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.

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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

 

Waiting room witterings: a portrait of France.

One month ago, I was in the rumbling bowels of the local Préfecture, clutching a huge pile of paper justifying everything from my address to my bra size in a bid to exchange my UK driving licence for a Barbie-pink French one. I was rewarded with a paper stating that I will have an answer within two months, and that no answer after two months means that the application has been refused. Not that it has been forgotten under a coffee cup on someone’s desk, lost or wrongly filed in the depths of pen-pusher’s oblivion.

So one month later, M.M. is watching her mailbox like a hawk as the sand trickles through the egg-timer. Still nothing. So in the meantime, here is the sequel to the driving licence saga : the waiting room.

At the end of the previous chapter, I had been given a ticket and ordered to “seet downeuh ozzeur zère”. The system was a little like queuing for cheese in Waitrose: You get a ticket, then wait for your number to flash up on the screen. There was another likeness with the cheese counter: the man sitting beside me, who smelled like he had been massaged with a microwaved mixture of Munster, Camembert and a generous pinch of fox poo before leaving the house. There were 32 people in front of me. I found myself calculating how long it would take to see the bespectacled civil servant behind the counter. My courage wilted faster than a salad platter in the Sahara as I realised that even at an average of five minutes per person, that added up to over two hours of waiting.

After Losing His Red Card to a Ravenous Goat, ...

Typical French queuing technique. Note cockerel with file under wing.  (Photo credit: Sister72)

Big Brother stared out of every wall through shiny-white, technological snowdrops that recorded our every move. I was anxious. The Prefecture waiting room is a buzzing melting pot of people from all horizons who all have higher levels of adrenalin and testosterone than Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France. As the classic joke goes, the cockerel was chosen as the French emblem because it is “the only animal that can continue to sing with both its feet in the shit”. Yet the Gallic cockerel loses its infamous cock-a-doodle-doo when it crosses the threshold of Cerfa’s palace: it is tamed by the aura of Administromia, and this feeling of subordination peeves the French. They do not like waiting, and absolutely hate being dominated. (With the exception of some French politicians in their private lives, but that’s a whole different ball game. So to speak.)

They strutted around the golden administrative cage with ruffled feathers. Their beaks remained firmly closed, but signs of their frustration escaped in other ways. Papers were fiddled with, eyeballs rolled, pens were clicked and hisses of exasperation escaped from lips as watches were looked at for the umpteenth time. Knees jerked rapidly, feet tapped on the polished floor.

A line of neatly labelled counters stretched along the wall before us, eerily like the vivariums you see at the exotic species section of the zoo. A glass panel with a circular grill separated the civil servant within them from the tax payer on the other side.

A vivarium for the lesser spotted civil servant.

A vivarium for the lesser spotted civil servant.

I squinted to read the sign in the window, expecting to read: “Lesser Spotted Civil Servant. Common French species under no imminent threat of extinction. Timid, it only ventures out of its lair for 35 hours per week. Please do not tap on the glass”. I was wrong: the sign was a veiled threat to the humble tax payer, and read as follows: “Vous et nous : le respect du droit, le droit du respect.” This basically boils down to: “We’ll respect your rights – if you respect us”.

At this point, a prim and proper retired lady approached, and sat down on the seat beside me. She heaved a huge sigh, looked up at the screen, and burst the bubble of perfection by loudly proclaiming: “Oh, putaing. Je n’y compreings rieng. C’est quoi, ce bordeleuh?” In polite language, this would roughly translate as “Oh, dear, I don’t understand. What kind of mess is this?” Her foul language and loudness were a comic revelation of the real person beneath the improvised exterior. I grinned to myself.

The “lady” hummed anxiously. The smelly man rhythmically jerked his knee up and down, shaking the entire bench and sending waves of stench up my reluctant nostrils. Nausea started to take hold of me. A man glared in our direction, and ostentatiously flapped his file in front of his nose.

 I had come prepared: I pulled out a pen and paper and started scribbling down my observations. It was striking to see how people preferred fiddling with Facebook to  discovering the bored person sitting right beside them. Bang in synch with what was going through my head, Mrs Mutton-dressed-as-lamb prodded me in the ribs. “Are you doing your homework?” she enquired, pointing at my scribbles. “No, I’m just writing”. She gave me a quizzical stare. Apparently, it was not at all strange for grown adults to play Angry Birds on their telephones, but it was strange to write for no reason. I nodded my head sideways. “I think someone’s going to lose his trousers in a minute”. She followed my gaze, and burst out laughing. Here’s the vision that met her eyes:

How to "hang out" in administromia - in the literal sense of the word. Photo taken for your eyes only,  at MM's perils and risks.

How to “hang out” in administromia – in the literal sense of the word. Photo taken for your eyes only, at MM’s perils and risks.

We waited patiently, and as the man walked past us two minutes later, his aptly named “saggy” was sliding slowly and suggestively downwards. Our impromptu Adonis split his thighs in an cowboy-like stance, and his trousers ground to a halt midway between his groin and his kneecaps. He was forced to stop beside my neighbour, who beamed up in delight at the sight of his taut thighs and generous manly attributes, all delicately wrapped in designer undies. As her number was called, I think she had already decided to come back again the next day in the hope of a Full Monty. The Préfecture was not so boring after all….

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.