Thursday, 31 March 2011

French Kissing

There's always talk of how many working hours are lost each year through strikes, absenteeism, illness etc etc. but the French Government never posts statistics on how economic productivity takes a daily knee in the nuts through that most widespread work-stopper: kissing.

Turn up to work in Britain and you'll probably raise a cheerful hand and a smile to acknowledge colleagues before heading off to the canteen for your last coffee before desk time. In France, you kiss everyone, male or female. Don't get me wrong; I'm not talking Richard Burton/Liz Taylor-like smooches (more's the pity, sometimes), but a quick peck on each cheek, sometimes twice on each one depending on what part of the country you're from. I always put a hand on the other person's shoulder, though this is by no means compulsory. It's a delightful social form and a great leveller, even if you basically don't do it to the Managing Director. A group of about thirty of us all met up outside our workplace this afternoon. By the time everyone had kissed everyone else and exchanged niceties, ten minutes had elapsed. Multiply this by the active workforce puckering up at least twice every working day and you can imagine how many more billions would be sloshing around the French economy if people adopted a more presbyterian greeting. And imagine how much poorer we'd all be for it, too. Taken on a really basic level, there's something wonderful about delaying plunging into the labour pit to indulge in a little physical contact with a fellow human being. You also recognise colleagues as flesh-and-blood entities and not solely human elements in a profit-orientated chain. I don't suppose many French people think directly about this when they bemoan the erosion of their quality of life by Big Business, but, as an outsider, it's one of the first things about living here that I think of. May we all delay our economic productivity until we've landed smackers on everyone we know.

It's allergy time! Woo-hoo!

Every bloody year around this time my allergy returns. It doesn't make me sneeze (yet), it just incapacitates my hands: my fingers start to dry up and crack and I can barely move them. When you're a pianist, this has certain disadvantages, particularly when you still have a stack of music to learn for upcoming projects. The only solution is to keep your hands clean and moist with hypoallergenic cream and, if possible, not move your fingers. Great. Only part of that is possible. You have to avoid vile cream soap, which is also not particularly easy when you're not at home, so you end up carrying a travel dish of vegetable soap around with you. I do need some more cream, though, so I'l pick some up on my way to work this afternoon.

Bizarrely, I'm apparently allergic to my own perspiration. Despite the excellence of its health service, only in France could you be diagnosed as being clinically averse to work.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Dull Day

We all have days like this: nothing of note happens, there are no highs, no lows; just 24 hours of normality. I'm fortunate enough to have an interesting job with numerous side benefits like travel, flexible working hours and the like, but I do wonder what it must be like for factory workers or anyone whose profession is not particularly stimulating to have to endure monotony every day of their working lives. As a schoolboy and student I worked a lot in factories: making burger buns for Wimpy Bars, packing pharmaceuticals and contraceptives for sheep (really!), canning peas and potatoes and delivering the Christmas post and I always wondered what it must be like to have to do this all the time. Most of the people I asked were pretty phlegmatic about it: "Oh, it's not so bad; the colleagues are nice and that's all that counts". There was Amin, whose annual highlight was two weeks in Blackpool with his family; Dolly, deaf as a post and cheerful as the day was long would find something to joke about on a freshly-swept factory floor; Jill would spend all day trying to get my trousers off and Brenda spent the day dreaming of meeting a man who didn't take his socks off in bed. She did divorce later, but I don't know whether her next hubby was able to keep her happy for too long; Brenda was sweet, but she was maybe a little too demanding in some ways. Malik, the foreman, would basically tell anyone who was prepared to listen what an incredible man he was. One thing all my factories had in common: they fed you practically for free. Keep their bellies and wallets full and they'll continue to do a job for you. It's basic psychology, but it certainly worked; there was as good as no turnover in those places.

Looking back on those times and you realise why Prime Time TV is such a hit everywhere. The work fries your brain to such an extent that even sitting down in front of the telly and using a remote appears an intellectual step too far. So you stay on Channel 1, wherever you may be on this earth, and your brain gets microwaved even further. Ultimately, you end up voting Socialist. This is the logical sequence.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011


Dear Reader in the USA: Hope you're enjoying the posts. Thanks for coming.

Yoga II

It's now been over two weeks since I stubbed out my last cigarette and just eight days since I started yoga classes, and can't recommend the latter highly enough. It's something that had always fascinated me but was a little sceptical about the kind of hippies I might meet, there. Fortunately, the people are - guess what? - absolutely normal; no John Lennon/Yoko Ono clones to be seen and no long-haired, levitating  septuagenarians with incense pouring out of their ears, or whatever is that happens to them when they achieve nirvana. For me, it's a wonderful mixture of Gym Replacement Therapy with added carpet and relaxation: you get the effects of a workout while being caressed and nuzzled by inexplicable peace and calm. It's amazing, your abs muscle up while your soul gets a handjob. You do have to intone a mystic note at the end, but it's a small price to pay for feeling like the King of the World afterwards. I've decided to consecrate my former tobacco budget to yoga. Grief, I must be getting old. Still love drinking, though.

Chile is on.

Like it says on the tin, I'm going to Chile in May. We managed to find an agreement and now they're sorting out my flights, which I hope will go via Madrid rather than Paris. It'll be three weeks in a culture I'm not terribly familiar with, even if I do speak the lingo pretty well. One thing I have noticed is that they often tend to leave the 's' off the ends of words, so I'm preparing for an 'a' and 'o' overdose where previously I supped on the delicious, slippery letter indicating the plural. Quite frankly, I have no idea what to expect, but everyone I've spoken to who has worked there says it's wonderful. It'll be three weeks without Mrs. F and the Fingernails, but it may well open up future possibilities. Plus, it's a bit of extra money, and that never goes amiss.

I love Germany.

Seriously. Not only have they provided me with the bulk of my employment since leaving music college, they also build the best cars, tools and appliances in the world (yes, you do; don't pretend you don't) and they're currently on course to be my Number One Readership Nation. On top of that, they're honest (mostly) and clean. This ticks a large box in the northern hemisphere of my brain. Let's also not forget Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, two mainstays of my day-to-day emotional stability, and Dolly Buster, a very underrated actress. Germany also provided me with my all-time favourite joke, which I'll recount here:

Three boys in the school playground are taking bets as to whose father is the fastest. The first one says:

"My dad's the fastest man in the world. He's a Formula 1 driver and goes at 400kmh"

The second says: "Ah, that's nothing. My dad's an astronaut and can fly to the moon in half an hour".

The third one says: "You're both pathetic. My dad's easily much faster than both of yours". Intrigued, the two other boys ask him what he does.

"He's a civil servant. He knocks off work at 5pm, but  at three-thirty he's already home".

The punch line actually works better in German (..."der hat um 17 Uhr Feierabend, ist aber schon um halb vier zu Hause").

See? It wasn't even dirty.

Did I mention the Oberfranken micro-breweries?

Monday, 28 March 2011

It's terribly important, you know.

One thing which cracks me up about France is the discrepancy between the supposed importance of a professional task and its subsequent payment. Take Mrs. F's current predicament: she was contacted this afternoon by a panic-stricken events management company to work as a bilingual conference organiser. The conference in question is to take place in Paris mid-May and 13,000 paying guests from the world of cardiology are expected. So far, only 850 have been registered, so the manageress is pretty stressed. Apparently, they started late, blah blah blah, time is of the essence, it's incredibly stressful etc etc etc, yiu have to be able to work under pressure blah blah, you work until six; but don't be surprised if we need you to stay until eight etc, and it's hugely, HUGELY important, you know, particularly as you'll be needed in Paris for the conference itself to re-register latecomers, sort out any problems they may have, extract the now higher fee from them if they hadn't already paid in full. Yes, dear readers; this job is so specialised, stressful, high-powered and important that the event company in question is confiding the logistics to...minimum wagers from the local temp office. Yup, it's that stratospheric. It's probably the same everywhere else, but here in France, unless you really are doing something highly specialised which, quite frankly, not everyone is capable of doing, you are basically condemned to earning no more than the minimum wage until you retire. I know I've mentioned this before, but it blows my mind whenever there's another example of its iniquity. Considering that 90% of this company's work is in English in a country where the average Frenchman or woman can hardly order a portion of chips in our celebrated vernacular, they're happy to pay my perfectly trilingual wife like a cleaning lady. Fortunately, her interpreting work for the Mexican cement company is paid double. Shame it's only for three days.

May Bank Holidays

That post I mentioned about the above days off was posted untitled on June 3rd, 2008, just in case any of you fancied searching it out. Thanks for reading, by the way; I do hope you enjoy it as much as I do writing it.

How different is different?

I still find it amusing that, after thirty years of travelling the globe, I still encounter people who believe that their country is unique. I’ll be specific : this concerns the national psyche and front gardens, euphoric highs and pre-revolutionary lows. Confused ? You won’t be once I’ve finished.

There’s a common myth that the French don’t care what anyone thinks of them. They do ; they just don’t care what you personally think of them. And they’re right. This belief in their own product has resulted in France becoming the world’s number one tourist destination, despite crooked airport taxi drivers, a monolingualism that would make even an In-ger-lund supporter blush and those insalubrious, hole-in-the-floor lavatories which, should you wish to eventually rejoin your friends in the café, require you to do an imitation of a Denis Bergkamp goal celebration. In-ger-lund supporters will know what I’m talking about. For the rest of you, there’s always YouTube.

Despite this seeming bravado, you only need to listen to any morning radio phone-in to realise that French navel-gazing is not exclusively positive. They will not always paint themselves in a positive light, claiming that a particular attitude, point of view, course of action is « typically French » and immediately praise the enlightened path pursued by any of its neighbours (with the possible exception of Belgium). Does this sound in any way remotely familiar ? Of course it does. Whether you’re English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish or anything else, you’ll recognise this automatic self-denigration and may be surprised that other nations go in for the same thing. One of my favourite moments in my early days in Germany back in the 1980’s was when a native friend, following copious refreshment, confided this irrefutable truth in me : « Fingers, you know, the Germans love their front gardens. They will spend hours, days and weeks making sure they look beautiful, and then they will never use them, except for exercising emotional pressure on their neighbours to be as tidy as they. You only find this in Germany ». I nearly choked ; ‘and in Britain’, I told him. Twenty-odd years on and I could add a slew of nations to the list with no fear of contradiction. Many French gardens, like many British ones, are also pigsties, but apparently you’ll only encounter this phenomenon between Lille and Perpignan ; every other nation being horticulturally far more advanced than Sarkoland. At the same time, a self-satisfied, elegantly-phrased gallic explanation as to why your French car’s cruise control failure at 130kmh on the motorway will suffice to extinguish any suspicion of engineering incompetence, one perceives a lone voice from Stuttgart wondering if the new Siemens dishwasher’s capacity to clean a family of four’s daily crockery use with only two litres of water could not somehow be improved. Self-criticism is selective…

It’s now been four years since Nicolas Sarkozy was voted in on a reformist ticket, promising to enable people to ‘work more to earn more’, thus freeing them from their 35-hour week shackles and finally join the unapologetic big earners. A mere year after his triumphant election, France was faced with The Merry Month of May, which, depending on how Easter falls, can provide the French worker with between two and four public holidays a mere handful of weeks before the whole nation goes horizontal for the summer. As dress rehearsals go, it’s pretty impressive. However, in 2008, May Day and Ascension fell on the same day, causing employers to hastily offer another day off as compensation, which most people took…immediately ! Armistice Day (May 8th) was quickly followed by Pentecost (May 12th), so the whole country was involved in ‘Doing the Bridge’, explained in a previous post on this site (Bridge of Sighs, I think...). Everyone forgot why they voted for Le petit Nicolas and reverted to type, i.e. complaining they had to work so much, so this is why I’m interested in seeing the reaction this year…

Just a few weeks from now, May 1st, that staunch, worker-orientated public holiday, will fall on a…Sunday. OK, maybe this won’t be considered so bad. However, a mere week later, France, which still celebrates their 1945 ‘victory’ over Germany (with a little help from their friends, but we don’t mention this, of course), ceremoniously downs tools on the 8th. Oh ! So close ! The 8th is also a Sunday ! This means the man on the street will treat us to one of two options :

« Good thing, too. It’s about time we moved on and forgot all that. In any case, we have so much time off anyway that it’s about time the French knuckled down and actually did some work for a change »


« It’s disgraceful. We work hard all year and then this calendar thing denies us our right to celebrate May Day and Armistice Day appropriately. The government should immediately grant us two extra days’ holiday. After all, it’s what our parents and grandparents fought for ».

Place your bets, but don’t hold your breath.

French cinema

One of the enduring joys of living in France is having French cinema on tap. Sure, they also make brainless, Hollywood-formatted films too, but standard French cinematic fare can range from being merely pleasant to exaltingly life-affirming. I've just come back from seeing one of the latter category: Les femmes du sixième étage (The Women from the Sixth Floor), a story of Spanish maids in Paris in the early 1960's. Anyone who's either been a student or has stayed with shoestring-governed friends in that city will be familiar with this floor composed of maid's rooms, or chambres de bonne; Paris's Hausmannian buildings rarely, if ever, exceeded six floors.  Mrs. F and I lived in one for two years quite a few years ago. It was, in fact, three rooms converted into one decent-sized flat, so we weren't actually being that bohemian. Practically everyone we knew, worked with and socialised with lived on the sixth floor, too; it seemed that you couldn't hope to graduate downstairs until you'd really succeeded in your chosen field. And got considerably older, too.

Anyhow, this film featured one of my favourite French actors, Fabrice Luchini; a man capable of adding two or three stars to any production. I could give you a detailed run-down of the plot, but I prefer to just recommend it to you. The fact that Mrs. F is of Spanish descent means I'd already met a lot of the archetypes portrayed in the film, which served to make the whole experience that much more life-like. apart from anything else, it's sobering to remember that the Spanish were treated with as much contempt and suspicion as new arrivals from the Third World are, now. I won't be around in fifty years' time to see whether they've been integrated as well as well as the Iberians, but seeing how halting North African integration has been these last few decades, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Hah! You see, they were lying!

Just filled in another 'Where I've been'-type page, and it appears I've visited 35.5% of the countries in this world, which seems a little more realistic than the Faecebook-allied effort which tried to imply that I'd not set foot on three-quarters of the planet's official territories. There are also a lot of little Pacific Islands which I've not found listed anywhere, but I know I've been there (Morea, Bora Bora, etc) and the island groups weren't mentioned in the lists, either. I claim I've been to ninety-odd countries and I stick by it; I'll find the proof soon enough.

Where I've been. Dot com.

How many of you know about this website (unfortunately linked to Faecebook)? I clicked on all the countries I'd been to and it appears I've visited 25% of the world. Funny, I thought it was more than that. Most of Africa was untouched, as was the Middle East and Central Asia, but that doesn't make me unduly sad; these are not countries I'm gagging to visit, though I would like to finish off Eastern Europe and the Balkans, which I don't know at all.

I've been trying this last half hour to embed the map on the blog, but can't seem to get it to work. I'd give you the link to my Faecebook page, but that would involve telling you who I am, and - sorry - I don't want to do that. I love the comparative anonymity of this blogging lark; the fact that I can jot down what's going through my mind and others can read it without any need for emotional attachment or subjective analysis.

With any luck, I'll never see Somalia.


...and the livin' wasn't that easy, this morning. The Italians had changed the time of our rehearsal to 11 o'clock this morning so they could all fly off home afterwards. Most of the clocks in the flat change automatically so all we had to do was look after the alarm clock. We got home from the party at 4am this morning, set the alarm for 10 o'clock and crashed.

We woke up at 10am, so all was well, at least until I went into the kitchen and saw that my rehearsal had just started. 'Didn't you put the alarm clock forward?' I asked. 'No, I thought you had'. It was no big deal in the end; they sent the bus to get me at noon and on I climbed, accompanied by one of the other singers who, if she was lucky, might get to warble a few tones later on in the day. She didn't, which led her to complain bitterly that her time was being wasted. She has one page to sing in the entire work and the Italians seem neither capable or willing to plan their work schedule to account for these cough-and-a-spit roles. It must be frustrating for her to be effectively grounded for weeks on end when she could pop off and earn some extra money elsewhere, particularly as her role here is not highly paid. Stil this is bordering on me talking about my workplace, and I want to continue to keep that world seperate from my blogging activities.

The farewell party was very enjoyable and was my first social function as a non-smoker. Keeping off the weed was no problem, thanks to copious decent conversation, bottomless glasses of Kölsch and a seemingly unlimited supply of good red wine. The food was good, too, typische deutsche Hausmannskost, and boy, did it go down the right way. There was also a Hamburg speciality which I never encountered in all my years on the Elbe. Can't even remember what it was called.

Certainly the most extraordinary moment in the evening was finding out that one of the guests last night was actually a very good friend's landlord in Hamburg, back in 1990. Most bizarrely, said friend was only in Hamburg because of me: I'd been asked by my employer of the time if I knew someone who fitted a particular role description and I immediately thought of this person. He went on to spend five years more in Hamburg than I, moving to England with his English wife in 2000 or thereabouts.

Mrs Fingers has taken the Fingernails off to a Gospel concert this afternoon. The little ones slept at a friend's last night, so an early night beckons this evening. Tomorrow morning heralds my last bit of English teaching this academic year; as from 11am tomorrow morning, it's all systems go towards Santiago and Bayreuth. I love my life, I really do.

Saturday, 26 March 2011


God preserve us from Italian theatre directors. I'm probably being unfair, but they seem to waste more time than they use, talk more than they instruct then debate to mask their own lack of preparation, keeping an awful lot of people waiting in the meantime. We're now on our second production in a row directed by Italians and the joke's starting to wear a little thin. Back home nello stivello they are hidebound by union regulations; whenever they come to us, they seem to almost take a perverse joy in wasting our time and being unproductive, a sort of theatrical version of the age-old chestnut about Germans abroad, behaving totally differently when not at home. Strangely, this only seems to apply to the men; the women are invariably very efficient and courteous.

Enough about that. We're off to a friend's farewell party, this evening. After four years in Toulouse she's heading home to Köln. We'll miss her, she's a good egg. She enjoyed an awful lot about life here, but didn't crack the big one: meeting that special someone and giving her existence her another dimension. Although many French men have found her attractive (and she is), she found that being a foreigner was a serious obstacle to a stable relationship. I don't know whether this is true, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that many single foreigners in their second phase of life have great difficulty getting French partners round these parts. I have no statistics to base this assumption on, but there does seem to be a 'them and us' feel to how couples are formed. I met Mrs. Fingers in London, so it's impossible to say whether or not we'd have got together if we'd met here.

Anyhow, off to the party. Then it'll be time to put the clock forward. Argh!


I'm truly fascinated by my reader in Belarus. Do leave a comment, if only so that I can greet you. That goes for all of you, by the way.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Ach, was...

You really are delightful; the more I post, the more you read. Hope you enjoy what you see; I certainly enjoy scribbling. You see, we should put more of this out there: less negativity, more sharing for the pure pleasure of passing good vibes between other members of the human race. Hope that doesn't sound too esoteric; I'm just in a good mood. Have a great weekend.


Having mentioned St. Petersburg in the last post, here's a funny story connected to that extraordinary city:

Back in 1993, a group of us from work were in St. Petersburg, Russia, auditioning singers for a production of The Phantom of the Opera. One evening, I sat down to catch up on some correspondance, sending one of the letters to a certain Herrn Krueger. I can't for the life of me remember who he was and the only reason I'm thinking of his name now is because he put the letter I wrote up for auction on eBay Austria and Germany, presumably assuming I'm as famous now as I was in the early to mid-1990's. There was a period when my name was a reference in the conducting of musicals, but life, career directions and memories have moved on and the only heads I cause to turn are those of Rom beggars round our local market, who seem to equate my blond hair and arrogant demeanour with unbounded wealth. If only they knew.


The lovely thing about blog audience tracking is that it evokes so many memories of the time when I was more frequently on planes than in my own bed. Seeing the list of countries that have visited French Fingers plunges me into a state of warm, fluffy nostalgia, though I've never been to Belarus, despite having regularly worked with people from Minsk. As I've mentioned in a few previous posts, I'm probably going to Chile for a few weeks in May-June, but so spaced-out are my travels these days that this really appears like a noteworthy event. Back in the 90's, it would have received an indifferent shrug, tucked, as it would have been, in between auditioning singers in Moscow and St. Petersburg and performing on stage in Argentina.

Yes, but was I happy hahaha. You bet your life I f****** was.

Singapore II

The only thing of any value I bought in Singapore was a Charles Jourdan wristwatch which I ended up giving to a girlfriend a few years later. She came pretty close to breaking my heart; a wonderful, beautiful Swiss harpist and niece to Jean-Luc Godard. Hope she kept the watch; I wouldn't like to think of her giving it to anyone else.


Good evening, Singapore! Nice to see you hanging on in there. I once tried buying black patent leather shoes in Singapore, but the shop assistant, despite his imploring assurances to the contrary, hadn't the faintest idea what I was on about. He offered me brown suede shoes, Hush Puppies, moccasins and cuban heels before rushing off to the competition to see if he could find what I was looking for there, buy it, come back and sell it on to me. I felt like buying something - anything, just to reward him for his efforts. I loved my time in Singapore; so courteous, so clean and so forward-looking. Progressive Asian countries and nation states still get the snob treatment her in the Weest, but I'd rather live in a country that combines technology with courtesy rather than perenially courting a tired old European Puffmutter, constantly harking back to former glories whilst denigrating entities whose tits aren't located around their knees. Great cocktails, too, in the Hilton Skybar.

Trying to get French citizenship.

 Here's the article I mentioned. It dates from 2005, so it seems I rumbled Frogland's admin six years before their own senior mandarins did. Enjoy. I didn't.

I was born in London. That means I'm a Londoner, apparently; it's on my birth certificate, it's in my passport and it may be even on some documentation I don't know about. Just round the corner from Stamford Hill, you know, Clapton, E5. Yup, that's where I'm from.
Everyone can claim a spot on the earth as his or her own and 'Where are you from?' is, after asking someone's name, probably the easiest and safest opening gambit in the history of civilised conversation.
It was one of the first things I asked my wife when we met in 1996 and our daughter will probably answer the same question later on, possibly ending up like her mother in the process.
So life goes on and the world keeps on turning because we are inextricably linked with somewhere that can be pinpointed on the right Ordnance Survey map.
Nationality, though, is a different matter. You're certainly born with one but you don't have to keep it. Alternatively, you can keep it and have a second one if you want. It's almost as easy as shopping at Tesco.
As soon as you open your mouth you're identified as English, Spanish, Japanese or whatever; you're a product of that society and your emotions are conditioned accordingly.
Nevertheless, armed with the right documentation and given a set of fairly accessible circumstances, like a foreign spouse, prolonged residency abroad or even an exotic grandparent, you can become something else.
I'm toying with the idea of becoming French for one simple reason: I live, work and pay tax in France and I want to vote in the presidential elections.
Pretty much all the other carte de séjour-wielding expats I know have no gripe in particular with either the country or the way it is run, but for the natives, the grey, distant, seemingly Orwellian 'State' is a source of endless debate and gnashing of teeth. Will I become like that if I take French citizenship? Will I be required to? Why the difference between foreigners and locals?
French bureaucracy is famously turgid and opaque. Practically unreformed since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, General de Gaulle did his bit for its transparency by stirring in another hundredweight of mollasses and a few gallons of glue.
The French have to deal with this comatose dinosaur every time they need anything from the state and they've all got their tale to tell.
Maybe I was lucky in Britain; there was never an administrative problem that couldn't be ironed out through mutual courtesy, respect and co-operation, but the story here is very different, with clerks' attitudes ranging from, at best, indifference to, at worst, rude and obstructive.
Everyday France is relaxed and convivial; administrative France is a nightmare.
It almost seems intentional: to get nationality you are required to swallow vast mouthfuls of what the French have had to put up with for centuries. You are systematically discouraged, challenged to fight for no logical reason.
You start to feel their pain. It's more than a passport, it's a way of being that has to be earned.
My case is not complicated. My wife is French, we've lived together in France for three of the last six years, we've both worked and our daughter already has dual citizenship. OK, it's my second marriage, I'm soiled goods, a pre-owned import, call it what you will, but it's all been sorted out and I've got a piece of paper to prove it.
The Tribunal d'Instance sent us a list of required documents and here's where it gets hairy. If you've lived less than ten years in France you need a police certificate from somewhere else you've lived for a similar period.
They want not only a copy of my birth certificate, they want those of my parents as well! My mother's wouldn't be a problem, but my father died in 1991 and I'm not sure how best to ask him.
Next, they want to churn up my past: my marriage certificate and decree absolute. My ex-wife has the former and she's somewhere in the USA. I don't know where; we don't keep in touch any more.
The decree absolute has already been on a round trip to the French Consulate in London when we applied for a Livret de Famille, a legal requirement, after our daughter was born.
It was returned to us with a corner missing, ripped and full of holes, looking like it had served as lunch and target practice by a hungry, crossbow-wielding gerbil. A swift phone call to the office in question informed me that it was, in fact, like that when they received it. Of course, silly me.
Number three on the list is your current marriage certificate. That's OK, no problem. Yes it is. We got married in England so have to enlist the verification services of a faceless department in Nantes: Citizenship Central. That seems reasonably painless, doesn't it? Well, here's where the fun really starts: all these documents have to be translated by a specially qualified translator and - this is the part that kills me - must have been issued within the three months prior to the first interview!
Seeing as the first interview appointment we could get was four months from now, imagine if only one document was deemed invalid by whichever civil serpent was sat opposite us: we would have to wait another three months for another appointment and therefore have to get new copies of all the documents and pay another fortune to get them all translated into French again!
At £17 a page the joke might start to wear thin. Why do the documents have to be fresh, new copies? A sly government scheme to generate more income for Gaul's intrepid translators? Could my mother's maiden name or my date of birth have changed in the meantime?
Fair enough, the girl on the other end of the line was young and confessed to not knowing the answer, but her suggestion that it might be in case the applicant had died in the meantime made me realise that this project was maybe not to be. Interviewing a corpse, even the dimmest mandarin might smell a rat, or worse.
My brother-in-law gave a far more enlightening explanation and summed up the general resignation of the French when dealing with The State: 'Because it's the law; c'est comme ça'.
I dropped the idea. Why climb to the top of the mountain just to be heard better complaining about its size? Chirac and Co will somehow have to live without my protest; after all, I haven't earned it.


I've just read in The Connexion's monthly newsletter that the French consider their administration beyond the pale. This is not news to anyone who actually lives here, much less to anyone who's ever had dealings with them. I published an article in the Telegraph a few years ago on this subject and if you're very good I'll copy and paste it into a new post for you. See the lengths I'll go to for you, lovely people? Incidentally, good evening, Belarus! Nice to see you coming back, regularly.


Santiago's playing hard to get: no per diem and no extra salary for coming early. OK, so I won't come early. More soon.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

And a big welcome to Ireland!

Just saw that someone from Ireland stumbled over my blog. Welcome, sir or madam; you're the first reader from the Emerald Isle to have found me. Come again, soon, and bring a friend.

OK, they did say it was South America...

Have heard nothing from Santiago today at all. My colleague did remind me it was South America and that these things do take a little longer than usual and it reminded me of when I worked in Mexico City back in 1999: There was a flurry of contact at the beginning of negotiations and the lovely girls in the office were seemingly never off the phone to me. Then just as it reached a critical phase and I needed some additional information, the airwaves went dead. Couldn't reach anyone for love nor money. There was no problem, of course; everyone was as warm and welcoming in Mexico as they'd been on the phone to me in Minneapolis, so I just put it down to my northern, protestant work ethic and desire to be honest and straight and have everything sorted out to everyone's satisfaction as early as possible. Are there still other people like that on this earth? Do we northern-staters worry too much? Should we just take it a bit easier? It's tempting to say 'yes', but then you don't want your surroundings to end up looking like a mediterranean or middle eastern hell-hole, either. Northern countries are pleasant places to live because of the hard work that's gone into forging them. The hotter countries get, the more lacksadaisical the populace. This is fine for holidays but can be frustrating for anyone trying to get on in life. So maybe we shouldn't try to get on in life and just embrace the concept of mañana in all its wonderful forms. There's a time and a place for every mind set, I think; that's why we need both money and holidays.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

My first century!

That last post was my hundredth. It's OK, I'm not expecting you to break open the bubbly on my account; I'll just carry on emptying my bottle of Chateau Coutinel. Thanks to all those who've read my ramblings thus far; don't be afraid to leave comments, however abusive they might be; I can give as good as I get.


It looks like negotiations with Chile are going to be a long, drawn-out process. We agree on the basics, but sorting out the details could be a dialogue of the deaf, as the French so aptly say. It reminds me of a story a long time ago: we were invited to a wedding in Paris and we gave the happy couple a pair of tickets to a Michel Jonasz concert. I put them on the presents table yet, when I walked past later, couldn't see them any more. Not wanting at the time to ask if they'd already picked them up, I wondered if they'd been filched by one of the guests. After all, a lone envelope on a table full of presents is easy to pinch and conceal...

I asked the groom once or twice in passing via mail after the event if he'd enjoyed the concert (after all, the tickets weren't cheap) but he never referred to it in any of his replies. We moved away and contact was lost until quite recently, when we were back in touch via Plaxo or some such site. I immediately thought of those tickets and wondered whether he'd received them. I didn't care if they hated Michel Jonasz or anything like that; I just wanted to know if they'd got those bloody tickets or not. So I asked him outright. And he never mentioned them in any of his replies. So I still don't know. I have the feeling a couple of my enquiries to the theatre in Santiago are going to suffer a similar fate, but this will only help me in my quest to become a better negotiator.

Killing time.

There's a lovely few minutes after lunch when no-one expects you to be productive, creative or remotely witty. Sadly, this is a perfect moment to compose a blog post featuring a notable absence of all three of those elements. So here we are. I have to go off to work in about an hour; it's a beautiful day and not one Finger, large or small, seems to want to go out. What a waste of good sunshine, particularly as it's up around 20°C...

The projects are mounting up, again: Wagner in Bayreuth, Strauss in Santiago, two recitals in Toulouse and one in Austria this July. This is all in addition to the day job, so there'll be a fair bit of travel these next few months. I don't know if anyone else thinks the same way, but I just feel life gets better the older you get. OK, I'm lucky to still be slim and have no grey in my full head of hair but enjoyment of life really is, for people living within normal circumstances, a choice. You choose whether or not you wish to be happy. Friends of ours have everything going for them: jobs and a life/work balance any sane entity would kill for, yet happiness passes them by. I've a few theories, but they'll stay between me and the person in question.

The moment you choose happiness over any other mindset, you start to influence other peoples' moods. It's hard to resist upbeat colleagues or friends (providing they don't overdo it) and it's remarkable how quickly others will allow themselves to be pulled up as opposed to dragged down, which is the usual direction for any coffee machine conversation between humans with something in common. Optimism and joy tend to be extremely personal and subjective, yet negativity will always unite. Listen to ANY conversation you hear in the street; chances are, at least 80% of them will be between malcontents. The comfort such conversations provide is illusory; the warm feeling of support will only remain if it is fuelled with more negativity. As soon as you start getting positive, you can stop counting on the ear of that particular listener, and that in itself should be motivation enough to search for the sun.

Huff 'n' Sulk

So it's official; I'm to be contacted by the Teatro Municipal de Santiago de Chile concerning working there in May-June. It's going to be a lot of fun.

The Fingernails blew it this morning. They like to watch a DVD on Wednesday morning when there's no school but Fingernail I's reaction to Mrs. F telling them to turn the sound down got me shooting straight out of bed and into the sitting room to turn the whole damned lot off. We're not permissive, peace 'n' love parents, nor are we overtly strict but there are sometimes reactions which send you off the deep end. The particularly French spoilt  huff and sulk I heard this morning is one of them and has guaranteed they won't see another DVD until they've thought long and hard about the way they address their mother, sometimes. If Fingernail I gets grounded, Fingernail II has to be, too.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011


Had my first yoga lesson, today. What a superb experience! I can see why so many people get absolutely hooked on it. The tutor is Fingermail I's former pre-school teacher. She gave up teaching to devote herself to yoga full-time a few years ago and we've finally got around to fulfilling our promise to 'keep in touch'; in fact, it was Mrs. F who gave me a month's subscription as a Christmas present. I gave her six months of acting lessons last year, so now we're quits. I'd always wanted to try yoga and she'd always wanted to act. Apart from anything else, these presents have zero carbon footprint. Don't give anything to your loved ones made in China, just give them services: massages, yoga, acting lessons, backstreet hand-jobs, whatever. Doesn't matter; the planet will french-kiss you for it. They also have the added advantage of not cluttering your place up after you've opened them.

Incidentally, if anybody wants the the details of a really good yoga centre in Toulouse, just drop me a message.

I know this blog is meant to be about life in Toulouse, but there's only so much that happens, here, and even less that I hear about. Like I said at the beginning: it's more for me to record what was going on at a particular time rather than designed to be an encyclopaedic source of information on the capital of the Haute Garonne. If it's raunchiness you're after, have a look at my other blog, which deals with my young, carefree single life. Eiffel Towers abound, but only figuratively.


Looks like I'm off to Santiago de Chile in a couple of months. This'll be good as I haven't had much opportunity to practise my Spanish recently. Still, it'll also mean I won't see Mrs. F or the Fingernails for three weeks unless I get Skype sorted out before I leave.

This kind of trip is so much easier when you're single. In fact, you don't even give it a second thought. I whizzed around the world back in the eighties and '90's without so much as a by-your-leave (???!! Is that how it's written? I've never taken the trouble to look) but now, the thought of even 24 hours without my family makes me physically sick. OK, so don't do it, some would cry. But you need to, I'd scream back. Not every day, not even every month, but you have to be a bit unfaithful to your employer in order to bring new experiences and insights back which then benefit your regular workplace. It also helps you improve as a musician, but I mentioned this in a previous post. This behaviour doesn't apply to relationships, though. At any rate, I'm not willing to find out.

Just a quickie...

...before the Fingernails start clamouring to be fed. Yesterday turned out to be a pretty good day. Yes! The opticians COULD mend my sunglasses cheaply and in less than 24 hours; Yes! The orthodontist COULD do something about straightening out my lower teeth, and Yes! I probably COULD go and work in Santiago de Chile for three weeks, starting mid-May. This last one has really got my juices flowing as Chile is a country I don't know too well, only having visited Punta Arenas a few years ago. When you're a professional musician, it's imperative you regularly play away from home. If not, you cease to develop, you stagnate and you go backwards. Unfortunately, many people in this business also apply this philosophy to their relationships and marriages, which is an awful shame. You can only be truly free if you're emotionally well-anchored, and that doesn't just fall into your lap; it's something you have to work at and invest yourself in.

Monday, 21 March 2011


I've lived here for six years, now, and I still can't work out why the French have a reputation for rudeness. Parisians, yes; the French: no. Parisians are not French; they are capital-dwellers who don't have enough space to move about freely and are victims of the ubiquitous blight of substandard French urban planning. This is why they are rude. Space is the key to relaxation and the Parisians have none. Treat them to your most winning smile when you click your fingers at them on a crowded café terrace this summer.

Get out of Paris - and my tip is to go as far as you can - and you're in another world. Seriously. It's like comparing Millwall supporters and Medicis. Even provincial cities retain a certain modicum of good manners, especially if you call the tune; you'll rarely get growled at if you smile and flash your assets, wherever they be located. In fact, strike up a conversation with the person opposite you in any shop other than high street chains and bakers between 6.30 and 7.30pm and you'll be amazed at how quickly and readily the chat flows.

The key to getting along in this country is seduction: a beautiful turn of phrase, a flirtatious look or an unsolicited compliment will invariably work wonders, assuming the object of your charm offensive isn't in the process of relieving you of your wallet at knifepoint. I've found France to be one of the most courteous countries I've ever lived in and the French derserve a break. The French, I said; not the Parisians.


What do you understand by that word? Generally, it's used by people to denigrate something they neither like nor understand, usually modern art or classical music. They'll also cite the fact that it's 'expensive'. I'd like to debunk this myth and proffer my own point of view.

There's an awful lot of really high-quality pop music out there: well-written, well-performed and well-produced, but there's also a hell of a lot of crap, particularly in the shooting star category. A ticket to a concert will set you back, too; the industry is not subsidised and makes no secret of the fact it's all about money, preferably yours and as much of it as possible. And let's not even start talking about all of the merchandise you can waste your money on, like copies of some cretin's backward baseball cap or facsimiles of D-Puffy Twat's gold chains.

You can see an opera or a symphonic concert for less money than one of those talentless, industry-produced pop 'stars' or rap 'artists'. Classical music, apart from being enjoyed by many more people than listen to rap, requires in all its forms a certain degree of emotional investment and concentration; popular music does not; it is designed to have a ready effect on your feelings, to be instantly enjoyed. The idea that it is somehow 'elitist' to ask an audience to show some respect for the art in front of them is, to my mind, extraordinarily offensive. Is the summit of our cultural ambition the intellect-free reception of aural and visual information? Is this all to which we aspire in the early 21st Century? If so, it's a pretty poor show.

Many people would not come to classical music events because they would feel ill-at-ease amongst the other audience members and have no affinity with the music on offer. This sentiment does not only cut one way; they are also the reasons I do not go to rap gigs. I suppose they're just too elitist.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


Just a little point: two of the 'source' sites for thids blog are concerned with spotting fake handbags, as it happens, Marc Jacobs and Prada. I visited these sites and couldn't find any link to this one, so can only admire how one moves from avoiding Asian counterfeits to posts about the sometimes dubious gallic work ethic. Further proof of the glories of the internet, maybe?


I've just submitted a new article to the Telegraph and The Connexion. If neither publishes it, I'll post it here.

Nice to see there were 21 hits, yesterday. Hope said reader enjoyed what he/she saw. At the current rate it'll take another 3,572 years before everyone in the world reads this blog. That's worth staying up for, in my book.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


This week, my banal musings have been seen, or at least passed over, by people from Brazil to Belarus, Ghana to Germany and Austria to Australia. Today, three people in the USA read one of my posts. In a country of 300,000,000, that's quite a lot. Well, er, no, it's not. But who cares? I like to think that my posts have a certain literary merit in that they contain very few spelling mistakes, but the bigger picture is one that occupies my thoughts: that of fame.

Since Tim Berners-Lee gave us the internet (yes, it wasn't you, Mr. Gore), it has been possible, even more than before, to be famous for, er, being famous. The concept of celebrity was only ever in a nascent form until www made it possible for anyone to become well-known. Paris Hilton is probably the best example of this: capable of nothing, known only for a lineage she had no influence over and the odd internet-posted porn video, she has become fabulously wealthy in her own right for just being known. This point was brought home forceably to me when Fingernail I gave me a roll-call of her friends' costumes for this year's school carnival: "Louise is coming as a cowboy, Pauline as a cook and Garance as a 'star'".

'What do you mean, as a 'star'?'

'That's how she's dressing'

'OK, kid, listen up. When I was not even that young any more, fame was something you earned by your efforts, regardless of how tawdry, to achieve something. A shite pop singer, an untalented artist or an attention-seeking moron jumping up and down behind a BBC Correspondent in front of the House of Commons. It doesn't matter; the main thing was that you actually DID something. Nowadays, it seems you can actually become famous without even doing anything, hence the legitimisation of 'star' as a career choice. What's she a 'star' of? Singing? Reciting Chekhov in the original Russian? Gang-banging a football team on YouTube?' (OK, I didn't say that last bit, but you get the idea)'

'Just a 'star''

'I'm very depressed. Your daddy is considering ending it all' (OK, I didn't say etc etc)

Blogs are no different; we all know of a few who've lied and navel-gazed their way to material comfort by sheer virtue of the fact enough idiots were ensnared to lend their scribblings credence; one case also being helped by a rather spurious court case (which reeked of Max Clifford, incidentally). I used to check in to that blog from time to time but was appalled by the comments; there were clearly a lot of people out there who had no life of their own, emotionally living vicariously through a human being (and her daughter) they had never met and what's more, were never likely to. It was actually quite pathetic. Still, Ms Sanderson, you made it, so the idea of being famous for no reason really worked for you. I'll have a word with Garance; next year she can go dressed as you.


They say that stopping smoking will mean more money in your pocket. It would, providing you don't discover the joys of one-click shopping on Amazon. Six cigarette-free days later and I'm the proud owner of Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, Donald Fagen's 2005 CD Morph the Cat and a vocal score of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. Bah humbug. It's all stuff I wanted/needed anyway, but all the same.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Evenin', all...

The only problem with evening blogging  is that I'm often too tired to get my brain working, again. Tonight, I had to go out and give one musical cue in tonight's performance as the conductor didn't trust the stage manager to get it right. I did exactly as she has been doing these last three weeks and then came home. No doubt I will soon hear that my version was 'so much better' or some such nonsense. We have to deal with a lot of rather questionable personalities in our profession, but then again, doesn't everyone?

It's now been five days without a cigarette and I'm still not out of the woods. I know it's bad for you, I know it causes socialism and makes your head explode and your dick drop off, but you still end up craving one from time to time, even if you know you find the smell repulsive on anyone else. After all, if logic and common sense entered into it, no-one would ever smoke. I'm getting tired of all of the fragrant chewing gum I've ended up stuffing into my mouth. If smoking is an aberration, then life was never meant to be this perfumed, either. Should it really be that complicated to arrive at normality?

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Verdict imminent

They're not Rom, they're Manouche, French gypsies. And they're hovering around the entrance to the tribunal, so a verdict must be imminent. The old couple was murdered, apparently, so this is potentially pretty explosive; if news of this actually travels (despite City Hall's best attempts) many people may not bother to make a distinction between Roms and their own, home-grown gypsy variety.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Road closed. And everything else.

It's maybe no accident that, while I'm awaiting the delivery of my copy of Nick Davies' Flat Earth Society, our little street is closed to traffic of any kind. I have to show ID just to get to my front door. Our street houses the Assizes Court and we do get the odd road block, but nothing like this. The far end is blocked by five or six vans of riot police and our end is patrolled by another seven uniformed officers. Gawking wastrels are pretty commonplace outside the Appeals Court, but I couldn't help but notice a few gypsies hanging around a couple of days ago, all looking fairly worried.

There's been no indication in the local press about what this hoo-ha is for, so Mrs. F asked one of the police officers when she came back with the Fingernails this afternoon. Apparently, an elderly couple was assaulted by a group of our lovely, cuddly Rom gypsies and the whole thing has ended up in court. The powers that be, no doubt casting a worried eye over Marine Le Pen's ratings in the latest polls have decided to censure all information regarding this case which is, maybe more than most others, liable to enflame public opinion. Are the French not considered adult enough to make up their own mind about this? Do the cretinous socialists in City Hall want to engineer and subvert public opinion to fit their own agenda? Looking back at Blair's Britain, it certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Apparently, the case will be judged tomorrow, then we'll get our street back. But don't count on reading anything about it in the local rag La Dépêche du Midi, which has never made any secret of its leftist leanings and is unlikely to publish anything which could fuel far-right support. I'm not too optimistic about seeing any local TV reports, either; when it comes to living in a 'democracy', we have to realise that the only information we have is that which we are allowed to access, nothing more.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Move. But where to?

I've often mentioned how small our place is for four people and that we'll have to sell up and move before long. The big question is: where shall we go? We live in the centre and have a stimulating, intelligent group of friends courtesy of our children and are within walking distance of pretty much anywhere we need to go in Toulouse i.e. shops, work etc. The choice is to either move out into a neighbourhood or disappear off to become car slaves in the 'burbs. Now, Toulouse is a good city, but there aren't many city neighbourhoods which interest us, or at least, me. Anywhere west of Fontaine Lestang is car-burning territory and many others just seem to be populated mainly by prime-time TV viewers and weekend hypermarket shoppers. OK, I'm a snob, and I freely admit it, but I firmly believe that where you live is more important than what you live in. You can always renovate and redecorate your house but you can't change a neighbourhood. You're stuck with your environment.

There's a neighbourhood in Toulouse called Côte Pavée. It's mainly comprised of houses and the schools, both public and private, are very good. We could afford something there, but not as large as we'd really like. There's a little town outside called Pibrac, which is very international, has excellent schools, a railway station and, unfortunately, high property prices. The average income per household is in the top 3% of the country. Still, we could get something there, but, as with Côte Pavée, it wouldn't be as large as we'd like.

We're demanding, you see. We want our children to have both extra English and Spanish at school (not available everywhere), live as close as possible to Mrs. Fingers' workplaces (always around Airbus) and be near enough to serious greenery that we can pop out at the drop of a hat and overdose on chlorophyll, not to mention being able to swan around in at least 140 square metres with a spare bedroom and an office. We could do this is if we went another 15km further out, but that would mean a different calibre of school.

So off we went this afternoon to have a closer look at Côte Pavée and maybe ask a few passers-by if they knew of anywhere up for sale in the area. This being Sunday, it was even quieter than usual, and no-one crossed our path. Even there, though, a thought nagged away at me, namely that I think I'd be bored shitless in a neighbourhood like that. Quite frankly, I'd rather be in the middle of the action (as we are now) or sitting in an isolated farmhouse about 10 miles out of town. These (sub)urban solutions seem neither fish nor fowl. Convenient they may be, but we don't spend every single second of our lives either at work or getting the children from school. When we are all at home, enjoying family life, we're still stuck in the middle of concrete surrounded by neighbours watching game shows on TV. Live in the country and you can just jump on your bike and go for a ride, take a walk in a field, take the car somewhere you've not been before without having to negotiate city traffic etc. The list goes on. Plus, if you do live in a larger place, you can invite people over for the weekend, even if they do just live half an hour down the road; it lends another dynamic to existing, valued friendships.

I know millions upon millions of people all over the world live in cities and suburbs, but I can't get away from the feeling that there's more to this short life than that. Especially now I'm stopping smoking, I really do want the rest of it to be a life and not just an existence.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Reasons to be cheerful: 1. Stopping Smoking.

My main Reason to be Cheerful is that, by this time tomorrow, I'll be a non-smoker. No, I'm not going to bore anyone (me?) with all the reasons why, just suffice to say that, after thirty years of drug addiction, I can't wait to be free.  The person I have to thank for this is sadly no longer with us: Allen Carr. He chain-smoked for thirty-three years before the scales fell from his eyes and devoted the rest of his time on this earth to explaining to us otherwise reasonably intelligent people why smoking was A Bad Thing. None of what he writes would surprise a non-smoker, but for us delusional addicts, we needed someone to speak our language to us, someone who'd been there, done that, and found it easy to quit once he'd understood why he smoked in the first place. This 'wisdom' is entirely personal; you have the feeling he's speaking to you directly when he peels away all the fears and doubts that cigarette addiction entails. I originally set myself March 31st to smoke my last cigarette, but now cannot wait to finish the contents of my revised goal: the pouch of rolling tobacco I still have in my bag. The thought of buying another just to make it through another fortnight is abhorent to me and only want to finish this one so that I can have my own version of closure, and it's working: every cigarette I smoke now repulses me, and there can surely be no better way to stop than with a rancid memory of the taste and my own perverted desire to do it in the first place.

In any case, I'm not currently smoking anywhere near as much as I did before I started reading Allen's book; I haven't wanted to. My intake has fallen by two-thirds and Mrs. Fingers has already told me how much better I look and how much more relaxed I am, not to mention the fact I don't snore any more. Previously, I'd try to stay away from my daughters as I didn't want them to smell the smoke still hanging around me when I came back in after a cigarette; now, in my newly-found fragrant state, I seek them them out and spend more time with them, play more with them, joke more with them. They've already noticed the difference and demand more of my attention. There don't appear to be any losers in this equation, just winners.

Mrs. Fingers is not a musician. Somebody asked me last summer how I could be with someone who didn't share the same passion. I replied: 'Because I know how good she is for me'. Subconsciously, I think I'm aspiring to be like my wife, who, if she needed to, could quite happily live on a glass of water a day. Not for her these props and crutches; she's a complete being in herself, a rock in an otherwise constantly-changing, superficial society. She is naturally delighted I've made this decision: her father, a life-long smoker, died of lung cancer five years ago, an otherwise very physically active man who always ate sensibly. Their relationship was not perfect, but that had no bearing on her feelings about my addiction. Her attitude was simple and to the point: 'You are intelligent, handsome and successful, a wonderful father and the envy of many. Why do you feel the need to smoke?' For me, with my programmed, brainwashed attitude of the persecuted, couldn't understand her concern; everything was fine; just let me smoke and we'll just get on with our lives. My God. It's 2011 and there are still people thinking like that. If there's anyone reading this who is closely linked to someone who's freed him/herself from the addiction, you'll know what I'm talking about. For any non-smoker out there, I'm sorry I've wasted your time. And I don't mean that sarcastically, believe me; all the above is stuff you've always known; we mugs just need longer to get it.

Another plus point in all this is that I'm now permanently horny, which was not always the case, before. This is either good or bad news for Mrs. Fingers, depending on how long her delight at my new-found liberation lasts.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The French Job Market

I'm certainly not the first person to talk about how difficult it is for anyone - ANYONE - to find work in this country, but I think our situation confirms the clichés one hears about gainful employment in France.

It's nigh-on impossible to find a foreigner in any type of non-specialised work. You'll never encounter an Italian working for the Post Office, Argentinians are pretty thin on the ground in Social Services and you'll die of hunger if your goal is to uncover an American shop assistant before you settle down to dinner. The difficulties experienced by people of north African descent in French society is well-documented, but there's another group who might feel justified in giving up the unequal struggle at a comparatively tender age: the normal French person, around 40 years of age without the baccalauréat. Anyone in this group will probably never be considered for anything other than minimum wage McJobs, the French system preferring, as it does, a list of qualifications as long as your arm for even the most menial of desk jobs that, in another country with different attitudes, would see the candidate propelled immediately into at least middle management. I'm thinking specifically of Mrs. Fingers, here. She's perfectly trilingual, has been retail floor manager at Burberry's of London, translated CD-Roms between her various languages and has been PA to leading lights at Bang and Olufsen, but here in France she's never called for anything other than call centre work or reception. She doesn't have the bac, you see, and this, in this most atrophied of work markets, is the only piece of paper that lazy employers want to know about. Even people who have worked for years for a company will see their aspirations of promotion dashed if they haven't sat the requisite interim exams. It absolves the employer of any responsibility, any personal investment and, by association, any needless, time-consuming personal interest in the candidate. Successive governments have tried to make the market more flexible and mobile but always, after some nominal incentives to employers, seem to stumble and give up, generally shortly before elections. For my part, I came across my current employer by chance back in 1999; right place, right time. I worked here for three weeks then went to the USA, then to Paris and finally to Germany (again) before they called me, five years later, to ask if I could come for seven months. I did, and one thing led to another and I've now been there six years, but it was all 'chance' encounters; had I originally sent (and re-sent) a CV, I'd still be waiting...

Were Mrs. Fingers still living in England, she'd be at least manageress of some shop or restaurant; at most, running her own business. I really don't know which system is better, if one can talk of a comparison at all. France's labour market may be as slovenly as a snail on Super Glue, but it does offer a lot of security to those fortunate enough to have got into it. Little wonder no-one with any electoral clout (i.e. employees) wishes to see anything change.

Spring's come early.

Amongst the dazzling array of good news items I'm having to field these days came the news that a certain Russian singer I worked with a few years ago is coming back next season. Last time, I was ready to start a spontaneous fan club for this bloke and now can't wait to hear him again. Not everyone in the business lives up to their hype and only very few surpass it, but for me, he's top of the latter. His name is Vladimir Galuzin and he is, quite frankly, the best singer I've ever heard in my life. And I've heard a few...

It's gorgeous, out: brilliant sunshine and 20° centigrade (couldn't help using that word). Spring has definitely come early.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Can't sleep.

About three hours ago, I was drifting pleasantly off to sleep, wrapped cosily around Mrs. Fingers and reflecting on how lucky I was to have a wonderful family, more work than I know what to do with, living in a beautiful little flat in the best part of one of the best cities in Europe, then, all of a sudden, I was wide awake. I don't know whether it's through having lived on time contracts for the last twenty-four years or the fact that, deep down, you can't accept that you've been singled out for the top table, but maybe my subconscious is telling me that it's all been a huge mistake and that soon we're all going to queuing up at that little soup kitchen our neighbouring square hosts every night. It's completely illogical, but since when did common sense play any part in the life of someone who feeds his family by making fleeting sound waves? It's probably all part of a larger existential question: I'm preparing myself to stop smoking, my intake has reduced dramatically already without any discernable effort on my part (thanks, Allen Carr) and I'm looking forward to the day when I'll be free of the urge to walk around with a small fire sticking out my face. Somehow, everything feels to easy, too right, too secure and pleasantly predictable. Sitting in front of my computer screen at 3am, I'm trying to convince myself that I'm the right candidate for this special treatment and I'm determined to succeed.

The other thought that crossees your mind is that you realise you're sitting in your dressing gown in the middle of the night, writing a complete load of bollocks just so that you can go back to bed, stop navel-gazing and get on with life like any other normal person.


More local politics

I'm on a roll, here, so bear with me. Every year from mid-September to early October, Toulouse hosts the Grande Fête St. Michel, which is basically just a fun fair. Since 1945 or thereabouts, it has always been held around the St. Michel district. Now, it spreads along the Allées Paul Fuega, through the Grand Rond Boulingrin and into Jardin des Plantes like an upturned bucket of vomit. Let me explain...

There is very little greenery in Toulouse. In this part of town, there is Jardin des Plantes (no dogs allowed i.e. only place in city of 450,000 where you don't tread in shit), the Boulingrin and Jardin Royal (dogs allowed, providing you clean up after them, which nobody does. This is France, after all). It's a nice area, so all you need once school has started up again and you're ready to enjoy the last waves of summer over an afternoon picnic in the park be invaded by a sodding fun fair for nearly a month in one of the heaviest traffic spots in the whole city. It's like Disneyworld meets Ramallah. Not surprisingly, residents' associations have been petitioning the town hall for decades to relocate this monstrosity, but nothing ever happened...until last year. An even newer tramline than the lethargic snail-like one was voted; it would start at the Boulingrin and terminate at Arènes, like just about everything else in Toulouse including many people's will to live. It would run down the Allées Paul Fuega, namely right through the middle of their overpriced, crappy funfair, past the Palais de Justice, over the Pont St. Michel and off to Arènes. Public surveys and questionnaires found this proposal to be A Good Thing. So, the funfair managers were respectfully informed that 2010 would be the last year they would be able to occupy their habitual spots and that the city would find them 'alternative accomodation'. You know what's coming, right? Absolutely correct: they went on strike. First of all, they refused to leave, squatting our parks for another week and cutting prices, so the public 'would realise what they were going to miss' (sic). Then, on the day they finally pissed off left, they did a go slow through the centre of town and onto the ring road at rush hour, bringing the city to a standstill., after having threatened to just ramrod their way in to their usual spot this coming September. Needless to say, our courageous socialist mayor did absolutely nothing, but after hearing they were going to be accomodated near Compans Cafarelli park, I thought the story was over and done with, until I read a fairly innocuous article in the local rag the other week...

There's now a question mark concerning the city centre terminus for the new, sleek tram. Our elected representatives now feel there's no point having the terminus at the Boulingrin, pointing out that 'almost everyone' would use the previous stop at the Palais de Justice, as this also linked up with the metro. If the tram stopped at the PdJ, the Allées Paul Fuega, which join the law courts with the Boulingrin, would not be developed for tram traffic i.e. there would be no structural change to the stretch used up until now by the funfair. I'm sure I'm not the only one who smells a rat, here; it feels like the travelling gypsy circus has had its sordid way with the bloody socialists in the town hall and, yet again, people who pay through the nose to live in the only decent part of the centre of town are going to have their noses rubbed in enforced diversity: crime soars in the area when the fair's in town, there are muggings and rapes, vandalism and petty theft. We're sick of it, but it looks like the hypocritical left feels we need to be exposed to scum for at least three weeks every year. This is before they drive home to their leafy suburbs and crack open a bottle of Kristal to the memory of Che Guevara.

Local politics

OK, here's a story about urban France, and one which still rankles, to boot: local politics. There's an old joke: 'What's the difference between a French politician and Nelson Mandela?' Answer: Nelson Mandela went to prison before taking office. Provincial French politics is a beast in itself and Toulouse is no exception. This is the fastest-growing city in the country and hub of many important industries, not least the aeronautical, where Airbus employs, either directly or otherwise, tens of thousands of workers. It's importance to the region and the country cannot be underestimated, yet a funny thing happened to them, recently.

Toulouse has two metro lines and now, a sparkling new tram. All right, I know it opened two weeks late because of strikes (despite the socialist mayor having been warned of possible industrial action NINE months ahead of the start date, but what the hey) and moves slower than a snail stuck in Super Glue.

Anyhow, this tram passes within two hundred yards of Toulouse International Airport but doesn't stop there. Why, you may ask. The reason is enough to make you want to drink the contents of your U-bend: the Mayor of Blagnac, through whose fiefdom the tram doth pass, refused to build an airport stop in order to protect the jobs of his taxi drivers, who charge, then as now, grossly inflated prices to take you the handful of miles into the centre of the city. Never mind encouraging the use of public transport, going green, giving the planet a hand job 'n' all that; when it comes to small-minded provincialism, the soon-to-be third-largest and most dynamic city in the world's sixth richest country cannot take you from the central railway station to the airport without going private.

Airbus also asked for a stop, arguing that it would take a machete to the number of employees driving to work, a pretty sensible argument, especially for people familiar with rush-hour traffic around the city. They were told they could have one if they paid for it. Airbus replied that they were not responsible for civil engineering and that their request was made with a view to relieving traffic congestion and pollution. They didn't get their stop.

Just to wind up this tram story, the line goes from Arènes (west of the city centre but well-connected to metros, buses and trains) to Beauzelle, north-west of Toulouse. The stretch takes 38 minutes. A friend of mine regularly does the same route by car during rush hour. It takes her 15 minutes. It almost makes the Mayor of Blagnac's decision seem logical.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Back to urban France.

I realise I've strayed a bit off the straight and narrow these last few posts. After all, the sub-heading of this blog contains the words Life in urban France and references to Wagner and Kate Middleton's culinary skills don't really fit that premise. The thing is, incontinent gypsies aside, I'm just not that angry any more, a bit like whatsername's husband in Nick Hornby's How To Be Good, who graduates from his journalistic identity of 'Angriest Man In Holloway' to being a docile, smiling, tolerant, loving father of two after reformed drug addict-turned-healer DJ Goodnews resolves his back problems. I'm not there yet, particularly as said character was a fervent anti-smoker, but the small stuff doesn't bother me any more. It's not age; I'm scarcely any older than when I started ranting about noisy neighbours, ubiquitous dog shit and gratutious vandalism, but I think there must come a time when one remembers that King Canute had somewhat limited success.

In any case, there's a limit to how angry one can stay before it becomes a health risk. I'm tempted to write only about things I find wonderful, but this blog might just lose its edginess. Nonetheless, I'll take this opportunity to restate how pleasant Toulouse is to live in, even if there are plenty of things and people - not least any hypocritical bloody socialist who crosses my path - I'd gladly put up against a wall and shoot.

I recently started another blog documenting my professional life before meeting Mrs. Fingers, a sort of BC/AD undertaking, I suppose, whose sole aim was to remind me of a not uninteresting period in my life, many details of which I still happily recount to the Fingernails, particularly concerning all the travelling I was fortunate enough to do. Having re-read the first few posts, I see it's in danger of becoming a Rhineland Shagfest, at least until 1989, when it became a Hamburg Shagfest. This isn't the content I relate to my children, but I realise that what really marked my existence was the interaction (in all senses) with other people. Work was work; enjoyable, stimulating and varied, but ultimately of interest only to myself. I could go on for ages about the pitfalls of conducting Cats with only monitor contact to the cast, how the prototype synthesizers kept breaking down in the middle of performances, and how one percussionist literally went insane during one show, but I'll probably just write about the time I banged an attractive female colleague on the stage at midnight one night, just next to where Old Deutoronomy always sat. Life is full of facts, experiences and impressions, but in the end, we only remember the bits where we weren't wearing anything.

Oh, sorry. More on urban France next time.

Our local soup kitchen.

Stop me if I've mentioned this before, but we're lumped with a soup kitchen in the square next to our flat. I suppose the cretinous socialists in the town hall think they're being true to the idea of liberté, égalité et fraternité but I'm sick of the gypsies taking a pre- (and post-) dinner piss up against our building. Another was at it when I came home just a few minutes ago. I thanked him sarcastically, but I don't think he understood what I said. There are lots of places in Toulouse they could put this particular soup kitchen, most of them much closer to the social centre where these people get their other hand-outs, so why stick them in the middle of a neighbourhood they would otherwise never visit? I'm sorry, but I don't have a guilty conscience about having made a comparative success of my life and even when I was not as fortunate as I am now, I didn't go and piss up against buildings in nice areas. It's called basic respect and the semblance of an education. If people want to act like savages they should go and live in the jungle.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011


I know I'm biased and that this is purely subjective, but there are few greater pleasures in classical music than listening to Wagner.  I'm sitting here, plugged into Barenboim's Bayreuth recording of Götterdämmerung and itching to get my fingers around it on the piano when a suitable gap in my timetable allows it. Many people have said how much they'd like to be able to sit down and just play music they love and I realise I'm very fortunate to be able to do just that. Conducting is very enjoyable and it certainly took me around the world, but being one-on-one with an instrument and crafting your own interpretation without the indeterminate factors involved in group music-making is often a sensual pleasure, particular when it's late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century repertoire. Quite how people can get enthusiastic about baroque music beats me; its arrangement of sound waves moves my soul less than a New Labour press release. People like to experience music differently; for some, it's intellectual, others decorative and for others, something else: it needs to start in the lower abdomen and then take an intoxicating tour of every erogenous zone the body has to offer. For me, this is the only way to feel music, and if it doesn't do that to me, then I'm not interested, quite frankly. Other composers who provide this sinful backstreet massage are Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Alexander Zemlinsky, Giacomo Puccini, Johannes Brahms and Schoenberg before he decided he didn't want people to enjoy his music any more (try the Gürrelieder; you will never be the same, again).

If you're not keen on singers, just listen to his overtures, orchestral excerpts, the Siegfried Idyll and the Vorspiel und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This latter is available in a purely orchestral arrangement without a 500lb soprano (though I do know a few very attractive ladies who have sung the role). Give it a try; you'll find that Siegfried is not the only one to have a horn at the end of it.


The headline read - and I'm serious, for this really is news - Kate Middleton tosses pancake in Northern Ireland.

There, we can all sleep soundly in our beds now, knowing them what's rulin' us are truly three steps ahead of the game.

Pancakes? Where the hell are we?

Just when you thought the UK couldn't get any more similar to the USA, Kate Middleton is photographed in Northern Ireland, tossing pancakes. Isn't this what hopeful senators do in New Hampshire primaries to demonstrate their presidential credentials? Since when did an aspiring member of the Royal Family feel he/she had to curry favour with the polloi by trying to cook in public? OK, the Royal Family is more a company than a dynasty but it shouldn't become a public version of the 'X' Factor.

Monday, 7 March 2011


It's never too late to discover things others have known for decades. I've always been slow out of the blocks, but waiting forty-eight years before seeing Psycho is quite an achievement by anyone's standards. And what a film it is, too, isn't it? Hard to believe it was made back in 1960 etc etc blah blah blah. I've never seen any Star Wars films, either, but, being no fan of sci-fi,  am not likely to correct that little omission any time soon.

Maybe hooking up the old Darty Box wasn't such a bad idea, after all.


From today's Telegraph:

Duchess negotiated debt pay-off with paedophile for several months. As headlines go, it's enough to bring a tear of reassurance to your glass eye. No wonder Great Britain is The World's Second-Favourite Nation® (see previous post). In this vein, I was sorry not to find the following communiqué from the Vatican Post:

Sheep 'not in any other relationship' at time of liaison with Pope, Vatican lawyers declare.

To this we've come in our 'civilised' world. God help us. Seriously.


I was interested to see this morning that Germany was voted top of the pile in the BBC World Service Country Rating Poll, while Britain rolled in second. Germany's result made me very happy as it's a country where I lived for eleven years and have worked every summer since leaving in 2004. It's not a popular tourist destination, so people never really get exposed to just how user-friendly the place is, but in terms of basic quality of life you'll be hard-pushed to find anywhere better within a three-hour flight radius. The populace is intelligent and considerate and their products speak for themselves. In short, the place is a by-word for quality and I'm pleased they've started getting a bit of recognition for their territory. A few years back I published a piece in the Telegraph about their hosting of the 2006 World Cup and the positive view the Germans started having of themselves after that tournament has only continued to grow and shows no sign of abating. Whilst the Sun and Co. are still happy to churn out tired wartime clichés, Germany confronted its deeds of that period, issued an impressive array of mea culpas, built a more enlightened approach into the school curriculum and reinvented itself as a modern, analytical and conscientious nation, for which they are now garnering the fruits. Good on you, Brüder.


Just when I thought the day couldn't get any better: Mrs. Fingers comes back from having her hair newly sandblasted bearing a large contract-shaped envelope postmarked Northern Bavaria. Yup, I'm now officially off to spend my summer with Valkyries, Knights of the Grail and various other colourful characters born of the tip of Richard Wagner's phenomenal quill. It'll be the eighth summer in a row and long may it last; for Wagner lovers, professional or otherwise, life can't pour you many more powerful love potions than a summer in Bayreuth.

It also means I'll be heading over to the Czech Republic again for some cut-price, first-class dental treatment. A series of little push-me-pull-you trains snake through bohemian border country to Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) where I found someone who'll basically replace my tombstones for a fraction of the cost of having them done anywhere points west of the old Iron Curtain. Another two or three trips and I should be able to advertise toothpaste or run for Prime Minister, seeing as regular gnashers appeared to be Blair's only qualification for the job.

Weather Report

The sun has returned to the south-west, smiles are coming back, coats are getting lighter. I've been amazed these last few weeks how the temperature can lurch from one extreme to another, to the point where you need two sets of clothing on permanent standby. It's unusual for this normally temperate part of the world but I'm not going to fall into the trap of ignorantly spouting any ill-founded theories on global warming, man-made or otherwise.

In fact, the most intriguing statistic of an otherwise pretty slow weekend is the fact that Marine le Pen tops the polls in peoples' voting intentions come the next presidential election. This will change, of course, once Arab revolutions, public debates on the place of Islam in French society and other potentially immigration-related subjects make way for what really interests the great unwashed, namely, video footage of Gérard Dépardieu leaving a restaurant or politicians tripping over their words, as did recently Rachida Dati, being interviewed about national economic prospects, inadvertently implied that there wasn't enough oral sex going on in France. Don't believe me? Google her name and add 'lapsus'.

I've also decided to stop smoking at the end of the month and Alan Carr is helping prepare me. I won't go on about it as it's intensely boring, but I really want it to work this time. Mrs. F and the Fingernails are, unsurprisingly, very much in favour. Maybe I'll be more relaxed once I'm off the weed, I don't know; the only certain thing is that I'm 48 and I can't go on like this indefinitely.

Enjoy the sun, wherever you are.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Free and Easy.

The simplest and most rewarding pleasure in life when you're a parent is to cuddle your children. The Fingernails decided over dinner that what was really needed before bedtime was a tickling match, so after clearing the kitchen, that's exactly what we had. There were lots of screams and lots of laughter, then the little ones announced they wanted a round of hugs, so we lay there for a few minutes with our arms around one another until Fingernail II said she'd had enough. Fortunately, the Social Services weren't on the prowl, as they might have confiscated our children on the grounds that we were being too affectionate, or some such tosh.

Whatever has happened during the day, just the sight of your own children as you get home heals everything. Nature knew what it was doing.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Stand on your own two feet.

You can tell a lot about people by the way they walk. Some progress with purposeful tread, others amble and meander with no apparent goal. My feeling is that the society in which you live is partially responsible for this. Take London and New York, for example. The pace is fast, the populace is going somewhere and wishes to achieve, close or progress. Countries where the State is preponderant do not move with the same verve or intent; their lives have been taken care of; all they need to do is avoid traffic and hold their hand out. I often think about this as I cycle through pedestrian masses on on my way to work. Many on foot, brandishing shopping bags full of rubbish they'll never need or use, are happy to stop and let the person coming towards them take responsibility for the safe conclusion of the momentary encounter. Rarely do you see people look up, assess the traffic and steer a path accordingly. Some do tend to slalom, keeping their momentum even if the resultant diversion means adding a few yards to their journey. Toulouse City Council has recently given me an unwitting extra agar plate for my studies: they've closed half of the main shopping street to begin remodeling the whole city centre area. Rue Alsace-Lorraine now has half the space for the same amount of people and, strangely, the people are starting to show more initiative: before the work started, with a wonderful, broad thoroughfare at their disposal, the various shoppers, businesspeople and terminal idlers would wander listlessly and aimlessly the length and breadth of the thoroughfare, their movements beyond interpretation and anticipation. Now, with half the space available to them they've become more observant. It's easier to make eye contact and broadcast directional intent as more and more people are aware of the lack of space. And this in a country where 35% of the working populace is sucking rapaciously on Marianne's shapely, munificent jugs.

A Harvard Economics professor recently published a book stating that 'Cities are civilisation's greatest achievement'. Apparently, they foster and nurture creativity, encourage interaction and raise awareness and tolerance. I can only imagine he's never been to Birmingham, but that's not the point, here. If we take the idea of a city as a place where people are huddled together, then I can only agree with him; given too much space, people lose the connection to others. Shoe-horn them into a sardine tin and they start to adapt to their surroundings. To push the analogy a step further, we can also cite the statistic, true or fictive, that racism is most marked amongst people who've had the least to do with foreigners.

A five-minute bike ride to work can do wonders for your tenuous grasp of shallow pop psychology, you know.


Just so there's no misunderstanding regarding what I wrote last night, I'd like to make the following clear:

What I love about America and Americans:
1) The courtesy, the positive, 'can-do' attitude;
2) Their professionalism;
3) The countryside;
4) Their generosity.

In short, I'm a fan of the country and its denizens. However, despite the always incredible production values, I abhore Hollywood Cinema. I find it shallow, formulaic and manipulative.

I feel better, now. Thanks.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

What a load of...

In the midst of the current, government-initiated public debate on the place of Islam in France, Nicolas Sarkozy has started standing strategically in front of churches so that voters don't run off and put their 'X' by the name Marine le Pen come the next Presidential Election in 2012. I'd have never seen this if I hadn't hooked up our Darty Box TV decoder the other day and virtually everything that has passed before my eyes since that fateful afternoon has only served to reinforce my feeling that I commited an act of the rashest stupidity. TV News is, at best, vacuous entertainment, but the worst feeling of all is that so many people take it as gospel. It's so dreadfully easy to manipulate the masses and yet so difficult to form one's own opinion when every news outlet has its own agenda.

Worse still was Sofie Coppola's film Marie Antoinette which finished about ten minutes ago. Who needs books when we have Hollywood? The Omaha Landings, William Wallace and Marie Antoinette to name but three, have all been so grossly misrepresented as to constitute a crime against anyone serious historian devoted to recounting past events as accurately as possible. Tonight, Mrs. F and I learned that Marie Antoinette took baths in her nightdress, presumably to ensure that any film made about her life 220 years after her decapitation would not endure a commercially suicidal '18' or 'R' certificate (we used to know them as 'X', but there you go; another bit of heritage Britain has eagerly abandoned in its unstinting quest to be the 51st State). The masked ball in the Palais Garnier (inaugurated 86 years after the French Revolution) was another howler, but the icing on the cake was surely the soundtrack. Somebody must have told Ms Coppola that, in those days, people listened to baroque music, of which she could only have understood the second syllable and thus treated her audience to Adam and the Ants, an appallingly-sung version of Only Fools Rush In as well as other lesser-known pop anthems. The cloying, obligatory (at least since 1980's American TV and Film) applause at any public event was omnipresent. This was a film to show the Palace of Versailles to an American audience with a pretty, Arian-looking, all-American star, but had little, if anything, to do with the Austrian princess bride of Louis XVI. Anyone who has seen Sascha Guitry's Talleyrand and Napoleon films knows how this period could, and should, be treated, at least on film. Better still, read well-researched books on the subjects.

I've nothing against America or the Americans; I've lived there, worked there, been married to one. But I can't abide the systematic distortion of historical facts for entertainment's sake, particularly when, for many people, this will be their only exposure to these episodes in history.