A War of Words: The Pen and the Kalashnikov.


Bleu, France, Rouge. Mr and Mrs Playmo were very emotional.

Bleu, France, Rouge. Mr and Mrs Playmo were very emotional.

On Sunday morning, I awoke in beautiful, permissive, perverted France. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and went down to the kitchen. I prepared the filter coffee, and put a couple of butter croissants in the oven to warm. Because this is France.

After breakfast, I pulled on my inappropriately tight and short running attire, and went outside to do whatever I pleased, wherever I wished, dressed as I deemed fit, and whether or not my husband agreed. I ran through the vineyards that year after year offer up hectolitres of delicious and ludicrously cheap wine for the “perverted” people who commit the ultimate sin of enjoying the privilege of being alive. I reveled in life, ‘The Eagles of Death Metal’ resonating in my ears and determination coursing though my sinful veins. I appreciated my liberty to stop at a bar on the way home and have a cool drink, or even sip a glass of wine, if I so wished. Even on Sunday, even at ten in the morning, even when others are at church. To talk to complete strangers – male or female, black or white, Muslim, Jewish, Christian or atheist. Because this is France, and France is a free country – whatever any gun-wielding crackpots with the IQ of Smelly Dog’s chew-toy would like to believe.

When I returned home, I read the letter Daesh sent to the French. I read it several times over, and I was struck by the language content as well as the message it contained. This is my reply.

Using words as a weapon 

The written word rocks my everyday life. I work with words all day, in French and in English. When I have finished, I relax with words. I read. I write. I communicate. Language is the basis of all human communication. As you have understood, it can be a terrible weapon when put in the wrong hands. Words influence people, and draw human nature from deep inside us, bubbling to the surface. For any given situation, words can generate pity or malevolence, compassion or hatred, pride or arrogance. It all depends who is wielding the pen and how alert the reader is to the danger of being manipulated.

The outdated hate-mongering on my screen was written in such archaic language that I would have expected it to be delivered to the French President by camel, carrier pigeon or  an exhausted, bare-footed messenger in medieval garb. However, you saw no contradiction in posting it via modern-day communication technology created by the very  “miscreants” you claim to despise.

The introduction

You begin by explaining that you are writing “in the name of the very misericordious Allah”. This sentence deserves a little time, for two reasons. Firstly, I find it disrespectful and even downright arrogant to claim to represent anyone except oneself, particularly when it is to take responsibility for toting a machine gun in a public place. Most of us get over bleating “He told me to do it” at kindergarten.

Secondly, my dictionary defines the word “misericoridious” as “compassionate, merciful”. I’m not sure that anyone with those values would condone this behaviour, and particularly not in his or her name. How on earth could a “misericordious” God find it ‘merciful’ or ‘compassionate’ to kill and maim innocents? Either ‘he’ has a very twisted view of mercy, or you have interpreted the written word to suit your personal need for violence.

Choose your verb with caution

In the third paragraph, you nicely shoot both yourself and your “cause” in the foot – the ultimate paradox for a terrorist. You claim that Allah is “all powerful”, yet you do not appear to trust “him” to be powerful enough, as you continue to boast that you and your pals have “rescued his religion, his prophet and his allies by humiliating his enemies”.“Rescued”? Unfortunate choice of verb there. Should we understand that you see “him” as being so fragile that “he” needs YOU to step in and not only speak, but kill on “his” behalf? What “all-powerful” higher entity would need a hoard of self-appointed henchmen wielding hate and Kalashnikovs to be heard by the mere mortal?  

Perverse Pâtisserie? These are called Nuns' Farts in French, so named after a nun farted in the kitchen of the Abbey of Marmoutier and scared another, making her drop some choux pastry into the oil pan.

Perverse Pâtisserie? These are called Nuns’ Farts in French, so named after a nun farted in the kitchen of the Abbey of Marmoutier and scared another, making her drop some choux pastry into the oil pan.


Next up, you claim that it is perverted to enjoy life, conveniently ignoring the gross inappropriateness of your own behaviour. What is more perverted? Sipping a cool glass of Pastis with friends on a Parisian terrace, or hiding away at a safe distance as you blow up an eight-year-old child weighed down with explosives on a market place to kill indiscriminately for your “ideals”? Accepting the religious and cultural differences of your population, or attempting to impose your views through terror and violence? (You may remember that a few other people tried that one before you. If you come across Staline, Franco, Mussolini or Hitler in the afterlife, ask them how well it worked out for them.)

You get a kick out of killing innocent civilians. We get pleasure from listening to a rock concert. I find the former far more perverse than the latter. While we’re on the subject of idolizing perverted music, you still have time to change your minds. Just for the record (no pun intended), Bin Laden listened to Western pop cassettes in his hideout, and more specifically, songs by Gaston Ghrenassia, aka Enrico Macias. If one of your spiritual leaders secretly enjoyed listening to a singing, dancing Algerian Jew who lived in France and became an international star, then maybe you should question the legitimacy of your argument.

The oh-so-sultry Enrico Macias, whose music was listened to by none other than Bin Laden.

The oh-so-sultry Enrico Macias, whose music was listened to by none other than Bin Laden.


Heroes, Martyrs and Caped Crusaders.

On Friday, your sidekicks were not martyrs, just cowards. There were heroes, though. Real life heroes who tried to shield their loved ones from bullets with their own bodies, those who guided others to safety, or stopped in their flight to safety at the Bataclan to help a pregnant woman who was dangling out of the window, screaming in terror. They acted on instinct – to protect life, not to destroy it.

As we are on the topic of heroes, let’s have a look at the word “crusader”, which you used to describe the French. This noun only really crops up these days when preceded by the word “caped”. Although I really do quite fancy the idea of the French population wearing their superhero knickers over their lycra leggings and walking the streets as a peaceful army composed of Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, Edna in the cartoon “The Incredibles” says we don’t need capes to be heroes, and she’s right.

Edna in "the Incredibles" is very clear about capes. Source: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/glee/images/3/3b/No_Capes_The_Incredibles_6_Edna.gif/revision/latest?cb=20140603225117

Edna in “The Incredibles” is very clear about capes.
Source: wikia.nocookie.net

France left the 11th century a long time ago, and Paris, far from being the Crusader HQ you make it out to be, is now a place where people of all origins sit together outside bistros on the public squares like the ‘Place de la République’, ‘Place de la Concorde’ et ‘Place de la Bastille’, where they are free to drink alcohol or not, dance or not, show their hair or not.


Last but not least, one word that unfortunately does not appear anywhere in your text is the word “love”. I find this revealing, because from what I can establish, it is a word that appears in all religious texts. Yet you choose to carefully sidestep what should be the main raison d’être of any religion: to teach people to love each other and live together in harmony.

You wanted to create a wave of division and hate, but have only succeeded in provoking, once again, an international tsunami of unity and love. This is France. Multicultural, strong, democratic, beautiful, free France. If freedom is perversion, I will willingly embrace it. Along with all the other ‘perverts’ in this country, I raise my glass to freedom, equality, and fraternity. Cheers.

The Story of Evil Git and the Surprise Car Colectomy.

It is Wednesday morning, and MM is sitting at her kitchen table between the chocolate chip brioche and the Nutella pot with a face longer than a queue for a One Direction concert. She is holding a coffee in her hand, but is dreaming of a big tub of Ben & Jerry’s and a cuddle.

MM should have woken to the sound of her favourite church bells in BFF’s home in the Alsace, where she was going to squeeze her pals in her arms time and time again, see her children blend happily into the group of friends they have had since they were at infant school, and get out into the vineyards with BFF to set the world straight, eat chocolate cake under the wild cherry tree and admire the autumn colours. She had even planned to run with Starman, a pal who shares the running bug.

There are times when MM needs creature comforts.

There are times when MM needs creature comforts.

But Evil Git had planned otherwise. Who is Evil Git, you ask? Come over to the story corner, children, and take a seat. I will do my best to tell this story in my best Joyce Grenfell voice. PN, please stop playing with Linda’s new frilly bed cap, and put that wine and those midget gems down before you throw up in the Playmo box again. Are you all sitting comfortably? then I will begin.

Not so long ago, it was Saturday morning, and MM was on a roll. She was organised, for once, and was ahead of schedule in preparation for PF’s return from Lemur Island the next day. PF is a biologist, and specializes in running off for “business trips” with female colleagues to exotic islands in the middle of nowhere…. Yes, that’s right, PN, that means he gets to play in the mud with his friends, catch crabs, drink beer on the beach, climb up extinct volcanoes, take photos of his bikini-clad colleagues swimming with turtles, watch sunsets, and share his packed lunch with lemurs. Then he returns home with a big smile and bits of smelly, dead crustaceans that he leaves on the kitchen window sill to dry.

As MM strode across the car park towards her trusty Albal, she counted her blessings.  Beautiful blue sky and autumn colours, check. Upcoming arrival of PF and a birthday meal, check. Holiday with friends in the Alsace the next day, check. Life was good – in fact, eerily too good to be true. MM knew perfectly well that the stars were therefore aligned for something to go wrong. And it did. Throwing her shopping bags on the passenger seat, she turned the key in the ignition and was surprised to hear Albal’s engine clatter noisily. She switched the engine off, opened the bonnet and peered in, expecting to find a drunken Jamie Oliver jiving with Nigella Lawson and an entire collection of saucepans. Nowt. Zilch. Nada.

I’m so sorry I left you outside….

So MM checked the oil, checked for disconnected piping, returned to her seat and reverted to kindness, stroking the steering wheel as she apologized to Albal for leaving her on the car park in the dark with no more than the lingering smell of Friday night’s pizzas for company. Starting the engine again, MM bravely attempted driving a few meters in the hope that Albal would roar back into life, but her trusty steed merely clattered again then wheezed asthmatically. I reversed back into my parking slot like a bad-tempered hermit crab and called for help in the form of Bigfoot, our resident mechanical engineer. His eyebrows furrowed, and he disappeared beneath the car. “Have a look at that, Mum”, he said as he wriggled his huge frame back out into the open.

Lying on the floor amongst the dog poo, gravel and leaves, I had a superb view of Albal’s underbelly… and the hastily accomplished visceral surgery carried out by Evil Git, who had taken a saw to the car and carried out the automobile equivalent of an emergency colectomy. In a nifty but relatively neat intervention, he had removed an entire section of the car’s digestive tract and left Albal disembowelled on the tarmac. No wonder she was feeling off-colour.

I felt the disappointment well up, quickly followed by hatred. Now, children. Here comes the cheesy part of today’s story. Hatred is an emotion that MM keeps carefully locked away, because it tends to destroy everything within reach. On Emotion Road, when Hatred hears his neighbour Disappointment whimpering on the pavement, he stomps out of his front door, slams it hard and goes off on a seek and destroy mission. He stamps on the flowers planted by Hope, pees in Optimism’s bird bath, and scribbles angrily over the clearly defined rules on Common Sense’s wall. Then he knocks on the doors of Sarcasm, Self-Pity and Anger before returning home and slamming the door, leaving Positivity to cry with Common Sense on the doorstep. Bad Hatred.

MM's reaction on seeing the state of Albal's underbelly.

MM’s reaction on seeing the state of Albal’s underbelly.

However. Hatred and his horrible henchmen didn’t get much airtime because within hours, MM’s gang of pals here had called to offer a lift to the shops, comforting messages, a car to pick up PF from the railway station, and otherwise salvaged MM’s day. However, If I ever find Evil Git, I will still apply Mrs Playmo’s suggestion to tie him to a chair in public and stuff my pet pythons down his Y-fronts until he has coughed up every penny he has for charity. Cos that’s the way we roll.

Anyway. Back to our story. Another car had suffered at the hands of Evil Git too, so MM called the Gendarmerie. They turned up quickly, and in a very NCIS turn, they whipped out a brush and collected the fingerprints on the bottom of the car door. MM was sorry to disappoint them with the news that they belonged to Bigfoot. They confirmed that the catalytic converter had disappeared – apparently they contain precious metals including platinum, so a few nights of sawing bits off cars can be a very lucrative and addictive business. No shit, Sherlock. This got MM wondering whether Gollum’s ring was actually made of platinum filched from Hobbit cars parked overnight in Middle Earth.

MM spent the afternoon spent filing a complaint with a Gendarme, and gave him a withering look when he enquired why she was holding a pair of trainers in her hand (the answer being that MM’s car had been transformed into a hairdryer on wheels, the gendarmerie is 6km from her home, and silly MM had forgotten her pocket helicopter).

Mr & Mrs Playmo were very sweet and offered to rent me a car whilst Albal was in hospital having her digestive tract repaired. Unfortunately, it was little too small for a family of five and a 28kg golden retriever.

Mr & Mrs Playmo were very sweet and offered to rent me a car whilst Albal was in hospital having her digestive tract repaired. Unfortunately, it was little too small for a family of five and a 28kg golden retriever.

MM’s insurance company were not convinced that MM had not asked someone to steal part of her car two days before she went on holiday, and told her she would have to cough up part of the bill. To no avail, MM pointed out that she had already been the victim of Evil Git, and did not wish to be the victim of her insurance company as well. She added that although her children were being very mature about their holiday potentially going down the pan, the insurance company had the means to make it better for them if they so wished. Translated into basic language, their reply was “Tough luck. Next time, upgrade your cover from ‘bells’ to ‘bells and whistles’“.

So hello house, goodbye holiday. At least I now know that Albal produces luxury, platinum-flavoured farts. Classy bird.


Mrs Playmo posing for a book picture. Unfortunately she had already finished her umpteenth glass of undiluted Merlot.

Mrs Playmo posing for a book picture. Unfortunately she had already finished her umpteenth glass of undiluted Merlot.

MM is quivering with excitement. Mrs Playmo is nervously chewing her claws and glugging down buckets of rosé at the window of her mansion. Yes, something mysterious is afoot in MM’s world… Want to know more? You know you do. Read on to find out why.

One morning in the not so distant past, I went downstairs in my pj’s to discover Mrs Playmo leaping and bouncing around my laptop keyboard like a Lilliputian on crack. Slopping coffee on the trackpad, she turned a grinning face towards me. “Oy, MM, get yourself over here!” she bellowed. “Fame… at last!” She extended a claw and jabbed excitedly at my laptop screen. “Say yes! Say yes! SAY YES!”

I squinted at my email inbox, and examined its daily crop of messages offering to upsize appendages I don’t have. Gleaming in the midst of all this mediocrity was the gem of a message that had got Mrs Playmo as revved up as Berlusconi on the front row of an underwear catwalk.

Opening it up, I discovered an invitation from a bunch of lovely bloggers to take part in the creation of a book. An expat book. A book to make people snort, giggle and belly laugh, and raise money for charity in the process.

MM after reading the email.

MM after reading the email.

Once I had scraped myself off the floor and leapt around the kitchen singing with Mrs Playmo, we wrote back to say yes, yes, yes and yes.

Because there’s more. Although Mrs Playmo is in this purely for the fame and the alcohol, MM was thrilled to know that all the proceeds from this gobsmackingly entertaining book will be donated to charity.

Uprooted and Undiluted is an anthology of humourous posts by ten nutty and adorable award-winning bloggers living across Europe (details of the motley “U + U crew” will be up shortly on a separate page dedicated to ZE Book). We have got together a concentrated collection of uncensored posts which strip expat life abroad down to its hilarious short and curlies. With this little corker in your pocket, you can travel Europe in style without leaving your seat (and make your neighbour jealous as you giggle your way happily through the pages on the number seven bus).

Are you are tired of the sterile, rose-tinted spectacled vision of classic travel books? Do you long to peruse an honestly refreshing portrayal of life as an expat in Europe that will leave you smiling for the day? If so, prepare to grab a copy of “Uprooted and Undiluted” as soon as it comes out (date to be revealed shortly). Forget the world of tepid armchair tourism, and dive into this palpitating, laugh-a-minute insight into expat daily life, including the dark labyrinths of administrative red tape, the perils of learning the lingo, culinary catastrophes, romantic rendez-vous, expat parties, and lots of other exciting stuff that you just don’t find in mainstream travel literature. Pop it in your bag, and be prepared to explain why you are grinning like a demented demon after reading it. Don’t forget to buy a few more to share the joy with your friends and family at Christmas, for their birthdays, or just because you want to show them up when they laugh so hard that their British Rail coffee comes out through their nostrils in the quiet carriage of the train.

Mr Playmo being told in no uncertain terms that he has the choice between buying a copy of

Mr Playmo being told in no uncertain terms that he has the choice between buying a copy of “Uprooted and Undiluted” or sleeping on the couch.

So those of you who said that you would like to have some of MM’s witterings in print now have the opportunity to (as one would crudely say) put your money where your mouth is.

Now it’s over to you. The new page coming up imminently on the blog is entitled “UPROOTED AND UNDILUTED”, and gives more info about the who, where, when, why and hows of our upcoming masterpiece. Check it out. Anyone who understands the magic of hashtags can use this one : #uprootedandundiluted

I am proud to part of this blogging world initiative, which shows just how wonderful blogging is. Please help us to spread a laugh across the world, and raise money for charity in the process!

Sent from my i-kitchen table, with the help of Mrs Playmo (who jumped on the keyboard to type the bits about herself).


Couch to Five K: Gertie Grit and Getting Fit.

One fateful day in the vineyards at the end of January, I decided to prove to myself that I was fit. I was on a roll – after 31 days of abstinence, I had successfully put an end to my equivalent of the Pavlovian reflex, which involved salivating and grabbing a large wine glass and a bowl of peanuts as soon as I heard the cork pop on a bottle of rosé. I’d walked 145 km over the month. It would be a piece of cake. I checked that nobody was looking, and set off. The result was pathetic to say the least – 30 seconds later, I was hugging the nearest tree, consumed by burning lungs, nausea and a stitch as Mrs Playmo tutted and smelly dog looked on in bemusement. I was not fit. The image of myself puffing along out of breath behind a possible future grandchild on a trike (think Damien in “the Omen”) made my mind up. I had to get fit. And to do so, I needed grit.

Grit was the stuff that I brushed out of stinging grazes when I fell off my bike as a child, and also the stuff I needed to get back on the saddle and try again and again until I finally got to the end of the garden path without kissing the tarmac. Gertie Grit had disappeared off the radar as HMS MM entered the murky waters of middle age, and was found gagged and bound on a chair in a corner in the dark side of my mind. She had been taken hostage by my inner bitch, who took a swig of rosé, scratched her navel and informed me that I was far too old and set in my ways to change anything now. That was a red rag to a bull.

So  I downloaded the C25K programme from the NHS website – a nine week programme with three half-hour outings a week that gradually take you from short running and walking intervals to running for 30 minutes non-stop. This is done with the help of a cheerful young lady called Laura, who talks you through what initially feels like a 30-minute survival course for trainee GI’s, apparently impervious to the fact that you are inches from keeling over. Yet believe it or not, seven months later MM has gone from gasping for breath to gasping for a run. So for anyone who has downloaded the app and is tempted to give it a whirl, here is MM’s guide to C25K.

Gladys proudly showed the girls the gravity-defying plastic bra she had stolen from the NASA test lab. It would be ideal for running C25K. Picture from (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gladys proudly showed the girls the gravity-defying plastic bra she had stolen from the NASA test lab. It would be ideal for running C25K. .
Picture from (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Get kitted out.

Running requires very little financial investment (that sinks your first excuse). Girls should acquire the appropriate female scaffolding to restrain the lesser spotted boobs, which already have a natural tendency to migrate southwards. Without control, you’ll either knock yourself out on your first run or they’ll stretch so far that you’ll be able to wrap them around your neck to keep your ears warm by Christmas. You’ll also need trainers – and forget the ones you’ve had in the cupboard since that aborted new year’s resolution you made back in 1984. Embrace new footwear technology – your body will thank you for it. As for the rest, a t-shirt and a pair of leggings will do fine.

  1. Be safe.

This does not mean kitting yourself out with a flick knife, or running with a baseball bat stuck under your knicker elastic. In the unlikely event of being attacked, the smell of a runner’s armpits after 4 kilometers is probably sufficient to put any assailant off. What ‘being safe’ means is simply doing what you expect your teenagers to do – tell someone where you are going, what time you are leaving, and when you will be back. You are more likely to go arse over tit into a hedge than you are to get abducted by aliens, but if you do have a problem then someone should know where you are.

MM tried out her skills at smashing an aggressor's teeth with a baseball bat, before establishing that it was too big to fit in the waistband of her shorts. Picture credit: Par Center for Jewish History, NYC [No restrictions ou Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

MM tried out her skills at smashing an aggressor’s teeth with a baseball bat, before establishing that it was too big to fit in the waistband of her shorts. Picture credit: Par Center for Jewish History, NYC [No restrictions ou Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Get an iPod, phone or MP3 player.

An absolute must, if only to follow the programme and avoid hearing yourself gasping for breath on the way around the run (I scared myself when my headphones fell out – it sounded like I was being chased by a rabid black bear). If you follow the C25K programme, the lovely Laura will chat all the way around and tell you when to run, when to walk, and congratulate you on your achievements. If you are anything like me, you will give up on her when you get bored with the dismal music (I’m sure that Laura didn’t choose it) and are fed up with her not inviting you around for a cuppa and a Hobnob after your run. There are plenty of alternative apps available that let you run the programme using your own music playlist, so go for it – Laura has so many fans that she won’t notice you’ve shelved her. Just one word of warning: for safety, make sure that the volume is low enough to hear cars coming up behind you. Not to mention other runners if you stop for a wee behind a hedge.

  1. Get support and be accountable to somebody.

If, like me, your family reacted to your announcement that you were taking up sport by falling off their chairs laughing, fear not. Sign up to the C25K community on Health Unlocked, a forum full of real people just like you who get beetroot red faces, sweat buckets, fall victim to self-doubt and know how to deal with the gremlins telling you that today’s run can wait until tomorrow. They will give you answers to the things you need to know and don’t dare to ask, like whether you should run in granny pants or G-strings or even go commando under your lycra. They will boot you out of that door with a grin on your face when you were determined you were never going to run again. If you could harness all the positivity generated by this forum, the planet would have a whole new source of energy. So sign up, and get to know people who are all on a quest for better health.


This is definitely right. But we all look the same, and nobody else really notices. You’re just another nutter wearing trainers. No idea who the pic belongs to but it’s all over cyber space.

  1. Believe.

Believe in yourself. Running is as much about mindset as it is about physical fitness. Cheer yourself on, and do so shamelessly. Don’t compare your achievements to anyone else’s, only to your own expectations. There will be bad runs. But however long it takes you to run that mile, it is still a mile. And however little or however slow you run, you are still running laps around the previous you, who is still sat glumly on the couch holding a glass of wine in one hand and pinching a roll of belly flab with the other.

  1. Forget self-consciousness, and embrace your bloody-mindedness.

Other people will see you, but don’t imagine that they are judging you – to passers-by, you’re just another nutter wearing trainers, and most offer a smile and a supporting comment and not the jeer or insult you were expecting. And the others? Who cares. You don’t know them, and you’ll probably never see them again.

If running isn’t sweaty and messy, you’re not doing it right. You will be bright red. You will scream insults at your iPod because you suspect that Laura has deliberately added thirty seconds to that minute she asked you to run. You will want to give up, but Gertie Grit won’t let you, because if you do, you’ll feel like a failure. Within very little time, you are going to yell at yourself, immune to the stares of OAP’s walking their dogs as you tell yourself you’re an effing wimp and you’re going to bloody well make it to that tree, end of story. And when you finish each run and tick another box, you are going to find yourself whooping, screeching, punching the air and dancing. And you won’t care who is watching. Because you’ve found your grit again. And that’s worth its weight in gold.

Debunking the Myths: Summertime Survival in the South of France.


Mrs Playmo wisely decided that the only way to enjoy an uncrowded beach was to visit by night with a good book, a torch a crate of rosé. It was a pity that Prince Charming had turned up before she had finished her chapter.

Mrs Playmo wisely decided that the only way to enjoy an uncrowded beach was to visit by night with a good book, a torch and a crate of rosé. It was a pity that Prince Charming had turned up before she had finished her chapter.

The school holidays have arrived and the temperatures have soared outside. A blanket of heat has descended on MM’s Languedoc home. Like every year, I have evaluated the insufficient available space for my angular frame between the frozen peas and the ice cubes, then resigned myself to a period of the year I associate with bored children, het-up neighbours, stifling heat, and water restrictions as the village spring dries up. The insistent scratching of the squads of cicadas camouflaged in the cedar and pine trees around the house does nothing to reduce the feeling of oppression affecting all bar the cat, who melts into a contented black puddle in the shade of the hedge, surveying his world in a lazy trance of warmth.

Behind closed shutters, the locals have gone to ground for the sacrosanct siesta whilst the sun beats down on the façades of their homes, and the streets of the village remain deserted until the temperatures reluctantly go down in the evening.

But not for long. The only nutters prepared to brave the heat have appeared on the horizon, bang on time to break the silence – a long line of metallic turtles shimmering in the heat that rises off the melting tarmac. In MM jargon, the word ‘Turtle’ designates family cars bedecked with roof boxes and bicycles, and crammed with suitcases, parasols and the infamous inflatable crocodile. Inside the air-conditioned beast, mum is sucking lemons for Britain. She glares at her husband. She had told him that there would be a traffic jam on the last leg of the journey, and once again he had preferred to follow the advice of that self-satisfied cow on the GPS. Her husband grimly grips the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands as the youngest child bawls and his sibling sings her favourite track for the 50th time since they woke up on the motorway uttering those words every parent dreads: “Muuummmy, are we there yet?” They are all desperate to arrive on the French coast, yet appear blissfully ignorant that they are en route for a tourist trap. The inflatable crocodile of the tourist season is poised, its jaws open and ready to swallow them and their holiday budget, before spitting them unceremoniously back into the motorway traffic jams.

When people plan a summer holiday in the South of France, the same old clichés pop up behind the rose-tinted spectacles. I’d like to get two of them sorted once and for all. I’m sorry to pop your bubble, but it’s better that you know.

Mr and Mrs Playmo take nothing but their love to the beach here.

Mr and Mrs Playmo take nothing but their love to the beach here.

Myth N°1:  Beach,  parasol,  book, cool drink and sun tan as the children play in the sand.

The reality: First, plan ample time and patience to find a parking spot, and enough cash to pay extortionate fees for the privilege (this does not mean that your car window will not be smashed by thieves: a little like God, the French police can’t be everywhere at the same time). Next, find a space on the beach. This is more difficult than you think if, like me, you do not like your nostrils being assailed by the smell of cigarette smoke, sweaty armpits or sun screen, or are allergic to the proximity of inflatable crocodiles, over-enthusiastic teenagers wielding rackets and balls, or women who yank their bikini bottoms up their bums and sunbathe with their legs wide open (presumably incase an old lady’s Yorkshire catches sight of their untanned crotch on the number seven bus).

 If you wish to be the ultimate bad mum, when the children are bored with playing in the urine-saturated surf, help them to collect cigarette butts to use as makeshift cannons in their sandcastle, and beer tops to decorate the walls – both are as numerous as the sea shells, if not more so. Or bag ’em up and bin them (the cigarette ends and the beer tops, not the kids), and do something for the planet. Then make your offspring’s day by buying them one of the overpriced doughnuts or ice creams sold by the leather-skinned beach vendors sporting little more than tight-fitting cozzies and Colgate smiles. These sun-warmed, edible nurseries for salmonella and sundry other bacterial bad-boys may not only wreck the rest of your holiday, but will give you a chance to sing the praises of the French medical system on Facebook.

MM’s Tips: Spread out your stuff! Bring sufficient beach towels to stake out your own territory. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use it all, but this simple step ensures that you don’t end up with a complete stranger sitting in your lap reading a gossip mag.

If you enjoy people spotting, this is the place for you. Bring a notebook and jot them down. My favorites are those strolling along the water’s edge – the posers that strut through the surf and oggle at bare breasts, the topless wonders glowering at the posers, and the older generation tutting at the bucket and spade mafia who get under their feet (I secretly pray that they will inadvertently tumble into the appropriately grave-sized hole my children have conveniently dug across their path). Oh, and one last (serious) piece of advice: don’t take anything to the beach that you wouldn’t willingly donate to a complete stranger, and keep a close eye on your stuff. Otherwise, you may end up chasing the self-elected new owner of your beach bag down the main road like a screaming banshee, wearing no more than a red face and the bottom half of your bikini (been there, seen that, and got left without the T-shirt -read my topless tale here). For the same reason, don’t leave your car keys in your bag. I put them in Tournesol’s shoe – nobody in their right mind would steal those because even if they managed not to keel over, I’d sniff them out immediately.

Myth N°2. A wonderful three-course meal washed down with a bottle of wine on a restaurant terrace, all at a snip of the price you would have paid at home.

If you don't believe me about the translating skills of local restaurants, have a look at this menu outside a restaurant in Agde. The next page suggests a plateful of

If you don’t believe me about the translating skills of local restaurants, have a look at this menu outside a restaurant in Agde. The next page suggests a plateful of “seawolf” – a translation that could be qualified as a real howler.

TIP: The only way you will achieve this is either by asking the locals, or getting off the beaten track. Wherever you are in France during the holiday season, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are unscrupulous restaurants ready to relieve you of a maximum amount of cash for a minimum amount of effort, and these establishments are most often concentrated in the touristic areas. If they are out on the pavement touting for clients, they aren’t worth their salt. They are closed over the rest of the year, are generally snubbed by locals and only open to make a fast buck in the summer – so do yourself and real local businesses a favour, and either get off the beaten track and ask a local, or buy yourselves a picnic from the local market.

Reality: If you do insist on eating in one of these outfits, then at least you get the fun of reading the menu translation. In our region, very few restaurants are prepared to pay for a good translation of their menu, or (heaven forbid) train their employees to speak foreign languages well enough to explain what the guests can eat. Although my arch enemies, aka Google Translate and Bing, have added a grotesque twist to menus, I freely admit that if I need to cheer myself up I just need to read a few menu boards and I’m chortling again. It’s a laugh a minute. Many restaurants are totally immune to the idea that clients won’t (or rather shouldn’t) buy a meal if they have no idea what they are eating. Worse, they really don’t seem to care as long as their patrons cough up the money and leave.

Don’t forget that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is – many restaurants get their supplies from a huge supplier called “Metro”, where they buy entire pallets of insipid guck that they will then tout as ‘home-made’ on their astoundingly cheap menu board. The chocolate mousse may have been hastily assembled in their kitchen, but it’s about as home-made as MM is organised. If you are lucky, the jug of wine costing you 7 euros actually cost the restaurant owner 2 euros the litre at the local cave coopérative; if you’re unlucky it’s from a plastic bottle of beverage that the average Frenchman would only consider fit to descale the toilet.

Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. So now off you go. Happy holidays. And don’t forget a pin to deflate that damned crocodile.

Mrs Playmo illustrating how to deal with the inflatable crocodile.

Mrs Playmo illustrating how to deal with the inflatable crocodile.

Post Scriptum. This should have been an apology post. I have been a very bad blogger recently (MM strikes Beyoncé/Lady Gaga pose) and I have missed you all. I am very, very sorry and feel guilty about dumping everyone with no explanation. This is due to varied factors leading to lack of “me” time, leading to lack of reading and writing time, leading to a severe case of writer’s block. But rest assured that MM is fit, well and a little leaner than before. Mrs Playmo didn’t give me any support whatsoever. (She was too busy having baked bean jacuzzis with Mr Playmo. But that’s another story.) Those who excuse me for my absence will have more information about what I’ve been up to in upcoming posts. Love from MM. Mrs Playmo says hello too, from behind her bucket of rosé. 


Multifarious Musings from Outside the Comfort Zone.

A non-writing author is a monster courting insanity. It appears to be true of bloggers too. I can already hear the rumble of discontent and the budding debate about how, when and indeed if a blogger could or should be considered a writer… but this blogger is propped up in her bed, coffee cup at hand, and her Sunday morning neurones don’t want to go down that road.

Kafka’s words have been leaping out of the screen at me for weeks – I came across them on a crowded Google image screen during a hectic day at work, and put them carefully on my desktop as a reminder that I needed to give myself some writing time. I have been away from the blog for a while – although I have written many posts in my head during my thrice-weekly sallies outdoors, the hamster wheel of self-employment has been turning far too fast for me to find blogging time since the beginning of the year – both a blessing and a frustration for a self-proclaimed “word nerd”.

We are all multifaceted, and MM is no exception. We constantly evolve and as we do, we sometimes ask ourselves if there isn’t something more to life than our immediate comfort zone. We occasionally feel an inexplicable and insatiable need to empty the closet of our mind and refill it with new things, yet cannot bring ourselves to banish certain comforts. So we package them up carefully, put them away on a shelf for future reference, then turn towards exploring personal change and renewal with the reassurance that we have not burnt all our bridges behind us.

A need to challenge and test myself reared its head at the end of 2014. Waking up to the same old me peering over the edge of the reassuringly comfy slipper of my life every morning, whilst pleasant and reassuring, had also become strangely predictable, tarnished by my frustration of being unable to eliminate the small, niggling imperfections that are constantly putting a grain of sand in the otherwise perfect machinery. Papounet often laughed and said, ‘Happiness is the spacetime between two mishaps”: life is never perfect, and there will always be something providing the legendary cloud on the horizon. This links up nicely with the candid wisdom of MMD (MM’s Dad – love you, Dad, ‘cos I know you’re reading this -) when I whined “It’s not fair!” as a child: “Yeah. Well, life’s not fair.”

A whole year has gone by since Papounet died, and the jam-jar moments continue. A jam-jar moment is what happens when the sight of a trivial everyday object, such as a half-empty pot of blueberry jam, opens the floodgates on the dam holding back a lake of memories and emotion. Yet losing people you love teaches you unexpected lessons that make you a stronger person. For me, this lesson was that although we are all relatively anonymous and unimportant in life’s great plan, we all make a lasting impact – good or bad – on more people than we imagine. Papounet, Grandma, Uncley, Rick, Grandpop, Auntie Laura, Mamie and many other people I loved who are no longer here today had helped me to kick existentialist ass – we do play an essential role in other people’s lives, whether it is intended or not. I remember taking this photo of a poster last summer at the gardens of Heligan, one of my family’s favourite haunts in my home region; I realised at that moment that although people disappear, they remain very much alive in my everyday life.


I am currently reading a book that illustrates this beautifully – written by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James. (When I said I was stepping out of my comfort zone, my parents will probably agree that this is a prime example.) Called “The Lent Factor”, it takes a fascinating approach to Lent and describes 40 people he refers to as his “travelling companions”. All deceased, they influenced his life in one way or another. He illustrates through the chapters how people, even those we meet fleetingly, can affect our vision of life and our relationships with others: “They are all part of my personal pantheon. They have all joined with and crossed and belonged to each other through their influence on me and what I believe and the person I have become.” We are, indeed, very much the product of our interactions with others, and in turn, we can affect what others become, often without knowing it.

Losing someone who had this effect on our lives is also a reminder that each day should be savoured as if it were the last, and this feeling has been reinforced for me as I see the world around me dive into a spiral of unfathomable evil resulting from a twisted, blinkered vision of humanity. But in my immediate bubble, all is well. So one year after Papounet’s death, I pulled on my trainers and took his memory for a run. As I jogged through the vineyards, I felt the sun on my face, admired the bright expanse of yellow rapeseed set against the mountains and the blue sky and the gnarled fingers of the vines awaiting the summer, and told him how happy I was. That life is good. That we have not, will not and cannot ever forget him. That we have no idea how much time we have here on this earth, but that we all have the choice to leave a positive trace for someone behind us to keep and build on. Just like he did.


Fifty Shades of Greek Goddess.

A marble lady nonchalantly strutting her stuff (and showing her butt) for the public in Nîmes, France.

A marble lady nonchalantly strutting her stuff (and showing her butt) for the public in Nîmes, France.

It was a normal evening in the Mars family household on Mount Olympus. The twins were fighting on the floor as Rhea Silvia reached for the bottle of grappa and topped up her glass.

“For the love of Venus, put that down, boys. What a pair of animals; anyone would think you’d been brought up by wolves… No, Rommy darling, it’s not a cheese slicer. It’s called a lyre, and it’s a present from Aunty Aphrodite. Put it down, please – she’ll be harping on about it for years if you break it”.

“Lyre, lyre, pants on fire!” The twins dissolved into hysterical laughter. Rhea rolled her eyeballs and downed her glass in three large gulps. Wiping her mouth on her forearm, she thought back to the romantic pre-partum era. It had seemed a good idea at the time to seduce the God of War, but she had suddenly woken up to the hard reality of life in a villa with six snotty toddlers and an award-winning muffin top, only to discover that Mars had a worrying penchant for going into battle wearing her rara skirts.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a deep, virile voice booming “Hi, honey, I’m home!” and the sound of the front door slamming shut. Rhea Silvia languidly draped her naked body across the sofa and set her features in what she hoped to be a sultry pout. “Gerroff! Daddy’s home!” she hissed through clenched teeth as she tried to shake off the two whining, naked infants fastened to her ankles.

Mars stomped across the carpet, his armour glistening in the light of the lava lamp, and threw his sword on the sofa. “By Jupiter, what a day!” His eyes roved over her feminine curves, surveying the galb of her calves, her plump thighs and dimpled rear before hungrily devouring the sight of the flab riding sidecar on her hips and finally coming to rest on her generous belly roll. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smirk. “Didn’t have time to get dressed this morning, then?” he enquired, eyebrows arched in mock surprise. Rhea ran a hand slowly through her hair and peered demurely out from behind her fringe. “Is that a Mars Bar in your pocket, or are you pleased to see me?” she murmured as he approached.

You may have guessed from the above text that MM has been wandering around a museum looking at the antique equivalent of eye candy again. I am a sucker for museums and art galleries, and am particularly fond of mummies, paintings and sculpted marble bottoms. Whilst bespectacled art boffins strike poses with notebooks and reverentially peruse the paintings for unique perspectives, technical brush strokes and ingenuous lighting techniques, MM is quietly writing alternative titles and scenarios in her head for every work of art she sees. The tale above is one such example – incidentally, Rhea Silvia’s real story turned out to be much sadder than mine. Here is the painting that inspired MM’s ‘Fifty Shades of Greek Goddess », actually called « Le Retour de Mars » by Nicolas-René Jollain, (1732-1804), and found at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nîmes.

A very bad photo of "Le retour de Mars" by Nicolas-René Jollain.

A very bad photo of “Le retour de Mars” by Nicolas-René Jollain.

When I see paintings of women, I am struck by the candid and honest portrayal of the female physique, and by the models’ evident pride to be the way mother nature intended them to be, rather than the cocktail-stick morphology many women try to attain today through draconian diets and exercise plans. These paintings graced the walls of men and women who spent hours admiring what they perceived as opulent beauty. What would they have made of the photo-shopped, latex knicker-toting toothpicks in the Pirelli calendar? Or the miserable, emaciated models that mince down the designer catwalk as makeshift human coathangers for clothing, applauded by rows of high-society fashionistas who can spend a fortune attempting to look like they’ve never eaten a decent meal in their lives? The women staring out of those paintings are calm and proud of their curves, yet many women today look in the mirror and heave a sigh of frustration when they see the same thing. Curves used to be a sign of wealth, health and abundance of food, yet today, more means less, and many of our female role models are no more than skin and bones as they throw money into cellulite treatment, liposuction and miracle diets.

I made this realisation before Christmas, when my muffin top suddenly mutated and morphed into something similar to Mrs Mars’ belly. In what appears to be an overnight putsch, Muffin Top was superceded by a new, terrible enemy: Sinister Soufflé, the dark and dangerous lardlord of the middle-aged darknesses, who had risen overnight and was waiting for me the next morning, unapologetically drooping over the top of my pyjamas like a rabid blancmange.

Yup, this would be it. Muffin top has mutated into Sinister Soufflé.  Photo source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaker_Faire_San_Mateo_2008_0022.JPG

Yup, this would be it. Muffin top has mutated into Sinister Soufflé.
Photo credit: Dvortygirl. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaker_Faire_San_Mateo_2008_0022.JPG

Sinister Soufflé’s evil counterpart, Tefla the scales, had been silenced many months earlier by a dead battery. Her last attempts to charm me into replacing it were touching – every time I stepped onto her glass surface, she flashed up a chirpy « Lo », which I immediately interpreted as meaning that that my weight was nothing worry about. Since then she had been gathering dust below the laundry basket.

Tefla was kitted out with a new battery, and as I looked at the double zero awaiting me, the pit of my stomach reacted just like it does at the sight of the online banking screen after Christmas. You know you have to do it, but you also know you’re going to feel awful.

I will not go into the facts and figures; suffice to say that Tefla and a tape measure confirmed that I had far too much flab. After having exhausted all the possible excuses, ranging from food allergies to being possessed by evil spirits intent on avenging an unknown enemy I had drunk under the table in a previous life, I was left with the conclusion that I had noone and nothing to blame but myself.

That was when I stopped and wondered what was going on beneath the roll of belly fat. Mrs Mars may have been curvaceous and opulent, but she was also happily oblivious to the mecanics going on below her skin, and probably thought that Gluteus Maximus was no more than a legionary with a huge appetite. Pinching Sinister Soufflé, I imagined Larry the liver, who gritted his teeth and processed my lorryload of peanuts and generous serving of wine every evening without fail, and Marcel the Muscle, who was softening up by the minute from lack of exercise. Imagining my blood swooshing through veins that were perhaps slowly clogging up with cholesterol, I realised that what was important wasn’t getting rid of the muffin top, but simply being healthy. This provided a whole new slant on the body fat issue: Muffin Top and the sidekicks riding sidecar on my hips were a symptom, not the condition. That meant forgetting the word “diet”, which I negatively associate with deprivation and frustration, and focussing on getting healthy. If it (-and I-) worked out, I’d feel good (cue James Brown) and a trimmer figure would hopefully be a pleasant by-product.

If I wanted to stop the trend, I had to stop filling my face with rosé and peanuts every evening, and take more exercise – until ten weeks ago, the only crunch I approved of was wrapped in paper and could be polished off in five minutes flat. So I struck alcohol and the associated nibbles off my daily menu for a month, and added a daily 5K walk in the countryside with a delighted Smelly Dog and grumpy Mrs Playmo. Dry January became dry February, then dry March. My walks in the country are slowly becoming more jog than walk. That pair of jeans I had kept at the back of the cupboard “just in case” is no longer too small, and Tefla has just confirmed an eleven pound loss. Most importantly, I feel good (na-na-na-na-na-na-nah). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a clean toga and a lyre before PF rolls in from work.