Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Beau Jest

I had a chuckle over the newspaper story about the MoD planning to recruit female Gurkhas from 2009. Apparently they fear an equality suit from Nepalese women unless they agree to let them enlist. I am not convinced recruiting women to fight wars is a fundamental step forward for feminism (in the same way fighting for the right to send your sons down coal mines has always perplexed me). But each to their own.

As a child, the tomboy in me wanted to join the French Foreign Legion when I grew up. I loved the idea of turning up at the gates of the FL barracks in Paris and whispering conspiratorially to the man on sentry duty that I wanted to be let in. I would then be whisked away to be fitted with a white kepi, issued my leather apron, red blanket and axe and taught to march at 88 steps per minute. OK, the pay is not great; not even 1,000 euros a month for a foot legionnaire, but I figured I could go without in return for some twiddly fringed epaulettes. Besides it seemed impossibly romantic - and attractive - that your own mum could turn up at the gate begging to know if you had enlisted and were off to fight for France and, if you didn't want her to know you were there, she wouldn't be told. This was before I became a mother myself. Beau Geste has a lot to answer for.

The Gurkha story reminded me of an announcement some years ago by the French Ministry of Defence that to conform to European equality laws the Foreign Legion would be accepting women recruits. Had I still been a young tomboy this would have been joy unconfined; as it was I realised I couldn't join even if I wanted to having passed the recruitment age. Nevertheless, I thought it might be a wheeze to try, so I phoned up the Legion HQ to ask when women were being drafted.

The commander on the other end of the phone sounded like he was being choked by his waxed moustache when I posed the question.

"Madame. There will never be women in the Foreign Legion," he spluttered.

"But the French government has said...

"Madame. There will never be women in the Foreign Legion."

"Do you mean I cannot join?"

Splutter. "Madame. I can assure you, whatever the French government has told you, there will never be women in the Foreign Legion.

"Well there is this new law that...

"Madame. Do you hear me? Women. Foreign Legion. Never. Ever. Ever."

I'll take that as a no then.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Mad Moiselle

The owner of a French café called me "Mademoiselle". He made my day. Make that week. I wanted to hug him, except by the alarmed look on his face he guessed and gripped his chipped metal tray as if ready to hit me over the head with it if I took one step towards him. "Mademoiselle"! I haven't been called "Mademoiselle" for years. Look it up; "Mademoiselle" is reserved for "young" women. It means: "You are young". It means the person addressing you has looked, yes looked, and decided, if you are not obviously under 30 that you are at the very least young enough to accept "Mademoiselle" as a compliment and not a lack of respect. If they had the slightest doubt, they would say "Madame" as calling a Mademoiselle "Madam" is less insulting than calling a Madam "Mademoiselle".

"Mademoiselle" is also used for the unmarried but not any old singleton; only the young unwed. This makes it very different to the English "Miss", used for the single of any age but which, after a certain age, transforms its subject into a sniffing, fussy, tragic, sexless spinster - think Miss Haversham, think Emily Dickinson... An unmarried Frenchwoman of advanced years would never expect to be called "Mademoiselle". If she was she would probably snatch that tray and whack the person addressing her over the head. Except, of course, if she is easily flattered, short-sighted and still feels 18 in her head, in which case the "Mademoiselle" is probably sarcastic and the person using it having a bit of a joke. He may, in fact, think she looks something like a small silvery drumfish.

I went to the loo and caught a look at myself in the mirror. "Bastard" I thought.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Mean Streets

I met my friend whose dog was hit by a pavement cyclist for a coffee this morning. She was breathless and after the 'bises' launched into an account of her most recent pavement confrontation. She said: "You'll never believe it." Apparently, shortly after asking a man if he intended to pick up the cigarette packet he had chucked on the ground, she came upon a dog owner whose animal was, at that very moment, fouling the pavement.

Friend: "Excuse me, you are intending to clean that up, aren't you?"
Man: "No."
Friend: "But that's disgusting."
Man: "Yes, isn't it."

She said: "Can you believe it?" We fell about laughing at the awfulness of it which shows we have not become humourless hormonal old hags. Well not entirely. We spent the next hour ranting - again - about the invasion of Paris's pavements by motorcyclists, cyclists, dog poo and people who drop litter, (with a short diversion for the tale of a rude waiter who refused to accept 20 centimes in 1 and 2 centime coins) until we rendered ourselves speechless. Can you believe it?

We discussed options for combating the daily death threats. My friend is still all for going to see the local mayor and perhaps the local police chief. We considered letting down tyres - alternatively putting nails into or glass under them when parked - sticking an umbrella in their spokes (thank you Jaywalker), kicking them then running away. We agreed that shrieking, manic or reasoned remonstrating and swearing while simultaneously narrowing our eyes have no effect whatsoever and do not even make us feel better. "I try to confine the anger to my head and not let it go to my stomach," says my friend. "Do you think we're getting a bit obsessed about this and making ourselves ill?" I ask.

We 'bise' goodbye. I walk off and dodge a motorcyclist weaving along the pavement while looking back over his shoulder. Can you bloody believe it?

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Cluedo Part Two

With all the skill of a Cluedo detective I have found out who suggested La Fille would be "prettier without her glasses" for her class photo. It was dirty work. La Fille refused to snitch even when offered an amnesty of sweets, ice-cream and lollipops to name the guilty party. Since torture was not an option and dangling her upside down while tickling her feet did not work. I gave up on her. La Fille's teacher was an easy touch; I didn't even have to turn hissy before she fingered the culprit. Under questioning she admitted she had also been surprised to see La Fille was not wearing her spectacles. It was the directrice wot did it, she informed me.

Turns out it was indeed the headmistress in the gymnasium with the camera. Yikes. What do I do now? Perhaps it was a good job I had the weekend to climb down from the ceiling.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

"Example is the School of Mankind..."

There are times I hear the news and realise the slip of water between Britain and France is less a channel than a cultural chasm. This week there were two events: both involved French president Nicholas Sarkozy who is turning into Sam Sam on a mission to save the world, and both seem to have been pulled out of a political drawer marked: Making It Up As You Go Along.

The first was the president's decision to revoke the extradition order against an Italian woman, a one-time leading member of the Red Brigades convicted of kidnapping and murder in Italy. Whatever the pros and cons of the woman's case - and these things are always more complicated than reported - the most astonishing thing was that Mr Sarkozy apparently made this unexplained decision after some heavy-duty lobbying by his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and her sister. Can you just imagine the headlines in the UK if Sarah Brown and family were to use such influence on her husband? Good Gordon, it would be apoplexy all round.

The second was a presidential edict that the next time football fans at a match boo or whistle during La Marseillaise, the game will be cancelled and the stadium emptied. This followed the dissing of the national anthem at the start of a France v Tunisia friendly in Paris; perhaps as some suggested, because French-born fans of North African descent object to its call to shed "impure blood"; perhaps, as other opined, because they do not feel French. It seems to me this dictat will have two sure results: 1) It will become an act of provocation - nay honour - for some fans to whistle during the Marseillaise; 2) Tens of thousands of hyped-up football supporters subsequently denied a match will invade the streets of Paris. In Britain such a ruling would be considered -rightly or wrongly - an infringement of freedom of expression.

Having been elected a "deputy" school governor (the results of the vote have not been announced but there was only one list of candidates) I promise not to let the (non-existent) power go to my head (too much). I solemnly swear to try to engage brain before opening mouth (as often as possible); I will not let the Frenchman influence me unduly in any decisions I am required to make (he has already said words to the effect of: you're on your own, love) and I will not shut down the entire school if a single three-year-old points at the president's official portrait and asks: "Who's that strange (small) man?" But please do not expect me on fund-raising duties the next time there is a France v Algeria match at the Stade de France. I shall be on the Eurostar out of here before the first whistle.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Eye of the Beholder

It is Friday so La Fille brought home her school book to do her "homework" - a drawing, picture or collage - over the weekend. In it were photocopies of photographs of children in different classes. La Fille is there. She is pictured without her glasses.

I ask her why she is not wearing her glasses. I have spent two years impressing on her how important it is to wear her glasses. She always wears them. She is not wearing them in the photo. She umms and ahhs, as she does whenever asked about school. Then she says "they" - she has sensed the tension in my voice and will not say who - told her she would be "plus belle sans lunettes" - prettier without glasses.

I am speechless, and believe me, that is rare.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Point de Suspension...

On the morning of my wedding I went with La Belle Belle Fille to the hairdressers. They had double booked the appointment. Instead of apologising, they made it plain - in the way only Parisians can - they thought this was my fault. After much huffing and tutting, the hairdresser snatched the flowers the florist had prepared for my hair and scolded me that they were not prepared properly. My fault again. She then set a hapless trainee to work on my head and went into raptures over La Belle Belle Fille promising to create the most wonderful, original, knock-out coiffure for her. I wanted to say: "Excuse me, it's ME who's getting married", but I was very, very stressed and worried if I opened my mouth I would cry. That was a few years ago and the hair turned out fine in the end. The wedding too.

This scene flashed back today when I sparked up the computer and discovered what is interesting (the) three readers of this blog, my blog, is not me, my week, my hopes and fears and feelings. No. They want to know about my meeting earlier this week with Jaywalker. "What's she like? What's she like?" squawk the emails. "What's she like?"

Well sorry. I have three minutes and 20 seconds to find a recipe for Chocolate Cornflake Cakes to make and sell for La Fille's school's 'solidarity fund' so you're just going to have to wait...!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Speaking in Tongues.

Just over one month part time at French school and as I feared La Fille's English has gone Gallic shaped.

She knows better than to speak to me in French if she stands a hope in hell of wheedling success, but the English is coming out all over the place. Before she did not seem to have much problem with the grammar in either language. Now she appears to be translating sentences from French to English. Adverbs and possessives are particularly tricky.

"I would like absolutely for you to buy me a dog black real".

"That is the shirt blue about Papa".

Yesterday she wanted to watch Bambi (sob).

"Why do I have to watch it in English?," she said. "Because Bambi SPEAKS ENGLISH," I said my voice raising from hiss to near hysterical.

What am I saying?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Ad nauseam.

Saturday morning happenings in no particular order:

*A friend calls in great agitation. Her dog has been hit by a cyclist on the pavement.

*The lift in our building is out of order. The doors are broken. Someone has been sick inside.

*Two winos sit in the children's playground part of an otherwise empty park. They swig from bottles. Children watch.

*The sand pit is full of rubbish.

*There is dog dirt right outside our back door.

*A cyclist on a 20kg Vélib' jumps a red light.

*A motorist ignores a pedestrian crossing.

*Demonstrators march down the Boulevards. The roads are blocked.

*I reflect on my friend's suggestion we complain to the mayor about threats to life and limb on Paris' pavements.

*I think: Good idea. We will fall about with uncontrollable mirth at the very idea next week. Probably in front of the mayor.

*The estate agent is closed. Again.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Madly, truly, politely.

A close London friend phoned to say she was on the Eurostar and suggested dinner. Did I hesitate? I put a roast in the oven for the Frenchman and La Belle Belle Fille, ordered the Frenchman to take over reading La Fille's bedtime stories, kissed everyone goodbye and went out. Hoorah! I felt like Marty in Madagascar.

My friend and her colleague could hardly splice a word in edgeways (I don't get out enough with English speakers. Actually I don't get out enough stop) but did manage to explain it was a business visit to their company's Paris office. The staff here speak French (they are French after all). My friend and her colleague do not.

Aware of the cultural divide exposed by my previous post I thought some advice on being polite might be useful. I suggested: "It is a good idea to say 'Bonjour Madame/Monsieur/Mademoiselle' whenever you're introduced to anyone and before you begin blathering in English."

The truth is however sniffy the French might be about the American 'have a nice day now' reflex or however hypocritical they perceive it, they have exactly the same formula. You go into a shop or restaurant or office or wherever and you say "Bonjour Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle". (After eight years I only recently discovered that just saying "Bonjour" is not enough, which is probably why people are so rude to me). You do your business and exit with a: "bonne matinée/apres midi/soirée/fin de semaine (good morning, afternoon, evening, weekend) or whatever followed by an "Au revoir" (goodbye) with or without a second "Madame/Monsieur/Mademoiselle". The shopkeeper or whoever replies in kind.

I love it, I really do. It may be a verbal tic and it does depend on the other party playing the game, but to me it is the sort of exchange that lifts everyday business out of the curt, mundane and grubby. I love it so much, I reflexively do a version of it back in London. "Good morning" I chirp, followed by a "thank you so much" and "goodbye" (I can't quite bring myself to say "have a nice day").

Sadly, people in Britain seem to view this as a cross between verbal harassment and lunacy. The flicker of fear that crosses faces translates as: this woman is stark staring mad.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Crise? What Crisis?

Live in Paris and you get used to having a curt "No" barked at you from people who should be trying to sell you something but frankly do not give a stuff. What is genuinely surprising is that they are doing it even now.

Twice in the last few days - in a popular children's clothes shop and a High Street electrical store - I have faced what is, in current circumstances, particularly astonishing rudeness. In both I was about to spend up to 100 euros (£67). I was so fed up by the surly attitude of the staff when I asked simple questions, I put down what I was going to buy and walked out. Both times I thought: "I'll order it online." In a third shop I returned an item because it was too small and was told off by the harpie-voiced manageress because the wrapping was damaged. I pointed out it was damaged when I bought it. "No it wasn't. You damaged it," she said.

What planet are these people from? Have they not seen the newspapers, listened to the radio, watched the television, had a pep talk from their stricken bosses? After a certain Schadenfreude here about the 'American' financial crisis, people have woken up to discover France is not an economic island. "Yes guys, it can happen here," I say in sorrow not smugness. Even in a boom I have difficulty understanding how one becomes so far removed from reality as to not realise that if you are employed by a shop it is in your personal interest to encourage people to spend money in it. If you cannot do it for sensible economic reasons, for God's sake do it for selfish ones.

It truly baffles me. I would not wish unemployment, hardship and misery on anyone so why do these people behave as if they wish it upon themselves?

Saturday, 4 October 2008

It's a Long Way to Tiperra West

Paris: In a park full of French children La Fille, who is yet to enter a sociable phase, strikes up a friendship with a delighful Australian girl. The mutual admiration is forged when they discover they speak the same language.

La Fille stops hanging off my jacket and runs off with her new friend, who, I discover, is a couple of years older than her. They play hide and seek, tag and chase thudding into the sand with much giggling. They walk around barefoot holding hands and stand arms around each other forming an united front against the French children monopolising the see-saw. Then when they secure a place they sit tight and refuse to get off. As this has given the little girl's mum, also a writer, and I a chance to make friends too - and as none of the French mums have noticed the foreign takeover - we pretend not to have seen either.

I have noticed that La Fille has an uncanny knack of spotting a kindred fish out of water. In London playgrounds and even in the Anglophone Caribbean she was able to find the only French speaker for miles around, and possibly the whole island. But this is the first time I have seen La Fille become so firmly and instantly attached to another child. Sadly, it was the briefest of friendships: three magical rencontres in the same park and then time for goodbyes.

The next morning, from the moment she wakes up La Fille starts badgering to go to the park to see her friend. I explain, as gently as I can, that she will not be there. I say: "She has gone home to Australia." Realising that La Fille has not the faintest idea where Australia is I add: "And that's a very long way away, in fact the other side of the world." La Fille's face falls then perks up. "Never mind," she says. "Let's go there anyway. I don't mind walking."

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Do the Hustle

I was pounced on and found myself up for election as a parents' delegate at La Fille's school this morning. I protested. I pretended I did not speak French. I nearly said: "Do you realise I am someone who talks about safe-sex raisins in front of children". I did say: "But I don't even know what 'parent délégué' means." To no avail. My name, my telephone number, my email have been noted. "Can you make cakes?" asked the woman who pounced on me with a wild-eyed look. "Well, sort of," I said not wishing to appear a complete foreign dimwit. "You'll do," she said. Let us pray nobody votes for me.

Then I came home with La Fille and burned the fish fingers while dancing to the marionettes' song in the living room. Fish fingers and puppet impersonations. How sad is that?

Ainsi font, font, font,
Les petites marionettes....et tra la la la la.

I cannot explain why I was dancing to this. I cringe every time I hear it. I once asked the Frenchman why there was this nursery rhyme about toilets (ainsi font = un siphon = a U-bend). I thought the mishearing was quite funny but he looked at me as if I was raving bonkers even after I had explained.

Sad and mad. Would you want me involved in your school?