Wednesday, 23 February 2011

An Unholy Riot

Normally, one of the things I love about France is how people are so quiet. Discretion is highly valued here and, as a result, especially on public transport, people tend to read or whisper to each other rather than yelling into mobile phones or listening to loud music without headphones. A couple of times I arrived in France from Italy and the first thing that struck me as I got off the train at the Gare de Lyon was the fact that there were so many people and so little noise. I tend to use my time on trains for head-space or reading, so I like it when it's quiet.

This week, however, has been something of an exception.

Coming back from our ski trip last Saturday, Understanding Frenchman and I found ourselves sharing a carriage with a group of about thirty kids from the Parisian suburbs who'd also been on a trip. As we had been up since 5am and the SNCF had considerately given us reserved seats right in the middle of the bedlam, we did roll our eyes somewhat, especially as it became clear that these kids were not likely to shut up and let us sleep. To be fair to them, however, they were not in any way offensive, just somewhat noisy (and that only by French standards). The best bit, though, was when, in between letting off whoopee cushions next to each other's backsides and yelling about the flavour of their crisps, the kids behind us embarked on an earnest conversation about whether it was correct to say un vespa or une vespa, the kind of questiom I often find myself musing upon on long journeys but not necessarily what you would expect of your average group of 12 year olds.

Another thing I love about France: even teenagers apparently think grammar is interesting.

My second experience of the week was on the RER late on Monday night. As I was about to step on to the train, I heard the sound of riotous singing and almost ducked back into another carriage but then decided the loud one might be entertaining and went to take my seat. As a Brit, I automatically assume that noisy singing in public is the result of people being drunk, but not this time. Nope, these guys had been to church. And with the volume they were singing at, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the Lord, as well as being an almighty saviour, was also mighty deaf, because if three of them could make that amount of noise in a train carriage, their services must literally raise the roof.

So the singing went on for quite a while and once again, while once again it wasn't offensive (at least to me - many French people have different views about public displays of religious faith), it was very, very loud, and eventually a voice from the back of the carriage shouted out, "Shhhh!" When that didn't work, the owner of the voice, who surprisingly turned out to be an elegantly dressed woman who may or may not have had too much champagne to drink that evening made her way somewhat unsteadily down the carriage and asked them to shut up. The chief perpetrator indicated that he was getting off at the next stop anyway, elegant lady wobbled back to her seat and the singing continued, louder than ever.

When the train eventually did arrive at the next station, Mr Happy-Clappy did indeed make his way to the exit to get off ... but the doors wouldn't open. He kept pressing the button until finally they sprung apart, he jumped out, and once again the voice from the back of the carriage piped up, "Thanks be to Jesus: he's let you off the train!"

Yet another thing I love about France: when the humour does surface, it can be very, very funny!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

From Bambi Beginnings to a (more or less) Elegant End

In case my last post gave the impression that I spent my week in the mountains seething at the rudeness of my fellow franciliens, I should hasten to say that I actually had a great time. Understanding Frenchman and I booked our trip with the UCPA, an association that organises sports holidays for the under-40s. You stay in hostel-type accommodation and everything is included: ski pass, equipment hire, lessons and three fabulous meals a day. Skiing is never cheap but the prices are about as good as it gets: as little as 350 euros a week out of peak-season. It’s also a good way to go on holiday on your own because it’s very sociable and easy to meet people.

We went to Les Deux Alpes, a pretty village in the Isère department not far from Grenoble. After a crazy start to the winter, the snow has actually not been great this year and some of the lower pistes were closed when we arrived. I was actually too hot on Sunday and Monday, as well as suffering from the realisation that while you never entirely forget how to ski once you’ve learned, you can feel pretty stupid in the time that it takes to come flooding back to you. The exertion of descending the easy slopes badly, coupled with the fact that my ski boots really hurt, made the first couple of days feel more like hard work than a holiday but by Tuesday, with a fresh fall of snow and new boots, I was having a great time.

Mont Blanc

On Wednesday, the sun came out and from the top of the station, at 3600 metres, there were stunning views of the Parc des Ecrins and the rest of the Alps, stretching all the way to Mont Blanc during clearer moments. On Thursday, we took a half day off skiing to go for a ramble in the snow and visit the ice cave under the glacier at the top of the mountain.


Ice Sculpture

By Friday, I had skied down a couple of red runs, played in the powder off-piste, learned to ski backwards and only fallen off a chairlift once. All in all, it was a good week.

In the Wrong Zone

In France, there is a proper time and place for everything. If the time is February, the proper place to be is on the ski slopes. So, it being February and me being culturally well-adjusted, to the ski slopes I went.

To cater to this lemming-like behaviour, school holidays in France are organised so that different académies (school districts) go on holiday at different times, meaning that only 20 million people are likely to be stuck in traffic on any given Saturday in February. The académies are organised into “zones” A, B and C and those which make up A and B are nicely scattered around the country. Zone C, on the other hand, is comprised of Paris and the neigbouring académies of Versailles and Créteil (as well as Bordeaux), meaning that the whole of the Ile-de-France goes on holiday at the same time. The cynical explanation for this is that it means that the rest of the country doesn’t have to go on holiday with the Parisians and the result is that pretty alpine villages begin to resemble the corridors of the Paris metro.

At one point, I was waiting in a queue for a lift when a woman suddenly slid over the front of my skis to the small space in front of me. I was giving her the benefit of the doubt and assuming that she couldn’t help it until her husband followed suit. A sarcastic “Allez-y” popped out of my mouth before I could help it but Monsieur just glided serenely on after Madame. Later, I overtook them on the slopes and Monsieur suddenly sped up just to have the pleasure of passing me (on the inside, bien sûr). It could have been the périphérique but for one big difference: he did it with a beaming smile and such insouciance that I smiled back. Even Parisians have to relax a little bit on holiday.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Other Amélie

As anyone who knows me will testify, I don't really do sport. Exercise yes - if it's rollerblading, dancing, climbing mountains or even doing aerobics, I'm up for it, but if I have to hit a ball or score points, I just can't. So I don't.

The same applies to watching sport. I watch figure skating avidly and gymnastics with enthusiasm but apart from that the only spectator sport that gets me excited is Six Nations rugby and even that's more to do with my torn loyalties than any real love of the game. (Incidentally, Understanding Frenchman and I watched the Scotland-France game together last weekend and, in a true victory for international relations, are still speaking to each other. Now we can sit back, relax and support each others' teams against all kinds of evil opposition, but especially the Auld Enemy.)

Yesterday night, however, a friend had managed to get free tickets for the GDF Suez Women's Tennis tournament ... with a twist. Yesterday was not the actual tournament but the Soirée Amélie, where celebrity friends of Amélie Mauresmo, winner of two Grand Slams and Olympic silver medallist, were invited to play (very) informal doubles games. The celebrities, who, for those who might recognise the names included Yannick Noah, Guy Forget, Henri Leconte, Mansour Bahrami, Fabrice Santoro, Kad Merad, Michel Boujenah and Michèle Laroque, were a mixture of current and veteran tennis players and people who are famous for completely different things, such as music and acting. (Some were, impressively, famous for more than one of the above.) All of them were hooked up to microphones and their banter and tennis tricks combined to produce pure comedy gold for large parts of the evening. The players in the final were all "real" tennis stars, which meant that, in between the silliness, we actually got to see some impressive sport as well.

For someone with no experience of watching live tennis whatsoever, it was probably a good introduction. I might even go back to see the real thing sometime, especially if the tickets are free!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Too Much Information?

I may have been complaining recently about absences of information in certain areas of French life but, credit where credit is due, my local mairie does seem to be doing its best to restore the imbalance created by the national lack of roadsigns.

I was pleased, when I first arrived in my new home town, to receive through the letter box a card informing me of useful telephone numbers. There are three different numbers for the emergency services in France, so having these, along with the number for the town hall, the post office, the emergency locksmith and the centre for lost dogs (would a dog know how to dial the ten-digit number even if it did happen to have a mobile phone?) was both welcome and useful. The fact that the mairie sends out new copies of these about once a fortnight does have me wondering if they have nothing better to spend my taxes on but hey, at least they're trying.

The latest delivery, however, is not just a small piece of cardboard, but an entire 24-page booklet. It's title, Document d'information communal sur les risques majeurs à Perfectville leaves the reader in no doubt as to its importance. This is serious stuff.

After a page outlining one's role as a citizen, as defined by Article 4 of the Law of the 13th August 2004 concerning the modernisation of civilian safety, the booklet explains what I must do should I hear the Signal national d'alerte. The alarm is tested on the first Wednesday of every month and sounds like an air-raid siren, but, I have learned, the real thing lasts 1 minute and 41 seconds instead of 1 minute only. If I hear it, I should seek shelter, listen to the radio, avoid using the telephone and trust the Education Nationale to look after my children rather than going to collect them from school.

Further reading informs me that the major risks in my area seem to relate to subsidence and the transport of dangerous goods. Despite the colourful diagram suggesting that collapsing and expanding soil is a common problem in this part of the Hexagon, the text itself explains that any serious damage to buildings or people is rare. Should I encounter an accident involving hazardous materials, I must remember not to smoke and avoid inhaling any any noxious substances.

So there we go. Sometimes France tells you nothing, but sometimes she provides far more information than you ever thought you needed to know. I shall go to sleep tonight a better citizen than I was when I woke up this morning. . . and try not to worry about which of these major risks is likely to present itself in the near future.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

What's On TV

Canal+ is showing a fabulous imported BBC series called MI-5 at the moment. It's shown on Tuesday night and highly recommended for anyone who likes spies, intrigue and high-quality television.

Also, I don't very often watch Arte (which also shows a lot of high-quality television but you have to be experiencing a high-quality state of intellectual motivation to watch it), but last night their "Theme" was Italian politics, with a programme detailing Berlusconi's rise to what appears to be invincible immunity and an attempt to explain why Italians still vote for him. It inspired me to post about the "dark heart of Italy" over on my Italian blog.

Finally, I discovered a while ago that if you decide to subscribe to Canal+, you can expect lots of mickey-taking from your friends about the first Saturday of every month. This is because the powers that be at the television channel have decided that, once a month, their viewers should have the right to watch a porn film, and that first Saturday night is when the ration for the month is screened. Luckily, other powers that be have decreed the first Sunday of the month free museum day, so you can compensate for your indulgences of the night before with some highbrow culture. France is funny :-)