Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Crisis What Crisis? Episode 2.

I want an iPhone. I am not a vacuous follower of fashion - or Steve Jobs - I just want a phone that doubles as a mini-computer when I am working away from home and that talks the same language as my other computers because it's made by the same people. I want an iPhone because it has a virtual keyboard with keys in the QWERTY order as opposed to the AZERTY order of French computers and mobile phones. It may seem a petty detail, but I touch type and AZERTY keyboards drive me to writing drivel and strong drink. The sales assistant at my phone company said the iPhone available in France came with an AZERTY touch sensitive keyboard but could be changed to an QWERTY. He could not guarantee any other phone would do this saying he'd never been asked. Failing this guarantee, I want an iPhone.

In December the French courts ruled that Apple's iPhone exclusive deal with just one French mobile telephone company was against the country's competition laws. The ruling opened the market to all phone companies. There was an appeal against the decision but it was upheld in January.

I am pretty sure that had this happened in Britain the rival mobile telephone companies would have had a stock of iPhones ready to supply to customers who wanted one; if not in December, then certainly when the appeal was decided.

Here in France I am still waiting for an iPhone. The telephone company's website says it'll be available on April 8. The local shop says "sometime" in April. To my astonishment my mobile telephone company even suggested I could go and buy one from a rival operator and it would reimburse nearly all the cost. Of course nobody would put this in writing. When I declined the offer she told me: "Our iPhone will be much more expensive." Not exactly hard selling.

Now some Internet commentators are wondering why France's phone companies have been so slow to stock the iPhones and the conspiracists whether there is any collusion going on. I don't know, I just want an iPhone. I went to my phone shop: "Are you sure you'll have one in April?" I asked the assistant. He shrugged: "Are you sure you want one?" I said: "Errr, yes. Can I reserve one now?" He shrugged: "No." "How much will it be?" He shrugged. "Don't know. You'll have to wait and see."

Collusion? Conspiracy Theory? Or just Crap Service? I don't know, I really don't.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Jumped up justice

I went for a little manifest yesterday because I am more than a little peed off with the French government this week.

We returned from holiday to discover that the mother of one of La Fille's classmates has been threatened with expulsion from France at the end of the month. She has done nothing wrong but her "carte de séjour" (permission to stay) is not being renewed. The letter informing her that she has until the end of the month to leave the country came as something of a shock as she has lived and worked legally in France for ten years.

It counts for nothing, it seems, that she has her own fashion business on which she stumps up the required taxes and charges and a small shop on which she pays rent, or that she speaks French or that her daughter who she is bringing up alone was born in France, has never lived anywhere else than France and started at a French school last September.

I am not quite sure what more this now anxious and terrified poor woman has to do to fulfil the requirements of "integration" into French society and neither is she. I suspect there is actually nothing she can do because it's not personal but political. Last year the French government expelled a record 29,796 "illegal immigrants". Brice Hortefeux the then immigration minister declared he was "very proud" of this. For 2009 the target is 26,000: this young mum is a number, nothing more. And because she is not what they call a "clandestine" but has been in France legally, worked legally, paid her taxes, schooled her child she is on the administration's books and consequently easy to find and shove on a plane back to a country she no longer calls home and that was never home to her child. And this in France, which never fails to remind the world that it is the cradle of human rights.

But this is France and nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. Off I went to manifest. My friends and fellow journalists and I stood on the corner of the street with our banner waiting to join the march at the appropriate moment. We let half a dozen groups go by, we let the teachers go by, we let a small lorry blasting out the Italian anti-fascist song Bella Ciao go by then, because we had waited an hour and the banner was heavy, we decided to join the fray...and promptly broke the unwritten rules of street marching etiquette. So much for solidarity. All I can say is if you are ever tempted to join a French march, make sure you ask permission first. "You can't march here," said one placard waver sniffily. "Go somewhere else. You're pushing in."

Bloody hell. Would you credit it. Pushing in...hmmm, I'll remember that next time I see a French queue.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Carpe Diem

Having joked about the perils of skiing in my last post, I thought I would add that I feel terribly sad for the family of the lovely Natasha Richardson, especially her two young sons.

Reading the reports I would venture that her untimely death says less about the dangers of skiing than the fact, often forgotten in the hurly burly of daily mundanity, that we all have a very tenuous grasp on life.

As Horace wrote: Seize the Day

"Don't ask (it's forbidden to know) what final fate the gods have
given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don't consult Babylonian
horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be,
whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the
last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the
facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within
short limits. While we're talking, grudging time will already
have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow."

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Pass the crystal ball

We went skiing last week. The following was supposed to be posted when I pressed the post button minutes before we left. For some reason, possibly not unconnected to me fiddling with the Post Options, it never appeared. However, never one to let a word go to waste, I am posting it now. We are back from skiing but just call me Zoltar.

The bags are packed and we are heading off to the Alps for the annual ritual humiliation that is skiing. "Can you ski?" French friends ask with surprise adding: "Are there mountains you can ski down in England?" I reply: "There aren't and I can't." But the smuggies know that already. Of course I can't, I'm English.

It really isn't fair. I said this last year - I say it every time - but it isn't. The Frenchman does no exercise whatsoever and has been skiing about four times in the last 20 years, but he can ski. Of course he can, he's French. The Belle Belle-Fille shuns any kind of sport and yet skis like a mountain goddess, sweeping down slopes with a gentle sway of the hips, her knees and skis perfectly parallel and with minimum effort and maximum grace. I keep fit, I go to the gym, I have a good sense of balance, I used to roller-skate, but the art of skiing well eludes me.

For some reason I have it in my head that I enjoy skiing but when I deconstruct the experience into the sum of its parts I wonder why I have reached this bizarre conclusion.

Here is how it will go:

a) The train will arrive and we will discover we have to pay an arm and a leg for a taxi to the ski resort or wait 90 minutes in the cold wearing our Paris clothes for the next bus.

b) The chalet that looked as if it was right by the ski lifts and village thanks to Photoshop or clever use of perspective, will turn out to be half a mile away. It will not be pretty sloping roofed wooden building with lots of balconies in the middle of the photo in the brochure, but the grey Soviet-era concrete block next to it.

c) We will pay a large sum of good money to be kitted out with ski boots that make us walk like we've got two false legs, skis that will flatly refuse to stay together when on feet, but will snap like piranhas to our fingers when we try to carry them on shoulders and will fail to stay anywhere near each other when stuck in snow outside a bar. We will be given two tall poles that we will be told are very important but that we have no idea what exactly to do with except "plante, plante", which if you are French means sticking them in the snow before executing a perfect turn and if you are English means sticking them in the snow and falling over them.

d) We will clomp through the village in said ski boots that have all the elegance of orthopedic footwear struggling to carry skis and poles and getting hot and bothered to the bottom of a mountain that looks very, very high.

e) The Frenchman will suggest going up very, very high mountain and I will agree thinking it cannot be so very, very high as it looks as there are five-year-old French children coming down it. In fact, five-year-old French children coming down it very fast.

f) I will arrive at the top of the very, very high mountain and shout at the Frenchman accusing him of trying to kill me. I will shout for at least 10 minutes until I realise he is going to ski off and leave me to get down on my own if I don't shut up and that groups of five-year-olds are looking at me before skiing off.

g) After launching myself onto the piste I will find I am heading for the edge of the mountain and have forgotten how to turn. I will panic and lean back - big big mistake - and will go faster. I will fall over.

h) At some point during the first day and every subsequent day, someone coming down the mountain faster but not necessarily better than me, will ski into me, or narrowly avoid me, despite the fact I am wearing a glowing orange jacket that could be spotted from an un-zoomed satellite shot on Google Earth.

i) I will think: "Why am I doing this?"


And here is how it went:

a) It was warm and sunny. We only waited 15 minutes for a bus; this was long enough to buy the tickets without panicking.

b) The chalet was in a pretty slope-roofed wooden building. It had a balcony. It was much smaller than it looked in the brochure. It was indeed a schlepp and a half from the main ski-lift, the village, the ski school...and all uphill.

c) We did. We were given 20% discount vouchers but still paid a small fortune equivalent to that demanded without vouchers last year. Blistered fingers on the first day.

d) Spot on.

e) He did. There were.

f) The Frenchman surpassed himself in his attempts to get his hands of my non-existent life insurance. First day, first slope, he "accidentally" went the wrong way and took us down a red competition slope for the second year running. I knew I was in trouble because there were no five-year-olds to be seen. I swear this is the same slope I saw on the recent downhill skiing championships. I shouted at the Frenchman. He looked resigned: "Welcome to the first day skiing," he said.

g) Fell over. One ski came off. (and you try retrieving then 'unlocking' a ski and shoving an orthopaedic boot back into its mechanism while trying to avoid sliding down a racing slope on the remaining ski.) Small mercy: thanks to being on competition slope nobody except the Frenchman witnessed my wimping and whingeing.

h) Yup. And 99% of them were German snowboarders.

i) Verbatim.

We had a fabulous time!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Trust me, trust me...I'm a doctor.

I am not allowed to give blood in France because I could have 'Mad Cow' disease. This rule applies to anyone who lived in Britain during the 1980s. But now my dental surgeon wants to transplant a piece of dead cow into my mouth. Now why would I agree to that?

I ask him. He says this is the treatment he recommends. I know the sub-text: he is the specialist, I must trust him. "But what exactly is 'bovine material'?" His secretary gives me a glossy leaflet. It explains that 'bovine material' is harvested bone from the carcasses of dead cows farmed in America, which it claims, is perfectly safe. Excuse me, but as the glossy leaflet was produced by the company selling the bone it would say that wouldn't it? I Google "cow bone jaw dental transplant". I find nothing particularly persuasive or dissuasive but decide: "No way", anyway. I will not be surprised if the dental surgeon refuses to treat me when I tell him.

This highlights a big difference between the NHS and the French health service. In Britain doctors jump through hoops to explain everything in great detail and give patients the choice. In France doctors tell you what to do on the understanding that they went to medical school and they know best. I prefer to think that in most cases doctors, having completed years of studies and exams, do know best. And if not best, then certainly better than the vast majority of their patients. Then again, if you were a haemophiliac given contaminated blood in the 1980s in Britain or a child given contaminated growth hormone around the same era in France, you would not agree.

The whole doctor-patient relationship has been further complicated by the Internet that has made us all armchair specialists. It has demystified medicine, science, biology, our private lives, the world, the universe, even nuclear physics. Well, perhaps not nuclear physics. The information is out there, masses of it, most of it contradictory much of it plain wrong. I can Google 'pain in stomach' and come up with anything from indigestion to cancer. The Internet can tell me what it might be; only a doctor can tell me what it is.

To be honest, I don't know which way to go on this one. For years I had a monosyllabic French doctor who refused to let me leave without a prescription for at least five drugs, several of them over the counter stuff like painkillers that I didn't need and didn't take. At the end of every appointment he would press me to take a sick note from work (useless as I'm my own boss). He never explained anything; I was expected never to complain.

Now I have a wonderful friendly but no-nonsense British GP in Paris. She is very happy to explain and reassure and I am confident she only gives me drugs I really need. In the Internet age trusting your doctor is a leap of faith, but I do think she knows best because she has never given me any reason to doubt it.

As for the "bovine material". There's no way it's going anywhere near my mouth. I'm not that mad.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Old Macdonald

We went to the Salon International d'Agriculture in Paris last week. It's taken me until now to recover. The French, as we all know, are big on farming and food and this is a massive and hugely popular annual event. It is to food and farming what the fashion shows are to haute couture with animals as perfectly groomed as catwalk models only better fed and less skinny.

The whole place was heaving even on a credit-crunch weekday and with tickets costing 12 euros, nearly £12 at current exchange rates. The metro carriage had became increasingly sweaty as we approached and pouring out of the station there were long queues for tickets. My American friend and I reverted to national stereotypes and thwarted several shameless queue jumpers who sidled in front of us by sending them to the back of the line. For our efforts we were treated to some fabulous excuses including: "Oh I am sorry, I was just trying to get a better look at the ticket office".

This year's Salon featuring 1,000 exhibitors from 17 countries and around 4,500 animals attracted more than 670,000 visitors. Once inside we spent our time trying to protect our toddler offspring from being trampled by the crowd and, like good city mothers, preventing them from being eaten or worse, dribbled or peed on, by various penned animals. Thankfully most of the farmers seem to have disappeared for lunch at the moment La Fille chose to do her impersonation of an urban wimp hopping on one foot and yelling "urgh, urgh, urgh there's poo on my shoe" after she trod in a cow pat. (It must be genetic; her elder half-sister once complained she didn't like the countryside because "it smells".)

The hangar-like exhibition halls were manned by no nonsense, ruddy-faced country folk who normally wouldn't be seen dead in Paris unless cattle prodded into coming here to wave angry banners and throw freshly-laid eggs at the Ministry of Agriculture. Last year one lippy paysan insulted the president and was told to "Sod off, you idiot". These are people who, on their rural home turf, are often happier to talk to foreigners than have an exchange with someone from Paris. Here they were chatting, God knows even smiling, to visitors most of whom were Parisiens and couldn't tell one end of an unsheared ovine from the other.

And some of the animals were magnificently weird: we saw sheep wearing hand-crafted coats to stop their eight-inch deep fleece getting dirty, chickens that looked like they were wearing those pom-pom type socks you see on Greek soldiers, cockerels with beady eyes and blood red combs, perfectly symmetrical 101-dalmation rabbits, pedigree dogs including a preened white poodle having a silly haircut and a couple of grumpy donkeys who were clearly not enjoying themselves. Somehow we missed the bulls altogether but we did come across a spectacularly well-hung prize-winning pig. My friend and I giggled like silly schoolgirls and assumed the children who were concentrating on shoving their hands at the animal's snuffling nose, hadn't noticed.

When we returned home, La Fille devoted a page in her school homework book to the Salon d'Agriculture. On the way to school Monday I asked what she was going to say when asked to explain her work to the class. She said: "I'm going to tell them about all the animals, especially the pig with the bizarre bottom." Thankfully she didn't hear me snorting into my scarf. It was one of those rare occasions where I was entirely lost for words.