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…