. The first time she was car-jacked the thieves demanded she hand over the vehicle keys while her toddler son was still in his car seat. She refused point blank and thankfully someone turned up and scared them off. This time she was holding her baby daughter gunmen burst into her home. My nephew was having his afternoon nap and as they tied her up, still clutching the baby for dear life, she was beside herself with fear that might wake up and walk in fearing if he surprised the intruders they might shoot. It goes without saying she was petrified about them targeting her children rather than her. In the event, they took her valuables and skedaddled. She was lucky. Not so long ago robbers shot dead her sister-in-law and she knows, or knows of, numerous others who have been through the same or similarly terrifying experiences. Most of what was taken is covered by insurance, sadly what can never be replaced is the childlike faith she had before that she was invincible: that everything would be all right and that nothing bad would happen to her or her family. In some ways it's what having children does to you anyway; it hones that fearful timorous yellow streak until it gleams and makes you neurotically convinced every bus, bullet and disaster has your name - or more terrifyingly your child's name - on it. South Africa's crime wave means it is not just a neurosis but a real threat; I don't know how people live with that on a daily basis without going slightly mad.

A continent away, the fear is diluted to a dread of opening emails from anyone I know in South African for fear of what terrible news they will impart. Crime in South Africa, declares my father, is "out of control". Having said that in almost the same breath he proclaims South Africa to be "the greatest country on earth" and that he could not, would not live anywhere else. He finds London dirty, overcrowded, hectic, noisy and says he could never live here. He is as critical of Paris and not only because it is full of French people ("your grandfather would be turning in his grave to think you married a Frenchman," he says and I think he is only half joking.) He misses the big African sky and vast open spaces almost as soon as he arrives in Europe.

I say: "But it's not all bad here. The odds are against being shot dead getting into your car or in your own home." He nods and says: "You have a point, but after a while in Africa you become an African."

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Triple Whammy

I arrived in London broke a tooth, found the telephone and internet out of action and the capital being run by a man called Boris.

The tooth was a bore. Thankfully it was only part of a filling that dropped out and did not hurt, but crossing the Channel seems to do something to my teeth. I smashed one of my front ones on a baguette within hours of arriving in Paris years ago; not a good look. A molar disintegrated on a picked onion hours into my first cross-Channel hop last September and now I've an irritating cavity thanks to one of La Fille's secret cache of jelly beans. That'll teach me.

The telephone and internet were a double bore. The mobile doesn't work where we stay so no landline means no communication. When, eventually, I got past the BT recorded messages I spoke to an operator who kept banging on about their "obligation" being to fix it by the end of the following day. I asked if it could be done sooner, obligations aside: "The fault was reported only today so our obligation is to fix it by the end of the next working day, that is to say, tomorrow," she repeated every time I opened my mouth. It was like trying to negotiate with the speaking clock. It just goes to show the French don't have a monopoly on stroppy operators?

As for Boris, the city's new blond bombshell mayor and a Conservative toff...well, he has certainly upset the French who viewed Ken Livingstone as a kindred socialist spirit. The Mayor of Paris even hopped on the Eurostar to offer his support to Ken's campaign; I don't think it hurt his teeth but I'm not sure it did much for his credibility in France. I cannot say the prospect of London - and possibly the country - being run by former Eton schoolboys fills me with unconfined joy. I mean, they are not exactly real world. At least the tooth and the telephone can be fixed.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Moving on to the Renaissance

A well-known and well respected French television presenter once told me ruefully: "We have nothing like the BBC in France. It is a great pity." I do not know enough about French broadcasting to say if this is true or not; what is true is that I have never found anything like Radio 4 in France or anywhere else. And France most certainly has nobody on the radio like Melvyn Bragg. I am not an authoritarian so I won't say everyone ought to be made to listen to him, but they should. This is a man who can get a group of eggheads together on his Radio 4 programme In Our Time to talk about, let's say Newton's Law of Motion, Plate Tectonics, the Discovery of Oxygen, The Alphabet and Abelard and Heloise - love, sex and theology in 12th century Paris - to name a few recent programmes - and coax them into talking about such highbrow subjects in a way that the rest of us non-eggheads not only listen up but also understand and learn. One recent programme was called: Paganism in the Renaissance - how the classical gods returned to the Christian cities. I heard the title and thought: "Gawd, how interested am I in that?" I listened, and was, though I may have been captivated by the sheer cleverness of it as I can't remember too much about the programme. Lord Bragg, or to give him his full title Baron Bragg of Wigton in the county of Cumbria (though I'd prefer to call him Melvyn) always sounds interested and thankfully chips in with sometimes obvious questions that most of us, were we to find ourselves in that radio studio, would want to ask but would not for fear of looking stupid. He doesn't look stupid because he is clever - as opposed to smarty pants clever-clever - and because we all know he has a brain the size of a planet. I love much of Radio 4, but my listening heart belongs to Melvyn and In Our Time; public broadcasting at its finest or as critic AA Gill said, not what the public wants to hear but what they should hear.

The only man in France who, to my knowledge, has been compared to Melvyn Bragg is the philosopher, writer, broadcaster, journalist and white-shirt-open-to-the-waist wearer Bernard-Henri Lévy. This is not fair. Lévy, known as BHL (which makes him sound like a chain store) has been described as a self-promoting, high-living narcissistic, grandstander to whom the tagline: "God is dead, but my hair is perfect" is attributed. He does not seem to mind this too much. Now Melvyn Bragg whose catchphrase, if he had one, would be something like "Now, moving on to the Renaissance" for his ability to shift an intellectual conversation from one era to another, is not above a spot of self promotion. But if the same epithets were leveled at him, I wager he'd be exploring - on the radio of course - what it meant to be all those things in today's society and if hair was the new religion. My favourite description of BHL was in the Guardian: "He is like an unfathomably French combination of Melvyn Bragg, J.K. Rowling and David Beckham".

Friday, 2 May 2008

Groundhog Day: Street Life (Part Three)

I put one toe onto the pavement outside our Paris flat. I am holding La Fille's hand as if her life depends on it because it does. We step two paces out and are nearly flattened by a mad motorcyclist racing down the pavement. I have a sense of déjà vu: didn't the same thing happen yesterday and the day before and the day before for as far back as I can remember? I have been here before. What's more, I am reasonably certain the same thing will happen tomorrow and the day after and it bothers me that by the law of averages, or even Murphy's or Sod's laws, the chances are one of these days we are going to take a hit.

Sometimes, just to vary the risk, we go out the back door. This pavement is marginally safer. Being narrower the motorbikes, scooters and cycles cannot get up a good speed, but they often swerve off the road on to it to dodge a parked delivery van or traffic light queue.

The walk to La Fille's nursery is a daily heart-stopper. The other morning, having dodged the motorbikes, scooters and 20kg Ve'Lib cycles hurtling past the front door, we were forced into the main road because of a car parked on the pavement, ran a dash-of-death across a 'green-man' pedestrian crossing that every motorist ignored and were nearly wiped out by a car jumping a traffic light a good five seconds after it had turned red. I had only just stopped hyper-ventilating about that near miss when a cyclist swerved around the halted cars and nearly ploughed into La Fille.

I dropped her off at the nursery and, still shaking, met up with a girlfriend for coffee. As we walked along the pavement a scooter headed directly for us, swerved at the last minute and nearly flattened her dog. Both of us shrieked simultaneously and shouted at the rider. He yelled something that sounded like "Ta geule" (Shut your face), the French pavement assassins' insult of choice, revved his scooter and sped off slaloming between pedestrians.

My friend said she saw the same thing happen recently in front of several police officers who just stood and watched. When she remonstrated with them one shrugged and said: "What do you want us to do? It happens all the time." She said: "But that doesn't make it legal," and asked if their apathy indicated an official tolerance of dangerous driving on pavements. She was told: "Not exactly, but it depends on how much traffic there is on the road..." We'll take that as a "Yes" then.