Scabs

There is a new element within my highly complex schedule of pre-travel tasks. I am in France, and therefore, before travelling anywhere where there is any importance attached to the timeliness of my arrival, I have to scour the web for information on current, likely, and even wildly improbable grèves by transport workers.

If this sounds a bit hysterical, I can assure you that, au contraire, this is but a sensible precaution. For, in conformance with national stereotype, France really is a nation of strikers. Last year, for example, elements of the SNCF were on strike from 12 June until 13 July. I know this because, when choosing the location of our house, my husband, having naïvely taken the timetable at face value, had assumed that he would be able to commute to work by train. During last summer’s strike he was forced to get to work by a variety of alternative methods, swapping his half-hour door-to-door for: hours spent in Lyon’s notorious bouchons; lifts hitched from virtual strangers; tasters of every last one of Lyon’s vast array of public transport methods; scooting (of the trotinette variety); cycling; walking; and, throughout all of this, probably, weeping.

Why? Whenever there is a strike in England, whether or not you sympathise with the strikers, there is always a very simple reason given: “No more pay cuts!”; “No to job losses!”; or “Save our pensions!”. Here in France it is more complicated. The long train strike last summer, for example, was caused by some people called the cheminots. They were protesting because they wanted to rescind rail reforms, the purpose of which was to stabilise the 44 billion Euro debt of the French rail sector by grouping the train and track operators into a single public entity, thus paving the way for opening the sector to competition. Try sticking that on a placard. Even before I got through writing the first half of this explanation I was bored, and boredom is not a known precursor to sympathy, let alone ardent support. Add to this the fact that the cheminots have been striking intermittently on this issue since 2010, and that, last July, the cost to the SNCF was estimated at 160 million Euros – presumably only adding to the size of the debt to be tackled – and by now I have started to positively dislike the cheminots, poor lambs.

More interesting perhaps than the strike itself was the public reaction to it. In England, after a single day of rail strikes, apocalyptic speeches will be made in Parliament; headlines everywhere will scream about an impending return to the misery of the 1970s; and on station platforms across the land there will be murderous mutterings. On this side of la manche, the strike made the news but everyone seemed to take it pretty calmly, even as the strike dragged into its fourth week. My husband sought to introduce some good old British grumbling about it into the conversation with his colleagues during their semi-obligatory lunch break, but was startled to discover that their attitude was pretty bof. During shorter, unannounced, strikes, he has found himself waiting at seven o’clock in the morning for a train that never arrives, and has reported that, instead of indignantly stampeding the harassed and helpless man in the ticket office, the disappointed commuters merely emit a small raspberry noise and turn quietly back.

It could be this indifference that enables grévistes to down-tools for quite such long periods of time. Perhaps, also, it is the well-oiled infrastructure that swings into place at the first whiff of trouble. British transport strikes are chaotic, and therefore more deadly. In France, the rail authorities are ready: they have several websites that will tell you precisely which trains will be cancelled, and which not. There may only be a single train every two hours, but at least you know in advance which it will be. One can only presume that somewhere there is an entire office full of people permanently charged with rescheduling and disseminating information. Viewed in this light, of course, the strikers are actually creating jobs in this beleaguered economy.

I would not want you to get the impression that the cheminots are the only workers partial to a bit of regular strike action. Oh no. Farmers have been known to be so moved by the risk of losing European subsidies that they have blocked roads with hay bales. In the winter, taxi drivers blocked Paris in protests about Uber, the private driver service that seems to have been fairly well assimilated in other countries. At the moment, in fact most of the time, lorry drivers are protesting about, well, I don’t know, the colour of their vehicles, perhaps. They are not so much striking as driving very slowly on some of France’s main arterial roads, giving rise to the term opération escargot. Sometimes this protest even seeps across the channel and bemused Kentish motorists find themselves confronted with lines of stationary French lorries indulging in a bit of Operation Stack.

Should you think that protest is a phenomenon confined to the working classes, think again. For the last week I have been woken up, not to the sound of French newsreaders running the end of one sentence into the beginning of the next, but to the sounds of Gallic crooning, because the workers of Radio France are on strike. There was a period when I could not enter a pharmacy without being asked to sign a petition against the notion that everyday drugs such as paracetamol could be sold anywhere other than in a pharmacy (in W.H. Smith, for example: quelle horreur!), and, in the new year, doctors were on administrative strike because they did not want to move to a system where treatment was free at the point of use (instead of paid at the point of use and then reimbursed later according to a predictably Byzantine set of principles).

So, my Anglo-Saxon friends, next time you don’t like the food in your work canteen, don’t just grumble about it. You could stage a sit in, or a walk out, or you could organise a march on DEFRA. You could do almost anything. Just don’t take it lying down.

 

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Beer goggles

Since moving to the land of fine wine, alcohol consumption in our household has dropped off considerably from the levels we maintained in London. Given that a) we love wine with admirable passion; b) approximately a quarter of the surface area of our local supermarket is taken up with the stuff (all French of course); and c) it is possible to buy a perfectly decent bottle for as little as 4€, nobody is as amazed by this cutback as we are.

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We hail, after all, from a nation where alcohol serves a multitude of purposes besides simply being one ingredient of a good fête. For example, in the middle of winter, young women (and I number my teenage self amongst them) drink alcohol instead of wearing the heavy coats that would otherwise be necessary. Indeed, in some parts of the country, alcohol also serves as a useful substitute for a pair of tights or even a skirt. At the opposite end of the thermometer, when we go on holiday our menfolk are not obliged to pack sun cream to protect their pasty skin because a sufficient number of cans of lager consumed under the midday sun will easily numb the pain of the resulting burns.

Alcohol also helps us to cast off our inhibitions. On first arriving at a British social gathering it can be difficult to know what to say. Without the presence of alcohol there is the risk that everyone will find themselves standing in an awkward circle in the middle of the room, staring intently at their feet as silence reigns. Throw a few G&Ts into the middle of that circle and who would want to be anywhere else? I myself have been known to be positively witty after a glass of wine. After two I become fluent in several languages and quite a proficient flirt. After three or four it is conceivable that I will begin to throw some shapes: up until that magical moment my dance moves resemble those of a startled and deeply ashamed plank with a nervous twitch.

Of course the French climate and skin tone are such that French people do not need to have recourse to WKD as a coat or Fosters as an analgesic. However, French people also seem to have honed either their social skills or their boredom threshold to such a point that lubrication is no longer a prerequisite for interaction with other humans.

Shortly after our arrival in France we attended, as a family, a ceremony of New Year vœux hosted by the outgoing mayor of our village. We pretended to ourselves that we were doing this in order to integrate ourselves into village life, but in truth we had been lured there by the promise of champagne. We arrived about ten minutes late, to find ourselves at the back of a large crowd of people, all listening intently to the mayor, who was burbling into a microphone about the achievements of his tenure. Everyone else seemed rapt. Even the children were quiet. We, on the other hand, starting fidgeting after our first five minutes in the room. We kept surreptitiously eyeing the banks of trestle tables at the back, on which were lined up hundreds of tantalising champagne flutes. We whispered to each other that at least we’d arrived late, so the tedium of the wait would be short-lived. We were wrong. We stayed in that room for a further hour, parched, hungry and very grouchy. When we left, despite having started almost every sentence for the previous half an hour with the word enfin, the mayor was still going strong. We retreated home to a waiting bottle of wine, marvelling at the endurance of the French. Had that ceremony been in England, the only way to make anyone stay in the room for a speech of only half the length would have been to brave the risk of drunken heckling and serve the champagne first.

Yet, precisely as the world imagines, the French do love their alcohol. At meetings of the French PTA equivalent, I never cease to be taken aback by the appearance of a bottle of cider, modest measures of which are poured reverently into plastic cups. These measures are then sipped appreciatively over the course of an hour or so. As someone whose only memories of drinking cider involve swigging it from two-litre plastic bottles whilst sitting on children’s play equipment in the park at night, I still have to restrain myself from downing my measure in one then wincing with distaste afterwards. I find it difficult to relate to these people who seem to drink cider because they actually enjoy it as a beverage rather than because it is the cheapest way to get drunk.

Whilst I don’t think that any amount of cider-sipping will endear me to fermented apple juice, over time I find that my appreciation of wine has grown through drinking better-quality examples in (slightly) smaller quantities.  That said, there is no way that I am ever going to be French enough to be able to shimmy around the dance floor, fuelled only by water and joy.

 

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If, like me, you are interested in viewing such issues from the other end of the telescope, you could try reading one of the many French people who have established themselves in London, for example, French Yummy Mummy

The naked truth

The English language is liberally sprinkled with euphemisms, enabling us to avoid direct mention of unavoidably difficult or embarrassing situations. So it is that most British adults, at some point or other, will have experienced an “intimate examination”, code for a doctor or other professional’s perusal of a further euphemism, our “private parts”.

The scenario is a familiar one: you arrive in the room where this trauma is to take place and you see, out of the corner of your eye, a bed on which lies a folded towel. You avert your gaze and try to appear nonchalant even though the colour is already rising to your cheeks. The doctor / nurse / beautician then announces that you are to remove some of your clothes. Sometimes it can be a little difficult to ascertain exactly which clothes because the person addressing you is speaking in euphemisms and at all costs you want to avoid the discomfort of forcing them to deal in concrete terminology. Next they either leave the room or draw a curtain and you do your best to remove the correct clothes, being careful not to be too zealous, for there is nothing more humiliating than total nudity when only semi-exposure was required. As you struggle with jeans, and boots that suddenly seem to have shrunk, you start to panic in case you get caught mid-way through getting undressed, which is even worse than being naked. You try not to grunt with the exertion, particularly if the only barrier is a curtain. Then you arrange yourself as delicately as you can on the bed and drape the towel provided over as much flesh as possible presumably in order to create an air of mystery. Sometimes you rearrange the towel several times before you achieve a tolerable result.

It is, of course, a total charade, for when the professional re-enters the room they then proceed to violate the sanctity of the towel by delving beneath it in a manner that, however hard they try, can never be discreet or mysterious. We all know this. They all know this. But yet the charade persists and we feel that somehow, as a result, dignity has been preserved.

Needless to say it is different in France. A few months after our arrival, I had cause to visit a dermatologist because of a funny-looking mole. The encounter began conventionally enough when we sat down on either side of her desk and discussed my medical history. As usual, out of the corner of my eye I saw the bed. I also saw, to my confusion, that there was no towel. No matter: the mole was on my upper back; the towel had probably been omitted because it was not needed in that zone. After a few minutes the dermatologist invited me over to the bed, where she instructed me to remove all my clothes. No euphemisms were used so the instructions were, for once, abundantly clear. Nonetheless, surprised by the requirement for total nudity, I wondered whether my French language skills had let me down, so I asked her to repeat herself. She looked mildly amused and said that I was indeed obliged to be naked: she was going to examine every mole on my particularly-moley body very closely.

I waited for her to leave the room (I had noticed that there was no curtain). There was a prolonged and awkward silence. Then the awful realisation dawned upon me that she was expecting me to strip off in front of her. Not wishing to appear at all prudish or incompetent, I forced myself to get undressed as efficiently as I could, trying very hard not to meet her frank gaze as I did so. Then, naked, I was suddenly seized with embarrassment about the muddle of clothes I had left on the floor, so I made matters worse by bending over and folded them in a rather undignified manner. Finally ready, I got onto the bed where, for the next fifteen minutes or so, the dermatologist was as good as her word and loomed up close to each and every mole with a magnifying glass.

After my appointment with the dermatologist I felt buoyed up, as if I had just performed a piano concerto to a standing ovation, instead of merely having survived close scrutiny of my naked body without the ornament of a towel. My euphoria got me thinking about the benefits of the French approach to bare skin.

This approach is not just apparent in doctor’s surgeries, but pervades every aspect of French daily life. To give but one small example, in England I have seen parents tie themselves in knots about their small girls’ requests for bikinis in the summer (in the UK, bikinis are part of the increasing sexualisation of children). In France, it is difficult to find a small girl in anything other than a bikini, or sometimes just the bottom half of a bikini, by the side of a swimming pool. Fascinated by this difference, I asked one of my French friends whether she worried about the sexualisation of her daughter as a result of her choice of swimwear. She looked rather perplexed, for she had no notion of the bikini being a “sexy” thing to wear, and felt that it was self-evident that there was nothing charged or shameful about a bare stomach. There was just no inherent link in her mind between nudity and sex.

This matter-of-fact attitude is not limited to women. At our girls’ swimming lessons, for example, the male swimming teachers stride around wearing the skimpiest of budgie-smugglers. They are not, however, at all self-conscious, and, amongst the mothers at the poolside there is never any tittering or innuendo about that the fact that there is little more than a lycra belt between their genitalia and the general public. Faced with such brazen near-nudity, in England, the maternal chatter on the sidelines would have resembled nothing more than an all-female screening of The Full Monty. In France, everybody knows that we have bodies underneath whatever outfit we wear, so why be coy about it?

I am grateful to France for enabling us to bring up our girls in an environment that is designed to curb the development any sense of shame about their bodies. They are young enough for this to make a difference to them. On my own account I continue to make valiant attempts at least to appear insouciant about nudity. I worry that perhaps my over-familiarity with that comforting towel has taken its toll on me, though: you will note that my annual encounter with the dermatologist and her magnifying glass is now somewhat overdue.

Sunshine on a rainy day

The sun is shining once again in Lyon, and as a result the view out of my window looks much more like the view I would expect from a house in France than it has done all winter.

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Since I am British, it should not surprise anyone that I have chosen to open this post with a meteorological observation. Discussing our dismal weather is, after all, a national pastime, and with good reason. Awkward silence? Mention the rain and even the most taciturn of interlocutors will become positively garrulous on the subject of the wet footprints that their plumber trod up their stairs the day before. Not sure about someone’s moral character? Mention the stifling temperature and, depending on whether they name check climate change or Piz Buin, you will have all the answers you need. In the UK, countless deep friendships are initiated with one seemingly banal remark about the colour of the clouds (grey, usually).

In this context, you will be able to imagine my sense of relief when, after about four months here, I began to notice that French people also sometimes used the weather as a conversational gambit. Of course, there were some differences. For example, I observed that, unlike their British equivalents, such discussions tended to have a sartorial element. Admittedly, this latter was frequently used to highlight my own wardrobe deficiencies (“mais Emily, with your beaux yeux bleus, you really should wear your lunettes de soleil” or “oh la, in the cold weather your girls will get very ill unless they wear une petite écharpe”) but nonetheless I felt that I had finally identified a topic of conversation at which, given a lifetime of practice, I could excel whatever the language. My social worries were over. Armed with my discovery, it would not be long before I had filled my address book with firm new friends.

So it came to pass that, one sunny but chilly morning in mid-May, I strode confidently up to a group of mothers at the school gate and, instead of waiting for them to ask me a question and then demonstrating my impressive array of fish faces in response, I initiated a conversation by remarking that I had been surprised to spot frost on the ground at that time of year. Remembering the need to mention clothing, I dropped in, rather subtly I thought, the fact that I had not been able to leave the house without a jacket despite the bright sunshine. Instead of using my remark as a springboard for a rush of further grateful observations or grumbles, as would have happened in London, the mothers regarded me for a moment with some amusement. Finally, one of them broke the silence, explaining to me laboriously, as if to a small but particularly slow-witted child, “Mais oui, Emily, it is called les saints de glace”. The conversation moved on and eventually, deflated, I went home and looked up the ice saints on the internet. It transpired that there was always a frost in France on 11, 12 and 13 May, traditionally the saints’ days for St Mamert, St Pancrace and St Servais,* who, as a consequence, were collectively known as the ice saints. In other words, my remark had not been a moderately dull but thoroughly acceptable discussion opener, but merely a statement of the obvious, best forgotten.

Unfortunately, neither of my two subsequent meteorological comments met with any more success. In September, having endured three days of tantalisingly glorious sunshine periodically broken up by prolonged and savage gusts of wind, I ventured an observation on the subject of my hairstyle, which was comically failing to withstand the gale forces buffeting it about my face. At the very least I expected a laugh of recognition or pity in response, but instead got told, somewhat abruptly, that of course, it was the mistral, and there was nothing to be done about it. Only last week, having got caught in a hail shower just five minutes after I had left the house under clear skies, my cheerful remark about the extreme changeability of the weather was dismissed in seconds with the statement that yes, it was foolhardy to expect to go out in March without being prepared for the onset of a giboulée (a sudden downpour sandwiched between periods of sunshine).

Washing before sudden redistribution by the mistral
Washing before sudden redistribution by the mistral

It is only now, after repeated failed overtures, that I realise where I have been going wrong. In the UK, the weather is a valid topic of conversation because it is a never-ending source of (usually unpleasant) surprises. Plan an outdoor July wedding and you will need to have a detailed wet weather contingency plan because, even on the morning of the event, you cannot be sure whether it will be sunny or not. Book a flight for March and you may find yourself grounded because of unseasonal snow. Even train operators find themselves at the whim of the heavens, regularly having to delay and cancel services because of rain on the tracks or leaves on the line or frost on the cables.

In France, however, they have the weather nailed. They know on which mornings in May there will be frost; they predict the unpredictable showers in March; they know precisely when to tidy away their garden umbrella in advance of the mistral. The weather is known, quantifiable, predictable and precise. There is a vast array of technical vocabulary available for the permutations of every season. Every wind has its own name, every frost its patron saint. And, if you know it all already, what possible interest can there be in remarking upon the weather, even in desperation? When I have memorised the French meteorological calendar day-by-day and therefore know how to spot a weather-related phenomenon that is in any way unforseen, I will be able to dazzle French people with my British conversational skills. Until that point, I will pack an umbrella, a scarf and some sunglasses every day, just in case, and stick to my fish faces.

 

 

*In the modernised calendar of French saints, these have become Ste Estelle, Ste Achille and Ste Rolande

Does my bum look big in this?

In France, as everywhere else, January is a time to start exercising and going on diets. So it was that, at the start of term, as soon as I had deposited the children at school, I found myself sporting a pair of leaky trainers and speed-walking up a very steep hill so that I could run along the top of it and back. For the first fortnight I felt pretty good, not least because I could not hear myself panting heavily over the sound of my Women’s Hour podcast. Occasionally I would pass someone walking their dog and every time I did so I would do my best to speed up; to turn my grimace into a smile; and to wish them a cheery bonjour in a sufficiently energetic voice to prevent them from calling me an ambulance.

My wildly ambitious dreams of the Paris marathon came to an abrupt end last week when I greeted an immaculately turned-out woman of retirement age who signalled for me to stop. As soon as I drew near to her she said oh la, vous êtes toute rouge, tutting and shaking her head all the while. Now, it is true that, as soon as I start to run, my face goes rapidly from what I like to call English rose through rouged, then tomato and finally to beetroot. No doubt this masterclass in the diversity of available shades of red is usually accompanied by an alarming sheen and a pained grimace. No matter: I have long since had to come to terms with the fact that I cannot be gorgeous and run at the same time. I had thought that the general public had accepted this too because, in the UK, every time I encountered anybody whilst doing an impression of a traffic light, that person would politely and ever-so-discreetly avert their gaze so that they stared intently at their left shoe until I had puffed past. I had not bargained for the French public.

In England the phrase “I always tell it like it is” is code for “I am giving myself a license to be extremely rude and unpleasant”. In France, however, directness equates to honesty rather than rudeness, and people no more expect to take offence from piercingly direct remarks than they do to give offence by telling the truth. The chic old lady I encountered on my run was telling me that I was red out of kindness, to make sure that I did not press on unawares and go into cardiac arrest. As flummoxed as I was, I managed to produce for her the correct response, which was to laugh, thank her, and tell her that red was my natural hue. My instinct, however, was to stagger off the path and weep in a bush about my general inability to glow rather than sweat.

The same impulse to directness pervades all interactions where one person makes a request of another. In London I sometimes helped the school’s PTA by recruiting other parents to help out at fund-raising events. Each response fell into one of three categories. About a quarter of parents readily agreed to help, although their readiness did not always prevent them from pointing out how generous they were given their manifold other commitments. A further quarter declined, but gave a lengthy and involved speech explaining precisely why it was that they could not help on that occasion. The remaining half looked hunted, stammered a great deal, and eventually said that they would assist. With this category you had to wait somewhere between an hour and a week before you received the e-mail explaining that they had just remembered that on the day in question they needed to babysit for their cousin’s best friend’s little niece’s step-brother, whose mother had a job interview, meaning that they could not help out after all. You were then obliged to reply saying yes, of course, you quite understood, and that nobody could be expected to give up their time under such terrible constraints.

Recruitment on behalf of the APEL (the French PTA equivalent) is far more straightforward. One quarter of those you approach agree to help, sometimes rather grumpily, but at least sparing you the set-pieces about how fortunate you are given their busy and important lives. Three-quarters of those you approach say non. At this point I linger, awaiting the lengthy excuse, but rapidly feel uncomfortable, as nothing further is said, and indeed, often the other person has turned their back on me and is already talking to someone else. Occasionally, feeling sorry for me, the other person will add j’ai un empêchement, which means “I have an impediment”, but this non-specific embellishment is deemed rather excessive, a concession to my needy English air. I am still waiting to try out this response for myself, but each time that I steel myself to utter a decisive non, I panic and miserably find myself saying oui whilst beaming ingratiatingly because someone cares enough about me to ask for my help.

My experiences at the school gate have taught me that French directness saves a great deal of time and effort. This lesson applies in multiple contexts. When buying trousers in London, for example, if unsure I might have asked the sales assistant what they thought about a particular pair. Undoubtedly I would have got a positive response. After that I would have wasted ten minutes of my life trying to decide on its sincerity. A further half an hour would be wasted once I had got the trousers home in trying them on in front of the mirror, worrying about how they looked, and asking my children, who would gaze admiringly back even if I were wearing a bin bag. Finally, an hour would be wasted taking them back a week later because, deep down, I had known all along that they were not quite right. In France, I can save 40€ and buy myself 100 extra minutes of time to write my blog simply by asking for the opinion of a shop assistant. For them there is no dancing around the point. They will look me up and down appraisingly then say, clearly and without compassion, non madame, orange n’est pas votre couleur. Presumably it clashes with the beetroot spreading out from beneath my hairline.

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If you want to read other blogs about French life, do visit the Lou Messugo blog, where there is a link called AllAboutFrance where you will find some of them.