The Day MM Pooh-poohed the New Year.

I’m a self-confessed New Year party pooper. Call me cynical if you will, but I don’t do New Year celebrations. Much my teenaged offspring’s disgust, I don’t party, get drunk, sing Auld Lang Syne, kiss strangers at midnight or wear silly hats. I will happily settle for a nicer than normal meal with my family, then switch off my mobile phone and toddle off to bed so that I can make the most out of the following day, when we generally have the world to ourselves as the rest of France either gets over its hangover or feeds its face once again. But this year, Karma decided to bite me on the bum for pooh-poohing the New Year, and this is how it happened.

English: Bulldog

MM at a New Year’s eve knees-up (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I woke up happy and hang-over free on New Year’s day. After a leisurely breakfast with PF, I power-showered myself into positive thinking for the day. I congratulated myself on the fact that I was a practical woman who can change a wheel and paint a ceiling. Come to think of it, my eagle eye had spotted that the bath plughole was not draining fast enough during my power shower…

Three years ago, MM and PF were silly enough to buy an old house with waste pipes the diameter of your average toothpick. You could have driven a Sherman tank down the  waste pipes in our previous house – a luxury compared to the congested B-road network we have in our current bathroom. The equivalent of three narrow Cornish lanes join together in a pint-sized spaghetti junction, hastily assembled and buried forever in a cement sarcophagus by the previous owner of the house. Needless to say, when this particular junction gets blocked, the traffic backs up further than anything you can see on the M25 at rush hour, with wet and smelly consequences that must be avoided at all costs. But I could deal with that – easy peesy, lemon-squeezy.  I’d already proved my prowess as a bog-standard plumber.

And THAT was when MM made the mistake of biting off more than she could chew. Pride comes before a fall, and Karma was ready to bite me on the bum with a crap surprise she had waiting in the pipeline. Cue theme music to “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” to get you in the mood:

As the rest of France was settling down to their starters on the New Year’s ritual gastronomic frenzy of oyster/salmon/foie gras quaffing, MM was peering down the open washing machine waste pipe – the only available access to the lost tunnels of Sewage City. Grasping a coiled, 10m long snake in her right hand, MM was a hybrid of Calamity Jane and Indiana Jones: a mean, clean, bog-busting machine.

For those of you who are happily unsavvy about the plumbing world, the snake ( – or the “ferret”, as the French nicely call it -) is a basic necessity for unblocking pipes. This long, flexible, metal rod can go where no woman has ever gone (nor would ever wish to go): through the murky labyrinth of stinky pipes stretching from your bathroom to the rat-infested sewers below.

In theory, Mr Snake blasts his way through the blockage in the pipe, and dislodges it. The pipe then belches loudly and sends up fumes that make Indian take-away burps smell like cherry blossom, then MM tidies up her equipment and gets back to more feminine activities. In theory.

In reality, MM looked for her rubber gloves, and couldn’t find them anywhere because PF had tidied them up so well they’d disappeared. Rather than acknowledging that reality was tapping her on the shoulder, MM unwisely decided that she would go for it anyway, equipped with two old t-shirts and her inimitable optimism: having power-showered all self-doubt into oblivion, she was certain that this would be sorted in five minutes flat because she was simply the master of the Universe.

Calamity Jane (film)

MM, Snake Charmer and Master of the Plumbing Universe.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

45 minutes later, MM was feeling flushed (for lack of a better word), squashed in the small space behind the washer with no more than her heaving stomach for company. Battering away at the constipated pipe with Sammy the snake, I coolly enquired if a few prunes would do the job. A little while later, PF popped his head around the door and grinned as I swore copiously at the plumbing in both French and English. I finally realised that whilst I was probing the innards of the waste pipes, the rest of France was dipping their crudités in tapenade. I promptly lost my cool, and angrily yanked the flexible rod back out of the pipe.

Now flexible rods, being flexible, tend to have a life of their own when pulled at speed from a confined pipe. That’s how MM ended up redecorating herself, the floor and the bathroom tiles with modern, albeit odorant, art. Bang on time, Little My opened the bathroom door and wrinkled her nose delicately as she contemplated her mother, who was splattered from head to foot in raw sewage and looked like she’d been mud wrestling with hippos at the local water treatment plant.  I suspect that I have put her off Nutella for ever.

I attacked everything in sight with bleach (rest in peace, black t-shirt). I had a second, (not so power) shower. I sat down to lunch with wild eyes and frizzy hair, stinking of bleach. The plug hole still drains slowly. But looking on the bright side of things, if you start the year up to your eyeballs in shit, things can only get better.

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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.

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.