Monday, 1 December 2008


Looks like I've neglected my online diary for a while. November was a very busy month and, outside of work, short of paying our bloody neighbours some occasionally unsavoury visits, nothing much happened. We're getting a sound-measuring device from the town council, so I hope they don't decide to be very well-behaved for the 48 hours this thing will be installed in our flat and finally deliver the evidence we need to make a case either against them or, preferably, the neglectful owner of that property. Home ownership should be a pleasure on some level, but ours often tends to be mid- to long-term speculative. The place is worth quite a lot of money but, first and foremost, it's where we live, breathe, eat and sleep, so it needs to be somewhere we're comfortable. That hasn't been the case since September. Add to that a house management company that doesn't manage (except for when it sends us their bill) and a cleaning company that doesn't clean you can see there are a few areas of discontent. Still, you never get something for nothing in this life and if we don't fight for what we want then no-one is going to hand it to us on a plate.

Our drug-dealing neighbour on the ground floor doesn't appear to be coming back. Various Irish people have been coming and going, emptying the place of his possessions then leaving with a cheery wave, so I can only presume he's been repatriated or is in prison. Maybe the nice man who owns the other studio down there can now buy it up and extend his own place. It would be one concern fewer. One flat remains vacant and the girl in the one above is hardly ever there. When she is, we hear neither sight nor sound of her. Now that's a neighbour!

My Christmas Choir is in great voice. It's hard to think that this time last year we were struggling to get through basic repertoire and now they're trolling out much more advanced stuff as if it were Ducks and Drakes. Bearing in mind we meet only for a handful of rehearsals before Christmas and Easter their achievement is extraordinary. The numbers have swelled, too: I started with 15 and now have 24 regulars, including a strong tenor section. The Carol Service is in two weeks and it'll be a great success; I can feel it in my bones.

Christmas is starting to loom and it's good that we've got all our presents sorted out plus the tree, which got decorated in haste this afternoon by the Fingernails and Mrs. F. All that's left is Mrs. F's present plus the food. My Mum's coming over from England so she'll have a quality week with the girls. I'll be at work in the evening, but that's not so bad; animated evening conversation in our bijou shoebox is off-limits, anyway, at the risk of waking the little ones.

Friday, 31 October 2008


Trying to find information on members of your family can be a long-winded process. Outside of my half-brother in Australia and my mother there's actually no-one I know who can tell me about my father. I last saw him when I was six and that certainly wasn't yesterday. My bro gave me a tip concerning a nephew who is now a high-powered New York lawyer, so I e-mailed him out of the blue and am awaiting his response, if any. His father (my uncle) was, like my mother, also a Mayor, so there is a bit of copy-cat career-mongering in our brood.

Mozart is progressing very slowly, mainly due to the fact the director spends hours on the recitatives like Felsenstein at the Komische Oper back in the '60's. I'm still immune to this as my colleague takes care of the secco department, leaving me free to practise Richard Strauss in the room next door. The cast is delightful and the conductor a joy, so I can't say it's a negative experience, especially seeing as this phase coinciding with the school holidays allows me to spend the mornings with the Fingernails whilst still getting my five hours' daily practice in.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Back to the day job

These last few weeks have been almost nothing but practicing song accompaniments for a recital which I gave with a superb tenor a couple of days ago. You'd never believe just how much time and energy goes into an hour of music which seems to be over before you've started. Your body immediately goes into free-fall afterwards as all the postponed fatigue and stress finally force their way in under the portcullis and you're well advised to take an early night and late morning for fear of going down with whatever plague du jour is. I had about fifteen people in (including Fingernail I) and they've all been in touch to say how much they enjoyed it. Even though it was about recital n° 400 since I started this music lark a few decades ago it never ceases to amaze me how a voice and a piano together can move people. Long may it continue. Mozart's back on the agenda in the next couple of days and then it's the long, slow countdown to Christmas with its copious operetta performances.

I had a lot of funny little anecdotes to relate but can't recall any of them at the moment. There's a student party going on next door, the Brazilians downstairs have finally turned off their hi-fi and the Syrians appear to have gone for an early night, not before apparently pushing all their infernal furniture about the flat for two hours just after the Fingernails' light went out. Honestly, you'd never believe this was the best part of town: we've got South Central LA conditions with Bel Air prices. The only thing missing is wanton gunfire, but I'm sure the credit crunch will eventually take care of that little absence.

The only way to deal with noise pollution is become ridiculously philosophical about the whole thing. Forgive me if I've mentioned that before in a previous post, but agonising about other people's incapacity to live considerately and sociably only leads to one eventual loser: you. The Germans have a wonderful saying: In der Ruhe liegt die Kraft - Strength resides in peace; a positive result will only come through long-term investment and a cool head, a dictum our buy-now-pay-later society could well have heeded in the light of the current international financial melt-down, too.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Time for a post

It's been a few days since I had a late-night waffle, so here we go. The credit crunch has hit Europe, rich bankers are now having to eat their families and Lamborghinis in order to survive and life seems to be trolling on pretty much as normal: there's still a queue at the baker's, my salary still got paid in to the bank and the school doors gape invitingly wide when we roll up with the Fingernails. providing our modest savings aren't swallowed up into something no-one will be able to explain properly we should be OK. The general governmental mud-slinging is pretty childish as everyone played a part in it, somewhere: beit wanton, unnecessary consumption, opaque financial products or just economic overheating as an entertaining spectator sport for those in power, those who have overspent or gambled have only themselves to blame. Investing in stock markets is only failsafe in the long term and those who view it as an easy way to make a quick buck are often deluding themselves (I speak from experience). Still, there are surely a million shades of grey in this matter which is why, presumably, no-one is capable of giving a straight answer as to how it happened and what will happen next. My tip is to invest in the Scilly Isles and pigs' trotters, but my business nous is inferior to that of a salad spinner, so there you go.

Fingernail II's birthday is coming up and she'll be thrilled with her scooter. It's exactly the same model we bought for her sister three years ago (which got stolen from the courtyard) but was half the price. This shows there is a balance in the world economy: rice, pasta and wheat are getting more expensive by the day but children's scooters are plummeting in price, so stock up while you can.

You can't help but be morbidly fascinated by the US Presidential Race. Has there ever been such an incompetent pair of cretins as McCain and Palin? We don't know enough about Obama, but considering the stranglehold Senate and Congress have on US Politics, the President's main brief is that of figurehead, particularly regarding foreign policy. The thought of some hick moose-murderer jumping in for an ailing Vietnam POW to lead talks with Iran are just too frightening to behold. Faced with such a dreadful GOP ticket, Obama looks the safer bet.

Saturday, 4 October 2008


Having children means you always live in a world of extremes: you come home from work where someone has implied that the collective inability to realise the current project will result in global meltdown; twenty minutes later you're searching for a missing hairgrip under the sofa and being encouraged to enthuse about a ballerina's outfit. Today was such a day. A hissy fit at work, followed by a demonstrative walk-out by said colleague followed by preparations for a six-year-old's birthday party. Not that the celebrations went entirely smoothly, either: a certain group of guests made life difficult for the rest, voices were raised and tears shed. Parental firemen ran about, dousing the flames with standard wisdom, veiled, never-to-be-implemented threats and order returned.

It's this life balance that makes work bearable. I love my job, but you always need perspective and that's what it lacks on occasions. I'm just glad I return to Planet Earth when I exit those doors of an evening.

Sunday, 28 September 2008


Having re-read that last post, it's clear that 1920 and forty years don't add up to 2008. This is what happened: in the communist era, large houses were appropriated by the state and families were sent to live in them, rather like in Dr. Zhivago. My colleague's family were one of many in this ambassadorial residence in Bucarest. As the years rolled on, the others either died or moved out, leaving more and more room to those who stayed. My colleague's father moved there shortly before his son was born and within a short time, had the whole house to themselves. And so it stayed until this summer. Hope that clears it up.

An Evening Out!

Anyone reading this blog (and there aren't many, if any, I know) knows that the denizens of Chateau Fingers have a slightly less invigorating social life than a handicapped nun, so forgive me if I wax lyrical a little about last night, when we actually WENT OUT to SEE FRIENDS and even SPENT A FEW INTERESTING HOURS in the company of someone OTHER THAN OUR SODDING NOISY NEIGHBOURS! We finally got around to accepting an invitation from a lovely Rumanian couple from work and the change of scenery and the conversation were truly things to behold. Without boring you with a run-down of the evening's chat, I will tell you this: his father, now 80, still runs a construction company in Bucarest. This summer, after forty years, they were evicted from their house on a trumped-up charge of preferential due: the house went to an invented relative of the original owner, a banker, who wrote the property over to the state in 1920 in lieu of debt. So, after nearly half a century's occupation, a couple in their eighties are basically turfed out onto the street. Fortunately, he had the wherewithal and strength to capitalise on the situation: he bought a 2-bedroom flat and made a three-story house out of it. At the age of eighty. Nice to see the benefits that Europe has brought to a new member state. Apparently, this deserving new owner of the house is the daughter of the banker's cleaning lady. Maybe. It seems probity was not high on the agenda.

The parents of a friend of Mrs. Fingers are apparently being evicted from their flat because of noise. Having never met them, my interest in the story was more about the logistics of how it can be done. Sorry, but that's the way it is.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Just when you thought you understood everything...

It seems our little house in the best part of town is just a façade. Mrs. F was greeted by two young men at the front door this afternoon who turned out to be police officers investigating one of the other residents in the house. Illegal immigrant? Delinquant? Bike thief? None of it. Heroin Dealer. Yes, we appear to have a heroin trafficker living on the ground floor. That's nice news when you have two small children. I hope they'll go through with their investigation and sling him behind bars for a (long) while. Pleasant as he seems to be, the thought of having someone like that introducing drug-addled scum into the building is beyond my already sorely tested tolerance level. I'm rather inclined to go with Sarko's suggestion of going through certain buildings with an industrial cleaner and to hell with the consequences which, in this case, would only be positive.

I remember we had a similar problem when we lived in Providence, Rhode Island. No-one would ever have thought that the girl upstairs was a crackhead: she was pleasant, courteous and had a little baby. The police were waiting outside the front door one night when I went to work and they explained everything. One guy was already bent over the car in handcuffs, 'helping the police with their enquiries'. More was to follow but we moved out the next day. A word of advice: never go and live in Providence, RI; it's the most desperate hole known to mankind: run-down, dangerous and corrupt. We had to take a taxi to get to the supermarket and our driver on the way back had his left arm in a sling. He'd been stabbed for the contents of his wallet a few days previously. Lucky old mugger got away with $20. The glories of the American healthcare system meant he had to get back to work as soon as possible so as not to endure foreclosure on his house, so there he was, steering and changing gear with the same hand while his lacerated arm healed. Greatest democracy in the world, you know.

I'm wondering what the next surprise will be. Maybe the Brazilians on the first floor are actually people traffickers or disposal agents of other countries' nuclear waste. Actually, seeing how many rubbish bags they put outside every day, that might not be so far from the truth.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008


Why do so many people write blogs? Are they lonely? Do they want some kind of recognition, having been bullied rotten at school and made to lick lavatory seats? Is this all part of our instant celebrity society where being famous is actually more important than the talent that should get you there? I don't know. Being a professional performer I'm used to applause if I do something well in front of an audience. If I do it badly, I'm the first to tell myself. In short, I don't feel I lack attention but certainly enjoy compliments regarding my various pursuits, one of which is having articles published regularly in one of London's leading dailies.

I was cock-a-hoop when the paper told me they'd publish the first piece I submitted to them and couldn't wait to tell as many friends and family as possible. Now I see my work in print and don't even mention it to my nearest and dearest. It's quite curious in a way. After all, it's my hobby; the thing I really wanted to do professionally until music took the upper hand. When you're young,though, concerts generally attract more comment and advice than a decent short story composed for your English Language class, so music it was, ever more marketable and obvious than a life arranging words on a page. But isn't it the hobby that should stoke my fire, provide me with a canvas to express my oh-so-important thoughts? Maybe, maybe not: I just know that writing is what I enjoy doing and I get a lot of pleasure re-reading this blog and remembering what happened when. So much daily trivia can conspire to keep your mind blank for months on end that it's rewarding to put down a few yardsticks from time to time and have some form of documentation of your existence.

This has quickly turned into a ramble. That's because I don't have anything of note to say. Then again, that's relative. I spent the entire day working with an extremely talented and, in some cases, very well-known group of artists, but since this is normal where I work, I don't mention it. It's a privileged life and having a daily outlet of musical expression followed by the liberty to compose random thoughts in the manner I choose late at night (hey, I'm married with children, so midnight IS late for me, these days) is vastly satisfying.

There's still too much noise from upstairs. Doesn't matter how accomodating and understanding you are, how much you empathise and seek a mutual solution, the fact that the neighbours know there's a problem yet continue to entertain every night of the week until late suggests they don't take the issue very seriously. Mrs. Fingers calls them actors, and I think she's right: they'll pay convincing lip service to your concerns and then laugh behind your back as soon as the door is closed and continue as before. I've decided that the dialogue phase is over and, if we don't hear back favourably from the owner within a week, will contact the police and the housing authority. The joke's over, as is our patience. I'm sick of writing about this and, if there's anyone actually reading this blog, I'm sure you are, too.

It's Fingernail I's birthday tomorrow and she'll be 6. I had to take her to have her present fitted this morning: a riding hat. Can't really surprise children with that kind of present in case you get the size wrong, so the puff's gone out of her special day a little. There'll be a cake for her after school, so there's that to look forward to. In any case, we're reducing Christmas and birthday presents to one good quality item instead of the tons of Made in China crap one accumulates so readily these days. When I was young it was 'Made in Hong Kong' (plus ça change...) or even - I kid you not - 'Empire Made'. Seriously, I had toys with that stamped on them when I was young and I can hardly remember England winning the World Cup.

Readjusting to France after ten weeks in Germany and Austria has been slow. I'm not at all up-to-date on the country's politics, a subject I absolutely love for its 'Planet France' factor, suffice to say that the Socialists are as much, if not more, of a shower than they were before we left in June. You have to say something for the place's dinosaur tendencies, though: had they been so willing to embrace every new fad of US origin the way the British do, the country would be feeling the effects of the recent credit squeeze far more strongly than they are. House prices have levelled off but the market is still healthy which is more that can apparently be said for the price avalanche in the UK, not to mention Gorgeous Gordon's strolling band of incompetents spreading confusion and mayhem wherever they choose to fire off an ill-conceived directive.

Beddy Byes.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

And so it goes on...

No real development in the 'noisy neighbour' stakes but the situation does throw up a moot point: at which juncture does one's own behaviour become antisocial? In seeking merely a decent night's sleep you're pushed to act in a manner you wouldn't normally choose. Having banged loudly on the door of the people upstairs a few nights back we actually had peace until the following morning. Not that much of an achievement, I admit, considering it was already gone 1am. The night after, things were back to normal: tangoing whales and break-dancing mammoth. This whole issue should have moved to the next level a while ago: engaging the owner to do something about the insulation of her property, but she's never at home. We've sent her a letter but the jury's out on whether she even acknowledges it. How much time should we leave her before contacting the town hall's housing department? A week? Three weeks? Difficult to say when you already dread going home in the evening, sure in the knowledge that you'll be wasting energy which could be used to positive ends just wondering when the noise is going to start and how long it'll last.

We're certainly not the only people to have this kind of problem; it seems the country is awash with tenants who'd be better housed in soundproof boxes on a riverbed. Yet it seems that those enduring this appalling behaviour receive little or no back-up from the authorities when they try to pursue their case. There are always the courts but my faith in French justice is minimal and this is the kind of thing you should be able to sort out without having to go before a judge.

Talk about wasted energy. There are so many things I'd like to record in my online diary but the daily confrontation with unnecessary domestic noise bundles them all out of brain's back door while this puerile conflict gets the red-carpet treatment all the way up to the main entrance.

So I just went up to ask them again, as politely as possible, to keep the noise down. Apparently, they're going to get in touch with the owner/agency to try to get them to do something about the floor in their flat. The more I go up the more motivated they'll be to actually do something about it, I hope. Hope springs eternal. To be fair, they were all in their stockinged feet and trying, at least while I was there, to walk around as quietly as possible. Even then, I could feel the floor vibrating from where I was standing on the landing. Gordon Bennett; I can't believe I'm writing so much about this but sleep deprivation does strange things to people.

Here's to the next time, when I hope I'll be able to write something I might actually enjoy reading in years to come instead of just this meaningless, domestic drivel.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Here we go...

Now come the two weeks from hell. Tons of stuff on at work with a mountain of extra-curricular activities to slot in in all available holes in the diary. It's no wonder my profession is the preserve of singles and the childless: any semblance of routine and regularity is blown to smithereens as soon as your back is turned. Juggling becomes a career necessity and not just a rubric under 'Other Skills' next to Dog Training and Full Driving Licence.

We still pay visits to our upstairs neighbours, altering our tack according to our estimation of their irritation upon seeing us. Oscar Wilde once said: "The definition of insanity is to continually repeat the same action in the hope that things will improve". He must have been thinking of this particular case. It doesn't matter if we're understanding and conciliatory, whether we're brash and abrupt, the result is the same: lots of 'I'm really sorry' and 'we'll pay more attention' and then it's back to square one. In the end it boils down to this: some people are just plain uncivil and inconsiderate. I'm sick to death of trying to put myself in the shoes of people who clearly make no attempt on their side to even come an inch towards you. Some people are just incapable of living close to others and quite a few of our neighbours fall into that category.

Friday, 19 September 2008


What a day. Knackered. Twelve hours of music, pretty much non-stop, then home to listen to the neighbours throwing medicine balls around above and below. Not what you'd call restful. Same again tomorrow, just when people with normal jobs are driving out to the country to sip Pimm's on their terraces...Showbiz: everything about it is appealing.

Long working days do make for an extraordinarily one-dimensional life. I didn't see the Fingernails at all after they went into their classrooms this morning. I'll see them tomorrow morning, but then not until dinner time, and that's Saturday I'm talking about. Sunday will be the same. It's almost like before they were born and I certainly don't want to go back to the period of my life, lucrative as it was. Once you've had children, you never want to imagine your life without them.

So just a shorty today, then. Sleep cannot come quickly enough.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Yes, it's a woman!

American politics never cease to amaze me. Having systematically selected the 'only votable' species for over two centuries: a wealthy white, middle-aged man with good Christian values and a wife with sparkling teeth, the World's Greatest Democracy©, economic powerhouse and self-styled Most Advanced Nation On The Planet has woken up, in 2008, to the existence of women. Having discovered black men in 2007 I suppose it was no surprise to see this nation of extremes go the whole hog and offer a potentially powerful soapbox to someone who calls her children Snap, Crackle and Pop and spends her free time murdering defenceless animals. This political heavyweight has already alluded to the possibility of declaring war on Russia, so one can only assume that news of the Soviet Bloc's demise has not yet reached Alaska. She'll be heartbroken when she finds out about John Lennon and his marriage to Cynthia.

The Republicans must have said to themselves: "Those Democrats, they had one of them woman things with those bumps on the front and 18 million people voted for her to be their candidate. Let's see if we can find one, too". Never the sharpest tools in the box, Republican aides set out on foot from Washington DC with diagrams of the strange species they were looking for and clearly couldn't find one until they reached Alaska. And what a one they got. Goodness only knows what would have happened if the be-lipsticked pitbull was out strangling fish the day the politicos called; John McCain would have ended up with a seal or a former shot putter from the other side of the Bering Strait. I can only hope that Sarah Palin's media honeymoon is as short as the average teenager's attention span and that she'll be exposed as the rather dangerous folly she really is.

Women in politics have a chequered history. Ségolène Royal is still as much of a joke as she was in 2007 and the mere mention of Margaret Thatcher's name, eighteen years after she left power, still makes some people reach for the whisky. I don't know much about either Golda Meir or Mrs. Gandhi but Israel has always been able to stand up for itself and India seems to reinvent itself every few years.

So if anyone fancies another spurious, illegal war with all the terrorist threats it will probably entail, put on your silly hat and holler for Palin; a tandem of her and that reactionary fool McCain might end up making us nostalgic for the current incumbent.

Killing Time

No, it's not time to whip the AK47 out of the cupboard and go on a spree; I've got an hour between dropping the Fingernails off at school and the arrival of the chappy who's going to paint out windows. Mrs. Fingers has gone off to the gym so I'm home alone with too little time to start anything more substantial than dashing off a few lines in my diary.

I've started moonlighting at the local nationally-renowned secondary school. It's an hour of English comprehension every week in term-time and I was quite frankly amazed at the standard of the pupils. Having taught at Berlitz in Paris a few years ago I was expecting seven years tuition to equip the students with no more than the ability to order a beer at a football match, so yesterday's find was a revelation. I feel I may even have marked them a little high, such was my surprise at their level. The school is one of the finest in the country and now I'm beginning to understand why.

Back to real work later on. My department had a little impromptu meeting yesterday at how best to tackle the first project up, so today's rediscovery of the workplace has been pleasantly defused. It'll be fun.

Sunday, 14 September 2008


I did my usually silent upstairs neighbour a great disservice in my last post: the noise actually came from the Copacabana Lounge downstairs and the dustbin was full to overflowing this morning with recyclables. Still, the most alarming thing is not the fact that our Brazilians, who have lived in France for the last twelve years, are incapable of disposing of a wine bottle properly; it's the fact that my normally trustworthy ears couldn't tell where the noise was coming from. These old houses were built with medieval Dolby Surround, it appears.

It's time to come clean: having started this blog as a means to just recording my own everyday thoughts I finally gave in to curiosity and decided to register it in a directory. It's part of Expat Blog (; they provided what looked like a hyperlink to show me how to set up a direct connection between the two but the nice little blue word didn't do anything, so I'll just give it a plug right here.

So if anybody does end up reading this, then welcome! Don't expect photos, links to websites or any of that tacky tosh; the beauty of computers is that you can still communicate using nothing more modern than good, old-fashioned words and that's the way I intend to keep it.

Back to work, tomorrow. It's been four months, four countries and a few other engagements since I last darkened their doors contractually and I'm looking forward to it.

Other than that, it was one hell of a dull Sunday. Plus our only city centre park is about to be occupied for a month by a travelling fair. Yes, a whole month. It's called the Fête St. Michel and apparently has its roots in tradition when the eponymous district was awash with vagabonds, thieves, disgruntled waitresses and other assorted ne'er-do-wells. It still is, but it's a lot more expensive, now. This infernal fair isn't even in St. Michel: they've shoved it over the border into our main park which means we have nowhere to take our children after school until the middle of October. Sure, we'll go once to have a ride and a candy floss but we'll have to be creative for the rest of the time.

I also wonder how long it'll take to finish all the work in, on and around the law courts. The little square will be absolutely gorgeous once it's all done, and then maybe the other owners will then up the rent on their properties and get a bunch of tenants in who have some concept of communal living.

Top Floor Entertainment

I don't know what it is about top floor flats, but they only ever seem to attract the most marginal of tenants. OK, they're invariably the smallest, least well-maintained and often bizarrely cut, but it really shouldn't mean that whoever lives up there needs to express his/her individuality by being criminally anti-social. Our new neighbours who live in the studio above our bedrooms have about as much civic conscience as drugged woodlice and this evening it's the turn of the bloke who lives in the one above our sitting room. I'll be fair: we've heard neither sight nor sound of him for weeks, but tonight he seems to be celebrating something and the 300-year-old floorboards are creaking under the weight of the merrymaking. He's normally incredibly discreet but he seems to be spending his capital right now...

The odd ones out in the house are us. We're more or less the only owner-occupiers and are surrounded by single students, Syrian somethings, Brazilian dancers (I kid you not) and an Irish chef. We're also the only ones who ever worry about having a bit of peace and quiet after 8pm. The Brazilian girls have a couple of children but don't appear to be concerned about how much sleep their offspring get. In a normal world we'd be living out in the country in a four-bedroom house, spending money on a time-share on the ring road, but we decided to do things differently. I'm still not sure we made the right choice, regardless of how good the schools are, how expensive the neighbourhood is or how close to my work it's situated. There will always be a downside, and neighbourly noise is the one grabbing all the headlines in our little world at the moment.

The birthday party season has started. Fingernail 1 was invited this afternoon and her little diary is filling up fast. Her birthday is just around the corner, too, so somehow we've got to squeeze a few mini friends into our bijou shoe box for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon before next month. Fingernail 2 feels a bit put out by all of Big Sis's activities but takes it all pretty stoically. Until she starts screaming with jealousy, that is.

Time for bed. Sunday morning in France is one of life's joys: all the important shops are open (wine merchants, newsagents, cafés) and I invariably bump into a coffee-worthy acquaintance at the market. It's a welcome semi-colon in the weekend, especially for those who haven't been able to get out of the city. The Fingernails enjoy their glass of mint syrup, too, so everyone's taken care of.

Monday, 8 September 2008

And hell, what a barbeque it was! Gorgeous house, set in 2.5 hectares of manicured garden, spotless swimming pool, sunny weather and more good food than you could throw a Mr. Creosote at. Wine, beer and good company on tap. Now that's more like it. The Fingernails spent the whole afternoon in the pool and zonked out as soon as their little heads hit the pillow. Which was just as well as the Syrians in the badly-insulated flat upstairs are now five in number, which gives them 5 square metres each. Did I mention there's a ten-month-old baby there, too? If we didn't see any elephants in the Safari Park we can picture a herd of them upstairs: them simply walking around above our bedroom makes the walls shake. I don't know if there's any legal recourse to getting the landlady to at least provide them with a carpet, but we really have to do something before we go crazy by sleep deprivation. Mrs. Fingers realises that she's only going to make herself ill if she carries on fretting about it so we're viewing this situation as a Magic Flute-like series of tests. Whether we fare as well as Tamino and Pamina is still open, though.

Spending time in the country, surrounded by so much space cemented our mid-term decision to move out of the centre. Our delightful little flat will at least remain stable due to its location and virtually all the areas we're looking at are gently falling in price. The ideal time should come in about a couple of years, when we should be able to grab a five-bedroom villa with a pool, seven acres of garden, a live-in nanny and a courtesy helicopter for 45p.

We can dream, can't we? Providing we can get to sleep in the first place, that is.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Now I don't want to get all alarmist on you (on me?), but something's afoot with the quality of the food we're eating. I was born and brought up on English school dinners in the sixties and seventies which basically means I could eat a rancid shoe with melted telephone sauce on top and not feel remotely queasy. In all my now forty-six years of existence I've never had a problem with anything I've eaten, until now. I mentioned a bout of food poisoning from an otherwise charming restaurant in Carcassonne a few months ago and yesterday night, having eaten an innocuous-looking industrial chocolate pudding I was back on the big white telephone to remind God he was still important to me.

OK, two pukes in five months isn't so bad, you might think. It is. When you have no previous history in way over half your natural life expectancy, two food chunders before autumn is harrowing. I don't have facts and figures at my disposal of how poor farmers are being forced to feed dead mice to their chickens or how cows are now ordering Agent Orange aperitifs at the bar, but somewhere we're all being taken for fools. Corn crops are now being channelled towards the production of the Emperor's New Bio Fuels and we're being made to pay through the nose for the sordid muck which is left over. It all makes you want to believe Alan Partridge's famous rant about farmers making pigs smoke.

Other than that, today was a great success. Mrs. Fingers and I set off with the Fingernails a bit later than anticipated to visit a local safari park. It was teeming with rain, but when you've hired a car expressly for this purpose you're not going to let a bit of precipitation put you off. Our Berlingo sat alone in the car park, most of the animals had barricaded themselves into their shelters and the only one who showed a bit of initiative was a zebra who licked our car. The lion was having none of it, though, as were the monkeys, the hippo, the panthers, the jaguars or the kangaroos. The sealion show was cancelled. A couple of Siberian tigers squared up to one another out of sheer boredom but soon gave it up as a bad job. The café was closed and the Fingernails were starving. By the time we got out, all the restaurants in the surrounding towns had finished serving, thus torpedoing our little dream of - gasp! - a lunch out, so we ended up driving home and having a plate of rice to calm our still delicate tummies. Top that if you can.

Tomorrow we're invited to a barbeque...

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Three months is a long time to go without submitting a post on a blog, but I've decided to space my thoughts out rather than post daily with such observations as "I've noticed I've peed on my shoe". The fact that I just have is neither here nor there.

We all spent ten weeks in Germany and Austria, me working at an international music festival most of the time and the four of us hiving off down to Austria from time to time to stay with friends who own a luxury hotel in the Alps. I gave a recital there with a baritone from the Vienna State Opera and, in a flash, a new concert series was born: future editions will feature high-quality singers from the festival with an evening in July and one in August. Dates will depend on our availability. Come along!

The cleanliness and ease of life in those two countries hits you when you return to urban France. We live in a beautiful city, but how difficult can it be to just keep it a little cleaner? Evidently impossible. Our bin has been stolen, meaning the other residents merely pile up their rubbish bags by the front door and hope the dustman - sorry, 'refuse officer' - will take them. Mrs. Fingers has to go to the police tomorrow morning to ask for another one. No doubt she'll have to spend about an hour with a highly motivated guardian of the peace to get through the associated paperwork, a wonderful use of police time.,

Without wanting to go into all the reasons why basic, day-to-day existence is more manageable in German-speaking countries I have to say that one's mindset over there, having realised one is not going to receive a single bill or a single call from marketing companies during the entire stay, is totally different. Add the fact that we were living one minute from both the forest and my workplace and had a wonderfully large garden and you'll understand the peace which descends on you as soon as you set foot in the place. If we were there permanently, life would be different (I spent 11 years in Germany yet still never considered it home) but for an extended summer stay it's absolutely divine. It's not high on many people's list of preferred holiday destinations, but more fool them: you come back relaxed, rested and at peace with more than just your own existence.

A couple of days after hitting the mediterranean tarmac I was off to play a private concert at the house of some wealthy retired Brits and immediately rediscovered the peace and tranquility we'd got so used to in Bavaria. It really is possible, here; you just have to move out of town and pitch your tent next to a field of sunflowers or some such. It would be lovely to be able to do that, but commuting six days a week would take the gloss off the view, providing it was ever light enough to see it at the end of a working day. Wouldn't see the Fingernails as much, either, and that pretty much swings it.

Night all. Back to work.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

We all like a dummy run at something to make sure the important event runs smoothly : mock ‘O’ levels, that is to say, those exams we used to sit before straight ‘A’s started to fall out of cereal packets ; altitude training before World Cups in Mexico and theatre dress rehearsals. Whilst a German Christmas replete with gingerbread and mulled wine, a Carnival in Rio and a White Night in St. Petersburg can conjure up engaging images of whole countries, France’s public persona could be defined by a prolonged period of inactivity i.e. the months of July and August. To enjoy these few weeks to maximum effect, the country needs a trial run. Religious festivals, white flags and human rights put their heads together and came up with…the month of May.

In Britain, we used to have May Day and Whit Monday, a pretty understandable and harmless system by anyone’s reckoning. Never to be left behind in the pursuit of meaningless political correctness, Whit Monday ceded to the pedestrian Spring Bank Holiday in 1971 and, just in case anyone was confused by a simple rhyme, May Day became the prosaic and uninspired Early May Bank Holiday. Should we ever have to re-christen the Queen we could no doubt rely on this same name-quango to come up with ‘Smiling Woman with Crown’. Whatever the title, two days at May’s extremities devoted to waiting at traffic lights outside B&Q keeps Britain happy and productive, so what do they do in France ?

Exactly a week after Labour Day, May 1st, the Germans decided in 1945 that enough was enough. Having started the month with 24 hours of inactivity the French still feel, sixty-odd years on, that the best way to nurture a new, enlightened European cuddle-fest with their mighty neighbours is to carry on rubbing their noses in their defeat by continuing to observe the anniversary of their demise as a national holiday. Easter fell earlier this year than a three-legged horse in 2.30 at Aintree so Ascension and Pentecost were sprinkled into the mix. As luck would have it, Ascension fell on May 1st, provoking enormous debates in the media about losing a day’s sitting around sipping aperitifs. Many employers backed down, offering an additional day which most people took…immediately ! As May 1st was a Thursday that made for a long weekend. More was in store the next week after Armistice Day, also a Thursday. With Pentecost looming the following Monday, many citizens of the country who voted Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency on his ticket of ‘work more to earn more’ invoked their inalienable human right to take another day off. Yes, dear readers : Friday, May 9th had as much chance of seeing sweat and toil as a turkey hanging around Bernard Matthews’ rifle store has of seeing Christmas.

This habit of taking a day off between a public holiday and a weekend (or vice versa) is called ‘doing the bridge’ and is perfectly respectable, nay, sometimes encouraged. It’s a bit like having an unspeakably badly-behaved child and, instead of taking time out to consider the shortcomings of either his diet, upbringing or both, deciding to give his delinquency a convincing, pseudo-medical name. In a country which already religiously observes upwards of nine public holidays annually, a 35-hour working week and a bottomless summer pit of inertia, the obsession with ‘doing the bridge’ can only be attributed to Lazysod Syndrome. Even our childrens’ school suffers from it : after a two-week Easter holiday they opened for three days before taking a four-day weekend. The following Wednesday was the monthly ‘Class-free day’ (funny how that never seems to fall during the vacations) and were, naturally, closed on Armistice Day. With an academic rhythm of six weeks’ tuition followed by a fortnight off, no-one can claim that France’s teaching staff are overworked : upwards of a certain age group, teachers are required to spend no more than 17 hours a week in front of pupils; the rest of their paid time being allocated to preparation and marking. I compare that to my mother spending 8.45am to 4pm in front of a class of 40 children, Monday to Friday, coming home and cooking for two sons before sitting down with her schoolwork until late into the night and could weep.

‘Doing the Bridge’ isn’t confined to single weekends. This year, some people took the surrounding, pesky un-bridgeable ‘working days’ off and partied from May 1st to Pentecost, thus concocting a Spring Break comparable to an entire year’s vacation allowance in the US, for example. Golden Gate, anyone ?

France wouldn’t be France if some people didn’t take a screwdriver to the back of this already terminally-blonde one-armed holiday bandit and look for more. A nationwide strike was decreed on May 15th by various civil servant unions to protest about President Sarkozy’s projected reforms, their purchasing power etc. Naturally, there was no school and protesters filled the streets in many major cities and towns that afternoon: change the world, yes, but only after I’ve had my lunch. Great traditions are upheld in this country, so it’ll come as no surprise to know that this month’s National Therapy Day was…a Thursday.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Enjoy or be damned.

The Fingers Family don't take many trips out; my work schedule puts paid to a normal family life for the most part, but this morning was different. Faced with a difficult new project on Monday (coinciding conveniently with the school holidays) I threw myself at the recreational mercy of Mrs. Fingers and consorts. Bearing in mind we have no car and that it was already mid-morning we plumped for Carcassonne: not far and containing a medieval fortress we'd never visited.

Carcassonne itself is a pleasant enough little town if you're not too demanding: straight, narrow streets in the centre with the usual spattering of chain stores and a few independent boutiques. Still, the only reason anyone ever goes there is to bypass its doubtless abundant charms and ask for directions to the citadelle. We got there at about 2.30pm after an adequate, pleasantly-served lunch in the centre. It's a stunning sight from outside and really pretty impressive within: everything as it must have looked in the middle ages, presuming medieval fortresses then were packed with restaurants, souvenir shops and pancake stalls. The buildings have been wonderfully restored and maintained without falling into the trap one sees too often in Germany: the Disney Renovation, where 400-year-old houses look like they were just shipped out of Epcot Centre's 'World Showcase'. Some of the restaurants actually looked pretty good and the souvenirs weren't all tat but I couldn't help feeling it all looked a bit like a more natural version of the Las Vegas casino resorts. A few years ago I spent an afternoon in Venice: jam-packed with tourists and impossible to find any atmosphere. 'The only time to see this place would be in the middle of the night in midwinter' I said to myself and - lo and behold - a few years later I had to go there in early February. It was divine: hardly a tourist in sight, wonderful weather (God bless global warming) and the chance to be the only person in a square off the beaten track. I'm not sure I'll have the same luck with Carcassonne, but I can hope.

The train, a TER regional push-me-pull-you, was high on style and low on practicality. For carriages that large there were astonishingly few seats. Add to this the fact that the average train traveller down these parts would rather lick a dead rat than stand for even part of their journey, you wonder who researched the logistics of these things. People squashed and huddled themselves together where it would surely have been more comfortable to be suspended out of a window by their ankles. Personally, I'd rather stand and have a bit of elbow room than get intimate with a home-travelling student with a bag full of dirty washing.

The Fingernails were exhausted after all the walking, climbing and travelling and fell asleep almost immediately their heads hit the pillows. Mrs. F has also taken off and turned the light out, rather scotching my hopes of getting through another thirty-odd pages of Martin Amis tonight, but there you go. It's the internet or sleep for me, now.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Why Buy?

One of the joys of not owning a car is being able to spend hours on the internet, searching for 'deals' which may or may not bear some resemblance to the price you paid the last time you wanted a temporary conveyance smelling of pine and new plastic. Living in the centre of town we've opted for the 'let's rent one when we really need one' school of thought and up till now it's done us proud. That way, we get to test drive a regular variety of the industry's finest smaller offerings in readiness for the day when we may actually get one of our own. The difference in the prices offered are extraordinary and unearthing a bargain becomes almost a pre-bedtime mania. Until it gets so bloody boring that you just want to hurl your computer through the nearest window before going off to do something mildly more interesting, like reading 'Hansard'.

Still, the car search means one thing, and one thing only: we're getting ready to travel, get some fresh input in our daily lives, catch up with relatives and eat motorway food. Germany has a novel system in place in motorway service areas: you pay 50 cents for the use of spotless loos and receive a coupon to that value which you can then redeem for goods and services in the rest of the complex. It's a decent, if somewhat macabre idea: "Here, my two craps and a pee for that bottle of apple juice and a Mars Bar". In handing over your coupons you basically inform the cashier that you have evacuated your bowels and/or bladder not fifty feet from where you're now getting a newspaper and a sandwich. I prefer to keep that kind of information to myself when out and about, but, financially speaking, those bodily functions add up.

Sorry to have mentioned that, but the Fingernails have been perfecting their Jackson Pollock tributes, again. It's gastro-bug time in this fair southern city and our two haven't been spared. Nor have the duvets, sheets or pyjamas for that matter. Nonetheless, they're over the worst and our washing machine hasn't yet stormed out in disgust, so we can consider ourselves lucky.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Late, again.

One of the purposes of blogs appears to be that of wanting to inform a hopefully large readership that the writer has nothing of any interest to say and it is in this proud spirit, dear online diary, that I am blogging tonight. My team have beaten AS Roma 2-0 away from home in the Champions' League, I've received a few nice e-mails from friends and that is basically it. Nothing is left of today except the prospect of my very comfortable bed with, I hope, a pretty interesting dream to follow.

We have very nice neighbours one floor below. Their only drawback is that they possess neither the intelligence nor the wherewithal to recycle. Where we live, this means walking fifty yards to a set of special bins, but this appears to be beyond them. They produce more waste than China and India combined and our bin fills up quicker than a glass dipped in the bath. I try not to get angry about it, telling myself I did the same at their age, but that was in an era and a country which shunned the idea of re-using anything. And no, it wasn't the USA: Highgate, N6 didn't have one recycling bin to its name in 1996.

Enough of this drivel. I'm off to bed.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Married to a Hollywood Starlet.

If it hadn't been for Ricky Gervais a lot of people would never have given film and TV extras a second thought. Through the humour and frustration we learn, basically, that their work is badly paid and offers fewer prospects than a professional dog-walking agency (providing you don't doorstep Patrick what's-his-name on a good day). One of Mrs. Fingers' various skills is the fact that she's trilingual and her CV credit of interpreter on a theatrical production here in France earned her a phone call from the local Job Centre, asking her to please submit a suitably seductive full-length photo of her good gallic self for consideration for extra work on a TV series being filmed in the city. She can only have passed with flying colours as a stressed but pleasant Parisian TV functionary called her with instructions on where to go and when and, please, to dress in such-and-such a manner. Meat and drink to the eclectic Fingers clan, so off she went this morning, dressed like a psychiatric nurse i.e. white trousers and pumps armed with a couple of books and a lot of curiosity.

Needless to say, her main encounter of the course of the day was with the refreshment tent but come 2 o'clock she and her colleagues got 'the call' and duly trotted off to be filmed briefly chatting, responding to questions and leaving shot. My newly-incarnated TV actress spouse came back about twelve hours later, tired and rather frozen. Twelve hours of sitting around in a disused hospital (yes, they even have those in France) in near-zero temperatures is not everyone's idea of a fun day out but observing the machinery of TV production was, by all accounts, pretty interesting. According to a couple of other extras, it was a fairly satisfactory day; one told of having to spend hours running back and forth over a bridge in pouring rain...

So, who knows? Maybe this will be Mrs. Fingers' big break and she'll be off to Hollywood to ingest illegal substances at some bimbo-waitress-actress' house party before falling into the swimming pool with Leonardo di Caprio.

My day as working househusband started with getting the Fingernails fed, washed and dressed, off to nursery school and crêche, putting in a few hours at work, picking up Fingernail II at noon, making lunch, picking up Fingernail I from school along with a couple of friends' short people, coming home, plying them with something to keep their bellies full and their mouths closed before getting the evening meal ready. A routine, in short, as endured by millions of dutiful parents all over the world and one which I sample only intermittently. If my work could take care of itself I'd be happy to do it more often.

If any of my non-existent readership have never heard 'Oedipe' by Georges Enescu, I sincerely recommend that you remedy that situation immediately: it's phenomenal. Matter of taste, of course, but a juicy chunk of opera right up my alley: like Debussy and early Schoenberg on drugs. Intoxicatingly mellifluous harmonic shifts couple with sublime orchestration and theatricality in spades. Live recording from Vienna, available on Naxos.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Piano Lessons

One of the pleasant aspects of not giving piano lessons is realising how enjoyable they can be if you just take on one student and that person turns out to be actually very good. I get picked up, driven out to their house in the country, plied with wine and nibbles, paid for my input and guidance and then dropped back home. It's a far cry from my student days in Manchester when I'd take a bus off to teach a collection of largely unmotivated teenagers, arriving home far too late to do any serious practice of my own and without sufficient funds to at least pick up a halfway decent bottle of Chateau Castrol from the corner shop. This student was an offshoot from my choral conducting job, another expat pursuit and one which further bears out the difference in the British Expat community here in France compared to the lager louts we seem to have exported to Spain and Portugal, where you only seem to find a good sing-song around bars showing In-ger-lund matches on satellite TV. How the locals must curse our existence down there and how fortunate we are to be living in a country where we're greeted with courtesy and, for the most part, intelligence. A lot of it is probably down to our behaviour: treat your environs with respect and respect will be shown to you. Maybe France also attracts a different kind of expat; those who wish to integrate are welcomed and those who don't at least have the good sense and manners to stay holded up in their converted barns, only torturing the locals with their school French once a fortnight when they realise they're out of Marmite.

So Sarko is off to visit Queen Betty, if only for a day and a night. I trust he'll be briefed on etiquette and told to keep his Blackberry in his pocket whilst in Royal Presence. I can't help but feel it's a move to make himself look more statesmanlike in the eyes of his now disgruntled followers. He had everything going for him last May but seems to have blown a considerable amount of goodwill and support in a virtuosically short space of time. Still, like I mentioned yesterday, never write the man off...

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Long Time, No Readers.

I'm not in the habit of apologising to myself but I will just this once: it's been a long time since I posted anything so, sorry, Mr. Fingers. Nice to come back and see a complete absence of comments; rather like coming home after the summer holiday and finding you haven't been burgled. Still, as I've mentioned before, this blog is for me to record my thoughts and it would appear that I've not had one since last December.

In some ways that's true. Work has been ludicrously, sometimes pleasantly, invasive. Add a few external projects, another choir-training session and the usual demands that the Fingernails present you with and you find yourself happy just to curl up with a good book or a good wife in the evening. The witty and salient comments I dream up on the walk to work immediately get drowned like puppies in a sack as soon as I start working. By the time I leave I'm focussed on hugging the family, having some dinner and a couple of glasses of wine before putting the short people to bed and beating back the tide of often nonsensical e-mails with a sharp stick.

President Sarkozy has plummeted in peoples' estimation. The French like their Head of State to be a composed patrician, tending his EU-subsidised flock with avuncular care whilst reeking of bespoke outfitting and pre-Napoleonic financial reserves. Sarko's mirror shades, jeans, rapper jewellery and Euroslapper wife have not gone down too well in a time when prices for household basics have soared. Even our city has lurched to the left for the first time in Mrs. Fingers' lifetime. Don't bet on the Prez not turning it around, though; the man is a genius of reinvention.

The French have taken the smoking ban lying down. I'd never have thought it from this country, but that's just what's happened. Apart from the odd hunger-striking bar owner, practically no-one has offered any resistence. Seeing as healthy people will ultimately be more of a burden on the social services in later life than smokers it seems a little contradictory to encourage (or force) people to stop smoking if you really want to reduce state debt. Raise the retirement age and encourage people to light up a Marlboro; that way, everyone keels over whilst still contributing to the system. Problem solved.