I saw this advert on the métro today and had to giggle.
[insert crude jokes in the comment box]
Yesterday was my Tadpole free evening and so I clambered aboard the number 26 bus and took myself off to the cinema at the Bassin de la Villette. There I bought a ticket (tarif chomeur, for now) and slunk into the café to scavenge for something filling to wolf down beforehand, imperative if I was to curb my tummy’s protests for the duration of the film. I fancied a panini, maybe a toastissimo, something warm and crunchy oozing carbs and cheesy cholesterol. But it was not to be. Instead, safe in the knowledge that they were protected by a pane of glass, an unappetising array of cold sandwiches and tired salads gave me the finger.
For a moment I wished I was in England, where stop-gap food can be something of an art form. In France, snacking is an activity so frowned upon that little is done to encourage it. In the case of the Mk2 cinema, the dire quality of the café fare can probably also be attributed to the fact that next door, in the same complex, is a proper, pricey restaurant with real cutlery, porcelain plates and glassware. The ploy almost worked, but time was short, my film due to start in twenty minutes, and last time I ate there, the service was nonchalant, to say the least.
I made off, dejectedly, with a slice of reheated goat’s cheese pizza on a paper plate, a plastic knife and fork, and sat on the terrasse watching a gimmicky little boat ferry people between the two cinemas on opposite banks of the canal St Martin.
The food may have disappointed, but the film was pure delight. A gem. I laughed out loud until tears rolled down my cheeks. I vowed never to enter Tadpole in a beauty pageant. I cringed and squirmed thoughout the “superfreak” dance routine, hands clapped over my mouth to stifle my whimpering.
As the credits rolled there were cheers and a spontaneous burst of applause. I joined in, grinning widely, exchanged a “c’était génial, hein?” with a complete stranger.
They may not be much cop at snack food, but the French really do know how to appreciate a film. Together.
Tadpole and I walk hand in hand up the rue de Rebeval, bound for home and, as usual, I try to extract some meaningful information from my daughter about what she has been up to that day.
Our conversation goes something like this.
Me: “So, what did you do at school today sweetie?”
Tadpole: “Er… something nice”
Me: “Something nice. I see. Did you draw some pictures?”
Me: “Read some books?”
Me: “What were the books about?”
Tadpole: “Er… I can’t remember.”
Me: “And what did you have for lunch?”
Tadple: “Chips. And chocolate.”
It is like extracting blood from a stone, pulling teeth or trying to establish whether Mr Frog has a girlfriend. A meeting with her maîtresse last Saturday was enlightening: we were told that all children tend to be reluctant to discuss what goes on at school with papa and maman. Maybe the school day is so action packed that it all becomes a blur in her tiny head. Or she so enjoys having her own little jardin secret that she resents my trying to peep over the top of the hedge. Whatever the reason, it is clear that nothing more is forthcoming.
I have a fair idea of what a typical day comprises: play, some supervised activities, lunch, storytime, sleep, a stint outdoors, and the fascinatingly named motricité sessions held in the school hall. This appears to be a typically French, scientific sounding word for PE, which includes circuit training and teetering about on stilts made from upturned buckets with string handles.
There is however one part of Tadpole’s day that I can spy on from the comfort of my own home. Canteen lunches are detailed on a very helpful website. There is week 38 in all its glory. Accompanied by an illustration of a dragon flying through the sky with two suitcases in his hands. Chips and chocolate indeed. On the day in question the menu was, in fact:
* * * * *
Rôti de dinde (roast turkey)
Gratin de blettes (gratin of ??????)
* * * * *
Petit-Suisse (sort of fromage frais thing)
The mind boggles. My very own Little Miss Fussy has been busy eating things I don’t even have the wherewithall to translate. My first thought on “blettes” was cockroaches – until, happily, I realised I was confusing “blettes” with “blattes”. Extensive web research yielded “Swiss chard”. Now let me see, I may have tasted it once, in Nice, in the filling of my ravioli niçoise, but until I looked on google images, I couldn’t have told you whether it takes the form of a bean, a root vegetable or a leaf. Tadpole eats Swiss chard? Swiss chard gratin? My daughter, the same child who refuses to mix peas and carrots (canned) in the same forkful? Who invariably turns up her nose at any item she has never tasted before? And which sadistic dinner lady dreamt up the idea of feeding beetroot to 3 year olds? Clearly one who won’t have to wash their clothes afterwards.
I suppose I should be thankful that Tadpole appears to be getting a balanced diet, something Jamie Oliver would no doubt work himself into a lather of enthusiasm over.
Later that evening, I decide to give the interrogation one last try, fortified with this new information.
Me: “So, did you have some beetroot for lunch? Some little purple squares? Some betteraves?”
Tadpole: “No, I had chips and chocolate. And cereals. And after, I had a strawberry milkshake!”
I can’t help giggling. Not only is she maintaining her barefaced lie, but now the little monster is embroidering around it, adding increasingly implausible embellishments.
Tadpole: “Mummy! Why you laughing?”
I snort apple juice out of my nose.
Tadpole: “Is it because I talking rubbish?”
Yesterday I was mostly being held hostage by Miguel, Fatima and their impressive array of power tools. After a somewhat unusual Monday in London, which will forever be imprinted on my memory as the day I ate fish and chips for elevensies, lunch in Hospital, was served delicate amuse-bouche French pastries an hour later, and a full afternoon tea at four, being subjected to several hours of ear-splitting drilling and jigsawing was something of a brutal jolt back to reality.
“VROOOOOAAAAAHHH” growled the drill, as I tried (but failed) to read in the next room. An image formed in my head of a bullet hole in a shop window, a web of cracks fanning out from the entry point in all directions. Superhuman strength of will was required to remain where I was and refrain from inspecting the floor to ceiling kitchen tiles for damage.
Miguel called to Fatima (expertly assembling furniture in the next room with her electric screwdriver and clearly the brains of the operation) and a sliver of fear slid down my spine. The urgency in his voice was carefully dosed so that his partner would down tools immediately and rush to his aid, but the customer would not rush in or grab the phone and start dialing the pompiers. Something had clearly been botched, but I gritted my teeth and opted for the “ignorance is bliss” approach.
“We’ll be back soon, and finished by four,” were the words Miguel tossed cheerfully over his shoulder as they headed out for lunch, at 11.30am. As I had entrusted Mr Frog with one set of keys for emergencies, another to a friend who is in town, I realised that effectively I was now a prisoner in my own apartment. There was no means of preparing any lunch for myself in this war zone, so I dashed out to fetch junk food. There is a reason why people generally eat kebabs a) after midnight and b) after four pints of lager and I will bear this in mind if I am tempted to repeat this sorry experience in the future.
Of course I needn’t have hurried. The power tools remained downed until a little before 2pm, when the terrible two returned, slightly sheepish, and resumed work. At 3.30pm Miguel was called away to another chantier for “a couple of hours”, leaving Fatima to soldier on in his absence. I collected Tadpole from school, took a detour around the park; anything to keep her away from the saw blades and splinters which littered her bedroom floor. The doorbell finally rang at 6.30pm and I began to harbour some hope that it would all be over before Tadpole’s bedtime.
A glance inside the kitchen an hour later revealed Miguel and Fatima spooning in a most unorthodox position whilst he demonstrated how to plumb in the sink. At 8pm I wrote a fat cheque and heaved a sigh of relief.
“Mr Builder and Little Miss Builder are gone now?” enquired Tadpole, momentarily pulling her eyes away from the television screen at the sound of the front door slamming shut.
“Yes, it’s all done. We’ve got a lovely new kitchen, look!”
Tadpole padded into the kitchen, disappeared, then returned, carrying a pot of magnetic letters.
“Come on mummy, we have to put these back first, on the frigo, and then it will finished,” she explained.
I arranged the lower case multi-coloured letters into a series of comical expletives and started to feel much better.
We take a seat at an outdoor table in front of Le Panier – a quirky little café on the Place St Marthe – and a contented sigh escapes me. What bliss to take some time away from the computer, which dominates my living room, my bedroom, my life. The Place St Marthe is a perfect place for playing “spot the bobo” and basking in the last rays of the summer.
The proprietor sets down a carafe of water, two glasses and a menu, taking a seat by my side. My mouth twitches with suppressed mirth. I have been here before and I know from experience that he is a rather larger than life character, who often pauses to sit by his bemused patrons talking surreal nonsense until he gets bored, moves on in search of new prey. Today he is dressed in white and blue striped cotton pyjama bottoms and a scruffy t-shirt. I wonder idly whether he is going commando and peer discreetly down to see what footwear he has chosen to accessorise this charming ensemble.
“The specials today are blanquette de veau with mascarpone, sauté d’agneau and a mushroom tart,” he says, giving me an odd sidelong glance which I find impossible to read. “Personally I don’t recommend the mushroom tart, it’s not up to much…” I wonder whether this is a skillful reverse advertising strategy. If not, my overwhelming desire to order the tart is simply a reflection of my own perverse nature. In the end though, I decide against it, as I scan down the menu and something else takes my fancy.
My friend – so traumatised by our last near miss that he insisted upon picking me up today on his scooter to avoid a repeat performance – quizzes me about all the surreal things which have been going on of late and then we fall silent for a while, savouring the tender souris d’agneau (I’m very vague about cuts of meat, in French, but I’m reliably informed that no mice were involved in the preparation of this meal) which falls away from the bone and melts in my mouth.
We order dessert, coffee, a beer, whiling away the afternoon until it is time for me to collect Tadpole from school. As I draw close to the throng of waiting mothers around the doorway, I reflect on how privileged I feel, right now. If things had been different, I would still be scurrying to the office every morning, never sure what kind of atmosphere would reign. A stranger would pick up Tadpole from school in the afternoons, and mind her until I got home. I would brave the rush hour métro twice a day.
Instead, I pad through my apartment barefoot, clad in my favourite jeans and power up the computer. I take a break when I feel I’ve earned one, or when my head becomes dull and heavy and words no longer flow. Grabbing a book from the pile, I head for the Parc de Belleville, sit cross-legged in the grass, my hair ruffled by a gentle breeze.
Every day I pass the steps where a plaque reads:
“Sur les marches de cette maison, naquit dans le plus grand dénuement celle dont la voix, plus tard, allait bouleverser le monde”
A song echoes in my head. I regret nothing.
Ever since I picked Tadpole up from school, crying, this time, because a classmate had tried to remove one of her Hello Kitty hair clips in the playground using brute force , I have had to remain in character. Or characters. It’s difficult to keep track, as Tadpole keeps changing her mind about who I am supposed to be.
“… would you like some Kiri on your pasta, Mr Happy?” I say in an exaggerated stage whisper as I pour the steaming contents of the pan into a colander.
“Yes, Kiri on my pastas. And sweetcorns,” she replies. There is no “please”, but I decide to let that one slide, for now.
“Baby tomatoes?” I continue, at normal volume.
“Mummy! I sayded that you were Mr Quiet!” shouts Tadpole, indignantly. Past tenses have taken an odd turn recently. Where previously they were correct, my daughter has started inventing new, arguably more logical forms, sayded, growded and cryded being the most common.
“Oh, sorry…I forgot you said that…” I whisper, battling to appear suitably contrite.
“You being just like Mr Forgetful, mummy.”
I perk up at the prospect of a change of character, tired of having to lower my voice. We move into Tadpole’s bedroom, where the Miffy table now has pride of place in front of the window. It’s less than ideal, but I don’t really have a dining area in the new flat, so for the time being I make do with this dolls house type arrangement, even when I dine alone.
This overwhelming obsession with the Mr Men began one fine July day when Tadpole spied the boxed set of books I had been saving until she was older as I unpacked our belongings in what she still refers to as “mummy’s new house”. I suppose I should be grateful for any Dora displacement activity. But now, every day, we have to talk like Mr Topsy Turvy (“Night good, mummmy!”), I am called upon to impersonate Mr Tickle on a regular basis and I spend a great deal of time sticking errant pages back in with “ruban daddyseive”. Clearly there was a good reason why this boxed set was so cheap.
“Oh calamity!” cries Tadpole, the next morning, quaking in front of her breakfast cereal, “jus’ like Mr Jelly”, because it is making a “sound noise”.
Drama school beckons, and, quite frankly, the prospect terrifies me.