Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Take me to your Leader


Dear Compatriots; Frenchmen and Frenchwomen

2008 will be remembered as an historic year for many reasons. It was a year of trials and tribulations for many across the globe, of conflicts, of 'le crunch economique' of raised hopes and shattered dreams and other platitudes for millions of ordinary people who are not the president and do not live in a palace but whose suffering I feel personally. But most of all it was a year about me, me, me.

And it was the year I got to marry la babe Carla.

2008 was the year when certain people who had previously been heard to murmur: "France, that's somewhere in Texas n'est ce pas?", realised what a grande nation we still are. Thanks to me, me, me the land we call France is back on the world map and we can stick two fingers up to the critics who said we were nothing but cheese-eating-surrender monkeys. Thanks to me, me, me the cynics who thought we were fini, kaput, toast, drowned in a lake of second rate wine we couldn't palm off on the British, have been forced to eat their weasly words. Thanks to me, me, me and my stature on the stage mondiale they look up to us once again...especially Carla but me, me, me too when I am wearing my sacré big heels. Thanks to me, me, me La France is, yes, La France.

And do not forget, 2008 was the year I got la babe Carla.

2008 was my first full year as your president. I was also president of Europe and, if truth be known, I am president of the world entièr. It was the year I went to London and met a troll like man called Brown (who thinks he can solve the financial meltdown when his pound is worth salted cacahuètes) and his wife who was lovely but not as lovely as Carla. I also met my royal cousin La Reine Elizabeth II. Carla told me she was more important than the Pope so I should turn off my mobile phone, but as Carla was with me I didn't need it to bombard her with SMSs.

And let me remind you that in 2008 those drooling rosbifs with their stiff upper lips and afternoon tea and bowler hats and Australian wine saw that it was not that Mick or Eric or Oncle Tom Cobbley who got to marry la babe Carla but me, me, me.

In 2008 I stopped the tanks in Georgia, I saved Madame Bettancourt from those lefties in Colombia, I advised Barack; where do you think he got that 'Yes we can' from? Seems familiar, non? Remember my slogan: 'Avec Sarkozy Tout Devient Possible'. And if it wasn't for that Ehud Olmert whose name sounds like une anagramme, peace in the Middle East would have been down to me, me, me too. Still, I am planning to go there right after Carla and I have celebrated our first wedding anniversary to kick his fesses.

As we approach the fin de 2008 you may not be sorry to see it go, but me, me, me, I am not. I have been forced to pass the EU to the Eurosceptique Czechs. I did not want to but the accordian music stopped and I was told I could not unwrap any more layers. I have saved France, steering her through the choppy waters that threatened to send her to the bottom of what the English call the Channel and we call La Manche. I have saved Europe. I am ready to save the world. It's no wonder I am called "SuperSarko" I have asked my friend Karl to design me a special suit with this on the chest and underpants on the outside for when I am on le jog. Karl, whose middle name is Otto, thew up his hands and said non, non it will send the wrong message and Carla thought it would look ridicule but I don't care, me, me, me.

2008 has been a great year as far as I'm concerned. Vive Le President (that's me, me, me). Vive La France!

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Wrench's Prologue and Tale

I once earned the undying respect of an astonished boyfriend by mending the starter motor on his VW beetle. Some years later I was bought drinks by eternally grateful male colleagues after fixing their battered car in the middle of a Bosnian battlefield using the Swiss Army knife I always carried in my pocket or handbag (until airport security decided it made me a terrorist).

This weekend I did it again.

Monsieur Mustapha our friendly plumber came and fixed the leaks. Watching him I realised I could have done it myself. He was, I thought, a little heavy handed with the pipework given its age and propensity for springing leaks. I winced but said nothing. He added a second washer to the washing machine feed pipe. I said: "The thread's gone. The hose needs changing." He agreed but explained he couldn't change the hose because if he pulled out the machine the rotten cupboard around it would collapse. He stuck in the washer gave it a quick spin, double checked everything and cheerily pronounced us leak free.
Of course it wasn't. You don't live in a 200-plus year-old building commissioned by Napoleon's sister that has not been properly maintained for a large part of the last century - if ever - and get off that lightly.

Not ten minutes after Mustapha left we turned on the washing machine. Drip, drip, drip. "The hose needs changing," I said. To cut a long and boring story short, after the Frenchman emptied and cleaned the crud out of the cupboard next to the machine, I squeezed into it and bent double and twisted managed to loosen the "unchangeable pipe" with the monkey wrench and, yes, change it. It's true the plumber, a splendid but portly chap, could not have prised half his lardy backside into the cupboard and at over six feet tall the Frenchman was similarly handicapped even had he known which end of the wrench was which. We turned on the machine. No drips. How true it is: if you want a job doing, do it yourself.

The Frenchman hugged me as if I'd just performed pioneering heart-surgery. He said in English, and I quote: "What a wife?" I put away the wrench. Respect; it's the same in English and French.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Sodden Nigella.

On Christmas Day in the morning there we were sitting at the breakfast table recovering from the traditional French Christmas Eve meal the evening before, when my sister-in-law says: "Isn't that water leaking from your boiler?" I check. It is Christmas Day and there is water leaking from the boiler. Water has been leaking from the boiler for a few hours judging by the sodden state of the cookery books below. Delia is sodden, Jamie is sodden, Nigella, Nigel, Madhur, all sodding sodden.

Everyone stands back so I can take a closer look at the boiler. I am the resident DIY-er. The Frenchman offers to get the pipe wrench. Two joints - the in cold pipe and out hot pipe - are drip, drip, dripping. The dripping gets faster every time someone does the washing up or takes a shower. (Do not believe what they say about the French: for my lot, not spending an hour in the bathroom is out of the question.) The Frenchman tells La Belle Belle Fille to keep the showering short (30 minutes is her usual average). I say: "Well, I'm pretty confident I could change the washers, but if it all went horribly is Christmas Day." We stick a Tupperware underneath the drips and dig out the telephone number of Monsieur Mustapha our saviour plumber.

This feels like a last straw, but I said that about the last leak two days before Christmas when the washing machine pipe popped off and flooded the kitchen. In the last seven years we have been flooded on at least six times from various upstairs neighbours, had two mains pipes burst in our apartment, and leaks all over the place, some at the same time and almost always at weekends or holidays. These two are the seventh and eight washers to go in the past six weeks. This is more than coincidence or bad luck. Something is very wrong.

Standing in front of the boiler holding sodden Delia in one hand and a wrench in the other I am tempted to hit something. But it is Christmas Day; the Frenchman is looking at me wondering if I'll cry or scream or hit something and, I suspect, wondering who will prepare and cook the large castrated bird we have for lunch if I lose it.

I can hear water plopping into the Tupperware and think of Chinese water torture. This, for no particular reason apart from random thought association, brings to mind a friend who has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in Somalia. I put sodden Delia on sodden Nigella and sodden Jamie, hand back the wrench and shrug. "Worse things happen," I say. Was that a general sigh of relief or the boiler hissing at me?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


I cannot write more. The in-laws are here and they'll be out-laws if the Frenchman catches me posting. On second thoughts....(only joking)!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Christmas Crackers

At La Fille's school Christmas Party the headmistress made all the children line up in a group in the playground and sing a few songs. Parents were ordered not to clap between songs, not to sing along, and not to approach their child to take photographs. I did not hear her instructions above the hubbub of excited children and did all three.

The first song was about being 'mad about chocolate', the second about three lambs from a merry-go-round getting lost in the snow. Then the children sang a song about writing to Father Christmas to ask for various musical instruments. One of the verses calls for a request for 'clochettes' or bells that go ting-a-ling-a-ling. La Fille sang 'clochards', which means 'tramps'. In short, La Fille, following in her mother's gaffe-prone footsteps, announced to all and sundry that she wanted Father Christmas to bring her some down-and-outs.

If anyone can send me some good old fashioned English Christmas Carols I'd be very grateful...and relieved.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Pound of Flesh

The Frenchman is demonstrating a certain schadenfreude about sorry state of the British pound. Evidence: he is now very keen to go to London for the sales.

For the rest of us living in the Eurozone but paid - when indeed paid - in nicker into banks in Her Majesty's realm, it is not good right now; though admittedly not half as bad as having your home repossessed or losing your job. I read that some are saying the currency slide is not an unmitigated disaster for Great Britain Ltd. Certainly the Frenchman is not alone in his rush to cross the Channel; everyone I know and their friends and friends' friends are planning to jump on the Eurostar and do the Christmas and January sales now that their shiny euros go further. That should get things going again.

Here, the Frenchman is not just verging on gleeful but has turned into a living, breathing Shakespearean Shylock. As it is December, I have to cough up my share of our joint income tax bill for last year. The problem is I don't have enough money in my French bank account to do this and I'm not planning on transferring money from the UK any time soon while the euro is at the rate it is and the French bank continues to levy hefty charges for accepting my hard-earned. So my dear husband says I can give him the money in Sterling, but as I point out that's no great favour as the tax bill is in euros and if he wants it in Sterling the exchange rate is still the exchange rate. Aha, he says but he's willing to offer me a "preferential rate"; not you understand the approximated rate at which we have previously done our exchanges and not, admittedly, the parlous current rate, but something in between. Yesterday he offered me one figure; today another, lower one. Then this evening I said: "Shall I just keep the money I owe you in pounds in my bank and you can spend them in London?" and he replied: "Well, that depends on the exchange you're offering." I do hope he was joking but sometimes it is difficult to tell.

So it now appears I'm the Paris branch of the bloody Bank of England.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Not Faire

It is now clear to me that I have been put on this earth, in this country at this time, to amuse the French. It is a good job I am English and do not have the French hang-up about appearing "ridicule", but even so. Oh Cimon did you really have to point out that what I wrote on the recipe that is possibly going to every parent in La Fille's class is that they could "crap without syrup"? Groan, groan, groan.

Thank goodness I did not spark up the computer until I had returned from making the Chocolate Cornflake Cakes or I don't think I'd have been able to face the class of three-year-olds. Just what did I do in a previous life to deserve this: steal sweets from blind orphan chimney-sweeps? Thank heavens the recipe may not be distributed and if it is it will be on the last day of term so all those Mamas and Papas can have a thoroughly good snigger over Noel and just may have forgotten it by January. Then again, would you forget something like that?

I rang the Frenchman in a panic and shouted at him. "You looked at the recipe why the hell didn't you tell me I was making an arse of myself?" He seemed genuinely puzzled by Cimon's interpretation (Hmmmm. Cimon's latest post reveals this is on his mind at the moment, which might offer me a face-saving explanation) and insisted "Vouz pouvez faire sans sirop" was fine. Then just as I was calming down the Frenchman went: "Oh yes," as if he'd just realised something then said he had to go, and hung up.

Whatever. The sad fact is I have form for this sort of thing. The staff at La Fille's nursery never quite got over me referring to "safe-sex" raisins. I bet it still springs to mind every time they see dried fruit.

I hope nobody tells La Fille. She looked so proud of her Mama making chocolate cakes with syrup this morning.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Back to School

I have been asked to go to La Fille's school tomorrow and show her class how to make Chocolate Cornflake Cakes. What fun...I think. Her teacher, who insisted the CCCs were really called Roses des Sables, asked me to write out the recipe and, if I had time, do a few drawings of the ingredients because after all the children are only three years old and cannot yet read. I agreed. The Frenchman whose approach is that schooling is entirely a matter for the state and parents should get involved as little as possible clearly thought too much was being expected. "You're doing the cakes, writing out the recipe AND doing drawings," he grunted as I sat down to do my 'homework'.

So this morning I went to school proudly clutching what I considered a beautifully illustrated recipe - in French - complete with drawings of happy faces and details added by La Fille. I returned considerably less proud, with the same beautifully illustrated recipe corrected by the teacher and a gentle suggestion that I might want to do it again.

How humiliating is that?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Here. There. Everywhere.

We were in London for the last week staying with friends and a major difference between family life in London and in Paris that filled me with a wave of homesickness was suddenly revealed to me: London life is horizontal, Paris life is vertical. It was one of my best friends who came up with the notion over a few glasses of wine one evening. This was after a day in which half a dozen adults - not including the builders - nearly a dozen children and a dog had passed through the house. At one point finding myself in charge of five or six young children (I lost count exactly how many) the doorbell rang and there were another three on the step. I went upstairs to find four of the children in a tepee they had constructed in a bedroom and La Fille punching one of my best friends' boys in the head. He is nine years old and much bigger than La Fille but was clearly too well brought up to thump her back so he was taking a pasting. She seemed to be enjoying herself and he wasn't crying so I left them to it.

Over the wine I remarked to my friend and his wife, who live in a terraced house in a tree-lined street, that their home was like a train terminus with a steady stream of people coming and going, popping in, popping out, popping next door, over the road, over the fence; depositing children, collecting them. It made me think of the close-knit communities of old the demise of which is often lamented in the press and in wistful television series. I hastened to add to my friends that my comment was not a criticism. Far from it; it was an expression of envy. "In Paris nobody drops in on us," I said. It is true. Sometimes someone will ring and make an arrangement, but nobody just drops in for a cup of tea or pops in to ask if they can leave their offspring for half an hour/day/week or so. I have several friends with children in Paris but have never heard anyone suggest a sleep-over. "That's because in Paris you live vertically in flats and in London we live horizontally in houses," said my friend. How right he is, I thought in what was a small, eureka moment that almost made me tear up my return Eurostar ticket.

When my friends and their children and their friends and their children weren't popping in and out of each others houses, they were going to carol concerts at schools - not allowed in France's secular education system, going to the Christmas sales - against trading laws in France, putting up fairy lights in their gardens - hardly anyone in Paris has a garden, and heading for that singularly British Christmas tradition, the pantomime.

And for those who also lament the boorishness and dumbing down of British youth I would like to report that the death of manners is greatly exaggerated. I met two nearly teenage boys - comprehensive school classmates of my friends' eldest son - for the first time when they arrived to collect him for the walk to school. On the morning of the day we were returning to Paris both of them turned and said: "Goodbye. Pleased to meet you." How lovely is that?

Sunday, 7 December 2008

A French Tragi-Comedy

We are in a recession. Everyone agrees on that. They do not all agree on the best way out of it but most people are trying their best. Having said that there are, it seems, some people in what is known as the 'service industry' who do not seem to have noticed that times are tight and call for an extra effort or do not seem to mind or care if they go out of business or - and believe me I hesitate to write this - almost deserve to. These are people who seem to be courting disaster, bringing it on with a 'come-and-get-me-if-you-think-yer-big-enough' fingered gesture by not making any discernible effort whatsoever.

This afternoon, we set off for the Guignols on the Champs Elysées. It is the second time we have attempted this - the last time it was raining so much we gave up half way. This time it was cold, but no rain. The Guignols, or puppets, of the Champs Elysées claim to be the oldest in Paris dating back to 1818. They sell themselves as the "Vrai Guignols" the one and only true puppet show in Paris. This may well be true but it is not enough to attract 21st century crowds I can tell you. We, however, really wanted to go. We really wanted to see this show. Don't ask me why, but we did.

We arrived, hopping with enthusiasm and frozen feet, by way of the Christmas Market that was surprisingly good given the bad write up it has received. En route, we bought La Fille a Peruvian knitted hat - to add to her collection of Peruvian knitted hats - and under great protest a fluffy dog - to add to her collection of fluffy dogs - as well as a pair of cheap but warm gloves for the Frenchman and a pair for me - to add to my collection of gloves all of which had been left at home. We went on the traditional merry-go-round (twice - La Fille voluntarily, me press-ganged) and La Fille took a turn on the trampolines and ate a crepe before we set off for the nearby Guignol Theatre well in time for the 3pm show. At 2.55pm we were outside the shut gate when a man with a mop of white hair and a creased face signaled to us. The Frenchman and I disagree on exactly what it was he signaled; the Frenchman is convinced he signaled that we should wait a further three minutes, I say the signal was the inquiry that we were just three people. In any case five minutes later we were still standing, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands from the numbing, slicing cold. And we were still just three people, which may explain why we were still waiting, standing, stamping and rubbing.

I said to the Frenchman: "If it's just us, let's not go in." Like Punch and Judy shows, their British equivalent, the Guignols are a spectator sport (think, "it's behind you-ooooo!"). They lose much of their fun and purpose if you are the only child present screaming warnings about a monster in one hand to the puppet on the other. Yet less than 100 metres away from the theatre were dozens of children of all nationalities strolling the Christmas market with their parents who were hungry for 'The real French experience'. Clearly most of them had no idea the Real Original Historic Paris Guignols were just behind them.

"Why on earth hasn't the guy leafleted the whole street. It's a captive market?" I asked the Frenchman who shrugged his shoulders. We waited until 3.05pm willing more people to arrive. We were still the only ones waiting.

We sneaked away feeling guilty. Mr Guignol was not behind us. With apologies to Mr Punch... "That's not the way to do it."

Monday, 1 December 2008

Lingerie for Giraffes

La Fille has decided what she would like from Father Christmas. She seems to be taking the credit crunch to heart because all she says she wants is a toy giraffe. "Great", I said to myself. "Just a giraffe. Not a spoiled brat after all." They she started describing the giraffe and I thought: "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer a real one, Madame?"

She did this to me last year. I had wrongly assumed she was too young to have an opinion on Christmas presents and would be happy with what she was given. Then a couple of days before the Big Day she announced she wanted a Teddy Bear and not any old Teddy Bear but a Blue Bear called Fred. I traipsed around London looking for such a bear answering to such a name and eventually found one. Day saved until a few months later I left Fred on a TGV along with all La Fille's favourite dolls.

So this year it's a giraffe, any colour, any name will do, but it has to have long string legs. Yup, "long string legs". Legs are not good enough. Long legs are not good enough. It has to be long string legs. (Apparently she saw a child in the park clutching such an animal.) I pointed to the photos of real giraffes we took in the zoo and said: "Something like that?" But no. Silly me. Real giraffes do not have long string legs. I did some research on the Internet, I looked in a couple of catalogues, I visited a couple of shops: no giraffes with long string legs. I phoned one of the department stores. Unfortunately just as they answered my brain pulled the plug and down the mental drain went the French word for "string" (corde). For want of anything better I used the word "string". This meant I was asking for a toy giraffe wearing skimpy knickers. The woman on the other end of the phone sounded puzzled, then shocked as I kept repeating "string, string, you know, string", then began sniggering. I made my excuses and hung up. If you happened to be toy shopping in Paris this week and wondered what a group of shop assistants clutching their ribs and rolling around were laughing about, now you know.

Since then I have been playing the Get Out of Jail (and other awkward situations) Card saying she will have to write to Santa Claus and it will depend on whether he can find one. I am good at shifting the blame. This option also allows me to a) buy any old bloody giraffe and blame the Fat Bearded One, b) trot out the old childhood chestnut about "not always getting what you want".

This morning on the way home from school she asks: "Can't we just phone Father Christmas and ask for the giraffe." I say: "He doesn't have a telephone. He lives at the North Pole where it's cold and snowy and there are no phones, no communications, no computers. That's why you children have to send him letters." She gives me one of those 'Oh-for-goodness-sake' looks in which three year olds seem to specialise and sighs: "Wouldn't it just be easier if we bought Father Christmas a telephone?" She's right; it would. Then the Fat Bearded One - or one of his doubles - could tell her himself: "Sorry, no giraffes in or out of lacy lingerie."