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.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Kate Moss's bottom

British people are the fattest in Europe but also, we are told, the happiest with our weight; the French would say we are "bien dans notre peau" or happy in our skin. Sure. And secretly I'm a skinny supermodel called Kate Moss; so secretly even my mirror doesn't realise. How many tubby British teenage girls are happy in their peau when they realise that unless they starve themselves they're never going to look like the skinny models and actresses in the glossy magazines (who don't look like that either having been airbrushed)? So it's another diet or weight loss pills with side effects you don't want to think about too much (the drug company calls it the "Alli Oops" as if it were mildly amusing, which it is not) or another deep pan pizza. Seeing the swathes of flesh bared on a chilly day in London recently I suspect the pizza and deluded mirror have joined forces. "Does my bum look big in this?" "No dear girl, you look just like Kate Moss. Honest"

I do wonder what those who sit on the Underground and eat their own body mass in crisps, chips, chocolate and McDonalds in five stops on the Central Line and still have time for a Diet Coke, expect. Having said that, I am not sure if it's entirely their fault. Every time I go to Britain I put on weight. Every time without fail; I get back to Paris, step on the scales and I'm two kilos heavier. Not only is it annoying, I just don't get it; in the UK I eat less, I eat earlier and I expend half a million calories hauling bags and La Fille half way up the country to my parents' home and then down again.

This time I bought sandwiches for the Frenchman and La Fille for lunch and an apple for me. I said no to fish and chips and ice cream by the seaside and opted for salad. I refused potatoes and Yorkshire pudding and had extra vegetables, I ate the rhubarb without the custard. Back in Paris, I stepped on the scales: two kilos, give or take a pair of M & S knickers.

When I left the UK nine years ago chocolate bars and bags of sweets were normal-sized. Now the confectionary counters that are in your face every ten paces in London look as if they have undergone radiation on a Chernobyl scale. Then there's the enticing "two-for-one" offers in the supermarket and the obscene cereal boxes as big as houses (because of course it's cheaper to buy in bulk and not, dear customer, because we're trying to encourage you to feed your face even more, oh no, no nooo!) And a large glass of wine? Why not?" One third of the entire bottle in one go.

The "meal deal" on the train out of Liverpool Street was astonishing for the sheer volume of empty calories:

* a sandwich made of slices of bread I could have used as trendy platform soles
* a large bag of crisps
* a chocolate muffin that just screamed for Sir Ranulph to conquer it
* (the healthy bit) the smallest bottle of orange juice I've ever seen outside of a carton.

All that for just £6. A bargain! But let's face it, there's no mirror in the world going to give you a Kate Moss bottom if you eat all that in one go.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


If one of my old editors were alive today I suspect he might write the following memo to his staff.

"It is inevitable that the words 'MPs', 'expenses' and 'scandal' may, from time to time and quite reasonably, occur in this newspaper. However, I do not ever wish to see these words appearing next to each other."

I am not sure what more there is to write about this depressing saga; God knows enough real and virtual print has been expended on it to drive even the most ardent bean counting member of ICA (England and Wales) to despair. I cannot get away from the feeling these three words, or their French equivalent (deputé, frais, scandale), would never appear in the same sentence in the press here. The very idea that France's elected representatives should account for the spending of personal allowances or that we should learn they spent it on moats, chandeliers, loo rolls, HobNobs or whatever, is risible enough. Resign? Add incredulity to ruptured spleens and mass hilarity.

There were raised eyebrows a few years ago when food bills run up at the taxpayers' expense by Jacques Chirac when Mayor of Paris, and his wife Bernadette were investigated. The receipts revealed a penchant for foie gras, truffles, organic yoghurt and chocolate mousse. While it was true the £100 the Chiracs allegedly spent on fruit and vegetables and £36 on tea and coffee a day suggested they were doing their five-a-day and caffeine intravenously at the same time, but nothing ever came of it mostly because he was by then president and beyond prosecution.

The Frenchman believes the British row is heading into dangerous territory. He points out, presciently I fear, that far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's Front National, has made a successful career out of claiming, among other things, that the French political system is rotten; so successful he was voted into the run-off in the 2002 presidential election.

But never mind the chocolate biscuits and toilet paper. Call me venal and disgusting but in what privileged parallel universe do people "forget" or "not realise" they have paid off their mortgage? I know interest rates are low, but we're not talking about settling the milk bill here.

Perhaps I should be less cynical. And perhaps I should have kept La Fille at home today after she woke up this morning and announced: "I can't go to school. I've a headache, my eyes hurt, my tummy's sore and my leg is broken."

Monday, 4 May 2009

Man's Inhumanity to Man

Over the last couple of weeks the French papers have carried pictures of a dark-haired woman in large glasses whose face is etched with unimaginable pain. She is Ruth Halimi, the mother of Ilan Halimi, a young Parisien mobile telephone salesman who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, allegedly by a group of youngsters who called themselves the "Barbarians".

The details emerging from the trial of those accused of Ilan Halimi's murder are truly horrific and should bring tears to the most hard-hearted or tragedy inured. The story has been in some British papers, but bears repeating, in my view, not least because it reminds us of the wide and varied forms man's inhumanity to fellow man can take. Ilan Halimi, aged 23, was lured into a honey trap by a pretty girl acting on the instructions of the gang leader, the court heard. Having persuaded the young man to meet her, Ilan Halimi was then pounced on by the gang. He was, we learned, stripped naked and kept prisoner for 24 days during which his head apart from his nose was almost entirely covered in tape and he was stabbed, prodded, burned with cigarettes and beaten. A ransom was demanded of his family. At the end of his three week and three day ordeal he was dumped naked near a railroad in a Paris suburb; one ear and a toe had been severed and he had been covered with an inflammable liquid or acid causing burns to 80% of his body. He died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. Ilan Halimi was Jewish and apparently snatched because the head of the gang - a Muslim - believed Jews to be rich and instilled with a sense of social solidarity meaning they would be more likely to come up with the demanded six-figure ransom. Arguments, on which I make no comment, continue over whether the murder was motivated by anti-Semitism or money.

What is as deeply troubling as the above details is that there are 27 young people, two of them minors at the time of the murder, in the dock. Yes, 27 - TWENTY SEVEN - people. That's 27 people accused of being involved or having knowledge of what was happening to Ilan Halimi while it was happening not one of whom thought to inform the police or raise the alarm even anonymously.

In 20 years as a foreign correspondent I have witnessed some very gruesome events at first hand. The Balkan wars supplied enough material for a lifetime of horror movies, among them a Croatian village where dozens of mainly elderly residents had been massacred by a vaguely paramilitary group some using chainsaws to cut them in half (better not to dwell too much on the premeditation involved or the physical consequences). There was the Bosnian village where women and children and old men had been herded into the basement of a house, covered in petrol and burned alive their charred skeletons captured in the throes of an agonising death. There were first hand accounts of the Omarska prison camp and Srebrenica, arguably the most shameful act of negligence in post Second World War European history. In another hemisphere there were children in Sierra Leone who had had their ears and noses and limbs chopped off by machete wielding savages who had demanded: "long sleeve or short sleeve" before amputating their arms or hands.

But it is a long time since I have seen or heard anything to make me feel so helplessly angry and cry such bitter, bitter tears as the story of Ilan Halimi. I do not know how Ruth Halimi can bear the grief so profoundly written on her it is almost tangible. She has suffered the death of her beloved son and last week she must have suffered his death a thousand times over as the man accused of his murder swaggered and shouted his defiance and showed not the slightest hint of remorse raining blows upon the mother as he was accused of doing to the son. As Ruth Halimi contained herself, rocking back and forth in her seat in court, the so-called chief barbarian grinned and joked.

I only wish I had something profound and redeeming to say about all this, but I haven't. As a mother and a human being I just feel for Ruth Halimi.

Monday, 27 April 2009

iPhone, uPhone, noPhone

La Fille and I have been spending the holidays in the UK. We had a lovely time until halfway through the last evening when someone stole my brand new iPhone from a zipped handbag that hadn't left my shoulder or been out of my sight at a friend's party in a restaurant/bar on the river at Richmond. Don't ask me how the thief performed this particularly nasty trick of spiriting away a 16-day old phone inside a case, inside another case, inside a closed bag on the very day my new binding two-year contract came into effect, because I really have no idea. I felt nothing.

I should say that I've been lucky until now; I've never been a victim of a crime before (unless you count being shot at while trying to report from warzones). So I admit I was a bit shaken and emotional. Not hysterical after all it was "just a phone" as someone pointed out, but a bit spooked. The reason for this wasn't just having the phone pinched - and knowing I would have to pay 700 euros to replace it - but the fact that in the early hours of Sunday I found myself in a police station, not sure exactly where I was, without a map to find out, without a taxi rank in sight and without any means of finding out if the Frenchman and La Fille had got home safely or letting them know where I was and what was happening.

I found myself in the early hours of Sunday in a London police station talking to a young duty officer who quite clearly did not believe a word I was saying. It wasn't that he told me he couldn't find any record on his computer of the crime report I'd already made by phone having been astonished to find that Richmond police station closes at 8.30pm on Saturday nights. It wasn't even that he told me there was no evidence of "theft" ("the removal of something from someone with the intention of depriving them of it or use of it," as he pointed out. "Err, exactly", as I replied.). It wasn't just that he was unsympathetic and suggested I'd mislaid the phone, but that he made judgments he had no right, in my opinion, to make. What really shocked me were two comments he uttered during our exchange conducted in the station reception with him sitting about two feet behind a glass screen.

I am going to recount them as accurately as I remember given my state of distress and frustration at the time. At some point half way through our conversation at around 1am he made a remark about "alcohol on your breath". Taken aback I said something like "I beg your pardon," and he repeated that he could smell alcohol on my breath. He knew I'd been at a party when my phone was stolen, I'd told him that, but I didn't deem it necessary to say I'd only been at it about an hour before it was nicked nor that I hadn't drunk anything since, a period of around four hours. I mean, I wasn't rolling drunk so what business was it of his? Then he recounted a story of how someone had come in claiming to have been attacked and had their mobile stolen in the street by two "black men" (his words not mine), when it turned out the phone had been at home all the time. Frankly I couldn't see the relevance of either of these comments except to make a judgment about me and cast doubt on my claim. Everything I said, he shot down. The phone, fully charged at the time, was redirecting to voicemail, I said, suggesting it had been turned off. "The battery's probably flat," he countered. "It was in my bag, then it wasn't and it wasn't on the floor," I said. "You said your bag was zipped, how could it have been stolen?" he replied. "But the police hotline told me they'd put a crime report on the computer and told me to come here for the papers." "Well call them." "I can't I don't have a phone." "Here's the website address." "I don't have access to the Internet either." And so we went on sparring over whether the phone was mislaid or misappropriated until I stopped being nice and said I wanted his name. "It's all on CCTV," he replied neatly sidestepping the request. I wrote down the letters and numbers on his shoulder tabs.

I am ashamed to say that at one point I did say to the officious officer that I knew the Mayor of London (which isn't strictly true though I do know several members of his close family) but I was sorely provoked. On the other hand, I did apologise for being somewhat emotional, an apology he didn't even acknowledge. In the end he flatly refused to make a crime report and gave me a grudgingly written Property Lost in Streets form on which his belief that I was a liar was evident. Despite the property not being "lost" and certainly not "lost in streets", under 'Where Lost' he wrote: "Believed to be..." and under "Circumstances of the loss" he had written "Unknown"; neither of these were strictly true or what I had reported. Later, the phone company took one look at this mealy-mouthed document and refused to put an international block on the phone meaning the thief is probably still wandering around making free use of my expensive property. Thankfully, the female operators on the Metropolitan Police non-emergency line were less judgmental and considerably more helpful and, after hearing my tale of telephone woe, promised to send a crime report. (This is their number should you ever need them: 0300 123 12 12).

Look, I realise being the duty officer in a London police station on a Saturday night cannot be much fun and must involve fobbing off drunks and trying to spot fraudulent claims. What I should have said was women of a certain age with energetic young children who get up early and who are on the last night of their holiday in London have better things to do in the early hours of the morning - like sleep - than hang around police stations trying to convince members of Her Majesty's police force that they are not simply a dozy cow but a genuine victim of crime.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Rosbif and the Frogs

I am turning native. I ate frogs' legs yesterday. They were sautéed with a lot of garlic and served warm as an apéritif. This is the French experience, eh?

Not much to it really, psychologically or physically unless you are a frog lover. Or a frog. You'd be hard pressed to get fat on them. For the curious they taste like very tiny chicken legs, though the squeamish might be turned by the fact they are served in pairs still joined at the hip. I worried that La Fille might be a little disturbed by the idea as her favourite series of books at the moment is Frog and Toad. I was ready to explain - though I'm not sure what or how - but there was no need. She was so keen the Frenchman said: "Aha! You are half French after all", as if there might be some doubt about this.

I was with French friends and the conversation turned to other national delicacies; it was admitted that the French do have some very dubious culinary habits. For starters there's Tete de Veau, or indeed the process involved in the making of foie gras, which, is cruel even if the end product is delicious. "Aha, but you English have boiled lamb and haggis," said our hostess. "No, that's not us that's the Scottish," I said.

But there are lines to be drawn with my efforts to integrate. I can say with 100% confidence that you will not find me eating snails or, as I prefer to think of them, slugs with shells. In this case I will make an exception to the rule, oft repeated to La Fille, that one should try something before deciding one doesn't like it. I don't even want to know if I don't like snails.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Ant, the Grasshopper and the Immigrant Cockroaches

France's political incorrectness can sometimes provoke quite sharp intakes of shocked breath. Like the chocolate coated meringues some people still call a "Tete de Nègre" or "Nigger's Head" . Like referring to the children of mixed parents as "métis", or if it is a girl "métisse", which translates as "halfcast". Somehow I cannot see the Golliwog row happening in France. Then again I cannot see an English schoolteacher calling one of her pupils of African origin a "Little Monkey" as la Fille tells me her French teacher did the other day, and not being severely reprimanded for racism at worst and insensitivity at best.

It is true, political correctness can be taken too far, but where is the line to be drawn? I received the following email from one of the Frenchman's friends. At the beginning I laughed. At the end I had stopped. The words: "a gang of immigrant cockroaches" made me feel distinctly uncomfortable even in the context of cultural parody in which all the characters are insects. Thinking I might be overreacting - it has been known - or that I'd misread the nuance, I asked La Belle Belle Fille what she thought. She declared it to be too close to the truth to be funny, but didn't seem particularly shocked. I asked an American friend what she thought. Like me, she laughed at the beginning. At the end she said: "Noooo, that's awful." Maybe it's just one of those Anglo-French cultural things; a sense of humour lost in translation. Here's the mail translated.


The ant works hard all through the summer heatwave.
He builds a house and stocks up food for winter.

The grasshopper thinks the ant is stupid. He laughs, dances and plays around.

Winter comes. The ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper shivers with cold and has neither food nor shelter. He dies of cold.



The ant works hard all through the summer heatwave.
He builds a house and stocks up food for winter.

The grasshopper thinks the ant is stupid. He laughs, dances and plays around.

Winter comes. The ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper shivers with cold. He organises a press conference to demand why the ant has the right to be warm and well fed when others, less fortunate than him, are cold and hungry.

Television stations organise live shows showing the grasshopper shivering with cold and include video clips of the ant in his warm house with a table covered with food. The French are shocked that in such a rich country, a poor grasshopper can be left to suffer while others have so much. Anti-poverty organisations protest in front of the ant's house.

Jounalists run interviews claiming the ant has become rich on the back of the grasshopper. They call on the government to increase the ant's taxes so that he "pays a fair contribution". The unions, the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Communist League, the Gay and Lesbian Pride groups organise sit-ins and protests in front of the ant's house. As a show of solidarity public servants decide to go on strike for 59 minutes every day for an indefinite period.

A famous philosopher writes a book establishing links between the ant and the Nazi torturers at Auschwitz. In response to opinion polls the government rushes through laws on economic equality and anti-discrimination. The ant's taxes are increased and he is fined for not having employed the grasshopper as his assistant. The ant's house is requisitioned by the authorities because the ant doesn't have enough money to pay the fine and increased taxes. The ant emigrates to Switzerland where he contributes to that country's economic wealth.

A television report shows the grasshopper has now become fat. He is in the process of eating what remains of the ant's food even though Spring is still a long way off. Gatherings of artists and left-wing writers are regularly held in the ant's house. The singer Renaud composes a song: "Ant, beat it..."

The ant's former house, now a local authority home for the grasshopper, becomes increasingly run down because the grasshopper does nothing to maintain it. The government is blamed for not providing enough money for the work. An inquiry costing 10 million euros, is set up.

The grasshopper dies of an overdose. The newspapers Libération and Humanité comment on how the government has failed to address seriously the problems of social inequality.

The ant's former house is squatted by a gang of immigrant cockroaches.

The cockroaches deal in drugs and terrorise the local community.

The French government congratulates itself on the multicultural diversity of France.


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.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Money Tree

I have been trying to instill in La Fille a sense of the value and cost of things. It started when I remonstrated with her for breaking a toy. It was a small, inexpensive object broken carelessly rather than wantonly and I might have let it go except she said: "Let's buy another one." This made me really cross, so cross I found myself trotting out that hoary parental cliché about money having to be earned and not growing on trees, which just baffled her.

Then we arrived at St Pancras station and I told La Fille I had to go to the bank to get some money. Her eyes turned as wide as saucers as a wad of used notes spewed out of the mouth of the cashpoint machine. "Wow!", was all said. I could see from her expression she thought this was some kind of magic. ("You're right Mama it doesn't grow on trees it comes out of walls".)

Today, I told La Fille I was not prepared to spend my hard-earned cash on the merry-go-round if she planned to sulk her way through every go for no apparent reason. I said this more out of principle than penury - for now at least - but after a brief reprise of my diatribe about money and arboretum she said: "Shall we go to the bank?"

Later reading newspaper reports on certain bosses of British banks and their eye-watering bonuses and pensions it made me think of La Fille's saucer-eyed reaction when my money emerged from the hole in the wall and how, apparently like some bank chiefs, she now believes there is an unlimited supply of free money in this magic machine there for the taking.

Then again, in her defence La Fille is only four years old.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Uncle Walt and The Cold War Mole

The French do go on about their "cultural exception" and how erudite and educated they are while we Philistine Britons sneer and joke about how pretentious it is and how we just don't get the Gallic obsession with Serge and breathless Jane and films focussing on smoldering cigarettes in glass ashtrays and inexplicable angst, and dialogue punctuated by endless pauses and puffs and pouts on stinky filterless cigarettes and horribly long unreadable sentences like this one. I know; believe me I have sneered and joked and mocked along with the best.

But I should say, to the sound of words being munched and mutterings of having 'gone native', the French do culture exceedingly well, especially culture for children. Their approach is different to ours: they are less inclined towards the mainstream: hands-on museums; wonderfully kitsch 'it's-behind-you' pantomime; dreamy heroines in frou-frou dresses not to mention spangly benighted Princesses. They tend towards the understated, subtle, complex, dare I say it, sophisticated. It tends to be less fun more formal.

Take the wonderful films Kirikou and Azur et Asmar, by director Michel Ocelot for example. As animation goes they are old school and about as far removed from great Uncle Walt and Pixmar's slick productions as they could be without being cave paintings. The plots are the stuff of fantastic fables, the drawings colourful but technologically simple and the characters crudely drawn and two dimensional. And for all that the films are enchanting.

Last week, La Fille's class went to the cinema and I was drafted in as a parent helper. We took our seats in the vast auditorium and I waited for the titles to roll. But before the lights went down, we were introduced to two men sitting either side of the stage in front of the screen. One was behind a set of drums and a variety of interesting percussion including shells and tinkly things and African drums and a tweetie-whistle and the like. The other, to the left, was behind a keyboard surrounded by more tinkly things and a plastic concertina-ed pipe that went whooooooooo when he whirled it around his head. They took turns to explain how they would be playing the 'soundtrack' to the film and to describe the instruments they would be using and what it would mean when we heard the whooooooo sound of a plastic concertina-ed pipe being whirled around. I looked around and expected the 100 or so assembled three to four year-olds to be fidgeting but they were all ears.

The lights dimmed, the film rolled. It was The Little Mole or Krtec, a simple cartoon animal created in the 1950s by a Czech animator Zdeněk Miler. The 1950s are a long way from Dreamworks, but the films were enchanting and the two musicians played along so that their music was a parallel performance in itself. It made me realise how much we take film sountracks for granted and how interesting when the two medium are semi-separated.

La Fille and her classmates, along with the other schoolchildren present loved the film and loved the music as an entertainment in its own right, so much so they broke out into spontaneous beat-clapping several times and were whistling with the flute and cheering with the symbols and tweeting with the tweetie-whistle and whoooooing with the plastic whirly pipe at every opportunity.

It was unlike any other film screening I have ever been to. It was very French. It was absolutely magical. Vive cultural exceptions.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Twist and Shout

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to."

With this epigram, published in 1930, the Italian-born English poet Humbert Wolfe dismissed and indeed defamed the gentlemen (they were all chaps in those days) of Her Majesty's Press.

This week French president Nicolas Sarkozy also traduced the British press only with less style and considerably less humour when he blamed them for "twisting" his words to suggest he was critical of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's handling of the global economic crisis in his state-of-the-nation interview last Thursday.

Talk about shooting the messenger. If I understand correctly Mr Sarkozy wants us to know that the following, said in front of four French journalists and several million television viewers, was not in the least critical:

1) "Franchement, quand on voit la situation aux Etats-Unis et au Royaume-Uni, on n'a pas envie de leur ressembler"...Frankly, when one see the situation in the United States and the United Kingdom one has no desire to be like them.

2) "Les Anglais ont fait le choix d'une relance par la consommation, notamment avec la baisse de deux points de la TVA, on voit bien que ça n'a amené absolument aucun progrès....La consommation en Angleterre non seulement n'a pas repris mais continue à baisser". The English have chosen a relaunch through consumption (spending), notably with the reduction of VAT by two points. We can see clearly that this has brought absolutely no progress...spending in England has not only not picked up but has continued to fall.

3) "Si les Anglais on fait ça, c'est parce qu'ils n'ont plus d'industrie, a la différence de la France."...If the English have done that, it's because they no longer have any industry, unlike France."

Even allowing for translation, even juggling with a few synonyms can this be interpreted as anything other than criticism? So who is doing the twisting. During his interview Mr Sarkozy also spoke of the economic "erreurs" made by Britain. I don't think "erreurs" is open to much spinning or twisting by perfidious Anglo-Saxon journalists, but in case anyone thinks it might be, erreurs = errors, otherwise known as mistakes. Critical, moi?