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….

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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…….

No pain, no flame.

It’s strange how a song sometimes pops into your head and you promptly start singing something you don’t remember having ever heard. Yesterday, my ageing database dug a 1917 blockbuster entitled “Keep the home fires burning” out from the bottom of the sweet jar I fondly refer to as my memory. How it got there is still a mystery to me, and I’ll be in touch with my parents soon to ask them whether my grandparents listened to it (it’s either that, or I’m a reincarnation of Rosie the Riveter).

The song oozes with patriotism and terminally stiff British upper lips. It was aired on the radio as the Brits sent their lads off to both world wars, encouraging their families to keep calm, drink tea and carry on until their heroes returned from the battle front. It would merit some black and white film footage featuring a dashing young RAF pilot with a carefully waxed handlebar moustache, kissing his perfectly chignoned pin-up goodbye through the open train window. The girl dabs delicately at her eyes with a spotless lace hanky, then fiddles anxiously with the shiny buttons of his jacket, and cranes upwards for a last lingering kiss on her hero’s lips whispering “Now just you take care, old boy…I love you so much, Roderick…. I’ll tend the fire whilst you’re gone”. Our hero swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with the emotion as he utters a manly “Tally ho… it’s just toodle-pip for now, my darling” and slips a box of matches into her hand. The train whistle blows and….. damn it. Get back on track, M.M.

1942 ... how to kiss!

Our hero practicing the perfect goodbye kiss (Photo credit: x-ray delta one)

Anyway. When Ivor Novello and Lena Guilbert Ford wrote this song, I don’t think they imagined for even a fleeting second that nearly a hundred years later an Englishwoman would be singing it hysterically at the top of her voice, interspersed by bilingual effing and blinding as she battled with an egg box, a pile of soggy wood and a box of matches somewhere in a cold house in the South of France. Did they know just how frigging hard it is to keep a home fire burning?

P.F and I had always dreamt of a fireplace, with warm flames flickering inside it. I recklessly added a St Bernard to my request, so that I could prop myself up on something warm whilst I read in front of the fireplace. P.F drew the line at anything that big, so I got a Golden Retriever – I suppose I should be happy, as a Chihuahua wouldn’t have survived long with me lying on top of it.

We decided to bite the bullet this summer, after two winters of insufficient and excruciatingly expensive electric heating. We would install a wood fireplace insert in our humble abode and stop financing the French electricity board. We would heat our entire home that way. We would save money and be as snug as the proverbial bugs in a rug, curled up in front of the blazing hearth as the winter set in outside the house. We were optimistic. Little did I know how far I had underestimated the effort required: There was going to be a whole **** load of work involved. No pain, no flame.

First we had to buy the material. A huge silver caterpillar was ordered from King Merlin, houdinied into Albal, brought home, then stuffed up the chimney flue with much puffing and swearing. Hoisting a new chimney onto the roof as P.F and Bigfoot enthusiastically gallavanted 10 metres above ground level was a good test for my oh-so-British calm. The only fun bit was the thrilling surge of power when I realised that if I didn’t tell P.F who was walking below, he would chuck the old chimney on top of Gargamel as he walked underneath.

We found an insert in the local small ads. The white marble surround almost cost us number one child as well as the 100 euros when the seller, obviously one can short of a six-pack, pulled a gun on Bigfoot on our arrival in his garden because “he looked like a gypsy”.

After much dust, sweat, swearing, screaming, sulking and injured fingers, the great day arrived. It was done. Houston, we had fire. We pulled out the Champagne and petit fours  beer and pretzels, and admired the flames dancing within the beast’s innards.

IMG_0882

The (almost) finished result. Awaiting delivery of St Bernard.

Ever since, I have become a cavewoman. Keeping the home fire burning has become a primitive reflex, an obsession. I run through the house screaming to check on my baby, because if the thing goes out it’s a bugger to get started again. I know which newspapers burn best. We are eating more eggs, not because we like them but because egg boxes are part of my foolproof method to light a fire. I get the shopping done at high speed and try to jump the queue, waving my club at everyone and explaining that I have to get back to my cave and tend the fire before the damned thing goes out. I’m already blasé at the idea of running outside to get wood in the rain, and every time I clean out the drawer at the bottom of the stove I wonder how many guys working in crematoriums can face cleaning out more ashes when they get home.

Last night I picked up Little My from school and she said I smelled like a barbecue. Glancing down at my soot-stained clothing, I had to admit I was the only parent who looked like she’d just climbed out of a Welsh coal-pit. When P.F got home, he kissed me hello then absent-mindedly wiped a black stain off my cheek – I looked as if I’d spent my day as an extra in the film version of Zola’s “Germinal”.

So forget the RAF pilot and the pin-up at the station. I’ll settle for a sooty kiss from P.F.  Even if it’s more a case of Bob the Builder than Roderick the RAF pilot, he is nevertheless my hero for courageously fighting the battle against the electricity bill. Now if you’ll just excuse me, it’s time to stoke the fire…..

If you have enjoyed your read, pop by and vote for MM before 14th December in the France expat blog award 2012!

P.S Hearthfelt heartfelt thanks to all those who have voted for Multifarious meanderings on the Expat Blog Awards. If you haven’t done so yet, you still have time to vote for Multifarious meanderings HERE! If you think the blog is worth it’s salt, take a minute to say so, now, because voting closes at 10.00 GMT on 15th December.

The squirrel reflex.

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

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

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of exploding cats, French neighbours and doctor diatribes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tielle sétoise vue de profil.

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

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

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

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

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

Fluoxetine (Prozac), an SSRI

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

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

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

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

Little My’s list.

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

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

Estérel

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

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

Little My

Little My (Photo credit: nhojjohn58)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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