Monday, 28 July 2008

Other People's Wars

For the last week I've been writing about animals and boules and an off-tune accordian player and city beaches... I thought long and hard about writing the following because it isn't about Paris or London - the theme of the blog. It isn't even vaguely amusing and it is probably of no interest to readers who want fun and games from France. Maybe. Maybe not. Apologies, but I had to get this off my chest.

They arrested Radovan Karadzic and I've been raising glasses to this long-awaited if not happy event since a Balkan friend sent me the news by SMS last week. "Dr K picked up" was all it said. Normally, I don't believe in wishing anyone ill but I will make an exception for Dr Karadzic sometimes known as the Butcher of the Balkans, though there were a number of rivals for the title. When arrested, this evil little man, like Saddam Hussein, had turned himself into a Father Christmas complete with bushy beard and "who me?" expression. I expect some youngsters didn't even know who he was and others thought "so what", but lest we forget: this is the man directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of people and the worst atrocities and slaughter in Europe since the Second World War. The dry death toll figures still being haggled over, fail miserably to convey the tragedy of Bosnia and of Karadzic's victims. The slaughtered. The tortured. The raped. The women who lost husbands and sons. The children who lost fathers and brothers. The boys who lost their lives. The girls who lost their innocence. The people who lost their homes and personal history. The civilians rounded up and taken by bus to dig trenches to be lined up, shot and buried where they fell. The prisoners starved, tortured and forced to perform unspeakably inhuman acts on each other for the amusement of Dr Karadzic's sadistic foot soldiers. The women and girls raped as an act of power and humiliation. Pensioners chopped up with chainsaws by the same neighbours they'd drunk coffee with, whose sons had married their daughters. The "lucky"; the dispossessed forced to flee with little more than the clothes in which they stood and the "unlucky"; those burned alive in their homes, their charred skeletons twisted in agony like nightmarish models for Munch's Scream.

I met Dr Karadzic, a practising psychiatrist and cod poet in Sarajevo before the war, at the Bosnian Serb military HQ in Pale, the mountaintop town from where he masterminded the siege of the Bosnian capital and its Muslim population. He had foppy hair, a flaccid handshake, pockets full of maps and a tenuous grasp on reality. Even more scary was his daughter Sonja, a small, plump ugly Medusa with wild hair and a penchant for stiletto heels, brassy make-up and inappropriately short skirts. She was the Bosnian Serb press spokeswoman and terrified the soldiers biletted at Pale, of whom one over-promoted and weedy specimin was introduced as her boyfriend. He had the haunted look of a man who was about to have his balls ripped off if he hadn't already. The first, and thankfully only, time we met Sonja ended up inviting me and the photographer to do a Paris Match-style 'at home' piece with her and her ghastly family. The photographer was mortified, thinking she was hitting on him. He was more afraid of her than her spotty-faced soldier boy. She urged me to come saying, without the slightest irony, that I would see how the world had misjudged her father. I remember she was particularly keen for me to see how wonderful he was with the family dog and to show how the animal reciprocated this adoration as if this was the key to rehabilitating his reputation as a monster. Dr Karadzic, kind to (Serb) children and animals? I wondered if this was some kind of clever double-reverse propaganda trick that was not what it seemed, but realised she was deadly serious and just plain bonkers. So bonkers I wanted to do it. I told her I might stand a better chance of getting back over the mountains at a later date to do the assignment if her father would stop the Bosnian Serb artillery pounding Sarajevo and call off the snipers picking people off the streets. She laughed, a mad, deluded laugh that even seemed to unhinge wild nimbus of hair around her over-painted face. She looked like a badly-drawn villainess from a children's cartoon. She said: "Those aren't Serb guns or Serb snipers. They're Bosnian Muslims killing their own people. They blame Serbs to make us look bad." She knew I had driven past the artillery positions, had seen the Serb uniforms, had noted the Serb flags. She is out of her tiny mind, I thought.

It was equally depressing to witness the impotent and incompetent heights scaled by the United Nations. This reached its apogee in Srebrenica but there were other stupendous failures. Few of us who worked in Bosnia will forget how in 1993 French UN troops taking Hakija Turaljic, the Bosnian deputy Prime Minister, to a meeting stood by as Bosnian Serb soldiers dragged him out of the vehicle and shot him dead. In front of them. (After the war, when Dr Karadzic went into hiding, French troops who controlled the area where he was, were accused of tipping him off whenever snatch squads were ready to pick him up.) In the UN's supposed "safe haven" of Gorazde British troops were too late to stop another wave of what became known as "ethnic cleansing". They could not do much even when several of their own men were kidnapped. Their frustrated commander told me the Serbs had overrun the town, summoned local Bosnian Muslims - known as Bosniacs - and told them: "You have 24 hours. Stay or go. It's up to you". Those men who stayed were rounded up and fed to the local sawmill. Those who fled were hunted down with dogs like animals and slaughtered. This experienced British commander looked visibly shocked as he described how he and his men had come across the bodies of Bosniacs who had been crucified with nails on trees as a warning to others. In central Bosnia young British squaddies grew increasing angry when they were unable to prevent bloodshed because of orders from on high that effectively tied one hand behind their back; or more accurately had one hand rummaging in their fatigues for the plastic laminated card they had to carry. This regulation prompt had something like "United Nations troops. Drop your weapon or I'll shoot," written in all local languages and they were supposed to shout this - in all local languages - before even so much as releasing the safety catch on their weapons. Highly trained soldiers with sophisticated equipment found themselves completely stymied if the local drunk pointed his rusty machine gun at one of them - and there were a lot of drunks with machine guns - and threatened to shoot. His comrades were under absolute orders not to fire unless they themselves were directly targeted. Gentlemen's rules of war dreamed up by armchair generals and politicians in a country where every bozo and his bozo dog had a khaki uniform, a kalashnikov and a checkpoint. It would have been funny if it had not been so tragic.

In the beginning foreign correspondents were greeted like saviours. "Help us", "Do something", women would beseech us. They would pull us into their homes to tell us their tragedies while the resident grandma, small scarved figures with faces as round and brown as hazelnuts, sat cross-legged on a scratchy woven rug in the corner of the room grinding, grinding, grinding coffee in ornate brass mills; a seemingly interminable process that would end some time later in the production of thick treacly coffee. We did the only thing we could: we reported, we wrote and day after day, week after week, we filed our stories and pictures. Nothing happened. Over crackly satellite telephones, we were accused of "going native" or taking sides or exaggerating and even turning Bosnia into a media war. God how I wish some of the dreadful stories I wrote had been sensationalised and not true. As the war ground on through the 1990s as relentlessly and interminably as the brass coffee mills, people despaired and became angry with us. They still invited us in for coffee, if they still had some, but the pleas turned to accusations: "Why don't you help us?", "Why don't you do something?". We would sit with the women who had lost their husbands, fathers and sons - in some cases dozens of menfolk in one family - and would hang our heads and cry with them, they in grief and sorrow we in shame. Afterwards we journalists would go off and get drunk on local beer that had a nasty tang of aluminium, which we joked blackly would give us Alzheimers if the Serbs didn't get us first.

Then we all went home and got on with out lives, all of us damaged in some way by the passing of Dr Karazdic's cold, cruel hand over the beautiful land that was once Yugoslavia, though none of us so much as those we left behind who had felt its icy touch.

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic brought it all back. For me it was a moment for celebration though the champagne is still on ice until Dr K's henchman turned nemesis Ratko Mladic is under lock and key or under ground.

I never got to do the "At Home" with the Balkan Butcher and his family pet. My newspaper editor decided nobody was really interested. That was the story of Bosnia those days and even now it makes me angry. Western politicians deciding it wasn't really a war and if it was it was someone else's; armchair editors deciding it wasn't a story.

Animal Magic

School holidays in Paris; it has to be a trip to the zoo. "Yippee! Youpee! Hurray! Hurrah!" trumpeted La Fille demonstrating that even in excitement her bilingual skills know no bounds. "Don't get too excited," I cautioned. "We don't know what's there."

Everyone had declared the Paris parc zoologique to be "a sad place". Of course it's sad, I thought. What do they expect? I mean, when was the last time you saw baby giraffes frolicking in a city centre. Zoos, even the very best, are inherently sad places for sad people who cannot think of better things to do with their children then go see stir-crazy animals that shouldn't be in captivity but roaming the savannah and the jungle and the swamps, but that have forgotten where they come from. In some you have to pay a fortune for such sadness. London Zoo for example charged £8 entry the last time I went and it was only when we had parted with our hard-earned cash and were through the gates we discovered the really interesting animals were either dead or had been moved to the countryside. The thing is, every one of those people who said "Don't go" to the Paris zoo admitted they hadn't been near the place for, let's see, at least 30 years and were only repeating what they'd heard. So off we went for a spot of fact checking.

It was an unpromising start. A big sign by entrance announced that the zoological parc is closing this winter - officially for three years but probably longer - that the elephants and bears had been taken away and that the baboons were not on view because of an unspecified "technical problem". What sort of technical problems might baboons suffer, I wondered? Tail swing malfunction? Perhaps their batteries had run out. Still, entrance was only 5 euros - a snip compared with London - and the zebras, giraffes and penguins were still in situ.

La Fille of course loved it. She is of that wonderful age when all animals are a revelation, even ants. Once I had dragged her away from a tame cat, not one of the exhibits, she squealed with excitement at very ordinary donkeys, domestic goats and shaggy llama. I expected her to almost wet herself when we found the giraffes - a couple of self-satisfied males outnumbered by young mums standing around chewing the cud while their offspring gangled around - but she was more interested in a dozen gigantic fish in some very dirty water. To be honest, this was the saddest part; the general dirtiness. However, what made the entrance fee worth every centime were the various excuses for this. By the penguin enclosure a permanent plastic sign announced that on account of it being the "love season", the area had not been cleaned so as not to disturb the birds. Clearly there had been some complaints about the hippo pool because the permanent sign by it was even better and worth a full and faithful translation.


The water in the hippopotamuses pool is changed (2 times a week) and yet it is still dirty.

In fact, hippopotamuses don't like clean water.

No sooner is the basin cleaned, they go and soil it with their's their way of hiding and of marking their territory: they are saying "This is my pool!"

Hmmm. Did the hippos say they liked wallowing in their own poo? La Fille and I stood upwind.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

They all came down to Montreux

Another in the occasion series entitled: Only in France.

Busker outside a Paris metro station today playing (badly) the Deep Purple classic Smoke on the Water...on an accordian. You had to be there to hear it and of a certain age to recognise what it was!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Not Reading but Drowning.

Spare us from brilliant ideas that are badly thought out. La Fille and I went to Paris Plage with a friend and her two daughters. I think having a summer "beach" on one of the city's main roads is a fine idea, even though I loathe sand. It's a poor substitute for those who cannot afford the real thing, but Paris Plage is infinitely better than cars. I go every year to support the idea. Every year I really want to give it my wholehearted, unqualified, no-buts support. Every year I am disappointed.

We thought it would be a good idea to take the girls for a swim in the open air pool but when we arrived we told it was only open to organised groups from organised clubs so we'd lugged bags of towels and costumes across town for nothing. Instead, we sat on the man-made beach and chatted while the girls threw sand onto the road and made castles that wouldn't stay up because the sand was silk fine and clean and untained by sea. "It's cleaner than most sandpits in Paris," remarked my friend. Then she spotted a cigarette butt and we mused at what kind of alien stubs out on a fake beach where children are playing.

We then set off down the promenade, wonderfully free of cars and exhaust fumes though not cyclists. I am a great fan of Bertrand Delanoe the Paris Mayor but he has one major blind spot in my view and that is he cannot see that homo sapiens cyclistus may be of the same genus but is certainly not the same species as homo sapiens pedestrianas. (I would put the former rather nearer the neanderthalensis branch, with occasional addition of helmet shaped growth on head, and the latter nearer to the larger brained homo erectus, if you were to ask.)

Dodging the two-wheeled neanderthals, we headed for a spot on the map that looked child friendly and found a handful of bright blue plastic tables surrounded by a dozen bright blue plastic chairs. No toys. No paper. No crayons or paints or even old newspapers. Nothing but blue plastic mini furniture. The two older girls sat down on the blue plastic chairs at one of the blue plastic tables. They stared at the blue plastic. They looked at each other, then jumped up and ran into the path of a speeding cyclist on the promenade who rang his bell and shouted in a Stone Age sort of way..

But what is really, really neanderthal, and I mean utterly bone-head, Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble par exellance is the idea of putting the children's lending library right next to a part of the river bank that has absolutely no barrier, no fencing, no wire, no chain, no concrete, no plastic, no impediment whatsoever to stop a child plopping straight into the Seine and drowning without even trying?

My friend had brought along a pushchair; that made three energetic children interested in books running around near a fast-flowing river, and a buggy between four adult arms. I leave you to work out the logistics and the stress factor.

Our attention was momentarily hijacked by a peroxide-blonde strolling up and down the promenade in a skimpy bikini. "Extraordinary", both my friend and I exclaimed at the same time. I wanted to say: "Excuse me, you know this really isn't St Tropez but a strip of city centre highway," but of course I didn't. I just stared. "Only in France," my friend added before I could.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Les boules! *

We played boules in Provence. What else is there to do of a late afternoon in La France Profonde when the stone-deaf crickets are still beating their tums and there's no water source to secretly divert or bestselling book to be written? We played boules before we had even touched a drop of pastis or local wine and we - that is the Frenchman and I - were still lamentably bad. Our hosts, a retired married couple, played as if they had practised every afternoon for the last six years they have lived in the country, which they insisted they hadn't although the shiny boules were a bit of a giveaway. I played like I needed glasses - I do - and like I couldn't tell the wooden cochonnet ('little piggy') from the gravel stones in our friends' drive - I mostly couldn't.

I am quite proud of my accuracy with an air pistol and have refused many a traumatised goldfish in a plastic bag at fairgrounds and fetes but I couldn't play boules for sticky sweets. I tried to cite my Englishness as an excuse, like I do when skiing ("Listen, there aren't that many snow-covered mountains where I come from.") but it was pathetic. My boules bounced off stones and hurtled off in unexpected directions or rolled twenty feet past the target or landed with a dull thud in the only patch of sandy drive and didn't roll at all. This absolutely did not happen to our opponents' boules. OK, I thought, they know their own drive. But even when I dragged my heels when changing ends to deliberately rearrange the stones and gravel, it still happened to us and not to them. Each time I launched a boule and it ricochet off into the laurel bush I thought of my mother, a trophy-winning lawn bowler, and was glad she was not there to see how her only daughter had failed to inherit a nanogram of her skill at putting a large heavy object somewhere in the same neighbourhood as a small white ball. (yes, yes, mother I know the game of boules is much easier but even so...)

So there we were playing boules, or pétanque as it's sometimes called, trying not to shame ourselves and at the same time trying to avoid braining La Fille and our friends' grandson who thought it immensely amusing to run across the drive the moment 800 grams of solid metal had been lobbed into the air. For some reason known only to the Frenchman who is perfectly well aware I need glasses, he decided that I should be "Le Tireur" while he would be "Le Placeur". This meant I had to screw my eyes up, squint really hard and throw my boule with enough speed and accuracy to knock our opponent's boule out of the ring, leaving the Frenchman to place his boule next to the cochonnet. We would then win. Did it happen? It did not. We lost.

I made the mistake of saying: "Hey, it's just a game," and was looked at as if I'd scattered my marbles as recklessly as my boules. This is France's national sport and would be an Olympic discipline if they had their way. All the flat cap and Gitanes jocularity on the sidelines is an illusion. The celebrated quote by Bill Shankly about football being "much, much more important than life and death" could be applied to boules. Last year a French author wrote a book marking the 100th anniversary of the modern game called '1907 After Jesus Christ: Pétanque'. Games have even been known to end in violence, especially if pastis is involved.

We did win one game after I worked out that if we hurled the cochonnet far enough down the drive, ie. almost into the neighbouring property, our hostess would not have the necessary strength to reach it, though if she hadn't complained I probably wouldn't have guessed. In any case this, judging by the muttering about rules and distances, was clearly not considered to fall under the heading "Being A Good Sport". We were left in no doubt that it was against the boules equivalent of the Queensberry Rules, whatever they might be, even if allowed. It was academic anyway, we still ended up losing. The Frenchman, who normally hates being beaten at anything but conscious of being a house guest, put on his rarely seen Good Loser Face. "It was my fault," he said. "It's just a game," I repeated. Later over a post-match pastis when I had finally uncrumpled my squinty face, he and the couple began a blow-by-blow dissection of the match and I thought, as I have thought a thousand million times before: I will always be a foreigner in France.

*Les boules! = How awful!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

A Week in Provence

We've been on holiday in Provence. It was very relaxing and our hosts, friends of the Frenchman, couldn't have been more hospitable. But it was far from peaceful. I'm used to city noise; the hooting and honking and wailing sirens (often police cars filled with hungry looking I'm-late-for-lunch types) and the general hulabaloo of Paris, but I'd forgotten how noisy it is in the countryside.

Around 5am it started; magpies squabbling outside our bedroom window making a bizarre and persistent strangulated noise. I don't know what they were fighting over, and neither did our hosts who have to live with the avian alarm call, but it was the same fractious dispute every morning. Then to breakfast and a briefest moment of quiet before the sun hit the top of the pink laurel bush and the male cicadas began their rasping mating call. What a racket. Talk about making a song and dance about a bit of nookie, but then I suppose they do have short and otherwise uneventful lives. I always thought they rubbed their wings or legs together but apparently they make the noise by flexing the muscles on their underbelly. They can hit over 100 decibels which is one hell of a noise to make while working out the abdominals. Our hosts said the cicadas themselves are deaf but this may be something of a myth. Apparently a French researcher made the pivotal discovery that female cicadas may indeed turn a deaf ear but only to the sound of cannons being blasted at them. Not exactly on a par with Charles Darwin but fun to try, I imagine. If you haven't a cannon handy you can shut them up apparently by staring them out. Since I have a horror of insects I was not about to get up close and personal with one let alone several thousand. The cicadas kept it up until sundown and l'heure d'aperitif - in this case a Ricard and water - somewhere approaching 9pm. Provençales are very fond of their cicadas, known locally as cigales, and call it the Cigale's Song even though it's possibly the least musical thing I have ever heard and even less harmonious than French pop music, which let's face it is saying something. It obviously presses buttons for the insects given their astonishing rate of procreation, though at those noise levels it's no wonder they have hearing problems.

Our hostess has a soft spot for the cicadas and tried, in vain, to persuade me they were "rather beautiful". In the eye of the beholder, I thought. God knows I've spent enough time in enough grim places with enough of their bug cousins to have got used to them by now, but I can honestly say I've never met an insect I'd want to take home to meet the parents.

Monday, 14 July 2008


We celebrated Bastille Day the evening before, marching around a Normandy village where my mother-in-law lives waving candle lanterns to the strains of - bizarrely - The Longest Day played valiantly, if not professionally, by a group of local musicians. It was fantastic. At one point as we walked down La Rue Grande past a magnificent 16th century merchant's house bearing lanterns aloft as the last swooping birds fled the darkening sky, the music stopped leaving just the hypnotic rattle of drum beating and it felt like we were taking part in a medieval witch hunt. Then the Frenchman struck up a jolly little revolutionary song he dredged from his infinite repertoire - something about stringing up aristocrats from the lanterns or lamp posts - and I thought, well, what we are 'celebrating' is not so very different.

La Fille hadn't got a clue what it was all about or whether Marie Antoinette had really said: "Let them eat cake" or had, in fact, said: "Let them eat brioche", which is something else entirely. She was just pleased as punch to be given her own candle lantern and stubbornly insisted on carrying it without help even though the piece of wood it was attached to was longer than she is tall. As we paraded through the streets she almost set fire to several locals whose only offence as far as I could see was that they were dragging their heels in front of us while wearing bobbly pastel-coloured home knit cardigans, which may be a crime against fashion but does not mean they necessarily deserved to be burned to a crisp. (It could, however, be argued that the two motorcyclists who revved and roared their way impatiently through the crowd as we wend our way down the main street deserved to be torched, your Honour.) Thankfully we made it into the park for a firework display before she singed anyone so as they'd notice. After that there were so many kids throwing petards - firecrackers - of various terrifying proportions around, a burned cardie was the least of anyone's worries.

The following morning, on Bastille Day itself, the local fire brigade turned out and with much hooting and flashing and warbling sirens drove the few hundred yards down the main street and back again. The Frenchman reminded us that most firemen outside of Paris are volunteers, so we stood on the pavement and waved and clapped and cheered. We seemed to be the only people doing this and perhaps we were rather too effusive and manic because instead of looking pleased, the firemen looked slightly apprehensive as if we'd just done a runner from the local hospital and they were going to be called out to scoop us up and return us to a secure ward.

In the village and on official buildings - even on a pole outside my mother-in-law's place - there were spick new Tricolors flying and as we drove through the countryside to the station to take a train back to Paris, we passed a little local July 14 event with officials in colourful sashes and uniformed servicemen sporting rows of gleaming medals, like perfectly painted tin soldiers standing to attention by a newly whitewashed flagpole. Back in Paris, even the buses were sporting the national flag. Somehow and sadly, I cannot imagine this happening in London; the French are much less squeamish about ostentatious displays of national pride; viz the Soviet-style military display on - and above - the Champs Elysées on Bastille Day when the president is given the chance to get all his toys out.

We missed all that, but La Fille is still made up about her candle lantern, even more so as she was able to exchange it at the end of the parade for a big bag of sugary sweets. We'll take her to see the tanks and toy soldiers another year.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Road rage

Here we go again...on the way back from the nursery:

A 20-kg Vélib' bike jumps a red light just as we step off the pavement. We leap back on the pavement.

A motorist whizzes the wrong way down a one-way street in reverse. We don't notice as we're not looking the way he is coming. He doesn't notice because he is not even looking behind. We leap back on the pavement.

A scooter rider who has his - unfastened - helmet on the back of his head shouts at us because we don't get out of his way quickly enough. He passes so close I leap into the busy road.

A car is parked on the pavement blocking it entirely. We both leap onto an even busier road.

A man who is clearly not a tramp unzips his trousers pulls out what La Fille calls "a robinet" (tap) and proceeds to pee against the wall as we pass. Where are those splash-back walls when you need them. We cross the road.

A motorcyclist with a toddler (maximum age: 5) riding pillion goes the wrong way down the one way street.

A van is parked across the zebra crossing. As we walk behind it a woman on a mobile telephone jumps the red pedestrian light.

I moan to a couple of French people about all this. Shrugs all round. I say there should be more police. Horrified looks all round. Now they think I'm a fascist. Silly me, I should have known; this is what they mean by French freedom of spirit, non-conformity, refusal to bow to bourgeois rules and customs.

I know I'm supposed to get over it. I know it happens all the time in France and everyone I know has the same story and ha ha, it's another one of those Anglo/French cultural clashes. But, sod it. Why should I accept that sooner or later one of us stands a good chance of being killed or maimed just because some selfish, irresponsible, inconsiderate and law-breaking French twat is exercising his or her right to be a rebel?

I need to lie down in a darkened room.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Never too old.

I have just discovered (thank you Jaywalker) that the tortoise is called Kiki. Even more astonishing is that he is around 120 years old and weighs 250 kg. That's a hell of a lot of giant tortoise to have jump you. Perhaps the female wasn't looking bored just crushed.

I don't wish to name drop but I once met an elderly relative of Kiki on the British island of St Helena (five days on a slow mail boat from Cape Town sharing a cabin with a photographer who was not my husband...that set tittle-tattling tongues going!). This is the island on which Napoleon died in exile. The tortoise is - yes, he's still around - called Jonathan and is thought to be 170 years old. One of his finest moments was being introduced to King George VI who bowed to him. Queen Elizabeth, then plain Princess Elizabeth, was there too.

I digress. All I can say is I don't know what's in the water at the Jardin des Plants but it's making one aging tortoise very happy.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The male of the species

Went to the Jardin des Plantes to see the animals in the menagerie. I'm not terribly keen on creatures in captivity but where else can you see bored orang-utans pick their noses, spotted panthers sleek hypnotically back and forth and vultures struggling to work up enough momentum to fly without slamming into the cage. Still, the tortoises look happy and probably couldn't mark the boundaries of their territory in under a week. There was an added bonus this visit: the sloth, who normally only comes down from his branch once a week to have a poo - an event we have hitherto missed - had decided to pace the length of his arborial network upside down at some considerable speed for a lazy, good-for-nothing layabout.

There was a bit of a racket going on as we bought our tickets. A series of loud, long grunts at regular intervals. The Frenchman looked slightly puzzled but La Fille and I are veterans of the menagerie. "The giant tortoise is at it again," I said. Of course we then had to indulge in a spot of nature voyeurism. We found the very giantest of the Giant Sechelles Tortoises trying to mount the smallest. Sideways on. Given that their species dates from prehistoric times you'd have thought they might have developed some kind of tortoise GPS system to recognise back from front from side. Apparently not. Maybe this is why they are permanently threatened with extinction and it has nothing to do with horrid humans wanting to turn them into soup. The female tortoise (I am assuming it is female but homosexual tortoises? Why not.) looked bored and continued munching the grass. "Doesn't that bloody well say it all about the male of the species," I thought.

We went off to see the iguana. We had gone ten paces when the Seychelle shagger started again. This time the right way. It was quite a performance as he was at least three times the size - and presumably weight - of the poor creature he had in his scaly clutches and was literally pummeling into the ground. Nor did he seem at all bothered by being gawped at by crowd of strange animals all pointing and giggling and jostling for a closer look. The female (presumed) carried on munching at the grass. She looked bored, but that might have been her permanent expression. Afterwards as the male slunk off with a clunking of shells, the Frenchman joked: "Should I offer him a cigarette?" Nobody laughed.

As I say, several million years of evolution and plus ça change.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Warming up the car.

Only in a London would an estate agent post this advertisement:

"Large, heated lock-up Garage available in XXXXX - excellent West End location. Will comfortably take a Rolls Royce."

Heated. Well that's a relief. Sod the homeless, we wouldn't want the car catching cold now would we?

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Drip, drip, drip.

Yesterday we were connected to the new water mains that is supposed to change our lives. What are we going to do for entertainment without the 'Cheri(e), I flooded the neighbours" drama?, I did not think. The plumber announced, with a verbal flourish, that our water worries were over and left. Yeah. Right, I did not say.

This morning, there was a splash as I put one foot in the bathroom. Standing in a puddle is not a good start to the day, but my peripheral vision picked up worse: fingers of water slithering towards the door and the hall parquet intent on grasping it and twisting into unnatural shapes. I looked at the shiny new copper pipes. Dry. I looked at the wall where the plumber had drilled into the old upriser. Dry. An almost unoticeable glassy sliver of water went from the toilet in-pipe to the floor. Nothing to do with the plumbing work, then. I wanted to cry except it didn't seem a good moment to make a wet situation wetter.

The Frenchman tracked the plumber to the fifth floor, offered him a cup of coffee and asked if he'd look at the loo. He did and said it was a rotten washer. As he and the Frenchman drank coffee and talked football I rummaged in the kitchen cupboard and came up with a box of washers hidden under a bag of mousetraps. "Da, dah," I said with a flourish. "We have washers." The Frenchman and the plumber looked at me. "He's a plumber," said the Frenchman. "He's got his own washers."

I nearly said "I wouldn't be too sure", but there are times when you want running water and times when you don't.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Are you out of your Vulcan mind?

France. There are days so alien I feel I've dropped onto another planet.

On the way to the nursery this morning, right in front of a policeman waving his arms and blowing a whistle like a demented football ref, a scooter rider mounts the pavement and whizzes by. I look at the policeman. He looks at the scooter. He goes back to directing the traffic and blowing his whistle.

One car and three cycles jump the red light in front of the policeman. He sees them. He carries on waving and whistling.

I walk over the zebra crossing in a straight line. A woman crosses diagonally and barges into my shoulder. She glares and says: "Look out".

Someone lets their dog deposit the most enormous pile of poo in the middle of a cobbled pedestrian path.

10.10am, outside the health food shop supposed to open at 10am, a small, grumbling queue. Inside, several staff. Tap tap, someone raps on the door and points at their watch. A shop assistant, face like thunder, arrives and opens up. She says nothing.

On the way back from the nursery someone has parked blocking the pavement forcing pedestrians into the road. The driver sits in the car.

"Beam me up, Scotty. There's no intelligent life down here".

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Shaken and stirred

I had to go to the dentist so he could take a cast of the large hole in one of my teeth. At least that's what I thought he was going to do and why I was relatively calm. Instead he gets me horizontal and helpless then announces he'll be assaulting my root canals.

"It won't hurt," he said trying to engage my attention as he pumped anaesthetic into my gum. I was mildly reassured. "If it does, move your hand and I'll stop," he added. I stopped being reassured. Either it's going to hurt or not and if it is why did he say it wouldn't, I thought. I primed one hand to gesticulate and dug the other into his chair. I wondered if I slithered down the sludge-coloured plastic off the bottom and out the door he would run after me in his blue mask. I didn't move. I thought he might drill my tongue if I did and then how would I yell: "Stop". My mouth was choc full of latexed fingers and metal instruments, making anything other than grunts impossible, and I realised why God had given me hands.

It didn't hurt until right at the end and when I flinched he said: "That's enough for today." I had to wait until he'd removed his fingers and half the contents of his dental toolbox to find out what he meant exactly by "for today". It turns out I'll be coming back for more excavation of my root. Apparently this dental procedure is like prospecting for oil; they have to keep drilling until every last drop of nerve has been extracted. "It's a big tooth," he says, "With big roots". Great. Trust me to have the Abu Dhabi of nerve production under my crown. As I left the surgery he said: "It might be a little uncomfortable later on."

It is precisely two hours later on and I am in agony. I'd like to know what classes as painful if this is "uncomfortable". I feel like I'm living the China Syndrome with a throbbing red-hot rod searing its way through my head. I try to behave normally in front of La Fille - I don't want to make her terrified of the dentist before she's ever been - but I think she has guessed by the way I'm clutching my head and groaning at the wall. This is not, whatever anyone says, my normal behaviour. I ask her to find me something in another room and wait until she's gone to run to the cupboard containing bottles of drink so old I've forgotten how we came by them or how long they've been there. I find some Gordon's gin at the back and take a slug straight from the bottle. I squish the bitter fluid to the side of my mouth containing the painful tooth and puff my cheek, twitching my head back and forth. I don't think James Bond meant "Shaken, not stirred" to be taken so literally. I consider finding some olives and swallowing but I don't like neat gin and we haven't any vermouth. Standing clutching the gin I realise that guests in the hotel over the road must wonder if they're witnessing the last throes of a middle-aged Gallic alcoholic who has lost the plot or if I'm a bag lady who has wandered into someone else's apartment and is raiding the drinks' cupboard. I put the top back on the Gordon's. I don't care about the hotel people who I'll - hopefully - never meet. I just pray the neighbours haven't seen.

Tonight, I am cooking dinner for a friend who is up from the countryside so I can't cancel even though I feel sick. I phone the dentist. He is an exception in that he has a receptionist. She is an exception in that she is very pleasant. She asks about what kind of pain it is. I say: "It's pain that hurts". Is there any other kind? She tells me to hang on. I groan very loudly and not for effect. The dentist comes to the phone and advises me to take some painkillers as quickly as possible before the agony "takes hold". Too late, I fear. I find the painkillers and swallow enough to knock out a small dinosaur. Is this a good idea with gin?