Monday, 30 June 2008

Running water

The plumber got stuck in the kitchen. He was hammering on the jammed door and yelling - or so he later claimed - but I was chatting to La Fille and La Belle Belle-Fille at the other end of the flat and we heard nothing. That makes our place sound like a chateau instead of a long corridor but Paris's old buildings spread sound - and water - horizontally rather than vertically. This is fine if you have ghosts for neighbours instead of a mother-of-three learning the piano or, for that matter, a mother-of-one who rants in English and toddler daughter who likes charging up and down the long corridor that is not a chateau shouting: "I'm walking like a lady" while making the sound of a small herd of spooked rhinos.

The plumber seemed flustered when he escaped, which was surprising given that he was in there for all of ten minutes at most and there was plenty to eat and drink, including beer and red wine. He must be a bear of very little brain because all he had to do was grab the handle and lift the door slightly and it would have opened. He is a pleasant enough chap but I have to say he doesn't seem good at finding solutions to the sort of plumbing problems he must come across every day, like should the pipe go here or there and if I heat that one will it explode, and how does the fridge come out? I suggested the best route for the pipes and where to drill the holes. This was after he had drilled straight through the old, but still working, upriser sending a jet of high-pressurised water flooding into the bathroom. I was out but it was déjà vue for La Belle Belle-Fille who was drafted into stuffing-towels-under-door duty as the plumber dashed into the bowels of the building to turn off the main stopcock. She gave me a full report when I returned. Thank goodness she saved the parquet flooring. It curled at the edges like strips of stale bread from the last soaking and has only recently straightened out. The downstairs neighbours are away so I don't know if they were inundated. I'm praying it will have dried out, without stains, by the time they get back.

The plumber, who knows our flooding history inside out, was apologetic. "It must be something about you or your apartment," he said. I said:"It'd be much better if you drilled the hole here." He said: "But..." and came up with a list of reasons why this would not be a good idea. I said: "You're the expert, but no more floods, please." I came back half an hour later. He had drilled the hole exactly where I had suggested.

The plumber got stuck. As he left I nearly said: "Drilling through pipes, jamming doors I can't leave you alone for one minute?". I didn't. I'm hoping to still have running water - through taps - when he's finished.

Saturday, 28 June 2008


La Fille has been pestering her big sister all day. Given the 19-year age gap, the Belle Belle-Fille is remarkably patient.

For the last couple of hours La Fille has been badgering her relentlessly to dress her hair. Given the sign in the nursery warning that one of the children has the dreaded "poux" (nits) this patience is saint-like. Still, the Belle Belle-Fille is exacting a kind of revenge: the last time La Fille emerged from her sister's room she had strange unidenfitied plastic objects sprouting from her head.

"She says she wants to look like Sara. Who's Sara?" asks the Belle Belle-Fille.

"One of the children at the nursery," I say.

"What does she look like?"

"She's a pretty little black girl with a mass of hair worn in plaits and ponytails," I say.

The Belle Belle-Fille looks at La Fille's boyish, follicly-challenged, head.

"Ah. Slight problem," she says.

Friday, 27 June 2008

A gas

The main water upriser in our building is being replaced. The lone plumber carrying out this marathon task has been here for so long he could claim residency. When it was our turn to be connected up he explained why he could not align the new pipe with an old one already running through our apartment. Apparently, he has to use a blow-torch at 700 degrees to solder the copper pipe and he didn't think it was a good idea. I started to argue but he tapped the second pipe: "It's the gas mains and it's made of lead." He nodded at me assuming I was aware, which I am, that lead pipes are soft. "Fine," I said. "You're the expert and you're right. Keep away from the gas."

Later I notice he has put the pipe where I asked. It is very close to the gas mains, so close he has scraped off some of the paint installing it. Packing up his tools, he tells me he had a couple of beers at lunchtime and it "wasn't a good idea". He mops his brow with his shirt sleeve. I am not sure exactly what he means but I am more than cross. We have spent the afternoon in close proximity to a man who thought it was a good idea to have a couple of drinks before waving a flame thrower around near a flaky old gas mains that could blow us all to smithereens. I bite my tongue; I would quite like us to have running water.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

A dress

The plumber nodded at La Fille. "Is she bilingual then?" he asked. "Oh yes, she can swear like a tradesman in both languages," I said. He went back to soldering his pipe. In fact La Fille has not picked up any gros mots as the French call them, though there was a sharp intake of breath in London some months ago when she went around shouting "Wan-ka-ka, wan-ka-ka" until I realised she was actually saying "One O'Clock Club".

The visits to London are paying off. She speaks to me in English, the Frenchman in French and even translates for her two grandmothers neither of whom speak a word of the other's language. I tell a lie: my mother-in-law can say: "The Cat Is Very Beautiful". It's great but, being a congenital worrier, I am getting in a twist about what we will do after September when she goes to school in Paris and have convinced myself that, surrounded by French speakers, she will decide she can't be bothered to speak to her Mama in English.

I clutch the magical moments and commit them to a flaky memory. Like today when I picked up La Fille from the nursery and was putting on her shoes while half listening to her witter about nothing in particular except how much she wanted me to buy her a sticky bun from the boulangerie and explaining why I should do so. As I struggled with the buckles and silently cursed for not buying the ones with velcro, she announced: "My name is..." and reeled off her full name, followed by my name and the Frenchman's name.

"That's really good," I said, genuinely impressed. "Do you know your address too?"

She looked down. "It's a skirt," she said.

We both burst out laughing.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Pots and Pans

Went out to wander around and sample the La Fete de la Musique on Saturday night. We only came back when La Fille started pleading to come home and I thought someone might call social services. This is the evening when anyone who can sing or play anything, and even those who can't, take to the streets and make music.
The first year the Frenchman and I went, I was still in that doe-eyed courtship period with Paris (and the Frenchman) and we spent most of the evening listening to a man in a beret with an accordian and his wife singing traditional French songs near the Place des Vosges. I swayed and clapped enthusiastically while the Frenchman and other passers-by joined in. Nobody seemed to mind if they sounded, as my mother would put it, like "pieces of coke under the door".

This year we set off for our local mairie passing several pavement bands turning out pop favourites by Dire Straits, Van Morrison and the Police. They were surprisingly good. French pop music - three words that should never appear in the same sentence - is an oxymoron, but can't be due to a lack of talent as they seem able to recreate everyone else's music perfectly well. As we approached the town hall we were drawn by the hypnotic beat of a group of 30-40 drummers. The combination of drums and beats of different sizes and sounds made it more than drumming. Someone thrust a leaflet in my hand explaining the group was called Muleketù and the music La Batucada, from Brazil; a traditional sound combining samba with Caribbean beats and originally performed by freed Negro slaves. Muleketù has added some samba, afro, funk and something called 'afoxé'; I have no idea what 'afoxé' is, but the repertoire was energetic and entrancing, so much so I was ready to sign up as a drummer on the spot.

La Fille entered the spirit, dancing around like a newly-liberated person fluttering her arms, stamping her feet and whooping. Even when completely whacked she didn't miss a beat as I swept her up and carried her home. We knew she had enjoyed herself; we didn't realise quite how much until last night when she disappeared from the kitchen with a dozen pots, pans and stainless steel bowls.

"What are you doing," I called. Silence. "Please bring those things back?" Silence. Then not silence, but cacophony of tin and plastic sound. I walked into the living room to find La Fille whacking the upturned kitchen utensils with a couple of chopsticks.

"Look Mama, I'm drumming."

I'm enrolling her for music classes this week.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Talking tish posh.

La Fille has been reading and watching too much Charlie and Lola. For those in a state of blissful ignorance of these storybook characters, Lola is a precocious little girl whose brother Charlie says is "very small and very funny". She is also fond of overusing words like 'absolutely', 'very', 'ever so', 'really' and 'actually', often together as in: "It was absolutely ever so really very funny". This sounds like posh nonsense and is amusing on first reading.

So there we were, La Fille and I, trotting along to the nursery. As she has spent most of the last three weeks with me I thought I would reassure her I wasn't abandoning her. I worry too much. She was skipping along happily and seemed pleased to be going.

Me: "I won't leave you there long today. I'll be back to get you before you know it."

Fille: "It's OK, Mama."

Me: "No, I promise it's just for a couple of hours."

Fille: "Really. It's OK, Mama. I absolutely will be very fine actually."

I hope this has come from Charlie and Lola otherwise La Fille has been actually mixing with absolutely the really very wrong type of English people.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

A Communist Plot

Funny how an offhand remark can set you thinking. I have been mulling over where to be buried, if at all, ever since the Frenchman posed the question. I hope not to be troubling the diggers or stokers soon but it has made me think, in the early hours of jet-lag induced insomnia, about identity and sense of home and loyalties and indeed, whether it matters if there is an 'x' to mark the spot once one has shuffled off the mortal coil. It is one thing to cheer the French eleven (admittedly only when not against England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) and quite another to lay down one's death for the adopted homeland. This then leads to another question I am often asked which is why I have never taken French nationality especially as I wouldn't have to give up British nationality to do so. All good questions none of which I can answer without mulling some more.

Strangely the longer I spend in London the more French I feel and the longer I'm in Paris, the more British. Since I'm all cross-Channel, perhaps the suggestion of a scattering somewhere mid-Manche from the Dover-to-Dieppe ferry is an idea, though from experience someone would spoil it by chucking more than ashes. If honest, I think I'd prefer a landmark; a huge, showy mausoleum with angels and cherubs on a well-beaten tourist path so everyone would go: "Who the hell was she?" before returning home to find out. Recognition at last. Père Lachaise would be perfect in between the naughty Victor Noir (all that brass rubbing might be fun) or Oscar Wilde or Molière. Then again, I am morbidly attracted to Highgate Cemetery even though as a south Londoner north of the Thames is bandit country. One of my closest friends and colleagues is buried in Highgate. He was one of the finest foreign reporters of his generation and as generous as he was talented. I wish with all my heart he wasn't there but he has a good spot. He'd have loved it when friends said: "Where's McGrory? Find Marx and turn left."

Monday, 16 June 2008

Tea and sympathy.

We had a fine picnic in the park for my dear friend's birthday. Picnic doesn't really do justice to the spread she had laid on with trestle tables and chairs and proper cutlery and all. Loads of people I hadn't seen for years turned up, the sun came out and the birthday girl said she not only loved her present but also loved - and had laughed at - this blog; what you might call a result all round. La Fille started the afternoon all shy and hanging off the back of my dress, then went around boasting she spoke: "English and Français". For a finalé she began uprooting clods of grass to throw at the special guests who had come all the way from Manchester. Thankfully they saw the funny side, which was more than I did when a chunk of mud plopped into my glass of chilled rosé. I did what I always do on the now rare occasions I am surrounded by a lot of people speaking English: I didn't let anyone get word in sideways.

Now, call me a hypochondriac, but I am convinced there is something wrong with my right leg, on which La Fille lay during out marathon flight looping across a large part of the northern hemisphere on Friday. My calf is aching like mad.

I told the Frenchman I didn't feel well and might be suffering from Deep Vein Thrombosis. He said: "What's that?", then suggested I had been standing at the kitchen counter (where I plugged in the laptop) for too long. Later, out shopping, I said: "If I die suddenly, remember I said I had DVT and sue the pants off the airline."

He replied: "Where do you want to be buried, England or France?"

I said: "Thanks for the sympathy."

He said: "Never mind, I'll leave the arrangements to your mother."

"Fine," I said. "Just make sure she puts 'I told him I was ill' on the stone."

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Chilling out.

We arrived back eventually. The plane's lightening-zapped navigation radios apparently couldn't be fixed or replaced so we had to take a circuitous route over much of the northern hemisphere, via north America, Newfoundland, skirting Greenland up to Iceland before heading south to the UK to avoid flying directly over the Atlantic. This took 11 hours instead of eight and we landed almost exactly 24 hours after we should have done. Why the plane could not do this the previous day, is anyone's guess. The Frenchman was not impressed and told me to keep any future criticism of Air France (did ever an airline boast such po-faced and surly staff?) to myself. He then took to bed for half a day, got up, ate dinner, drank some wine and returned to bed not to be seen again until after midday.

At around five to midday, I remembered it was Father's Day and persuaded La Fille to scribble a hasty drawing (another in her multi-coloured dolphin series) and write 'papa' at the top, except it was the bottom because I didn't notice I'd got the picture upside down. He thinks she did this herself - well she did what resembled two 'a's by herself and I helped with the 'p's - and is now convinced she's a child genius. This has cheered him up. La Fille thinks it's his birthday and keeps saying: "Bon anniversaire, Papa".

We're less chilled than we should be, but are off to celebrate a dear friend's birthday with a picnic in the park, so the London weather should sort that out.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Flying lesson

Coincidence? Rotten luck? Bad karma? I wonder what it is about me and public transportation. On second thoughts, perhaps I should shut up before someone puts out an all-ports warning to stop me ever going anywhere. I am not superstitious, touch wood, fingers crossed. I wasn't worried for one moment about flying home on Friday 13th, or that the flight departed from Gate 13. Departed. How I wish it had been that simple.

We had a gentle, relaxing holiday. It rained, but was sunny enough often enough for La Fille to turn an edible caramel colour even though she was smothered in factor 60. The Frenchman, who has a horror of sun cream, went various shades of rouge the likes of which are rarely seen outside The Happy Snapper fishmonger's . As La Belle Belle Fille warned in an email: "My father is convinced that if stays 2 hours on the beach in his swimming trunks but wears also a hat or a cap, it protects him from any sunstroke on his WHOLE body without using sun cream. You didn't know you married a magician". I laughed like a drain when I read this sitting in the hotel reception while the Frenchman quietly sizzled nearby but dared not complain because, after all, I had told him so several times. Me? I sat under a big hat and La Fille's SF60 and went ever-so slightly off pale Anglaise.

We arrived at the airport feeling chilled out. Cool; make mine a last rum and (diet) coke cool. I'd checked in on line and secured the tall Frenchman the last available seat with extra leg room. La Fille and I, both vertically challenged, sacrificed ourselves to the row behind. The biggest difficulty, the Frenchman and I naively thought, would be to persuade La Fille to shun the in-flight cartoon channel and sleep all the way home. Easy peasy-ish, we agreed in a cool sort of way. We noted the plane had arrived from London several hours beforehand and, reassured, we went shopping. When they announced boarding in 15 minutes for a 16.40 departure we went dutifully and as instructed to the gate. La Fille yawned. Home and dry, we thought.

Wrong on all counts. Minutes passed. Nobody boarded. It began to rain. And rain. And rain. A tropical depression in every sense. A toddler shrieked and threw a tantrum and you could see even child-loathing people thinking: "Good. Maybe that'll get things moving", except it didn't. Nothing budged except airport staff who stuck who buckets under the leaks in the terminal roof as the tropical storm raged. We passengers, trying to eke out the cool, chuckled and patted passengers next to us on the arm while laughing the laugh of strangers united by common experience.

Around 90 minutes of common experience later as we stood in a very ramrod British line yards from the plane steps - so near but so far - the laughs were strained. The pilot, a handsome man called Ian with a reassuring voice, informed us the plane had lost both its high frequency navigation radios after a lightening strike on the way out. He asked for patience while repairs were carried out in a way none of us could refuse. It was only afterwards it dawned on us that the airline had known about the "technical problem" since the plane arrived from the UK, and well before we checked in, but had chosen not to tell us.

Goodwill turned to anger. La Fille complained she was hungry but we couldn't take her to the arm-and-a-leg airside restaurant for fear of suddenly being called to board. As airline staff - some on free tickets - tried to wheedle their way onto another flight, goat class passengers were herded this way and that. Each time we were ordered to move I, mindful of the TGV incident, went through the same routine: Charlie? Check. Bébe? Check. Fred? Check. Green Monkey (new stuffed toy acquisition) ? Check.

Finally we were told what we already knew: the flight was not leaving and we would be taken to a hotel for the night. We had to hand back our cheap duty-free bottles of rum, check out our bags and clear off. To add insult to injury some of us were thrown out of a queue for accommodation and directed to another twice as long because the first was "for first and business class passengers only". I lost my cool at this point. 'Acts of God' such as lightening being one thing. 'Crass Corporate Actions' another.

I haven't named the airline, suffice to say there are only two major British-based companies that fly direct from Gatwick to Barbados and it wasn't Virgin.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Ringing in the Rain

The bride flutters across the hotel reception in a cloud of white lace and tulle and netting and a clack of stilettos. Her four bridesmaid's in clementine coloured silky dresses trail after her swooping and clutching at the billowing train like flustered exotic birds. Those of us watching think as one: "poor girl". Not because she is heading up the aisle, or in this case being led up a garden path to an arbor decorated with lilies and tropical flowers, to say her 'I dos', but because it is absolutely chucking it down and I mean cats and dogs in spades. Let's face it, if there is one day you don't want it to rain, it's your wedding day. And if you are getting married in the Caribbean during the rainy season, there's no getting away from it. Even on honeymoon.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Anyone here speak English?

The sun has come out though it keeps threatening to rain. I have vowed never to believe anything any taxi driver ever tells me anywhere, especially one that says the weather has been sunny and dry. Maybe the Frenchman is right and I misunderstood what she said, though "very dry" and "peeing down with rain" are not exactly phonetically close.

Still La Fille is in her element (she was born under the sign of the fish not that I believe these things) and has made a new special friend...a little boy who is half French and with whom she French. He is a lovely, happy, friendly little boy and I'm delighted she has found a friend. They have been enchanting other guests at the hotel by standing with their arms around each other. Having said that, one of the reasons for being where we are on holiday is that the local language is English. I told the Frenchman I wanted to get as much English in as possible before she goes to school and he agreed it was not an unreasonable, nor obsessive, idea.

So here we are, on an Anglophone island, surrounded by families who have, like us, come from England and brought with them dozens of English-speaking children. I have heard a few Scots speaking what could be considered to be English and a couple of people speaking what I assume was English with a Welsh accent but could not say for sure as I have to admit I did not understand a word. There are also some Americans who might also be said to speak English, albeit in their case always very loudly. There is a Spanish lady with a little girl who speaks fluent English, an Indian couple whose child speaks perfect English and handful of Italians who have no children so who, for the purposes of La Fille's linguistic education, do not count.

In short, La Fille is surrounded by her mother's mother tongue and what does she do? She finds the one boy in the whole hotel, resort, village and for all I know island, who speaks French, and she decides he is her new best friend.

I give up.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

It's raining, it's pouring...

Well, we finally made it on holiday. I didn't mess up once (I am touching the trunk of a wind-whipped palm tree as I write this), at least not in getting us here. We caught the right plane at the right time from the right airport. I didn't leave La Fille behind, though I threatened to when she insisted Bébé, Charlie and Fred come too despite them being subject to a royal-style travel ban. I didn't leave Bébé, Charlie or Fred on the train or the plane or in the car. We mislaid a 'doo-doo' (La Fille's security blanket) somewhere on the beach during the first day but it's a scrappy piece of linen of which I have several and always replacements secreted somewhere in a bag or on my or the Frenchman's person that we can pull out like rabbits from a magician's hat. Of course La Fille noticed and said it wasn't her "favourite doo-doo" but was calmed with a large ice-cream (normal healthy eating rules having been temporarily suspended).

Then it started raining. And raining. And raining. It rained so hard the hotel gardens flooded and sprouted balloon-throated toads the size of bread plates, snails like nuclear walnuts and five inch slugs. The toads I can deal with, but I had to ask the Frenchman to remove a slug that was wending its slimy way up the patio doors...on the inside. I admit I have a horror of slugs and snails, in or out of a shell, with or without garlic, so I asked him to take it a very long way away. He was only gone a couple of seconds so I suspect he threw it a couple of yards into a nearby bush.

So far it has rained through most of one day, at night and sent everyone scuttling for cover during the evening beach barbecue. Do not believe anyone who tells you that "tropical" rain is not as bad as rain back home. It is warmer but worse. You do not spend money you do not have to fly thousands of miles for a sunshine holiday to be rained on, even if what's falling on your head is a few degrees warmer. The hotel staff did not seem very surprised, even when the decorative flaming torches lining the beachside restaurant fizzled out. This adds to my suspicion that there is a conspiracy of silence about the weather in holiday resorts. Admittedly, we booked out of season (it is cheaper outside the school holidays) but nobody mentioned anything about rain, not on the telephone, in person or on when we looked up the weather on the internet. In the taxi from the airport to the hotel we asked the lady driver what the weather had been like and she said: "Dry. Very dry." "Sunny?" we asked. "Sunny. Very sunny," she said. A few hours later it was chucking it down. "Perhaps you didn't understand her," suggested the Frenchman. I pointed out she was speaking English.

La Fille thinks it is all huge fun. She has taken to wading around the muddy gardens, crouching down to poke the vegetation with a stick and calling "Toad. Toad" in a wheedling voice. She's been reading too many fairy tales. I said "I hope you're not thinking of kissing one."

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

No never no more.

La Fille's bedtime routine becomes increasingly drawn out as she becomes adept at the art of parent manipulation. Her technique is rudimentary but effective; she repeats a request in the same voice over and over until I or the Frenchman crack. I know we shouldn't give in and it is not good parenting but by evening we are clean out of fight. It is as I imagine Chinese water torture; in fact I'm increasingly convinced the verbal drip drip drip of "can I have another story, can I have another story" repeated over a length of time would drive anyone to a full and frank confession, if not raving mad, and save water resources at the same time. Perhaps I should hire out La Fille to repressive regimes.

However many books I read the happily ever after is never quite the end of the story. I then have to do "What we did today", a précis of the day's activities, then sing exactly eight nursery rhymes in a precise order. I've done this since she was a baby - though then it was just three rhymes - as I thought it would be another way of insinuating English into her life. Now it's like a 1970s game show challenge as I try to sing Lavender's Blue, Twinkle Twinkle, Three Blind Mice, Rock-a-Bye-Baby, See Saw, The Grand Old Duke of York, Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, and Pat-a-Cake in the shortest possible time while still enunciating the words. Any day now I expect Brucie to appear and shout: "Didn't she do well?"

The other night I thought I'd vary the routine. I threw in What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor and Wild Rover. I warbled with a cod Irish accent:

I've been a wild rover for many's the year
I've spent all me money on whiskey and beer,
But now I'm returning with gold in great store
And I never will play the wild rover no more.
And it's no nay never,
No nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more.

I felt Brucie would have been impressed. La Fille was not; a little voice piped up from underneath the bedcovers: "Mama, STOP making that noise." Ungrateful wretch.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Mind the gap.

It is appropriate that I have arrived back in London just as the government launches a campaign for those worried about losing their memory who fear they may have early dementia or Alzheimer's Disease (don't ask me what the campaign is called, I've forgotten). I am worried, very worried.

I went to collect Eurostar tickets that I'd booked online. I picked up mine with no problem but couldn't retrieve the ticket I booked for the Frenchman, traveling on a later train. I queued up at the ticket office, but they could'nt find any trace of his booking either. "He's going to love this," I thought. I returned home to find the booking reference only to discover I'd booked him London-Paris-London instead of the reverse. "He really is going to love this," I panicked. It was a no-change, no-refund ticket, but I threw myself on the mercy of the Eurostar Frequent Traveller office, was given a refund and was able to book the Frenchman another ticket. Then I told everyone we were going on holiday the day after we are actually going. This lapse of memory extended to arranging to have dinner with a friend on the evening of the day we are leaving London. Thank goodness I realised before we missed the plane. Really, this isn't like me. My entire career, when I had a career, was spent jumping on and off planes and boats and trains and it's years since I've been blonde.

La Fille caught me looking worried. She asked: "What's the matter, Mama?" I said: "I think I've lost my mind." She frowned for a minute then said: "Oh. Perhaps you left it on the TGV with Charlie and Bébé and Fred."