Monday, 28 February 2011

Cindy Boyer

I don't know how many of you reading this blog will have heard of the case of five-year-old Cindy Boyer. She was placed with a foster family at the age of ten weeks, then recently suddenly removed - some say kidnapped - by the Gers Social Services and placed with another family. The official explanation given was that she and the foster parents had "established too close a bond. There was too much love between them and it was deemed necessary to sever the emotional bonds". The Prefect of the Gers went on to say that the decision was taken "in the child's best interests". We at Château Fingers are not the only ones to be absolutely appalled by this, yet another incomprehensible action by Social Services of any country (Britain appears to be no better) and took part in a march the foster parents organised in Toulouse. There's an online petition calling for the renewed placement of this poor child with M. and Mme Boyer:

If you're as speechless as we still are, then please sign it and forward the link to anyone you may know. Thanks.

OK, let's get prolific.

This must be about the fourth or fifth post I've published, today. Funny how a little prod from a couple of people can get the juices flowing again, even if the subjects are so criminally vacuous as to merit public flogging. I've decided I'll start another blog to note down my pre-French life and just save this one for what it was set up for.


Did you (I?) know that a disproportionately high percentage of left-handers work in the arts, or that a surprisingly large amount of stammerers work in communication? Do you care? No, and why should you; it's not your problem. I've managed to overcome the worst of the latter affliction but continue to proudly write upside down, as we lefties are wont to do, so that we don't smudge what we've just jotted down. Concerning stammering, I was interested to see that Colin Firth won an Oscar for his portrayal of George VI, and not just because a lot of people have told me I look like him; even Mrs. Fingers did a double-take when she saw his photo on the front page of the Telegraph website this morning.

The film was good, even if it did over-simplify the hell we go through on occasions and downplay the drawn-out personal therapy we subject ourselves to. I could barely get a sentence out when I was teenager, a period when insecurity spreads through our being like a coked-up Ferrari, though now it just manifests itself briefly and occasionally via the odd consonant. One of my 'prepa' students is similarly afflicted the way I was in those days, and we talked quite a lot about how we deal with it (a surprisingly fluid conversation, actually). We've compared notes on the film and both feel like there's a little more understanding for this awful, debilitating affliction (sorry, can't be bothered to look up a synonym). Stammers diminish as time goes on as we gradually acquire more self-confidence and affirmation of our place in society. Sounds like psychobabble, but it is true. I sincerely hope my student finds the same.

What's interesting is why people who have such difficulty speaking are drawn towards work in the communications sector. Some of it must be down to defiance and a will to overcome an impediment; you either fight it or you die. David Attenborough would probably call it the survival instinct. Even when my stammer was quite palpable I loved speaking in public. It was almost like defying the audience to cringe, laugh or walk out, shaking their heads. In the end, you do it for yourself: you set yourself a yardstick and you take a running jump. The worst that can happen is you fall flat on your face.

Oh, the joys of TV...

We subscribed to Darty Box for our internet/phone and TV connection a few years ago. Seeing as the TV option was the same price as the first two, we decided to take it, even though neither of us had any intention of getting our brain fried by TF1 or any of their partners in social crime in the foreseeable future. However, Mrs. Fingers recently started to evoke the potential of foreign TV so the Fingernails could get even more English and Spanish than they already have (and that's a lot). The final push was provided by internet video footage of whacky Colonel Gaddafi coughing up a furball in front of a tacky monument and no public. "Wouldn't it be good to have TV right now?" I was 'asked'. So off I trotted to the spare room to dig out the Darty Box TV decoder, various flexes and installation instructions.

You've got to hand it to Darty: their product is superb. Easy to install, works immediately (and no, they're not paying me). Still, just zapping through the moronic fare we're now going to have to pay €150 a year to host in our modest abode made my stomach churn. OK, daytime TV is a beast unto itself, but all the same: what a collection of utter crap. Channel 1 is automatically tuned to TF1, presumably working on the assumption that undemanding channel surfers, like internet surfers, will automatically click on the first option they're offered. I certainly wasn't feeling lucky when I saw the tikka-tinged afternoon game show host flashing his 35,000 capped choppers in front of an audience of school skivers and terminally unemployable, overweight Aldi-shoppers. The English, Spanish, Italian and German channels don't crop up until about 571 onwards, so there was a lot of contemporary society detritus to plough through before that particular discovery.

No doubt everyone will be delighted when they come home and discover they can now spend several hours a week watching content-free, animated entertaining versions of information they could read in The Economist for a fraction of the cost, but there you go. With more unrest predicted in the Arab world, we can now watch lots of brown people kicking seven shades of shit out of each other in real time. Great.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Useful Circles

Anyone who claims that children put a brake on your professional life have either never reproduced or live in neighbourhoods where the pinnacle of personal achievement is being able to cough without breaking wind. Other parents can be extraordinary fertile networking sources (they can also be extraordinarily fertile full stop, if you will) and ours has certainly done me proud these last few years.

Music is a pleasurable-enough way to earn your living, but if you really want a buzz with no two days the same, then you should teach English. No kidding. It's great. I did a couple of years at Berlitz in Paris about ten years ago and was amazed at how much I learned about other people's careers, expectations, hopes, dreams and disappointments, as well as a fair bit about passing on the language of Shakespeare and Bernard Manning. Aside from my euphonious day job I've been moonlighting at a large lycée in the centre of Toulouse and was asked a few months back to teach 30 hours at one of the city's universities. Both of these offers came from fellow parents at the Fingernails' school, my main qualification being, in their eyes, the fact that I was, er, English. The fact I'd done it before did help, though.

The lycée students aren't actually schoolchildren, they're university-age and attending 'classes préparatoires' with a view to getting accepted at one of France's so-called 'Grandes Ecoles', graduating as highly-qualified civil servants who will then suck on the big tit of the French state until their demise. If you are French, your entire future will be played out between the ages of 11 and 19; fail your bac and you can't realistically hope for more than the minimum wage at any time in your life. Get into a Grande Ecole and you're set. It's a bit like Oxbridge: it's not just the education, it's the contacts you make while you're there which often turn out to be as, if not more, important in your subsequent journey through life. Still, all this is a post in its own right, and I'll get around to it soon enough. Suffice to say that these 'prepa' egg-heads often have an astoundingly high level of English. They are, without exception, extremely intelligent, motivated, resourceful and courteous. They basically teach themselves while I sit there with a finger up my nose. Well not really, but you know what I mean.

Anyhow, back to these 30 university hours. I had a few months to prepare for this period, where I would hold seven four-hour classes and finish off with a 2pm - 4pm session before the students dispersed to their various internships. It was a group of 14, thirteen women and one man, and the level was probably going to be intermediate. Believe me, four hours is a long time for students of that level to concentrate, so I had to plan my lessons thoroughly, alternating speech with written exercises, comprehension games and a juicy break in the middle of it all where we could all relax with a coffee. I might have mentioned French contemporary architecture before in a post, but I'm going to dredge the matter up again, if only to reiterate my open-mouthed incomprehension concerning their urban planning. In England we had red-brick universities: modern, fairly interesting constructions, no two alike. In France, maybe to underline their inherent socialist principals, we have one uniform style: grey, poor-quality, weather-beaten concrete. With bits missing. Situated on main roads between disused petrol stations. Urban France is a rich version of the Soviet Union. The centres are invariably delightful, the late 20th-century urban sprawl that surrounds them meandering, characterless and depressing. Needless to say, most modern universities are located on the cities' peripheries, and my establishment was no exception. Opposite the building was a tagged and vandalised car garage, irresistably monikered 'Auto Université'. On our left, an Esso station, to the right a car park with a single wooden cabin situated in its centre, selling pizzas. This is the France that Peter Mayle never writes about. And why should he, to be fair...

My students were all doing a Master's course in Documentation and Information Management. Hearing that immediately reminded me of day one of our Berlitz training in Paris, when someone said 'But what if I don't know anything about the student's line of work?'. Dave, our Leader and Teacher, responded: 'Get them to tell you'. Simple, yet invaluable advice. If you're talking, the student isn't learning. Berlitz was a bit sound-bitey on occasions, but the guidelines were worth their weight in gold. Anyhow, faced with thirteen delightful twenty-something ladies in today's Toulouse, I was determined these lessons were going to be rewarding. They introduced themselves: 'My name eez Lydia, I have twenty-three years, I leev in Toulouse since five years'. Anyone who's ever taught English in France or to the French will be familiar with this. They were terribly shy about speaking at first, but by the end of the thirty hours they were talking about their interests and fielding questions from the others while I just sat there like a Wimbledon line judge.

Some moments were pretty hairy, though. When one girl said 'I was enjoyed a lot when I went to Paris last week' I had to suppress a playground titter. Ever curious and desirous to improve, she pressed me for an explanation of what she'd said. Having intimated that I couldn't explain it without the presence of my lawyer she burst into fits of laughter. And then went extremely red. They all improved drastically over the time we spent together and I've been asked to do it again, next year. Can't wait. Documentalists are a lot of fun, you know. My Mum was a librarian and she's still a hoot.

One particular episode of that time warrants a mention. The IUT building is surrounded by a metal fence, a greying, rusty, knee-high barrier. An Open Day - Journée des Portes Ouvertes - was planned for mid-February. This was a Big Deal for the admin crowd and flyers a-plenty were being distributed all over the place. In-house TV and radio were everywhere and I was asked i.e. told to open up my English class so that prospective students could come in and observe a coven of petrified trainee female librarians trying not to say they were gang-banged the last time they went up the Eiffel Tower. In the end, I managed to reduce public access to my group for fifteen minutes...

In preparation for this Open Day, the University's Supreme Soviet ordered that all fences, gates etc should be painted in order to present the crumbling, grey concrete block in its best light. However, in true communist style, work was either delayed or forgotten, paint deliveries did not materialise and the fences were still dripping wet when the first applicants arrived. Now, we can't have humans near wet paint, can we? That would be far too dangerous, Elf 'n' Safety 'n' all that, so what did they do? They cordoned off all access to the university. Yes, you read that right. In order to get to the Journée Portes Ouvertes, you had to climb over the fence, preferably out of sight of the authorities, who would have chastised you for loitering with intent near aqueous substances. The cordon was the official red and white variety, too; no messing around. It won't surprise you to hear that no-one came to observe our lesson; how could they, when the university wouldn't even let them in to the Open Day?

Not only, but also...

In an attempt to return to my original reason for starting this blog, I'm going to add occasional episodes that I want to remember from my pre-French life, namely Germany, the USA, Canada, Mexico etc. Many years ago, my mother gave me a bundle of A4 sheets that my father had typed, recounting events from his working life in MI6 and the Royal Navy in Raj-era India and Lebanon. I must have read them about fifty times when they unaccountably went missing. Considering these were only two ports of call in a professional life that took him to the Nuremberg trials, working as a spy in Germany and Poland in the Second World War, starring in West End plays opposite Jack Hawkins (with whom he shared digs) and an extended spell in post-war Soviet counter-espionage, it's fairly natural I should mourn the disappearance of his musings and anecdotes. I could never pretend that my words would ever be as interesting as his, but maybe my grandchildren would enjoy stories about their grandad falling into a sewer on Monkey Tree Road in Bali or sailing into Antarctic bays by midnight sun.

Life is apallingly short and we forget details which appeared so important at the time. Maybe blogging or keeping a diary is just a subconscious way of trying to learn from the past.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Out of Hibernation

Something very strange happened this evening: I checked this diary (or blog, whatever) and found that someone had actually read my inane, nocturnal ramblings and had written about them on A Taste of Garlic, another Frogblog. Not only that, but someone else had taken the bait and left a comment on my last post (sometime in April, 2010), hoping I'd start up, again. I'm really very touched and thank you both, Keith and Sarah. Here's a post in your honour; let's hope I don't come over all self-conscious now there are people peering in through our ill-fitting, antiquated shutters. Seeing as I've already published a few articles in the Telegraph and The Connexion (the last, admittedly, about two years ago) this should be child's play, but they were actually destined for public consumption, whereas this wasn't...

Anyhow, here's trying to remind myself what has happened since I last logged in. Business as usual - working in Germany all summer, concerts in Austria and the mother of all autumns at work back here in France, topped off by a hazardous trip back to England for Christmas with the family. The first two days of the holiday were spent at Toulouse Airport, guessing whether or not Easy Jet had bribed the authorities enough to be able to take off at all, until finally they did: at 1.30am. Our driver at Gatwick was asleep in his taxi, so we endured the stomach-churning sensation of looking round an empty arrivals hall at 2am BST, three days before Christmas, with two small children in tow. He eventually turned up - no apology forthcoming - and dropped us off at my mother's place at 6am. It dutifully started snowing while we were having brunch at around 11am, so the rest of the day was devoted to building snowmen, snowball fights and generally being happy about being together in England over the festive period, the first time in fourteen years.

School strikes don't enrage me the way they once did. They exist, they will happen, and that's it. There's an awful lot in this fine country you'll never change, and that's half its charm. Still, there's one element which still baffles my northern European pragmatic sensibility, and that's the fact that it's not what you say but how you say it that counts. The argument is won not by the most informed, but the most eloquent. Here's an example:

Radio Host: Monsieur le Ministre, your department has been criticised as corrupt, wasteful, nepotistic and of having financially supported the slaughter of seal cubs. In fact, three of your staff were actually filmed murdering said creatures in front of Galeries Lafayette yesterday afternoon.

Minister: VoltaireBlahRacineBlahMolièreBlahInsubstantiatedSlanderBlahChateauD'Yquem.

Radio Host: I want you to have my children.

You think I'm joking, don't you? No; seeing as you live in France you know I'm not. The argument is closed by the most skilful wordsmith, and so it will remain. At least until David Beckham becomes President.

Keith pointed out that I've written a lot about illness. Maybe it was the inspiration behind some posts, as we've all enjoyed excellent health since I last wrote. Fingernail II, since coming out of nappies, has been in training for her dotage: she gets up twice a night to go to the loo. That's something I'm not hoping to match for a few years, yet. Her schoolteacher finds her advanced, but five going on eighty is a bit much.

We're going to get a car. This, you might say, is not news. And you'd be right. Only it is for us, as it's the first step towards selling up and going somewhere where grass is underfoot and not something sold on street corners. A couple of years ago, French number plates lost their departmental cachet and became drab successions of numbers and letters. There was an outcry: "We want to keep our departmental numbers! It's the only way we can identify other people from our region when we're on holiday". As legal reasoning goes, the argument was pretty flimsy, but cary-shary Matignon bent its benevolent ear to the marauding hordes and found a wonderful compromise: people could have a cuddly little sticker stuck on the extreme right of their new plate, bearing the number of any department they want. Naturally, everyone plumps for the department which charges them through the nose for water, rubbish removal and town hall hot lines which never answer your call! Genius! It was to be called the 'département du coeur', would be purely symbolic and have no legal significance.

Now, I've been in this département for six years. It's nice, yes, but I feel no more attachment to it than I do to Bedford. So, I asked our local, friendly Tabac/Presse/Number Plate seller if it were possible to have one of these plates with no number on the end. His answer summed up what happens if you listen to the people in this country:

"Non. Unless you want to be fined €75".

Hang on, I said. This was meant to be optional, and now it's compulsory? And it doesn't even have to be the department where you live? What's the point of that?

"That's France, monsieur".

So I'm going to start looking at all of those sweet little stickers and find the one I could live with best. Maybe the aesthetically-pleasing chopped Corsican head or the number 69, just for the hell of it, seeing as that gives me more pleasure than a number plate ever could. And I hope I'm not alone in that.

Time to head off to bed. Tomorrow is all about the wonderful market in the morning and Rossini in the afternoon. Wish it were Wagner, but you'll never find me complaining about my work.

Thanks for the prod, Keith and Sarah. I'll keep writing, even if no-one falls ill.