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….

Holiday Hoo-ha.

My elderly neighbour practically lost her top teeth in surprise to see the kids playing in the garden today: “What, they’re on holiday again?” I had to agree with her – the last holidays seem like yesterday. Or six weeks ago, to be exact. No sooner have I heaved a sigh of relief as my offspring go back to school that they are all on holiday again. For two whole weeks.

Tension rises in the Playmo household in week two of the school holidays.

Tension rises in the Playmo household in week two of the school holidays.

Yes, I am an unworthy mother, and I assume it. My nemesis, Wonder Woman, has a neatly packed drawer full of organic recipe books for under-tens and fabulous activity ideas photocopied from her latest copy of Smartypants Parenting Magazine. These rub shoulders with the ecologically sound colouring books made of papyrus and llama spit bought for children whose chemical-free, textile-friendly felt pens never dare to venture the wrong side of the black line. Dressed in fresh white organic cotton clothing that is painfully devoid of ketchup or Nutella stains, WW’s offspring play quietly on the cream carpet whilst she admires them and hums in contentment, sipping from her cup of free-trade green tea like something out of a French electricity board TV advert.

The situation chez MM is slightly different. The only cream colour on our red carpet is the hair that Smelly Dog sheds as fast as I can hoover. I work from home as the jobs come in, so my offspring often have to take initiatives to keep themselves entertained. Nevertheless, I sometimes find them rubbing round my legs like hungry cats meowing for a meal. “I’m bored!” or “There’s nothing to do!” are invariably followed by that all-time classic, “Can I call a friend?”

So a little like the mountain that won’t come to Muhammad, school comes to my kids if they can’t go to school. Little My’s girfriends turn up and each plant three generous kisses on my cheeks before pegging it into her bedroom. Two hours later, they appear out of the pungent haze of nail varnish fumes on their way to the kitchen.  Giggling, they raid the fridge and cupboard, trying to spread Nutella on toasted muffins without smearing their freshly painted, smartie-coloured nails.

Spotty finger nails.

Spotty holiday finger nails.

Rugby-boy’s mates slowly migrate through the door, uneasily flicking the long fringes that hide their spots and feelings from the outside world, and filter the heartache for the girls they secretly admire. I am generously kissed again, and they stomp up the stairs together. A battle of foam darts ensues around the first floor as they resort to their childhood games, safely hidden from the view of the outside world. Teenagers are touchingly fragile; they have one foot firmly anchored in childhood whilst the other gingerly tests the tepid waters of adulthood. They take one step forwards, then two steps back into the familiarity and security of childhood before screaming for independence and lurching forwards again to hesitate on the doorstep of a new phase in life. Every time my children gain in autonomy, half of me glows with satisfaction whilst the other half beats its breast in despair and desperately wants to tempt them back with bags of chocolate buttons.

Chosen Counterpart was next to sidle through the door, blushing ferociously from beneath Bigfoot’s protective arm. Later in the afternoon, I knocked on Bigfoot’s door to give him his clean laundry. Oh, I can see you there, smiling across cyberspace. No, I wasn’t checking if they were up to anything they shouldn’t – God forbid I should be concerned about him being head-over heels in hormone with the daughter of a gendarme. (Anyone who has seen the film called “Le Gendarme de Saint Tropez” with Louis de Funes will understand what I’m getting at.) I just felt an irrepressible urge to give him his clean laundry incase he felt like slipping on two extra sweaters and another pair of jeans. So there.

Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez

Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I knocked on the door. When Bigfoot said « Come in! », I opened the door to see two faces looking up from his laptop. I was immediately asked to resolve their current dispute. “We’ll ask my Mum, she knows this film by heart!” I glowed at my son’s confidence in my cultural knowledge, and sturdied myself for the name of the film, determined to do him proud. I shouldn’t have bothered.  “Mum, did the dodos in The Ice Age shout “Mine! Mine! Mine!” when they were trying to catch the watermelons? She says it was, and I’m sure it’s not”.

As two sparkling pairs of eyes drilled into mine, several things hit me simultaneously: Firstly, the heart-warming realisation that they were still kids, albeit big ones, and we parents should stop being so goddamn suspicious about what they get up to in the privacy of a teenager’s bedroom. Secondly, that I’d love to be able to argue over kids’ films with PF rather than the children’s education, the family budget, or the dramatically reduced frequency with which various important activities occur (I am, of course, referring to the housework). Thirdly, the both satisfying and worrying thought that a woman my age really should not be considered a reference for children’s films, nor should she be frustrated at not having the answer to their question. (This was yet another sign of my blatant Peter Pan syndrome: I have never really grown up, and as such will no doubt follow the family tradition and become a brilliantly eccentric grandmother one day. But not yet, please.)

I told them that the dodo’s didn’t say “Mine! Mine! Mine!”, and popped the clothes into the cupboard, refraining from the temptation of ruffling Bigfoot’s hair and squeezing into the gap between them to watch the film. They found the solution on Youtube:  it wasn’t the dodos in the Ice Age that said “Mine! Mine! Mine!” – it was the seagulls in Finding Nemo. Chosen Counterpart beamed up at me with her eyes shining instead of the weary, polite distrust I had perceived on her arrival. I sailed happily out of the door into a battle of foam darts between the Smartie Sisters and the Rugby-boy boy’s band. So smartypants Wonder Woman can keep her politically correct drawers: my kids rock, and we make a great team.

For those of you who still enjoy a little cartoon therapy, here’s the famous “Mine! Mine! Mine!” sequence from Finding Nemo. It’s also a song in Disney’s Pocahontas, but ssshhh…

Got the school holiday shakes?

It’s the second week of the February school holidays. That moment when the sun suddenly and inexplicably disappears to the very same place we were four days ago, 800 km away, when the weather was awful but we didn’t care. The moment that the heavens open and it rains day and night, the fire splutters and dies and my offspring prowl dangerously along a well-trodden migratory line between the kitchen and the TV, leaving small, telltale piles of dirty crockery heaped around the living room like the signs of discontent left by a malevolent, incontinent cat.

Any maternal attempts to simultaneously keep them occupied during the day and keep up with the house plus my own work fail dismally – on all counts. Bigfoot, Rugby-boy and Little My complain that most of their pals are all whooshing down the ski slopes with their politically correct parents, gaining their piou-piou, bronze, silver and gold consumer badges then pigging out on tartiflette and raclette whilst my poor offspring are being fed survival rations of macaroni and ham for the umpteenth time. So I pour myself a glass of white wine at the end of the day, listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” full blast in the kitchen and wonder if that bra-burning lark really got us girls anywhere. Does anyone else out there in blogging land identify with this?

Indiana Jones

Super Teacher on an imaginary school outing (Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer)

The next step is that the maternal brain goes into meltdown overnight, and feverishly mixes real life, fantasy and work into a fascinating cocktail. Last night it dished up a fabulous dream in which I accompanied a very good friend of mine on an outing for his infant school class. He ran along creaking, half-rotten wooden bridges spanning underground galleries, transformed into the Indiana Jones of the French teaching world. Backpack bobbing up and down on his back, he happily encouraged the crowd of four-year-olds and volunteer mothers gingerly following in his wake to be brave. He gave the kids rewards of Smarties and pieces of banana when they successfully leapt over the three-foot hole gaping over an abyss then promised to take them to visit a bison reserve for their next outing (I’ll leave you to guess what the work, fantasy and real life is in all that. As I said in my previous post, I love my job.)

Yup, holidays are an upheaval. As all parents know, the school holiday means increased numbers at home. Like the legendary Mohammed and the mountain, if your kids can’t go to school, the school must come to your kids, and the population of our humble abode increases daily as Bigfoot, Rugby-boy and Little My’s mates adopt us. I have learned to smile sweetly at the mother who says apologetically: “He loves coming here, he says it’s so lively compared to our place!” The word “lively” is an understatement: Armageddon has all the noise factor of a library in comparison with our house.

So last night, Little My invited some friends round for a sleep-over. They disappeared into the woodwork like cockroaches, only appearing to glean a tray of food to wolf down in front of the TV. I must admit I was choked up to see them lined up in bed, surrounded by brightly coloured debris of dressing-up clothes and guffawing at the film of their school trip two years ago, saying how “little” they were at the time.

Rainbow Jelly!

A monster rainbow jelly. Ours wasn’t like this. (Photo credit: fifikins)

This morning, I was clutching my first cup of Yorkshire brew and recovering from my strange dream when three little girls appeared in their PJ’s. Little My opened the fridge, and clapped eyes on the jelly she had made the day before in her friends’ honour, only to be forgotten after stuffing themselves with home-made burgers and chips. She pulled it from the fridge and proudly exhibited it to her pals, who all cooed in awe. Little My was proud to introduce her friends to her gastronomic roots, however unusual they may appear to her Gallic chums. She drew herself up to her full height and said “Look! If you shake it, it wobbles!” A murmur of appreciation swelled in the room as she delicately made the jelly shiver. Then it happened. Three eager, synchronised pairs of hands shot out to shake the plate, and the collective force launched the beast into the air. It took off like a drunken UFO then plummeted downwards, sliding down the sheer cliff face of the tablecloth before disintegrating into a gelatinous red pile of roadkill on its impact with the kitchen floor.

The sound of hastily scrabbling claws announced the arrival of our canine cleaning service. Smelly Dog’s radar can pick up on something falling on the kitchen floor from the other side of the house, and she is there, wagging her tail hopefully, within seconds of anything leaping off the table. (Please note that nobody is ever responsible for anything falling earthward in this house: food is either driven to suicide after being cooked by MM, or it has a lemming-like attraction for the void.)

Smelly Dog careened around the door, ears flopping and expert eyes searching as she tensed her body to pounce on her prey. Screeching to a halt beside the pink molehill, she sniffed suspiciously at the jelly then lifted her head. She fixed her Nutella eyes on mine with a mixture of disgust and disappointment before returning to her basket with as much dignity as a dog can muster. Proof of the pud: A dog can happily eat cat vomit, but refuse jelly.


Smelly Dog pretending to be cute soft toy after eating all of PF except his head (kept for afters, see far left of picture).

Bigfoot had invited his chosen counterpart around for the afternoon, and had even tidied up his lair, proof of unconditional love. I don’t think she’ll be back for a while. PF pulled out his favourite power tool and got stuck in for the entire time she was here, apparently set on sanding a spyhole in the wall to check that they were behaving themselves. Much to Bigfoot’s embarrassment, I did however tell chosen counterpart that she can come back whenever she wants, if it means that I’ll be able to get a foot inside Bigfoot’s room to hoover once she’s gone.

I’m an optimist. That’s why I continued to work throughout the afternoon. Working from home seemed a good idea, which it is  – when the kids are at school. Only four more days, then they’re back to school and I’m back to normality. Bad mother and fully assume it, check.