Monday, 4 November 2013

The Sasha Factor

The Sasha Factor

We have a young lad staying this week, from Paris.

He is very sweet and helpful and is working hard at improving his English (which is why he is here.) He also has an interesting face. As with a lot of French children he is impeccably turned out with the long, smooth haircut and smart pullovers favoured by French mothers.

At dinner the other evening, I was musing over what I found familiar in his face and then I realised he was remarkably similar to the Sasha dolls my childhood friend used to have. Smooth olive skin stretched over fine china bones. Long dark lashes framing pools of liquid amber. A delicate, unfinished face.

I envied my friend her Sasha doll, not simply for the toy itself (I loved my own Tiny Tears after all) but for what it represented. There was an insouciance I could barely understand then but which fell into sharp focus as I pondered the features of the young man who came to stay.

My friend was French. Her father was working for the UK Air Force like mine and so our two families were thrown together on several postings. There were six children, with floppy French haircuts and pouting mouths. They called their parents 'Maman' and 'Papa'.

Everything about their lives was tantalising to me. Funny little things stick in my mind: tea cups imbued with the smell of Lapsang tea, Maman's leather driving gloves and elegant loafers, mahogany wardrobes and chests of drawers, large family meals that lasted for hours, bookshelves made from planks and bricks, talk of relatives living in chateaux. And of course the exotic Carambars they brought back from holidays with indecipherable jokes printed inside the wrappers.

I realise now that what I envied was the faded French gentility, the Frenchness of their way of life,  and it occurs to me that this is something I have craved all my life. I come from solid English stock, hockey sticks and bread pudding, wall to wall carpets and central heating, Saturday afternoons down the shopping mall, Sundays in the garden centre, suburbia.

Now I know you are thinking that France has suburbia too, and our two cultures are really pretty similar, both of which are true. But there is something ineffably different about the French and life in France. Long lunch breaks because food is important and mustn't be rushed. Old fashioned opening hours for shops and offices because people have lives to live as well as livings to earn. The tradition of the Association, enshrined in all communes, because we all need activities that bring us together. Finesse, politesse, gentillesse. I wax lyrical.

So that's why I have always wanted to live in France. The presence of a young man with the features of a Sasha doll has brought a subliminal ambition to consciousness.

Deep down, I want to be like my childhood friend. I want to be French.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Where did Summer go?

Gosh is that the time? It's several hours past October already - where has the time gone!

One minute we were shivering our way through April, adjusting to the temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere, trying to remember what sort of clothes and footwear we should be wearing. The next, it seems, we are shivering our way into winter.

I'm sure we had a summer. I do recall long days of sunshine and impossibly turquoise waters, sandy beaches and deserted coves. I think I looked at the light blue sky on more than one occasion and felt choked with happiness. I listened to chiff chaffs as I pegged out the washing, heard the owls laughing in the night behind the house. I felt dappled sunshine on my face as I sat over coffee in the garden.

And yet it was all so fleeting.

Someone once said (there's always someone) that the price we pay for living in and loving a foreign country is to be eternally nostalgic and while I don't exactly miss the kamakaze driving of Colombo's roads, nor the arrogant ignorance of Sri Lanka's ruling classes, I guess I am homesick for some wall to wall sunshine and the forever promise of warmth and blue skies.

I watch the trees around us, scrutinising their foliage for signs of rusty decay. My heart sinks as the green slips away, the canopy thins just as the traffic has. Sound travels more; there is an echoing along the road. The sand on the beaches is frothed from the raindrops and it is hard to remember these lonely stretches of shoreline were so very recently heaving with bright pink flesh, heady with the scent of a thousand bottles of suntan lotion.

Just as I mourn the turning of the tide, watching the water swirl back out of our lovely little bay, I am trying to be brave in the face of the oncoming winter.

But it doesn't seem right to me. Only two short months of summer and we are back with the heating on. Time to dig out the socks and throw another quilt on the bed.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Est ce qu'il est un joli chat?

This is Sid, known in our house as the cat who can do no wrong. 

He regularly upends the milk carton to drink the spillage, wrecked an expensive sofa with his scratching, and broke oh so many precious things in his nocturnal pursuit of geckos, yet his sheer loveliness buys him protection from our wrath.

No wonder then, that we were willing to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to bring him with us from Sri Lanka.

Importing a pet into Europe is not easy. Rightly so in the case of animals we have picked up off the streets of Asia. When Sid first arrived he could fit in the palm of my hand, had a tail like a piece of chewed string and a belly so full of worms he had rest his tum on the floor to sit down. He is still a little bandy around the back legs as a consequence.

So to prepare him for transition from street urchin to civilized house cat, we had him vaccinated, microchipped, wormed and blood tested in accordance with the minefield of EU legislation. I sought advice from all corners, fretted over the competence of the Sri Lankan vets, spent many nights imagining being confronted with the stony face of French customs refusing my beloved cat entry on account of an irregularity in his paperwork. When the certificate of rabies antibodies came back from the lab in Scotland (where the blood had been couriered at vast expense) I choked back a tear. It was an emotional rollercoaster.

When the night came around that we checked him on to the flight at Bandaranaike International Airport, I was wrung out. 

Emirates Airline were lovely. The captain of our connecting flight came to my seat to tell me the cat was well and he was keeping the hold nice and warm for him. I clutched his hand and sobbed my thanks.

At Charles de Gaulle, we waited anxiously by the carousel for Sid to appear along with the pushchairs and surf boards of our fellow passengers.

Then came the moment we had been preparing for for six months. Balanced on the top of our suitcases, Sid shivered in his cage. Checking his papers one last time, I took a deep breath and walked towards customs. Show time.

Two large Douaniers stood near the exit. Neither moved a muscle. I asked what I should do with the cat.

The reply was a gallic shrug. They waved me through.

Then, as an afterthought, one of them stepped forward and asked:

'Est ce qu'il est joli?'

Bienvenue en France Sid!


A curious thing happened at the market this morning. 

Today's was the real thing, the sustaining event of the local week through the long, dark, winter months. The nitty gritty of the market way of life, there to provide the daily bread and the meeting point for the local community. 

We are just emerging from winter so the large, rambling marches I have been accustomed to on my many holiday visits to the area are still in hibernation. There were the mainstays, the veg stalls, the cheese van, the man with all kinds of saucisson; and in addition a few more seasonal entrepreneurs, the woman selling her home grown onions alongside walnuts presumably from her garden; the lady embossing your name onto a colourful leather wrist band; the old couple selling hats. 

And in amongst it all was my favourite clothes seller.

In the past, when I have been a tourist in these parts, I have fallen upon this particular stall with alacrity. I love the clothes, the style, the chic, the je ne sais quoi. I climb in and out of the back of the vendor's van to try on whole collections. Draped linen, sassy coloured prints, bohemian tops, dresses, trousers that all cry out 'wear me and the world will know you have chutzpah!' Last summer, I found a cream linen jacket that hangs in fullsome folds and swings with the breeze as I walk. I love it so much, I had another one made in blue.

So what was curious this morning was that I found myself fondling the new Spring collection but with no desire to buy, not even to try anything on.

Since arriving here a few weeks ago to start our life as CostArmoricains, I have felt a sense of true homecoming. I have unpacked the treasures we locked away four years ago. I am surrounded by objects that inspire contentment in me - ceramics my daughter made in primary school, paintings by my mother, all the notebooks I have filled over the years, the table my grandparents ate off, flowers from my garden. I have rediscovered my winter clothes, (mothballed for the duration of our stay in Sri Lanka), and the joy of wearing velvet. 

True, there is much to do on the house, and there are things I could acquire that would make daily life much easier. I look forward to the arrival of our shipment from Sri Lanka in the next few weeks. But the nagging sense that something is missing, and that this void can only be filled with more stuff is evaporating.

It is as if I have unwrapped the ultimate gift. I have enough.