Sunday, May 10, 2009

Marseille soap and other fiction

I haven’t written anything for a while simply because I have horrendous stuff going on at home and my brain has just packed up its neurons and left.

So…I’ve been watching a lot of mindless television. I don’t watch telly usually – I don’t even own a set. However, I can get a few channels on the computer and for the past few weeks I’ve been sitting in front of various émissions with a glazed expression on my face (so I’m told).

One programme I admit to being fond of is Inspecteur Derrick. It’s not even French – it’s German. The title music is great – DER DER! DER DER! DER DER! DER DER!…di da di da di daa, da da da da, di da da – (hope you got that) and the seedy seventies’ atmosphere, all orange and brown geometric patterns, Formica and men in polo neck sweaters, stirs up memories of a simpler time. Derrick is a rather unattractive but charismatic policeman while his sidekick, Harry, has perfectly blow-dried hair. Together, in beige gabardine raincoats, they weed out the criminals of Munich with a mixture of psychology, meaningful facial expressions and a total lack of humour. I just love it…

Another programme (that I do not admit to watching) is Plus Belle La Vie. Set in a district of Marseille, this could be compared to Eastenders – except that it’s nothing like Eastenders. Everybody is beautifully dressed and coiffed and even the students live in luxury flats with designer furniture. The people who live in the quartier Mistral are prone to being kidnapped with alarming frequency and when they’re not being kidnapped, they’re committing adultery, taking drugs, discovering they’re gay, losing their memories and…oh, I can’t be bothered. You get the picture.

Yet in the midst of all this trauma, they still find time to pontificate on the issues of the day: homophobia, racism, religion, the environment, the recession - it’s all there. And even though the actors sound as if they’re reading aloud from a political manifesto, I suppose it does make a nice change from “Rickaaaaaaaay”!

Now I come to think of it, all the soap operas in France are unrealistic. I remember Hélène et les Garçons, a series from the early nineties about a group of students. These students also lived in luxury flats, wore designer clothes and spent most of their time drinking strangely fluorescent beverages in a café or going to the gym. I don’t remember ever seeing them revising for exams or having spots or hangovers. Sous le Soleil, however, was a soap opera set in St Tropez so you’d expect everybody to be rich – even if they were waitresses in a snack bar on the beach.

So why is there such a difference between the English soap operas and the French séries televisées? Perhaps it’s because the English are basically a nation of nosey-parkers and watching the lives of ordinary working-class people on television is akin to peeking through the net curtains at the neighbours. The French, on the other hand, are an altogether more gregarious bunch so other people’s lives hold no mystery for them. They prefer escapism, preferably with a designer dress and a yacht or two thrown in. It’s also something for them to aspire to…

That’s enough thinking for today. I’m exhausted.

Now, what’s on telly? Hmmmm. Le météo…great. I do love a good piece of fiction…

Saturday, March 21, 2009

French Bred

Just a little plug for a great book by Frédéric Guarino called French Bred.

Frédéric was born and raised in Paris. He moved to the Boston area in 1988, following his American wife, knowing very little English and even less about American culture. Along the way, he learnt his new country's language well enough to feel comfortable writing again. Now a divorced father of two, he lives in Medway, Massachusetts, runs his own business and somehow found the time to write "French Bred", his first book.

This is a wry look at the French...from a Frenchman's point of view - which makes a nice change!

I've put the link in the side-bar under "Favourite Views".

Brilliant title too, I think...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Holiday Plans

The winter school holidays are nearly at an end here in Grenoble. France is divided into three school zones: A, B and C and the holidays are not at the same time because otherwise, there wouldn’t be enough room on the mountains for all the skiers (the entire population of France – except for me - goes skiing in winter).

I had far more exciting plans. I was going to go walking for two hours every day, lose five kilos, clean the house and work on my novel, A Stitch in Time.

Of course, I fully expected a few hiccoughs along the way although I hadn’t anticipated the drunken teenaged boy that my daughter and her friends had selflessly picked up – literally – and brought home to sleep it off on my sofa. I startled him in the kitchen the next morning as I shuffled to the loo in my nightie. As he stared at a point somewhere beyond my left shoulder, he explained to me that he had cleaned up nearly all of the vomit but that he’d run out of washing-up liquid.

I shuffled back to bed.

The cat disappeared. Now, I have never considered myself an animal lover. I like animals well enough as long as they belong to other people but you won’t find any calendars with photos of kittens on them in my house. However, my cat is different. She is an intelligent human being who just happens to have fur, pointy ears and a silly name (my daughter named her Sugar). For three days, I wandered around the quartier shouting for her like some deranged fan of The Archies and I even knocked on a stranger's door and asked if I could look in their garden. Sugar eventually waltzed in through the cat flap at four o’clock one morning without so much as an apology. She treats this house like a hotel, that one.

Then my youngest daughter dyed her beautiful black hair – and several towels and a bath mat - bright orange.

Oh, and my middle daughter decided to go to London with a couple of friends for a few days.

“Where will you stay?” I asked, prising my eyes from the online newspaper article I was reading about the most recent fatal stabbings in that city.

“Oh – we’ll find somewhere when we get there. Bye.”

Of course, she’s just turned eighteen so she can do whatever she wants, as she likes to remind me two or three times a day. But she probably didn’t count on missing the plane back. Or running out of money. My wonderful sister – who has a demanding job - immediately arranged train tickets for all of them to her home in Eastbourne and promised to drive them to the airport the following morning in time to catch the early flight. Sisters are great. Teenagers and cats, on the other hand…

To see me through these crises, I resorted to piles of jam sandwiches and bowls of porridge washed down with litres of sweet, milky coffee. I’ve put on five kilos. Of course, I couldn’t go walking for two hours every day because all those sleepless nights meant I was getting up at three o’clock in the afternoon.

But I did get some work done on my novel. Once I’d checked my email, read every single one of the British newspapers online twice, played Solitaire, checked my email, phoned my mum, read all the adverts for Losing Tummy Flab, Earning Money From Home and Tree Consulting (found that one on my blog) and checked my email, I wrote three paragraphs of chapter seventeen and deleted two.

I wonder why you’re supposed to call it a work in progress, though?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Soldes out

According to mental health experts, January is the most depressing month of the year. In France this is because of les Soldes (the Sales) – at least, that’s my theory.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the word solde was a slang word used by cloth merchants to designate off-cuts that were sold at – um – cut price. The word comes from the Italian, saldo and means ‘balance’ as in bank balance.

Well, thanks to the festivities, my bank balance has shrivelled like a burst balloon while my cheques are bouncier than ever. So what bright spark decided that this was the perfect time of year to induce shopping frenzy in the pecuniary challenged?

Simon Mannoury, that’s who. In 1830, he opened Paris’s first department store, Le Petit Saint-Thomas, in rue du Bac. He had plenty of great ideas: he was the first to mark prices on his goods, he invented mail-order and he even brought a donkey into the shop for the children to ride on. Fortunately, that idea was shelved pretty quickly.

Photo Eau de Paris

Monsieur Mannoury also introduced the concept of Soldes. In order to liquidate stock at the end of the season, he sold everything off at reduced prices. Of course, this was very popular but I do wonder if he had any notion of what he’d started…

In France, les Soldes are regulated by law and must begin and end on dates specified by the government: for example, the current sales period began on 7th January and will end on 10th February. Winter and summer Soldes last for five weeks each and shopkeepers are allowed to choose two other weeks during the year, as long as they are not too close to the main sales period.

But all that doesn’t really matter to me. By the time I’ve saved up enough money to go to the sales, all that’ll be left will be a couple of acrylic tank-tops in a colour that doesn’t go with anything, a few dozen tan panty-hose and a job-lot of mysterious kitchen utensils that I never knew I needed.

Although you never know. And they are very cheap…

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Name that king!

Louis the Lazy

On this day in 898, Charles III, known as Charles the Simple, was crowned King of the Franks. I was relieved to discover that at that time, ‘simple’ meant ‘honest’ rather than 'stupid' but it got me thinking about the other nicknames the French gave to their kings.

Whereas the English named their monarchs ‘the unready’ or ‘the glorious’ or ‘the peaceable’, they didn’t often resort to personal insults, like the French (unless you count William the Conqueror who was also known as William the Bastard – but I have a feeling that wasn’t meant to be an insult and anyway, he was French).

I mean, fancy calling your king Charles the Fat, Charles the Bald or Charles the Mad! Not to mention Louis the Stammerer, Louis the Lazy, Louis the Quarreller, Louis the Universal Spider and - my favourite – John the Posthumous (perhaps he was just very quiet).

Still - what can you expect from a people who call the heir to the throne a dolphin?