Monday, 30 May 2016

Maternity Leave in Paris (The dream vs reality)

When I told people I was expecting a baby in June, a lot of them said, "Oh, that's a lovely time to have a baby!" and I would imagine myself pushing the pram around the park and pausing for a rest in the shade, with baby wearing a little dress and a sunhat to protect her from the glorious (but not yet blazing) sunshine. This delightful fantasy was to be preceded by an equally lovely maternity leave involving gentle strolls and relaxing on a park bench with a book. My other plans involved trying out all the open air swimming pools in Paris, picnics with friends at the weekend and a few meals sitting on a restaurant terrasse with Understanding Frenchman as we enjoyed our last weeks of freedom together.

I'm now into my third week of leave and those plans have been somewhat sabotaged by circumstance.

The first week, we had some really good weather. Understanding Frenchman took days off, and although a fair amount of our time was spent on practical tasks like paperwork for the new flat and ordering nappy deliveries from Auchan, we did get out and about a bit, including a visit to a museum and a stroll along the banks of the Seine. Unfortunately, this was also the week when I felt truly exhausted. Having more or less sailed through pregnancy up until that point, I suddenly needed a little lie-down after the monumental effort of getting dressed in the morning, while climbing the stairs up from the metro left my legs turning to jelly as if I had just summited Everest. I know I was very lucky to get this far before that kicked in, but it did make it more of a shock to the system!

The fatigue did improve after that (I've noticed over the past few weeks that when I do something tiring like travelling or the last couple of weeks at work, the exhaustion seems to kick in as soon as I stop, rather than at the time, then goes away eventually) but the next spanner in the works came in the form of damp, grey weather which has since turned to full-on pouring rain most days. So bye-bye swimming pool and sunbathing. When I bought my maternity clothes, I avoided getting too many winter things and planned my wardrobe for when I was huge around pretty summer dresses. Luckily most of these can be worn with tights, and I haven't yet grown so huge that my coat won't do up!

The final, and truly depressing, thing was being diagnosed with gestational diabetes in week 34. All women tend to experience an increase in their blood sugar as pregnancy goes on, but gestational diabetes is when this natural process goes too far, the body doesn't produce enough insulin and the blood glucose levels get far too high. The risk for the baby is basically that it will grow too big, or some organs will be oversized, while the mother can develop pre-eclampsia and the delivery is likely to be difficult. While insulin can be prescribed, the initial treatment is a strict diet involving nothing with added sugar and limited quantities of carbohydrate. When you've already given up (most) caffeine, alcohol, unpasteurised cheese, raw and lightly-cooked meat and eggs, pâté and certain types of fish, that doesn't leave a lot to enjoy! (Natural yoghurt features about 4 times a day on the eating plan I was given by the hospital.) In addition, as the diet only provides around 1800 calories a day (I don't actually know why, as I thought in the last trimester 2200-2300 was the recommended amount), it also leaves you hungry, which is not fun when you're tired out from all the normal aspects of pregnancy already. (On the plus side, I won't have to worry about losing weight after the birth, because if the baby is as big as they think she is, I'm going to come out of hospital lighter than I started the pregnancy!)

 However, I'm very aware that these are the pregnancy equivalent of first-world-problems, so having got the moaning out of my system, here are some of the things that have been awesome about maternity leave so far:

1. There has been a certain amount of sunshine, and a certain amount of strolling around. And being out and about in Paris is lovely even when you are wearing jeans instead of a summer dress.

2. A good friend of mine has been on maternity leave at the same time, and as her baby was born a week after the due date, we had a fortnight of cinema and lunch dates to enjoy instead of the expected week.

3. Ante-natal classes. Some people say these aren't very helpful, or even skip them out altogether, but I love going. When you haven't got much to do apart from prepare for the arrival of the baby, it's fun to spend a couple of hours sitting around and learning about exactly that. I think it's helped that I'm taking them at the hospital where I'm going to give birth because the best bit hasn't been the biology lessons or the breathing exercises but the explanations of what will actually happen on the day, given by the team of midwives who will be present at the birth. Suddenly it all seems that bit more real.

4. Buying a sewing machine. This was something I'd been thinking about for a while, as I used to love sewing, knitting and making things when I was little, but as an adult had been reduced to taking up hems and sewing on buttons. Making things for the baby seemed like the perfect excuse, so I ordered one online and it was delivered in the first week. So far, my projects have included two little dresses, a baby sleeping bag and re-covering the second hand car seat that we acquired from UFM's brother and which was a bit yellowed from sitting in their attic.

One of these dresses is from a lovely but expensive shop selling fairtrade organic baby clothes. The other is made by moi. You can probably figure out which is which, but I'm still pretty proud of my effort!

Fleece-lined sleeping bag made from some discount fabric and an Ikea blanket. If the weather doesn't improve, we might be using this sooner rather than later!

Nice, clean car seat. Not that we have a car (yet) but it's good to be prepared.

So there we go. Maternity leave hasn't been exactly what I planned, but there have been good bits nonetheless!

Monday, 23 May 2016

Getting Political Again: The Loi du Travail

Much of the French news over the past few months has been dominated by the Loi du travail or the Loi El Khomri, the controversial new employment law that has brought demonstrators to the streets in a way that I don't remember happening since 2006. Even in the French media, much of the coverage has been about the demonstrations, and I've noticed that among my non-French (largely anglophone) friends, Facebook comments and dinner party conversations on the subject mainly focus on the burning cars and the sirens wailing into the night, with political commentary limited to "the French economy is tanking and unemployment is too high, so people just need to suck this up if France is ever going to survive in a globalised world."

A few years ago, my reaction would probably have been the same, but a combination of eight years in France and what I've seen happening in other more economically liberal societies has led me to a better understanding of the other side of the argument. I'm not saying I agree with all the trade unions' demands, and I believe as strongly as anyone (91% of the French population) the casseurs who take advantage of every demonstration to spread violence and vandalism need to be stopped immediately, but in the interests of a balanced perspective, here is my understanding of some of the arguments against the law:

- The law aims to make it easier to fire employees for economic reasons. Companies have to show that they have been making a loss for a certain period of time (which depends on the size of the company) before they are allowed to do this, and this period of time is to be reduced. Certainly, the fact that it is difficult to get rid of employees is often cited as a reason why employers are reluctant to take on new workers. However, easy hiring and firing does not necessarily lead to a strong economy in the long term. The reason for this is that over the last few decades, shareholders have gained more and more control over the decisions that are taken about how companies are run compared to other stakeholders, such as managers and employees (who also have an interest in the wellbeing of the company, as their jobs depend on it). Easy trading of shares means that shareholders are massively more interested in making a quick profit than in the long-term wellbeing of the company. This means it is less likely that they will vote in favour of measures such as training and improved procedures which lead to a real increase in productivity ("good" capitalism) and more likely to approve measures which increase profit in the short term.* So laws which make it easier to get rid of people do not necessarily improve the state of the economy in the long term.

- It will be harder to take an employer to tribunal for unfair dismissal. Many people claim that in France there are far too many people who know that they are unsackable and therefore take the mickey by staying in comfortably in their jobs and doing the bare minimum. However, it is a little known fact that France, with all its workers' rights and people who have been put in a cupboard instead of fired, has a higher productivity (measured in terms of GDP per hour worked) than both the UK and the US.

- A contract issued by an employer can override the convention collective (collective bargaining agreement) agreed by the trade unions for different employment sectors. This is one of the most controversial aspects of the law, and it's easy to see why. While it might accord certain employers with specific or unusual needs more flexibility, its also a massive undermining of the trade unions. Given that employers can already offer employees different conditions as long as they are not deemed to be less advantageous than the conditions in the convention collective, this part of the law opens the way for a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions. And when I hear about things like the UK's much-debated zero hours contracts or this story about US poultry farm workers having to wear nappies because they aren't given toilet breaks, I'm glad to live in a country which has higher standards.

- The restrictions on the hours that employees can be asked to work will be less severe, meaning that people can be expected to spend a longer time at work over a given period, and they will work more hours before this is considered as overtime. But it's another misconception about France, largely caused by the 35 hour week, that French people work fewer hours than people in other western countries. This article explains that France works only slightly below the Eurozone average hours per week ... and the countries where people work fewer hours include Germany, Europe's golden child of economics. And even if it were true, why would people who already have jobs working longer hours be a solution to the country's unemployment woes?

(According to the BBC article, countries with lower unemployment also often have a high number of part-timers. At least in the UK, part-timers are often parents (usually mothers) of young and not-so-young children, whereas in France, childcare is cheaper and the school day is more conducive to parents working - which it wouldn't be if people were expected to work more hours on a week-by-week basis. Couple this with the aforementioned zero hours contracts and people being told by Jobcentres to become self-employed doing jobs where it isn't possible for them to make a decent living, and the statistics elsewhere start to look a little less rosy .)

- Finally, foreigners are often surprised that even young people are demonstrating against the law, given that youth unemployment is so high. I suspect that there is an element of lycée strikes being a rite of passage for the students, and I do wonder how many have really reflected on both sides of the issue, but I guess that those who have would argue that they are taking a long-term view. In your twenties, it's easy to put in the long hours and work harder than everyone else to avoid being first in line for a licenciement économique, but when you are older and have other responsibilities (children or ageing parents, for example) it's not so easy. It's also a lot harder to find another job as you get older, particularly for people in their late forties and fifties, who are often seen by recruiters as being over the hill despite the fact that they have ten or twenty years ahead of them before retirement.

So there you go. As I said, I don't agree with all of the demonstrators' claims, but I do think that if you're going to live and work in a country and enjoy the benefits that it brings (hello job security and RTT days!) you should at least accept that these have often been hard-won and understand that privileges usually demand that a sacrifice is made somewhere.

I learned this from Ha Joon Chang's 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, which is a surprisingly easy read for someone with interest in but very little knowledge of economics (like me!).

Saturday, 14 May 2016

How to Make Parisians Smile

A woman smiled at me on the RER the other day. Normally, nobody smiles at strangers on the RER. In fact, even making eye contact without good reason can be an invitation to trouble, and anyone strikes up a conversation is almost definitely weird. But when you have big baby bump on display, the rules are different. People suddenly start to be nice.

And do you know what? I think I needed it. This winter, Paris has not been a particularly fun place to be. Lots of people said that after the terrorist attacks in November, the atmosphere changed, which might be part of it. Also, between flat hunting, the need to take three-hour naps at the weekend, and 11pm becoming my Saturday night bedtime, I have definitely been out socialising less than before, while even spending an hour or so wandering around the shops becomes boring when you know you can't fit into any of the clothes.

And so it was that my experience of "Paris" gradually became restricted to my daily commute, punctuated by annoyance at the people doing things like pushing through the barriers and smoking in the metro stations, sadness at the increasing number of homeless people spending the night in the RER, worry about the total unwillingness of European countries to do anything positive about the refugees and migrants who were probably the main factor in the rise in homelessness, and frustration at the endless suspect packages being found and prolonging the whole nasty experience by up to an hour each time. Oh and guilt, because being tired and grumpy and sad at having to witness the rough sleepers is clearly not even comparable to actually being the person who has spent the night sleeping upright on a plastic bench with nothing but newspaper to keep them warm.

I should add that I actually think that being confronted on a day-to-day basis with all these kinds of social realities is a very good thing. I don't want other people's suffering to be out of sight and therefore out of mind, or to live in a bubble where I can kid myself that everybody is polite and considerate and law-abiding all the time. But it's better when the gritty realities are balanced out by a bit of warmth and human kindness from time to time.

And that's what happened the first day it became warm enough to go out without a coat. One of the security guards at La Défense, whom its usually difficult to get even a "Bonjour" out of, said, "Félicitations - ça pousse!" as I showed him my handbag. People started to offer me their seats on the metro (often, embarrassingly, people who probably needed the seat far more than I did.) Shop assistants smiled and offered their congratulations.

Then there was the guy who, as I walked across the Place de la République, suddenly turned to me and shouted (in English), "Oh my god, you're pregnant!" Paris is still Paris. It still has its fair share of weirdos.

Monday, 2 May 2016

A Thèque-nical Vocabulary Lesson

Bibliothèque  must surely have been one of the words on the vocabulary list for my beginner's French course when I was 12. The second year that I lived in France, I borrowed books and CDs from the médiathèque. In Italy, I learned the meaning of pinacoteca, and by extension, pinacothèque, and since living in Paris I have been to exhibitions at the cinemathèque. But it took pregnancy, an unexpected contact with an infectious disease, and a consultation with a midwife who was also not a native French speaker to teach me that the sérothèque is the place where a medical laboratory stores blood samples after they have been analysed. So if you ever need a "historical" blood test, in my case where they check whether antibodies were present before a more recent exposure to a disease, the lab can take out one of your old samples and analyse it for other things.

I was quite tickled by the idea of a lending library of blood samples, so I did a quick search to find out if there were other -thèque words missing from my vocabulary, and it turns out that the French Wiktionary has a whole list of them. A glyptothèque is a museum of engraved stones, joujouthèque is Quebec French for a collection of games, a candidathèque is a store of CVs, and a carothèque is not a collection of carrots, but a place to keep carottes glaciares, or ice samples from a glacier.

Maybe over the long weekend I'll amuse myself by seeing how many of these new words I can drop into conversation with my in-laws :-)