petite anglaise

April 12, 2005

retail hell

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 4:05 pm

We are driving on the péripherique (translation: ring road of death) in a borrowed car and I am talking too much, as usual. Mr Frog rudely interrupts to enquire whether we needed to take the direction Charles de Gaulle exit which I can now see receding in the wing mirror. Clearly it was a mistake to assume that as we have already made this journey several times, my navigation skills would not be required. Never underestimate Mr Frog’s lack of a sense of direction. I remember one of our first dates, where he pointed at Notre Dame and asked me which church it was. He had been living in Paris for four months at the time, and lived nearby, a stone’s throw from the Jardins de Luxembourg. I hastily pull out the Ikea (French pronunciation: “ee kay ya”) catalogue and improvise. We’ll try to the one at Paris Est instead. For a change. Anything is better than having to retrace our steps.

Leaving the A4 at Champigny, as instructed, we drive around the roundabout four times before spotting a helpful Ikea advert on a bus shelter. I am very thankful for this, because even with my superior navigation skills I cannot make any sense of the relationship between Ikea’s map and the actual lay of the land in front of me. We find the right road, and sail past the carpark entrance, taking an impromptu tour of Villiers sur Marne. Finally, at 11.30 am, we pull into the carpark. Not at 10 am, as I had hoped.

The layout of Ikea Paris Est is cunning. Arriving at the top of the stairs, a delectable food smell greets your nostrils as you pass the restaurant. After visiting the vast showroom level, flagging somewhat and thirsty from the dry, air-conditioned atmosphere, there it is again, as welcome as an oasis in the desert. I resolve to stop there for a Tadpole lunch break before the lunchtime rush starts. We only need to buy a Tadpole bed, a Tadpole-sized bookcase and a mini table and chairs (also for Tadpole), but somehow we end up looking at everything, as usual. I release Tadpole from the confines of her pushchair in the children’s section, so that she can test her new bed for size. At first it is fun, watching her try out rocking chairs, a small wooden tractor and a wendy house, all the while clutching a large plastic piggy bank. I give other, equally powerless, parents a conspiratorial wink when Tadpole finally puts the pig down, attention caught by a wooden train set, and spirit piggy away, hiding him in a bin full of plastic plates. It soon becomes clear that there will be no way of getting her out of there which doesn’t involve kicking, wailing and a runny nose wiped on my clothing. Her flaming cheeks have teething pain written all over them, and when she starts crying on red-cheek days, she sometimes forgets to stop.

We arrive at the café. There are approximately fifty people in each queue. Tadpole is incapable of standing still, so this is a Very Big Problem. Mr Frog storms off back to the children’s section with her, leaving me to queue and make important lunch decisions alone. He motions to me that I should phone him, but when I do, I get his voicemail. I look around me and realise with a sinking feeling that I have missed my chance to grab a special tray-carrying trolley, resigning myself to either not eating very much, or pioneering precarious new methods of plate stacking. I pray that my credit card payment will be accepted at the till (in France there is often a minimum amount, usually € 15 – approx £ 10.00), as I have precisely 24 centimes in my purse. Some time later, I make my way unsteadily towards a table carrying a couple of salads, some bread rolls, a plate of heart shaped chocolate covered biscuits and some D’aim bars (Dime bars in every other language). Luckily Mr Frog chooses this moment to haul the still protesting Tadpole over. I ease her chubby thighs into the snugly fitting high chair, which has the advantage of immobilising her legs altogether, then stuff a piece of bread in her mouth, for some temporary respite from the howling. I sit back with my cup of tea, priding myself on my parenting skills, but wishing that this could all be over.

Lunchtime in Ikea is odd. I suspect some people must make the journey just to eat there. I see a suspiciously large number of unaccompanied adults carrying 2 euro kiddie meals off to remote corners of the dining area. Someone (who probably doesn’t have to spend the whole day in there) has had the bright idea of placing a piano in the middle of the dining area. I dread to think how much decomposing food is trapped between the keys. Lunch is eaten to a soundtrack of ‘chopsticks’ and random plinkety plonking as every greasy-fingered youngster takes their turn. Mr Frog and I snap at each other, toddler-stress getting the better of us. Tadpole, on fine form, refuses to eat everything but a breadroll and two chocolate biscuits.

After queuing for the (one) baby changing area, we descend wearily to the lower level, bracing ourselves for the moment of truth. Will they actually have Tadople’s lit évolutif and table and chairs in stock? I fear that if they do not, I may have to be dragged out of Ikea kicking and screaming. And foaming at the mouth. Luckily all is where it should be, and we unload our bounty at the checkout. Somehow along the way we have also amassed one wooden train set, two flower cushions for Tadpole’s chairs, plastic beakers, plastic plates, a throw for the sofa and a picture frame for my vitriolica thumbnail poster. It could have been worse: to our credit we have resisted both the scented candles and the ‘fun’ ice cube trays for the first time.

I giggle at a family struggling to stuff a king-size matress into the back of their small hatchback car. I feel a little less smug when we attempt to load the Tadpole bed into our borrowed Yaris verso. The front of the box arrives at gearstick level. I secure some rope around the seat headrests and across the front of the carton in a pathetic attempt to make the car less of a potential deathtrap.

FOUR WHOLE HOURS from door to door. I give thanks to the Lord that this bed can be extended to a maximum length of two metres, and may even see Tadpole into adulthood.

I don’t plan to repeat that experience again in a hurry.

March 31, 2005

stand and deliver

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:16 pm

I note, with some amusement, that the HM Post Office has been rapped across the knuckles for installing fee-charging cash machines in three quarters of its branches. Especially as the offending machines bear a sticker stating that they are free, when in fact only consulting your balance or last few transactions is free. Withdrawing money is not. Four out of ten UK cash machines apparently charge a minimum fee for cash withdrawals these days.

Ten years ago, when I arrived in France, employed as an English assistante at the none too aesthetically pleasing Lycée Raymond Queneau, I recall having to be very careful about using only Crédit Lyonnais ATMs (or DABs, as they are known over here) when I wanted to get my hands on my paltry paycheck. I ranted and raved that this was not, and would never be, the case in the UK, bragging that UK banks had a far superior grasp of the concept of customer service. However, over the past few years, banks in the UK seem to have been taking steps in the wrong direction. One can only hope that the mercenary French banks are not being used as their role models.

On the other side of the Channel we have to pay for the ‘privileges’ of receiving new cheque books by post, having a visa (debit) card and access to on-line banking facilities (a necessity, as I rarely now need to set foot in the horrible 70’s monstrosity that is the Caisse d’Epargne, place Léon Blum). There have been rumours that soon there will be a fee for every cheque written or cashed, and some banks are reintroducing charges for DAB withdrawals. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse.

Account ‘services’ are bundled into a helpful little package (forfait), which every bank concocts to a different recipe, making it tricky/impossible to compare charges between banks. Helpfully, services which I do actually use, like for instance drawing money out in the UK or making international bank transfers, are stubbornly opaque, and not detailed in the convention de comptefrais de dossier (loan processing fee), should you decide to accept their terms. It can be up to € 1,000. The French banks cannot be persuaded to lend you as much as you would get in the UK, as the repayments are capped at 33.33% of your monthly earnings before tax, and you will be expected to repay over only 15 or 20 years. 25 year mortgages exist (but banks are often reluctant to offer them) and 30 year mortgages are simply unheard of. Which is why Mr Frog and I have been priced out of the Paris property market, unless I fancy raising Tadpole, plus future potential mini-Tadpole, in a small broom cupboard.

The French do seem to have a completely different relationship with credit. They generally limit themselves to buying what they can actually afford. I do see this as A Good Thing, given the weight of credit card debt many families are struggling with in the UK, where consumers are constantly tempted to take on more debt and splash out on that three piece suite today (but pay nothing until December 2006).

Supermarkets like Auchan and Carrefour and companies like Egg (who have seriously struggled to convince the recalcitrant French that online banking is the way forward) have gone some way towards changing this mentality recently, introducing store cards which double as credit cards. My bank only offers a direct debit or a deferred debit card, however. Not that I’ve ever been able to actually obtain a credit card here. Several department stores have refused my applications, with no justification forthcoming. I suspect having a entirely blank (or ‘virginal’, as the French would say) credit record in this country and being ‘foreign’ may have something to do with it.

Vive l’Europe!

March 30, 2005

mort de rire?

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:04 pm

I recently discovered skyblogs. To my horror. These are for the most part teen blogs and are hosted by shouty French radio station Skyrock. The mothership’s homepage has so much busy flash animation (advertising) that I can’t actually look at it for more than five seconds without triggering a migraine.

It sets the tone nicely for what is to come.

Imagine if you will a blog written entirely in mobile phone textspeak, littered with a few low resolution photos uploaded from a cheap cameraphone, and you are getting to the essence of what skyblogging is. Indecipherable unless you are a teenager yourself, or happen to have a teenage translator to hand who understands all the slang, verlan (backwards slang, or sometimes backwards backwards slang – meriting of a post in itself one day) and teen cultural references whch are thrown into the mix.

The following text was lifted from p-a13 and I reproduce it here along with my attempted translation into French, and then English:

voila sa c théo 1 gro pomé du bahu lol!!! g d cone mdr!! c mon meilleur pote il tro s1pa on c clate tro o bahu enssemble top d lire mdr!!! a+ mek by !!!

Voilà ça c’est Theo un gros paumé du bahut. LOL!!! Je déconne MDR [Mort de rire]!! C’est mon meilleur pote. Il est trop sympa. On s’éclate trop au bahut ensemble. Top délire MDR!! A plus mec. Bye!!

This is Theo a fat loser from school. LOL!! I’m joking LOL!! It’s my best friend. He is too nice. We have too much fun together. Top fantastic LOL!! See you soon mate. Bye.

Other sites abound which are completely beyond my limited translation abilities. Especially those written by French teenagers with North African parents or grandparents, who use a smattering of Arabic words or French/Arabic hybrid slang in addition to French textspeak. At least I imagine that’s what they are.

The skyblog community is so vast that the volume of traffic the most popular skyblogs attract is phenomenal. Take this graffiti blog, for example, where visitors can leave their name and colour preferences and the blogger will create and publish a personalised tague . The site has seen a staggering 132,000+ visits since its creation in February 2005 and the most recent entry attracted 17,462 comments.

However, closer inspection reveals that many of these are a new form of comment spam: fellow skybloggers promoting their own blogs. I suppose I’m as guilty as the next person for having left the odd strategic comment on a high profile site in the hope that I might pique the curiosity of a few of their visitors. Dooce‘s daily photo entry is basically a competition to see who can comment first (unfortunately this paves the way for meaningless comments in the vein of “cute photo!”), as apparently pole position on her comments page translates into a not insignificant number of hits on the statcounter. But skybloggers are even less subtle: no beating about the bush, no semblance of interaction, just the blog address.

Vierge Insolente, who from her picture looks like an all too familiar patchouli scented gothette, is one of the few skybloggers I have found so far who forms actual sentences with grammar and punctuation. In her recent farewell post she laments the fact that being in the skyblogs top ten means that no-one actually reads what she has to say any more, most simply dropping by to leave ads in her comments box.

Ce n’est plus personnel, c’est ennuyant… Ne plus être livre d’écrire ce que l’on veut à cause d’une certaine célébrité. Ce n’est pas un avantage d’être dans ce top 100… Du moins dans les 10 premiers. Tout le monde se fout de ce qu’on peut bien écrire, les gens sont un peu égoistes au fond, genre je te balance ma pub et j’en ai rien à faire de tes trucs…

I hope that this isn’t where the rest of the blogosphere is headed. It takes me long enough to delete my trackback spam, without having to start filtering mindless ads from fellow bloggers as well.

March 16, 2005

les malades imaginaires

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:28 pm

I received the controversial form from the social security today: the formulaire de déclaration de choix du médecin traitant.

Unlike the UK, where you are registered with one doctor or doctor’s surgery, who have your file detailing your every ailment from childhood to the present day, the French have always been able to consult whomever they please, whenever they please, as often as they please. There is nothing to prevent someone who is horrified at the appearance of four insolent blackheads on their nose from making an appointment to see a dermatologist directly. Or someone suffering from a mild bout of indigestion from missing out the GP middle-man and opting to see a gastroenterologist instead. No system of referrals has hitherto existed to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted by hypochondriacs electing to visit several specialists for their maladies imaginaires, and soliciting a second, third or even fourth opinion.

The social security system has unquestioningly picked up its share of the tab all this time (the same amount for every patient, no means testing required), while mutuelles, private health insurers, whose policies every worker subscribes to as part of their employment package, pay some or all of the rest. Or very little, in the case of dental work. Serious financial planning is advisable if, say, you need a tooth crowning in this country – you may have to forfeit your holiday plans or that nice Ipod photo you had set your heart on in order to pay the dentist.

The eminently sensible change being wrought by the innocent looking form is that everyone now has to choose a GP to be their first point of contact: their médecin traitant. The only specialists that people will be able to consult without a GP referral are gynecologists, dentists, ophthalmologists, paediatricians and psychiatrists. Other appointments can presumably still be made, but will no longer be reimbursed. Which is very dissuasive indeed.

Understandably perhaps, there is a lot of opposition to this new measure. Old habits die hard, and many people resent having to go and see a GP, who might be a complete stranger, just to obtain a referral to the specialist they have been frequenting for a decade or more.

Personally I’ve never seen a French GP more than once. Depending on where I was working at any given time I tended to see someone close to my office, and I’m very British about ailments like colds that the French invariably to see a doctor about, preferring to dip into my large stock of generic UK supermarket cold cures. Tadpole has a doctor she sees fairly regularly, a GP chosen mainly because the local paediatricians recommended to me were taking on no new patients. She is lovely, and less heavy handed with the antibiotics than most French physicians I’ve crossed paths with, but I have no idea whether she will consent to signing Mr Frog’s and my forms. Doctors are under no obligation to accept everyone, and do not have to give any justification for their refusals. As she happens to be very popular in our neighbourhood, she is undoubtedly fully booked already. The forms have been sent out in three huge postal waves, meaning that people with surnames ending in A – O may have bagged all the available places. Desperate times call for desperate measures: I’ll have to take my chequebook and see if she can be bribed.

Who knows, she may be one of the doctors boycotting the new system in protest at becoming some sort of clearing house and refuse to sign any forms at all.

In any case we now have until July 1st to be ill, visit the doctor and get the forms signed. And if we remain in perfect health, we’ll probably end up making an appointment anyway (at a cost of just over € 20 to the social security system) just to get the signature and coveted inky stamp on the form (the French are VERY attached to their ‘tampons’, and no official form would be complete without several illegible stamps).

If every single French person does this before 1 July, at a cost of € 20 per adult, I think we can safely expect an even bigger social security deficit this year. Thereby defeating the cost-cutting object of the whole excercise, at least in the short term. And creating a swathe of paperwork for the bureaucrats to process.

Atchoum! I feel a cold coming on. Off to the doctor’s I go…

*French for Atishoo! I have actually heard people pronouncing the ‘m’ when they sneeze. I swear.

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