The squirrel reflex.

I don’t know about you, but a strange thing happens to me when I see food from home here in France. Unexpectedly coming across a packet of ginger nuts in a French supermarket remains as incongruous for me as clapping eyes on a family of flamingos strolling across the beach in Blackpool. When my kids saw a man holding a pack of  «Seriously Strong » cheddar recently, I reluctantly had to intervene and nip their plan in the bud before they subjected him to a stealth attack in the car-park.

Seeing British food out of its usual context triggers an uncontrollable, primitive reflex in me, a squirrel-like survival instinct involving the purchase and immediate hoarding of all possible booty in a top-secret location. I mutter « my preciouuuus » under my breath, Gollum oozing from every pore as I admire my treasure trove. Infinitely more valuable than the legendary last Rolo, certain gastronomic delicacies of Perfidious Albion are jealously guarded and ceremoniously introduced to French friends (although this did backfire on me once, when a French friend practically threw up on tasting prawn cocktail crisps. You live and learn).

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

One memorable day in a Pezenas supermarket, I unexpectedly came across a shelf that was full to the brim with British produce. I pinched myself and looked closer, then started jumping up and down on the spot and squealing like a four-year-old who had unwittingly found her way into Willy Wonka’s factory.

A concerned P.F came hurtling round the corner with the kids following in hot pursuit, trolley teetering dangerously on two wheels. When he asked what the fuss was all about, I pointed a quivering finger at the shelf boasting a proud line-up of baked beans, my favourite brand of crisps, Ribena, Horlicks, chocolate digestives, P.G. Tips and Cadbury’s chocolate….. Like Scrat discovering a pile of acorns, I was wide-eyed and breathless, and my knees were shaking. I could finally alleviate the cold turkey symptoms of an expat life without black pepper Kettle Chips. I grabbed the shopping trolley and feverishly scooped tins of baked beans into it, happily humming Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” under my breath.

P.F, party-pooper par excellence, touched my arm and pointed solemnly at the price tag. My satisfied hum gave way to an indignant squawk, and I yelled, “Hang on, they’re beans, not caviar! That’s the price of a four-pack in Sainsbury’s! What a rip-off!” P.F helped me to return part of my hoard to the shelf, and I strode indignantly to the till with my overpriced beans, ginger nuts, porridge oats, jelly, chocolate and other comforting reminders of home. They remained in the cupboard for as long as I could resist opening them. A kind of visual reminder of home: the hot Ribena rituals of my childhood.

When we return home to see my parents, we always fit in a pilgrimage to Waitrose. Whilst the kids line up reverentially in front of the sweets, chocolates and biscuits, I am generally in front of the cheddar, bacon and sausage section, kissing the ground in a papal manner. After this moment of personal meditation and prayer to the food Gods, we grab a trolley and fill it with all the victuals needed to fill the cupboard at home in France.

However, returning to France with our booty can sometimes be complicated. I remember making the error of trying to travel with a tin of golden syrup in my hand-luggage. A verbal wrestling match ensued with the heartless robot whose X-ray machine had picked out what he obviously hoped to be his first major security threat. This would no doubt boost his career and jettison him into instant international fame for saving innocent Ryanair passengers from a madwoman armed to the hilt by Abram Lyle & Sons.

He dug the tin out of my carefully packed backpack, and pointed at it accusingly. “Can you tell me what this contains, please?” “Uh… To quote Katie Melua,  just what it says on the tin?” I suggested with humour. He stared blankly at me. “Gol-den sy-rup,” I added helpfully, pointing to the words on the oh-so-classy green and gold tin, which I had already earmarked as a pen pot for Bigfoot. I wondered whether reading was an obligatory part of the selection process for airport security, or whether communication skills were evaluated by the candidate’s ability to order a pint at last orders.

English: Lyle's Golden Syrup in a resealable t...

A very dangerous, explosive tin of Golden syrup. This image was created by Whitebox, and is licensed under the following license (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He cleared his throat and drew himself up to his full height. “Are you sure? For all I know, this could be filled with explosives.” He muttered suspiciously to himself as the queue grew. Impervious to the increasing sounds of tutting and grumbles of  “Oh for goodness sake, get a move on,” he turned the tin in his hands and inspected the plastic seal with insistence. In the end, he finally accepted my proposal to open the tin and taste the syrup. I didn’t explode, and I finally got on the plane as planned, remaining glued to my seat until arrival.

A second run-in with security happened when I was travelling back to France with a willing hostage. As airport security called me to the luggage desk, my youngest sister curled up in her seat, rolled her eyes and groaned “It just had to be you…” before disappearing behind her enviable curtain of curly hair. I had a strange sense of déjà vu as the lady unzipped my suitcase and rummaged through it, removing the offending items as she discovered them among my underwear and manky slippers. “This is bacon.” “Yes.” “Cheddar?”  “Yes.” Her eyes widened. “Baked beans? Umm….. can I ask you why you are travelling with this in your luggage?”

I wasn’t sure what to reply. Why on earth do you think I’m doing this? An Amélie Poulainèsque desire to take a photo of tin of beans at the top of the Tour Eiffel, at the Kremlin, and other exotic locations*? For my picnic on the plane because a) the food’s overpriced rubbish and b) the fart power will help me to gain altitude if the plane blows up and I find myself plunging headfirst towards the English Channel in my seat?

That was when I heard the conversation going on just beside me. “Umm…. excuse me, Madam, but can you please tell me why you have 20 walnut whips in your luggage ?” I turned my head, our eyes met, and mine lit up. “Are you going to tell them, or shall I?”

* I  do in fact know of a blog about a travelling bag of oats, and it’s jolly good, it’s called “Tales of a Travelling Porridge”, and it’s here!

Of exploding cats, French neighbours and doctor diatribes.

This is going to be a long read, so grab a coffee and a biscuit. Go on, a break will do you the world of good! All settled comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

This morning, my cat blew up. I found what was left of him on my son’s bed. The staircase and wall were splattered with something nasty (P.F would say it can’t be brains, because the cat doesn’t have one). I’ve just been to the vet’s, and I am waiting for her to stitch the rest back together. Poor pussy cat.

To keep my mind off poor old Murphy, I’m going to tell you about a typical bad day in our household. Take the one I had a few weeks back. A Friday. It had started off at 6.30 with an ominous “there isn’t any left” when I stumbled past Bigfoot muttering “I need a coffee”. I had a feeling that things were going to go pear-shaped form that moment on, and I was right….

Waking Little My for school was dangerous business. The night before, she had gone out with P.F and Bigfoot to a friend’s “quick” birthday drink whilst I provided aspirin, comfort and Kleenex for a miserable and feverish Rugby-boy.

I had wrongly presumed that P.F would be exhausted by his day, and would return home after a beer and a chat…. After all, the invitation was for an apéritif. Error. I should have faced the facts: the French are happily incapable of stopping the fun after a Pastis or two, whatever the day of the week.  Invariably, enough food to feed the five thousand suddenly appears from nowhere along with a crate of wine. Before you’ve had time to say “Bob’s your uncle” (or your father, in my case), you are filled to your back teeth with victuals and staggering your way home at one in the morning.

After machine-gunning P.F with increasingly threatening text messages, he had finally rolled in with Bigfoot and Little My at 11 pm, all three doing Tigger-style bounces and telling stories of the biggest tielles they had ever clapped eyes on.

Tielle sétoise vue de profil.

Tielle sétoise vue de profil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A tielle is a local speciality, a pie filled with a spicy, seafood filling). Bigfoot had raved on about what appeared to be the Desperado beer equivalent of J.R’s crude oil stock.

Little My doesn’t do so well on eight hours sleep, and was inches from biting my head off when I ventured under her quilt for a morning kiss the next morning. Once my grouchy daughter was dropped off at school, I had to negotiate my way home. Somehow, every car in the universe had converged on one narrow entrance at the same time. Our cul-de-sac was blocked off, littered with badly-parked cars as insurance experts, lawyers, builders, decorators, electricians, plumbers and neighbours waved paperwork in the air and made Gallic sounds of desperation. Our neighbours had accidentally set light to their kitchen nine months before, and getting money out of the insurance company was turning out to be about as easy as convincing Marine Le Pen to go team building in the Amazon with Martine Aubry and Segolène Royale. The temperature and the tone of voice started rising.  To add a little spice to the equation, the postman careened into the fray with his battered yellow excuse for a van, swearing and flailing his arms in the air. He shrugged his shoulders dramatically, did a clumsy three-point turn and disappeared at speed with all our mail.

Rugby-boy and I toddled off to the doctor’s, where we made our contribution to the ever-expanding hole that the French are digging underneath the bank in terms of public health spending. In Britain your visit to the doctors for sinusitis generally involves meeting a nurse and then getting the appropriate treatment, i.e. the antibiotic needed to zap the resident bacteria into oblivion, the recommendation to drink lots of water and get lots of rest, and a sympathetic clap on the shoulder.

In France, things are different. The patient is invited into the doctor’s office, and is carefully inspected from all angles before a huge list of medication is carefully typed and printed out. The ensuing visit to the local pharmacy results in a plastic bag full to the brim with various magic pills and potions, half of which your child will refuse to take without putting up a good fight first. Just in case you don’t know how to read the prescription, the chemist kindly writes the instructions on the packet, however small it may be, tutting angrily at a pen that won’t work on varnished cardboard boxes. Then she shouts the instructions out loud for the benefit of anyone in the queue who is curious to know what you’ve caught.

Fluoxetine (Prozac), an SSRI

This lines up perfectly with the French health profile:  I have a suspicion that the term “hypochondriac” was invented with the French in mind. Health is almost a religion over here.  I remember a colleague telling me that her little boy was sick, so she was taking her afternoon to get him to the doctor’s.  Not just any old doctor, the pediatrician. Or rather her pediatrician. The French love specialists, and the possessive adjective “my” generally precedes the name of the specialist (important to know if you should ever make the beginner’s mistake of asking a French hypochondriac how he or she is).  Hence, cardiologists, dentists, urologists, obstetricians, physiotherapists and so on all actually belong to their patients. When she returned from his surgery, I asked her how it had gone. After waiting a good two hours, he had checked her son from every angle and gravely given his verdict: “une rhinopharyngite”. I shivered anxiously; this latin name no doubt hid some terrible illness. It conjured up pictures of rhinoceros horns; added to “-itis”, it must be bad news. I hurried back to my desk and pulled out a dictionary, where I found out that it is just what we English commonly call a cold.

Anything that is even vaguely related to breathing systematically results in a nasal spray, whilst coughs, colds or temperature are treated to that great old French tradition, the suppository. Hands up all the expat English parents who have stared in terror at their GP as he announced this form of medication? The worst ones are those containing eucalyptus. I remember the embarrassment when I queued in the local supermarket with baby Bigfoot in the ventral baby carrier. The old lady waiting beside us with her tin of cassoulet and her washing-up liquid found him very cute, saying that he was a little like a baby koala, all snuggled up against his mummy like that. Bigfoot obligingly let loose with the only koala-like thing he had in his possession: a pungent eucalyptus fart, which no doubt worked wonders for the respiratory system of everyone else in the store.

Back home, the legal battle was drawing to a close in front of the house. I got on with my next mission: getting my head around the correction of a long legal document in English. Rugby-boy was boosted by cortisone, but bored and in need of salvation, whilst not being sick enough to opt for the “crawl under the quilt and sleep” option. I set him up in bed with the “tellysitteuse” (yup, I am a bad mother from time to time… et alors?). The afternoon sped past, ending with two hours in the pool with a delighted Little My as Bigfoot freestyled his way through his four daily kilometres of chlorine.  I congratulated myself on my efficiency, then remembered that I hadn’t ordered the pizzas. I called, dripping and frozen, from the changing rooms.

On the way home in the car, I sneezed. “Bless you!” said Bigfoot. “Thanks, I need all the blessings I can get”, I observed darkly. “After all, just imagine what will happen if I have a rhinopharyngite….”

Expats Blog Award: please vote!

I have finally decided to stick my neck out into cyber space. My blog has been considered worthy of entry in the Expat Blog Award for France! The winning blogs will be revealed sometime in December. I’m still trying to suss out how to get the logo onto my blog, but in the meantime, here’s the lowdown:

If you enjoy this blog, even just a little bit, please click here, click on my blog, then scroll down to the bottom of the page, fill in the form and award the blog the number of stars you consider appropriate. Don’t forget to leave a comment!

Thank you,

Your humble scribe, MM.

Henry’s heritage: practise what you preach.

I was brought up to avoid the conversational “hot potatoes” of sex, religion and politics. Well, today I’m going to break that golden rule, because something within those three categories has come up which has really got my goat. I am obviously not alone, and recommend this article on “mixedbabygreens”, which is real food for thought.

Anyone who could have sworn that they had heard bellicose laughter echoing within the walls of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle this week probably either pinched themselves or took an appointment with their local shrink.  Yet it would not have surprised me at all. There’s a man buried there who would no doubt have done a victory dance if he’d still been alive to hear the news this week. This man is no other than the initiator of the Church of England, a certain Henry VIII.

Portrait of Henry VIII, c. 1536. Oil and tempe...

Little Henry was probably a nice lad to begin with, but he rapidly became obsessed with the need for a male descendant, which happily coincided with what appears to be an insatiable appetite for women. When he decided that his wife Catherine was no longer fit for the job, he decided to ask for his money back in view of an immediate exchange. Unfortunately for him, the Catholic church drew the line at issuing an annulment for his marriage, so clever Henry got his thinking cap on and rapidly sent the Pope packing.

He immediately reformed the church on his own terms, and was hence able to get shot of Catherine of Aragon for the hopefully fertile and beautiful Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of his many mistresses. Unfortunately, she didn’t produce the male heir either, and got the chop within a few years – both literally and figuratively.

Henry’s appetite for women made modern-day France’s Dominique Strauss Kahn look like a hung-up choir boy as he fell madly in and out of love with women. He got through six wives faster than Bigfoot demolishes a Super-size menu, and died at the age of 55. Two of his four deceased wives were executed, and the last happily survived him along with Anne of Cleves, no doubt taking the time to drink a toast as the coffin lid was nailed down.

The Church of England has gone a long way since. They opened the doors to female priests in 1992. At that time I applauded them for their open-mindedness and their conviction, and really thought that this church was going somewhere.

But this week, my position changed. For those who missed the news this week, the Church of England’s General Synod voted against giving women access to the Bishopry. The great glass ceiling, which most evolved societies have strived to eliminate for women, is apparently still firmly in place in the C of E. It is even more concerning to see that the “against” camp got the last word despite 72.6% of votes being cast in favour of the movement. My reasoning may be a little simplistic, but for me this means that the voting procedure used is in need of severe reform. When the opinion of a majority is consciously ignored, the official body concerned is in the firing line. I can’t see elections working that way anywhere else in society without resulting in riots.

The decision that has just been taken takes us back to medieval times in a country which proudly touts equal opportunities across the board. I presume that the Church of England  preaches tolerance, and abhors discrimination. The opposite would be concerning. The bible says that we are all equal before God, but apparently not before the possibility of preaching His word….. Much as I try, I cannot help thinking of George Orwell, who said in his novel “Animal Farm” that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

Society is evolving fast, and the word “evolution” now has its place in the church dictionary, after the Church of England revised its position on Darwin and his works with a written apology in 2008. Within this document, called Good Religion Needs Good Science, the Rev Dr Malcolm Brown proffers the following words of wisdom:

“People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception. When a big new idea emerges which changes the way people look at the world, it’s easy to feel that every old idea, every certainty, is under attack and then to do battle against the new insights”.

He’s right, although in this context I consider equality to be a fundamental right, not a new idea. General Synod, for the moment you are not only behind on schedule, you are back-pedalling in a world where clinging on to the debris of the comfortingly familiar is no longer possible. All the women who have played a role in their Church and their parish have been slapped across the face and put in their places: apparently, well below men. I’m not sure that they are happy to limit their contributions to wearing a broad-brimmed flowery hat and making cakes for tea time at the vicarage. In any case, I hope not.

Which brings me back to our old Henry, buried in St Georges chapel.  He can rest in peace: although the Church he created no longer tolerates that anyone cuts off women’s heads, it still apparently maintains the right to axe their future in the clergy.

I’ll leave you with this charming little ditty, written by CBBC for children….

A pain in the neck.

Here’s the winner of this week’s incongruous comment competition: “Take your clothes off: I want you topless in the room next-door in five minutes”.

I won't be doing this anymore.....

Anyone who thinks this post is going to be about middle-aged bedroom antics is going to be sorely disappointed. There’ll be no necking for me for a while, even if P.F appears in the kitchen dressed in leopard-skin undies with a glass of bubbly in each hand and a red rose clenched between his teeth. My neck is stiffer than the legendary British upper lip, due to two badly-behaved cervical vertebrae that have hatched a dastardly plan to transform me into a pathetically rigid excuse for a human being sporting bags under the eyes that could double up as post office sacks.

You know you’re getting old when the order to undress comes from a lady in a white lab coat. I felt ridiculously self-conscious as I tried to keep my balance on a platform that wiggled and slid around beneath my feet.  The machinery clunked and shuddered its way around me taking clichés of my innards as the technician barked instructions at me. I sternly reminded myself that I had already given birth in front of complete strangers and had not given a damn about who was watching, but still felt as embarrassed as a teenager in the school shower room.

If I was in this situation, it was because I had finally given up pretending it didn’t hurt. For nights on end I had gritted my teeth in the dark and pondered over the irony of the great idiom “to be a pain in the neck”. It didn’t take the linguist in me long to start thinking up all the expressions using the names of body parts in the English language, and more particularly, the neck. When you’re stranded on your back in bed like a beached whale, incapable of moving and condemned to hearing the rest of the planet happily snoring around you, there’s nothing better to do than exercise your neurones, encouraging them to do something other than scream that you have passed your maximum pain threshold.

Removed from school

Removed from school (Photo credit: theirhistory)

“Neck and neck”, “in this neck of the woods”, “to neck”, “to stick your neck out”, “to put your neck on the line”, “to risk your neck”…. when I had exhausted all the available linguistic options ten days later, I gave up and practically crawled to the doctor’s surgery. I pooh-poohed the idea of structural problems with a brave grin, informing her that everything in there was made in Great Britain: stainless, gleaming, top-notch bone merchandise strengthened by decades of cheddar consumption and reinforced by the little bottles of milk with silver tops and straws that were served daily throughout my stint in primary school. Every time I think of that period of my life, I feel like humming the Hovis bread advert and developing a broad Geordie accent.

However, I was wrong, and the doctor was right. As we left the building, I opened the envelope and peered at the results. Medical vocabulary is fun – I think that one day I’ll write the alternative medical dictionary. My results were clearly printed, short and to the point. “Conclusion: Discopathy”. I  joked to Emmamuse that if I’d been asked what it was on the previous day, I would have guessed it was a severe allergy to nightclubs.  But despite this attempt at humour, my legendary and indestructible flagship, HMS Optimism, had taken a fatal blow and was listing dangerously in the oily, black waters of self-pity.

I poignantly remembered a character from a favourite childhood musical sadly saying, “the mere mention of the unmentionable makes me immeasurably morose and melancholy”. Yup, seeing the first signs of getting old sucks. Any hope to become a contortionist or a pole dancer could henceforth be shelved along with other unattainables like having a bath without one of my offspring asking if I’ve finished yet, toting a tidy handbag and being woman enough to wax my bikini line without having downed three G&T’s beforehand.

We turned right, walked for two minutes and raided our favourite charity shop before heading home. This necessary therapy cost the princely sum of two euros and was both immediate and painless: the purchase of two warm, brightly-coloured scarves and sharing a refreshing dose of laughter. In the car, I asked Emmamuse whether one day we’d have to change our name from “The Emmamuses” (see “The charity shop hop” for more details) to “The Arthritis Sisters”. We decided that whatever curses Mother Nature thows our way, we will always be the Emmamuses. And in the mean time, I’ll happily kiss any ground walked on by the inventor of the anti-inflammatory.

Have a “nice” day!

Love

Love (Photo credit: praram)

This morning I got up, woke my kids up, and took them to school. Between emptying the washing machine and filling the tumble dryer, I called a friend to check if she was ok, because I knew she had a tough day in store. Then I sorted out a run to the supermarket with my retired neighbour: we both hate the food shopping ritual, but we always manage to have a whale of a time when we go together.

When I got home, I dumped my shopping bags on the table and switched on the radio, just in time to hear that today is apparently « national kindness day » in France. I was surprised, in the same way as when it was « Women’s day »  (I couldn’t help wondering if the 364 others had been bagged for « Mens’ days »).

However commendable this initiative may be, I wonder if I am alone in finding it depressingly inane to ask people to think about their fellow-man on one particular day of the year. Doesn’t this imply that the instigators of this « kindness day » consider that society today is overtly individualistic and selfish? Hardly a positive view of humanity….

The word « gentil » in French means « kind » or « nice » (a word my mum hates and always asked me to replace by a « real adjective », and I agree. Sorry, Mum). However, it is also used in a much more pejorative form, implying that a person is one can short of a six-pack; in other words, simple-minded or lacking in intelligence. I have always wondered whether this double-barrelled definition linking kindness with stupidity hides a Gallic conviction that if you are kind, you’re going to have the wool pulled over your eyes and be considered a gullible twerp within very little time.

The French personality in this neck of the woods is direct, latin, and passionate, and this sugarcoated, over-the-top and Care-Bearish  « show-everyone-you-love-them-day» concept just doesn’t seem right here. I see smiles everywhere, every day, and people gladly communicate if you send the right signals. Some people are so anxious to get their message through that the conversations are spiced up with regular squeezing of hands and prodding of arms, making the interlocutor feel like an unripe melon on the local market place. However, the same passion can apply to those who don’t send positive signals and want to be left alone, and it’s their right.

There are of course the ones who don’t give a monkey’s uncle about anyone else unless the latter can provide something interesting.  Today, these unscrupulous individuals may even presume that as it’s « kindness day », other people will have to roll out the red carpet for them. Imagine the scene in the crowded supermarket car park:

Q. « Excuse me, sir, but I sincerely believe I was waiting for this parking space before you arrived. And you know, today is « national kindness day ». So would you mind terribly if I took the space and you found another one ?»

A. « If it’s national kindness day today, then you can be kind and back off, before I am generous enough to give you a broken nose. Oh, and for what it’s worth, thanks for the parking space ».

Ok, I’m exaggerating a tad (although I have actually seen the exact same thing happen in a car park here) but I don’t think that the people really concerned by this initiative will bother making an effort today.

Forrest Gump (character)

Forrest Gump (character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for those who aren’t bad eggs as such, but just don’t seem to see or need the gazillions of people milling around them in over the course of their everyday lives, why bother being a hypocrite for just one day? Someone who prefers to barricade himself within the comfort of his headphones in the bus after a long day at work rather than talk with strangers isn’t going to make an exception. Let’s face it, not everyone sitting on a park bench is a potential Forrest Gump with a box of chocolates to share and breathtaking stories to tell – and less and less people in our urban jungle are interested enough to hang around to find out when the last bus home rounds the corner.

The other thing that I object to with this «special day» business is the underlying implication that on the other days of the year, it simply doesn’t matter. People who are kind do it automatically, I think.  And those who aren’t kind react in the same way – they are naturally either unpleasant or simply anesthetized against other people’s needs from an early age.

I was laughing with my neighbour yesterday about « neighbourhood day », the date when French neighbours all over the nation are supposed to get together in the street for a huge party. Every day is neighbourhood day in our building: not a day goes past without a quick coffee, a chat, or finding a bag of homegrown vegetables hanging on the kitchen door handle. We all watch out for each other. Ok, all except for Gargamel, who would rather gouge his own eyes out with his garden trowel than partake in mundane chat. So we just let him be.

So I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that people don’t change. You either have the happy, people-orientated, look-out-for-others instinct, or you don’t. And if you don’t, then it’s certainly not « special days » spun by the media that will change you….

Little My’s list.

The windscreen wipers squeaked across the windscreen as we wound our way through the Esterel massif on the N7. This road has fantastic views, but has always scared the proverbial crap out of me – particularly at night. The numerous twists and turns have been responsible for many upturned stomachs on our family car trips, and I remain convinced to this day that if Charles De Gaulle had ever had the pleasure to test out being a passenger in the back of a Citroën DS on this road, like I did once, he would never have chosen it as his presidential car. Its hydraulic suspension makes you feel like you’re on a mattress full of blancmange, and it must have made even the merest ride down the Champs Elysée feel like a roller coaster experience.

On our left, oak trees were outlined against the late evening sky. On our right, a dwarf-sized concrete kerb separated us from the darkening depths of the valley. Every so often, we passed engraved marble slabs and flowers marking the spots where unfortunate drivers had come off the road and pitched over the edge.

Estérel

Bigfoot cheerfully pointed out the car wrecks dotted throughout the vegetation. Then my father-in-law soberly reminded P.F that he should keep an eye out for wild boar; they often cross the road in the dark, no doubt on their way out to join their pals guzzling the acorns, apples and other niceties that fall off trees in the region. Drivers who try to avoid them sometimes end up leaving the road and getting a one-way ticket to the local cemetery. My personal rule, which I hope I will never have to apply on that particular road, is hit and run: hit the beast, then run to get it in the freezer.

Little My listened in as I agreed how terrible it would be for three generations of the same family to fall in the canyon just because a boar had crossed the road without using the green cross code.

Little My

Little My (Photo credit: nhojjohn58)

I could hear the audible sound of wheels whirring in her brain, and frantically crossed my fingers, toes and everything else I had two of that her jaw was not on the point of moving. She has always planned things well in advance, and asks lots of questions about things I never gave a second thought to at her age. This has led to some very interesting (although occasionally badly timed) questions. She is very interested in death, which linked with her down-to-earth personality and concern to plan ahead, was about to give me a smile.

As I had feared, a little voice jettisoned out of the dark behind me and slammed into my eardrums.

« Mum, what will happen to me if I’m the sole survivor? Who will look after me? » she demanded. P.F gripped the wheel and peered into the darkness with renewed attention. I could have sworn I saw the corners of his mouth twitching with the beginning of a smarmy smile, and made a mental note to get my revenge. As everyone knows, questions to Dad begin and end with « Where’s Mum? ». Mums get all the other questions:  the ones about life, death, the universe, and why men have nipples.

« Well, ….. » I waited a few seconds to see how her French grandparents would react, but neither leapt into action. My personal suspicion is that one had happily missed the comment whilst the other had wisely decided to keep quiet and revel in my perilous parental predicament.

I drew in my breath, and explained to my potential Orphan Annie that as far as I knew, French law made provisions for family members to take care of young children who outlive their parents.  « Ah, I see ».

Two bends in the road later, she piped up again, and her next question was fired at me with all the subtlety of a loosely-bowelled hippo letting off steam in a monastery. « Can I choose who I live with? »  I squirmed in discomfort, anxiously eying the dark precipice on my right. « Well, I don’t see why not… Judges generally try to go along with the children’s wishes as much as they can, so if you’d eaten all your vegetables at the canteen before the hearing, they’d probably agree ».

« Yeeeeeeeesssss ! Cooooool ! », exploded noisily from the back seat of the car.

The remainder of the journey was spent listening to Little My as she ran through an impressive list of criteria (which happily had nothing to do with money, power or influence) before going on to the impact of various factors ranging from native languages to the availability of beefburgers. When we reached home, she had solemnly decided on our successors, should we ever meet with an untimely end. I hope that the lucky winners, as well as the runner-up (who is being kept on a back burner just in case the first choice doesn’t pan out as expected), will never have to discover that their names are on her list. If they ever do, I hope that they will cook her roast wild boar to avenge our deaths from time to time. And for those who are curious, I’m not telling – I have promised my daughter that I’ll be as silent as the grave.