Outre-Manche

Outre-manche

We are just back from a few days outre-Manche and I thought I’d share a few impressions of England as seen by a Frenchified anglo.

We heard so much French spoken on the streets at first we thought we were still in Paris. I had read of London being France’s 6th largest city, but it still came as a surprise.

We had booked a small hotel in South Kensington, which I later learned is home to the Lycée Français and an area known as ‘Little Paris’. It was election Sunday, and in the afternoon there was a long queue of voters on the street. Can you tell these people are French? I got very good at sussing them out before they said a word.

Lycée Français

In the bar where we went to toast Macron’s sweep to victory the waitress was also – quelle surprise! – French. Like most French people we met, she was relieved to have escaped an extreme-right government but a bit concerned about being sold to the highest bidder by a former banker.

There was no restaurant in the hotel so we went out for sustenance in the morning – and found ourselves enjoying continental breakfast at the French bakery ‘Paul’. (We made the mistake of a full English one morning at the local pub which part of the ‘Fullers’ chain and it was truly awful – powdered eggs!).

I love London, so our few days there were a treat. Thanks to Osyth (of the excellent blog Half-Baked in Paradise) for suggesting the tour of Spencer House – it was a fascinating glimpse inside a privately owned palace.

Still, I was surprised at how scary the streets were. Not because of terrorists or muggers, but rather because of the lack of clear rules for pedestrians. First of all, there is the issue of the side (left, wrong or otherwise). No matter how many times I crossed the road, I could never be sure which direction the traffic was coming from, so found myself like a terrified extraterrestrial, head wildly turning in all directions before placing a tentative foot on the street. While some areas were marked, others had no indication at all and it was unclear if we had any right of passage.

It seemed that there were signs and ramps for the disabled everywhere, but few or no signs for pedestrians. Not that the disabled don’t deserve the help, but surely we don’t want everyone to end up in a wheelchair?

Wheelchair

I was not exactly inspired by confidence when crossing this bridge.

We left London for the countryside near Nottingham, where we visited our daughter the future veterinarian for a few days. Everywhere we went, I was struck by how explicit the signs were.

Were you raised in a barn?

I’m not sure the fine will deter many.

Signs like these are worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

And in case you’re looking for the bins by the church…

God save the Queen!

Have you seen any good signs lately?

 

 

 

 

Clin d’oeil

‘Faire un clin d’oeil’ – literally to wink, figuratively to give a nod – is to reference another author or artist in a way that pays tribute to his or her work. It is not to copy their work, word for word, which is what Marine Le Pen did this week in a speech she ‘borrowed’ from François Fillon.

I was lucky enough to attend a course on screenwriting in London a couple of years ago, taught by the eminent storyteller and script doctor John Truby. In his seminar, during which I learned more about story than I had imagined possible, Truby talked about plagiarism in the film industry and joked, “Or if you’re French, you call it ‘homage’.”

If imitation is the finest form of flattery, Fillon must be feeling pretty chuffed right now. Or not, considering who it is coming from. If any doubt persisted over Le Pen’s ability to lead this country, it was vanquished during last night’s final debate between the two presidential candidates.

Almost everything she had to say was an outright, bullish attack on her opponent, and half of that she got wrong, mixing up examples and accusing Emmanuel Macron of being responsible for things that had happened before he took office. I found it interesting to note that she had a pile of folders and notes on the desk in front of her; he was paper free. Emmanuel knew his figures, Marine clearly did not.

I wasn’t going to talk about politics again this week, but merde!…there is just so much material.

We are off to England for a week of holidays on Sunday, but just to reassure you, it will not be before voting as soon as the polls open here in France. London is full of French expats, so we’re hoping to find a place to watch the election results in the evening. Any ideas?

After that, I’ll shut up about politics. I promise. And unlike certain politicians, I will keep my word. At least for a couple of weeks.

Le suffrage

La suffrage

I voted in the first round of the French presidential elections last Sunday. It occurred to me that the experience of voting in France is quite uniquely French. There is a strong sense of tradition, a lot of rules, and a bit of what the French call ‘folklorique’ at the polling station. Outlandish, bizarre…all very typical of what you find in a country village.

It begins months ahead of the election, when you get your voter’s card. To do this, you have to make sure you’re registered at city hall, which involves going over to your Mairie with the usual paper proofs – justificatif de domicile in the form of a utility or tax bill, official identity card or passport.

When election day rolls around, you must show up at the local polling station, voter’s card in hand, along with an official form of ID. Elections are always held on a Sunday in France, not for any religious reason but because it’s a day when (almost) no one has to work, giving everyone an equal chance to vote.

As you enter the correct polling office, you first go to the person who has the list, make sure you are on it, and prove who you are by showing your ID. Then comes the fun part.

Laid along a table are various piles of ballots. In Sunday’s vote, there were 11 candidates to choose from. You are not supposed to let anyone know who you are voting for, so you must make a show of taking a selection of ballots. I pretended to hesitate, then selected some of the more far-fetched ones – the anti-capitalist Philippe Poutou, and the candidate from deepest rural France, Jean Lasalle – along with that of my preferred candidate.

Then you enter the ‘isoloir’, a curtained off area where you go to presumably ponder your choice before slipping the ballot of your preferred candidate into the envelope. It is a bit of a farce – why must it be so secretive? Surely they can see which ballots are left behind and roughly calculate who is winning? To be sure that I respected the procedure, I stuffed the extra ballots in my pocket.

You exit the curtained booth and cross over to the person who is the guardian of the ‘urne’, in this case not a container for funerary ashes (although it is the same word) but the official plexiglass ballot box in which the votes are captured. There is a little slot on top of the box which the person in charge opens as you slip your envelope in. He then cries out ‘A voté!’ for all to hear and witness that you have performed your civic duty.

Bristling with pride, I head for the door.

“Madame!” comes an urgent cry.

Oops — almost forgot. Now you must see a different person with a different list and sign by your name (which they call ‘émarger’) to prove that you have voted.

The best part about voting is watching the other voters come and go. An elderly couple formally attired in their Sunday best. A red-faced paysan, who may have come straight from milking the cows. Vaguely recognizable village notables, who stand around looking important. Harried-looking parents, who rush in and tell their children to wait quietly by the door.

I was surprised to learn that women only got the right to vote in France in 1944. That’s way after their British and Canadian counterparts in 1918 and the American suffragettes in 1920.

The word ‘suffrage’ comes from Latin and is also used in English, although we tend to associate it with the historical aspect of women’s suffrage. I know nothing of etymology but don’t you find it odd that suffering and voting should have the same root?

If the extreme right Front National should somehow manage to win the second round of the presidential election on May 7th, the words will be forever linked, at least in my mind. Fortunately, that is highly unlikely. But then again, who would have though that British people would vote for Brexit? Or Americans for Trump?

This is my third time voting for president in France, which means I’ve had my voter’s card for over ten years. The first time was in 2007, when I voted for Sarkozy. Yep. Back then he was an upstart who appealed to my desire to shake things up a little. Unfortunately he quickly lost popularity after marrying Carla Bruni and becoming known as the president of bling-bling.

This time my vote is for fresh ideas, for Europe, and the future. And, obviously, against the extreme right.

And, by the way, for the candidate who speaks the best English.

Do you make a point of voting? What’s the experience like for you?

En suspens

Larousse defines ‘en suspens’ as a state of momentary interruption. To me it feels like time is standing still. This state of being suspended, in limbo, while we wait and see what the future holds.

I am not normally given to pre-election anxiety. But in light of the surprising results the world has seen this past year whenever voters went to the polls, it is natural to feel anxious. Everywhere you turn in France there is talk of what may be the fall-out after Sunday’s first round of the presidential election.

Sure, there will be a second round two weeks later, on May 7. But by then the choices will be narrowed down to two from the current 11. And if we believe the polls, which I am not particularly inclined to do but at the same time cannot reasonably ignore, we could conceivably find ourselves stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Mélenchon on the left, and Le Pen on the right.

That particular scenario is responsible for my sense of creeping discomfort. If it came down to it, I am fairly confident that France would go left. But at what price? The end of Europe as we know it, of free trade and the free movement of its citizens. What would it be like to live in ‘La France Insoumise’ (Undefeated, rebellious France)? There are things I could get excited about: a new constitution (6ème République) that would allow this country to make the kinds of sweeping changes that are needed; a real commitment to investing in renewable energy. But how exactly would we distribute the so-called wealth of our country to better serve its citizens?

What concerns me is that there are so many cynical, deluded and misguided citizens who either will not vote at all, will vote ‘blanc’ as a protest, or will vote for an extreme faction which, however endearing, has no chance making more than a ripple at the polls. Which leaves the window wide open – grande ouverte – for our worst nightmare.

Until next week, then, when we will have a better idea of ‘à quelle sauce on sera mangé’…

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?