Bon ménage

The cleaning lady quit. Again.

(For anyone groaning, “You have a cleaning lady?” you may as well stop reading here.)

I am rarely without a cleaning lady. I use this outmoded term intentionally for two reasons: 1) The commonly used French term is ‘femme de ménage’, even though a former colleague used to proudly refer to her ‘homme de ménage’; I suppose it is technically possible to find a man willing and able to do the job, although I personally doubt the existence of such beings. 2) 99% of cleaners are women, so who are we kidding?

First, let’s get our terms straight. ‘Ménage’ is housework, ‘faire bon ménage’ means to get along well with somebody, and ‘ménage à trois’ you’ve probably already heard of in a slightly different context – this being the main thing on search engines’ minds when I googled ‘ménage’ in search of photos.

The official French term for the profession of cleaner is ‘technicien de surface’, a job which is filled by both sexes in supermarkets, hospitals and office buildings. But when it comes to households and their cleaning or ‘ménage’ (the same word refers to both), women dominate the field.

A series of cleaning ladies has swept through our lives in recent years. I am daily reminded of Patricia, a pixie-like woman with a cloud of red hair who arrived at our door looking like the French rock star Mylène Farmer. It was she who coerced me into adding Léo, one of my current cat bosses, to our ménagerie. Her particular obsession was dust in unreachable corners of the ceiling, and I would often see her perched precariously high while swiping at dust motes. As she was one of those whom we hired ‘au noir’, that is to say under the table, I often feared an accident for which we would be held responsible.

Another called Carole spent hours taking apart and cleaning the Dyson. She also snooped through our papers and regaled me with dirt about other clients, and the number of thongs she found under the bed. She was the only cleaner I have ever let go.

We tried several agencies so as to do things in the above-board way and, as an added incentive, get a tax break. I invariably found these individuals to be less gung ho than their cash-only counterparts. One rather heavyset young woman demanded that I supply her with enough wet wipes to clean the entire house. Another insisted on ironing (against my religion) but refused to take out the garbage. How can you clean a house without emptying the bin? Another scowled the whole time she cleaned, making me sure she hated us, our house and the pets. Later I learned that she had eye trouble, explaining both the frown and her selective vision of dirt.

When we are between cleaners, as we are now, I put on the red hat I reserve for emergency operations like moving house. I clear the area of pets and clutter, rally the troops (currently diminished to one half-hearted husband), let go a battle cry (“Time to clean!”) and wield my vacuum cleaner with gusto. A couple of hours later, our house is more or less clean. Unfortunately this state is all too transient and, in the hours and days that follow, I am transformed into a clean freak, a kitchen counter kamikaze, toilet seat totalitarian.

When we find another cleaner, I will be able to quit this thankless task and our household will return to its normal state of bon ménage.

How do you approach house cleaning? Or not?

Burkini beach

Burkini beach banThe New York Times has called it ‘farcical’.

The Guardian has suggested there are many good reasons to wear the ‘wet suit with a hood’, and not just to annoy the French.

In Rio, burkini-clad athletes competed alongside others in skimpy bathing suits.

As our long, hot summer continues, the ban on the burkini by the mayors of several French towns has me hot under the collar. And this photo of police in Nice forcing a woman to remove her cover has me in a cold sweat.

What’s all the fuss about the burkini in France?

It’s about fear.

Fear of losing our national identity. An identity that has more to do with the freedom of topless sunbathing than it does with religion.

It’s about Islamophobia, another form of fear. Fear of terror attacks by those purporting to defend Islam, even while we understand that ISIS has nothing to do with Muslims.

It’s about the secular state, which is highly valued in France despite the fact that we march to the Christian calendar. It’s about fear of foreign ways and wanting to feel ‘chez nous’.

It’s about politics, plain and simple. In other words, when French prime minister Manuel Valls says he understands the mayors of several towns who have banned the burkini, it’s a smoke screen. It’s fear mongering, and it’s keeping the otherwise vocal French quiet.

To be fair, the French have always been somewhat hysterical about public swimming pools. Men: do not attempt to enter a public pool in France wearing swimming trunks or longer shorts. ‘Le caleçon’ is traditionally forbidden in pools here for so-called reasons of hygiene. The only acceptable swimwear for men in France is the ‘slip de bain’ aka the noodle bender.

So by extension, I can accept that, by the same logic, the burkini might be forbidden in public swimming pools. But on the beach? Alors là, non! It is just ridiculous. What does it mean for those who wear wet suits, people with sun allergies or those who are just plain shy? Can you imagine these cops asking a nun to remove her habit?

While I disagree with the fundamental principles that lead these women to cover their bodies, I will fight to the death for their right to do it. However misguidedly, and for whatever reason, religious or otherwise. The way we choose to dress is an essential right and freedom that should not be dictated by any government.

I love the fact that the French ban has sparked sales of the burkini. It is an innovative piece of clothing design by an Australian-Lebanese woman, one that enables an otherwise-excluded segment of the population to enjoy the pleasures of swimming. In her own words, it is meant to liberate women, not enslave them.

If weren’t so damned hot, I’d probably wear a burkini myself out of solidarity. I’m a shit disturber at heart, especially when I believe that something is full of it.

And the French, for all their dislike of political correctness and respect for private life, are just plain full of it on this one.

Et toi? What do you think about the burkini?

Changer de tête

Samson and the lionI’ve been having a bad hair day for what feels like forever. Like the unmistakable first symptoms of a cold, I’ve felt a change coming on. It’s always the same. You keep looking in the mirror, checking your profile, from the back, from the front. Ack. Something’s just not working. Even when I crinkle my eyes and squint.

Time for a ‘change of head’ as we say in French, which for me means a trip to the hairstylist. Here in France you must ‘prendre rendezvous’ (book an appointment) before heading chez le coiffeur. And although it’s only been a month since the last time I sat in that chair, I go back and sing my song of woe.

“Ils sont affreux!” I say, remembering to use the plural as I describe the horror story of my hair. Too long here, too short there. My head looks like a crème caramel. My roots are too dark, my ends too wispy. Essentially I dislike the shape of my head. Can you make it less…round?

He knows I’m joking, bien sûr. Although I only began seeing Nicolas last summer (I am a faithful sort), he’s already had me in his chair (did I write that?) for many hours. He senses, I am sure, that this winter of my discontent is about more than my roots.

We women may not suffer the indignity of losing our hair, but let’s be clear: we suffer. Monthly, and I don’t mean in that way, although that’s not nothing either. I am talking about a certain dependence on hairstylists in order to look/feel/be great. Even good. Even not like a monster.

Not all women feel this way. Some brave lasses don’t bother with their locks at all. Some chop it all off, bundle it back or let it grow wild and grey. I admire you all. You are beautiful. But let’s be clear: I am a top-down kinda girl. If the hair works, everything else falls into place. No makeup needed and I can throw on any old clothes without feeling like a freak.

Once upon a time I was little blonde angel. It didn’t last long. That is, I was a natural blonde until my teens but the angel part went by the wayside early on. I think this picture of me in first communion gear was the last time I played the part. In the mid-seventies, I did the Farrah Fawcett flip (any under-30s reading this blog will have to Google that). Then came the perm years. I started chopping into those curls somewhere in my twenties until I decided to go short and chic.

Evolution of the coiffure

So I’ve stayed, on and off, ever since. Always short, sometimes chic. But now I’m thinking: what if I grow it out, just a bit? A bit blonder to get me through the dark winter months. Maybe, just maybe, this time I’ll be able to wait it out.

So off I went a few days ago. Played hooky from work (had my laptop with me just in case and besides, I’m on intimate terms with the boss). Showed them a few photos of my last round as a blonde bombshell. The salon I go to now is bigger and has a dedicated colouriste. This makes a huge difference. She was able transform my horrible head in the space of two hours.

Then it was back in the chair with Nicolas. He spent another half hour or so trimming and styling but not cutting. It was worth it. When you’re trying to grow your hair out, a few millimeters of reshaping can make a big difference.

Later that afternoon I emerged from the salon, a new woman. Somewhat the poorer but feeling that it was worth every centime. Like Samson with his hair, I am ready to face down the lion. In fact, I’ve barely even looked in the mirror since.

Care to share any war stories about your locks, lack thereof, or latest look?

La directrice

Tina_fey-1024x728France, like most countries, has its own particular brand of sexism. The title ‘La Directrice’ seems to encapsulate this. When the boss is a woman her attributes of leadership are somehow feared or used as the butt of jokes. Often both.

My first encounter with la directrice was in the person of a certain Madame Guillaume in Lyon. She bore the rather lofty title of ‘Directrice d’école maternelle’ or headmistress of the preschool where I had come to register my son turn my baby over to the wolves. For someone who made a career of educating the under-fives, she had nothing short of a military bearing as she gazed at me through her pince-nez. “What do the children call you?” I asked, as we were leaving. She raised an eyebrow to indicate mild surprise at this question, then replied: “Madame Guillaume, ou Maîtresse.”

I nodded dumbly while thinking that two-and-a-half was awfully young for a boy to have a Madame or a Mistress.

My second run-in with the authority of la directrice was when I entered the working world. Like many non-native speakers, teaching English was my default career choice upon arriving in France with few employment credentials able to ensure my continued professional growth keep the wolf from the door. The head of the Berlitz language school in the business sector of Lyon was a certain Madame Bissuel who looked a bit like the photographer Annie Leibowitz. To be fair, I was foisted upon her through a job transfer from the school in Paris but she made it very clear that she was not particularly happy about having me on board. Her unhappiness turned to outright dislike when I announced my precipitous departure on maternity leave a few months later. I took a weird delight in writing my letter of resignation after my benefits ran out; spellcheck kept changing her name to ‘bisexuelle’.

My most intimate encounter with a female head of state was in the person of my late Belle-mère. For reasons that eluded me, my father-in-law always referred to her affectionately as la directrice. This struck me as especially funny as my mother-in-law never seemed to be centre stage; it was always Beau-père who did everything. But as I later learned, theirs was rather like the authority at the highest level of French office. As Jacques Chirac once explained of his relationship with his then-finance minister, a certain Sarkozy, “Je décide, il exécute.”

Somehow I grew into the role of directrice in our family. This was not by any particular choice on my part, although I have been accused at various times in my life of being a bossy boots, that is, of knowing my mind, having strong opinions and not being afraid to voice them. But someone has to be in charge and as no other candidates stepped up to the plate, it fell upon my shoulders to lead our pack. Unlike my mother-in-law, who ruled from behind the scenes with a velvet hammer, the only way I seem to be able to do this is through a more frontal approach.

“Mom, the recycling is full!”

“Someone’s at the door!”

“Where’s the wrapping paper? Do we have any gift tags?”

“Whose turn is it to walk the dogs?”

Never fear, I say, la directrice is here. “Take it out! Can you get that? It’s all gone, you’ll have to buy some! Yours!”

I rule our roost with snap decisions and clearly iterated instructions backed by foot stamping and a voice that carries. It’s not always pretty but it gets things done. What can I say? Like my hero, Tina Fey, some are born to lead.

Oh, and by the way, you can call me Madame la directrice.

Comedy drama queen

loloI can see myself in the not-too-distant future, reminiscing to the youngsters about the old days. How exciting it was, I will tell them, pretending not to notice as their eyes glaze over, to go and see the latest picture on the big screen, in technicolor no less! I will explain about the projectionist in his booth, the hot anticipation in the hushed movie theatre as we crinkled candy wrappers and munched popcorn. No doubt it will be as meaningful to them as looking up information in the library or making a call from a phone booth.

Perhaps they’ll pay attention when I tell them about the first time I went to see a movie in Paris. About how the screen was so small, the tickets so expensive and they had no popcorn but ice cream. Before the film started we checked under the seats for bombs.

In France, of course, we don’t have movies, we have cinéma. I am no fan of the French film; life is too short to be taken that seriously. I do enjoy a certain genre of popular comedy that the French do very well. The one that has inspired this post is the latest release from the French actress and cinematographer I admire most: Julie Delpy.

Delpy’s combination of acerbic wit and character-driven comedy drama is just my cup of cappuccino. She is best known for the trilogy of films directed by Richard Linklater – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight – in which she co-starred with Ethan Hawke, as well as 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York. Delpy is often compared to Woody Allen. Her writing and direction is as good but her characters less annoyingly neurotic.

I love how she navigates so naturally in that space between romanticized ideals and real life. She is a queen of the fast-paced repartée. Her ability to do this equally well in English and French has my total admiration.

‘Lolo’ is her latest film and first attempt to seduce a mainstream French audience. It is about a single mother’s attempt to find romance against the odds of her sociopath adult son. The reviews have been mixed but given the bande d’annonce (trailer in English), I will be making the effort to go out and see it at the movie theatre. One day soon I’ll tell my grandchildren all about it.

Do you still go to the cinema? What’s your fondest memory of the movies?