Monday, 29 June 2009

Marks & Spencer: My Part in its Downfall.

Should Marks and Spencer announce it has fallen short of its targets this financial year, I fear I may be called to account for my inadvertent contribution to this downturn.

I will attend the Annual General Meeting with three identical woks and a picture of a fourth wok. The former are black steel and have wooden handles; the latter is shiny aluminium and has a glass lid. Small, but important details. Under the arm not carrying woks, I will have a girls' duvet cover printed with sugary cupcakes. More devilish details. I will also carry a guilty look even though I haven't actually done anything.

I am a huge fan of M & S. When the bean counters who run what was Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer's penny bazaar decided to shut the only store here several years ago, they left British expatriates bereft. It's mostly an English thing, but the Frenchman who is, as his nom de plume suggests, French, is also a huge fan of Marks & Spencer. He fell in love with the store, or more particularly, it's underpants, around about the same time he fell in love with me. His love for the shop was consummated after he told me the particular M & S underpants he liked were called "moule-burnes" and sent me off to ask the girl in the men's department for some. It turned out I was asking for "ball-squeezers" or something to that effect. This caused huge mirth among the sales assistants at the time and probably right up until the day they lost their jobs. It was nine years ago but is still a source of hilarity for the Frenchman's friends.

So, I have suffered humiliation heaped on rejection at the hands of M & S but have remained true. In April I ordered a wok from the online store. In the picture it was a thing of beauty, all shiny with riveted handles and a glass lid. What arrived was not. It was black, had a wooden handle and no lid. M & S customer services apologised profusely, said to keep the ugly wok and promised they'd send the right one. The Frenchman, used to the French school of customer relations, was impressed. A week later another black, wooden handle, no lid wok arrived. More calls. Another order. Another ugly wok. M & S not only says I can keep them but has given me a refund of my original order because I didn't get what I wanted. This is generous, but not economically sustainable.

M & S's generosity didn't stop there. A couple of weeks ago another order arrived and at the bottom of the box was a pink duvet set covered in cupcakes I hadn't ordered. I told the Frenchman I was going to phone M & S and 'fess up. He advised me to think long and hard before doing so. It was all very well salving my conscience, he said, but what of the warehouse packer named on the delivery note who was surely going to get it in the neck if I reported his generosity. He might, cautioned the Frenchman, lose his job and not find another because of the economic crisis. It had all the makings of An Inspector Calls. I put the duvet and my guilt in the cupboard.

So that's three woks and set of bedlinen awry on the stock count and I'm just one customer among millions. Then again maybe it is deliberate. Perhaps someone in the warehouse heard the one about the English woman and the 'moule-burnes' and felt I deserved a break.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Taking Le Manneken-Pis

We had been in Brussels for a metaphorical five minutes and you could have knocked me over with a copy of Libération. A driver stopped at a pedestrian crossing to let us cross. And there wasn't even a red light to make him do this. A man who walked over and dislodged a small paving stone, stopped, picked up the errant stone and put it back in its hole. Then a woman, who seemed to be in a hurry, passed us, saw us looking at our map, retraced her steps and asked if we needed directions. The man in a corner newsagents said I didn't need to spend 10 euros on one of his maps because he would point out the quickest route to our hotel. Another local explained how the public transport system worked and a tram driver patiently directed us to where we needed to go for the right line and stop.

The following morning we had breakfast in a café in the city's biggest tourist area served with a smile and pleasantries and jam, went to the Cocoa and Chocolate Museum where we were greeted like long lost friends and handed a speculoos - those delicious spicy biscuits you get with coffee - dunked in delicious warm melted chocolat, and were given more unsolicited but not unwelcome help finding our way around and discovering local events and sights.

In two days of walking about we did not once step in any dog poo or see one single cyclist or motorcyclist on the pavement, and were treated with utmost courtesy wherever we went (apart from the Beer Museum which was a waste of six euros - even with a beer thrown in - and where they behaved like they had bad hangovers and couldn't give a toss). This wasn't the courtesy of economic obligation, but genuine pleasantness, or so it seemed. The man selling sweets on the main shopping street smiled as he gave directions to the city's department store even though I bought nothing from him. Languages spoken with ease and willingness: French, Dutch, English and German.

The French like to mock the Belgians. Comparisons are made between Paris, the City of Light and Fine Wine and Haute Cuisine and Culture versus Brussels the City of the Peeing Boy and Chocolate and Beer and Chips. It's a form of superiority complex not helped by the fact that Belgians do appear to have an unnatural fondness for garden gnomes. True, Belgium isn't the prettiest capital in Europe, but in spite of the rain and unseasonal cold, it was, for me, one of the most pleasurable to visit. So Paris, time to stop taking the 'pis'?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Cultures and Complexes

We were invited to La Fille's school for her "evaluation report". I often hear parents in Britain moaning about the number of tests their young children have to take, but I believe formal assessment at three to four years old - as happens here - trumps anything I've heard from the UK.

We also had to go with La Fille and she had to sit in on the assessment. Some French parents who had been through this before had complained this was horribly traumatic for their children and had marked them if not for life, at least for the following week. The parents on the school committee had raised it with the headmistress but she insisted it was part of the "education process" and the children should be there.

So there we were in the classroom sitting either side of La Fille on titchy chairs, the Frenchman with his knees somewhere either side of his ears, facing the teacher who was giving her assessment and showing us the report. One green spot (top marks), and another and another. But what was this? A small orange dot ringed with green. It turned out the orange spot was a small minus for "talking too much" sometime back in the Autumn when La Fille started school. The green ring around it signified that she no longer does this, we learned. This did seem a little unfair as I'd assumed the "evaluation" was of where La Fille is now, not where she was on her first weeks in school, but it was such a teeny weeny orange dot amid a sea of green I let it go. As I said, she is only four years old.

The teacher concluded it was a very good report and told La Fille the green ring around the orange dot showed how she had grown up since she started school. Immediately La Fille perked up. "I don't want to grow up because I don't want to marry with anyone I want to stay with Mama and Papa," she announced. I considered it best to leave before Sigmund the Psi was evoked. Later, walking back from the park with just the Frenchman, La Fille announced she had changed her mind and wanted to marry him.

I thought this a rather sweet story and have recounted it to both British and French friends. The British, without exception, have laughed and said: "Ahh, bless!" Every single French parent has said: "Ah, the Oedipus Complex. (Freud again). Don't worry they grow out of it."

But I wasn't worried. Should I be?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Mean old boiler

Of course it was too good to be true. We've gone, oh I would say a few months without any water leaking in or on our apartment but experience has told us never to become too complacent. This time it was the boiler (again) and this time it was Nigella who took a hit (again). A couple of beautifully illustrated books on French cuisine that I hadn't yet got around to trying out and the very old French cookery encyclopaedia in which I'd pressed some roses from my wedding bouquet and forgotten to take them out, were also waterlogged. The picture of the chocolate gateau I was planning to make looked soggy and unappetising. I call Monsieur Mustapha. "I'll be over later," he says. I don't know why we don't just put him on a permanent retainer.

Rather than sit indoors with the incessant drip-drip-drip of water from the boiler into a salad bowl, La Fille and I decided to go to the Champ de Mars and have a picnic by the Eiffel Tower. In the time it takes us to get there on the Metro - roughly 15 minutes - the sky has gone from sunny June to grey, chilly February and it is raining. We return home and have the picnic on the living room floor. As I lay out the raw carrots and tuna pasta and plastic knives and forks La Fille puts on her My First Nursery Rhymes CD so the sound of dripping and rain is drowned out. "This is fun," she says cheerfully as we sit on the parquet listening to This Old Man sipping apple juice through straws.

Mustapha arrives on time, as always, and greets me like a close relative; big hug, vigorously shaken hand. It would be true to say I have seen Mustapha more times over the last few years than I have some members of my family. La Fille marches into the kitchen as Mustapha is examining the boiler. She gives an exaggerated sigh and announces: "Encore une fuite d'eau" (yet another water leak), which is precisely what her father said this morning minus the swear word. Mustapha declares the boiler 'fichu' (basically stuffed). From where I stand, this is not necessarily bad news and might, eventually, compensate for the ruined cookery books. The whole kitchen of green and black tiles circa 1950 and mosaic floor the colour of vomit and cupboards that are bloated and wonky from successive floods needs replacing. The Frenchman is someone who never does today what can be put off indefinitely - or at least until next year - but this might be the kick needed. Mustapha repairs the leak but warns we'll need a new boiler in "12-18 months max". He adds: "And you don't want to be doing it in winter." I call the Frenchman to tell him, trying to keep the excitement of a new kitchen from my voice. I also tell him that Mustapha has suggested turning La Belle Belle Fille's room into the kitchen and the kitchen into La Belle Belle Fille's room; an idea that might be worth considering when she goes back to university in September, I say. There is silence the other end of the line.

Later I tell a girlfriend the verdict on the boiler. Just before midnight she sends me a message.
"Funny. I was explaining the concept of 'stepmother' to XXXXX (her daughter) and used you as an example of how not all stepmothers were evil like those in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella etc. You've given it a whole new twist. Generally, the evil stepmother makes her stepdaughter DO the cuisine; you want to make her room INTO the cuisine. You really should contact Disney about this."

I might just do that as soon as I've finished poisoning these apples.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Channel Hopping

My ongoing campaign to ensure that La Fille speaks English has taken a blow. Central to my mission, conducted with the zeal of a religious convert, is the great God of expatriate parents, Uncle Walt. Uncle Walt is our saviour; him and the other Hollywood relatives because unfortunately we can't get Auntie Cbeebies (and I'd throw myself under a Ninky Nonk if I had to watch In the Night Garden every day.)

Anyway, the house rule is that films are watched in VO or original version and as Uncle Walt churns out far more children's entertainment than the rest of the world put together, this means lots of English lessons disguised as fun. This is the carrot to my linguistic stick; the reward La Fille gets for persisting with her mother's tongue. I can live with the Disney fluff and political incorrectness, the fairies, the pink princesses and the cute talking animals as long as whatever tosh they are talking is in English.

Then the remote broke down and we had to watch Mulan II in French. A double whammy that made me regret not studying something useful like electronic circuitry. The default language on DVDs sold in France is French. Normally this is no problem; I just go to the audio configurations, flick it to English and voila, even the insects are talking my language. But with no remote the only way to play a movie was to push the play button on the DVD which then launched itself into French. I took the remote apart and cleaned it but it still wouldn't work. La Fille wailed: "Why can't I watch it in French?" Answer: "Because even though she's supposed to be Chinese Mulan speaks English." Retort: "But Mulan's like me, she speaks French and English." I couldn't think of a good response to that so I set about dismantling the remote again.

La Fille flounced off, arms crossed, pet lip jutting. Her parting shot was: "You do what you want. I'm going to the lavatory." The lavatory? I don't know where she got that from and I don't know what I'm worrying about. This girl speaks English better than I do.