Loo Roll Logic, or How to Have Fun at the Supermarket.

I am a serial “people spotter”, and supermarkets are a permanent source of amusement for me. Earth Daddy (the free-trade father), Zero Percent (the manically depressed low fat/sugar/carb freak), YFSM (Young Free & Single Male) and the rest of the Saturday Shopper crew have me rolling in the supermarket aisles every time.

This week, I decided to embrace the zen attitude of the weekday lunchtime shop, and met a completely different shopping population. The store was quiet and strangely devoid of the usual screaming toddlers teetering over the brink of the trolley with torrents of snot and half-chewed cookie drooling down their chins.

1953--shop as a family--by Bill Fleming

Earth Daddy, Wonder Woman and their irreproachable offspring shopping at Intermarché, where Earth Daddy finally found the rat poison he needed to deal with the neighbour’s cat. (Photo credit: x-ray delta one)

I coasted through the aisles with my squeaky trolley and played “Shopper’s I spy”. Retired lady with headscarf sifting through the cut-price bargains on the bottom shelf of the deli section? Check. Night-shift workers with bags under their eyes hunting down their brunch? Check. Spotty teens playing truant from the local school? Check. Zero Percent reading the small print on the diet yoghurt pot? Check.

I ambled over to the fruit and veg section in hope of a blog-worthy sight, and was rewarded by the sight of a well-dressed gent who was picking cucumbers off the display one after the other. He prodded them and eyed them suspiciously before waving one of them at his wife, who acquiesced with a brief nod of the head and went back to rummaging feverishly through the bags of salad.

It was at that moment that I was distracted by a supermarket sound I love more than any other – the sound of someone singing along to the tannoy system. From behind the lettuce display, a deep voice with a strong French accent was purring:

“And eef you ‘ave a minoot whay don’t wee goh…?

Tolk abowt eet, zomwear onli wee noh?

Ziiiiis cood be zee end of everysii-ing

Zo whay don’t wee goh

Zomwear onli wee noh?”

Peering through the foliage, I spotted the vegetable virtuoso. The bearded young man was serenading the bunches of radishes as he inspected them one by one, happily oblivious to the fact that the entire store could hear him. His version of Coldplay made the song, as well as grocery shopping, a damn sight sexier. He bounded away with his radishes and dropped them into his basket before pointing in the air and informing his girlfriend: “Let’s go. I hate love songs in supermarkets.” His secret would be safe with me – once I’d put it on my blog.

Woman wearing gas mask in chamber

Gladys realized that her lotus flower-scented loo roll was no match for the collateral damage caused by Roger’s Vindaloo take-away. (Photo credit: State Library of Victoria Collections)

I mooched off to the toilet paper aisle for the weekly truckload of toilet paper and raised a perplexed eyebrow at the range of vile colours on offer. I just don’t get the point of the insipid pastel shades of pink, apricot, blue and green, which remind me of hand-knitted cardigans at the local old people’s home. There is nothing delicate or elegant about the role of the roll. And as for perfumed loo roll… Depending on who has just vacated the premises, you would have to insert an entire roll up each nostril to even notice the fragrance.

Just as I was leaving with my monster pack of bog standard white, my jaw unhinged at the sight of transparent twin packs of individually wrapped toilet rolls. In MM’s humble abode, a twin pack of bog roll would have the life expectancy of a Mars bar tossed on to the raft of the Medusa. Squinting closer, I discovered that these porcelain potty pin-ups weren’t just soft, strong and very long: you could roll this stuff out at Cannes to replace the red carpet. More importantly, these ultra-cushioned stars of the sanitaires beat the crap out of their pale pink neighbours with the raciest colours I have ever seen for the wee pee pew, including apple green, velvet-black and… dark brown.

Who on earth buys brown toilet paper? My curiosity was piqued. I parked up, grabbed a box of washing powder and pretended to read the back of it as people came and went, impatient to see who the mystery buyer could be. If my loo-roll logic was correct, it would be a high-earning, middle-aged bachelor who lives in a minimalist designer flat and reads philosophy on his spotlessly clean toilet, before carefully tearing a single sheet of paper from the Stark bog roll holder gleaming on the wall.

After ten minutes, I gave up waiting for confirmation. In my haste, I had overlooked the fact that someone who pays nearly two euros per individually wrapped chocolate-brown loo roll 1) wouldn’t be shopping until much later that evening, and 2) probably doesn’t buy loo roll very often, because he spends all his time working to pay for the bloody stuff. Never mind. Better luck next week.

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The Expat Birthday Party.

In my early twenties, I au-paired on the Cote d’Azur. The family I worked for were wonderful – they were caring and fun, and had their feet firmly anchored on the ground despite the privileged lifestyle they led. Then one day I accompanied my “charge” to an expat child’s birthday party, and discovered the buttery upper crust of the international expat pie……

We walked through the automatic gate into a child-sized garden party on a lush green lawn. Think Buck’s Palace, without the Queen. The entire knee-high cast of a Shakespearian tragedy was running riot across the garden: Portias, Ophelias and Octavias dressed in designer frocks vied for superiority in the “my daddy’s car is bigger than yours” stakes. I ground my teeth and squeezed Laura’s hand. They had probably all been force-fed Mozart in the womb, followed by a moonlit jacuzzi birth and intensive developmental training with flashcards until they were old enough to enroll for Prodigious & Precocious –the human equivalent of the Kennel Club.

Two groups of adults met my eye: girls my age, grouped together near the children, and a group of meticulously groomed mothers whose hair had been blow-dried and lacquered into submission. They had set up a maternal HQ beside the pool, and were holding tea-cups and hee-hawing beside a teak garden table, their Estée Laudered lips bared to show immaculate white teeth and pink gums. My instinct told me that these ladies were on first name terms with their dentists.

Birthday cake, Hamstead style

Forget chocolate cake with Smarties: this is the ideal birthday cake for the jet-setting expat kid. (Photo credit: dan taylor)

On closer inspection, my doubts were confirmed. Forget the grindstone – the only thing these mothers had ever kept their noses to was the Gucci shop window. Their definition of financial difficulty was getting their Visa gold card jammed in their Hermes purse. They rolled their “r”s and doubled their barrels, and their vowels were longer than Cousin Itt’s hair. Whilst their husbands had good jobs, money and influence, they had embossed invitations to luncheon parties, private swimming pools, masseurs, canine psychotherapists for their chihuahuas and most probably Louis Vuitton nappy disposal bags.

I introduced myself then listened with interest to the battle of one-upwomanship that was being played out centre stage. Two mothers had drawn their superlative swords and were openly competing for their offspring’s superiority in art, music and sport -it was a very amusing maternal equivalent of bragging about penis size. I avoided the temptation to make facetious comments about their budding Einsteins and Beethovens, and took Laura to see birthday girl.

Portia didn’t see us at first – she was busy excavating the contents of her right nostril. She removed her finger from her nose and carefully inspected her catch before popping it into her mouth and chewing it with relish. “Hi! Fishing good?” I enquired. Portia glared at me, snatched the gift from Laura’s hands and ripped off the paper before dumping it unceremoniously on a huge pile of French designer clothing and politically correct hardbacks for precocious readers. A cruel smirk spread across her face. “Oh, a gift that cost a tenner. How cute of you, Laura. Really, you shouldn’t have…..”. A ripple of sardonic laughter ran through the nearby group of children. My jaw dropped. I had never seen such cruelty in five-year-olds.

Portia’s moment of glory as Chief Bad Fairy was interrupted by piercing screams from the bottom of the garden. Ophelia had carried out a nifty putsch on her host’s sparkling new swing, and was defiantly shaking her head at another child who wanted to take a turn. She apparently got a bigger kick out of depriving the others than from the swing itself. As the competitor for her throne whined, Ophelia remained firmly welded to the ropes on the swing and screamed into her struggling au pair’s face.

Pitbee

Ophelia – without her muzzle. (Photo credit: ambiebambie39507)

Glancing up the garden, it was clear that Mumsie had chosen to turn a blind eye. To no avail, the au pair tried again and again to remove the screaming despot from her throne. Ophelia opened her mouth and dived towards the nanny’s arm. With a primitive grunt of victory, she buried her teeth in the awaiting flesh. The pit bull in a party frock then got down from the swing, wiped her mouth on her cardigan and trotted over to her mother. Tugging on her skirt, she pointed at the nanny and tearfully complained to the manager.

Ophelia’s mother looked at her in surprise and registered the sorry state of her nanny’s forearm. I waited with interest to see how she would react. Would she explain that nice kids don’t bite? Make her apologise? Take her home and deprive her of Nutella for the forseeable future? Or just slap her backside? Nope. She turned to the other mothers in desperation, and said “Can you believe it? This is the twelfth nanny we’ve had in a year, and we still haven’t found one Ophelia likes. Can you recommend anyone, girls?”

My jaw dropped for the second time, and Ophelia ran triumphantly back to the swing. As she expertly wrestled Portia’s little brother off the seat, I asked the other nannies what had happened to the previous au pairs. Ophelia’s nanny rubbed her arm and told me that the eleven other nannies had left with enough tooth marks on their skin to play the role of human remains on the beach in the next Jaws film. This was a whole new world for me. Laura grinned, and we went off to find some cake. Cake is a universal value. Cake never lets you down. Long live cake.

Post entered in the DP Weekly Writing Challenge, 8th July 2013.

Risk of Collapse…..

Now this photo challenge grabbed me straight away: Sara Rosso invited photographers to share a picture of a sign, and explain why they used it.

I knew what picture would be just the ticket! This sign stopped me dead in my tracks as I swung around the corner of path winding through a botanical garden on the Côte d’Azur last summer. Ten feet further away on the right of the picture is a cliff overhanging the Med.

The sign post translates into English as follows: “Risk of collapse”. I couldn’t work out whether a sadistic garden employee had it deliberately planted it skew-whiff to scare off visitors, or whether the sign had been irresistibly drawn towards the cliff edge, fatally drawn by the death-threat written on its forehead……..

Needless to say, I didn’t hang about. But first I took the picture of the first inanimate object that unambiguously showed how I often feel …… as a working mother 😀

IMG_9023

 

A picnic with Italiaman and the Persian Princess.

Yesterday we got up and discovered that the sun had come out. We had already planned our day. M.M’s family have little patience with ritual eating when the sun is shining. There is nothing more frustrating for me than being holed up inside in front of a roast dinner whilst the sun screams at us to come out and play through the window. So whilst the French population ceremoniously slid garlic cloves into entire flocks of New Zealand lamb and popped them in the oven across the nation, we threw a picnic into the car, picked up two friends from the bus station and hit the road for our favourite playground: the Lac du Salagou.

The day was perfect: blue sky, gently lapping water, happy kids, and fun and interesting company. Our crowd would have appeared strange to anyone passing by: Italian, Persian, French and English picnickers sitting on the red rock, all happily chomping their way through roast chicken, baguette, eggs, crudités, cheese and crisps that all taste so much better in the open air.

The Lac du Salagou.

The Lac du Salagou.

Give me fresh air, nature, sunshine, good food and good company, and I am in my element. Our guests had been brave enough to return after a first encounter with M.M’s culinary efforts over a month ago, when I had taken the colossal risk of cooking an osso bucco for an Italian. The gastronomic gods were smiling at me that day – both guests tucked in with gusto, and Italiaman informed me that his mama had never cooked it for him before. They have been welcomed with open arms ever since.

Persian Princess is beautiful, bubbly and enthusiastic. She patiently answered all the questions I fired at her about life in Iran. I took photos of her with Candide Canon, and noted that however I chose to take the photo, she was stunning. She has fabulous eyelashes – they are so long that they could double up as windscreen wipers. It struck me that attempting to hide a woman’s beauty with veils and scarves does nothing more than accentuate the beauty of what remains visible.

I had noticed that Italiaman was tightly ensconced in a huge grey scarf, and took the opportunity to ask him to explain what the symptoms of the dreaded cervicale were. The term “cervicale” is used by Italians to describe an ailment that only seems to afflict them, whilst the rest of the world has never heard of it, let alone suffered from it. I was introduced to this notion by Our Adventure in Croatia and Englishman in Italy, and the translator in me is frustrated and intrigued to see that no official translation exists for this illness. Despite relentlessly trawling the net, I have failed to find a translation anywhere. Italiaman explained that the merest draught can reduce an Italian to pulp if his or her neck is not sufficiently well covered. The pain goes from the back of the head down to the base of the neck, irradiating out into the shoulders. I asked him why noone else gets it anywhere else in the world, and he shrugged. We decided that Italians are genetically different to the rest of the world.

Rabbit football. The Italian players have been visciously attacked by a "colpo d'aria".

Rabbit football. The Italian players have been viciously attacked by a “colpo d’aria” – literally, a “hit of air”.

Next, Italiaman pulled a bag of Easter chocolate out of his bag. Once the children had dilapidated the bag, we decided to reenact a France-Italy football match with the remaining Easter bunnies and a chocolate egg. Of course, the two Italian players were blown over sideways by a colpo d’aria within minutes of the match starting, and had to be stretchered off to treat their cervicale.

The afternoon was spent in Pezenas, a favourite haunt of mine where my favourite French playwright, Molière, spent a lot of his time. Here are a few pics of our day – I hope you enjoy them.

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….”