I took La Fille to her first 'manifestation' yesterday. It was not a huge effort as the demonstration passed the end of our road and I thought she might like it - all the noise and hullabaloo - and it would mark and important step in her cultural education. It would not be unfair or racist to say the French do indeed like striding the streets waving banners and yelling slogans that don't rhyme and La Fille is, after all, half French.
It being a General Strike, the police had sealed off the roads well in advance so there were even more motorbikes, scooters and bicycles illegally on the pavements. Within ten paces I was beginning to regret thinking it might be fun as well as educational as in addition to two-wheel hazards several smokers, not paying the slightest attention to where they were waving their cigarette, threatened to singe what is left of La Fille's hair. La Fille did not look as if she was liking her first 'manif', not one little bit, until we headed for Place de la République. Here the demonstration was headed by a lorry decked out with posters and banners of the French Communist Party. Standing high up on a scaffold stage on the back of the lorry were two protestors: one wearing mask to look like President Nicolas Sarkozy and next to him a man in a top hat and tails throwing leaflets to the crowd below.
"Look, look, look," shrieked La Fille, pointing to the Communist in his penguin suit. "Look, it's Mister Willy Wonka."
La Fille took a pair of scissors and hacked off her hair while I was on the telephone and not paying attention. This sentence probably says much about my parenting skills, none of it good. Scissors? Telephone? Not paying attention?
I was still on the phone - talking about work to a potential employer - when I heard her call "Mama" from the bathroom. I found her standing in front of the full-length mirror clutching a pair of round-tipped children's scissors (for cutting paper). The floor was covered in locks of her beautiful silky hair. I shrieked, ended the call and stared open-mouthed at La Fille. "What have you done?" I wailed sinking to my knees. La Fille's face turned disconsolate as she realised what she had done. She is nearly four but her hair had only just begun to grow, to thicken, to lose its baby frizz. "How can I put clips in my hair now?" she wailed. I scooped up the shorn hair in my hands. Don't ask why; it is possible that for one nanosecond I thought I could superglue it back on. Guilt does funny things to your head.
I bundled her into a coat and out of the door. We ran to the next but one nearest hairdresser. (I could not face taking her to the nearest because of the time when I cut her hair and made a hash of it.) The two trainees laughed when I explained what had happened. They summoned the salon manager: "We have a new apprentice here," one giggled. Not helpful, I thought as La Fille buried her deconstructed tousled head into my coat. "Why did you do it?" asked the other. "Didn't like my fringe," mumbled La Fille. "Didn't like her mum on the phone," I added. A senior cutter wielding an electric razor set to work. Ten minutes later La Fille looked like a boy. A boy with short hair. Profiting from our obvious distress the salon manager asked for 19 euros (pretty steep for no wash, a quick razor and no dry). Obviously distressed, I paid up without a word.
I feel we made sad sight walking hand in hand up the road, though possibly not as sad a sight as we had made running down it.
"Don't worry you still look beautiful and it'll grow," I told La Fille.
Sometimes Paris has a touch of Al Capone's Chicago about it. Maybe things are no better in the UK, but the French capital can make you feel that you have experienced something, if not illegal then distinctly dodgy at best or been royally had over at worst.
First, La Fille needs some new spectacles. We have been through several pairs and no matter the choices we make (frames, non-scratch lenses, unbreakable..) the final bill is always around 220 euros; pretty expensive for something that has to be changed regularly. This time we tried out new opticians and were delighted when, given a choice of frames, La Fille chose ones that were half the price of her current pair. The lenses were also cheaper. We were presented the bill...for 220 euros. The sales girl, or as she was grandly styled the "Ophthalmological Advisor", had added on various bells and whistles, including "special thin lenses" that cost an extra 40 euros. "We didn't ask for them; do we have a choice?" inquired the Frenchman. "No. I only work with lenses like that," she retorted. And why 220 euros? I suspect this is the limit the French health authorities will reimburse for children's eyewear.
Second: the management company that runs our building produced an estimate for work on the foundations and drains. It is for 44,000 euros. The residents asked for two other estimates; not unreasonable given the work and money involved. Also not unreasonable as our neighbour went to the trouble of finding plumbers and organising one additional estimate - this time for 37,000 - so the management company only had to find one more. At this point the architect employed by the management company - and overseeing the project - said he was not prepared to work with the firm that had produced the 37,000 euros estimate nor indeed any other company except the one that wanted 44,000 euros. We stood our ground and insisted on another estimate. Last week this third estimate arrived from the management company. It was a blatant cut and paste of the 44,000 euro bill but with a different firm's name on top and for 48,000 euros thus ensuring we are unlikely to choose it.
Then the friend whose surgeon presented him for a bill for 2,000 euros for an operation he had said would cost 700 euros telling him "It's OK, your mutuelle (a kind of non-profit making private insurance) will pay", called us. "Remember that surgeon...? he asked. "Well I've just discovered he also works at my mutuelle."
While I dig out my cheque book here are some - possibly very unfair - quotes about the Windy City to keep you amused. I have never been myself, so it's a cheap laugh.
"I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago...I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages." Rudyard Kipling, 1891
"Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years." Carl Sandburg, 1961
"A facade of skyscrapers facing a lake and behind the facade, every type of dubiousness." E.M. Forster
"We struck the home trail now, and in a few hours were in that astonishing Chicago - a city where they are always rubbing a lamp, and fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities. It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago - she outgrows her prophecies faster than she can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time." Mark Twain "Life on the Mississippi," 1883
"There was no need to inform us of the protocol involved. We were from Chicago and knew all about cement." Groucho Marx, pressing his hands into the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
For those who were shocked and confused...I have made a couple of changes to the post below because a paragraph I wrote as a joke was open to a very unfortunate and misleading interpretation. Sorry. Please do not all rush to book a room in the hotel opposite...I can assure you that the Frenchman is not in the habit of dancing semi-naked in front of our living room window, or anywhere else to my knowledge!
We live opposite a hotel. When I say opposite I mean right opposite: we overlook them, they overlook us from a distance of the size of a one-car one way street and two narrow pavements. If they choose to do so hotel guest can see into our apartment and we can see into their rooms. It can be interesting, but mostly we take no notice and keep well back from the windows. We hope they do the same, but they don't always. Or maybe they are just exhibitionists. Visitors to our flat think it's great fun living opposite a hotel. I always know when someone chez nous has been up close and peeping by the greasy nose prints on the window glass, but that's another story.
Today the babysitter arrived to keep La Fille busy for a couple of hours while I did some boring but necessary administrative paperwork and brought with her a kind of karaoke microphone. I was not familiar with the idea, not being a great fan of singing in public, or even in private, but apparently La Fille had played with it on a previous occasion despite it costing around £200 (just the knowledge of the cost of replacing it gave me heart flutters.) So the babysitter plugs it into the television and the words come up on the screen along with the music and La Fille, who can't read but knows a tune when she hears one, starts singing something entirely unrelated and to a different tune. They seem to be having fun so I leave them to it and go to the post office.
I return 20 minutes later (the queues aren't any better here) to find the babysitter doing the washing up while La Fille, stripped down to her vest and knickers, is clutching the microphone and singing and dancing in front of the television - which is right by the living room window, just overlooking the hotel - to the music of 'Physical' by Olivia Newton John. ("I want to get physical, physical...I want to get animal, animal," warbles ONJ).
Of course it is all totally innocent and La Fille has no idea what the song is and is indeed singing something completely different and in any case the window is closed and I'm sure nobody can hear the music, but I am aware out of the corner of my eye that there are a couple of people leaning out of the hotel windows to smoke cigarettes who might be looking our way. "Why have you taken nearly all your clothes off?" I ask. La Fille, who at that moment has pulled her vest up to her neck. She says: "But you have to take your clothes off when you dance." I glance out of the window towards the hotel and say: "No. No you do not. STOP IT RIGHT NOW."
At that moment a girlfriend rings. I say: "Sorry, I can't talk; La Fille is doing a striptease in front of the entire hotel and we'll have half the perverts in Christendom checking into one-way-street rooms if word gets round. Plus she seems to think you have to take your clothes off when you dance. Where did that come from?" And my friend laughs and says: "Indeed where did it come from? Do you make a habit of dancing half naked in the window?" and I say: "Most certainly not."
My efforts to ensure that La Fille has a grounding in English culture - whatever that may or may not be - before the French bodysnatchers get to work on her, continue apace. Evidence of successes notched up so far:
* La Fille insists on being called Snow White since our trip to the pantomime. Not, you note, Blanche Neige, but Snow White. The Anglophone and the Feminist in me are slugging this one out.
* Conversation between La Fille and her new best friend, the French boy from school. La Fille: "Come on speak English." Boy (wailing): "Mais je ne parle pas Anglais." La Fille: "Yes you do."
* Imaginary discussion between La Fille and one of her dolls in her bedroom. "Shall we watch the television?" Silence accompanying imaginary look at imaginary television. "Oh no there's only football on. That's boring."
* "Mama, please may I have some tomato ketchup in my carrot soup?" (Hmmm. The jury's out on that one too.)
* La Fille: "Can I watch Oui-Oui?" Me: "He's not Oui-Oui he's Noddy. He's a little English boy who lives in Toytown. And his best friend is called Big Ears not Potimarron." (What AM I saying?) La Fille: "Well can I watch Noddy?" Me: "No."
* La Fille: "Bloody hell." Me: "Sorry, what did you say?" La Fille: "Bloody hell." Me: "What?" La Fille: "Bloody hell." I don't know where she got that from.
* After watching the inauguration of Barack Obama together she now says: "Barack Obama" and "God Save America". I realise this is straying from our Sceptred Isle but it is at least English and will serve her well in France until the Barack-adoring French realise the new President of the United States may know where France is - unlike his predecessor - but this does not necessarily mean he cares.
For those in Britain who lament the 'dumbing down' of the education system...
A French friend's brother is an English professor in a French state school teaching 13-14 year olds. The other day he was lamenting the widespread use of internet translations by his pupils. Apart from being lazy and not particularly instructive electronic translations are notoriously unreliable and he was spending hours trying to make sense of homework.
One of his class had submitted an essay on British popular music containing the phrase: 'Elton John collaborated on by helped made green'. What on earth, he pondered, did this nonsense mean? Our friend's brother scratched his head and fretted over the essay for hours. He got on his computer and reversed the search putting: 'Elton John collaborated on by helped made green' into the English to French translation engine. That did not make any sense either. The whole thing became something of a mental challenge.
Suddenly there was an Eureka moment. Of course: 'Elton John collaborated on by helped made green' meant 'Elton John collaborated on Aida by Verdi'. The search engine had taken 'Aida' as a conjugation of 'aider' meaning 'to help' and 'Verdi' as a form of 'verdir' meaning 'to turn green'. Obvious really.
There is some deeply bad karma between me and water at the moment and not just here.
Moving on from the numerous leaks chez nous in Paris, we came to the UK and spent a few days with my parents in Suffolk. The first morning I stepped into the shower, turned on the water and shivered as it turned increasingly tepid (sorry I don't do cold showers). I turned the temperature dial. It heated for a couple of seconds then turned tepid again. I turned it up. The same thing happened. I accused my stepfather ("if you're so cold put on another sweater") of switching off the boiler. He insisted he hadn't and suggested I didn't have a clue how to use temperature control properly. I bit my tongue.
We went to London and checked into a hotel for the weekend. On the first morning I stepped into the shower and turned it on. Two icy cold drops then nothing. No water at all. I turned it off and on again. Still nothing. I raised and lowered the shower head. Nothing. I stepped out of the shower and turned on the sink tap. Nothing. I phoned reception. They said: "Sorry, the supply has been cut off. We don't know why." The Frenchman got up: "What is it about us and water?" he asked.
We came back to Paris. The washing machine inlet was leaking again so I crawled into the cupboard under the sink with my trusty wrench and attached the pipe to another tap. The head honcho at the plumbing company that services our building arrived. I had arranged the visit on Boxing Day. He was an hour late. I told him we had suffered nine leaks and two floods from upstairs in the three months since his company replaced the upriser in the building and we had been advised we needed a pressure reducer. As I said "water pressure reducer" I swear he looked at me as if I was a silly girly (a foreign girly to boot) and said: "You don't need a (sneery tone)'water pressure reducer'. Your pipes are old. That's the problem." He then turned on his heels and walked out of the door while I was still talking to him. It was a good job I did not have the monkey wrench in my hand at the time.
I told the Frenchman. He said he'd sort it out. "Do you want the wrench?" I asked. He said: "No, just the telephone."
We've just returned from the UK having discovered that in spite of French schadenfreude over the reported demise of the "Anglo-Saxon free-market" the country appears to be:
a) still afloat b) not up for sale as a job lot c) home to people dreaming up cunning ways to get one over the liquidators.
Under c) I include the soon to be jobless Woolworths' shop assistant who told a musician friend that the CD he assumed was going cheap was still £14.99 but "If you give me a fiver it's yours". She then pocketed the money.
While being a Prophet of Gloom, Doom and Destruction is now a la mode, I feel patriotically honour bound, given that markets function on confidence, to buck the trend with a few upbeat, if non scientific, observations.
There was nothing decent left in the sales (except a lovely pair of black leather boots and I bought them). Even Oxford Street had been picked to the bone.
Shops are reportedly desperate to offload stock but a sullen girl in Currys refused to sell me one of the large stack of CD players marked £24.99 because "that was the Christmas price and they are now more expensive." Silly me. I thought shops were legally obliged to sell at the marked price and told her. She ignored me.
When we went to the pantomime ("Oh yes we did...oh no you didn't") on a schoolday evening, it was packed with child-free adults who'd paid up to £20 a ticket.
(And while we are on about the pantomime: Nurse Nelly? What the hell is that all about? I don't remember her from the Brothers Grimm. Who was the bright spark of a child sitting between me and her grandmother who, in that dramatic moment of theatrical suspense in a pin droppingly silent auditorium shrieked at Snow White: "DON'T EAT THE APPLE"? What politically correct Fairy Godperson had the bright idea of changing the wicked stepmother into a malevolent aunt and why didn't the horrid bag say: "Mirror mirror on the wall...tra la la" like she is supposed to. Why, for that matter, didn't the seven vertically challenged persons sing "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go"? And why wasn't Stephen Fry there in person?)
Nearly every single child in the audience, including La Fille, was waving a plastic flashing magic wand or light stick (some both) that had set their parents back a whopping £4 and which, in La Fille's case, was broken simply through being waved before the end of the panto. (And no this wasn't "rich" London)
The brasserie near where we were staying was packed on Friday evening. At one point the queue for tables stretched halfway out of the door.
The nearby hotel was full of Welsh people who, as far as I know still spend pounds and are not euro-rich like the Irish, spending lots and lots of said pounds on overpriced drinks at the bar.
In four days in London I did not see a single beggar on the London Underground. Rarely a day goes by without at least one person asking for a "coin, luncheon voucher, ticket or cigarette" on the Paris Metro. Ditto people living in cardboard boxes on the streets: here I pass two or three every morning on the way to La Fille's school.
So if the French can do schadenfreude so can we. I know, it's not big, it's not clever and it's not grown up but I quote from an article in a left-of-centre French magazine. Under the headline: "This was Swinging London", the piece reports the end of the world as we knew it in the British capital. As evidence of this, it says even the Christmas parties where everyone goes "off their rocker" were cancelled.
It finishes with a quote from London property expert: "I know you French are not unhappy to see the Anglo-Saxon miracle fall from the sky. But don't kid yourselves. The Vieux Continent is always nine to 15 months behind us. Your turn will come."
Or to be really childish: "It's in front of youooooooo".
I love Christmas. I do not like New Year. December 31 strikes me as akin to 52 Saturday nights rolled into one: you are either partying or you are Norma No-Mates. We were partying this year and it was fun, but I still do not like New Year. I don't make New Year resolutions either. I am too late for 2009, in any case, but if I were to be thinking of resolutions - how close is that to revolutions? - for 2010 I already have a few.
* I will not start the year shouting at the Frenchman because he cannot move and indeed can hardly breathe because he fell and hurt his ribs. I will be sympathetic.
* I will not forget that I have put a metal and plastic object into a saucepan of boiling water to sterilise it.
* I will not nearly set fire to the flat because I left said metal and plastic object in a dry saucepan over a full flame.
* I will not then put the scorching pan straight into the sink in a panic thus a) causing much billowing acrid smoke and b) creating a burn mark in the sink that cannot be removed.
* I will not cry over the beautiful Le Creuset saucepan that now has melted plastic stuck solid to its enamel base and will probably have to be thrown out.
* I will not be so angry about all the above that I drag the Christmas tree too hastily through a too narrow door causing it to ping back and poke me in the eye.
* I will not drop the box of beautiful glass Christmas tree decorations marked "fragile" as I put them into storage.
* I will not pour bleach onto the metal object and then try to lever it out of the Le Creuset saucepan splashing bleach on my new t-shirt in the process.
* I will not meet friends I have not seen for nearly four years and then blather manicly at them for two hours because I am so pleased to finally speak to someone in English.
* I will not ever look under the kitchen sink to see if there are any leaks because I will know without looking that at least one pipe is dripping.
* I will not shout at the Frenchman again because somehow the above was absolutely his fault. Nor will I be unutterably unpleasant to him just before I am leaving on a Eurostar giving him a cast-iron reason to look for someone prettier, younger and nicer in my absence.
* I will not wait until the Frenchman has gone to bed then eat all the chocolates his mother brought for Christmas, especially the milk ones which are his favourites, knowing that he won't find out until I'm already on the Eurostar and even then he won't really mind and will still (hopefully) call me in England to say he loves me and will not (hopefully) be looking for someone prettier, younger and nicer.
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.