Debunking the Myths: Summertime Survival in the South of France.

Quote

Mrs Playmo wisely decided that the only way to enjoy an uncrowded beach was to visit by night with a good book, a torch a crate of rosé. It was a pity that Prince Charming had turned up before she had finished her chapter.

Mrs Playmo wisely decided that the only way to enjoy an uncrowded beach was to visit by night with a good book, a torch and a crate of rosé. It was a pity that Prince Charming had turned up before she had finished her chapter.

The school holidays have arrived and the temperatures have soared outside. A blanket of heat has descended on MM’s Languedoc home. Like every year, I have evaluated the insufficient available space for my angular frame between the frozen peas and the ice cubes, then resigned myself to a period of the year I associate with bored children, het-up neighbours, stifling heat, and water restrictions as the village spring dries up. The insistent scratching of the squads of cicadas camouflaged in the cedar and pine trees around the house does nothing to reduce the feeling of oppression affecting all bar the cat, who melts into a contented black puddle in the shade of the hedge, surveying his world in a lazy trance of warmth.

Behind closed shutters, the locals have gone to ground for the sacrosanct siesta whilst the sun beats down on the façades of their homes, and the streets of the village remain deserted until the temperatures reluctantly go down in the evening.

But not for long. The only nutters prepared to brave the heat have appeared on the horizon, bang on time to break the silence – a long line of metallic turtles shimmering in the heat that rises off the melting tarmac. In MM jargon, the word ‘Turtle’ designates family cars bedecked with roof boxes and bicycles, and crammed with suitcases, parasols and the infamous inflatable crocodile. Inside the air-conditioned beast, mum is sucking lemons for Britain. She glares at her husband. She had told him that there would be a traffic jam on the last leg of the journey, and once again he had preferred to follow the advice of that self-satisfied cow on the GPS. Her husband grimly grips the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands as the youngest child bawls and his sibling sings her favourite track for the 50th time since they woke up on the motorway uttering those words every parent dreads: “Muuummmy, are we there yet?” They are all desperate to arrive on the French coast, yet appear blissfully ignorant that they are en route for a tourist trap. The inflatable crocodile of the tourist season is poised, its jaws open and ready to swallow them and their holiday budget, before spitting them unceremoniously back into the motorway traffic jams.

When people plan a summer holiday in the South of France, the same old clichés pop up behind the rose-tinted spectacles. I’d like to get two of them sorted once and for all. I’m sorry to pop your bubble, but it’s better that you know.

Mr and Mrs Playmo take nothing but their love to the beach here.

Mr and Mrs Playmo take nothing but their love to the beach here.

Myth N°1:  Beach,  parasol,  book, cool drink and sun tan as the children play in the sand.

The reality: First, plan ample time and patience to find a parking spot, and enough cash to pay extortionate fees for the privilege (this does not mean that your car window will not be smashed by thieves: a little like God, the French police can’t be everywhere at the same time). Next, find a space on the beach. This is more difficult than you think if, like me, you do not like your nostrils being assailed by the smell of cigarette smoke, sweaty armpits or sun screen, or are allergic to the proximity of inflatable crocodiles, over-enthusiastic teenagers wielding rackets and balls, or women who yank their bikini bottoms up their bums and sunbathe with their legs wide open (presumably incase an old lady’s Yorkshire catches sight of their untanned crotch on the number seven bus).

 If you wish to be the ultimate bad mum, when the children are bored with playing in the urine-saturated surf, help them to collect cigarette butts to use as makeshift cannons in their sandcastle, and beer tops to decorate the walls – both are as numerous as the sea shells, if not more so. Or bag ’em up and bin them (the cigarette ends and the beer tops, not the kids), and do something for the planet. Then make your offspring’s day by buying them one of the overpriced doughnuts or ice creams sold by the leather-skinned beach vendors sporting little more than tight-fitting cozzies and Colgate smiles. These sun-warmed, edible nurseries for salmonella and sundry other bacterial bad-boys may not only wreck the rest of your holiday, but will give you a chance to sing the praises of the French medical system on Facebook.

MM’s Tips: Spread out your stuff! Bring sufficient beach towels to stake out your own territory. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use it all, but this simple step ensures that you don’t end up with a complete stranger sitting in your lap reading a gossip mag.

If you enjoy people spotting, this is the place for you. Bring a notebook and jot them down. My favorites are those strolling along the water’s edge – the posers that strut through the surf and oggle at bare breasts, the topless wonders glowering at the posers, and the older generation tutting at the bucket and spade mafia who get under their feet (I secretly pray that they will inadvertently tumble into the appropriately grave-sized hole my children have conveniently dug across their path). Oh, and one last (serious) piece of advice: don’t take anything to the beach that you wouldn’t willingly donate to a complete stranger, and keep a close eye on your stuff. Otherwise, you may end up chasing the self-elected new owner of your beach bag down the main road like a screaming banshee, wearing no more than a red face and the bottom half of your bikini (been there, seen that, and got left without the T-shirt -read my topless tale here). For the same reason, don’t leave your car keys in your bag. I put them in Tournesol’s shoe – nobody in their right mind would steal those because even if they managed not to keel over, I’d sniff them out immediately.

Myth N°2. A wonderful three-course meal washed down with a bottle of wine on a restaurant terrace, all at a snip of the price you would have paid at home.

If you don't believe me about the translating skills of local restaurants, have a look at this menu outside a restaurant in Agde. The next page suggests a plateful of

If you don’t believe me about the translating skills of local restaurants, have a look at this menu outside a restaurant in Agde. The next page suggests a plateful of “seawolf” – a translation that could be qualified as a real howler.

TIP: The only way you will achieve this is either by asking the locals, or getting off the beaten track. Wherever you are in France during the holiday season, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are unscrupulous restaurants ready to relieve you of a maximum amount of cash for a minimum amount of effort, and these establishments are most often concentrated in the touristic areas. If they are out on the pavement touting for clients, they aren’t worth their salt. They are closed over the rest of the year, are generally snubbed by locals and only open to make a fast buck in the summer – so do yourself and real local businesses a favour, and either get off the beaten track and ask a local, or buy yourselves a picnic from the local market.

Reality: If you do insist on eating in one of these outfits, then at least you get the fun of reading the menu translation. In our region, very few restaurants are prepared to pay for a good translation of their menu, or (heaven forbid) train their employees to speak foreign languages well enough to explain what the guests can eat. Although my arch enemies, aka Google Translate and Bing, have added a grotesque twist to menus, I freely admit that if I need to cheer myself up I just need to read a few menu boards and I’m chortling again. It’s a laugh a minute. Many restaurants are totally immune to the idea that clients won’t (or rather shouldn’t) buy a meal if they have no idea what they are eating. Worse, they really don’t seem to care as long as their patrons cough up the money and leave.

Don’t forget that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is – many restaurants get their supplies from a huge supplier called “Metro”, where they buy entire pallets of insipid guck that they will then tout as ‘home-made’ on their astoundingly cheap menu board. The chocolate mousse may have been hastily assembled in their kitchen, but it’s about as home-made as MM is organised. If you are lucky, the jug of wine costing you 7 euros actually cost the restaurant owner 2 euros the litre at the local cave coopérative; if you’re unlucky it’s from a plastic bottle of beverage that the average Frenchman would only consider fit to descale the toilet.

Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. So now off you go. Happy holidays. And don’t forget a pin to deflate that damned crocodile.

Mrs Playmo illustrating how to deal with the inflatable crocodile.

Mrs Playmo illustrating how to deal with the inflatable crocodile.

Post Scriptum. This should have been an apology post. I have been a very bad blogger recently (MM strikes Beyoncé/Lady Gaga pose) and I have missed you all. I am very, very sorry and feel guilty about dumping everyone with no explanation. This is due to varied factors leading to lack of “me” time, leading to lack of reading and writing time, leading to a severe case of writer’s block. But rest assured that MM is fit, well and a little leaner than before. Mrs Playmo didn’t give me any support whatsoever. (She was too busy having baked bean jacuzzis with Mr Playmo. But that’s another story.) Those who excuse me for my absence will have more information about what I’ve been up to in upcoming posts. Love from MM. Mrs Playmo says hello too, from behind her bucket of rosé. 

 

Inter-Atlantic English: A Tale of Fannies, Bums and Boots.

English Dictionaries

English Dictionaries (Photo credit: jovike)

On my arrival in the States, I really thought that apart from a few minor details, we spoke the same language on either side of the big pond. Yet there I was, battling to make myself understood, in desperate need of an UK English-US English dictionary and an aspirin.

The garage forecourt was littered with huge cars, and our host, a drawling, cigar-puffing man who looked like he’s escaped from a 1970’s episode of Dallas, was attempting to fob off a dented Buick on these wet-behind-the-ears European newcomers. Communication was proving difficult, and my enthusiasm was waning.

“Excuse me, ma’am? You wanna put your what in the what?” The heat of the Florida sun beat down on my confused head, and I ruefully rubbed my back as the inhabitant of my uterus made a brave attempt to do a cart-wheel.  I pointed at the huge airbag tacked to my front, where my inside-out tummy button strained at my t-shirt like a nipple on a Zepplin-sized boob.

“I’m expecting a baby in two weeks. I just want a car with a boot big enough for my pushchair,” I sighed. A huge grin split the car saleman’s face in two, followed by a high-pitched hee-haw of a laugh that strangely mismatched his farm-hand physique.

1954 Plymouth Like My First Car

When is a car not a car? When you’re English and the salesman is American (Photo credit: pabear26)

“Ma’am, you want a vee-hikkel with boots?” He looked at me expectantly, eager to hear the next mistake of his unexpected stand-up comedian.

It was my turn to smile at his pronunciation of the word “vehicle”. “Vee-Hikkel” was as funny as the “Alooooominnum” wheel hubs he’d pointed out earlier. Did we really speak the same language?

The huge difference between British and American English was giving me serious trouble. In the UK, elephants have trunks, not cars. Cars have boots. In the US, bonnets are hoods, windscreens are windshields, gear sticks are gear levers, number plates are tags, petrol is gas, tarmac is pavement and pavements are sidewalks. You don’t turn at the junction, you turn at the intersection, where you may have trucks, but not lorries. Buying baby equipment was also confusing: pushchairs are strollers, nappies are diapers, dummies are pacifiers. It was just the beginning of a complete linguistic meltdown.

As I had an alien life form practicing kick boxing on my bladder, I quickly discovered the American terminology for the toilet. The term “rest room” was amusingly evocative of a room providing armchairs for tired old gents, not bog-standard loos. And whilst we’re on the subject, ladies, the inappropriately named “bathroom” does not necessarily contain a bath.

pondering life

Resting in the rest room (Photo credit: Chimpr)

I  blinked when I was told to come to a picnic wearing pants.  I was surprised my friend could believe that I let it all hang out beneath my clothing-I always wear pants. Clean ones, every day, in case I get run over by a double-decker bus and the world gets an unexpected view of my M&S undies. If you go out wearing just your pants in the UK, you’ll get arrested. And cold, too. So a word of warning to any American setting up shack in Britain: If you ask for pants, you’ll get underwear, and if you ask for trousers, you’ll get pants. Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject of underwear, if an American date tells you that he likes wearing suspenders, there’s no need to run… because American suspenders hold up trousers, not lace-topped stockings.

Food is tricky, too… Uh-oh. Maybe I should change that word to “difficult”. I recently asked lovely blogger Jenn, “How’s tricks?” One highly entertaining exchange later, I discovered that  the word “trick” is associated with prostitution in the States. Luckily for me, Jenn has a great sense of humour-check out her blog, called “Mashed Potatoes” (or potato, as we Brits say).

Anyway, back to food. At the burger bar with PF’s colleagues, I ordered chips… and got crisps with my steak. No wonder they looked at me strangely. But not as strangely as the person who grabbed his cigarette packet and rose from the table, telling us that he’d be back in five minutes. My innocent enquiry raised the roof: “Are you off outside to smoke a fag?” Whilst the word “fag” designates a cigarette in the UK… smoking a fag in the US involves beating up a male homosexual. You live and learn.

Moments to Remember - Jayne Mansfield ... &quo...

A tramp who has just fallen flat on her fanny. What a bummer. (Photo credit: marsmet531)

What really unhinged my jaw with astonishment, however, was when a male friend told me that he had fallen flat on his fanny. In the UK, only women have fannies, and they certainly don’t talk about them at the dinner table. A fanny in the States appears to be what we Brits call your bum. Which, in the States, refers to what the English call a tramp. Which in turn, in US English, refers to an easy woman. As you can see from this interesting linguistic exercise, our languages are just not the same.

Traps were everywhere, and MM happily fell into them one after the other. One memorable event was when I asked the person next to me to lend me his rubber…. I was told with a smirk that he didn’t have one, but if he did, he’d gladly give it, but would not want it returned. A good job he didn’t, too: I’ve never seen anyone rub out a mistake on a form with a condom. Apparently, what I wanted is called an “eraser” on the other side of the pond.

Woman in kitchen, 1939

“And today, ladies, we will be learning how to fit a stick of butter into a cup” (Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives)

Measurements were another problem. Particularly for cooking: making a dessert in the US was anything but a piece of cake. Please can someone American explain why you buy sticks of butter, but measure it in cups? I suspect that this measuring system was an evil idea dreamed up by 1950’s men to keep their wives occupied forcing butter sticks into cups all day. Is there some kind of Holy Grail reference vessel for US culinary purposes? If you use a really small cup, do you get a cup cake? (Unless it’s a “small” cup from Starbucks, of course. I could have swum laps in the first “small” coffee I ordered – it would have made a cake big enough to feed the five thousand.) Or do you have cake cup sizes like for women’s bras: “A” for a cup cake, “B” for a cake to share en amoureux, “C” for a family dessert and “D” for a birthday cake?

I gave up, and made friends with the Pillsbury Doughboy. Whatever the size of a cup, I never worked out how I was supposed to squish a rectangular cuboid of butter into it. As they say on the other side of the pond, go figure….. Whatever that means.