Sunday, December 31, 2006


New Year's Eve, I seem to remember, began with a pub-crawl and ended with Auld Lang Syne in a roomful of slurring, sweaty-palmed strangers. It was either that or a night in front of the telly with a glass of sherry and a depressingly jolly television presenter. New Year's Eve in France is a far more sophisticated affair and, while Christmas is considered to be for children, New Year's Eve is definitely for the grown-ups.

New Year's Eve is also known as Saint Sylvester's night, as it is the feast day of that saint. Saint Sylvester was Pope from 314 to 335 and not much is known about him except that he would definitely not approve of all the gluttony and general debauchery that goes on in his name these days. He's got another Pope to thank for that: in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new and more accurate calendar - the Gregorian calendar - to replace the old Julian one. Up until then, the New Year began on the 1st of April but this new calendar called for New Year's Day to be celebrated on the 1st of January. This obviously caused a great deal of confusion, especially in England where they considered it to be just another load of Papal Bull and ignored the whole thing for nearly two hundred years. As a result they were constantly eleven days behind the rest of Europe, which would not surprise anybody here. The English finally gave in and adopted the new calendar in 1752, solving a lot of problems, except perhaps in the postal service, where they still can't seem to get the hang of it. France, on the other hand, adopted the new calendar at once but typically, a large proportion of the population either chose to ignore it or hadn't been informed and the resulting chaos created April Fool's Day, but that is another story.

As usual, the French celebrate by having an enormous meal on New Year's Eve called le réveillon. The same name is given to the enormous meal they have on Christmas Eve, which they follow with another enormous meal on Christmas Day. Boxing Day doesn't exist in France but if it did, they would probably have an enormous meal then too, perhaps in a box, like McDonalds. Traditional ingredients of le réveillon include turkey, oysters, foie gras, snails and champagne. The French always drink a lot of champagne, which tends to defeat the object of le réveillon - a word that comes from the verb "to stay awake".

At midnight, they raise their glasses in a toast, murmur "Bonne Année" and kiss each other demurely on both cheeks. Nobody sings incomprehensible minority language songs or tries to snog the person next to them and they certainly don't start cavorting around the room with their legs flailing to the strains of "The Conga". They simply exchange tasteful gifts while they're still sober and the meal goes on until the early hours of the morning when those who haven't already slumped face down into their bouillabaisse, stagger off to bed to sleep it all off. They wake up in time for the President's traditional speech in which he apologises for the mess he's making of running the country and makes up for it by offering amnesty to all the motorists who haven't paid their parking fines.

For the next few weeks after New Year's Day, you are expected to greet everyone heartily with "Bonne Année, Bonne Santé" and send cards to friends and family throughout January rather than at Christmas. And while we're on this subject, I would like to take the opportunity to explain to my friends and family that this is, in fact, the reason my Christmas cards often arrive in the middle of March…no, honestly, it is…

Friday, December 29, 2006


I had a little English party with a friend last night. My children were away so we had the place to ourselves. We did all the things English people do at these times: gorged on Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, Cheddar cheese and pickle, pulled a cracker, watched English videos, sang vaguely-recollected songs from our youth and generally acted like fifteen year olds. We then opened a bottle of pink champagne (yum), a bottle of Morgon (yum, yum) a bottle of something else and so on (can’t remember much after that).

No matter how long you’ve lived in a foreign country, a little bit of England still clings to you like lint. It usually takes the form of food and drink lurking in the cupboards of every English person: Marmite, Branston pickle, Walkers crisps, HP Sauce, Shredded Wheat…and of course, proper tea. To wring any taste from French tea you need to use four bags per cup and leave them to steep for – oh, at least an hour. Even then, all you've got is a homeopathic version of tea. They do coffee much better. And wine…oh, yes. They do wine very well indeed…

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Winter sports

"Sur les Alpes on est aigle ou crétin."

"In the Alps, one is either an eagle or an idiot."

Victor Hugo

When you live in the capital of the Alps, winter sports (les sports d'hiver) are almost compulsory. Grenoble hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968 - an event that had its fair share of controversy. For the first time, tests were introduced for women to ensure that they really were women and not men disguised in fuchsia shell suits (at that time, long hair and moustaches were not reliable indicators of sex). Then, the Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy nearly lost the slalom race he had initially won because his rival, Karl Schranz, claimed that a mysterious man in black crossed his path during the race, causing him to skid to a halt. Whether this figure was a ghost, a spectator or a bewildered French goatherd on his way home has never been established - but Schranz was allowed a restart and he beat Killy's time. Probably feeling slightly ridiculous by now, at having believed the story of the man in black, the Jury disqualified him anyway and Killy emerged a national hero and the winner of three gold medals. The Olympic Village - flimsy blocks of flats erected in record time for the athletes - is now a run-down council estate on the edge of town; the Olympic Ice Rink is a Sports Centre and the cycle track is used by rollerbladers.

Even if you couldn't see a "mountain at the end of every street" - as Grenoble's famous writer, Stendhal, put it - you would know you were in an Alpine town just by observing the passers-by. In winter, it is not unusual to see people shopping or queuing in the post office with a pair of skis slung over their shoulder or a snowboard tucked under their arm. And towards the end of February, you start noticing that a high proportion of people are hobbling around on crutches, their complexions unusually ruddy with pale, goggle-shaped patches around their eyes and greasy, white lips. You're not meant to feel sorry for them - these are status symbols to be admired and to remind you that not everyone can afford to break their tibia on the piste noire in Megève…

Actually, my daughter's boyfriend's family has a chalet in Megève and she'll be spending New Year there, doing le snow, le ski or le skate or whatever it is young people do these days. It's a far cry from our first (and last) family ski holiday. We’d rented a studio flat that slept six and technically, this was correct. However, if we wanted to do something other than sleep - stand up and walk around, for example - it did get a bit claustrophobic. The flat was furnished with a dangerously malfunctioning bed-settee, a wobbly Formica table and shrunken psychedelic curtains. The “fully-equipped kitchen” yielded cheese graters, garlic crushers and hatpins (although I think they had something to do with snails) but none of these came in very useful and we ate pizza for the entire week.

On the first day, we stumbled along to the ski shop to get kitted out. Once shod, the children dashed on ahead - oblivious to the fact that ski boots were evidently designed to cause as much pain as possible - and left me to follow Sisyphus-like to the foot of the nursery slopes, feeling a little like a novelty attachment for a Bouncy Castle (a pastel ski suit is not the most flattering apparel for a short, plump middle-aged woman…) The children's devastatingly handsome ski instructor led them off to the ski tow and I waited in delicious anticipation for my version of George Clooney in goggles. Jean-Pierre did indeed have goggles but the resemblance ended there. He grudgingly taught me how to put on my skis without falling over and how to snowplough, and then it was my turn for the ski tow.

I did a Bambi impression to the end of the queue and managed to stop. Keeping still was another matter. The person behind me suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision and I realised I was slowly sliding backwards. I tried frantically to wedge my right ski into the snow but this only seemed to speed things up. People moved politely aside as I gathered momentum, doing the splits with a contrived nonchalance that fooled nobody.

Making it to the front of the queue was like a recurring nightmare, but I got there eventually and was manhandled onto a suspended metal bar that shot off up the mountain with alarming speed. Apparently, the trick is to keep your skis straight, otherwise you get your legs in a twist and fall off and get impaled by the skis of the person behind you. Then if you try to get up, you get your head sliced off because the ski tow is relentless and doesn’t stop just because some silly person can’t get the hang of it. Fortunately, none of this happened to me because I managed to fall off at the right place and launch myself recklessly into the blizzard. As I hurtled down the slope, arms wildly flapping, I heard Jean-Pierre yell, “Lean backwards!” which sounded daft to me, but I did as I was told and fell flat on my bottom.

Since then, the mere mention of skiing sets my coccyx throbbing…which is why you'll never catch me hobbling white-lipped through the streets of Grenoble. And anyway, to be honest, I'm far enough over the hill as it is…

Monday, December 25, 2006

Joyeux Noël!

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Nous étions tous errants comme des brebis,
Chacun suivait sa propre voie ;
Et l'Éternel a fait retomber sur lui l'iniquité de nous tous.

Isaiah/Esaïe 53:6

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Dead bird

I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Ginger whom I mentioned in an earlier post. I called him a wimp. To prove me wrong, he battled bravely with a blackbird today, dragged it inside and under my youngest daughter’s bed and proceeded to disembowel it while we all screamed hysterically (I actually locked myself in the bathroom).

This has happened before, but only with sparrows. The last time, I courageously scooped up the dead sparrow with a dustpan and put it outside in the bin. But a blackbird is much bigger than a sparrow and I just couldn’t face it. So I knocked on my neighbour’s door because he looked a brave sort of chap, being young and strong and over six feet tall. Oooh, no, I couldn’t possibly, he exclaimed, recoiling in horror…je suis vraiment désolé.

It was my fearless daughter, Rachel, who saved the day. She’s already rescued me from a monster moth the size of a small charter aeroplane (although I had to pay her ten euros) and she removed the blackbird for free, muttering that we were all a load of lily-livered chochottes.

She’s perfectly right, of course. We are.


One of the reasons my husband left me was because of my lack of housekeeping skills – that and the fact that I didn’t look like Catherine Zeta-Jones. And he was right. I don’t look like Catherine Zeta-Jones and my house does look like a Picasso painting. Actually, I realized years ago that there is a cosmic conspiracy against me: I don't touch anything yet during the night, paperwork, books, dust, small change, pencils, CDs, make-up, socks, coffee cups etc start to breed and I wake up drowning in a writhing primeval soup of clutter.

I keep all sorts of useless bits of paper like cinema tickets, flyers and grocery receipts but still manage to lose insurance documents, bills and doctors’ prescriptions. To make matters worse, the French government tell you to keep certain documents ‘indefinitely’. This type of statement is guaranteed to plunge me into hoarding overdrive and I now have the equivalent of 3 squared kilometres of Amazonian rainforest stuffed into cardboard boxes under my table, just in case.

I would take a photo of my clutter to show you but…I seem to have mislaid my camera. And if you wanted to look at Catherine Zeta-Jones, that's just tough. Here's a picture of me instead...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bleeding radiators

My radiators are still dripping. My friend, Mike, told me to get a bleeding key, which I thought was a bit rude of him. What do I need a bleeding key for? No, no – a bleeding key…to purge my radiators. I can get one from a plumber.

Oh yes? And where am I supposed to find a bleeding plumber at this time of year, eh?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas cheer

I have just read a very funny article by Philip Johnston which cheered me up somewhat on this chilly Monday morning.

Christmas regulations for the good of the people? I’ve been trying to imagine the French government telling its citizens what to do…but sadly, my imagination fails me. They would probably all go on strike. On the other hand, as a poor, single mother of three, I can quite easily envisage having to fill in forms (in triplicate) in order to get a free Christmas tree with decorations (eight baubles and a fairy for a single parent with two children – four baubles for each subsequent child), stocking voucher, state-funded foie gras and exceptionally, the AAPI (Allocation d’Alcool pour Parents Indignes). However, as I would also have to find various documents to prove my eligibility (birth certificate, marriage certificate, separation certificate, French O-level certificate, Brownie Badge etc), I would – as usual – miss out.

Well, never mind. There’s more to Christmas than just enjoying yourself, n’est-ce pas?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Even colder

Did I mention it was cold? Well, now that the boiler has packed in, I’d like to mention it again. I had to sleep in a fleece and ski socks last night and this morning I had to boil a kettle and wash in a bucket. It reminded me of my time in Nigeria…ok ok, I’ll shut up (my daughter is chanting "during the war, during the war" for some reason...)

The last time this happened, the maintenance people said they couldn’t come for five days. It was the middle of winter and we huddled pitifully around the open oven door until the butane ran out. When the maintenance man did turn up, he just unscrewed the side panel, pressed a little red button, remarked that my kitchen was a death trap (I think he spotted the left-over Irish stew) and that was it. Since then, I’ve been pressing the little red button myself.

It didn’t work this time, though. The woman on the phone promised someone would be around at 2 pm to fix it. Now, I know that here, 2 pm means 3 pm at the earliest or possibly 3:30 pm. Apparently, in this case, it means tomorrow morning.

Hmmn. Reminds me of my time in Nigeria...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Brrr. It’s cold…the mountain tops are sprinkled with snow, my car won’t start in the mornings and I’m thinking about mending the cat flap. We don’t actually have a cat flap - what we have is a big square hole in the kitchen door. In the winter, the snow drifts into the kitchen and if it’s really cold, it turns into a nasty patch of black ice…and we don’t want poor old Ginger hitting that, do we? Not after that other time… the time I’d pushed the gas bottle in front of the hole to keep Ginger outside (this was during his mangled-bird-offering period) and he came streaking in (probably startled by a fly or something – he’s such a wimp) and…boiiing… slammed into the gas bottle like…well, like a cartoon cat does. He was still resonating when I plucked him off the doorstep…

Another thing I have to do is purge the radiators but I have no idea what that means.

I can’t think of a single interesting thing to do in winter apart from stay in bed. Wasn’t it George Mikes who said “Continental people have sex-lives; the English have hot-water bottles”? Huh. I live on the Continent and I’m English - and I don’t have either of those…

Saturday, December 09, 2006


My eldest daughter’s band played their first gig last night – with great success, I’m told. I don’t even know the full name of the band – just that it’s got ‘wobbly wabbit’ somewhere in the title. I do know that their songs are influenced by Jim Morrison and Jefferson Airplane – and sung in English (she rehearses in the shower...)

French popular music does not export well. Most British people have heard of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour but they rarely make Top of the Pops these days. Singer-songwriters like Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel (who was Belgian) are unknown in Britain because, like the troubadours of old, they were poets above all. Serge Gainsbourg- a brilliant and irreverent poet-musician - did have a hit with Jane Birkin in 1969, but DJs weren’t allowed to play it on the radio because it was too rude. Even though these singers are now dead, their work is still much-loved and has influenced contemporary musicians like Jean-Jacques Goldman and my hero, Renaud.

Another French icon is the ageing Johnny Hallyday, who is actually half-Belgian and definitely not a poet. 'Johnny', as he is known to young and old alike, brought rock n’ roll to France and is, in his own words, ‘a survivor’. In his early sixties, he still wears tight leather trousers, rides a Harley Davidson and dyes his hair and his current wife is a lissom blonde thirty-something. Johnny sings mainly cover versions of American songs or French songs that sound like cover versions and is such a national treasure that he has been awarded the Legion of Honour by the President. Despite having an American name (not his real name) hardly anyone outside of France knows who he is.

Now and again, a French song will cross the channel but it will be sung in English. Two of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits were French: My Way (originally sung by Claude François) and Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand), but generally speaking, the French are chauvinistic and keep their music for themselves, as they believe it is too good to be wasted on the uncivilised bunch that make up the rest of the world. Unless, of course, they are just insecure. Why else would French law demand that forty percent of a radio station’s output be by French artists and sung in French? On the other hand, as most young people these days find it easier to listen to moronic monosyllabic rap than songs where they need to have at least a basic grasp of their mother tongue, perhaps the government is right...

Thursday, December 07, 2006

On Form

I’m busy filling in forms and ticking boxes. You have to fill in a form for everything here just in case you’ve changed your name or your sex or your place of birth since the last time you filled one in. As I tick the boxes, a wave of existential doubt comes crashing over me. Is this who I am? After all these years…?

For a start, I’ve always ticked the very first box under Income. That is, the lowest income on the list. I’ve never progressed to the second box and I’m not likely to now. On the other hand, I’m working my way through the Age Bracket list like nobody’s business.

As for Occupation, I’ve been Student, Teacher, Bookshop Assistant, Housewife and Unemployed…more or less in that order.

My hobbies haven’t changed. Much as I would like to tick sewing, painting or winter sports, I’ve only ever been good at reading and listening to music

Children have their boxes too. One child. Two. Three dependent children. Tick, tick, tick…I’ve ticked off all their childhood illnesses: chickenpox, measles and that one where they keep you up all night coughing. Soon I’ll have to uncheck the boxes because they will no longer be dependent and I will no longer be needed.

For years I ticked Single in the Marital Status box then ten years ago, I proudly began ticking Married. From next month I’ll be ticking Separated. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be ticking “Mlle” (Miss) again instead of “Mme” (Mrs) with a damp, smudged and rather shaky tick…

Oooh. I feel really depressed now. I think I feel a poem coming on.

I'll be back in a tick...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


The trams here are brilliant – when they’re not on strike. When they are on strike my car usually breaks down in sympathy – as it did last week – and I can’t get to work.

Grenoble was the second town in France (Nantes was the first) to reintroduce the tram in 1987, having abandoned the system in 1952. It glides through the city like an electric snake – in fact, it’s almost as dangerous because it is so silent. You are forever having to cross tramlines as you walk through town and the tram has a habit of creeping up on you. The driver will eventually ring his bell – if he can be bothered - but only at the last minute when (in my case) a hundred bored passengers will be treated to the spectacle of a plump, middle-aged Englishwoman suddenly taking on the expression of a Japanese cartoon character and leaping either to safety or into the path of the tram coming in the other direction. For some reason, motorists and cyclists are allowed to use these routes too, so crossing the road is like trying to weave a path through a Dodgem ride in full swing.

Anyway, they’re not on strike at the moment. The buses are. Well – it’s nearly Christmas, isn’t it? And what would Christmas in France be without a strike or two, eh?

Saturday, December 02, 2006


I've just had to nip out and get some more brandy for the Christmas cake. It’s very odd but I’d have sworn there was half a bottle left in the cupboard. It must have been all those hot toddies I’ve been drinking. I’m still fluey, you see, so I’ve been dosing myself every evening although to tell you the truth, they don’t seem to be working very well. I sleep like a top but for some reason I wake up with the most excruciating headache…

Trying to explain the concept of Christmas cake – or Christmas pudding – to the average French person is like trying to explain quantum physics to…well, er…me.
“You mean, you make it two months before Christmas?” they ask in disbelief, staring at the cake that I have spent hours decorating to look like a little piece of snow-covered England complete with church, plastic pine tree, Father Christmas on a sleigh and bits of grossly-out-of-proportion giant holly. The kitchen table fair sags beneath the weight of it: they smile politely. Then I start to explain about suet and mincemeat and I know I’ve lost them…

I've made a much smaller cake this year. I’m the only one who ever eats it anyway, sitting here alone surrounded by the debris of Christmas Day, with a paper hat sliding off the back of my head, a dreamy smile on my face and that Slade song playing. No wonder my children think I’m the fruitcake…