I feel such a weedy weed. I used to be intrepid, adventurous. I used to boldly go, and even to go boldly to assiduously avoid split infinitives (until someone suggested it wasn't even grammatically incorrect). Now I read Jaywalker's adventures to the circus with her boys in the snow and think: "She describes herself as an 'unfit mother'. What does that make me?" I do not expect answers on an e-card, thank you.
We did try to take La Fille out yesterday, really we did. We decided to go to the Guignols puppet show on the Champs Elysées and perhaps take a stroll down the Christmas Market nearby. We looked out of the window and noticed it was snowing, or more accurately, raining soggy ice but it did not look that wet. We dressed accordingly, though for some inexplicable reason the Frenchman forgot to wear a hat or bring gloves and neither of us bothered to grab one of the half a dozen umbrellas next to the front door. "It's just a bit of rain," he said, as he always does. We jumped on the Metro heading for the left bank of the Seine so we could take a pleasant stroll over the river, but in the 15 minutes it took to get there the drizzle had turned into a downpour. We ploughed on valiantly the Frenchman and I walking around huge puddles, La Fille through them to reach the Seine. It was only 100 yards or so but by the time we on the bridge we were completely drenched. The rain was osmosing up my trouser legs and the Frenchman complained he was "frozen". When La Fille said she was cold I discovered her trousers were making their way to her knees - taking her knickers with them - because I had forgotten to tighten the elastic in the waist. Consequently the bottoms were so soaked they were dripping water into her boots. To make me feel even more guilty she wailed: "It's all my fault, Mama. I forgot my umbrella," as her glasses steamed up under an oversized hat.
We were by now half way across the bridge over the Seine with the Eiffel Tower, half shrouded in cloud behind us, and the coloured lights of the Christmas Market stalls half shrouded in rainy snow in front. The idea of watching a puppet show in soaking wet clothes did not seem a great idea but I didn't want to disappoint La Fille. "Where's the puppet theatre?" I yelled at the Frenchman who was in charge of logistics. "Don't know," he yelled back. "Well which direction?". "Don't know." "What, no idea?" "Not a clue." I said: "Let's go home." I looked at La Fille: "Home?". She nodded. Water ran off her nose and dripped into her sodden scarf.
So the butcher says to the man in front of me who is ordering a succulent-looking joint of beef that costs an arm and a leg: "You could always do boeuf à la ficelle like the English do." He looks at me. "You're English aren't you? That's right isn't it?"
I reply: "Haven't got a clue what you're talking about. Really"
He says: "Boeuf à la ficelle. That's what the English do with a joint of beef. They tie it with string and hang it in water and boil it." He looks at me again. "Tell him, they do don't they?" By this time the customer in front is managing to grimace and look superior at the same time.
"Well yes, I've heard of boiled beef, though I've never cooked it myself and you wouldn't do it with an expensive piece of meat like that," I say. "We're not completely mad."
The Frenchman interjects. "Shall I buy some Beaujolais Nouveau or do you want proper wine?" he asks. Laughs all round.
I say: "I thought it had all been sent to England."
Went to the theatre to see Molière's 'Malade Imaginaire' Thursday evening. The tickets were La Belle Belle-Fille's birthday present to her father and I got to go too.
There were several groups of schoolchildren some only about ten years old in the audience. Now we know what is on the French syllabus this year. There was much door clacking, jumping up and down and giggling the rest of the audience could have done without, but they were generally well-behaved given that it was not as interactive as the new WoW. They asked questions of their teachers during the interval and led the applause and cheering at the end: in short they evidently enjoyed themselves.
Shakespeare had been dead for six years when Molière, real name Jean Baptiste Poquelin, was born in 1622, but the pair are widely regarded as contemporaries. The plays, plots and characters they created still resonate centuries on: unrequieted love; sibling jealousy; greed; ambition; more greed; wayward children; unreasonable parents, internecine warfare. It's all wicked stepmothers, ugly sisters, bonkers royals, ruthless politicians, avaricious bankers, foreigners - even a few Scots for heaven's sake - and various forms of idiocy from one end of the Complete Works to the other. How much more relevant could it be?
The 'Malade Imaginaire' (Imaginary Invalid) is about a hypochondriac (how French) who arranges for his elder daughter to marry a doctor to have a physician in the family. I even learned the French for "enema" - un lavement. I hope it will never come in useful but you never know. Molière was dying of pulmonary disease when the play was first staged on February 10, 1673. He played the lead role himself and managed four performances before coughing so hard he burst a vein in one of his lungs and shuffled off the mortal coil. His scorn for the clergy and medical profession meant neither priest nor doctor was prepared to attend his deathbed. No chance of a home call in those days either, it seems: fascinating stuff for current exam papers. Shakespeare and Molière came up with some cracking stories. I once saw King Lear (bonkers royal) in modern costume complete with machine guns (internecine warfare) and a gum-chewing, leather-jacketed Goneril (wayward daughter). Great stuff. And if you've never seen actors dressed as trees make Burnham Wood come to Dunsinane, (bonkers and Scottish) well, you haven't really lived.
Perhaps those who decide the content of Britain's school syllabus and judge Shakespeare too elitist or exclusive and the language too difficult, might like to visit Paris and see how French children appreciate classic literature. I don't speak 17th century French, any more than I do 16th century English verse. I had no idea what 'un lavement' was before Thursday evening. Nor, I suspect, did the 10-year-olds, but we had all worked it out by the end thanks to numerous references to "derrières". Anyone who thinks this is elitist and exclusive is, in my humble opinion, talking out of the same region.
British friends living in France have been asking me to explain what the hell is going on in the main opposition Socialist party. "It's a bit complicated," I say, not knowing where to start. By popular demand here is a cut-out-and-keep aide memoire of the most salient points.
* The Socialist Party will elect a new leader today.
* The 200,000 party members will decide between three candidates: a) Ségolène Royal, glamorous, failed presidential candidate b) Martine Aubry, Mayor of Lille, architect of France's 35-hour working week and daughter of Jacques Delors, once the most hated Frenchman in Britain and the target of The Sun's "Hop off You Frog" and "Up Yours Delors" campaigns. c) Benoit Hamon, a young left-winger who few people had heard of up until now and even now
* Ms Royal used to live with the current leader of the Socialist Party François Hollande, with whom she has four children. She threw him out last year, after she lost the presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy, allegedly because he - Hollande that is - had an affair with a political journalist. (Confusingly Mr Sarkozy also had an affair with a political journalist).
* Bertrand Delanoe, the gay Mayor of Paris was a candidate and was mean about rival Ms Aubry - and she about him - before he decided to withdraw. He now supports Ms Aubry.
* Mr Hollande supported Mr Delanoe as his successor. He does not support Ms Royal. This is an understatement.
* Ms Royal can talk for France. And talk, and talk, and talk. During the presidential campaign she appeared utterly incapable of giving a straight, succinct answer. (I followed the campaign and by the end I wanted to saw my wrists with a blunt ballpoint every time she spoke).
* Mr Delanoe, who is very popular among Parisians, had his own Hillary Clinton moment last year when required to support publicly Ms Royal's presidential campaign.
* Ms Royal is the favourite to win the leadership battle decided by a vote of party members, but was booed and jeered at a party conference last weekend at Rheims filled with...party members.
* Mr Hollande, a bespectacled Billy Bunter-ish figure who was right-hand man to Lionel Jospin, the Socialist before Ms Royal to have a go at being president but who was knocked into third place by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National, was forced to cancel the conference closing speech as the whole event turned into a viper's nest of insults and mutual loathing.
* Ms Aubry is the French equivalent of Old Labour and Ms Royal, New Labour. They do not like each other. This is also an understatement.
* Ms Royal has hinted that it might be a good idea to let Mr Hamon, who is young but Old Labour, lead the party, to thus thwart rivals Aubry and Delanoe.
* If Ms Royal wins it will probably split the party and destroy any hope of an effective opposition in France for the immediate and foreseeable future.
* Ms Royal still wants to be president and wants to challenge Mr Sarkozy in 2012. If her party carries on as it is, she stands about as much chance as I do of leading France.
As I will be on a training course for a few hours on Saturday I have been inspired by Madonna to draw up a list of dos and don'ts for the Frenchman regarding La Fille. Unlike the soon-to-be ex Mrs Ritchie I will be only a kilometer from home and not the other side of the world, but quand meme; one cannot be too careful. (Incidentally, you'd have thought a woman whose religion preaches love and peace would avoid dressing her boys in combat trousers, non?)
So far, I have come up with the following.
1) La Fille is not to spend the day in her pyjamas even if they are 100% natural fibre pyjamas.
2) If I forget or do not have time to leave out clothes please note: orange tights of any fibre whatsoever should not be matched with skirts, dresses or trousers of a fluorescent pink hue. Try turning the light on before you choose clothing. (Oh, and by the way: her clothes are in the wardrobe in her bedroom).
3) La Fille is not allowed to watch Bambi, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast or Shrek in French. If these characters were intended to speak anything other than English they would do so and not require dubbing.
4) Do not take advantage of my absence to have a sneaky cigarette next to the kitchen window. (Opening it makes no difference as the smoke blows inwards).
5) Do not say: "Oh it doesn't matter your mother's not here" if La Fille eats with her fork in her right hand.
6) You are absolutely forbidden to leave La Fille outside a public WC while you go inside for a pee.
7) If I should be delayed you will not keep La Fille up late in the evening in the erroneous belief she will give you a lie-in Sunday morning. She will wake up, as she always does, at 7am, but will be grouchy all day. You know this to be true.
8) It is your responsibility to ensure that La Fille is not photographed by either paparazzi or private detectives or the fashion police in orange tights and a red dress on her own outside a public toilet.
A guide to etiquette in the UK advises not to clink glasses during a toast, put salt on food without tasting it first or discuss sex or politics at the dinner table. Apparently these are top of a new list of social no-nos.
Oh well, cross the French off the guest list then.
It goes on to advise against such faux pas as: obtrusive underwear; crumpled, frumpy, tarty and lazy clothing; tucking your napkin into your shirt, deemed the height of vulgarity.
Hang fire, some of those stylish Gauls can come after all.
Diners should apparently stick to conversational safe subjects such as the weather, food and nature. Dinner, it says, is never a forum for debate.
No. Sorry, changed our mind. The French definitely can't come.
And if you should - heaven forbid - drop your napkin on the floor, do let the butler retrieve it.
Quoi? Knickers? Nature? Butlers? I'd rather stay at home with a takeaway and a piece of kitchen roll.
It is strange how random thoughts form the occasional cluster.
La Fille stuck the paper poppy I bought her in London in her school book alongside a felt-pen drawing of mamie her French grandmother. She and her classmates are expected to explain their "homework" presumably to stymie pushy parents who do squiddly à la Picasso drawings for them, and I asked her what she had said about the poppy. "I said it was a flower from London," she told me. I asked if she had explained it was for the soldiers in the war (I admit, I coached her) and she gave me a withering look. "The teacher speaks French and I don't know the French for 'soldier'," she said then added: "And I don't know what war means." Fair point, I thought.
Anyway, one thought led to another...and while she was at school explaining her paper poppy, I finished reading David Golder by Irène Némirovsky, whose most celebrated book Suite Française was written just before she was transported from France to Auschwitz where she was killed. Published a decade before World War II, David Golder is a bleak story full of such irredeemably awful people I felt I was being physically mugged as I read it. I had a frisson of sympathy for the main character Golder, but only because he is comprehensively done-over by his beloved only child, a daughter, and as the mother of a beloved only child, La Fille, I am appalled by the idea of beloved only children doing over their doting parents. (It's a solipsistic and intellectually dubious response I know, but I can't help it).
And when I think of Irène Némirovsky I always think of her two daughters Denise and Elisabeth who, their mother having been shipped off to the Nazis' most notorious but by no means unique, concentration camp, find themselves, aged five and ten, being hunted down by the collaborationist French police.
Perhaps it was this subconscious train of thought that led me to look up as I walked through the park huddled into the collar of my coat and notice the memorial for the first time; a park I have visited dozens and dozens of times thus a memorial I have walked past dozens and dozens of times without noticing.
It reads: "Arrested by police of the Vichy government, complicit in the Nazi occupation, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944 and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jews. More than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris among them 85 of the very youngest who had not even reached school age. In passing read their names. Your memory is their only resting place." There follows the names of 85 children, the eldest of them six-years-old, the youngest, just two months, several from the same family.
And I thought of La Fille and her paper poppy and blissful ignorance of war.
The French TGV is truly a wonder of the modern world: slick, streamlined, punctual, reasonably clean and fast. It is not called a 'train à grande vitesse' for nothing. This weekend's trip to Normandy by train was so far removed from my last experience of trains in the UK as to be a civilisation apart.
France first: the pointy nosed - and pointy tailed - TGV (they do look like they are kissing when coupled) left from scheduled platform at exactly the scheduled time. It was full and the Frenchman had been given a seat in front of La Fille and I because we had booked late, but the seats were clean and the middle armrest came up so La Fille could stretch out and sleep. You could have eaten your lunch off the drop-down table. So we did. When the train was about to stop we were clearly and audibly told the name of the station as well as the length of time, in minutes, we would be stopped. There was plenty of luggage space. It was tranquil enough to read and what a blessed relief to be no wiser about our fellow travelers when we got off the train 90 minutes later than we had been when we boarded it. A couple of people took mobile phone calls but whispered and kept them short. Others appeared to have heeded the signs asking for phones to be silenced. Conversations between passengers were discreet. And, and, and...the train arrived on time.
Britain: La Fille and I took a train recently to East Anglia. At the ticket office I asked when the train would be leaving and from which platform. On arriving at the designated platform not two minutes later I found, contrary to what I'd been told, there were no trains leaving. Not one. Services on the first part of the line had been replaced by buses. We jumped on a bus about to leave. It smelled of sick. We arrived at the station part-way in the rain. Just as the bus pulled in the train pulled out. Station staff could not say when the next one would leave. Questions were met with ignorance and indifference. An hour later a train arrived and we were advised to change further up the line. The carriage was British Rail rolling stock, which shows how old it was. There was litter on the floor, the tables were filthy with encrusted food and drink stains. We changed trains. It was the same: the seats were so claggy with God knows what I told La Fille to try to keep her hands off them. (I know, a little dirt never hurt anyone but this was something else). I discovered when I stood up that my seat was covered with short white dog hair that had attached itself to my clothes. Several passengers made and received calls and openly chatted about their private lives in gruesome detail. The guy sitting behind made several calls in which he swore every other word. La Fille asked why he was so angry. When we finally arrived I couldn't open the train door because I couldn't lean out of the window far enough. Our 90 minute journey took more than three hours.
These are not lucky/unlucky one-off experiences. It may not always be so exceptionally good/bad, but this is the general pattern.
Earlier this week members of an anarchist group were arrested and accused of trying to sabotage TGV lines with blocks of concrete. From the news reports I discovered the TGV's pointy nose is not just for attracting other trains, but is designed to absorb much of the impact in a crash and even push aside obstacles on the track. That is why a French anarchist might want to damage or cause chaos on France's TGV network: a British anarchist, if such a person exists, would surely think: Why bother.
This morning in a small Normandy village we stood, like countless others, and remembered those who never made it home. I find Remembrance Sunday in Britain moving but at least the French commemorate the end of The Great War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and not, as we British do, the nearest convenient weekend. It does seem almost disrespectful to arrange the day to suit modern calendars and working practices as opposed to the actual day the war ended.
I get very weepy seeing ex-servicemen weighed down with revived memories and clinking medals and thinking about what they and their comrades did for us. "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave life today". Today was no exception. The local pompiers were out in force standing to attention with their shiny helmets in one hand and decorated Tricolors in the other. The mayor read a statement from the minister thanking foreigners who had come to fight and die on French soil in la der des ders (the war to end all wars). When he made particular mention of the British and Commonwealth soldiers, the Frenchman patted me on the back, and I took refuge behind my sunglasses even though it was threatening to rain.
A local bugler played the Sonnerie aux Morts - the French equivalent of the Last Post - and there was a minute's silence. The silence was broken only by a middle-aged café owner who decided to sweep his terrace at that very moment. A small local band played a valiant if somewhat weedy rendition of La Marseillaise. My mother-in-law told how during the Second World War people from the village successfully hid British and French Canadian servicemen from the Nazis in secret mushroom farms. (The Frenchman advises me to be wary of local legends about wartime heroics. He may be right - I cannot find any reference to this - but who knows?) I wished I had brought my paper poppies from London.
After the ceremony, I put a couple of euros into a tin being rattled by an old soldier who, judging by his age and medals, was a veteran of World War II. He takes my hand in both of his. They are worn and weathered, their fading veins like smudged lines on an old battle plan. They are surprisingly warm. He smiles and says: "Thank you. Thank you."
Did I mention we came back from London to find we'd been leaked on again? No, I thought not. There is such a sense of relentless inevitability about it I cannot even raise the energy to scream. If you could be bothered to go back through the posts you would find it has happened, on average, every three months and, mostly, when we have not been here or are asleep. It does it when we go on holiday, on the rare occasions we go out to dinner and in the middle of the night. It does it when our friendly plumber is in Morocco. It is as if the plumbing in this building has a perverse combination of a mind of its own, access to all our diaries and a very personal grudge.
This time the water did not come from the neighbours upstairs, but the neighbour one floor above them. Or, more accurately, the ex-neighbour's place as the elderly owner died a couple of months ago so it was possibly caused by one of her family, which means you cannot really shout at them as they are still in mourning and that wouldn't be very nice or neighbourly. In any case it apparently came from some pipework in the wall so it possibly wasn't even their fault anyway. It was, I was told in a call from Paris to London, "dirty water". I did not ask exactly what this meant. I hope it was sink "dirty" as opposed to toilet "dirty" but I have tried not to think about it too hard. This building must really hate me.
We are going away again this weekend. The Frenchman asked La Belle Belle-Fille who is staying behind to do her best to avoid any more leaks or floods. It was a joke. None of us laughed. I will be waiting for the call.
Almost exactly one year ago during a visit by French friends to London the inevitable dinner argument broke out over America. Any Briton living in France will know how it goes...Why are you British so fond of America? versus Why do you French hate America? The widespread anti-America sentiment in France always winds me up but this spat became particularly animated when one of the French friends sneered after I said - and the Frenchman agreed - that however you feel about the United States you have to admit it is the greatest democracy on earth. Our anti-American friend said the French for "rubbish": America was not a democracy because poor blacks had no political voice and elections were all about who had most money. I thumped the table and said the French might be in a better position to give lessons on democracy if their own black and North African citizens were better represented. He stuck to his argument that America was not democratic, the "American Dream" was rubbish and a black man could never be president. This was half way through the two-year presidential campaign when the Democrat candidate had not yet been decided and everyone's money was on Hillary Clinton. It was when Barack Obama was still raising campaign funds with $5, $10, $20 donations from members of the public before, it is true, the big bucks waded in. It was also well over half way through several bottles of red wine.
I said: "Perhaps you are right but at least America has Barack Obama."
Sorry for the radio silence, if anyone noticed. We were in the UK and discovered there are still places in the so-called civilised world - ie Suffolk - where you cannot always get access to the world wide web.
We spent the last few days in London where the Frenchman joined La Fille and I and during which I spent more time than I might have wished in a particular café because it was next to our hotel. We ate baguettes and croissants for breakfast and poulet breton and canard for dinner. We listened to Georges Brassens and Jacques Dutronc over red wine and coffees. We were also treated to some Charles Aznavour, which just shows how desperate it was. We were served by staff who were French (apart from one Hungarian). There were cards on the table advertising a Christmas party menu. La Fille grabbed one and said: "Oh look it's Mama and Papa." I was flattered (look at that waist) though the Frenchman said he could not remember the last time his hair was this colour or if he ever had such an angular nose. Note the Eiffel Tower in the background.
I thought: "I am in London. I have paid good money to get away from this."
The move to France was only supposed to be for a couple of years, not forever. Then I met The Frenchman. Then I had La Fille. Now there's no way back. But La Fille, to whom a horse is a cheval and a frog is just pond life is still half English. So before the Gallic nation claims her for its own, sprinkles her with garlic, sautés her and swallows her up whole we make regular escapes on the Eurostar. And we have discovered the grass is various shades of green either side of the Channel.