Me and Mr C.

Today is my Little My’s tenth birthday. She will never use one digit for her age again, she told me.  I hope she makes it to triple figures, just like her Grande-Mamie. She is thrilled to bits with her gift, a bright red tablet that goes « scccchlick » when she pulls her finger across the screen.

When the village postie careened down the drive this morning in the bright yellow suppository he uses like a combination of a tank and dodgem car, he left two gifts in the mailbox. One was for Little My. Her eyes lit up when she ripped the envelope open to discover a delicately illustrated birthday card from my parents, with two crisp notes inside.  She hurtled up the stairs to ferret them away in her piggy bank. The kid has an impressive stash of cash, and I suspect that she will be buying us out one day in the foreseeable future.

Piggy Bank

Piggy Bank (Photo credit: SimonAlparaz)

I also had a gift: my blood work results. Not having had any blood tests done since two years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I opened the envelope. It contained a wake-up call: I have a visitor, a certain C. Holesterol. My unwanted guest has a double personality. He has a generously sized nice-guy component, making this part of his personality a superhero sweeping away the muck in my arteries.  I’m guessing that his presence can be attributed to my huge consumption of peanuts, cashew nuts and olive oil, and this suits me fine as I can’t imagine life without them.

However, he is having a tough time beating his nasty alter ego, a certain « LDL » who weighs in at a hefty 1,75g. The French limit the bad-guy element to 1,60g/litre which is totally unfair given the amount of cheese and charcuterie there is on offer nationwide. Thinking this over, I can’t help wondering where the pharmaceutical companies selling French anti-cholesterol medication go on holiday with all that money.

La Boutique del Colesterol

La Boutique del Colesterol (Photo credit: Landahlauts)

I fear that the family doctor is going to be coming down on me like a ton of bricks some day soon. Whatever she says, the source of motivation I couldn’t find just a few days ago in « My body is my temple » has just reared its ugly head : my health. The date, as I have already said, is one that I won’t forget. It’s a good date, if any, to set out with a new attitude on life. Realising that ten years have already flown by and that your last-born is already asking you what her kids should call you when you become a grandmother kind of reminds you that although you’ve done a fair whack of life’s road, you still have an awful lot of things you’d like to see, and it’s probably best not to tempt the devil….

So here’s the deal. So  from today onwards, I’ll be making an effort to cut my intake of alcohol, salt and animal fat, and taking daily walks or cycle rides. I will NOT join the lycra brigade, so don’t hold your breath.  Any form of girly exercise is most definitely OUT,  as well as  tofu: I can’t stand either. Oh, and any resemblance to intentional weight loss will be purely incidental – I have no desire whatsoever to end up looking like a stick insect that’s decided to give Dukan a whirl.

This is going to be tough, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. The only time I ever stopped eating animal fat and drinking any form of alcohol was to lose two and a half stone way back when I was a student, but that was to fit into my clothes, not for my health. Now I’m getting older and the reality of life is kicking in, I’m not really surprised to see that wake-up calls for your health motivate even the most reticent Epicureans.

So we’re off. Accountability is a win-win situation, I guess, so I’ll check with my G.P then get another blood test done in three months. Watch this space.  Wish me luck, guys…… Any advice would be gratefully accepted!

My body is my temple.

This morning, I actually stopped in my tracks and contemplated my reflection for the first time in weeks. I was not really surprised to see my mother’s face staring back at me. Her genetic pool took over proceedings just before I hit forty, and Little My’s demand for me to let my hair grow has aided and abetted my destiny in its cunning plan to make me into a carbon copy of my mother.

Turning sideways for the ventral mugshot, I attempted to suck in my post-baby belly. It would have been more at home in the local butcher’s window alongside my chunky thighs, currently jousting for a traditional farmhouse sausage award.

I turned my back on the mirror and stepped on to the scales for reassurance. Tefla, the evil electronic demon of the bathroom, almost cackled out loud as she announced my weight. The same as when I was at University. So how come I’m two jeans sizes bigger?

I spent a while thinking this over in the shower, and by the time I’d hacked my way through the undergrowth on my legs, I had come up with what I saw as a logical and comfortingly irreversible explanation: gravity. Yes, that was it: forced downwards by the earth’s magnetic field, the padding on my upper body had simply lost its grasp on my skeleton and ended up on my stomach and behind, meaning I had the same weight but a new anatomy. I’d just swapped bosom and size ten jeans for a big butt and no boobs. Hey, world, meet a new concept:  fat transhumance.

As I towelled dry, I chewed over the term « my body is my temple ». This phrase conjures up images of self-indulgent body-builders and fitness freaks religiously veneering their own reflections and wearing out the mirror with self-admiration.

I would agree that my body is a temple – in severe need of renovation. Cracks are appearing in my weathered façade. After the perilous subsidence of the pelvic floor, other parts of the edifice slowly but inevitably started crumbling downwards, resulting in the tender beginnings of jowls, bingo wings and a sagging butt. Even my bust has begun an imperceptible migratory bid for my belly button, moving slowly but surely south. I had already jokingly explained this to Bigfoot after he sneered at my bra size in comparison to that of his chosen counterpart: I informed him that my 95B has simply stretched a little but that it can still happily fill my Wonderbra when tightly furled up like a jam roly-poly. I was concerned to see that he actually believed me.

flat stomach

flat stomach (Photo credit: emanuela franchini)

I freely admit to having problems identifying with the health and fitness crowd. I  admire their self-satisfaction, pride, self-discipline and boundless motivation to take care of themselves.  Like over-zealous believers, their health becomes their religion, and by some strange process, running 10km in the baking heat and depriving themselves of calories somehow becomes a pleasure. The only thing I could run would be the risk of viciously attacking the first poor innocent unfortunate enough to crack open a packet of salted peanuts within a 2-mile radius. Not only do these people not miss beer and peanuts, they don’t even like them to start with. I have six-packs in my fridge, whereas the only six-packs they have are tautly lined up along their abdomens, and get worked out on a regular basis.

Exercise is not only a different world, it’s a completely different planet for me. I am in awe when I see the pert-bottomed lycra brigade pounding their way through the countryside, their cheeks flushed and their poney-tails flapping back and forth as Katy Perry cheers them on through the iPods velcro-ed to their eardrums. I did try once, with a gym-teacher friend. She kept up a steady stream of health-related patter throughout our « short » run – 5 km of sheer hell during which I established that having a conversation whilst running full pelt around the Alsace vineyards was about easy as singing barbershop whilst you give birth.

Pulling on my baggy jeans, I drew the conclusion that I need a factory reset button to get a kick out of getting in shape. What do I enjoy more: the possibility of maybe fitting into that pair of jeans one day, or drinking my evening beer in the garden and nibbling peanuts as the cicadas sing?

I loaded my baguette with butter and strawberry jam in the cluttered kitchen, repeating to myself that I am in the driver’s seat. At least I will be – once I’ve booted my instinct out of the side window. For the moment, she’s the pilot. She steers me directly to the apéritif before dinner and the cookies afterwards, to the car keys rather than my trainers, to my blog rather than to the energetic cleaning of the house, and to reassuring pictures of curvaceous 1950’s sex-symbols rather than those of today’s anemic, anorexic top-models.

motivation-001

motivation-001 (Photo credit: whitehatblackbox)

I am therefore now on the look-out for Motivation, a reliable pal I lost from sight twenty-two years ago after successfully losing two stone. She then moved in with someone else, and was unfortunately replaced by a far-flung cousin called Self-Indulgence, who has been cramping my style (and my clothing) ever since. Motivation, if you’re out there somewhere, it’d be great to get together for a few months. But don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Aphrodite

Aphrodite of Cnidus.Munich.

Walking down the town high street one day, my mother spotted a shop dummy leaning drunkenly against the wall. Her perfect proportions and bald head were glistening in the rain (I am of course talking about the dummy here, not my mum).

She had a sullen pout on her face. This did not surprised me given the fact that she was devoid of arms, which had perhaps been stolen overnight by drunken pub-goers on their way home. Yet our armless, harmless heroine remained aloof and apparently unconcerned about being stark naked in front of all the passing cars, staring placidly across the road at the newsagent’s window.

Mum has always had an eye for something original, so I was not unduly surprised to see her hoist the dummy under her arm and continue walking down the street, impervious to comments by passers-by about the pair of perfectly shaped, cellulite-free legs sticking out behind her.

From that day on, Aphrodite reigned magnanimously over our courtyard. Jauntily propped up in the corner amid the plants, she was our Greek statue par excellence. None of my friends had anything like it; she was a refreshing alternative to the politically correct pottery hedgehogs decorating their parents’ gardens.

Aphrodite wearing her sensible grey wig and jewellery.

According to our mood, the weather or the occasion, Aphrodite the fit, slick chick was kitted out with wigs, hats, glasses, jewellery or scarves bought in local jumble sales. On sunny days she was a hippy Woodstock throwback sporting a straw hat and sunglasses, with strings of colourful beads dangling over her perfect, pert bosom.  On stormy days she was our version of Ellen Ripley, stoically facing the alien Cornish elements with her wigless head. We occasionally scraped the seagull droppings off her, although they did add a certain je ne sais quoi to her look.

Aphrodite stayed with us until my parents sold the granite and brick house we’d grown up in. She had suffered the persistent assaults of weather and time over the years, and finally got the thumbs-down for the removals van. Our courtyard goddess was stripped of her divine rank and accessories and relegated to her earlier status of roadside rubbish. I felt guilty to see her propped against the wall in the street once again, like an ageing hooker who’d got too old for the game. Holding her chin high, her glazed eyes fixed on the horizon, she pouted as she awaited the binmen.

When my kids roll their eyeballs at my odd behaviour, I tell them how grateful I am to have a mum who showed me that it’s ok, and even preferable to do your own thing and not follow the crowd, as you’ve only got one life to live and it’s yours, with no trial period.  So, I tell them, go ahead and do it your own way: The important thing is to be yourself.

I spy with my Little My…..

My nine-year-old reminds me of “Little My“. This character in “the Moomins” is a very direct, no-nonsense little girl with a strangely adult approach to life who is highly independent and sometimes discomfortingly honest.

Although my daughter is not half as abrasive as Tove Jansson’s character, she has a lot of “Little My” about her. Seeing life through her eyes is both refreshing and revealing.

I remember the day I ceremoniously told her that I had kept my wedding dress in case she wanted to use it one day. Her eyebrows shot upwards, then plummeted into a frown. To the delight of her youngest aunt, she retorted with a scowl: “No way! You can give it to someone else,  I’m never getting married! I’m going to live with my two cats. I’ll have a boyfriend, and he can come to visit if he wants – but then he goes back to his house and leaves me alone”.

Last week, Little My and I wandered through the village cemetery on our way home. It’s a little lugubrious, I know, but I love walking in cemeteries. Little My was impressed by the headstones, and was curious to know how they had fitted so many people into one crypt. She quickly started noticing beautiful names, calculating ages and trying to work out who was related to who. We were soon involved in a morbid but highly interesting conversation.

“Have you written a will?”, she enquired. “I’m going to write one soon. When I’m old, I want to be crematified, but only after I’ve died. I’ll give all my painting stuff to my brothers, and my house and my cats too”. We continued walking, our shoes crunching on the gravel. “Oh,  and I’ll leave my nicest clothes to my best friends”, she added pointedly, looking sideways at me.

I got the message immediately. I was wearing the dress, the one she has been coveting since I bought it three years ago. She has already made me swear that I will put it aside for her when I’m either too old or too fat to wear it any more, and casts an eagle eye over the zipper every summer.  “It’s cremated, not crematified. And don’t worry, the day I pop my clogs you will be free to take whatever you want from my wardrobe, chérie”. She jumped up and wrapped her arms around my neck to plant a kiss on my cheek. There’s no doubt about it, the kid rocks.

Further along the pathway, she stopped and stared at a black marble flower-pot sealed on a tomb, the letters “AV” engraved on it in garish gold lettering. She shook my arm and muttered, “Look, mum, that grave’s for sale”.

It took me a minute of confusion to understand: “AV” in French is an abbreviation for “A Vendre”: “For sale”. I attracted her attention to the inscription on the tombstone, and she grunted, “Oh, ok. It’s his initials, I get it. But why on earth did they put them on the pot? Did they think someone was going to run away with it?” I always put her initials on her stuff incase she leaves it on a park bench or someone picks it up by accident.

I hugged her, and we walked on. One epitaph got her thinking. It was over the top, over emotional, and otherwise too good to be true, and Little My said so in as many words. This got us wondering about epitaphs on tombstones. We discussed the fact that nobody has “Good riddance to bad rubbish” chiselled into the stone in gothic lettering, however uncharitable they could have been during their lives. So, said Little My, why do people lie about it? Or do we all have the right to being pardoned when we pass on?

We took the example of Grande Mamie, her great-grandmother. She had always said, “I’ll bury the lot of you”- and as far as her immediate generation was concerned, she almost did.  We both agreed that although it would have been cool to see it written on her headstone, it obviously it wouldn’t have been politically correct. Yet for those who knew her well, it would have been most appropriate.  (I had also suggested using her wardrobe as a coffin to avoid disputes over who inherited it, but that’s another story).

So, Little My asked, what would I want written on my tombstone? Chewing it over, I admitted that all the sappy “best thing since sliced bread” rhetoric would probably make me turn over and vomit in my coffin, and that I’d go for: “I almost made it, but I had a ball trying”. The story of my life, from the Roquefort that fell off my fork millimetres in front of my mouth at Christmas and exploded on my plate, splattering my dress, to my success at combining motherhood and business creation, which I am still working on. And in the mean time, what the hell….. I’m having fun.

From slingshots to parachutes.

Untimely reminders that I am ageing sometimes appear in the most unexpected situations. A perfect example was the experience that hit me in the teeth last summer. On my way up the stairs with the laundry basket, a chuckling Bigfoot overtook me at high speed. He and his brother were pelting round the house commando-style, hiding behind walls and hunting each other down like elite army snipers.

English: Wooden slingshot with rubber made in ...

I was happy to see them playing together. As they fired pellets of paper at each other, I smiled and found it reassuring that they still knew how to play together. Really play. You know, games that don’t involve a T.V or a computer. They were still capable of using their imaginations to create their own game. As I took my laundry basket into the bedroom and started putting away the clean clothing, I wondered when I had bought them the slingshots they appeared to be using. They didn’t seem to be overly efficient, with the paper pellets dropping to the ground close to my aspiring soldiers.  Strangely enough, I didn’t remember having purchased any.  I shrugged my shoulders. Turning to put away the last dregs of the basket, I was surprised to discover my underwear drawer open and hanging askew, its innards spewing out into the open in a colourful cascade of cotton, silk, and lace.  I didn’t remember having left it in such a sorry state that morning…..

I stopped dead in my tracks, clutching P.F’s boxer shorts. The neurones fired up, the synapses connected. I peered around the door frame with a tightening stomach and was greeted by Rugby-boy bombing down the corridor. Number two son screeched to a breathless halt in front of me. His eyes sparkled mischievously, and he sported a huge grin from ear to ear. “Mum, these make brilliant slingshots! Can I keep it, please?”

I gaped at the high precision weapon he had been using for lethal combat all afternoon: a bog-standard Marks & Sparks  G-string. No frills, no fuss.  It suddenly gave a whole new meaning to “make love, not war”.

A ball of school paper flew through the doorway, and Bigfoot lumbered in. He was ready to launch the next missile, jammed in the gusset of a formerly favourite pair of undies whilst the remaining elastic creaked dangerously.  “Come on, Mum, you’re too old for that kind of underwear now, and it’s not as if it fits you any more”, he jibed before firing at me and chasing his brother back down the corridor.

He was right. Trying to wear them now would be like attempting to fit a newborn’s hair-band around a rhino’s behind, and would entail running the risk of looking like the saucisson on sale at the local market, bulging out of tightly-knotted string as it dangles over the counter.  I sadly acquiesced that I am now more parachute than slingshot, and that comfort had finally taken over from the temptation to be a hot-to-trot domestic goddess. But shorties are feminine too, son of mine. So there.

The French food paradox.

The other day I was amazed to see mothers enthusiastically grabbing a new product off the supermarket shelf: a chocolate spread made of soft cheese and milk chocolate. It struck me that whilst the French clamour their gastronomic superiority and force-feed me cheap jokes about flagship British clichés like jelly, cucumber sandwiches, flavoured crisps and mint sauce, they do not seem to see any contradiction between their rhetoric and their regular consumption of what they themselves describe as rubbish. This is my favourite French paradox: their love-hate relationship with junk food.

“La Malbouffe” is a recent French term for the invasion of junk food and sodas from the outside world, deemed responsible by many for the decline of traditional family meals and the expanding waistline of the population.

I remember one memorable debate during a family meal in Marseille, as we all religiously grunted contentment over the hors d’oeuvres. As white-haired Gervais served the Sauternes to go with the foie gras, he and Mamie shook their heads sadly at how gastronomic standards in France had lowered since Ronald and his pals had arrived on the food scene. When I pointed out to them with a smile that the meal we were eating was probably much worse for our health, I was stared at in horror. I had committed gastro-cultural blasphemy.

I could sense a tangible risk of going down in family history as the Judas who had dared to betray the Gallic dinner table as I developed my argument a little further at the end of the meal. During the aperitif we had nibbled on glistening olives, peanuts and crisps. Then we had munched our way through foie gras, and boeuf bourgignon (beef cooked for hours in a rich wine sauce) served with a gratin dauphinois: sliced potatoes cooked slowly in single cream. A huge cheese platter followed, and a salade verte for conscience’s sake before the dessert. The whole meal was washed down with varying amounts of different wines.  With all due respect, it was unfair to point an accusatory finger at the number of calories in Ronald’s menu: although it was not the tastier choice, it was probably much less likely to clog up your arteries.

The funny thing is that the French appear to be closet junk food addicts. Paradoxically, I see them queuing for their food at one particular “restaurant” much more often than I do – the one run by a scary, oversized guy with red hair, stripy pj’s and huge red shoes. Caught in the act, they shrug their shoulders, wink and say « Oh, we come here for the kids – I can’t stand the stuff. But it can’t do any harm from time to time, hey? », before tucking enthusiastically into their tray full of carbs covered in ketchup and industrial mayonnaise.

The face of food shopping in France has changed too. I was surprised when frozen burgers and microwaveable chips appeared in local supermarket freezers. Even the Englishwoman that I am, reared on the likes of jelly and roast beef, can’t imagine buying something like that, let alone eat it. Then take the example of crisps: when I first came here, you chose between bog-standard salted or a strange paprika flavour crisps, or strange things called “Curlies”, that look like bright orange fox poo and have all the flavour and texture of sawdust. Now, supermarket shelves boast acres of crisps with every flavour, shape and colour imaginable.

The humble sandwich has also been pulled out of the hall of shame and given a full makeover. When I arrived in France in 1989, it was a survival ration: something you ate when you had no other choice. The SNCF’s* overpriced, droopy excuse for a sandwich was so uninspiring that French upper lips curled in disdain at the mere mention of it. Now supermarkets have an impressive shelf of neatly-packaged triangular butties, indicating that the tables have turned, and that the French have compromised their midday traditions for less tasty but conveniently packaged lunch options whilst the foreign expats scream “noooooooooooooo, don’t do it!” on the sidelines.

And let’s not forget the “approved” daily junk food.  Believe it or not, there are skeletons in the French pantry, tucked between the fond de veau and the bouquet garni. The vast majority of French kids – and adults – are hooked on Nutella, or “Nutegras”**, as I call it. Advertising promotes the nutritional benefits of the nuts, milk and chocolate it contains, yet mysteriously forgets to mention the remaining 70% of the recipe: sugar and palm oil. This does not appear to be a major concern for French parents, who have nevertheless given it the thumbs-up for daily consumption whilst remaining highly suspicious about the nutritional value of the humble hamburger – with its bread, ground beef and fresh salad ingredients.

So I’m sorry, France, but I am baffled by your dual gastronomic personality and amused by your “do as I say, don’t do as I do” junk-food denial. I hope that one day you will come out of the closet and freely admit that you enjoy “junk” food, which is no better and no worse than the traditional meal, and that moderation is necessary in both. And please stop worrying about the burger removing Mamie’s traditional nosh-up from the podium: it’s just not going to happen, guys.

* French railway company.

**gras = fat, grease.

The charity shop hop.

A dominant charity shopping gene runs in my family. When I met the French friend I jokingly call “Emmamuse”* just over a year ago, I told her that one of my hobbies was bargain hunting in charity shops. I expected her eyes to glaze over, but they lit up with enthusiasm – and our friendship was sealed.

Last Thursday, we leapt into the car and screeched off across the countryside like Thelma and Louise on a quest for a good bank. Our recipe for the perfect day is simple: combine two girls, two huge charity shops and seven hours of thrifty sifting with a midday vineyard picnic or a plat du jour sandwiched nicely in the middle.

The shops in question are called “Emmaüs”. This network, created by Abbé Pierre in France in 1947, is a winning combination of common sense and solidarity.  Customers have access to secondhand goods at moderate prices, and the staff, called the compagnons, have dignity, work and lodgings. For someone like me who splashes her clothes with bleach and breaks crockery and glasses as a pastime, Emmaüs is the best thing since sliced bread.

When we arrived, we touched base with our favourite compagnons, who we secretly call ZZ Top and Mr Cacharel. To our surprise, ZZ Top had shaved off the huge white beard that had earned him his nickname.  When we congratulated him on his new look, he smirked and told us that his own granddaughter hadn’t recognised him, and had screamed when he had picked her up.

Mr Cacharel works in the clothing section, and once spent twenty minutes turning the place upside down to find me the matching skirt for a Cacharel jacket I had found. Thanks to his determined endeavours, I now have a perfect suit for five euros. He even doubles up as a fashion advisor, telling you with tact and delicatesse what suits you and what doesn’t when you try things on. Yep, Mr Cacharel is 100% good egg.

However, we always keep a wary eye out for the volunteer worker we have named “Adolphine”. She has made a speciality out of shadowing customers throughout the building like an offbeat Brinks security guard, stalking them with all the tact and discretion of a tank driving though an ornamental garden. In the apparent belief that she is working in a Chanel boutique crammed to the seams with aspiring thieves, she has already been seen tearing objects out of the hands of screaming children in order to stash them away at the till until they were paid for. We came to the conclusion that she was a bored lady with bad conscience who was there for all the wrong reasons, and have avoided her like the plague ever since.

Emmamuse was surprisingly well behaved this week. Her hopeless addiction to 1960’s furniture, crockery and clothing sometimes results in life-size Tetris as we jam huge pieces of furniture into the car with the help of a guffawing ZZ Top. We then attempt Houdini-style contortionism on the way home: I drive with my knees around my ears and my nose squashed against the windscreen, whilst Emmamuse supports the weight of the cupboard doors dangling perilously above her head. This week, however, we got off lightly with two window frames, a small chest of drawers and the result of a substantial raid on the clothing section.

My favourite trophies this week are two very British-looking stripy deckchairs, complete with foot rests. They seem to have fallen out of Dr Who’s tardis on its way from Blackpool to an unknown destination, and have resulted in an unrequitable desire for a stick of rock, donkey rides along the beach and a “kiss me quick” hat. The rest of my hoard includes three art nouveau candleholders, a pile of clothing for a majorly impressed daughter, and crockery for the kitchen,  all for the princely sum of 46 euros. Not forgetting the added, invaluable bonus of a day out with a good friend and a picnic in a sunny vineyard.  What else could a girl ask for?

* Emmaüs, the name of our favourite charity shop, combined with the word “muse”.