Thursday, 29 November 2007


It's one of the three words in the famous motto of the French State: Equality, and two letters which arrived on the same day summed it up. One was to tell us that we earned too much to get state aid with our mortgage repayments (OK, fair do; never thought we'd get it, anyway), the other to inform Mrs. Fingers that, as an 'official job seeker' she would find enclosed a free rail pass with which to tour around the department as often as the mood takes her. In one delivery, our household was classed as 'sufficiently well-off not to need' yet also 'in need of help'. Go figure. Why not just give us the cash to help with the mortgage and we'll have a day out on it with the Fingernails somewhere? It's a grand scheme, though, and maybe I'll be happy of it one day, though I'm not sure a free trip on SNCF down the boondocks will yield much in my line of work. Still, as Equality goes, it's not bad, though judging by customer service in this country I think the 'Fraternity' bit needs a bit of work.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Discontents

They're all having a wail: civil servants, train drivers, energy workers, students, teachers. You name it, they're cheesed off. The protagonists of French National Therapy week are making headlines for, er, something they do regularly. In terms of news, it's about as significant as those predicatable driver interviews on clogged motorways the first few days of the summer holidays. Why strikes in France are considered of any interest to anybody is beyond me; it's not as if society changes radically after a few days of transport chaos and blocked universities. What is incredible, though, is the ability of certain employees to continue defending rights which have no place in any country outside of Wonderland and students who rally around to keep a higher educational system which consistently fails its members. It's crap. OK, let's reform it. NO!! Anything but that! Solutions on a postcard, please. Or a postage stamp.

I sometimes wish the French could be foreigners in their own country for a while. Then they'd see how lucky they already are.

Monday, 19 November 2007


Well, my Christmas singers are getting better and better and ever more numerous. We had 18 there, tonight and they're really sounding good. The carrot cake at the interval was arguably the star, though, and the Fingernails along with Mrs. F wil probably polish it off, tomorrow. I got a lift back from a the patrons (and cooks) in their hybrid car. It's amazing; you don't hear a thing when you've pulled up at traffic lights or wherever. In fact, the car is so silent that, just after they bought it, they ran over their dog and killed it. This could ultimately make it a selling point for those looking to improve the state of the pavements in this city.

In all seriousness, if electric or hybrid cars really do catch on some time before the planet disintegrates like soap in a bowl, there's going to have to be some other way to alert people to your presence. How quickly will everyone adapt to the concept of always looking both ways before crossing a road? We're so used to hearing cars, lorries and motorbikes that the idea they could move about silently is unthinkable: it's already dangerous for cyclists but being noiseless and motorised will spell a huge danger for others. Will people just wind their windows down and shout at pedestrians the entire time? Will they play music full blast (as if they didn't, already)? Will the cars have 'pedestrian sensors' which bellow out warnings if small families look like they're going to cross the road at the wrong time? Basically, we can't win: either the fumes will kill you or the car itself will.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

It's nearly over. Maybe.

Mrs. Fingers is off to start a computer course, tomorrow. Nothing remarkable in that, you say. Well, you would if you were reading this, but no-one does, so there. Mrs. F stopped working when we left Paris for Germany in 2001, started making people (with a little help from me) and hasn't been seen inside a place of work since. "Enough is enough" she cried recently, possibly in French, and will now abandon, at least for the next two weeks, two very well-adjusted and loving children to their father, who can't claim the same. Thanks to the vagaries of my work I have two weeks free, so it's all going to work out just fine, unless it doesn't. Racking my brains for things to do, I suddenly realised that my two daughters, aged five and two, know NEXT TO NOTHING either about British pubs or the UEFA Champions' League and that now would be the perfect time to fill in some gaps in their education. They're pretty shaky on French First Division football, too, and with the stadium just fifteen minutes' walk away there'll be the chance to catch up on a bit of homework.

Being a househusband, if only temporarily, is something I always fear but end up enjoying immensely. It's like reading the whole story instead of getting home tired at night and immediately having to act out the last three pages. Apart from November 20th, when all the staff at school are on strike, there'll be pockets of a few hours each day when I can get ready for going back to work. Maybe it'll make me more productive and efficient, too. Then Mrs. F will return, now an Office virtuoso, get snapped up by some wonderful company and we' more income tax. Every silver lining etc etc.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

False Dawn

Well, the announcement on the board was there this afternoon. Not only Madame from Class 4 will be on strike on November 20th but all the others, aswell. I suppose that way she can hide behind the collective shield of discontent. To be fair, it's rare for the others to take a stand and when they do, the headmistress always writes a long note of explanation or holds a meeting. The strikes in Britain in the 70's virtually turned us into a Banana Republic under Callaghan but I fail to understand the seemingly interminable anger that the French seem to have regarding their society. Maybe it's the incessant protests and subsequent governmental back-downs that have led to creating what we perceive as such an attractive way of life but it's left the State in a financial mess. Whatever happens, France won't close but it needs to work to its full potential.

Called to order

I can only imagine that Fingernail 1's teacher has been called to order; either that or she's had a fit of conscience. Fearing the worst when we went back to school after the holidays we found there was nothing - NOTHING - at all written on the announcements board. This was a huge surprise. Today - still nothing. It seems that Class 4 is going to have a few weeks of uninterrupted tuition without parents having to continually re-explain strikes to their children. No wonder they love downing tools over here: they get masterclasses in it as early as nursery school. What's more, the teacher looks very cheery: it's either genuine or a real shit-eating smile but I really don't care. Fingernail 1 adores her and loves going to school because of her. That's good enough for anyone.

Fingernail 2 has got another bout of gastrointeritis. So far she seems to have kept it to herself but not without some pretty impressive performance artistry. If our washing machine were French it would have struck by now.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Home Again?

I've just seen a job advertised which interests me very much; the only thing is that it's in the UK. I'd love to do it if the conditions were right, but how different would the pay have to be from what I earn now to at least reproduce our standard of living? Apart from that little detail, this new job would be a major step up, so we'd have to look at an IMPROVEMENT of our situation. I have the feeling this might push the cash-o-meter off the scale, but there's no harm in trying.

There's no way we could live this way in the UK with the job I have now. I'd get fat sitting in traffic, eating abysmal convenience food through lack of time and risk the sack for being late. I like the idea of the Fingernails wearing school uniform, though, and Mrs. Fingers loves Britain, so there'd be no problem, there. It just seems strange when everyone and his dog is moving in this direction to up sticks and take over their seat on the bus. After all, you never hear French couples saying they're dreaming of selling their farmhouse in Provence to go and buy a 3-bed flat in Coventry. There's also the issue of healthcare: here, we can see a doctor when we want, pay on the spot and get the money back within a working week. In Britain, having that convenience would mean going private. We'd probably need - it pains me to even consider this - a car, so there's even more expense right there.

Ah, we'll see. I'll send the forms in and see what happens. My contract here runs until 2009. I could probably stay, but there's no way of knowing for certain so it behoves me to look around. It could also strengthen my hand if I do get offered another contract in France.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Urban Poison

City life in France is not much different to city life anywhere else: hooded youths with sad, sagging trousers, the odd beggar, dog pooh, car fumes and the like. Another thing they have in common with their foreign counterparts is 'Graffiti Shops'. These are spray-can emporia whose products, albeit sold entirely legally, are destined to deface buildings. Delightful, huh? The joke wears a little thin when you hear stories like I heard when I got home from work this evening. Mrs. Fingers, a friend, the Fingernails and the friendettes went out for a walk around 5pm. All of a sudden, all four children started wailing and crying; their eyes were streaming and they were coughing profusely. It turned out that this was the result of the fumes from one of these appalling spray cans. Thanks, Mr. Hooded Cretin; if our kids develop some kind of anomaly in later life we'll know who to thank.

And nobody here ever says a thing.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Park like a local

Went off to a local church this evening to train an English choir. They've got a Carol Concert coming up and have decided that I would be the best person to help them, based on the fact that a) their regular chorusmaster is abroad and b) when asked, I said 'yes'. It's a very laid-back affair with an awful lot of focus on the interval refreshments. Virtually everyone comes with a large bag or box chock full of cups, plates, cakes, mulled wine, coffee and tea. The music folder may or may not be found under all of this. They're enthusiastic and sing pretty well, so it's a pleasant evening out.

When we arrived, we did as most civilised people do and parked in the car park. This is, apparently, not what the priest does. Not for him the risk of leaving his car amongst the conveyances of the faithful: he opens the double front doors, folds in his wing mirrors, slips into first and cruises towards the Almighty. The congregation has to squeeze past his Renault to get in. OK, he doesn't park in the nave itself but most of the reception area does get transformed into a rather sad version of the Paris Car Show.

The lady who gave me a lift in told me that her daughter was 'learning how to drive at a French driving school'. Anyone who has ever tried to cross a road in this country would find that at least mildly contradictory. Yesterday, she nearly backed into a Mercedes 4x4; no doubt her instructor will work hard on improving her aim. I trust he'll inform her that it's illegal to change down into second for any corner less than than 90°, too.

The pavements of this ancient city are peppered with bollards to prevent 'drivers' parking on them. Very often, they are so narrow that only pedestrians in their fourth month of hunger strike can walk down them without toppling over into the road. Add the bollards and you're stymied. Bring a pushchair into the equation and you've no choice: you're in the street. Pretty soon you're being honked at for obstructing traffic by the self same people whose indiscipline and selfishness pushed you into their way in the first place. On the plus side, it's a very good way of learning new vocabulary and gestures.

The problem is not new in Old Europe: how to arrange an immobile architectural infrastructure to accomodate the senseless love of the motor car. People who insist on driving 400 yards to the corner café and then spend fifteen minutes trying to park will not, generally, be receptive to any campaign aimed at reducing car dependance. Politicians are loath to enforce anti-car legislation for fear of not being re-elected onto the gravy train that is French politics, so we're stuck with half-arsed measures such as 'Pedestrian Priority Streets' and the like. Lovely in theory, abysmal in practice; any right-thinking person is going to save his own skin rather than risk being in the right and spending a few months in traction.

There's often talk of the lunacy of the Italians and Spanish on the road but I'm convinved that the only safe French car is a parked one. Unless you're trying to take communion.

Friday, 2 November 2007


Just found out tonight that the school holidays don't finish until next Wednesday. That seems awfully long, considering the Fingernails have only been back since the beginning of September. Take away the two strikes that Fingernail 1's teacher has already 'participated in' i.e. probably staying at home with breakfast in bed, watching some scrofulous re-run of an unfunny film from 1953, and the times she's been off sick (at least two weeks), it doesn't add up to much tuition time. Her little work book has virtually nothing in it so I really wonder if they've had any kind of activities these past two months at all. Don't get me wrong: Fingernail 1 is only five and I'd only just started infant school at her age, so I'm very much in favour of her discovering through playing and enjoying these precious years; she has her whole life to put her nose to the grindstone. But at the same time I'd like to see some evidence of her doing something, ANYTHING, which could expand her mind. She doesn't have to write joined-up yet, doesn't have to reproduce Caravaggios without going over the edges, but I'd like to see proof of some kind of nurturing input on the side of the staff. We've spoken to the headmistress about this woman, but, in true bureaucratic style, she is powerless to address any kind of disciplinarian issue with her. That's the job of the Academy, and they're unlikely to hoover off their cobwebs and act. My mother was a teacher in England for many years, and they didn't even have the right to strike in those days. I don't know whether it's any different, now, but at least the children were able to form a relationship with their teacher and not be held hostage to the puerile displays of solidarity, defending the indefensible, which so often passes for 'industrial action' in France. With more strikes against Sarkozy's planned reforms coming up in November I can see this creature band-wagonning any further excuse to not go to work while the parents of Class 4 run around trying to reorganise their lives and find even more ways to juggle having children and making sure they have the money to clothe and feed them. And no-one will say a word to the teacher. They can't. The right to strike is there in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic but it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of people here regarded it as a duty. My heart sank when I saw Fingernail 1 was going to be in her class this year. Sadly, my fears have already been borne out.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

And upwards...

Today at work just HAD to be a confirmation of the events of last night. And it was. Every ballsaching minute spent 'participating' in the goings-on made me even more determined to pursue this new path and move on. It won't be for a couple of years, but I'll need that time to prepare the shift, anyway. It will have been eight years in this particular discipline, and that will have been enough. Great school, thanks and bye-bye; fortune favours the brave, 'n' all that. Won't be the first time, probably won't be the last.