The simple life

In the UK, every member of the middle classes is a budding interior-designer or an incipient property developer. Long gone are the days when someone’s Everest conservatory was the talk of the neighbourhood for at least a decade, and, aged 18, you left a home that looked exactly as it had done on the day you were born. No, today’s home improvements have smashed the long-coveted conservatory into insignificance, and increasingly elaborate modifications have become a constant requirement for all self-respecting homeowners.

We have some friends who, on a whim, demolished an interior wall over Christmas. Other friends have repainted their living room four times in seven years, necessitating the acquisition of new cushions, curtains, and once even a new sofa, to fit each new colour scheme. We ourselves once remodelled the back of the upstairs of our house solely in response to a water leak through the kitchen ceiling. I was heavily pregnant at the time, and the interval between the first drip dropping and the builders starting work was just four days. And, if you want to sell your house, well, where do you draw the line? I know a person who put their flat on the market thinking that they might give the kitchen a lick of paint. One thing led to another and, within a fortnight, new cabinets were being installed.

Why? House prices doubtless have something to do with it. If your prospects of earning enough money from your day job to buy you that modest family house in Forest Hill are vanishingly small, you may as well chance your arm at acquiring £50k by throwing Dulux and a few screwdrivers around.

Perhaps it is also a desire to distinguish ourselves from the herd that causes this frenzy of building and design. Any child of the middle classes who has done the obligatory ten years in London post-university will know what it feels like to aspire to a Victorian terraced property only to discover, upon arrival, that your particular home looks just like all the other Victorian properties up and down the country. In such a situation, if you want to stand out from the crowd you are going to have to develop and assert your “personal style” pretty quickly.

Entire industries have risen up in response to the ascendency of amateur interior design. Setting aside the builders (who, Brexiters tell us, are all Polish anyway) there are the likes of John Lewis, which boast home departments stuffed to the gills with salivating new home owners. Estate agencies have become savvy too. In some of the better areas, potential buyers would be hard pressed to believe that anyone actually lived in the properties that appear online, so perfectly plumped are the cushions, so marvellously light and sleek are the kitchens. Has some law been passed to prevent the sale of houses with ugly interiors?

Needless to say, this vogue has not yet hit France to anything like the same degree. This becomes immediately apparent when you visit houses that you are considering renting or buying. Not only has nobody purchased a few tasteful coordinating vases and lit some beautifully aromatic candles to entice you to sign on the dotted line, but it can appear that nobody has actually cleaned the property for several years, let alone thought about whether or not their bedding complemented their saucepans. And, whilst we may mock British estate agents for their poor photography, it is alarmingly common for French agents to attempt to sell a house by means of a picture of an upturned plastic chair on a windswept terrace in the middle of one of the worst storms of winter.

This is partly illustrative of lack of concern for the superficial (who, in all honesty, cares where your dining table is from, so long as you can eat off it?), partly due to a cultural frugality (bordering on stinginess), but also, I think, a pragmatism that is not to be found in other areas of French life.

Whilst the British home is insulated by carpets, curtains, cushions and throws, the French home is invariably tiled. This is self-evidently better when your child decides to enter the world ketchup-smearing championship, your dog wees on the floor, or your guest clumps in with muddy shoes. It also enables you to swill red wine with gay abandon, and qui, in their right mind, ne veut pas un verre de rouge with their steak frites of a quiet evening?

This culture goes much further than soft-furnishings, however. I am struck whenever I visit French homes by the total lack of clutter. Homes containing small children are almost entirely devoid of those horrifying downstairs rooms that are drowning in oceans of plastic. It seems that French children are able to entertain themselves without two walkers, three kitchens and twenty annoying beepy things, quite possibly because they are too busy wading through their mountains of devoirs, or becoming champion swimmers in their spare time.

But the adults, too, have less stuff. To give but a trivial example, when I move house I take with me tens of photo frames containing pictures capturing precious moments in the lives of my family and friends. The faces of my nearest and dearest soon proceed to gurn at me from every flat surface in my new abode: even the shoe rack is not exempt. French sideboards, by contrast, bear implements for eating and bowls of fruit, whilst photos are stashed away in albums. No doubt this simplicity is facilitated by the veritable Aladdin’s cave of the French cellar, but, however it is achieved, it does seem to engender a certain lightness of being. Perhaps it is easier to take a two-hour lunch break if you are unencumbered by all the tasteful paraphernalia that hems us Brits in?

Robot and dog
The dog versus robot stand-off on the practical tiled floor

Since moving house, we have been trying to emulate our French friends and live more simply, and with less stuff. The main drawback so far is the fact that we no longer have enough junk to hide the dirt. So far this has led to the acquisition of a robot hoover. It remains to be seen what the ratio of new cleaning items to discarded junk will be over time…

Trust nobody

The other day I went to collect a parcel from a local shop. It being the third time that I had collected something from that particular outlet, the woman recognised my tête anglaise and remembered that I had a verb masquerading as a surname.

Just as she was about to hand over the package, she asked to see my identity card. Catastrophe. I did not have one, I said: us Brits don’t, generally. After the obligatory expressions of shock and bewilderment at the notion that a person could exist without an identity card, non, she said, I cannot give you ze parcel because you do not have your carte d’identité. I proffered my carte vitale—my social security card—which bears my full name and a photo of me, but this was rejected. I did not have my driving licence because for some reason my husband had it in his wallet. Votre passeport alors ? Mais non, surprisingly, given that I had no intention to leave the country that day, I had not slipped it into my handbag before leaving the house. Well then, there was nothing to be done. Without the correct documentation, my parcel would remain in the shop.

This, for me, was an example of the mistrust, both institutional and social, that is written into every transaction that takes place in everyday French life. It did not matter that the woman in the shop knew who I was: her role was to mistrust me. Presumably my two previous, legitimate, visits had all been part of an elaborate ruse to trick her into allowing me to make this third visit, unsupported by any passport, during which I would somehow, somehow… well, do something incredibly méchant, that’s what.

Such mistrust is not confined to postal transactions.  Industrial and political mistrust is currently wreaking havoc with ordinary French lives: it even touches the lives of the ordinary British people who have opted to live in the pitchfork waving hexagon.

A week ago, finding the petrol tank in our car running low, I decided to fill up. I turned into the forecourt of the nearest petrol station, only to discover that there were barriers in front of every pump bearing improvised signs which announced that the patrons were desolés, but that both petrol and diesel were en rupture. Feeling slightly jittery, I crossed the river to another petrol station where, happily, there were a number of cars on the forecourt. It was not until I had swung cheerfully in that I realised that there were chains across all the petrol pumps. Only diesel was available: petrol was, here too, en rupture.

Now in fully-blown panic, I drove to a third petrol station, even further away. I kept my speed right down, eliciting furious honks all round, for fear of burning up too much of the now-precious resource in my petrol tank. Fortunately, two of the ten petrol-dispensing pumps at the next station were in operation, and I was able to fill up. There was, however, a long queue of similarly nervous-looking people, and the notices heralding limited availability made me worry for the people at the back of the line.

The petrol shortage that I was experiencing was caused by a strike by workers at French petrol plants, large numbers of whom were protesting about the controversial loi travail being proposed by the Government. This being France, you will already have deduced that the strike was not confined to petrol workers. Beh non. They were joined in their outraged disquiet by numerous other disgruntled workers, notably in the domain of transport. Across France, as trains were cancelled willy-nilly, planes grounded, and the roads clogged with those cars that dared to use their last litres of fuel, people were seen desperately dusting off bicycles that they had not ridden for 20 years in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their daily commute. Rumour has it that even Madame Lipstick remembered that she had a pair of feet that had skills other than depressing the accelerator pedal.

Depending on the point of view that you (mis)trust the most, the loi de travail is either there to enact much-needed reforms to the labour market that will help get the one in three young people who are currently unemployed into work and boost the stagnating French economy, or to remove the last skimpy vestiges of protection from the already embattled French worker. (See here or here for a more reliable summary of this parlous state of affairs).

No matter what the rights and wrongs of the matter are, I have been astonished by the levels of deeply ingrained mistrust that I have heard expressed on the subject. One acquaintance informed me in solemn tones that the proposed law signalled the end of France’s fine socialist tradition. It was about allowing the grand chefs, every last one of whom was deeply and intrinsically evil, to force their employees to work during August and then to fire them unceremoniously in order to fill their posts with cheap foreign labour, or possibly even robots. Were all patrons necessarily evil, though? I was met with a disbelieving stare. Mais, oui : il faut se méfier d’eux tous. There we had it: mistrust of one’s employer was a prerequisite: as obvious and necessary as buying one’s daily baguette.

Baguette

On the other hand, in the rarefied air of our local commune, the opposite sentiments are equally caricatured. C’est la guerre, remarked one otherwise mild-mannered, red corduroy-sporting neighbour: zese people will hhhhruin the Frunch economy. Ziss week, plus d’essence. Next week, they will be guillotining people devant la Mairie. (Personally, I think the strikers resemble less a set of bloodthirsty Robespierres than a set of stroppy toddlers, but there you go.) The Unions, too, it seems, can never be trusted.

United we stand (apart from the greedy bosses and the lazy workers)
United we stand (apart from the greedy bosses and the lazy workers)
All this mistrust seems to me to create a series of set piece tableaux: whichever side you belong to, there is the goodie and there is the baddie. The goodies are good. The baddies are bad. The one should never trust the other. The two can never be reconciled. I put this down to too many stimulants in the form of black coffee and red wine. Perhaps if the French learned to drink a good milky cuppa, they’d imbibe with it the art of the compromise, or just the good old British art of a fudge.

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And they call it puppy love

French dogs have always been something of a contradiction to me. On the one hand, they are taken absolutely everywhere, and are welcomed in places where, to my limited Anglo-Saxon imagination, they have no place: the local library, or beneath the table in a swanky resto, for example. This to me suggests an attachment between owner and hound so profound that no degree of separation can be brooked. On the other hand, many French people contemplate with horror the notion that their pet dog would actually live in their house – hence the many family dogs shut outside without compunction, come rain or shine, night or day.

Two weeks ago we took an alarmingly muscular approach to solving this conundrum when we acquired our own dog, a beagle puppy. As a consequence I am currently navigating the predictable perils of puppy-dom (3am trips for a poo in the garden, chewed slippers and unwanted typing assistance) in conjunction with the less obvious perils of French canine mores.

Our first lesson in French dog-rearing came when we first visited the beagle breeder and were informed that our puppy’s name would have to begin with the letter “M”. For it transpires that the French attitude to dog names resembles nothing so much as the British attitude to cars: each year has one of 20 letters of the alphabet attributed to it (K, Q, W, X, Y and Z are exempted), and all dogs registered with the Société Canine Centrale must have names that begin with that letter. 2016 is the year of the letter “M”. Thus our puppy has been given a name virtually unpronounceable to most Anglo-Saxons: Myrtille.

Myrtille showing her fidelity to her owners' nation
Myrtille showing her fidelity to her owners’ nation

Our second lesson was in the delicate matter of excrement. Before the arrival of Myrtille, I had been out and purchased a truckload of (biodegradable) poo-bags. My husband is currently in the process of digging a sort of canine latrine in the garden, into which future turds will be deposited, but in the meantime, we follow our hound around and swoop in with the poo-bags every time she does her business on the lawn.

Myrtille has already been fortunate enough to be visited by a number of our French friends, and to a man, woman and child, every one of them has regarded my neurotic poo-collecting antics with amusement. Pourquoi tu ne les pas mets pas dans tes plantes ? they ask. I don’t know: because I’m incurably squeamish? because it smells?

Perhaps this attitude should not have surprised me. We did, after all, previously share a courtyard with a family consisting of a woman, her two daughters, and a large, elderly setter. This setter encapsulated the conundrum I identified at the beginning of this post: it was both the subject of loudly-pronounced affection and left alone outdoors in a small courtyard for up to twelve hours every single day. It was also the author of a number of large brown deposits which appeared daily on the gravel and which were less often gathered up and put in a bin.

This dog poo, which tended to build up directly in front of our garage, bothered me a great deal: I lost count of the number of times that one of us put a foot in a large turd when it was too dark, or too wet, to spot it in advance. But above all, it stank, which caused me no small degree of embarrassment each time anyone came to our front door. Did this bother the dog’s owners, though? Apparently not. The courtyard being their only outside space, they were to be seen sunbathing there in the summer, just a metre or so away from a number of pungent brown mounds, apparently untroubled by the stench that must have been swirling around their bronzed nostrils.

The sun terrace at its best
The sun terrace at its best

Indeed it is not just in their private outdoor spaces that people seem content to bask in their dog’s excrement. There are some chemins that I avoid entirely on foot, because I know that they are lavishly adorned with poo and consequently swarming with flies. There is a short walk from a car park in the centre of Lyon to my daughter’s violin lesson that we do each week, and my younger daughter (who is, admittedly, prone to histrionics) invariably walks along pinching her nose for fear of the smell that will assault her senses if she does not, whilst my elder daughter steps obliviously into the very midst of the worst deposits.

My third lesson came about during the course of an encounter with Madame Lipstick. You may remember that this is the woman who had previously attempted to run my children over and had shown not a shred of remorse, despite the evident cuteness and appeal of my offspring in a pair of wellies.

Last week I had the puppy on a lead outside the school (all part of the intensive socialisation programme prescribed by the vet). I was chatting happily to someone’s mum, when in my peripheral vision, I caught sight of an excessively coiffed head and a slash of red mouth bearing down towards me. Uh-oh, I thought: what have I done now? To my great surprise, instead of shouting at me or my girls, Madame Lipstick curled her lips into something that was probably intended to be a smile, despite its close resemblance to a snarl. Oh-la-la, qu’il est beau (this is France: all dogs are male unless proved otherwise), she pronounced, before emitting a noise that could have been a French translation of couchy-couchy-coo. She then proceeded to remain by my side for about five minutes, exclaiming and patting with very little restraint or self-consciousness.

There we are, you see: it is perplexing. Dogs can be left shivering in the rain, and children can be heartlessly mown down, but my beagle puppy seems to be capable of melting even the icy heart of Madame Lipstick.

Mustn’t grumble

In the UK we have a stereotype of French life which is little short of idyllic. Whilst we beleaguered Anglo-Saxons are busy sheltering from the omnipresent drizzle by eating soggy sandwiches at our desks (where we will remain until at least 10 pm) our Gallic counterparts spend most of their time visiting the market, eating baguettes and cheese, and drinking wine under the midday sun. When, after a few weeks, this gruelling regime of long lunch-breaks and gastronomie begins to take its toll, they go on holiday, usually for weeks at a time.

It is therefore very difficult for us Brits to imagine that our Gallic neighbours could be anything other than sublimely happy and smugly self-satisfied.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. As the author of a blog whose raison d’être is moaning about French life, I may be skating on thin ice here, but I find myself daily taken aback by the extent to which French people complain about every aspect of their lives.

Take holidays, for instance. I have an English friend who is allocated a grand total of 51 days of holiday per year by the company they work for in France. About 30 of those days are what I might describe as “annual leave”. The remaining 21 days are RTT—or “time off in lieu”—allocated automatically on the (correct, in this case) presumption that the hours this person works routinely far exceed the statutory 35-hour working week.

Bearing in mind that this person only ever had 21 days of annual leave when they worked in the UK, this holiday policy seems wildly generous, insane even, given the current state of the French economy. American friends have pointed out that this allocation exceeds the total amount of maternity leave awarded to many American women after the birth of their child, which is, after all, an exceptional event. And yet my friend is awarded these 51 days every single year, without having to go anywhere near an epidural or a squalling infant.

It seems that the employer in question is beginning to experience mild unease about their previous generosity with regards to holiday days because, recently, a consultation was launched within the company with a view to cutting down on the total number of RTT days a person could take each year, bringing the total number of days spent away from the office down to 42.

Whilst my friend has never actually been heard to grumble about the fact that he is permitted not to work on 51 working days each year, he has faced this consultation with considerable relief. It was, after all, difficult for him to get his job done in the paltry few working days remaining to him after he had finished sunning himself on the beach, throwing himself down the mountain, or just lounging in liberty at home.

The distressing result of too much holiday
The distressing result of too much holiday

Not so his colleagues. Oh no. The proposed reduction in holiday allowance is, it turns out, an infringement on their personal liberté, and a severe breach in fraternité on the part of management. How dare their company suggest that they eek out their existence with merely double the holiday allowance of their British counterparts, or quadruple that of colleagues in the US? Can you think of anything more appalling? Or cruel?

All-staff meetings have been held. Whereas in the UK, employees might have voiced their discontent with some tight-lipped remarks before having recourse to their Stiff Upper Lip, in France these are out-and-out shouting matches. People are angry. They express their dissatisfaction loudly, and with feeling. It is a miracle that chairs are not thrown. They are contemplating taking to the streets to air their grievances more widely. Surely the general public will sympathise with their appalling plight… 42 days’ holiday, putin. No doubt soon they will be forced, forced, I say, to go en grève.

The British might be masters of the sotto voce grumble (my husband used to suffer in mortified silence as I muttered audibly about the way that my fellow tube passengers had just barged in front of me), but for the French, complaints are something to be shouted from the rooftop. Never, ever, give the impression that your situation is satisfactory or comfortable: if you do, who knows what they might decide to deprive you of next…

Seeing the sights

Last year a friend and I visited a monastery that was designed by the architect Le Corbusier, which is only open to the public at specified times on particular named days. My friend had flown into Lyon with the specific aim of visiting this building, and so we were well informed about the available visit times, although it had not been possible to pre-book.

To my mind the desire to visit a Le Corbusier monastery some kilometres outside Lyon on a Sunday afternoon is evidence of a somewhat esoteric set of interests. I was, therefore, quite relaxed as we set out in time to make the second and final sitting of the allotted day.

Le Corbusier

It was only as we made the approach and noted, with mounting alarm, the throng of cars parked bumper-to-bumper along the side of the road that my calm began to dissipate. Stress levels mounted yet further as we approached the queue of enthusiastic pedestrians at the entrance, which was long and unmoving. I was in full blown panic mode when admission to the final named viewing of the day was cut off at a point in the queue about five people ahead of us.

The back of some of the many visitors to the monastery that day.
The back of some of the many visitors to the monastery that day.

Then it dawned on me that I had made a novice’s error: we were, of course in France, but I was acting as if I were in the UK. In England, many quite stunning architectural gems remain unvisited except by a geeky minority of the general public. In fact, it is only when a monument is acquired by the National Trust (and a gift shop selling rainbow rubbers, bendy pencils and all manner of pointless tat is opened) that most of us begin to notice its existence. Presumably British Sunday afternoons are far too full of tours of Brent Cross, trips to the pub, making the best of soggy barbeques and tussles with the lawnmower to allow for any sort of architectural rapture. (I’m not complaining: it makes for short queues to cultural treasures.)

Not so in France, where even the tiniest and most mundane hamlet proudly vaunts its patrimoine. Perhaps because shops are still (just about) compulsorily fermé on Sunday afternoons, and Sunday lawnmowing is interdit, even the least significant piece of French cultural heritage can attract crowds of excited punters who would otherwise be festering in a post-prandial slump with their ageing relatives at home.

Take the commune where we were living until very recently, for example. It is a very pleasant place and has its fair share of pretty parts – there are even some buildings that date back a few hundred years – but there is nothing to cause anyone to make a detour to visit it. Yet, when the older of its two churches, now fallen out of use, opens its doors to the public each year, it is virtually impossible to catch a glimpse of its (beautiful but fairly standard) interior, so dense is the heaving mass of visitors wedged inside.

The village also boasts an ancient spring. Whilst I find it mildly interesting to learn that, in time gone by, this was the villagers’ only source of drinking water, there is really not much to behold other than a sort of cold muddy trickle emanating from the bottom of an ordinary square stone.

Evidently, though, my eye is not as discerning as that of the average member of the French public. The spring is considered to be of such intrinsic value that it merits its own panel containing a lengthy exposition on its history and microbiological features (nothing remarkable in the length of the exposition: French expositions are, by their very definition, long-winded). Each time I pass this panel I resolve to read it, but, two dreary phrases in, I am usually bored enough to stump off on my way. Not so the French. It is not in the least unusual to find a cluster of them grouped around the dripping stone, oooohing, aaaaaaahing and (because it is France) oh-la-la-ing, evidently riveted either by the spring itself or by the luxuriant word-smithery of the accompanying explanation.

Furthermore, even if you could interest a group of worthy all-bran-eating British adults in a desultory hillside stream, similarly captivating their offspring would be virtually impossible. Not so Gallic sprogs. A detailed interest in even the most modest piece of local patrimoine is bred into French infants from the cradle, so that by the age of six they are quite avidly accompanying their parents on Sunday-afternoon tours of Le Corbusier monasteries outside Lyon, and thereby taking up valuable places denied to people who had taken planes to be there…

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This is my first post for a little while. The more eagle-eyed of you may have observed that the picture on my home page has changed in the interim. The two are linked: I have been too busy moving house to have had time to write my blog. I hope to be back to normal function very soon…

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For posts about French life on other blogs, visit the #AllAboutFrance linkup on LouMessugo’s blog.

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Square pegs, round holes

Last week we went skiing, as everyone who is anyone round here seems to do. Despite the fact that I spent a significant proportion of my week weeping at the top of steep slopes (to the considerable amusement of my offspring, who had recently hurtled down them) the experience was rather wonderful. At the end of the week, my instructor looked at me ruefully and commented that I had “found my feet” (he was a kind, optimistic sort of person). By contrast, both of our children were furnished with the obligatory medals that accompany breakneck speed and were heaped with praise.

When you are 8 and 5, medals are extremely important and are to be worn on all occasions for at least a fortnight after their arrival. Most adults are aware of this and, as soon as they catch sight of the faux-gold badge, comment admiringly. This is lovely. It has not, however, escaped my attention that, almost without exception, these kindly French adults have said something along the lines of tiens, c’est un flocon, n’est pas ?

(OK, so you clearly need to disregard my earlier post on French uniform here: I take it all back when it comes to ski outfits.)
(OK, so you clearly need to disregard my earlier post on French uniform here: I take it all back when it comes to ski outfits.)

A flocon (snowflake), for all those who have hitherto blundered through life in ignorance, is one step up from an ourson and one step down from a première étoile. Technically speaking, a flocon is a child who can make several turns in a row in a snowplough, returning their skis to the parallel position after each turn (amongst other talents). My point is not, however, the extent to which such a child could give Eddie the Eagle a jolly good pasting, but the fact that a flocon badge is instantly recognisable to any French person worth their fleur de sel. You are wearing a medal; it looks a bit like a snowflake: tiens, you are a flocon.

Now, here’s the rub: neither of my children are flocons. This is because we made the utterly incomprehensible decision to enrol them in a ski school that was not the École du Ski Français (ESF to its friends). Thus although both of their badges resemble snowflakes, neither of them is actually a snowflake: one of them is in fact a super mousey and the other is a white mountain rider.

Super mousey
Super mousey

I don’t suppose that the level of skiing attained by my offspring makes much difference to you. Indeed, you may barely have retained your air of polite interest as I built up to this announcement of my children’s prodigious talent on the slopes. To my daughters’ audience of kindly French adults, however, the revelation that the apparent flocon was not, in fact, a flocon, came as something of a shock. If these children are, in fact, graduates of some insane system where flocons do not exist, well, sacré bleu, how on earth is any sane, Cartesian person supposed to know where they stand in relation to oursons or troisième étoiles, or even rank face-planters like me? It is, frankly, astonishing that the world has continued to spin on its axis in the context of this n’importe quoi imported by the bizarre Brits to the snow-capped peaks of the French Alps.

To a French person, ski school is self-evidently ESF, just as dinner is self-evidently snails followed by beef. If you want your children to ski, why stigmatise them with mice or other such unknown quantities, when the entire world accepts the system of snowflakes and little bears? For every activity there is the appropriate qualification. When you leave school, you aim to have a BAC, and everyone understands precisely where the score out of 20 that you receive pegs you on the scale of everyone else in the world. When you look for a job, you need do no more than state the number of years that you spent studying post-BAC: everyone knows what a BAC + 5 says about you, after all.

Before I arrived here, I had no idea how flexible I had previously been when it came to my assessment of other people. “So, you messed up your GCSEs, so what,” I’d say (idiotically, as it turns out): “you are clearly an intelligent and motivated person: what is to say that you can’t childmind my kids? So you only have your Grade II piano – you seem to be playing concertos on many of the world’s most famous stages: presumably your playing extends somewhere beyond Grade III? … Doesn’t it?…”

Not in France it doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter how talented you are, or what your skills may be: if you do not have the correct piece of paper attesting to your achievements, well, frankly, nobody is quite sure why you bother getting out of bed each morning. This is a world where it is impossible to become a florist, or a leg-waxer, or even a mower of lawns, without being first diplômé d’État; where people with incredible literary degrees can do nothing except become teachers (of mere literature, obviously); and where one cannot begin to learn the recorder without at least two years of mind-numbing solfège under your belt first.

There is, in short, no point in trying to cram a square peg into a round hole, or trying to pass a mouse off as a snowflake.

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Pardon me for breathing

When I first started to teach in a Lycée in Lyon, it took me several weeks to work out how to get from street level up to my classroom. My sense of direction was not at fault. No, the problem for me was the mass of teenagers congregated immediately in front of the door to the school. Nearing the periphery of the group, I would grind to a complete halt in the face of the seemingly impenetrable hormonal barrier that lay across my path.

Excusez-moi, I would murmur politely. Nobody budged. Some of their number would stare blankly at me as I made subtle little gestures indicating my desire to propel myself gently forwards. One or two would blow smoke in my face as they made their way through their tenth fag of the school day. Others would continue to snog each other’s faces off, or giggle over photos on their mobile phones as I looked helplessly on, having progressed not even a millimetre from my starting point.

After a few weeks of this, I observed other teachers in action. None of them hung about waiting for somebody to let them through. Oh no. They strode purposefully into the middle of the throng, shouted loudly and, if necessary, shoved and barged their way past the human obstacles.

When I finally plucked up the courage to try this new tactic, I approached the adolescent throng much as a machete-wielding explorer might approach a particularly dense section of jungle foliage. It worked: I made it through in a matter of seconds. As I exited the throng, I looked surreptitiously over my shoulder. To my great relief it seemed that nobody was shocked, offended or in the least bit perturbed by my modest acts of violence.

This experience gave me pause. Back in the UK, I had spent my life anticipating and avoiding other people: ducking in audiences for example, just in case there was somebody shorter sitting behind me (as if that were even physically possible); or swerving to accommodate an oncoming pedestrian by stepping off the pavement, only to discover that he had followed precisely the same impulse, and that we had now both come to a halt, and were balefully regarding each other in the gutter.

In the UK having a sense of not quite meriting one’s own air space is not particularly unusual. This “oh I really am most terribly sorry” phenomenon is not something that I find replicated in France, however. Here, I have seen a blind person carefully tap-tap-tapping along a narrow pavement with a white stick, only to be practically mown down by a very middle-class sighted lady with a smart handbag who was charging headlong in the opposite direction and presumably couldn’t be bothered to sidestep.

At the end of my younger daughter’s weekly ballet lesson, I watch a succession of mothers arrive and literally wrestle with one another for a spot directly in front of one of the glass panels through which the dancing can be viewed. It would be pointless to explain to them that everyone would be able to catch a glimpse of their tiny vision in pink if only they all just stood back a bit.

To photograph your child doing any sort of extra-curricular activity you need sharp elbows and a thick skin.

In Lyon there is absolutely no point in trying to catch drivers’ eyes when waiting on the pavement to cross the road. No, terrifying though it might be, the only thing to do is to step out into the road. Forced to choose between cold-blooded murder and a thirty-second delay, everyone apart from Madame Lipstick will grudgingly give way to a pedestrian who is prepared to put their life in danger in order to cross the thoroughfare. If you’re not willing to risk life and limb, you are clearly not worth the trouble.

Vietnam: the only place where I have risked more crossing the road than in Lyon
Vietnam: where road crossing looks perilous but is surprisingly courteous compared to Lyon.

In London, the only time when I witnessed anything approaching this degree of insouciance about other people’s right of way was during rush hour on public transport. Yet, even amidst the cattle-truck conditions on the tube, there were tacit rules that were usually adhered to. If, for example, you made eye contact with a woman sporting a “Baby on Board” badge, it was understood that you would abandon your seat for her without complaint. If you had to hold onto a bar above your head, it was a given that you would apologise profusely to anyone who found themselves beneath your armpit. And if, heaven forbid, someone shoved you out the way, everyone agreed that you would be perfectly entitled to court conspiratorial glances and sympathetic tuttings by saying “thank you” loudly and rather tartly in the hope of seeing the offender flush beetroot with shame.

By comparison, the metro in Lyon is lawless. A friend of mine once witnessed a man who had the use of only one leg boarding a crowded carriage. As there were no seats available, he had to stand clinging onto a pole in the centre of the carriage. Each time the train rocked, he rotated precariously around the pole on his only leg. The seated passengers gawped openly at him from their sedentary positions. Far from giving up his seat, the man closest to him even shifted his position to avoid being struck by the one-legged passenger as he wobbled crazily around his post.

Whilst it is patently absurd that in the UK I spent half of my existence politely dodging out of other people’s way, I am not sure that they have got it right in France, where an old lady will think nothing of elbowing a pregnant woman in the face in order to get ahead of her in a supermarket queue. I find this assertiveness, often at the expense of others, quite surprising in a country which wears its socialist ideology as a badge of immense pride. How can a system that is designed to create equality breed such aggressive individualism? (Now, there’s a subject for a future post…)

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Lost rags

Now that I have frenchified my apparel, there are, I am told, two residual clues to my Anglo-Saxon ancestry. The first is, obviously, my accent charmant. The second is the fact that, each morning, I walk my children to school. We even wear wellie boots and reflective jackets for this activity.

wellies

Why does walking less than a kilometre to school mark me out as British? Well, it seems to have something to do with my impermeability (because, bien évidemment it rains all the time in the UK); my insouciance about my bedraggled appearance after a walk along a muddy path; and my courage in the face of cars attempting to break the world speed record as a routine part of the school run.

For the most part, this badge of eccentricity serves me well at the school gate because it has given me a whole series of stock conversations. I have also gained a quite unmerited reputation for being sporty and, as this is the first time in my entire existence that anybody has ever thought this, I bask in the falsely reflected glory.

Unfortunately, alongside the well-wishers, there is also a contingent of people who think that I am a dangerous liability to myself, my children and other parties. When these people catch sight of the wellie-wearers in the road, most of them slow down (reluctantly) until they are only a few dozens of kilometres per hour above the speed limit, do an exaggerated detour around us, gawp unashamedly, and tut through their windscreens. The injustice of this used to bother me, but now I just brush it off. Meanwhile the kids positively relish the excuse to yell out “stupid French wally” in imitation of their maternal grandfather (who will no doubt be pleased to hear that I am getting my comeuppance for having shared this anecdote with them in the first place).

At the epicentre of this contingent is a parent who drives a black Volkswagen, clearly spends a long time chez le coiffeur, and sports a slash of red lipstick. She also has a right foot made of iron: the reason that I don’t know the identity of her child is that it is impossible to catch a glimpse of any passenger when the car is hurtling past at 130 km per hour within a millimetre of my right ear.

On one occasion this unlovely specimen came within a few centimetres of killing my younger daughter. The incident occurred at a junction close to the school where there is a total absence of useful road markings and where local people indulge in a daily contretemps about who has the right of way (it is not unheard of for this debate to be conducted by means of gentle nudges to an opponent’s bumper). On our walk to the school my children and I have to proceed diagonally across this death trap.

Despite my obstinate insistence on walking, I am, frankly, terrified of Lyonnais driving. Thus, on this occasion, as on all others, I approached the junction with trepidation and attacked it in two stages. The first road successfully traversed, I stood with the girls, patiently awaiting a gap in the traffic through which we could mount an attack on the second. The driver of one of a queue of waiting cars on our side of the road smiled at me and indicated that it was ok for us to cross. We proceeded to the middle of the road, where I cautiously poked my head out to look for oncoming traffic. There was nothing in sight.

Then, just as I gave the instruction to step out onto the opposite carriageway, Madame Lipstick came squealing round the corner at insane speed and, having cut up another vehicle, very nearly erased one of my children from this earth. As I stood there reeling, she wound down her window and subjected me to a torrent of invective about my suitability as a mother. I was, it seems, an imbecile, unfit to walk this earth, let alone the route to school, and every day my wilful actions put the general public in severe danger.

One brush with Madame Lipstick was all it took to convince me to change our daily route. Unfortunately, she is the sort of person who likes to terrorise all routes equally. The other morning I was walking down a very wide, quiet road, carefully leaving sufficient space on our left for even a Norbert Dentressangle to pass by unobstructed, when I heard a furious hooting over my left shoulder. I turned round to see Madame, braking frantically (eroded brake pads being an occupational hazard), but managing to honk her horn at the same time. She wound down her window and, as she passed by, spewed out a torrent of invective about my parenting skills. My younger child asked what the noise was all about. “Perhaps she didn’t like our wellies,” replied the elder of the two, drily.

This woman is also one of those who, when they see our car inching blindly out of our portail in the vain hope of being able to spot any vehicle hurtling towards us, rests their elbow on the car horn, keeping it there with a look of vicious indignation on their faces for a good half a kilometre down the road.

I do not pretend that road rage is a uniquely Gallic phenomenon. Nor do I wish to suggest that Madame Lipstick is representative of any nation: she is clearly a troubled soul. However, I have noticed that anger is much nearer the surface here in France than it ever was back in the UK. Much of this is centred on driving, but it crops up in plenty of other contexts too.

Take striking, for example. Taxi drivers are currently grinding Paris to a standstill in their protest about the existence of Uber. Whenever I am confronted with pictures of them looking thoroughly pissed off, I wonder to myself how they manage to sustain such a high level of anger for so long. I think I’d probably feel like going home for a nice warm cup of tea after a couple of hours of shouting, setting things on fire and observing the gloom on the faces of the poor sods who just want to get to work.

It is the same in the workplace. I have a friend whose boss regularly throws his papers into the air, slams doors and storms out of meetings like some overgrown toddler. Whenever my friends brings this up, my mouth drops open in horror. Our French companions, however, have hundreds of stories about colleagues who are prone to do exactly the same thing. Don’t they worry that they will lose their jobs, I question, naïvely? Mais pourquoi ? comes the baffled response: c’est normal.

Perhaps Madame Lipstick feels a lot better when she’s got all of that anger out of her system. Perhaps bosses get better results when they shout and flail. There is no question that striking works. So far, though, getting angry is one of the French traits that I am not rushing to try out. No, for the time being I shall button up and continue to step out in my muddy wellies.

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Knowing me, knowing you

The internet was a God-send for the Brits. It revolutionised daily life. Instead of having to telephone the people who, for example, supplied our utilities, we discovered that we were able to use online booking forms; type in the feedback that we would never have dared to deliver in person; and fire off e-mails to our lettings agent during coffee breaks. Thus, at a stroke, IT released us from the minefield that is conversation with people we don’t know well, and made us appear ten times more modern and efficient.

Despite boasting that it invented the bizarre precursor to the world-wide-web that is Minitel, France drags its heels when confronted with the internet revolution. It is slowly becoming possible to book things via the internet, but, even so, the entire system is still designed to ensure that you have to come face-to-face with a real person at some point. I always feel my heart sink when I click the button to “book” that ticket, only to discover that I have to print out the confirmation screen and take it to a human being, who will give me the ticket in person.

computer says no

E-mail is also surprisingly rare outside the world of work. Much to my burning shame, having registered as self-employed under the French system, I recently fell victim to a classic scam. An insurance broker cold-called me and somehow managed to convince me that, against my will, he was obliged to visit me at home. To cut a long story short, my execrable French, my sense of exhaustion, my British politeness, and my desire to get this person out of my house all combined in toxic fashion to compel me to sign a document, which, it later turned out, was a contract committing me to extortionate and unnecessary insurance payments for the period of a year.

When confronted with the magnitude of my error, my first thought was to send a brief but firm e-mail both to the broker and the insurance company, politely explaining what had happened and requesting a cancellation. In the UK, whether or not the insurance company eventually rolled over, this would have triggered an e-mail correspondence, possibly escalating to an exchange of paper letters (oo-er).

In France, the response came in the form of an aggressive telephone call from the broker. Sensing that I wanted to rob him of his commission, he went on for hours, getting progressively ruder and more bullying, and talking to me as if I were an idiot child, doubtless because of my mangled pronunciation of key words intended to convey both my intellect and indignation.

When I got off the telephone I was shaking. Shameful though it is to admit, I could only in part attribute the shaking to the broker’s aggression and the frustrations of operating in a second language. What had upset me far more than either of these things was the fact that the man had responded to my e-mail by picking up the telephone. This was clearly not how things should be done. If I didn’t want to talk to anyone in person, I should not have to do so, should I?

There is, of course, an endearing side to the French insistence on direct contact. Take buying a house, for example. In the UK, a buyer may never meet the seller of a property, and quite often they will not meet the conveyancer who acts on their behalf. Identification, enquiries, contracts, signatures: all of this is done by e-mail and letter, with perhaps one short telephone call at some point.

In France, the entire process of buying a house relies on face-to-face contact. At the heart of the transaction are two lengthy meetings, for which buyers, sellers, estate agents and notaires for both sides gather together to read through the contract of sale, line-by-line, lingering fondly over such details as the salary of the buyer and the wedding contract of the seller. If you want to negotiate a reduction in price, there is no chance of doing so cruelly, by e-mail, at the eleventh hour. Oh no: you would have to look the seller in the eye and give it to them straight (so as a Brit, you have no chance).

Neither, in the first instance, can you recruit your agent or your notaire via your desktop. Such people still have a very limited online presence in France and often you will find that the details on their websites, if they exist, are out of date. No, the only feasible way to proceed is for you to ask around. You will be given recommendations and will soon realise that everyone involved in the purchase is connected to you in some way: it will be your friend who brokers your mortgage; your neighbour who is the agent; a parent from your child’s class who acts as your notaire; and a string of friends of friends who commit to doing renovations on the property once you have bought it.

house

Once the transaction is completed, these people will not pass out of your lives. You will invite the notaire and his family round for lunch; the agent will knock on your window as she walks past, and pop in for a cup of coffee in your new home; and the seller of your house will call round with Christmas presents for your children. It may even come to pass that other parents at the school gate know more about how the transaction is proceeding than you do at any given moment.

Though, doubtless, this approach has its disadvantages (imagine, for example, cringing during a meeting with a builder to discuss replacing a beetroot bathroom suite in your new home in front of the existing owners who lovingly installed that very same suite), they are wholly outweighed by the sense of belonging that it engenders. By the time that you sign on the dotted line, you will have acquired not only somewhere to live, but also a fresh supply of people whom you can invite round to amuse yourself with their reaction to such British delicacies as toast and marmite, mince pies, and tea (brewed in the pot) with milk.

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For information on the house-buying process in France, see here if you live in France: http://www.expatica.com/fr/housing/buying

and consult those in charge if you live in the UK: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-buy-property-in-france

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French uniform

“Mummy,” a voice piped up as I got out of the car, “you are doing quite well at looking French today. That is until I look at your feet. The boots are just right but the socks are too English. Next time it would be better to wear plain socks”.

After two years of living in France, my eight-year old daughter has a very precise idea of how a person should be dressed and, it seems, views looking “French” as synonymous with looking good. Whereas I used to despair when she got herself dressed – invariably in hot pink and orange stripes for her bottom half and red and purple spots for her top half, topped off with a baby pink cardigan with a frill and a pair of light-up trainers – now I feel rather envious as she emerges from her room clad head-to-toe in coordinated navy and grey, and I look down at my smeary jeans and glittery heart jumper and realise that she makes me look like an ill-thought-out scarecrow.

Sophisticated outfit

When we first arrived in France, I fiercely resisted the notion that French females were any better dressed than their British counterparts. I would appear at the school gate wearing my jolly layered array of patterns in a gesture of open contempt for the (faux) leather jeans and Breton stripes of the other mothers. I sneered at the obnoxious articles written by French women, proffering glib style tips and preening insights into la touche française. Yes, they may have been in good condition, but did any of them know how to smile? Of course not. They were too busy pouting.

Then, just a fortnight ago I found myself queuing at passport control in Charles de Gaulle and realised that I had spent the previous five minutes comparing the two young women directly ahead of me in the queue. One of them wore skinny jeans, a baggy taupe jumper and coordinated ballet pumps. Her long dark hair hung down her back in a vaguely tousled way. She didn’t appear, at first glance, to be wearing makeup, but if you really stared at her you realised that she was. She didn’t have many accessories, but those that she did bore the discreet logos of names that even I recognised. She bore the delicate aroma of something citrusy and fresh. There was no doubt about it (grrrrrrrrrrrrr): she was chic.

The second woman wore skinny leather trousers that were two sizes too small for her, a baggy black jumper that was sufficiently holey to enable me to see her entire bra, and a pair of vertiginous faux-velvet black peep-toe heels, through which her sore-looking toes were crammed. Her long hair had been ironed ram-rod straight and dyed crow-black. Her face was absolutely plastered in make-up and her eyelids drooped under the weight of sparkly black eyelashes. She had diamante earrings the size of dinner plates and was dripping in ostentatious (but probably counterfeit) designer accessories. If you sniffed you ran the risk of passing out from the fumes of her cloying perfume.

Neither woman needed to open their mouths for me to determine that the first was French and the second was not. It was obvious. Although at a superficial level the total effect could not have been more contrasting, if you stared that them as hard as I was doing, you would notice that they were adhering to precisely the same fashion formula (skinny trousers, baggy jumper, long, loose hair). The French person was wearing the same as the other person, just minus the unkind adjectives.

However much I may resent those smug Frenchwomen who assume that their nationality gives them a certain je-ne-sais-quoi compared to us Brits, or everyone else for that matter; standing in that queue, I realised – forlornly – that there was a grain of truth in their gloating-disguised-as-advice. French people (men are not exempted) all seem to be educated in the art of looking good. At some point between the ages of zero and eight, they suddenly acquire the ability to emerge from their room wearing a stylish little scarf at their neck, and to choose a pair of boots that makes them look more like Emanuelle Béart than Jo Brand. Attempts of women of other nationalities in airport queues to imitate this look invariably fall flat because they quite simply do it trop.

In actual fact, the French look is very simply achieved. Setting aside the chain smoking to retain one’s figure, all one has to do is to buy a few simple quality items: skinny jeans, Breton stripes, the odd taupe item, a chiffon scarf or two, some ballerina pumps, some ankle boots, and a shapeless black summer dress. Throw them together and, voilà, you have kitted yourself out in French uniform.

Acquiring these items is not exactly difficult. In most clothes emporia you have no choice (Shop assistant: Qu’est-ce que vous voulez madame ? Hapless shopper: Je voudrais un pull violet. Shop assistant: Pas possible Madame. Peut être une marinière ?) Even better news, for that effortless look, there is no need to scour the catwalks for the latest trend. Oh no, fashions will come and go, but your red patent leather pumps will keep you looking good for at least the next fifty years. Another aspect of French life where the thinking has been done for you.

Uniform stall

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