petite anglaise

September 30, 2004

nation of hypochondriacs

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaise @ 11:40 am

Its arrêt de travail season again.

The French take colds very seriously indeed. At the first sign of a sniffle they are generally to be found queueing up at the Dr’s surgery, emerging € 25 poorer, but triumphantly brandishing a Dr’s note instructing them to stay at home for the rest of the week.

Impressive long medical names are used on the arrêt de travail but do not be duped, things are rarely as serious as they seem:

  • rhino-pharyngite = a common cold
  • pharyngite = a sore throat
  • bronchite = a cough (not to be confused with proper bronchitis)
  • une grippe = a common cold (not to be confused with proper flu)

A recent advertising campaign by the Sécurité Sociale attempted to curb the over-prescription of antibiotics in France – it seems that the population at large, including many doctors, had not understood that most colds are viruses and antibiotics are therefore ineffective in treating them.

On the rare occasions when I have felt the need to see a doctor in France, I have never come away with a prescription with less than 5 items on it. Including the ubiquitous suppositories. The Dr asked me how many days I wanted to be signed off work. However, as my employers are British, they have little respect for employees who ‘go native’ and milk the system for a bit of extra vacation.

In the UK, the emphasis seems to be on taking turbo-charged cold remedies that have you back at work (if indeed you ever left) in a jiffy. There is a thriving black market in imported Lemsip and Boots cold cures in my office; personally I always smuggle over a good stock of Lockets, and plenty of paracetamol, asprin and ibuprofen, which cost roughly 10 times less in a British supermarket. Unbelievably asprin and paracetamol are only available as branded, over the counter drugs in France.

*sniffle sniffle*

Mmmm. Having said that, I do quite fancy a long weekend…

September 29, 2004

conquering conkers

Filed under: missing blighty — petiteanglaise @ 1:09 pm

It’s that time of year again where the pavements are covered in leaves (despite the best efforts of an army of municipal staff whose sole purpose in life seems to be to hoover/sweep/blow them away) and I am obliged to bring the pushchair to a halt every few seconds to pick up a particularly shiny conker for the Tadpole to inspect.

Conkers. I have finally got around to googling them and am no longer confused about how to translate conker into French. The horse chestnut tree is a marronnier. But what the French refer to as a marron is not the fruit of the marronnier at all (those are apparently marrons d’inde), it’s actually a type of edible chestnut. The marron is used to manufacture a 1 part nut to 20 parts sugar, sickly sweet chestnut paste (often found in crèpes), and is also sold in boxes of marrons glacés around Christmas time. There was me thinking that French people ate conkers – but this is apparently not the case.

What they certainly do not do, is thread conkers onto pieces of string and have duels to the ‘death’ with them. At least not according to the Frog (an unreliable source, but the only French person I feel able to bore with all my stupid questions).

A couple

of years ago we were invited to stay with a friend in Hertfordshire who was hosting the annual “Redbourn Conker Tournament” in her back garden. It was a very grand affair, with free-flowing lager and coloured rosettes for the winners in each category.

The categories were:

  • natural conkers (untampered with, the current year’s vintage)
  • steroid conkers (pertaining to conkers which had been kept from the previous year, baked, pickled in vinegar, varnished or otherwise treated)
  • largest conker
  • smallest conker
  • best fancy dress conker

As I recall I was swaying too much from the lager to distinguish myself in the the first two categories, but I did win a rosette for my conker dressed as Kylie Minogue (sporting a fetching pair of gold hotpants). The Frog gamely gave it a go, but no amount of enthusiasm could overcome his opponents’ accumulated years of playground experience.

There’s one thing can be said for us Brits. We don’t half know how to have fun.

September 28, 2004

gender reassignment

Filed under: Uncategorized — petiteanglaise @ 10:48 am

These days I’m often mistaken for a French person, at least over the phone (because apparently I will always ‘look’ English). That is until I make some unforgiveably basic gender mistake. Because let’s face it, you can study a language to degree level, live in the country for donkey’s years, but you can’t re-programme your brain to think that a table is feminine and a glass is masculine. My theory is that when a French person learns to speak, the le or la is learnt as an extension of the noun in question, one cannot be dissociated from the other. Whereas when I learn a new French word, I retain the noun itself, but not its gender. I’m just not hardwired that way. This is the main reason I didn’t feel capable of teaching French. “Please Miss, you just said une verre but yesterday in the book Fifi la Folle said un verre…”

I’m always astonished when I get a gender wrong, for example when shopping, and the person serving me stares back blankly, genuinely not understanding what it is that I want. You would assume, would you not, that if you asked for une éclair au chocolat instead of un éclair au chocolat it wouldn’t be the end of the world? Apparently not. I am generally reduced to repeating my mistake a few more times, in a louder voice, until finally the shop assistant has a flash of inspiration and replies: “Ah oui Madame, vous voulez dire un éclair au chocolat, bien sûr…”

What really doesn’t help is that many words simply have the wrong gender, in my opinion. How can I possibly be expected to get my head around the following blatant mismatches between concept and gender?

masculine: le repassage (ironing), le ménage (housework), le sein (breast), l’accouchement (giving birth), le feminisme

feminine: une bitte (sl. – penis), la guerre (war), la paresse (sloth, laziness)…

I propose a wholesale revision of the French dictionary and will be writing to the Académie Française forthwith.

September 27, 2004

public displays of gluttony

Filed under: miam — petiteanglaise @ 4:08 pm

I gave in to temptation this morning and bought a pain au chocolat on the way to work. The chocolate was warm and runny and the pastry was so buttery that the paper bag gradually became transparent in places. It smellt heavenly. But I didn’t eat it there and then. No! I waited an excruciating half an hour until I had arrived at the office before tucking in. Why? Not because I enjoy torturing myself, but because in France you just don’t see people eating in public places. It is just not the done thing. If you do decide to snack in public, you must be prepared for some funny looks and even passers-by wishing you “bon appétit” in a sarcastic, disapproving manner.

This is one of the things I think the French have got right. Eating here is something to be taken slowly and seriously: you don’t cram food in your mouth while running down the metro escalator, you sit down, and probably have a much healthier digestive experience as a result. Although many people now use the restaurant tickets their employers provide to buy a take-away lunch of sandwiches or salad to eat in the work kitchen or – if they work in an anglo-saxon company – at their desk, there are still just as many who eat a proper two or three course meal in a restaurant. In some parts of town every second building houses a different café, restaurant, bistrot or brasserie; without lunchtime diners I doubt even half of these would survive.

Snacking between meals does not seem to be part of French culture. Go into any tabac and instead of several square metres of confectionery (as you would find in the UK), you’ll have to choose between a solitary twix, a couple of snickers bars, and a dust-covered kit kat, all housed behind a glass case next to the cashier. Crisps are not even sold in single-serving small packets (nor in appetising flavours). They are meant only as an accompaniment to the evening’s aperitif, not as a between meals stop-gap. Cakes on sale at boulangeries/pâtisseries are mostly the layered moussey type which require the use of cutlery, not easily eaten on the run. You might have noticed that vending machines have recently been introduced in metro stations, but I am the only person I have ever seen buying food from them, on the rare occasions that they are working.

On trips home to England, my eyes light up when I see the tantalising array of candy on the shelves. It seems every chocolate bar I grew up with has spawned five or more different flavoured offspring, or been subtley changed and rebranded as an entirely new product. But maybe there is just too much choice? Sometimes it is all too much and I end up walking away empty handed. And let’s face it, the UK’s growing obesity problem must have a lot to do with our snack culture. I have been known to moan (me? moan?) about how it is not fair that French women are generally stick thin and hipless – but perhaps if I hadn’t been brought up on a diet of Rowntree’s misshapes I too would have an androgynous figure and would not be subject to sugar/salt cravings at inappropriate times of day.

Talking of which, I would KILL for a Cadbury’s flake right now. Or a Curly Wurly…

September 26, 2004

say it with sweeties

Filed under: city of light, miam — petiteanglaise @ 2:20 pm

On the left is the calorific bouquet I had delivered to the Frog’s office on his birthday. I’m now rather popular there, as even the Frog can’t get through 50 Chupa Chups without some assistance.

The Frog adores sweets: packets of fraises tagada are always mysteriously falling from supermarket shelves into our shopping trolley when my back is turned. If he ever leaves me it will no doubt be for his dentist, with whom he is spending increasing amounts of quality time.

As our expedition last weekend to find a suitable present was unsuccessful (he is very fussy), I thought I’d better have something up my sleeve on the day to make up for it. Actually, that makes me sound much less calculating than I really am: my primary motivation was to make him feel guilty that he never surprises me on my birthday… Not that when he thanked me over the phone through a mouthful of liquorice shoelaces he could have cared less about any intended subtext…

Last night we went out for a meal at Chez Georges, the Frères Costes’ über-trendy restaurant on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou. The experience made me remember why I love Paris: there is a marvellous view of the city skyline and all the major monuments are lit up at night. Inside the restaurant the view isn’t unpleasant either. The waiters are very suave, and the beanpole waitresses look like models. There must be a clause in the girls’ contracts which specifies that at least 1m20 of skinny bare leg must be shown at all times. Their outfits would have been more appropriate in a glitzy nightclub – never have I seen so many sequins (except perhaps in Miss Selfridge).

At the end of our meal, feeling I’d overindulged on rich food and bordeaux I asked our waiter for a carafe of water with the bill: meaning tapwater, not the mineral water on the menu at €8 a bottle (which even I know is ridiculously expensive). He looked at me calculatingly and said “de l’eau municipale?” I’ve never heard tapwater called by that name before, but I concede it is a very clever use of the word ‘municipal’, a word which conjures up images of street cleaners, sewerage works and dodgy lead piping and almost made me have costly second thoughts.

Incidentally, I stuck to my guns and got my tapwater, and as you can see I’m still alive, if a little “hanged over”.

September 24, 2004

danger! low voltage

Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaise @ 1:34 pm

We had two power cuts in our appartment building yesterday.

The first at 4 am meant that we failed to get up for work in the morning – the battery in the alarm clock which is supposed to act as a safety net in such emergencies being helpfully flat. Much bleary eyed fumbling for candles and matches and colourful swearing and ensued. Neither the Frog nor I has the faintest idea how to light the pilot light in the boiler, so I was reduced to heating a pan of water on the gas stove for washing purposes and resourceful use of Huggies cottonsoft wipes. I suppose that’s how people washed (minus the Huggies) in the ‘good old days’ when our appartment building was built, as originally there were no bathrooms.

A great start to the day, all in all, arriving late to work, then praying that all would be well when I got home and that the contents of the freezer would not have to be binned. It was thankfully all sorted, so I set about setting every clock in the flat to stop them blinking at me.

Returned home tipsy later that night after a girls’ night out. Ten minutes later the power went off again. As most of our neighbours appear to be pensioners who go to bed at 8pm I doubt any one else noticed, so a drunken conversation between petite and Electricité de France followed, whereby I tried to convince the rather sceptical man on the other end of the line that the problem concerned the whole building so a technician was NOT to come hammering on my door in the middle of the night, but instead should proceed straight to the cellar where the fusebox for the building is located. Under NO circumstances was I willing to go down there in my nightie with a torch – even if it might be a question of just to tripping a switch – it’s a spooky dungeon-like place with earth floors and stone vaulted ceilings and several catacomb like corridors. I always feel like something is lurking in the shadows watching me. And I have no desire to see what nocturnal wildlife it may harbour.

*shiver*

It occurs to me that had the power gone off ten minutes earlier, knowing my luck I would have been stuck in our miniscule lift between two floors until 5am when the power finally came back on, as this does not appear to have a backup supply of any kind. It measures about 1m by 50cm and has floor to ceiling carpeting which smells of dogs and old people, so I had a very narrow escape.

My worry is that I wasn’t around to quiz the man from the EDF on either occasion and he probably just tripped a switch without caring what the cause of the problem might be. So this will probably go on happening twice a day for the foreseeable future. In the middle of my favourite tv programmes, halfway through publishing a blog post, when it’s freezing cold outside…

I’m a pessimist by nature. In case you hadn’t noticed.

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