Sunday, 31 August 2008

More Rocket Science.

Who: Mother with one young child and lots of bags.
Where: Gare du Nord
When: Last week of August

We arrived at the Gare du Nord to take the Eurostar to London. Passing the double line of cursing tourists queuing for Metro tickets, we discovered the up escalator from the Metro to the main station level was out of order. We struggled up the stairs. On the main station concourse the only two lifts leading up to the Eurostar terminal level were out of order. A sign said they would be out of order until a date in September ten day's hence. Ten days? The escalator leading up to the Eurostar terminal was out of order. We struggled up some more stairs. Two of the Eurostar automatic ticket machines were out of order.

I thought we were on the 10.45am train. I looked at my ticket. It said 10.15am. I looked at my watch. It said 10.10am. I grabbed La Fille, grabbed our bags and ran. The Eurostar check-in machine was out of order. Suddenly someone in a Eurostar uniform piped up: "Don't worry there's another train in half an hour. You can go on that."

I was going to say that getting escalators and lifts and ticket machines to work surely isn't that difficult. But then catching the right train surely isn't either. Mea culpa.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Chicken and Egg

It was absolutely chucking it down outside (lovely weather for October) and as my friend's newly installed kitchen cupboards were bare she suggested we order a takeaway pizza for lunch. Just one problem; four of the five local pizza restaurants were closed for the summer holidays. Needless to say only the one furthest away was open.

At our local market the butcher, fishmonger, grocer and Italian epicerie are closed for the holidays as is the cous-cous restaurant and the African speciality takeaway. Seven of the ten outlets have temporarily ceased trading in a market that struggles at the best of times. The cheese shop was open but had a fraction of its usual stock and the bread I foolishly bought without thinking almost broke teeth. The boulanger opposite downed shutters several weeks ago. The newspaper kiosk is also locked and shuttered, as is the café bar next door. Paris is heaving with visitors with euros burning holes in pockets as it is every August, while stores, restaurants, cafés and bars have shut up shop until the end of the month, as they do every August.

Last week the French prime minister François Fillon hauled government ministers back from their holidays to discuss ways of giving the country's economy a kick up the derrière. Not exactly rocket science, is it?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Heavenly hosts

We went to Toulouse for the August 15 Assumption holiday as we do every year. Yes that would be the celebration of the passage of the Virgin Mary into heaven still officially marked with an official day off in a country that is officially secular, but never mind. When we checked in for our own mini ascent into the heavens, we discovered Air France had put us all in different rows. Still, it meant La Fille couldn't see her plane-phobic father's white knuckles or hyperventilating even before we'd reached the runway. "What's that noise?" he all but shrieked at one point. I said: "It's the plane landing." He's the person who runs amok in those plane disaster films and has to be wrestled to the ground by the heroine hostess, slapped around the face a couple of times and handcuffed to the toilet door.

To me Assumption in Toulouse is a very French annual ritual. An indeterminate number of people all known to each other for many years and their families converge on the home of a couple of mutual friends and their two teenage children. The dramatis personae varies from year to year as some drop out and some drop in and friends of friends are invited along, but the core group is made up of usual suspects - one of them the Frenchman - most years. Our hosts welcome all, including those they barely know and those they have never laid eyes on, with limitless warmth, generosity, patience and good humour. Their sons are equally heroic; thrown out of their rooms and forced to sleep in tents in the garden without so much as a Kevin the Teenager scowl, sulk or grumble. At one point the number present was expected to reach 31 humans, two dogs and a rabbit. Thank heavens the copulating slugs didn't show this year, nor several of the expected guests, but even it was a lot of tomates provençales to rustle up.

Here's a list of some of the subjects touched upon over lunch/dinner/aperitif/breakfast during our six-day stay.

*Was a famous French cartoonist fired from a satirical magazine for suggesting President Nicolas Sarkozy's son Jean would "go far" because he was marrying a Jewish heiress being anti-Semitic or exercising freedom of speech?

*Did Britain or America do anything to help European Jews during World War Two?

*Who was worse: Hitler or Stalin?

*Did Ingrid Betancourt suffer Stockholm Syndrome during her six years in captivity in the Colombian jungle? Why did she look so healthy when released when six months before she was reportedly at death's door.

*The Vagina Monologues

*What is making more and more young Muslim women adopt the hijab or headscarf?

*Are women still treated like walking wombs?

*Should action to save the planet be collective or individual? Why should I stop driving when the oil companies do nothing for the environment?

*Why is Britain obsessed with America?

*Why has the swimming pool gone green and why isn't the tonne and a half of environment unfriendly chemical poured in it working?

*Who made The Bayeux Tapestry? Did they have an agenda?

*Why is it bloody freezing when we are more than half way to Spain in August? Is there a hope in hell it will be warmer tomorrow?

*Is it OK to be left-wing and buy the new album by Carla Bruni, aka Mrs President Sarkozy, if the proceeds are going to charity?

There was some shouting and some table-thumping, due more to over-enthusiasm and over-indulgence than anger, and some truly Monty Python "What have the Romans (for Romans read Britons/Americans) ever done for us?" moments. All in all it was mostly good humoured unlike a few years ago when the only subject of argument all week was the European Constitution and the 'Yes' and 'No' camps were so irreconcilably divided I was convinced certain friends were heading for the divorce courts.

I added my tenpenny worth over 1066 and all that and other subjects and admit to thumping the table (once), but nobody was being clever-clever and anyone who didn't feel like joining in didn't have to and nobody minded. There was much hilarity, much wine drunk and much food eaten as well as the usual singing competition. As happens without fail every year in Toulouse, somebody pointed to me and said: "Beatles" to which I, as I do without fail every year, made my excuses, went to the loo and never came back. Some of the French contributions beggared Anglophone belief such as a song containing a line that appeared to translate as: "I dream of spending my life with my arse in the air". Apparently it is a double-entendre about fantasising over air-stewardesses, but clearly something is lost in translation. (Anyone who thinks I'm being unfair about French lyrics click here and read down to Jacques Brel. Thank you Jaywalker.)

The really heated exchanges were saved for a table tennis tournament organised by the youngsters who came up with a devilishly clever timetable of matches that ensured every game involving an adult took place after lunch. "Don't you think that's a little unfair?" asked our hostess, after she lost. "You didn't have to drink," was their response. Game, set and match to the boys.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Waiting for Godot

We returned to Paris loaded with worldly London goods like biblical mules to find we were being leaked on again. This time it was La Fille's room, which I had foolishly assumed was flood-proof unaware that the upstairs neighbours had installed a second bathroom directly above.

The water was still dripping when we arrived, its trajectory from ceiling to floor broken by La Fille's bookcase and her absolutely favourite books. What else? The drip-drip-drip must have been going on most of the time we were away because Charlie and Lola, Gerald the Giraffe, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Winnie the Pooh as well as Anton and Marie Tatin's Thirty-Six Cats had taken a soaking that had all but reduced them to soggy puffed up pulp, and I'm not talking about the plotlines. Of course these were not only La Fille's absolute favourites but some of her most expensive books as the English ones had been ordered and sent from the UK.

The ceiling plaster has gone all scabby and yellow and looks like over-ripe brie and the polished parquet has turned a dull milky colour. Hoppity the rabbit who took a heroic soaking to spare the others has a disturbing orange stain across his face, but it will probably wash out. The books, however, have so far resisted a blow dry with the hair drier and will have to be binned. This is terrible and La Fille knows it. She loves books and we have instilled in her an absolute respect for them.

We will not only have to buy new books but pay for the flood damage as, under bizarre rules we should claim off our insurance even though it's not our fault. As there has hardly been a six month period when we have NOT been drenched by our neighbours, our insurance company has "fired" us. Worse, even though none of these incidents were our fault no other insurance company will give us cover. Our French bank finally agreed to insure us so long as we paid an exorbitant premium and promised not to claim for flood damage for three years. Hard to believe, but true.

We hammered on the neighbours' door and they said something along the lines of: "Are you sure it's us?" There then followed a conversation worthy of Estragon and Vladimir about whether the water could have come from somewhere else; an original idea as there are no other water pipes but those of our neighbours anywhere within 20 feet of the leak. The Frenchman stuck to reasoning while I was ready to smash someone's head in with a mushy copy of the adventures of a British schoolboy and his little sister. God knows my patience has been saintlike until now: tomorrow I'm calling an estate agent.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Cold Comfort

No wonder British people are depressed. Wouldn't you want to put your head down the toilet and flush it when it rains through August and you know after that it's just going to turn rainier and colder. In truth, the national malaise has nothing to do with credit, crunches or crises, it's about cumulonimbus praecipitao and its ubiquitous cousins.

There we all were in stringy dresses and micro-thin strappy here-comes-the-sun t-shirts expecting summer. We are Londoners. We are eternally optimistic and snatch hope from the ether. We are waiting for summer. We do not expect the city to morph into Barbados or the Bahamas or even Bognor Regis in its Victorian summer heyday. We are low maintenance sun worshippers. We don't need the full roast, not even a sub mark 2. Just a gentle low grill to take the edge off the omniprescent gloom. Instead we hunch into bitter winds that whip around bare shoulders and ankles and turn the hoped-for golden tan into goose bumps.

There was a moment last week as La Fille and I huddled together for warmth under a pushchair blanket (the only warm thing we could find) on the sofa wearing all the clothes we had with us to watch Monsters, Inc., (she won't watch it alone) when I seriously considered sparking the central heating. Central heating in August? How depressing is that?

Forced to abandon the park and go stir crazy indoors, I bit my mother's head off every time she launched into a "the trouble with this country is..." conversation. "Don't believe all that milk-and-honey tosh about France," I said expounding at length my unpopular theory that there is a reason Great Britain is called what it is. The problem was that with every raindrop that wept hysterically down the window pane I was tempted to agree with her. It didn't help when the Frenchman called and described in detail the seven circles of sweaty hell he was enduring in Paris: "It was so hot last night I could hardly sleep," he said. As he moaned about the heat, I wished death by a thousand pointy icicles upon him.

A few days later he arrived in London put on his linen shorts and predicted optimistically that there would be a change in the 'meteo'. He opened the back door - left it open - and went out to smoke a filterless Gitane. Within ten minutes max his knees had turned a kind of glassy blue colour. He scuttled upstairs to find a pair of trousers. "So it is true what they say about summer in England," he said rhetorically, disappearing before I could think of a pithy reply.

I'm depressed and I don't even live here anymore.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Gone swimming

London is a curious place in August. It is open, unlike Paris. But it is wet. It is cold. And because it is wet and cold and August, it is bloody miserable. Have I reverse hibernated and woken up in winter? Of course I didn't bring a thick jumper, a raincoat and an umbrella. I thought it was summer. There was so much rain ducks had moved into the puddles on the common. Last evening, La Fille and I huddled together for warmth on the sofa and watched Monsters, Inc. I was a shiver away from turning on the central heating and digging out a water bottle.

Then today as I was walking to the Post Office in a summer dress stomping and cursing the weather, an ambulance sped past, lights flashing, siren wailing. There was a tailback of traffic at the lights, but everyone moved out of its way. White van man pulled onto the pavement. Boy racer edged in behind. The lorry driver who had been going so fast he sent an arc of grey spray our way - maybe he thought it was summer as well - pulled off the road too. Impatient pedestrians leaped back onto the pavement. The ambulance sped onwards to its emergency without so much as a single flash of brake. In eight years, I have never seen this happen in Paris. I thought: It may be cold and wet and miserable in August, but it's damn civilised here.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Gone fishing.

Paris is a curious place in August. It has always seemed to me odd that a first world capital should all but shut down for a month - it used to be two months - but then I'm not French. Parisians seem to think it normal that it's next to impossible to get an appointment with a doctor, dentist, specialist or even a plumber, builder, solicitor, until after La Rentrée in September. Of course you can argue this is a good thing; less stress, more leisure, slower pace of life et al; all fine unless you need a doctor, dentist, plumber in Paris in August. A couple of years ago a 40+ friend undergoing IVF treatment in those twilight years of dwindling fertility when every minute let alone every month seems to count, was told in June to report back to her specialist in September. It wasn't that he would be on holiday for three months, he explained, but someone involved in the procreation process would be so it wasn't worth starting. She cried all the way home. Her gynaecologist was right. French hospitals in August make the NHS look overstaffed.

In August French newspapers and magazines go into summer mode. Their pages are filled with timeless, repeat features produced well in advance so their journalists can take the summer off. In any case, it is extremely hard to buy a newspaper or magazine since, though the French press is in a sales crisis, most of the kiosks are closed too. Parking in much of Paris is also free, presumably because the traffic wardens are all on holiday, and many shops and restaurants close while their owners head south even though it is the peak of the tourist season.

When I first arrived in France fellow journalists joked how each summer they wrote stories about Paris families dumping granny outside the hospital - even if she wasn't sick - putting the children into holiday camps, kicking the dog out of the car on the motorway and disappearing down south for les vacances. I laughed but thought they were pedaling cheap stereotypes. Then in 2003 Europe had one of its hottest summers on record. In France, a whisker short of 15,000 people died, most of them elderly, many of them left by their families in hospitals and care homes and nearly all of them from a lack of water. Pretty basic stuff. Two weeks later there were still unidentified and in an emergency morgue in a refrigerated warehouse at a food market on the outskirts of Paris. Again, basic stuff: the victims' families had gone on holiday leaving Mamie and Papie behind, had heard reports of the heatwave killing the elderly - they can hardly have missed them because for once the French newspapers, radio and television had some real summer news to report - but had apparently not telephoned to find out if they were all right and still alive.

Sometimes reality is stranger than stereotype: the majority of French people I have met believe they are entitled to go on holiday for large swathes of July and/or August even if it means the country virtually closing down. The peak of this national inactivity is August 15, the Ascension bank holiday, which is odd in a country that vaunts its secular credentials. Having this day off and if possible several either side is the norm. Last year, the 21-year-old son of some French friends doing six-weeks' paid work experience during his 12-week summer break was genuinely horrified when he was told he could have Wednesday 15 August off - it was a national holiday after all - but not the Thursday and Friday afterwards. This meant he could not go away for five days. I fully expected a dossier to be sent to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.

Unlike in Britain where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth about who is in charge of the clattering country while Gordon Brown is on holiday, nobody, as far as I know, is standing in while François Fillon the French prime minister is away. They are all away too. Normal service will be resumed in September.

Friday, 1 August 2008

The Dance of the Seven Doo Doos

We are heading back to London to pack up the place there and mark the end of our year-long cross Channel adventure; not celebrate exactly as the idea of giving up my London bolthole does not fill me with unconfined job. What an adventure it has been. La Fille can now shout at me in English AND French, throw bilingual tantrums and can now say things like: "Oh do stop being ever so very boring," when I go on at her. Before she spoke to me in French because it was easier. Now she speaks to me in French just to annoy me. It's progress. What's more, no shrink in sight.

And never let it be said that I have neglected to educate La Fille in the many and varied facets of English "culture".

The other morning I found her in the kitchen scantily clad with two of her scrappy linen security blankets - known in France as "doudous' pronounced doo-doos - tied around her, one round the chest, the other the waist - dancing in front of the microwave door to Oh I do Like to Be Beside the Seaside. As I said, progress!