Octobre Rose

I’ve always hated pink.

Not just the colour, but what it represents. Pink for girls, blue for boys. Berk, as they say in my adopted land. Yuck.

But I’ll make an exception for pink this month. It’s ‘October Rose’ in France, Pink October. And breast cancer prevention is worthy of even the most vile of shade of rose bon-bon, candy pink or my most-hated fuchsia.

I guess I hate breast cancer even more.

My mother died of breast cancer in 1989. That will make it 30 years ago next March. I was pregnant with her first grandchild at the time. Her grandson, Elliott, born the following September, helped me get through that first year.

There is something especially cruel about breast cancer. Cancer du sein. It attacks the very heart of motherhood. That maternal breast that nourished us as babes in arms is eaten up by cells that grow haywire, out of control, that harden and metastasize. In my mom’s case, it went into her liver.

That was after the chemo. First came the trauma of a mastectomy, then the nauseating treatments and hair loss. But she rode out that first wave. Came to Paris for our wedding in 1986. By then her hair had grown back. A few years later so did the cancer.

While research has made great strides in understanding the genetics of the disease, and therapy has become more targeted, detection and prevention of breast cancer have not advanced much. Aside from those with a genetic predisposition to the disease, particularly that ticking time bomb of BRCA mutations, the only ‘prevention’ widely used is early detection by mammogram.

Essentially this means that, beyond living a healthy lifestyle, eating well and not drinking too much, our only option is irradiating our breasts to find out if we have a tiny tumour in the making. I have been getting biannual mammograms since the age of 35, which adds up to a lot of radiation over time. Now there is considerable controversy over whether that is, in fact, a good idea.

Some countries, like Switzerland, have opted out of routine mammograms. It seems they consider the risks, between radiation exposure and over-diagnosis, outweigh the benefits. Yet what choice does someone with a family history of breast cancer have? You are damned if you don’t and, possibly, damned if you do.

Not to mention how unpleasant it is to have that particular part of your anatomy squeezed flat between two pieces of glass, pinching the skin of your arm pit while the technician orders you not to breathe or risk having to do it all over again, doubling the dose of radiation. I remain convinced that if men had to submit to a similar procedure for testicular cancer, they would have found a better way long ago.

Still, it is better than the alternative. And I can only imagine how grateful one would feel when such a test picks up a cancer very early on.

That was the case for Caitlin Kelly, a fellow Canadian and a journalist who shares her recent personal experience with breast cancer on her blog, Broadside. Happily, her prognosis is excellent. This week’s post also includes a link to Caitlin’s story, published in the New York Times, about the importance of touch in medical care. Check it out: https://broadsideblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/exposing-oneself-to-millions/

So, pink it is for this month at least. Let’s hope that increased awareness will save lives and that research will get us a better way to detect and prevent this terrible disease.

I’ll raise a (small) glass of rosé to that!

Has breast cancer touched your life?

Emmenez-moi

My mother loved Charles Aznavour. She had a soft spot for small men with big voices and a story to sing. The French-Armenian crooner did it with heart and soul.

When I saw him on TV last Friday night – 94 years of age and promoting his next concert tour – I thought: Wow. Imagine seeing him live in concert? So the next morning I went online and booked tickets for a concert to take place in Zurich just a few days before Christmas.

But then a strange thing happened. I realized once the credit card information had been entered, and the fees doubled the face value of the tickets, that I’d been had. Fooled by a very slick website that is nothing more than legalized scalpers. By then it was too late to get out of the transaction. So I spent quite a bit of time over the weekend (closing the barn door after the horse has bolted) researching a company called Viagogo.

Turns out I should have done that first (Yes, I found myself thinking, but hey, this guy is old. Surely I could be forgiven for wanting to hurry up and book while he was still around?). It seems that Viagogo is in legally murky waters all over the world as various governments from France to Australia have asked them to make their transactions more transparent (I’m not the only one who was fooled into paying twice the price). Ed Sheeran ran afoul of them when his promoter refused to honour concert tickets sold through Viagogo.

What made matters worse was that I then discovered the concert date in Zurich had already been cancelled. I contacted the promoters, the venue, various ticket sellers and read several articles online: they all seemed to agree that the date was cancelled. So why was Viagogo still selling tickets? When I contacted them, the company claimed the concert date was still valid. In the meantime, I lodged a complaint with Google over its misleading ad.

All of this became nothing more than a sad joke when the news came on Monday afternoon that Charles Aznavour had passed away. I could hardly believe it, texting my husband, who, with typical dark humour replied that at least we could now be sure the concert was cancelled.

Sudden death from a heart attack at 94 can hardly be considered surprising. And yet…he struck me as someone who was not done with life. He had even pledged to celebrate his 100th birthday on stage. During his final appearance on the talk show C à vous, Aznavour talked about his need to perform. On stage, he said, was where he felt most alive.

The stage had been Aznavour’s home ever since he first came to fame in 1946. A protegé of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour had a special talent for bringing stories to life in song, that very particular sung-spoken style of la chanson française.

But he wasn’t just a consummate performer. He was also a talented songwriter who wrote or contributed to over 1,000 songs. I was amazed to discover that he wrote the song, ‘Yesterday when I was young’, Hier Encore in French.

Funnily enough, he said that his favourite song was La Boheme, one of the few whose music he did not compose.

Such talent. So many memories. It has been an emotional ride.

This one’s for you, Mom. Et pour toi, Nicole!

Où pisser?

I was going to be polite and title this post ‘Faire pipi.’ That is the more polite French expression for urinating. Non-French natives, take note: ‘pisser’ is only used for animals or among males.

But then I thought: why mince words? Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pissed (annoyed, not drunk) about how often the topic of where to go still comes up. And why, after all these years, so many stairwells and street corners in every French city still reek of urine?

My original post about the dreaded Sanisette is one of the all-time most viewed on this blog. And my ode to Madame Pipi was also highly appreciated. By now I would have thought we’d exhausted the subject. Mais non! Imagine my surprise when this video landed in my newsfeed.

Seems that comic Swann Périssée was commissioned by the city of Paris to make a point about the blight of public peeing. It certainly captures the essence of the problem in authentic French fashion. Someone apparently thinks that humour will work where fines and public outrage have failed. I’d say that rather than fancy campaigns they should invest in a few more pissoirs or public urinals.

Mais, I hear you say, they have! Et oui, that the was the scandal of the summer. The new ‘uritrottoirs’ – a scanty public urinal in a flower pot that has Parisians making rude mouth noises. And they decided to test it on the ultra-chic Île Saint Louis of all places!

Firstly, where is the female version? Surely we are not intended to sit on the thing?

Secondly, even for men, it provides almost no privacy. While the French are obviously far less concerned about modesty, the proximity of this urinal to passing tourists on the banks of the Seine leaves little to the imagination. I fear that in many cases the shy bladder will prefer a dark corner of the ‘trottoir’ or sidewalk rather than these highly public places.

This report from France3 emphasizes the ecological component but at a cost of 25,000 EUR to operate just a few on an ‘experimental’ basis, economic is not part of the equation. And I am not convinced they offer an improvement over the original vespasiennes.

Interested in knowing more about the history of the urinal in Paris? Check out this excellent post from Parisian Fields.

And, believe it or not, there is even a guide book on where to pee in Paris.

Do feel free to add your own wee comments!

Péter le feu

‘Péter le feu’ may call up images of a fire-breathing (or farting) dragon, but in French it means to be bursting with energy.

And I’m happy to report that after a long, hot summer, during which my get up and go got up and left, I’ve finally got my mojo back.

Je pète le feu.

This week there’s a definite fall vibe in the air, even though we’re currently enjoying a lovely Indian summer. All those cooler nights and early mornings have me energized and raring to go, even, dare I say, looking forward to the change of season. I love the autumn, always have, with the exception of a few weeks in November when I become convinced of my imminent demise. Something to do with the change of light after we set the clocks back. (Although the EU recently announced they would put an end to this barbaric practice, making me oh-so glad to be part of Europe).

Twice this week I woke up before the alarm clock at 5:30. I’ve gotten back into some healthier eating, drinking and exercise habits (yeah, I know…boring). But I’m exploding with ideas for several writing projects, looking forward to my next vacation and frankly, happy to be alive. It has been ages since I felt this way.

Not to brag or anything. That would be a different kind of péter all together.

‘Se la péter’, to show off, is one of those French expressions I gave up trying to fathom years ago. It is filled with pitfalls for non-natives: if you forget the ‘se’ or the ‘la’ it means something completely different. Like to actually fart. Which is not something most people brag about.

Aside from its less than noble meaning, péter also means to blow up, to explode or to crack. Like a firecracker, un pétard. And it is associated with another verb also used to describe being full of energy: gazer. ‘Ça gaze?’

How or why these explosive terms became associated with being in good health and raring to go is a mystery to me. But it seems the French are well aware of the comic potential of the word and its English cousin. The expression, ‘Salut, ça farte?’ was immortalized by the actor Jean Dujardin back in 2005 when he played a French surf bum obsessed with speaking Franglais called Brice de Nice (jokingly pronounced with a long ‘i’ as in Bryce de Nyce). The film, while silly, became a cult comedy classic.

Alors, ça farte?

Les aléas

– How are you this morning? – If you really want to know, press 1. Otherwise, press 2.

We all have those Murphy’s law moments, when we are reminded that nothing in life is ever intended to be easy. A natural catastrophe. An unexpected expense. Anything involving a government administration

Here in France we talk about ‘les aléas de la vie.’ And as long as they don’t involve death or taxes, it’s par for the course. I’ve had my share lately – nothing serious but annoying none the less.

It started with the bank. We ran out of checks, and as France is a country where people still write a lot of checks, and also take long holidays in the summer, I wasted no time in ordering some. More fool me, I tried to be super-efficient and modern by going online. After digging up my login and password, a feat in itself, I wrote a quick message to our so-called account manager. In six years with this bank, the turnover at the branch has been too frequent to allow us to develop much of a relationship with the constantly changing staff. And we live half an hour’s drive from our bank so stopping by is not convenient.

– It’s about a loan.
– Great, how much can you lend us?

Two weeks later, still sans-cheques, I phoned. My tone may have been slightly annoyed when the woman I dealt with informed me coolly that she had no idea why her colleague had not replied to my message; I was, of course, free to send a message to any of the staff but each individual was responsible for replying to their own messages. I pointed out that there was no point in going through a centralized platform if there was no centralized follow-up, and that email was only good if you got a reply. She snippily informed me that the checks were now ordered and I should have them by the end of the following week, given the mid-August holiday. The end of the month came and went, with still no checkbook.

Everything changed when our regular contact returned from holiday. Naturally nothing had been ordered in her absence but she pulled some strings and I got the checks within the week. Several companies who’d probably thought we’d taken a very long summer holiday finally got paid.

Meeting agenda: do we really need insurance for water damage?

Next, my car registration papers went AWOL. I searched up and down, convinced I must have stuck them in a drawer, a file or even another purse but alas, there was no sign of the ‘carte grise’, as we call it. I would have to pay for a new one. Then began a little dance with my leasing company, the official owners of the car. The first phone call involved endless loops of automated voices and after punching in the wrong contract number finally led me to a cranky lady who informed me they would send me the necessary document by la poste. Snail mail? I hung up in frustration.

The letter arrived the following week, advising me to connect to an online platform where the entire process would be handled automatically. I needed a letter for that? Still, it was good news: no lengthy trip to the Préfecture with various copies of documents. But first I had to create an account, or log-in with something called France Connect – a service that manages your identity with various online administrations. It turned out I already had an account with this mysterious organization. Once again, I surprised myself by finding the keys to the kingdom and logging in. Off to the races!

Shortly out of the gate, I ran into the first hurdle: I needed a special code to request a new registration for the vehicle, and as the vehicle belonged to leasing company, it would sent – by la poste – to them. Gah! Back to cranky voicemail lady a week later. I explained my tale of woe and was informed that they had in fact received a code in the mail, but they had to request the number from whoever opened the mail by phone so who knew how accurate it would be? Their words, not mine, as I wondered in what kind of parallel universe they operated.

– CIVIL SERVICE WITH A CUSTOMER FOCUS – SPEAK UP!

Naturally, the code was wrong. Back on the phone, punching in numbers and another disembodied voice informed me that this time, they would send me the code. Seriously? They couldn’t have done that in the first place?

It arrived several days later, an official letter bearing exactly the same number as the first time. In despair, I went back to the government site and typed in the number. Still wrong, although this time the message seemed to suggest it had once been right but was now expired. Determined to have no further dealings with the leasing company ladies, I ticked a different box that led me to a different window. It’s all a bit of a blur now but somehow, the magic happened. And once again, French efficiency kicked in: I was able to print a temporary registration document and, lo and behold, two working days later, my brand new Carte d’Immatriculation was delivered by La Poste.

(I will probably find the old document within the week.)

It seems that even with all the technology in the world, things still work essentially the same way in France: you get stuck in an administrative no-man’s land where you think you’ll never get out and then, suddenly, you’re done!

What’s your most memorable Murphy’s law moment?