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….

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.

A colourful slap in the kipper from Mother Nature.

Today was programmed for cleaning and tidying the family cave, but I couldn’t resist sneaking into the garden to take a few pictures after the rain. I was literally gobsmacked by the amount of colour and life clamouring to be seen out there.

I’ve had fun reducing some of these photos and creating only glimpses of them. I have realised just how much beauty we miss in the simplest things, and how beautiful they can be.

Here are a few of them, with a special thought for snow-bound fellow blogger Perpetua 🙂 Have a lovely Easter!

Who’s coming for a walk?

As I have said so many times before, the best things in life are free. Do you fancy a short break from whatever you’re doing? Come on! Let’s go for a walk together with Smelly Dog. The Tramontane wind has driven the clouds away leaving beautiful, luminous blue skies, and it would be a crime not to make the most of it. Wherever you are – Britain, Serbia, Australia, Malaysia, Canada, Indonesia, Germany, India, Croatia, Italy, Dubai or elsewhere – drag on a pair of trainers, an anorak and a warm hat, and join me in my playground: the gorges de l’Hérault in the south of France.

The vineyards are waiting solemnly for the sweltering heat of the summer. Their gnarled, knotted branches thrust out of the freshly churned earth in disciplined lines, pointing defiantly at the sun like accusing, arthritic old fingers.

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Walk through the olive yard over a soft carpet of green, and turn suddenly when you hear a loud buzzing beside your ear. Apologise profusely to two bugs who – for lack of a better expression – are full of the joys of spring, and feel uncomfortably like a voyeur as you admire the petrol-like reflections on their kingfisher blue and turquoise wings. Then wonder how Mrs Bug manages to hang on to that olive leaf with Mr Bug flapping away on her back like that. She must be one tough lady, with claws that would scare the pants off Godzilla.

Oops, sorry to disturb you....

Oops, sorry to disturb you….

The fruit trees are blossoming in line near the stone cabanon. Their branches are swaying in the wind, and they look like giggling girls all dressed in pink and lined up to square dance.

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Turn and walk up the uneven limestone lane, and look up to see a vivid yellow, sunny mimosa tree swaying in the wind. Close your eyes and breathe in its heady fragrance. Look closely at the blossom – the perfectly round balls of delicately perfumed colour perched along delicate stems take you back to the illustrations of your childhood Dr Seuss books. Look closer again, and wonder at the perfection of the tiny filaments that each offer up pollen to visiting insects. Then get taken by a childish desire to draw beaks on them and turn them into chicks.

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Drop your camera lens cap on the ground in your hurry to change lenses. When you crouch down to pick it up, bump into Billy Idol the caterpillar making his way with difficulty through the grass as his punky hair-do gets tangled up in the greenery. Maybe he’s on his way to the hairdresser’s to ask for a short back and sides.

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As you stand up, you get knocked over by Smelly Dog, who has bunny-hopped through the long grass towards you. I could swear she’s laughing….

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Lie in the grass with Smelly Dog, soak up the sun and let your senses sharpen. Take in the undefinable, fabulously pure blue colour of the sky. The plaintive cry of the buzzard. The bossy chatting of the tits and finches, the rasping smoker’s cough of the crows. The far-off sound of human voices chips into the natural concert: the wine growers must be coaching up their protégés to produce the best wine for the coming season. The distant, gut-wrenching howls of hunting dogs as they move in on their prey in the forest. The wind rustling the leaves in the olive tree above you. The smell of the mimosa and of freshly-ploughed earth. The surprising chill of the gust of wind that hits your cheek as the Tramontane reminds you that winter is not over. Not yet.

Now let’s go home for a hot chocolate. Thanks for the company. And please don’t remind me that I’ve forgotten my camera lens cover: I know. It’s still in the grass with Billy Idol.

Tilting at the windmills of inhumanity.

P.F’s grandmother, Marguerite, would have been 105 today. She passed away in 2010 at the grand old age of 102, and was a very special person for me and my family. Today’s post describes one of the reasons she was so unique.

Human existence is short and insignificant in relation to the universe surrounding us, and we are relatively anonymous as we all follow our individual paths, running around in circles like ants. Often, our paths cross, and when this happens each of us can unknowingly mark the existence of someone, somewhere, and stay with that person forever. Some people leave an indelible imprint which goes much further, particularly when a fortuitous encounter at a crucial moment has made an essential difference to their lives, with friendship taking root and growing in adverse conditions.

This is precisely what happened when three such paths – those of a couple named Pierre and Marguerite, and a young man called Jean-Philippe – crossed by chance in wartime Saint-Etienne.

Marguerite took this photograph in 1942. For anyone who picks it up, it’s just another old, black and white picture. But the ageing colours of a dog-eared photograph often hide the most beautiful stories, and this is one of them.

There is no-one better placed to tell this story than André, the little boy you see horsing around whilst his father and Mr Lévy pose for the family album. He is now 78 and still  horses around with his grandchildren, but without the fetching white shorts and hat.

The following text explains the story behind this photo. It was read by André in November last year at the Yad Vashem ceremony in Paris during which his parents were posthumously named “Righteous Among the Nations“. He admits that he was shaky and emotional, and I can understand why.

“My father, Pierre, was a non-commissioned officer in the Avignon 7th Engineer Regiment at the beginning of the 1930’s. He met Marguerite in Bédarrides, and they married in May 1934. He went to the Versailles military administrative school for officers, which was transferred to Nantes in 1940. When he finished his training he was assigned to the Army Service Corps in St Etienne as second lieutenant.

Jean-Philippe Lévy was a young law graduate who taught at Lyon Faculty of Law. He was called up in 1939 as a reserve officer then posted to the St Etienne Army Service Corps after the June armistice. It is at this moment that his path crossed my father’s.

The Statute on Jews issued in October 1940 meant that Mr Lévy could no longer work as a civil servant. He lost his job, and lived from a meagre income composed of the royalties from his earlier legal publications and small salaries earned from precarious work contracts.

I was a small boy at that time, and the memories I have of him are those of a man to whom I could ask all kinds of questions. During our walks in the countryside, my questions concerned things like flora, fauna and the colour of the sky. At home, I asked him about my electric train circuit and mechanics: how did it all work? I was systematically provided with the answers. Although many of his explanations were way over my head, I did understand one thing: Mr Lévy was a scholar. When I asked my parents questions that they found difficult or embarrassing, their answer was inevitably:  “Ask Mr Lévy“!

We lived on the fifth floor at 56, rue du 11 novembre, right opposite the Rullières army barracks. From the balcony I had a bird’s-eye view of the barracks courtyard, and from 1942 onwards, the Nazi flag was hoisted and flew in its centre. I was fascinated by the comings and goings of troops and strange vehicles, and continued to assail Mr Lévy with my endless questions ….

From that time onwards, Mr Lévy only came to our home for dinner. Sometimes he had to stay the night with us when there were curfews, and came down to the cellar with us when the industrial suburbs of St-Etienne were bombed. I remember the comments my mother made in private about Mr Lévy’s appearance and his appetite. It was obvious that some days he didn’t always get enough to eat, and his clothes were in a pitiful state. My mother repaired his shirts, sewing the buttons back on and turning back the collars; it was common at the time.

Mr Lévy left for Toulouse at the end of 1943. He had found a job there in a publishing company, using false documents in my father’s name.

When the war was over, I asked him how he had felt when he walked to our home at night,  passing just a few feet from the soldiers at the entrance to the barracks. He replied that it wasn’t so much the German soldiers that he feared, but the militia and the Gestapo….. It must have taken some courage to walk by…….

At my niece’s wedding in Paris in 2001, my son Pierre was sitting beside me and asked me the name of the part of the chancel which is above the altar.  I didn’t know, and I replied without blinking: “Ask Mr Lévy“. Mr Lévy, sitting on Pierre’s left, answered without a second’s hesitation: “It’s called a rood screen“. Mr Lévy was 90 years old.

André at the Yad Vashem ceremony.

André at the Yad Vashem ceremony in 2012.

Post scriptum:

On Marguerite’s 100th birthday in 2008, a quiet gentleman had pride of place beside her at the head of the table. She introduced him to me as “a very good friend from St-Etienne”. I was perplexed: the complicity communicated in the look they exchanged at that moment betrayed that they were linked by something far deeper. She never talked about the conditions in which they met, and I think it is because first and foremost, Mr Lévy was her friend, and supporting him in a difficult time had been a gesture like any other that didn’t deserve any superfluous attention.

Yet the refusal of these three friends to accept the injustice imposed on them was far from being an isolated event: the same thing happened again and again throughout this dark period of history. These often unwilling and unprepared everyday heroes showed that you can tilt at windmills and win the battle, if you listen to your instinct and believe in your goal like the three friends you have just discovered.

My children will talk to their own children about Grande Mamie Marguerite one day. They are growing up in a world where atrocities still continue, and mankind continues to judge his fellow-man on the wrong criteria. I hope that the future generations of Pierre, Marguerite and Jean-Philippe’s families will never need the helping hand that linked their families, but that they will be ready and willing to stretch out their hand to help if it is ever necessary, with the same spontaneity and humanity. Happy birthday, Mamie. 

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Marguerite and Mr Lévy on Marguerite’s 100th birthday in 2008, nearly 70 years after they first met.

 

Wonder Woman and le Franglais.

Just before Christmas, PF nabbed the family car, and hence thwarted my evil plan to use the necessary purchase of pepper corns as an excuse for stocking up on British yummies and buying his Christmas present in the nearby jewellers shop. The next day I turned on the radio and discovered that if I had gone to the jewellers as planned, I would have been rudely interrupted by two numpties in balaclava helmets who had run into the shop and sprayed all its occupants generously with tear gas before smashing the glass cabinets, grabbing all they could fit in their backpacks and running away with it. So hip-hip-hooray for P.F, my loveable and unwitting hero.

However, what really surprised me for just a minute was hearing on the radio how they had left the crime scene: on a scooter. I laughed, as despite my many years in France, when I heard the word “scooter”, I imagined them making a speedy getaway with this:

trotinette

But in French, it’s actually this.

Kymco G3 Mark II.

This event got me wondering about other English words that the French have adopted and now use with great confidence, sometimes describing totally different things than their real English cousins. A thick slathering of French accent apparently makes it convincing enough for the Académie Française to slip it quietly into the French dictionary. English words are made French with an exotic little “le” or “la”, like  “le weekend” and “le burger” (which has so much more gastronomic sex appeal when pronounced “beurre-geurre”). Then there are the “English” nouns that the French have invented by simply by adding a cute little -“ing” to a verb to give it an « oh so charm– ing » lilt.  Like “le parking”: “Excuseuh-me, where eez ze parking?” When you say, “Urr, do you mean the car park?”, you will then be informed with a hurt expression that this is an English term. Si, si, Madame.

Another favourite of mine is “un lifting”, a far more honest vision of a face-lift. When your hairdresser proposes “un brushing”, she’s not going to brush you down like a shedding St Bernard, she’s suggesting a blow-dry.  Also “un jogging” is a difficult one – either a track suit or a jog, depending on the context. When you see a car accident on the autoroute, your passenger will invariably tell you to switch on your “warnings“, with the “w” pronounced in a hard German manner. Hands up who knows what “un living” is? It’s English, and it exists. Si, si. Give up? It is… a piece of furniture. You live and learn.

Tower crane operator cabin

Necessary equipment for a French facelift.

I particularly remember a language quandary at an infant school meeting. I had unwisely arrived late, and ended up sat on a tiny chair beside Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is a frightening mother. (More about her here for anyone who wants more.) She goes to all the meetings, and is always on time. Her kids never lose their fair trade lama hair mittens, but she’s sewn a printed name label into each of them- just in case. She looks elegant all the time, even with her knees jammed behind her ears on an infant school chair. I, on the other hand, am fully paid-up member of the badly-organised mum squad: I sidle in at the last minute, then dig through pockets full of paper tissues and sweet wrappers to find an abandoned colour crayon and a supermarket receipt to jot down the essentials.

The teacher smiled magnanimously at us and said “Of course, your children will need a pair of baskets and one or two sweets, as the weather may be rainy and cold during the day”. I  looked blankly at her, then peered discretely over my neighbour’s shoulder as she diligently recorded everything bar the teacher’s bra size in a dainty notepad she’d pulled from a perfectly organised handbag. She had neatly penned “2 x sweets, plus baskets” with an ultra-feminine pink biro.

I nudged Wonder Woman in the ribs, and politely whispered into her ear. She glared at me; serious parents do not talk when the teacher is explaining Important Stuff. She looked condescendingly down her nose at me before stabbing a perfectly manicured claw at her immaculate handwriting. “Des baskets et deux sweets. It’s  English, after all!” she snarled at me, then turned her attention back to the teacher before she lost Brownie points for not paying attention.

Tagada

Fraises Tagada, alias the French secret weapon against the cold. (Photo credit: hellolapomme)

I switched off and started wondering. Did the French have a secret use for candy? I thought it was just plain edible, but maybe you can be saved by pulling a family-sized bag of fraises tagada out of your anorak pocket after crashing into the freezing depths of the Alps? Set a match to them, and hey presto! An emergency sugar torch to heat everyone up and attract the attention of any superheroes who happen to be flying by. What on earth were the baskets for? Mushroom picking?

Back in the real world, Wonder Woman was gazing at the teacher and thoughtfully sucking the end of her pink biro, much to the delight of the two daddies who had been forced to go there. She nodded her head with knowledgeable approbation as the teacher explained how many pairs of spare knickers we had to provide for the day’s outing. I seriously considered hot-footing it out of the door, hiding behind her Range Rover and mercilessly lapidating her with aniseed balls before she had time to say “Harrods”.

I asked the mother on my right, who appeared less worried about being put in the corner. She had written the word correctly: “sweat”, and amiably pointed to the child sitting beside her.  I finally clicked. Think Rocky working out in the gym. Think Sarkozy running in a park. Ah, ok. A sweat shirt. The baskets turned out to be “basquettes”: laced sports shoes.

That’s your lot for now. I’m off to dream about summer, when we’ll be able to have a barbecue in the sun without hearing the Tramontane wind howling around the house. That’s right, a “Barbe- euh-cul” – which translates from the French as “beard -um- backside“. Bon appetit.

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….

The French food paradox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* French railway company.

**gras = fat, grease.

A visit to King Merlin’s palace.

Back in November, I was issued with a mission that no woman would take in vain. Pater familias gave me the personal measurements of a very strangely proportioned lady: 202cm high, 83 cm wide, and 8 cm from front to back. Just as I was imagining a German supermodel after an unfortunate meeting with a tank, he said, «Get me a door for this weekend, please», and loped out of the door with his bag.

As he disappeared down the lane towards the world of parents who go to the office and come home for dinner, I decided that this was going to be a good day. I am accustomed to taking care of logistics for the never-ending worksite we fondly call “home”. The program was simple: get in car, drive to town, buy door, drive home, have a healthy lunch, get impressive amounts of work done, transform into a Nadine de Rothschild-style super-wife and be ready with pristine house, fabulous dinner and intelligent conversation when P.F. gets home from a hard day’s teaching. Bingo.

Not the type to be flustered by a trip to the D.I.Y store and back, I pulled on my boots. At 10 a.m. sharp I parked at “Leroy Merlin”: King Merlin’s D.I.Y super store. I was the lucky winner of the space right in front of the shop door, without suffering the usual rite of being threatened by a red-faced, bad-tempered local at the wheel of a battered Peugeot. I could already imagine myself swinging out of the store with my door, popping it into the boot, and setting off home in time for lunch. Yep, today was going to be a piece of cake.

Things started going sour when I discovered that the huge trolley I had chosen had a jammed wheel and a mind of its own. I successfully avoided colliding with the petite and heavily perfumed local beauties admiring the new collection of cushions and curtains, and headed off towards the Dark Side of the Store: the place where nutters with an unhealthy liking for punishment find the basic materials they need to actually construct the house from scratch. These are the people who start off their project oozing enthusiasm, only to realise that they will be up to their ears in plasterboard and dangling cables until their retirement, when they will finally have the pleasure of checking out the curtain and cushions department with their Zimmer frames and a magnifying glass to read the prices.

A salesman glided up to me, and flashed a Colgate-white smile. «Madaaaaaaaame, bonjour. Can I help you?»

I skidded to a halt with my infernal machine. I was in the starting blocks with my best D.I.Y. vocabulary, the list of top-model door measurements clenched in my hand. Mustering up my best French accent, I said,  «Bonjour. Je cherche un bloc porte, s’il vous plaît». He stared at me, chewed his lip, and then smiled again.

«Aha!», he triumphantly replied, « Madame is looking for a door wedge, to block the door! It’s this way».

I don’t know what was more bemusing; the fact that he seemed to believe that women never buy doors, or imagining that anyone could take a huge trolley into a busy store full of customers just for the fun of testing their ability to leave with a doorstop and the satisfaction of not having maimed or killed anyone.  Then it occurred to me that in French, «bloque» and «bloc» are pronounced the same way, therefore explaining the confusion.

«Non, non, I really would like to buy a door and a frame».  I considered adding a «Go ahead, punk, make my day», but decided against it. I have come to realise that my British sense of humour is not always understood in French climes. «Au fong à droit-euh. Bonn-euh journée». As he hastily sped off into the distance, I wondered if he was getting a head start to avoid being run over.

I will spare you the description of the following few hours. Three D.I.Y. stores later, I was still desperately seeking the door equivalent of Claudia Schiffer. As I saw my afternoon of work disappear before my eyes, the Nadine de Rothschild plan rapidly veered towards a “hysterical wife brains husband with door jamb” scenario.

The last salesman was pleasant and helpful, and when I saw the name on his badge I  asked “So are you an Alsatian “expat” too?” He was indeed. In hushed tones, we briefly reminisced about eastern France before getting down to the nitty-gritty of P.F’s dream door. Madame needed an unusual size for the doorframe, so Madame would have to order it.  He grinned and said «It will arrive on the 24th of December, with Father Christmas». Mission accomplished. I set off home, wondering how he’d manage to fit this particular gift down the chimney.