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Thursday, September 21, 2006

A wall of lights

We collected our dear friend Margaret from the Brussels Sud airport ie Charleroi. It was a suprise as we had supplied her with instructions about getting the shuttle bus to Brussels Midi train station and from there picking up a Eurostar to Lille, or at least that is what she thought she would be doing. When we looked at the map we realised it was only an hour away by car and that the route was straightforward. So we borrowed the diesel from mamanpapa and found our way there. It still intrigues me every time we cross over a european border in the Schengen area: only weeds and dirty windows, no border police and customs people. What a huge step forward for europe and its peoples, one that is taken for granted by some and probably not realised by many in the UK as it is not included in the Schengen area.

Margaret is a very special lady. She brings love, warmth, calm and learning with her. In the incredibly short week that she spent with us we managed to fit in two sessions of reflexology each, plus one for maman, learned all about emotional freedom techniques including tapping and EmoTrance (see Passion for Health) sprouted all the beans I could find that had been lurking in my impromptu larder ever since an overenthusiastic visit to Planet Organic, made fresh juices and nut butter, drank champagne, played cards and had a superb meal at Le Compostelle This is now our favourite restaurant closely followed by La Cave aux Fioles.

How we also managed to fit in the visit to Max's parents, a day in Bruges (only 45 minutes away from us), a stroll around the citadelle and a visit to Lille zoo - , plus a morning at Ikea, I shall never know.

She wanted to buy us something for the house and we were unsure about what would be - suitable until I remembered Natures et Découvertes a heavenly shop full of things you could buy for other people and indulgences for yourself. I narrowed it down to three things: a machine that produces a soothing array of background noises such as waves on a shore, the sound of spring rain, summer evening insects and also emits wafts of essential oils at the same time, then there was the salt crystal lamp, then the wrought iron screen holding 36 coloured glass tealight holders. Max made the final decision and the latter won. It is now standing in the corner of our sitting room next to the fireplace. When the candles are lit they give off a kind, warming light and shine magically.

All too soon 7 days had flown by and we were saying a slightly choked goodbye at Lille Europe as Margaret took the TGV to Paris CDG and thence to Leeds-Bradford. Come back soon!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Voting all over the place.

Last Friday we made a small but meaningful step in our transition when we registered to vote in Hellemmes-Lille. There are differences between us in that Max as a french national is entitled to vote in all elections whereas I am only able to vote in local and european polls. Equally I am entitled to register to vote in UK general elections though I need to find a fellow registered Brit to sign my form and it appears that UK democracy is held hostage to the post as voting forms are sent out anything between a week and 3-4 days before the election day. Quite how that equates with 3 days to get to France and 3 days to be received back in the UK I am not certain but ther seems to be a major chance of my vote not being allowed.

It is somewhat academic in any case as none of the main parties attracts currently. Blair will have quit and his replacement will probably be the - suddenly - jovial Mr Brown. I cannot take David Cameron seriously, not because he is younger than I, but because he appears to be attempting to bestride so many bandwagons at once he is in serious danger of doing himself a real mischief. He has been compared with a younger Blair attempting to inject some realism into Tory policies and thus making the Conservatives more electable yet there are two more powerful forces at work over which he has little say. Firstly Labour- or more accurately Blair - has stolen the middle ground and Conservative policy is no longer readily identifiable as different. Secondly, the more likey scenario, should the Tories regain power, is that the Labour government will have been rejected rather than the nice new caring Conservatives fully embraced as the torch carriers to the future.

As a person with much sympathy for the Liberal Democrats I cannot understand the election of the might Ming as leader. Their immediate positive appeal for me has all but disappeared and their chances of bettering their performance reduced unless they benefit from the anti-Labour vote. With three or four years to go before another general election it is more than likely that Mr Campbell will have been replaced by a more youthful and more appealing leader.

It is about leaders. The idea that we don't in truth have a quasi president is clearly wrong. The leader epitomises their party, giving it a face, a voice and a presence. Gerneral elections determine who our next leader is going to be as well as which flavour of government will govern.

This is where other systems differ. Here in France it is more than possible for a president of one political persuasion to preside over a government of a different hue. Interestingly the president appoints the Prime Minister. Currently the French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, is not even an elected member of the French parliament.

As I am not enfranchised for the presidential elections I feel a sense of independence and thus allow myself , if not a platform, then at least the opportunity, to comment and perhaps to clarify events in the lead up to the election next May.

The key players are as yet unconfirmed yet fixed in the collective mind of the French nation. They are Ségolène Royal for the left (an untidy muddle of socialists whose elegant disagreements give the UK Labour party the air of a marriage made and conducted in heaven), and Nicolas Sarkozy for the right. Neither has yet been annointed though the latter is unchallenged apart from the unlikely event of Chirac's restanding or the aformentioned patrition and unpopular Prime Minister throwing his made-to- measure hat into the ring. I think the right are going to bite the bullet and back the man they have variously hated and feted to continue their current 2 terms in power.

The left is another story. Ségo, as she is called, is equally hated and equally feted though not in quite the same way as enjoyed by her putative presidential opponent. The dinosaurs are lining up to, increasingly less subtly, rubbish this charismatic woman who is so far ahead in the opinion polls that the other supposed contenders are but dots on the horizon. They don't seem to have understood, despite the rout back in 2002, that merely being around for a long time does not give you precedence for a bash at the presidency. This is especially true in today's France where agreement that the winds, if not the gales, of change need to blow and soon. Whether either party has adequate breath to maintain the changes is another matter.

Madame Royal is a woman. Obviously. This immediately makes gives her a disadvantage in a country where being a woman is still very much a lesser occupation than being a man. Whatever politically correct phrases are wafted about? I believe this to be true. Ironically her gender is in equal part an advantage. Her election as president would give the left and politics in France something new, something fresh. But will the behemoths of the Parti Socialiste (PS) make way for the people's favourite or will they patronise them again with a more correct candidate? The polls show that every other potential socialist candidate would suffer defeat by Monsieur Sarkozy; ignominious defeat too. Were they to ignore the popularity of Ségo then that would be a well-deserved defeat and, finally perhaps, the wake-up call that they so badly need.

What of the other socialist candidates? I can expound only on one though it is worth adding that a François Hollande is the partner of some 25 years of Royale. They are unmarried parents to 4 children. They have announced the possibility of a simple marriage but this has not yet happened so there is the potential for an unmarried mother as president with a senior member of her own party as the new belle Bernadette.

Although not officially declared, the big loser in the last presidential election, Lionel Jospin, has made it known that, if called upon, he would be willing to accept the burden of the highest office in the land. The sheer vanity , indeed hubris, of this man is evidence of the distance between the political elite and the electorate. He, along with the rest of his colleagues, lacks what Ségolène Royal has in spadesful ie the common touch.

Just as the British monarchy could not understand the appeal of a certain princess who had not been tested over long rigorous years in the correct way of being properly royal, just as they balked, horrified, against her contribution and assimilating her attempts to modernise the institution (excuse this long sentence), the PS risk alienating themselves and their chances. By doing "the right thing" the left may be left behind again.

The thrill of being right - but not always.

Today, very early, in fact over breakfast, I learned that I should have more faith in myself and my knowledge and abilities. I learned that there is little to be gained by not standing up for what I know to be correct. Indeed I realised that I had crossed a rubicon in my ability in speaking another language.

It all started on Friday evening when I checked in to the indispensable website and forum for Brits and English speakers in France, A bit of a debate was rumbling on about how to request someone slow down their over-enthusiastic delivery so that they might be better understood. I volunteered voulez-vous parler un peu moins vite svp but was shot down in flames by the next contributor who told me point-blank that I was using the wrong verb. I attempted to explain and offered an example in English knowing from my training as a teacher of English as a second language that there is much confusion between can/could/would even for many native English speakers. They were having none of it and insisted that I was wrong.

I have always used vouloir to indicate a polite half imperative request eg if you would like someone to do something for you, rather than tell them to do it you ask if they would like to do it, thus voulez-vous fermer la porte? It seems that the everyday simplification of English has made its contribution here as pouvoir was favoured as in pouvez-vous fermer la porte? ie Can you close the door? Can, of course, questions the person's ability eg if their arms are full they may not be able to comply with this apparent request. Better by far is could you close the door and, by implication, for me, and even better, would you close the door for which the French voulez-vous fermer la porte although literally do you want to close the door is a better everyday translation.

So, Sunday morning I had almost forgotten about this minor linguistic spat when Max reminded me that I should speak to his aunt who, before retirement, was a French teacher. His parents asked why and as soon as we started to explain they both agreed, indeed vociferously, that vouloir is absolutely correct in this context.

I allowed myself a microsecond of smugness but am now basking in the warmth of knowing I can rely a little better on myself.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Moules moules moules

We have just experienced our first Braderie. The whole of the central part of Lille is filled with c ten thousand stalls selling bric-a-brac from "antiques" to car boot clutter and commercial wares. The city was rammed with the 2 million extra visitors expected to dawdle (the fastest walking speed achievable) along checking out the bargains.
We were able to share the weekend with good friends Tiff (of Paris semi-marathon fame in this blog) and Stuart who eurostarred over and took part in the Lille Semi Marathon on Saturday morning. Lending support to our two athletes was no easy task and we scuttled from one vantage point to another to wave and shout encouragement. They finished in just under and just over two hours which is a RESULT!!!! It was an incredible sight seeing something over 3000 runners set off on their 21.1 km course taking in much of central Lille but thankfully not too many of the cobbled streets. The results show that 3413 finished race.
Again, having visitors meant we got to see parts of the city we have never seen before. The old town is a veritable maze of street and I always go wrong somewhere.
It is traditional to eat moules frite at the Braderie so we duly queued outside Aux Moules and let them add our empty shells to the mounting pile outside. The idea is to have the biggest pile of shells of all the restaurants. I think it is obvious from the top picture that Aux Moules had a very good chance. Thankfully though the weather outdid all expectations and was occasionally really pleasant, it was never so hot as to give rise to a nasty old mussels smell. Certainly the heavy rain was nowhere to be seen and most restaurants made good use of the extra outdoor seating they had arranged.
Having seen Stu and Tiff off at Lille Europe we had a final wander around the stalls. I was disappointed, though not surprised, at the amount of litter and debris around. Inevitable I suppose when bins are at a premium and people are not always as considerate as they could be. The cleaners worked all night and by Monday morning everything was fresh and clean again.

It seems as if we won't be having a late cheap holiday as Max is not entitled to any paid leave at all for the rest of 2006. He is apparently earning it now and will have the grand total of 14 days to take throughout 2007. Just another area where the state interferes and lays down how many and how and when etc. It is just the way it is and now my incredulity has dissipated a little I can cope with it just as I am learning to cope with the ludicrous over-the-top and quadruplicated bureaucracy that is the norm in France. Bof!