Thursday, 14 July 2011

The human condition

We’re almost ready to return to our default settings.  We’re leaving Paris, and I’m in pack-up mode.  I’m clearing out the cupboards, dealing with unfinished business, attempting to give back things I’ve borrowed, and starting the difficult process of fitting all our things into the small suitcase in which they came.

I’ve missed things about back home, but aside from the human element it’s mostly been labour-saving devices: my electric toothbrush, the dishwasher, and a proper grown-up fridge (I’ve spent far too much time bending down to get the butter).  Wilf, like me, will be glad to see the English contingent again, but he certainly hasn’t concerned himself with the lack of labour-saving devices or much else in the way of life’s furnishings.  Actually, I wonder what he actually remembers about his existence before Paris, since he’s even forgotten how to ask for a glass of milk in English.  And, save for his continuing disapproval of the many smokers in our midst, he’s accepted life here as if it were his own.

Perhaps he doesn’t even have default settings in the way I do.  He’s turned native with barely a backward glance, and if it wasn’t for the fact that his name picks him out as a foreigner (something we misjudged a little at the time of naming) he’d blend in effortlessly.  We came here for all sorts of reasons, but I can’t deny that it was primarily a linguistic experiment in which my son was the unsuspecting subject.  So while I would have been mightily disappointed if his surroundings hadn’t rubbed off on him in the way they have, I’m astonished and delighted by how easy it’s been to turn this Lewes boy into his Paris equivalent.  Language, it turns out, is just a different spin on the same human condition.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Bureaucracy to get my teeth into

If you’re keen on the idea of experiencing a crash course in French bureaucracy, arriving in Paris in the middle of the school year along with a boy allergic to oily fish could well be the best way of going about it.  The decision to come for a few months was a quick and easy one – such good timing! so liberating! – but implementing the decision meant trying to remember how to use a fax machine (in the end I had to resort to the postal system), making a preparatory trip to Paris along with a whole array of paperwork, and adopting the right kind of attitude.

My attitude was so good, actually, that when things started to go broadly right I felt ever so slightly let down (I say ‘broadly’ because we did have to make one extra trip to the town hall to rectify a vital mistake, making excellent use of the extra day we’d built into our schedule for just such an occurrence).  But at that point we hadn’t dealt with the medical side of things, which meant another form (eight pages’ worth) and two different doctors to oversee proceedings.  At least that made me feel I had some real bureaucracy to get my teeth into.

Once that was all in place, and once I’d understood what kind of a pouch the medicine had to be provided in, we were welcomed.  And once we’d got past the French flag and the words ‘Liberté – Egalité – Fraternité’ emblazoned above the door, we found it was a lovely, friendly, cosy little school.  In fact, it’s been so welcoming and Wilf has got on so well there that the head has asked whether he might like to come back for the occasional week next year.

And as it turned out that most of our hard work had already been done (there’s been just one more trip to the town hall, and that was fairly painless), we’re taking her up on her offer.  So she’s holding onto the eight-page document detailing every permutation of Wilf’s health and to the medicine in its special pouch, and we’ll be back, we hope, in the autumn.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Extreme measures

I do own a skirt, but it’s not often I wear it.  Today is a day of extreme measures, however, and so the jeans have been abandoned in favour of something a little cooler and more seasonally appropriate.  Wilf – who doesn’t have a skirt – is going round saying ‘Quelle chaleur’ and looking hot and bothered.  I don’t think he’s ever been so aware of the weather impinging on his enjoyment of life or his ability to move around, and it feels as if this might be, for both of us, about the right time to leave the city.

But we’re not programmed to leave for a while yet, and consequently we’re a little out of synch with the rest of Paris, which is already showing clear signs of shutting up shop and leaving its city guise behind.  I’d forgotten how very literal and date-driven the French are about their holiday season.

Wilf has got that end-of-term look about him, too, and it seems that, from his point of view, all the serious work has been done for the term.  But it’s dawning on me that, when it comes to serious work, it’s me who’s about to take over.  So I’m becoming increasingly receptive to suggestions as to how to entertain a small and sometimes restless boy, and I’m coming into contact with hobbies I didn’t think I’d ever be associated with.  We’ve got two whole weeks to fill before leaving for the sea, and I’m turning into the kind of mother who sends her child to art class one day and to ballet the next, but not because I think it’s good for him but because I think it’s good for me.  So if Wilf isn’t the most accomplished young man in the whole of Paris by the end of the two weeks, I’ll probably be wishing I was back at work.

Friday, 24 June 2011

A mere mortal

I’d much rather be lost in Paris than in London, or rather I don’t think I could get lost in Paris like I could in London.  There isn’t, as far as I can see, a single street which isn’t the subject of thorough and proper labelling: a street name at each end, on each side, and at any point where it abuts another.

And I should have been quicker on the uptake.  I’d always found the idea of ‘arrondissements’ a little random and a little cold, but I’ve warmed to them at last.  Or at least now I understand them, and they make perfect sense.  Starting from somewhere just north of the Seine, not far from where I am now, they swirl around Paris with absolute orderliness, in ever increasing circles until the whole of Paris has been covered.

And here’s another thing I didn’t know until recently.  Street numbers round here have an underlying logic, and I don’t just mean the fact they start at one and work upwards.  I mean that they start from the Seine and move outwards from there.  So as I’m a resident of number 6 you’re sure to find me not far from the water’s edge.  Of course not all streets meet the Seine, and, in the case of those that don’t, the numbers flow – like the current – from east to west.

How surprising that someone actually thought all this through, and, even more surprising, then made such a scheme a reality.  Sometimes I feel as if I’m in the hands of a rather thoughtful town-planner in the sky, but I’ve heard that actually a mere nineteenth-century mortal had a lot to do with it.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Linguistic ephiphanies

It was a couple of weeks ago that a little subjunctive first slipped out – it was ‘aille’, I think – and now Wilf is using these weird little constructions both accurately and with abandon.  I know there’s nothing surprising about hearing a subjunctive on the streets of Paris, but to hear one coming from a boy called Wilf...  That’s quite something.

This was a boy who’d been imbibing French since he was born but who had no intention whatsoever of speaking it.  I knew there must be a little French boy in there somewhere, courtesy of my side of the family, but it was clear the little Lewes boy wasn’t in any hurry to let him out.   And I had visions of slogging it out – me speaking French to him, him speaking English to me – forever, or at least until it was time for him to leave home, and it didn’t look like fun.  So I thought I’d up sticks and fix him right away.

So here I am, fixing him and doing a bit of a spit and polish on myself at the same time.  The linguistic epiphanies – only registered as such by me, of course – are coming thick and fast now, and the subjunctives are just part of an altogether different kind of a Wilf.   Along with the subjunctive, there’s the rolling ‘r’, strange words I didn’t know he knew, and idioms which have no place in a four-year-old boy.  But, to my ears, even when he sounds like a disillusioned French adolescent, it’s progress.  And he seems to like this new self, too.

As one would expect of a spit and polish, the change in me isn’t quite so immediately impressive.  And there’s something about being forty-something which means that progression doesn’t come in such big strides.  But now I know the French for words like ‘app’ and ‘download’, and I’m just that little bit shinier than I was before.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

This darker shade of grey

It’s been a hot couple of months over here, and although people do have other things to talk about (DSK, for example) they do like discussing the weather. And then the night before last, just when I was devoid of adult company after a weekend full of it, we had the most interesting, discussion-worthy weather yet. We had thunder and lightning and driving rain. But when I tried to discuss the intensity of it all this morning with the very unadult Wilf, I found he’d slept through it all. That was definitely the right thing at the time, but I could have done with a debrief over breakfast.

And this morning it’s raining a steadier, less interesting – but nevertheless very welcome – rain. The streets feel different. There are always rivulets of water running along the gutters (the French are serious about cleaning their streets if not about not sullying them in the first place), but to see everything in this darker shade of grey, so wet and so gleaming, is like walking out into another country.

And the rain made it so much easier to get Wilf washed, dressed, fed and out of the flat. He’s not a morning person – that much has already become clear – but today, first thing, it was all go. He had booted up, put his mac on, zipped it up, pulled the hood over his head, and was waiting by the door, all without the usual pushing and prodding from me. He had the look of a boy on holiday.

None of this is to say that it hasn’t all felt rather holidayish in the heat, too. The cafés have been in their element, with more of themselves outside than in, and while I’ve been trying hard to avoid actually sitting down in them (a mixture of budget restrictions and a feeling that I should keep moving), I do like the fact that they exist. And, even more than their existence, I like the fact that they understand that two people sitting in a café would sometimes rather look at the street than at each other. I’ve always liked that – it seems so very, very sensible.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The bigger picture

I’ve been losing things regularly since I came here my watch, my phone charger, my one good pen so the fact that my reading glasses were on my face one minute and gone the next is nothing unusual.  It makes life rather blurry and sometimes awkward, and definitely encourages me to look at the bigger picture.  But in every case of loss so far, bar the present one, there’s been the elation of a sighting.  So I’m hopeful.

But I’m wondering whether perhaps it’s time to stop holding things at arm’s length and just buy myself another pair.  A cheap pair of reading glasses is exactly the sort of thing I’m sure I can find here.  Indeed, I’ve never seen so many pharmacies selling all manner of accessories, including reading glasses.  Or, rather, I have, but only here in France.  It’s one of those things that clearly keeps the economy going.

And in my own unscientific way, I’m impressed by the economy: so many excellent little shops, all alive, kicking and holding onto their street corners.  And so many frivolous ‘boutiques’ that obviously do more than just survive.  And, much more importantly, so many proper bookshops.  I mean independent bookshops of the sort that have been dying out in England for years.  They pile the books long and low rather than high, and you feel as if you could find anything.

And I’ve even stumbled upon a greengrocer who bags up my fruit and veg for me.  Freed from the need to involve myself in that messy business of evaluating ripeness and wrestling unlikely shapes into unwilling bags, I’m finding the whole buying process a simple pleasure.  So I’m buying more, which can’t be bad – either for me or for the economy.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The way to go

I can be quite scathing about tourists, but I’ve just spent a very pleasant weekend being one. I was the traditional kind (Eiffel Tower – river cruise – Montmartre) but the experience hasn’t scarred me in the slightest. When the next suitable visitor arrives at my door, I’m sure I’ll be ready for more.

Until then I’ll continue as I am, avoiding high points and trying not to be too obvious in my destinations. For this kind of exploratory behaviour, the bus is definitely the way to go. It’s so much more interesting being above ground than under. And already a few formerly unemotive numbers have transformed themselves into exhilarating itineraries, and the humble bus-stop has developed a certain je ne sais quoi. And I now have a few favourite ‘bus moments’ which are, for me, as memorable as the Balcombe Viaduct was in my commuting days: the 69 as it turns left under the arches of the Louvre; the 68 as it dives under the Tuileries; and –– at the risk of becoming a little undiscerning here – any bus as it crosses the river.

But life here isn’t all aimless wandering, and I’ve had to divert a little time and energy into simple maintenance. After six weeks of being in each other’s company, my flat, my son and I were all starting to show signs of wear and tear. So the flat has had a little bit of a spring clean (which I’m praying will be enough to keep it looking spruce for the foreseeable future), and my son and I have been for a haircut. It’s not often I put my head in the hands of another person, and even less often that I cede control of the situation, but that’s exactly what I did on this occasion. And I came away with three different products in my bag, each of which will apparently change my hair, and therefore my life, for the better. I can only conclude that Paris must be getting to me.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Fresh blood

More declining standards to report this week: I’ve stopped caring about the tea I drink. I’ve just used up the last of the proper teabags in the flat (supplied by a certain Englishman who does care about such things), so in fact I don’t have much choice in the matter. But actually I find I can do quite well without, and a weak, flavourless cup of tea can be surprisingly refreshing.

The mosquitoes, meanwhile, have been acquiring a taste for fresh blood in the form of four-year-old Wilf. He’s thin-skinned and easily digestible, and we’re near the Seine and up in the warmer eaves of the building, all of which make him the perfect target. Or so I’ve had it explained to me. I’m considerably less attractive with my tougher hide and perhaps saltier taste. But on his account I’ve stocked up on a few toxic substances and I’m keeping the windows closed at night.

The weather – as in England, I believe – has been of the blue-sky variety, and we’ve been out and about exploring the Parisian equivalent to the back garden: little ‘squares’ tucked away in all sorts of unlikely places. They’re communal, well used and, for a big city, very convivial. And I haven’t heard anyone complaining about not having their own piece of outside space, let alone not having a big enough piece of outside space (which is what I’ll be doing when I’m back in Lewes). These ‘squares’ are small and dusty, and if you find grass you’re in luck; and if you find grass and you’re allowed to walk on it, you’re in even more luck. So they’re like Grange Gardens or Baxter’s Field, but without the greenery, without the expanse, and with even more rules as to suitable behaviour.

But on Sunday we found Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a park in a disused quarry. It’s all steep slopes and rocks and water and unexpected views. Wilf acted as if unleashed after six weeks’ confinement, which probably isn’t too far from the truth. I think I’ll make an effort – for my sake as well as his – to get out a little more often.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The heart of things

I’m living in a one-bedroom flat right in the heart of things, and one look at the kitchen is enough to know that eating out is the better option. But I’m not here for the fun of it, so instead I’m getting to grips with the microwave. I’m probably undoing twenty-five years of striving to better myself in the kitchen, which must mean twenty-five years of slowly becoming a civilised human being, and yet this regression isn’t as easy as I expected. First I have to guess the density of the food in question, and then I somehow have to translate that density into minutes. There’s obviously an equation at the root of it all, but I haven’t quite got there yet.  Anyway, it’s good to be in Paris and learning something new about food.

In fact, it’s good to be in Paris with or without a microwave, and one thing I’m particularly appreciating is the flatness of the landscape. This might not be what most people come to Paris for, but for me the symmetry of a walk in one direction and a walk back the other way feels like a novelty. Gone (for the moment) are the days of a pleasant stroll downhill followed inevitably by a slog back the other way, which is the way of things back home. And since on most days I do the eight-minute walk between school and home eight times, I’m unusually grateful for this. (Eight times might seem excessive, but it’s accurate: my son comes home for lunch which means my main job seems to be shuttling back and forth, picking up bits and pieces for the microwave as I go.)

Apart from the lack of gradient, though, the streeets around here do remind me of Lewes, or at least of Lewes a few years back. It might have been just one very regular dog which coincided with my very regular toing and froing, but it certainly made an impression on me. And now I’m faced with the same kind of hazards. I’ve slipped up once so far, but on the upside I realise I chose my Paris footwear well: no grooves to speak of and a nice smooth sole.

On the whole, then, I seem to be well-adapted – or adapting well – to my new surroundings. And although Wilf (the reason for those eight trips to school and back) hasn’t yet turned into the French boy I imagine he could be one day, he’s not quite as English as he was just one month ago. So Paris is doing its job too, it seems.