Fête des mères

In honour of Mother’s Day in France this Sunday, and in memory of my mother who would have been 90 this year, here are a few memories I hold dear.

Her name was Gladys, or Gwladys in the French spelling that picks up on the Welsh origins of the name. This post is not about anything French or Welsh but a woman who in some ways I hardly knew, and yet who was close to me as only a mother can be.

Gladys Catherine Angela Kennedy was born on the 21st day of March. “I came with the Spring,” she liked to say, with a raised eyebrow and the glint of a smile, all the self-deprecating humour of the British bred in her bone.

Perhaps Gladys was a name that needed a sense of humour. The only other Gladys we knew of was a gorilla at the zoo, and a funny looking cleaning lady on the TV commercials. One morning after my parents had been out late at a party, I found her name tag stuck on the toilet seat: “Hello, my name is Gladys.” When we asked why it was there, Dad said it was because that’s where a glad ass should be. He always called her Glad for short. And Glad she mostly was.

My mom (which we always pronounced ‘mum’, in the English way) was mine in the way that only a mother can be. She was the one person I could admit anything to, who understood my fears and helped dry my tears without judging or making fun. In return she confided in me, her eldest, making me feel special and unique.

She was proud to have a first-born girl of many talents. I was good at drawing and could ride a bicycle, had a fine voice and was not afraid of going on stage and showing off in front of people, none of which she was able to do. And when at times I got too big for my britches, she told me so, reminding me that humility was the greatest virtue and that God loves the weakest best.

God was where Gladys and I parted company.

To my eternal disgust, my mother named me after a nun, a certain Sister Mary Ellen that she herself had greatly admired. It probably explains why I later adopted my initials as a nickname. Other than my hero Julie Andrews, who is kicked out of the abbey for being rebellious in the Sound of Music, the only nun I could ever relate to was played by Sally Field. As a child The Flying Nun was one of my favourite TV shows, and I would have sold my soul to stay home to watch it on Sunday mornings rather than getting dressed up and going to mass. Come hell or high water, my mother conscripted all four of us children to attend church with her. Dad, a sometime Anglican, stayed home and read the paper.

The only part I liked about church was the hymns. It was also an opportunity to observe the backs of people’s heads and try to catch them in surreptitious behaviour such as nose picking, shifting suspiciously in their seats (maybe that was why they were called pews!) or catching a few z’s. When I got bored with that, it was my personal ambition to try and make my mother laugh. This didn’t always work but every now and then I would draw her attention to some particularly ridiculous looking hat or a bald fellow singing off-key in the next row. At my best I’d manage to reduce her to tears. It got to a point where if I could only catch her eye, I could get her going with a simple deadpan stare. The poor woman learned to religiously avoid looking at her eldest daughter during mass.

When I reached the grand old age of sixteen I put my foot down, announcing to my mother one Sunday morning that I had decided not to go to church anymore. God was all very well but I just didn’t believe in religion, I explained, standing on the stairs in my pyjamas when they were about to leave for Holy Spirit. Why should the Pope dictate that people spend their Sunday mornings inside some church smelling incense? My idea of spirituality was going outside and communing with nature. Furthermore, it went against my feminist principles: why shouldn’t women be priests? Besides, I declared, figuring I might as well go the whole nine yards, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with sex outside of marriage.

Upon hearing this speech my mother blinked at me in stupefaction: I may as well have told her I was Mary Magdalene. She eventually got past the shock and accepted that, despite having done everything she could do to raise me as a Catholic, I was not cut out to be one of the faithful.

Other than her family and her faith, what kept my mother going in life were her friends, along with her coffee and cigarettes. She drank coffee all day long and was almost never without a smoke. Gladys was a people person. Her friends and acquaintances were many; she got a kick out of people from all walks of life and truly enjoyed listening to their stories. She always laughed, no matter how silly the joke. But although her sense of humour held her in good stead, it was not always enough. Sometimes she was depressed, and these times were hard on all of us.

She was not a very good housekeeper; this was less to do with any innate lack of orderliness but rather of being overwhelmed by life: four children, two large dogs and a husband whose right it was to come home and put his feet up. Our house was never dirty but it was often hard to tell beneath the sea of clutter.

Her priorities were often elsewhere. She was a good cook and a light hand with pastry. She had excellent, expensive taste; she decorated and dressed well, if conservatively. She often went out to church groups and she and my father went to theatre evenings and to play bridge.

Mom did not approve of swearing but she did use colourful language. She was famous in our family for her expressions: “Go to Putney on a pig!” she would say in moments of duress. Her most cutting criticism was, “She gives me the pip!” And she often asked the iconic question: “Who’s she when she’s out?”

‘Mother’ was the name that Gladys always used when referring to her own mother, my grandmother, upon whom she doted. There was a formality in their relationship that was altogether foreign to me. I detested all things stuffy and stuck up. I wanted us all to be friends and equals, kids and their parents and grandparents, with no artificial boundaries of age or politesse between us.

From the first time they met, Gladys liked and approved of her future French son-in-law – small matter that he was foreign and seven years my junior. She got a kick out of his fractured way of speaking English. “You have a nicer sewer,” he said when he saw her sewing machine; another time he said ‘crow’ and pronounced it like cow, sending her into the kitchen in fits of giggles. He also won points by thoroughly enjoying her home cooking, the ultimate compliment, resulting in a situation of shortage at family suppers that was quickly dubbed, “The Frenchman factor.”

She had a sweet tooth, and when she came over with my family to Paris for our wedding, she made it her personal ambition to visit every pâtisserie and sample every pastry possible. I remember her clapping her hands with delight when a waiter came bearing her dessert, a generously sauced serving of profiteroles.

Gladys passed away far too early, shortly after learning that I was expecting her first grandchild. Many chapters of the family story have unfurled in the years since she left us, and still she is missed and fondly remembered. She lives on in her grandchildren, who resemble her in different ways: a bit of bone structure here, a smile and a kind word there.

My mother’s story is part of me, but her story is not mine. Although I eventually did become a mother, I did it on my own terms. Perhaps being true to myself was the greatest tribute I could pay to Gladys.

gladioli

Bonne fête à toutes les mamans!

Arrête la tutute!

Rose-Baby-Shower-sucette-boisson-Tags-Charms-verre-à-vin-marqueurs-Wedding-Party-décorations-couleurs-personnalisées.jpg_640x640In familiar French ‘la tutute’ means a baby’s pacifier – a dummy or soother for you Brits – also known as a tétine, sucette or tototte. In the parlance of my belle-famille, however, it was always used as a snide reference to drinking.

“Arrête la tutute!” my beau-père said with a laugh one day when he saw me with a beer. There is something oddly shocking in France about women drinking beer so perhaps it was only half in jest. I had heard this term used before, always with the gesture of thumb towards mouth, implying excessive consumption of spirits.

Usually ‘la tutute’ is used to jokingly describe a family member who over imbibes at parties. (“Il y va la tutute!”) We all have one in the family. In our case it was my late aunt, who famously was in her cups at our wedding in Paris. Husband’s family also had a few members who tended to over-indulge. As much as drinking is part of the culture in France, and wine is de rigueur at any social event, it is badly viewed when consumed in excess. It is not done to get visibly drunk or even tipsy, unless perhaps on New Year’s eve.

I suppose the connection with the pacifier is apt. Drinking soothes the soul and pacifies nerves in most social situations. Freeing us from our inhibitions to let loose and have fun.

The secret, as with most things we enjoy, is moderation. How much is too much? And why can’t we all have an alarm bell in our brains to tell us when we are one drink over the line?

I enjoy drinking and it is not easy for me to imagine a nice meal without at least a glass of wine. But when the NHS recently announced its updated guidelines for alcohol consumption, I decided it was time to moderate my consumption. That did not mean an entirely dry January or anything quite so radical. But I am keeping a closer eye on the units – recommended to be no more than 14 per week for both women and men – and trying to enjoy a few days a week with nothing more dizzying than sparkling water.

How about you?

Pet peeves

Crop-4some
My dictators plot together

Let me share with you a day in the life of our little ménagerie. The word finds its roots in ménage, which means household, so perhaps it’s normal that a collection of animals is part of ours.

I am a dog person. There is no translation for this expression in French. You can say you like dogs, or that you are ‘plus chien que chat.’ You can choose to like neither although you will not be typical of the French who love their pets and generally have one or the other.

Which is to say I am not a cat person. My daughter is a cat person. We got her a kitten for her fourth birthday. Over the years the feline population in our household expanded to two. Madeline moved away to attend university a few years ago and we kept the cats.

IMG_1130
Bianca and Leo hanging out

The current pair (I’m tempted to say culprits but let’s keep this polite) are Bianca and Leo. Leo was foisted upon us by a former cleaner who saw a window of opportunity when we were momentarily down one. These cat people stick together. He had been rejected by his mother, she explained in a poignant tale of woe, and she’d tried to place him once already but after a week the woman had changed her mind. That person clearly was smarter harder hearted than I. Leo came to stay, although he almost got ejected after doing his business on my bed.

His younger cohort in crime is Bianca. A bit of a princess is our little girl. Or perhaps a white supremacist. In any case, she does not like to mingle with any Tom, Dick or Harry. So she hangs around the house a lot, requiring two litter boxes and frequent displays of worship.

I’m not sure what possessed me to agree to add two puppies to our ménage after the kids left home – put it down to empty-nest syndrome. Our last dog had died in tragic circumstances a few years before and we were feeling, well….outnumbered by the cats. So it really is all the cats’ fault.

My husband and I have always been suckers for dogs. Our preferred breed was chosen before we married, when we met our first French bulldog at a friend’s home in Normandy. A snorting, smelly, impertinent fellow he was – proving the breed to be well deserving of its name. We got our first Frenchie a couple of years later, then a second shortly after. Edouard and Dorothée were our first children. They taught us that, yes, we were capable of taking care of beings other than ourselves, going for walks, picking up poops. We passed our first caretaker tests with flying colors.

Sadly, the dynamic duo did not live long, whether due to problems of the breed or medical back luck. A few years (and one failed adoption of a stray) later, a third Frenchie came to stay. By then our own children were center stage (or almost, as they will tell you.) Mooqs was with us for ten years or so, until he became blind and stumbled into the swimming pool. Frenchies are not good swimmers.

HH sleep
H&H snore fest

Higgins and Humphrey now rule the roost. They are adorable dictators, who have me flying out of bed in the wee hours in the hopes that they will not have weed theirs. I let them out in the backyard first thing, while keeping a close eye on Higgins, who likes to search for truffles (left by the cats) while pretending to relieve himself. I also check the mat in front of the door to make sure that Leo hasn’t left one of his trophies – frequent offerings of mice and bird remains that the dogs are only too happy to devour as an apéritif.

Then it’s breakfast for the dogs while I go down to the basement and let the cats in to the laundry room where their food and litter boxes are kept. Let’s be very clear: cats are nocturnal beings and I am not. We live in the country so the cats are out at night (both are chipped and sterilized, so we are good citizens).

Leo's leftovers
Leo’s leftovers

Should any cat people be about to protest: the cats have access to shelter in the cellar via a cat flap with a chip reader. This innovation has paid for itself in that we do not now feed half of the neighborhood cat population when we go away and leave their food out.

Then begins the daily ballet of my life as a cat and dog concierge. Imagine these scenes being played to the music ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ from The Nutcracker.

Take the dogs for their morning walk. Stoop and scoop on as-needs basis (i.e., if on sidewalk, private property or when someone’s looking…). Return home, wipe their feet before letting them in (2 dogs X 4 legs = 8 feet). Make coffee. Leo pussyfoots by kitchen door indicating a desire to go back out. Open door, let cat out.

Take coffee upstairs to office. Remove dogs’ bed from workspace as Higgins snores so loudly I cannot hear myself think, never mind hear clients on the phone.

Bianca then comes by for a cuddle. Give her a scrub and close the door. Start in on work. Urgent mewing from downstairs. Open door and remove dead mouse from doormat. Leo comes in. Bianca goes out. Return to work. Ten minutes later, faint mewing from basement where Bianca has come in through cat flap but now wants in to the house proper. She can wait, I tell myself. Focus on work for ten more minutes.

Strange hacking and gagging sound comes from next door. Humphrey has just vomited his breakfast, along with several other unidentifiable objects. Curse, cover nose and clean it up before Higgins does. Return to work. Mewing becomes more intense. Go to basement, let one cat up as other goes out. Make another coffee. Return to work.

Flash forward to late afternoon, several door openings later. Dogs begin to circle in growing impatience as the time for their second walk gets closer. Go lie down, I order. Click click click, toenails on the floor. Grumble. Groan. Snort. Snore. Snore. Snore. Then click click click. Two pairs of feet, two wet noses. Take H & H for second walk. Clean eight feet again.

Refresh water bowl. Feed dogs. Leo circles impatiently by the stairs. Go down to basement, replenish already half-full cat food. Bianca watches from upstairs.

Evening settles in and it’s time to let dogs out for final utility run. Cats nowhere in sight. Get ready for bed and hear mewing from below stairs. Go down and let Leo out. Bianca nowhere to be seen. Come back upstairs and look for her. Check under beds, behind curtains, no cat. Settle in to bed with book. Eyes grow heavy. Begin to nod off. Plaintive cat call from basement. Go downstairs and let her out.

There are moments when I feel less like a concierge and more like a happy pet owner. When Bianca nestles in beside me and goes into ecstasy as I stroke her. When I look deep into those Frenchie eyes and see love.

The dogs sleep in the upstairs bathroom. There are several practical reasons for this. Our house is open plan and does not have many rooms with doors that close. Once I left them the run of the house and they got into their food. Came down in the morning to find two sausages about to split their casings. What followed was a purging session (both ends) that lasted 24 hours and almost made me split mine. Never again, I swore.

The French bulldog is an uppity breed with delusions of humanity. Basically it does not accept the notion that it is a dog. Therefore, any attempt to house them in inferior accommodation will result in a trashing of the premises that is simply not worth it. Also the bathroom is tiled which is easier to clean.

Finally, in one of those lovely synchronicities of translation: the word ‘pet’ means fart in French. ‘Nuff said.

How about you? Do you have any pets – or pet peeves?

Chez le médecin

IMG_2965I am blessed with good health, a gift for which I am more grateful with each passing year. (She says, knocking on noggin). This despite the fact that I have spent many long hours chez le médecin.

You cannot raise a family in France without becoming painfully familiar with the doctor’s waiting room. You are given a carnet de santé or health record book that tracks your child’s health from birth to age 16. There are checkups – visites obligatoires – at various ages and stages of development. There are vaccinations, height and weight charts. There are vitamins and prescriptions for every imaginable ailment. You don’t leave a doctor’s office in France without a prescription for something (more on that to come).

But oh, the hours spent in the salle d’attente! The unending, crashing bore of it. The dog-eared, outdated magazines. The stale air and germ-infested space with little to distract a child.

Le toubib, as the doctor is called in familiar fashion, tends to be a lone wolf. Most doctors practice under the category of ‘profession libérale’ which is a fancy way of saying self-employed. There is no receptionist or medical secretary to take calls or welcome you at the door. Le médecin généraliste, meaning GP or family doctor in French, runs his own practice, does the paperwork and answers the phone.

Another reason for the endless wait is that many doctors offer a daily ‘permanence’ or walk-in clinic. The advantage is that if you are suddenly ill you can get in to see the doctor the same day – provided you are well enough and willing to wait.

In our country village outside of Lyon there were two GP’s, each with his own cabinet on opposite ends of the main street. I saw both early on and quickly chose Dr. Fourré, a heavyset fellow (like his name, which means stuffed) with a calm, soft-spoken manner who actually listened when I spoke, and looked me in the eye. The other doctor was younger and more modern with a computer on his desk. He spent the whole time looking at the screen and seemed like a scared rabbit every time I tried to catch his eye.

How well I remember the long hours in Dr. Fourré’s small and shabby salle d’attente. The permanence was in the afternoon and the after-school rush at 4:30 was epic. Sometimes people would open the door, stick their head in to do a quick count, then disappear. I later discovered that some would literally run across the village to the other doctor’s waiting room and go where the queue was shortest. Later on the two doctors got together and coordinated their hours, so that one had permanence in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

I am not a patient person. I simply do not wait well. Which makes me a very poor patient indeed.

But I will always be grateful to Dr. Fourré as he was the one who sent me for the MRI that revealed my acoustic neuroma, a benign but mushroom-size tumor growing in my inner ear. It was removed by a specialist in Paris a few months later with no lasting consequence other than a total loss of hearing on the left side. But it was the simple country doctor who actually listened to my complaint about not being able to understand conversation – the specialist I’d seen a few weeks before had sent me away with platitudes about hearing loss and aging.

French doctors work long hours for little pay. They are the unsung heroes of the healthcare system.

Many GP’s in France still make house calls, surprisingly enough, although these are an increasingly rare species. There is also a service called SOS Médecins. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area covered by them, you can get a doctor to come to you within hours. Unfortunately, where we now live in the Haute Savoie, it’s either the nearest hospital or the waiting room of the local GP.

The first time I went to see a doctor in France, a couple of things surprised me. One was the complete lack of modesty accorded to the patient. In this case it was a gynecologist who had me undress for the physical exam without providing any kind of gown or sheet to cover up. Fortunately he kept up a steady stream of chatter with a lot of eye contact to cover any awkwardness.

Another surprising thing was the fact that the doctor is addressed as Monsieur or Madame rather than ‘Docteur.’ You can call him Doctor if you wish, but not doing so is not the blasphemy it would be in North America, where medical professionals are like gods.

What I found even more embarrassing than being à poil was having to take out my cheque book and pay the fellow (although I was dressed by then). This had never happened in Canada, or if it had I’d always dealt with a secretary. It seemed almost insulting to write a doctor a cheque. Especially for so little.

Unless you see a physician as a private patient, the amount you will pay for a basic medical consultation is 23 euros. Even my hairstylist charges more than this.

How do you feel about le toubib?

Mon beau sapin

Canadian ChristmasWe don’t have a Christmas tree at our house this year. Instead, we are going to visit family in Toronto and let them trim the tree.

For us, Christmas in Canada means family and friends, catching up and pigging out, the chaos of too many people and dogs, shopping from the time we get off the plane and as soon as the sales start on Boxing Day. Yes, folks, it’s consumer excess at its merriest. But I won’t regret it. Not for one single moment. Until I’m back home in January, weighing up the damage.

The thing is, we don’t have any of those things here n France. My husband’s family is too few and far apart, our kids are grown and flown (although one will be heading back home soon – more on Generation Boomerang later…). And the shopping opportunities simply don’t compare.

What Christmas in Canada does not usually mean is snow. To my unending disappointment, our visits almost inevitably coincide with a green Christmas in Toronto….generally followed by a big blizzard as soon as we are back on our side of the Atlantic. But I’m packing my boots just in case.

I am taking a blogging break to enjoy the season. Wishing you and yours a holly, jolly Christmas and hope to see you in the New Year!