Time Travel and the Sherbet Lemon Tardis.

Roots are funny old things. Even the most hard-headed, independent expatriate girl needs to get back to her sources from time to time. And when MM’s boat started navigating through choppy waters a few months ago, the auto-pilot button for home started flashing. I needed space. My parents and siblings. Littlest Little Sister’s legendary English breakfast. Crumpets. Hugs. Family. My mum’s cooking. Laughter. Beer. Marbles and hopscotch. Fish and chips. Seeing reasonably priced cheddar and baked beans on the supermarket shelf and knowing that I wouldn’t have to hoard it all away because it would still be there tomorrow. Waking up to the sound of seagulls screaming insults at each other on the roof. The smell of the sea, the sight of grey waves crashing over the Cornish coastline. Sherbet Lemons. In a nutshell, the reassuring, familiar flavour of childhood. So I gave in to the temptation and got tickets, and Little My and I jumped on a Ryanair flight and headed for home.

We’ve been back in Cornwall for ten days now. MM is rolling unashamedly in family and familiar surroundings, and is driving her daughter up the proverbial pole with comments that all include the words “when Mummy was your age…”. I’m drinking too much beer, eating my weight in pasties and cheddar and am still running out of the front door to listen to the seagulls. I’m talking all day and sleeping all night. And loving every minute of rediscovering my old stomping ground.

My childhood, in a paper bag.

My childhood, in a paper bag.

Just cross the English Channel, and you change worlds. Since we got off the plane, I have  gone back 30 years in my life. This was best illustrated by the sweet shop, where Little My saw her mother melt into a quivering, nostalgic heap before feverishly purchasing armfuls of pear drops, barley sugars, love hearts and lemon sherbets from a bemused shop assistant. Little My was happy to oblige by sharing a taste-bud revival of my childhood with me, although the flavour didn’t evoke any memories for her. One day it will. Tempted by time travel? Forget the Tardis, and embrace the sherbet lemon. I rocketed back forty years in the blink of an eye. As we sucked on the sweets, I showed her around my home town in a delirious sugar and nostalgia-induced frenzy. The place where her aunt broke her arm waving to the train as we played on the swings. The places we used to play tennis until I invariably lost all the balls in the freezer centre gutter. The pier where I went crabbing with my sisters. The river where I sailed every Friday. The path that skinned my knees and battered my best friend’s bike again and again until I finally managed to cycle in a straight line. The pub where I downed many a pint-too-many.

They can't come in, but feel free to leave them outside the pub door.  Copyright: Multifariousmeanderings.

They can’t come in, but feel free to leave them outside the pub door.
Copyright: Multifariousmeanderings.

Getting back to your roots matters – right down to that greasy, emotional reunion with fish and chips on the rocky shore, hunting for prawns in the rock pools, and taking pics of my favourite winged bad boy, the seagull. I even had the pleasure of an impromptu Punctuation Police intervention with MM’s Mum (aka MMM). Our eyes locked with a malicious glimmer, and we licked our fingertips and banished an army of greengrocer’s apostrophes from a restaurant’s chalkboard menu.

As I relive my childhood memories, Little My is no doubt building her own. This experience will perhaps be one that she will repeat to her children one day.  The very same mundane everything days that comfort me are making my daughter grind to a sudden halt with surprise. Like the tinny ice cream van music, echoing across the valley on our way home from the shops. “What’s that?” she asked, startled. “It sounds like music from a creepy film.” The hot chocolate, marshmallow and whipped cream creation she only thought existed in fairy tales. The women striding confidently around town with their hair dyed bright shades of pink, blue, red and green, like something out of a Dr Seuss book. The mother with a buggy who thanked my daughter for letting her past with a cheery Cornish “Thank you, my darlin’!” and was greeted by a quizzical stare from Little My, who muttered in French, “Only my mum’s allowed to call me that”. The great Cornish conjugation of the verb to be: “I were/ you wuz” made her raise an eyebrow, too.

Challenge accepted!

Challenge accepted!

We started off with a day in Plymouth, or “Big P”, in our family jargon. We first raided the charity shops for appropriate wedding attire – Little Sis is getting hitched at the weekend. The pickings were rich, and I tried on several numbers under Little My’s expert eye (if in doubt about being mutton dressed as lamb, always check out your choice with a pre-teen, whose tolerance level is generally on a par with that of Genghis Kahn with a sore head). After negotiation about skirt length, we chose a simple but feminine knee-length red dress that most definitely puts the “cat” into “catwalk”, then stomped off for more aventures.

As we strolled through Plymouth city centre, it became clear that local behaviour is a far stretch from that of our French locals. Little My tugged on my arm, and I looked down to see incredulous eyes. “Mum !” she hissed, jerking her head sideways. “Why’s that kid on a lead?” I realised that she had never seen a child harness before, and explained the reasoning behind it. Little My looked back at the child as if he was an abandoned labrador tied to a tree at a motorway lay-by.  “Poor kid. He’s not a dog.”

We were both bemused by the predominant need to please customers in shops – so much so, indeed, that customer care seems to have become customer scare since the last time I visited. At the building society, an apologetic bank clerk a with highly visible name badge nervously asked if I would « mind terribly » if she made a phone call whilst I waited for another bank clerk to bring me the paper I had requested. A cashier at the local supermarket asked if I wanted help packing my bag, and carefully passed me each article, one by one. This is a far cry from my experiences in France, and it actually made me uneasy. It was as if the shopping world’s sword of Damocles was teetering above their heads. Then I realised that it was indeed the case – the British customer is king, and has the eerily disconcerting right to drop whoever they wish in the doo-doo. Your shopping receipts all include an invitation to answer the question, « How did we do today ? ». Just a phone call away, eager beavers man the lines and are ready to take your complaint and set up an enquiry, just for you.

Anyway. Enough rambling – I’m off for a pub lunch with the gang. MM management apologizes for the erratic posting of late, and hopes that you enjoyed today’s contribution to the worthy cause of worldwide time-wasting. Please feel free to comment below, and win £1000 of shopping vouchers the right to come back again next time.

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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

 

MM needs YOU!

English: Uncle Sam recruiting poster.

Yes, I’m talking to you!(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MM has entered a writing competition! My epistolary efforts and those of 18 other international bloggers were published today, and the overall winner will be announced on Friday. The theme is “Working Abroad”. It has been treated to force ten MM mental machinery, and turned into a description of the French working schedule (or lack thereof) during the month of May.

To read it, click on the link below which will take you to my entry in the most recent Expat’s Blog Writing Contest, called “Maytime Mayhem: The eye of the French working cyclone”.

If you enjoy what you read, please don’t hesitate to leave your comment directly after the text on the same page – comments are taken into consideration to choose the winning entries. Also feel free to share via Twitter and/or Facebook/ carrier pigeon if the fancy takes you. I will, of course, love you all forever and ever, whether or not you choose to read or comment 😀

The Expats blog site is a fabulous platform for expat bloggers all over the world; why not sign your blog up there too?

Link to my competition entry here:

http://www.expatsblog.com/contests/472/maytime-mayhem-eye-of-french-working-cyclone

Have a good read! MM xx

Into the Jaws of Administromia.

As promised, I continue the saga of my quest through the impenetrable depths of French Administromia for a pretty pink driving licence. As my experience two days ago was full of trials and tribulations and (above all) rich in writing possibilities, I will be writing it up in manageable chunks. Here is the first…. 

 Tuesday was the big day for the driving licence showdown. I gathered together the driving licence forms and the mug shots and slid them into my briefcase with a huge pile of photocopies. I had frantically copied practically every document in my possession bar my supermarket receipts and the Easter egg wrappings, due to a well-founded fear of the French powers that be. They have an unhealthy obsession with what they call “justificatifs“: they can ask for documentary proof of anything from your home address to your bra size three years ago, depending on which way the wind is blowing and what they have had for breakfast. If you don’t have it with you, you are sent to paperwork jail without passing go in their real-life Monopoly game, and you have to start all over again.

In any case, whether you are desperately battering on the door for political asylum with determined gunmen hot on your tail or requesting a simple change of address on your car papers, you will invariably be met by an indifferent civil servant shrugging his Gallic shoulders as he informs you that he needs a copy of your phone bill before he can do anything. I have come to the conclusion that even if there is just one telephone bill for every member of the French population, there must be the paperwork equivalent of the Black Forest lurking in the depths of every French administrative building. I sincerely hope that they never get flooded – the employees will end up like museum pieces from Pompeii and Herculaneum, but encased in papier mâché instead of volcanic ash.

Petrified body at Pompei

“Queen Cerfa realised the importance of the paper shredder just minutes before the flooding water signed her demise in the records department of the Prefecture”. (Photo credit: Natasha Lloyd)

I hauled the huge pile into the car and set off for Queen Cerfa’s evil palace; our local equivalent of the tower of Babel. After successfully shoe-horning the car into a tiny parking space in the underground car park, I walked up to the huge gates, where a chubby little boy dressed in pair of jeans and a well-worn, hooded Spiderman top appeared out of thin air and placed himself between me and the gate in what I can only presume was a Superhero stance. Arms neatly crossed across his plump belly and feet planted well apart, he stared defiantly at me with dark, malevolent eyes set beneath furrowed eyebrows. I opened my mouth to tell my aspiring superhero that his shoelaces were undone, but I didn’t have time. He lifted an arm towards me, and folded his two middle fingers down to create a llama-head shape with his hand. Thrusting it towards my face, he proceeded to force air through his pursed lips to make a “pshhhhh” sound, but only managed to generously shower my lower half in saliva droplets before legging it across the square to his mother. I brushed myself off glumly – I had obviously been given the role of Doctor Octopus rather than Gwen Stacy. The rest of the day did not bode well.

I lifted my eyes to see a policeman who asked me if he could check my handbag. I smiled sweetly and opened my bag to reveal my personal collection of tissues, post-its, lollipop wrappers and supermarket receipts. He wisely decided against foraging, and hastily waved me through before anything escaped from my bag and bit him.

In the inner sanctum of the administrative beast, two pulsating snakes of muttering people twisted towards the door as they waited in line for the two reception desks. My queue was being dealt with by a pasty-faced lady with flaccid cheeks and loud pink lipstick, loosely-permed greying hair drooping half-heartedly over her glasses. This offbeat French reincarnation of the British Bulldog was unceremoniously perched on a wheelie chair behind the counter. She irreverently shoved a form towards the woman in front of me and barked  “Come back tomorrow!”. The woman blinked, and left. It was my turn.

Photo0231

Cross at your peril….

Or so I thought. Bulldog glared at me, and didn’t call me over the taped line on the floor.  Keeping eye contact, she slowly and deliberately put her hand in her pocket and pulled out a black object. As the screams of an exhausted child echoed around the hall and the queue grew in length, she languorously examined her phone, peering sadistically over the top of it from time to time to be sure I had understood that she, and she alone, had my destiny in her hands. At this point a man sporting an official badge appeared and beckoned to me, succulently pulling the plug on her power trip. Flashing a victorious smile at Bulldog, I stepped up to the counter and explained what I had come for. A huge grin spread across his face. “Ahaaaaa!” His blue eyes sparkled mischievously as he flicked through my papers. I cringed – he had picked up on my accent. It escapes when I’m stressed out and tries to transform my voice, making me sound like Jane Birkin on a bad day.

Bulldog’s sidekick was none other than Attila the Pun, and he was thrilled by his discovery.  “Soooo, wee-euh wanteuh a nay-ceuh driveeng permee for ze biouteefool Joanna, heing?” he shouted, evidently proud of his linguistic party piece. I was furious to realise that I had blushed to the roots for the first time in light years. It was Bulldog’s turn to produce a sardonic smirk.

Yoo weel tekk zis teekeet to ze countère O, and yoo weel wett. Goude biyeuh, ze biouteefool Joanna”. I stomped off, sat down in an empty seat, and glared at my teekeet. Here it is, crumpled and soaked with sweat: my administromia open-sesame. Everyone was clutching one, and their heads snapped up like expectant punters at the betting shop every time the buzzer signalled a change in the stakes.

My grimy open-sesame. Note date and time, and a kind mention of how many people there are in the queue in front of you.

My grimy open-sesame. Note date and time, and a kind mention of how many people are in the queue in front of you. Note also that if you wish to kill yourself through sheer desperation,  they even mention that the ticket contains a dose of free Phenol.

My ticket informed me that my number was number 55, and the number on the board was 22. So at least the ticket machine could count. It was half past ten. Even if they dealt with one person every two minutes, I had over an hour to wait. So I did what I enjoy most: people watching.

To be continued….

Thank you!

The last time I won a competition was when I  painted my house in primary school. I suspect the jury were shocked by my stark depiction of the window of the prison cell where I did my homework- we lived in an old brick police station.  I was thrilled with my prize: a book that I read from cover to cover, again and again. However, since that unique childhood moment, I have generally excelled in the more unusual lucky stakes. A good example of this would be back in 1999, when the company car my boss had lent me was one of the “lucky” five elected to be burnt to cinders overnight by a budding arsonist.

So when I clicked on the link on an email from the Expats Blog yesterday evening, eager to read the winning entries for their writing contest, I was dumbstruck to see my own name staring back at me from the screen. My family practically had to scrape me off the ceiling, I jumped so high.

I had read my way through a fair number of the 80 entries, and had discovered fascinating, quirky and informative articles written by expats all over the world that all deserved to be picked. Congratulations to Annie Onursan, whose original approach to describing attractions in Bodrum was a prize winner too. Check out the entries here: you have a gold mine of fabulous blogs all around the world. Why don’t you sign up your blog on the site, too?

So thank you for the honour, Expats Blog. Thanks also for the generous prize, which will be put to good use for my passion: reading and writing. Last but most definitely not least, thanks to those who popped by and commented on my entry, which can be found here. I am still pinching myself and expecting to wake up…..

Mug shot musings: the first step towards a French licence.

I have been driving on my UK licence since I came to live in France. My recto-verso sheet of A4 paper follows me everywhere, and the photo card is stashed away in my purse. It is never taken out – not even when the gendarmerie stop me to check my paperwork.  My face of 13 years ago beams out of the accompanying photo card into the depths of my purse, where it brushes shoulders with my French Health insurance card, the hallowed gang of French supermarket loyalty cards, till receipts and packs of stamps. She never sees the light of day.

Never, that is, until I dug her out with horror recently. A series of hilarious posts by Pecora Nera in his refreshingly funny blog “Englishman in Italy” brought up the topic of exchanging his UK licence for a full-blooded, racy Italian version. Thanks to Mr Black Sheep, I woke up to the fact that my own photocard was no longer valid. Not just a little, either. Light years.

I squinted at the photo, and it struck me how the constipated expression we have in photo booths makes us all look like potential villains on our driving licences.  There’s a very fine line between a prison mug shot and passport picture.

Al Capone. Mugshot information from Science an...

Exchange the suit and tie for a roll-neck sweater, put a wig on him, and you have MM Capone’s driving licence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now I know I should have dealt with this earlier. I had prepared the paperwork nearly a year ago, when I (exceptionally) did a three-point turn over a continuous white line on an empty road, managing to do so a few seconds before a gendarmette (exceptionally) passed by with flashing lights, and hauled me over. When she glared at my dog-eared licence and told me that I should have got it exchanged for a French one within three months of arriving in France, the mustard got up my nose (as they quaintly say here) and I made a HUGE mistake. As Best Female Friend squirmed in the passenger seat and sent me panicked “DON’T DO IT” signals tapped in terse girl morse code on her thighs, I informed Miss Gendarmette with a self-satisfied smirk that the official government site said otherwise. In for a penny, in for a pound, I continued to knock any hope of absolution on the head by telling her that I was entitled to drive on my UK licence until I committed an offence. Which, of course, I had just done. Result: four points off my henceforth obligatory French licence, and a 90 euro fine.

Citroën C4 Gendarmerie model

 Gendarmette’s blue pumpkin with matching blue light (Photo credit: francisco.j.gonzalez)

Nearly a year later, thanks to my anglo-italian Black Sheep friend, I’m finally revving things up to get my pretty pink French licence, which is too big to fit into my purse, cannot be folded, and promises to resist life with MM as well as Paris Hilton could hold out on a Cornish cliff top in a force eleven gale. I hate administrative formalities, and would like to have a multi-pass to cover everything, just like Leeloo Dallas in The Fifth Element. I dream of popping on an orange wig and flashing the card at everyone from the supermarket cashier to the Gendarmerie, saying “MM Dallas, Mooltipass”, as I swan my way through formalities and get on with life.

To sort this palava out, I decided to take the frog by the legs, so to speak, and went to get my passport photos done. It proved to be a difficult mission, as the photo booth’s screen was ominously black. I rounded up the supermarket security guard and the reception desk assistant, and we checked out the machine with an expert eye. A dodgy wire hanging from the ceiling terminated in a three plug socket, dangling dangerously in thin air behind the machine. Although the machine was plugged in, the screen was blank. I suggested kicking it to see if there was a Twix or a can of coke stuck in it somewhere, and the security guard laughed. The assistant wasn’t impressed, though. She inspected her vicious pink nails, wrinkled her pierced nose, and looked at me like I was a pile of particularly ripe camel dung before pulling a large bunch of keys out of her pocket and forcing the maintenance door open, revealing the dusty innards of the machine. “There’s no button to press”, she announced ominously, apparently disappointed by the lack of a huge red flashing light and a sign saying “Press Here To Destroy the World”. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and slammed the door shut in despair. The machine promptly hummed and the lights lit up. I thanked my two apprentice technicians, and watched with amusement as the young lady trotted back to her desk, jangling her keys and zipping up her fake leopard skin fleece.

Now we’re off for stage two: filling in the papers and taking them to the Préfecture. Watch this space…… And if you’re feeling generous, take a minute to pop over here and support MM in the Expat’s Blog Writing Contest! 😉

The bad girl in the letter box.

Grab that paper bag and breathe…… In. Out. In. Out. Any other day, I would have be tempted to add “….and shake it all about” before enthusiastically dancing the hokey-pokey, but not today. As I clocked the beautiful weather and the tulip leaves poking out of the earth, my good mood plummeted: I realised with horror that this beautiful weather also announces her arrival. She’ll be back soon. Like every year. Lurking dangerously at the bottom of the letter box and cackling sadistically. Meet CERFA 2042, the evil French income tax form.

Evil Queen

Be afraid. Be very afraid. She may be lurking in your letter box: CERFA, the evil Queen of Tax Administromia. (Photo credit: DoodleDeMoon)

How I long for the British PAYE system. Filling in a form to get money back every year is somehow so much more motivating that having to calculate how much income tax you have to pay to the French state. It’s a bit like having to choose your own poison. So when I pull CERFA out of her tricolour cellophane sarcophagus, I generally scream with a mixture of rage and anxiety at the sight of the A3 recto verso sheet of A-level maths exam, ironically dubbed “the short version” by the powers that be. (Apparently Cerfa’s big brother is called “the full version”: if he ever turns up in my letter box, I’m bailing out in my Tardis.)

Wonder Woman makes short work of the beast: She digs the appropriate paperwork out of well-organised files, fills in the forms with self-satisfied flicking of hair and noisy clicking of perfectly manicured fingernails on her pink calculator, and has the damned thing back in the post before you have time to say “tax office”. But I am not Wonder Woman. So step two kicks in: a state I call “tax form denial”. Whilst Good Sense and Responsibility batter at the door, Cowardice holes up in a paperwork-resistant bunker and pulls out a bar of chocolate to share with her best chum, Procrastination.

Procrastination is a great pal of mine. She and I have been wandering along life’s road together for a long time now; she’s always there to comfort me when something I don’t enjoy rears its ugly head. With her help, I finish all my work well ahead of deadlines for as long as Cerfa is around. I suddenly and inexplicably become an excessively responsible pet owner and take Smelly Dog for very long walks, making sure she gets enough exercise even if it is pouring down with rain. I could even justify cleaning the car with a toothbrush. For a short period, my family is astounded to have a clean home and is perplexed to see me being so enthusiastic about the laundry that I practically rip the clothing off their backs to have an excuse to put a load on to wash. Yes, I admit it: I would rather gouge my own eyes out with a blunt spatula than pamper to the evil Cerfa’s needs.

Pandora's Box Side

Pandora’s Box (Photo credit: yum9me)

By two weeks before the deadline every year, the drawer of my desk becomes my personal Pandora’s Box, and every time I walk past I swear I can hear growling and scratching in its murky depths. I generally give up at this point and hit phase three: “hit the problem before it hits you”. After this date, time strangely accelerates, children mysteriously get sick, and before you know what’s happening you only have a few hours left before the clock strikes midnight, and you are turned into the tax equivalent of a pumpkin. Anyone who has experienced the stress of pounding on their keyboard with sweaty fingers as they try to submit their tax form at the same time as the rest of the French nation (-except Wondeure Woumane, of course, who is already in bed with organic, planet-friendly night cream on her wrinkle-free face-) will understand what I am getting at.

You have to be a hybrid of lawyer, mathematician and accountant with nerves of steel to fill in a French tax form. Before completing this administrative marathon, I make sure that I have not drunk any coffee and put away any sharp objects. Then I get the paperwork together. These receipts, bills, invoices and certificates from the bank are vital if you hope to knock some euros off your tax bill. In my case, this involves emptying drawers and boxes of paperwork located anywhere from the garage to the bedroom, until I emerge clutching my precious paperwork, muttering triumphantly like Gollum after a day looting Tiffany & Co.

First comes the expenses part of the form. If you don’t think that 10% of your salary is enough, you have to do a few complicated mathematic equations based on the power of your car, and the distance travelled. Then it’s time to tally up the value of P.F’s packed lunches for the entire tax year. Followed by the interest paid on the mortgage and the cost of insulating work on the house, and extra paperwork for my freelance work…. By the time I have finished filling in the form and submitting it online, I feel nauseous and light-headed, and have the distinct feeling that the Tax Office know everything there is to know about us bar the content of PF’s Tupperware boxes and the size of his underpants.

The first Captain Underpants book.

Tax forms are a pile of pants.  Does the Tax man wear Captain Underpants undies? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The French government often debate about whether immigrants should be let in, and on what conditions. I’d say it’s easily solved. Give them a sheet of paper detailing a fictitious home, family, income and various additional criteria (childcare, mortgage, work to improve home insulation, free-lance working parent, a pension plan, a given number of children of which one or two study, etc). Give them a calculator and the form, and two days to complete it. If you succeed without the help of humans, alcohol or Prozac, you can stay. Hey presto, immigration problem solved. I’m going into politics…….