Thursday 30 June 2011


Did you wait at traffic lights set up around a hole in the road on your way to work this morning? Have the cable TV guys dug up your footway or is there a spot of resurfacing going on? Well, the French have a concept called "le grand projet". In essence it is a philosophical idea whereby the imagination of sometimes a visionary individual overrides the mundane everyday drudge of life and of course, all non visionaries.  This is why one has the Eiffel tower and the high speed train (Le TGV). Once you have submitted to a grand projet such as the Haussmann creation of Paris, you enter a long period of stasis where the grand projet becomes a battle with counter visionaries. Until 2008 Building height in Paris was restricted to 37 metres (122 feet) and has left us with - well - Paris and HOW LOVELY SHE IS. Maybe I'd go to the barricades to save both Paris and Radio 4. Good job Prince Charles isn't French! There would be no "monstrous carbuncles" on his watch.(My non UK readers may not know that this was his description of an extension to the National Gallery in London).

Anyway, if I return to the hole in the road, please spare a thought for the folks of a village near me called "Port D'Envaux." The picture above has an eloquence that I could not hope to beat. Le grand projet is to transform the whole place in one go. Well - no way back now.

Since I mentioned Prince Charles, you may wonder how the French see The British royal family. Having dealt with their own royal issue and robbed themselves of the greatest soap opera on Earth, they have had to content themselves with the tales of Monaco. (They are seldom disappointed). The wedding of the sovereign is now a couple of days away and there is a frenzy of stories, law suits and, shock horror, allegations of a third illegitimate child.  (His Serene Highness admits to two). As the British Royal wedding approached I encountered all manner of French folk congratulating me on the happy event. "You will be waving your flags I expect." said my neighbour seriously. Since they don't sell union jacks anywhere in France and I don't carry one I just had to watch the show beamed in on the BBC. Now beat that Monaco!

Yesterday's attack on President Sarkozy did not give him the chance to respond with his famous "Casse toi pauv'con". If you want a bleep(ing) translation, get in touch... Now if only John Prescott had been there. See Prezza land a blow for socialism here. Not quite what I had in mind when I wrote "Knockout!"

Emma thinx: Love your lover. Sighs matter.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Stand up Comedienne

Yes - there are still stand up loos in France. Now, we females have quite correctly sought equality and in this regard for long periods we have been able to use true unisex stand up toilets. The last one I found was on the autoroute services close to Poitiers. However, these are not stand up toilets! One squats the bot......there was a time when I did not know this. Also be aware that toilet paper is not always provided. You have been warned. I have also found that when cycling with kids, minor cases of Diarrhoea can be turned into instant constipation when the stand up threat is rolled out.(One day the child abuse van will pull up outside and uniformed politically correct guards will grab me). I didn't intend to make this blog a toilet tantrum but if you are an affecianado of deep luxury quilted double silk tissue that will caress your flesh with the kiss of the soft southern breeze - FORGET IT. If that's what you want take your own. But again beware! For UK drainage users, the design of sewer here is often of smaller bore and lesser gradient, but let's not plunge into such depths.

Just before we lower the seat down on this issue I must tell you about one evening in Paris two months ago when I was dining at a Pot au Feu restaurant. We were seated near a door which opened into an airless cupboard which housed la toilette. Another diner dashed into the cupboard and appeared to be immediately swept up in something involving a bullet train and a volcanic explosion. He emerged appearing soothed and returned coolly  to his table to continue his elegant life of chic Parisian. We were engulfed in a cloud of gas that contravened the Geneva convention and the laws of physics. I struggled for air while Gilles calmly lifted a bone from his stew to his lips. " La vie - it is about flesh you know...." He said. He was born there.

As I rode through the town today I saw the cat lady. (See my blog "The cat's out of the bag") She was standing in the road with a large pair of binoculars held to her eyes. She was studying the church tower. I must point out that the cat lady is also the bird lady. She is also an angel but probably escaped. She saw me and we did the four kisses.
"Oh my little bonhome, my little flea - you are there." She explained as if I would understand.
"My little man, my love, my 'plume blanche', he is there alive."
A while ago she found a dazed crashed baby dove with a white breast feather, fed and did whatever angels do to fallen doves and set it free. She watches over it. One day an angel may need a dove for a special mission. As gangstas say on the streets of South London -"Respect".

Emma thinx: Leaders -  Leave out a little seed. A dove may land.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Sitting on the Block of e-Bay.

I needed a wardrobe. Actually I've always needed a wardrobe and today was my chance. Like most folk in France we have a trailer, in the way that most English folk have a lawnmower or a toaster. There are many ways to buy period romantic furniture worthy of une filly de frill such as me. You can go to a shop. There are many antique "Brocante" emporiums which are usually exotically priced and in my view, aimed at somewhat gullible foreigners. You can check out a web site called "Viva Street" which is quite handy. There is also a more local on line service called "le Bon Coin". Oh, and there is also a very curious little cosmic galactic enterprise called e-Bay France. Now, in France, the whole idea of the auction site is quite alien. This is not the way of TRADITION. Think of a butchers shop selling rabbits. Do customers bid to beat their neighbour to the rabbit punch? NON! On the seller says what he's got and asks for too much and the buyer shrugs and makes a derisory offer. It's like the old days of wage negotiations when workers were allowed to ask for a wage increase. You have to be quite old to remember that. Oh dear the old red commie petticoat is hanging down a bit. So, there is a price. You offer less. There is a counter punch and you make a deal. Do I get my MBA now? And there was a wardrobe and I wanted it!

We drove to Angouleme and while my hero driver Gilles reversed the enormous trailer I descended into the gloom of an underground garage with Monsieur le seller. We checked out the wardrobe. It was suitably enormous and twiddled - it was the wooden equivalent of a whole purple pumping ecstatic overwritten paragraph. I got out some cash. Monsieur Le Seller looked sadly at me. "Madame" he began hesitantly, "I wonder if you be interested in my bed?" Given the presence of Gilles I guessed he meant something honourable. "You see, this was the bed of my parents - my birth and many other world events happened in this bed. Now - we are globalised everywhere and no one of la famille wants it. These are the last things of my heritage and when they are are gone I can let go of the past."  I wondered how best selling romantic novelists would handle the situation as I embraced the weeping Monsieur to my bosom. "Forty Euros" I said. "Forty five and done." He replied stepping back. Gilles arrived and loaded the goods.  Now come on big biz guys - that's got to be my MBA.

Speaking of the old red commie petticoat - my audiobook of "Sub Prime" is finished and FREE to my loyal blog readers (click here) and I really do thank all of you around the world who are coming back to the site everyday to share my insights into bi-lingual incomprehension. It's not me reading it. See my blog "The Drama Queen's Speech." to find out why! If you actually want to hear MY rejected over sibilant voice I'm got some audio poems that will be coming up on the blog...

Emma x
PS. If you download the audiobook, please do let me know if you liked it.

Emma thinx: Indoors I watch a lost butterfly beating in vain against a window pane. Which of us understands the most? Not me.

Monday 27 June 2011

The Other Side of le Coin

You always know the houses of the English, even if they transmit that practised French aura of noble dilapidation. The give away is the shutters. On hot or cold days the English open their shutters. If you have motored around France you will be sure to have rolled through many closed up villages with no one in sight. The English house is the one with music coming out of opened shutters. Often there will be a large imposing 4X4 and a balding man wearing boy scout shorts, a stomach overbite T shirt and sandals with socks. In the heat of the day Les Français will be lunching quietly in a crepuscular cool. Only the English mad dogs will be visible. The French mad dogs need a siesta.

There is an expression in France. It is "du coin". Literally this means "from the corner" and translates as "local". At a social gathering I'm given to asking folk if they are "du coin". I do this for two reasons 1) It's easy and 2) I think it makes me sound cool and kinda savoir faire française.  However, the answers are sometimes unexpected. "Are you from round here?" Long pause with an expression of horror. "Non! not at all - I am from the next village - nearly 2 kilometres away!" Well, that told me didn't it. At a party I asked a lady if she was from the corner. "Non - absolument pas! I am from the North - La Rochelle." Must have been at least 50 kilometres. I just tell people I'm from London. It is another coin of the universe.

We do not have piped gas. This has created a massive bottled gas industry. Caravan types will know all about this. In St Savinien I get my gas from the Intermarché. The vendor is the same guy who operates the petrol pump forecourt. He is a man of absolute sang froid, calm and helpfulness. If ever I am on a plane where the pilots have died and a calm passenger is needed to take over, he will be the man.  He is a Gallic shrug on legs. I admire him tremendously. He is a Buddha of Butane, a Priest of Propane. Intermarché fuel is popular and there is often a queue at the pumps. Once you have mortgaged the house and sold one of the children you can fill up and drive to the payment hut. At the same time a customer arrives wanting a new gas bottle or to exchange his empty one. My hero nods in accord, locks the hut and proceeds to the display of gas cylinders. Drivers wait. No question is too difficult and no answer is too long. One may discuss gas regulators and rubber tubing, the various current offers and the pros and cons of the entire gas business. Now, this is not the road raged streets of London. Petrol pumping ceases without anger (I think England is a very angry place these days) and Madame gets herself re-gassed. He goes back to the hut, smiles a little and the great hydrocarbon wheel rolls on towards extinction.

Emma thinx: Don't wait to live. Live while you're waiting.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Friends, Romans, Countrymen - Lend me a Boudin.

It's hot! Only the English would be that interested. I mean it's hot - shrug. Gilles and I cycled down to Saintes which about 12kilometres. Essentially you follow the valley of the river Charente. Now Saintes is a very historique and beautiful city which is twinned with the Wiltshire town of Salisbury in the UK. Both have magnificent cathedrals, a river running through and buskers who can't sing. The Euro to pound exchange rate means that the French performers are far more expensive. Whilst Salisbury is quite near to Stonhenge (Oh why oh why can't someone reveal that it is fake?), Saintes has the most fantastic Roman amphitheatre. Being France, it's kinda in the middle of a housing estate with a shed at the entrance. Cars can pull up half on the kerb or on a gravel pavement.  Visitors to Stonehenge may walk around the hallowed stones via the heritage centre, through a roped off path and see the stones from some untouchable distance. At the Saintes amphitheatre you can stand in the middle, practice your "Friends, Francais, Countrymen" or simply run out from the dark sinister cavern where the "performers" waited into the blinding light and roar of 28,000 baying, blood lusting Simon Cowells.....if your imagination can stretch to that. Look- just believe that you are Wayne Rooney trotting out to meet a few thousand tabloid readers. Bref - come to Saintes and help me earn my commission from the ministry of tourism! Are you reading this Sarko?

Yesterday I said I was gonna say a few words about travelling on a bike in France. Now, there are many places you can stay called "chambres d'hôte" Really this means Bed and Breakfast in someone's house. A curious aspect of this can be the hovering host. On one occasion travelling with the kids we were served a meal of mashed potato and boudin blanc sausage. Now, this is a dish of some character made from bloodless pork meat and often milk. I think the gourmet term would be "sloshy". The kids, weaned on Jamie Oliver's cheeky chiploatas, slithered dripping pale slosh into their gobs. The host ,in full chefs hat and apron, paced up and down the room beaming and nodding "Oh - delicieux n'est-ce pas?" he repeated. The kids swallowed and nodded. "Tomorrow Big Mac." I promised, smiling and swallowing. No one died. It's called character building. I think the Duke of Edinburgh may be adopting it as a challenge.
Emma x

Emma thinx: If I had a sausage dog I'd call it solo.

Saturday 25 June 2011

We All Have Our Crossing to Bear

There's just something about ferries isn't there. As the holiday madness approaches and ferry tariffs lift off with the last space shuttle, many Brits will be anticipating their journey to France. Ho ho - deep foaming and churning deep joy. According to the French ministry of statistics, 19.3 million (Yes - I've checked it) British landings were made in France in 2009. Sure makes D day look a bit thin.  My own highly scientific silly rucksack, odd looking shoes and men with handbag survey reveals that about 19 French people have ever travelled on ferries from France to England. Hence, the whole cross channel experience is BRITISH. Yes - Abba karaoke, pints and pints of lager, shaven headed cyclists in stripey jumpers on charity rides, pink trousered loud voiced posh folk who've lost their yachts and tattooed parents bawling at marauding mohecan headed brats. Even Gilles has given up trying to speak French. "Poisson frites" he says in perfect Parisian " you vant zee feesh and zee sheeps yes..? Well, to be honest on Brittany Ferries the crew are generally from Bretagne. Paris is another country. Stick to English - most of the waiters have never met a French traveller. The problem is I need a desk and I have one in England that I could bring over .....but can I bear it?

On the holiday theme, readers will know of my love for cycling. If you haven't planned your hols and perhaps you're a bit poorer than you'd hoped and you really want to do something fantastic, life changing and totally boast-worthy - why don't you cycle to Paris? This was the first thing I ever did with Gilles. Luckily he has a fetish for sweaty moaning women with varicose limbs. This is what you do. You get to Newhaven; cross to Dieppe: follow an old railway line to Forge-Les-Eaux; keep to tiny car free roads until you pick up le canal de L'Ourq AND YOU SLIDE INTO PARIS! We did it second time with three kids. Just one problem. We are talking about France - yes - in Northern France many non-chain hotels close for summer holidays. YES - you did understand that. Shops close noon until 3pm. Hotels close for the summer. There are ways around this and tomorrow I'll tell you of some folks we've stayed with unless something astonishing happens in Charentes. If you want info on the trip of your life just get in touch and I can give a romantic novelists guide to saddle sores, love in lycra and how to smuggle your hair straighteners, manicure set and five changes of costume to Paris on a bike. I want you guys to do this. Just think - a wet night in October - dinner party with the Beatyourazzi who've just come back from their own island with slaves, en suite waxing salon and a money mine......And I don't suppose you did much on holiday?.......Ooh I'm a conniving cynical bitch!

Emma x

Emma Thinx:  Bullshit baffles brains. Sweat dissolves bullshit.

Friday 24 June 2011

Old Boilers Like it Hot

Even deep purple romantics need boilers. Today was the annual service day. There is something about the smell of fuel oil - like airports and cross channel ferries. With no gas mains in rural France many folk have huge tanks of diesel fuel in their garden or garage. If you're thinking of moving to France be sure to consider winter heating costs. Last February we burned our way through about 150 Euros in a week.

When the young man had finished his toil I went to pay him by cheque. Oh dear - no cheque book to be found. After a couple of shrugs it was settled that I could pop over to see le patron at his house when I could, or he could call back when he was nearby or maybe one day something would resolve the matter. Does this sound like corporate thrusting? Money matters here, but never at the expense of etiquette. Recently I have begun to notice a ramping up of big biz rudeness - (Orange France please note), but generally commerce is conducted amongst trusting partners.  I do not exaggerate when I say that I feel that I am once again living in the times of my childhood before the rage of greed and madness tore us all apart and created a mob of competing strangers playing video shooting games. 

So - le patron can be found easily - it is the house with blue shutters. Where? Well - it's in a place without streets called "Lieu dit Les Benons". Now, according to Gilles, "Lieu dit" translates as "a place calling itself." So, anxious to clear the debt, out came the bikes and we set off to find the patron. Tradition here demands that shutters may be any colour you choose as long as it's pale blue or pale green or perhaps pale grey/cream for real rebels. Shall I bore you with the rest......Let's just say that we got home by dark.

A quick comment on on a comeback story. Thanks to e-publishing I believe that the novella is making a comeback. I had started to think that some publishers thought that paperbacks were sold by weight. Great Favorites of mine such as "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (56,000), "Animal Farm"(44,000) and "Bonjour Tristesse"(35,000?) are novellas all being well short of a Harlequin romance.  So today I chanced upon a novella by an American writer Barbara Mack called "Dreaming of You". I wolfed it down in an hour and enjoyed its good old fashioned passion and what I call human juice. When someone writes with texture - you can feel it. Check her out here

Thursday 23 June 2011

Bac on me bike

If there's one big thing I miss over here it is BBC Radio 4. Actually there is just nothing like it in the world. OK - it's often a bit up itself but the breadth and quality of the programming is stunning. If there's a cause that would get me to the barricades it would be to keep the BBC free. Media moguls must size it up and politicos may think of sizing it down. What a commercial market it would be for a few city chums. Whenever I get the chance I catch an afternoon play, the PM programme or the late night book on the internet and no one tries to sell me incontinence clothing or a Volvo.

My local radio station is France Bleu La Rochelle. Local radio was all we had before everyone in the world was an online author. Old wiseacres phone in with tales of trouble with turnips in France just as they do in the UK. Local radio reveals just how similar folk are. Today they are talking about the Baccalaureate  - the French equivalent of A levels. The day before the exam on Tuesday, one of the questions on the maths paper was published on an internet site for what the French call ados (teens). Now- why didn't I get that kind of opportunity at school? Ironically, the maths required to recalculate the re-marking seem to be defeating everyone. According to some sources, the leaked question was an easier one just to get students into the rhythm of the algorithm, so you can't simply divide up the marks using the unleaked questions. OK - I'm chewing my pencil....

And here is something astonishing. The French racing cyclist Jeannie Longo has just won her 57th National title. Well, so what? Just that's she's 52 years old, has degrees in Maths and an MBA and I dare say she makes her own bikes. As I wobble my gasping mentally challenged way to Intermarché on my old bone shaker at about 10kph she will be my inspiration.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Clapham Subjunctive

When I started to learn French it was not long before another student mentioned L'Académie Française. It was as if the shadow of a huge bird of prey had come to hover over my life. If you made a mistake a great claw of grammaire would lift you from the Earth and deposit you before some solemn court for punishment. Now, generally I do not criticise my wonderful supportive concitoyens. However, I believe that one of the reasons why English has colonised the world is because it belongs totally to who ever is speaking it. I also think that the absence of gender in nouns makes English more quickly available. AND YOU AIN'T GONNA BE TERRIFIED OF MAKIN' A MISTAKE - KNOW WHAT I MEAN LIKE".

Although many French folk would have little time for L'Académie, if you are going to speak French you must be prepared to be corrected, perfected, punctuated and humiliated in the most friendly of terms and fairly often. Recently at the beach I said to a child "Have you caught UNE crabbe?" The child looked back in stupefied horror as if I had revealed that Father Christmas ate children."Oh - NON! - I have caught UN crabbe." came the horrified response.  Once again the shadow of the great claw swept along the beach. I shuddered as it passed over. Further down la plage someone had missed a subjunctive.

There is a wonderful quote by Pierre Daninos which illustrates a very critical difference between Brits and Francs, with Americans somewhere in between. My poor South London translation would be " In France where you shine by your words, a man who keeps quiet commits social suicide. In England, where the art of conversation consists of knowing when to stay quiet, a man shines by his dullness." Imagine a barbecue in your middle English garden. Your neighbour Tom, downs a can of Stella, comments that you look like you're putting on a bit of weight, chews his blackened sausage, moans about the striking street cleaners and goes home. Now imagine Tom Le Voisin. "My friends - and my dearest fellow citizens - allow me first to thank the beautiful and charming hosts who have so tenderly brought une telle saucisse to our comradely table, and not to forget the farmers and sausage-makers of France........" Several others then agree about sausage and citizenship issues. Then it's my turn. I slug another glass of Bordeaux. A shadow passes across the sky and a claw flexes in readiness.
Emma x