Fidelity à la Française

I first went to Paris when I was 14 years old. I was travelling with my father who introduced me to a “friend” of his, a dancer at the Lido called Sophie. Something she told me has remained with me ever since. “All you need to be a French woman,” she said, “is two lipsticks and a lover.”
Having lived there for several years I would say the truth is closer to one lipstick and two lovers.
The French are famous for sex. Now we have it from an official source that they excel at it. And, rather predictably, they’re much better at it than us. An Ifop (Institut Français d’opinion publique) survey published this week entitled ‘Paris, City of Light, City of Debauchery’ concludes that Parisians have on average 19 lovers, whereas we Brits have a measly nine. It also found that 44 per cent of Parisians have slept with someone whose name they don’t know, 29 per cent have taken part in threesomes (or ménage à trois as they are known in France) and 22 per cent have been involved in an orgy.
In 2014 Ifop carried out a survey that found that 55 per cent of French men and 32 per cent of French women cheat on their spouses. I would guess the real figure is even higher. Do the French have time for anything else but sex? No wonder their economy is in such a state. And the fact that they’re always on strike, is that just a ploy to spend more time in the sack?
We Brits have always been slightly jealous of the French je ne sais quoi. If your husband announces he has a French mistress, you know the game’s up. Similarly when women dream of a tall, dark and handsome man, he probably has just a hint of a French accent.
But are their sex lives really fuelled by romance? Is it all candlelit dinners and longing gazes under the Eiffel Tower? Holding hands as you stroll along the banks of the Seine and drinking champagne under the shade of a Plane tree?
I would argue that no, it’s not. OK so they have more lovers, but that doesn’t make them more loving. The truth is that French sex is more about promiscuity than romance. If you are serially unfaithful your tally will increase, won’t it?images-1
While we Brits get married and settle down, the French get married and, er, carry on as if they’re not. A few years ago while discussing the difference between vous and tu with a married French couple, the man told me he always vous his mistress. “It’s much sexier,” he said. His wife didn’t blink. I half expected her to chip in with a ‘oh yes I always vous my lovers too, makes it seem so much more exotic, not to mention erotic.’
A friend of mine called Bernadette is 37 years old and has been having an affair with the husband of a friend of hers for a year and a half. “We knew each other, of course, and then one day we bumped into each other in town. We had coffee and he asked me if I was interested in becoming his mistress,” she says. “I was surprised at how direct he was, it was almost like a business proposal, he suggested we meet once or twice a week, he would book a hotel, and we would have sex.” They do just that; she goes to the hotel after leaving work and before she gets home to her husband and two small children. She is not in it for the romance, but views it more like a treat. “Some women go to the spa or the hairdresser’s to unwind, I go to a small hotel room where there is a man waiting for me.”
Jean-Claude is in his mid-forties. He’s a successful Paris-based businessman who has been married to Chantal for 15 years. They have three children. He freely admits that there is not one year out of the 15 when he has been faithful to her. He doesn’t have one regular mistress, like a lot of French men do, but a series of lovers, none of whom he sees more than a handful of times because he doesn’t want to risk getting too attached to them. His motivation is purely sexual. He finds sex with his wife boring, and he enjoys the chase and thrill of seducing other women. But he has no desire to break up his family, hence the need to keep the affairs brief and to the point. But is there really any point?
“It never even occurred to me to remain faithful,” he says. “It’s just our way of life. Added to which among my friends a mistress is a bit of a status symbol, you’re seen as a bit of a loser if you don’t have one.”
The fact that infidelity is culturally acceptable makes it so much more acceptable than it is here. Another friend of mine called Gilbert says that one of his most enduring memories from childhood is of his grandmother consoling his grandfather when one of his girlfriends had finished with him. There is no stigma or even surprise attached to having an affair, in fact it’s often seen as something to be proud of. No one would dream of asking you where you were between cinq and sept. In England, if you are an unfaithful person, you are also a bad person. Not so in France. For example, you can be a philanderer and still be a good President as we have seen with a succession of French heads of state. As far back as 1899 a French President called Félix Faure died during an oral sex session at the Elysée Palace. What a way to go. Makes Clinton seem like a lightweight. Before they had presidents, French kings were at it. Madame de Pompadour was Louis XV’s official mistress, and that title must mean he had several unofficial ones as well.
There are even those who argue that infidelity in France is a basic human right. As Michael Worton former (now retired) Professor of French Literature at University College London sums up: “The whole notion of freedom is deeply inscribed in the French psyche. Marrying and then misbehaving is seen as being free.”
The Paris-based American author Edith Kunz put it like this: “Wives, husbands, mistresses and lovers function together on a relatively peaceful basis in France when the players adhere to the non-verbal code of manners.”
Infidelity is a French specialist subject. But maybe because it is so entrenched it’s in danger of becoming as much of a burden as marriages sometimes appear to be? Jean-Claude admits there are times when he tires of the affairs. “Maybe I’m just getting old,” he laughs. “But there are days when I wonder if I can be bothered. And then I think about a certain pair of lips or the way someone laughs and I’m off again.”
Antoine, 36, who lives in Lyon, has been married for five years but has been having an affair with an older divorced woman for almost two years. They meet at her place two or three times a week. “I think it is nearing the end of its natural life,” he says of the affair. “There comes a time when it starts to turn into the same mundanity you have at home, and then you have to move on.” Antoine says he will probably always have a mistress on and off. “I can’t imagine being with the same woman forever. Never kissing another woman, or caressing another body. It would feel like a prison sentence. I think being sexually liberated is essential for your well-being.”
And the women? Well here again is a crucial difference between the French and us Brits. “French women are born to seduce,” a male French friend once told me. “And what are English women born to do?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “Cuddle their dogs.”
But does all this sex and seduction actually get them anywhere? Are they any happier than us semi-frigid Brits cuddling our dogs and counting our sexual conquests on one hand?
While it all seems terribly exciting running around chasing women or being seduced by men who one would assume after so much practice must be getting rather good at it, most French people concede that actually having your cake and eating it is just not possible. The statistic from the survey that 44 per cent of people have slept with someone whose name they don’t know is just plain depressing. For sex to be truly exciting and interesting surely there has to be an element of romance? There may be times when a nameless encounter is just the ticket, but I’m not sure it’s a sustainable path to fulfilment and happiness.
None of the case studies I spoke to seemed overly excited by their affairs. Funnily enough, if anything the women were happier than the men. With the men I got the impression they almost felt obliged to be unfaithful, as if it was somehow a reflection on their manhood (or lack of it) if they only slept with their wives. As Jean-Claude says: “I sometimes wonder if I’m doing this for me or if it’s only because it’s expected of me.” Another friend of mine who lives in Provence travels to Paris once a month to get his hair cut. Obviously being French he is not getting his hair cut at all, but seeing his mistress. But he admits that he sometimes enjoys the journey more than the actual mistress. “It’s so relaxing,” he says. “I think I’d still go even if it weren’t for her.”
The French might have more notches on the bedpost, but as with so many things, happiness through lovers is more about quality than quantity.
So while the French may have won the battle, we are winning the war. Plus ça change.

Can a frog turn into a prince?

Not even Scarlett Johanssen could do it. Hang on to a French husband that is. Two and a half years after she married Romain Dauriac the father of her daughter Rose, the actress is filing for divorce. She doesn’t give a reason, but in an interview a few months ago talked about how impossible monogamy is. Especially for Frenchmen, she could have added.

downloadJohanssen joins a long list of illustrious women who have loved and lost a la française.

In January this year pop princess Cheryl Cole split from her French husband Jean-Bernard citing unreasonable behaviour. The actress Gemma Arterton has broken up with her boyfriend Franklin Ohanessian.

When the sexy French actor Olivier Martinez leapt onto the world scene in the film The Horseman on the Roof and announced that “Madame a déjà un escort” we all wanted to be that Madame. Halle Berry and Kylie Minouge both were, for a while, but neither lasted the course. Perhaps though the most shocking of all news of the split between Kristen Scott Thomas (who is as close to being a French woman as you can possibly be without being actually being French) and her gynaecologist husband in 2005 after 18 years of marriage. The rumour at the time was that she was having an affair with the actor Tobias Menzies, but there were bound to be some Gallic issue underlying the split.

The list goes on. The evidence is blindingly obvious. If you’re not French, don’t marry a Frenchman.

Frenchmen make appallingly bad husbands. Along with their inability to keep their trousers on is a myriad of traits that make them so, well, impossibly French. Ego, the impenetrable language, misogynism and a loathing of anywhere outside their own arrondissement to name a few.

I had a French boyfriend. Once. It was a very long time ago, back in the days when the only men who used moisturiser were definitely “batting for the other side” as my grandfather used to put it.

Except Didier that is. Didier had a bathroom filled with more products than I had ever seen in one place. And remember this was when brands didn’t even have men’s skincare ranges. One look at those shelves was enough to send me running for the hills.

I’m grateful now to Didier and his skincare obsession. Because had it not been for him I might have been tempted, as so many women are, to actually marry a Frenchman.

“I’ve kissed a lot of frogs,” says Catherine, an English friend of mine who has lived in Paris for 15 years. “But none that have turned into princes.”

Catherine has seen too many of her compatriots fail to even contemplate marrying a French man. “They’re good for a love affair, but nothing more. Talk about a crowded marriage. If you marry a Frenchman you have to live not only with his pernickety mother watching your every move, but with his ego as well. I’m not sure which is worse.”

Catherine says that when looking for a husband someone from an Anglo-Saxon culture should look for a man from a country where there is more equality between the sexes than there is in France.

“The French are sexist pigs,” she says. “They’re very charming with it, but that’s the bottom line.”

Claire, another English friend living in Paris agrees. “I think we tend to put up with less shit than French women. For example, we expect a man to stay faithful and do the washing up now and again. Added to which, you always have to be perfect. There is no way a French man will put up with you mooching around at home in your pyjamas or gym kit.”

So apart from being habitually well groomed and turning a blind eye to infidelity, how do French women keep their men in line, and why do they want to?

“Oh they don’t keep them in line, unless she’s much richer or younger than him, or the man in question has some values, which is unlikely in France,” says Julia, an American mother of three who has lived in France for 17 years with her American husband. “But they prefer to stay married, as do the men. It gives them both security, albeit different types of security.”

Julia describes French society as an odd combination of more conservative and at the same time more licentious than ours. So while French men are allowed to behave as they want to, being unfaithful and refusing to do anything around the house, French women tend to put up with their behaviour due to a mixture of cultural norms and economic necessity.

“French women get peanuts in divorce settlements here, the law is as sexist as the men, so usually it’s in their interests to stay married.”

We’ll always have Paris

People go to Paris to be happy. They go to drink champagne, to eat delicious food, to sit in cafés discussing philosophy, to shop for matching underwear and to make love.
Paris is not a city you go to if you’re on a diet, metaphorically or literally. It is a city of excess, of abundance, beauty and glamour.
I’m sure that’s why the terrorists picked Paris on Friday night. There is no city on earth that is more symbolic of everything they hate. As the writer Alan Furst once said: “Paris is the beating heart of Western civilisation. It’s where it all began.”
On Friday night, a gang of murderous thugs tried to end it. They turned a fun evening out for hundreds of people into their worst nightmare. They targetted young people, people who had just started out in life, men and women who had everything to look forward to, who should have had years and years to live, not minutes, or seconds. A concert was turned into something resembling Dante’s lower circles of hell.
The stories and images to come out of the Bataclan theatre and other parts of central Paris where the terrorists rampaged will stay with us forever. Who will ever forget the man whose wife was murdered promising the terrorists that every day their 17-month old son will “insult you with his happiness and his freedom”? Or the hero who threw himself in front of a woman in a restaurant to save her from the terrorist’s bullets? Or even the BBC newsreader who broke down in tears? Something we have all done, some of us several times a day, since it happened.imgres
I don’t understand what those murderers think they are going to achieve by killing and maiming people. I’m not even sure they do. But picking on Paris was a mistake. Paris is everyone’s favourite city. Most people who have visited Paris have happy memories. Those who haven’t yet been dream of going and walking over one of her bridges, or exploring her museums. Paris is beautiful, elegant and, as we have seen, vulnerable. She is a bit like a stunning woman, whom no one wants to see violated.
It was wonderful to see the whole world light up monuments in the tricolor as a tribute to Paris, and of course the Eiffel Tower itself, standing tall, like a giant ‘doigt d’honneur’ or middle finger saying an enormous f*** you to the terrorists.
Vive la France.

A very French village affair

News reaches me that Swedes recycle 99 per cent of their rubbish. Never one to be outdone by my compatriots, I am recycling this column first published in the Sunday Times. You will be pleased to hear that since this exciting episode things have calmed down and the bakery is now run by another family. The bread has improved as well…

Our location three kilometres away from the nearest village normally insulates us from local gossip. But news reaches me of a tale so gripping that I feel I cannot ignore it. Besides, it says a lot about life in rural France.
The story is centred on the most important building in the community – no, not the bank, nor the bar not even the post office. It’s the bakery. It is not my favourite bread shop – the range is a bit limited – but occasionally I have glimpsed the baker in the backroom, rather a muscular, handsome chap covered in flour. His wife sold the baguettes and croissants. A bohemian figure with long highlighted hair and a penchant for grungy outfits, we were quite friendly, partly because she shares a name with one of my daughters.
However, last weekend, when I went to get a loaf, I was served by a rather pretty youngster with long blonde hair. Where, I asked a friend, is the baker’s wife?
“You mean you don’t know? The whole village has been talking about it.” She steered me towards the local bar, and over a cup of coffee, outlined the sorry tale.

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It turns out that a couple of years ago a Parisian moved into the village with her husband. She became best friends with the baker’s wife. They spent many happy hours together in the shop talking about fashion, food and other French obsessions. But as Coco Chanel was fond of observing: “My friends, there are no friends.”

For when the baker’s wife went to visit her ailing mother, the baker took the opportunity of getting close to the Parisian woman. He may not be the first baker to be caught with his hands in the wrong bag of flour, but when his wife discovered what had been happening in her absence, she took it badly. She repacked her bags and left; nobody knows where she went.

The Parisian thought this might leave her free to move in with the handsome baker, but he apparently rejected this kind offer. This was the cue for her husband to get involved. He went down to the bakery with his shotgun and loosed a couple of rounds into the windows. Whether he was aiming at the baker, we don’t know, but it does seem a bit of an odd reaction to take it out on an innocent building.

What we do know is that the baker has got rid of two women who were beginning to show their age and apart from the damage to his windows, has come out of the whole saga unscathed. Moreover he now has a younger woman handling his baguettes.
“As long as she doesn’t end up with a bun in the oven, he’s had a result,” says my friend. What interests me is the reaction of the rest of the village. They are delighted to have something to talk about. It’s the biggest thing since Le Pen defeated Jospin in 2002. (Zidane’s World Cup head butt pales in comparison.)

There are now regular pilgrimages to gawp at the gun-shot wounded windows; much more interesting than the normal evening pastime of going to the bus stop in your slippers, carrying a deck chair and sitting there watching the traffic go by.
“You’ll notice the police haven’t been involved,” one village senior told me. “That’s the French noblesse oblige. If a man has been cuckolded then he is perfectly entitled to take a few pot shots at your window.”

There’s not much sympathy for the wronged wife. “She was always very grumpy,” says another villager. “She would look at me and say ‘what do you want?’ when I came into the bakery. ‘Some bread,’ I felt like responding, ‘isn’t that bleeding obvious?’”
Many locals think the baker might now spend more time on his bread, thus improving its quality, although the foodies in the village still make the journey into the local town for their banette moissons and apple tarts.

The Parisian and the cuckolded husband are said to be still living together in domestic disharmony. Apparently they have taken a floor of the house each, and eat at different times. God knows where they get their bread from.

What is also interesting here though is the French attitude to infidelity. No one has condemned the baker as a cheat and a cad. Everyone thinks he’s a jolly good bloke. When I asked another villager if he wasn’t shocked by the goings-on at the bakery he looked amazed.“Shocked?” He said. “This sort of thing has been going on since before time began.”

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I remember a friend of mine telling me the story of a woman who lived outside Toulouse whose husband had an affair with the local postmistress. Instead of turfing her husband out she asked a friend if she could borrow her house.
“What for?” said the friend.
“I need to seduce my husband,” was the wronged wife’s response.
She got dressed up in some sexy underwear, invited her husband round and performed a striptease routine. I can’t imagine an Englishwoman reacting in the same way. She might borrow a friend’s house to murder him in so as not to get any blood on her own carpets, but certainly not to show him her latest matching underwear.
De Gaulle once said that it is impossible to rule a country with over 350 types of cheese. Maybe it is the sheer variety of everything: bread, wine, strange vowel sounds and so on, that make fidelity more difficult for the French.

Strangely enough they seem more able to resist culinary delights than temptations of the flesh. I remember an extremely chic and slim Parisian once telling me about her little trysts, always carried out with maximum discretion in smart hotels around town.
“What else can’t you resist?” I asked her. “Croissants for example?”
She looked horrified. “I haven’t had a croissant in over twelve years.”

I should think the baker’s wife has gone off them as well.

It’s a long way down…

On our way to the south of France from England, Leo and I passed the time listening to Desert Island Disks podcasts. One of the best ones was Bear Grylls. He spoke about his decision to climb Everest as he lay in hospital with a broken back.
It was in part this that inspired our adventure today to a rock we have named Wright’s rock, about a mile from the house. I have a vague memory of climbing it once before, but I was sure there was a path. Today there was not. And as we stood looking at the sheer stone rock-face we were going to have to climb to get to the top I felt less like Bear Grylls and more like the vertiginous coward I really am.FullSizeRender 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband was all for it. He has some new walking boots and wanted to try them out. Leo was keen too, and started climbing immediately. I stomped off in a downward direction convinced they were both going to fall and refusing to watch. It was all about to end in tears when Olivia came to the rescue, discovering a slightly less horrendous way up that involved crawling under a tree.FullSizeRender 2
We all made it to the top, which had seemed impossible ten minutes earlier. “There,” said my husband, surveying the stunning views. “We’ve all achieved something today.”
“Let’s go home for a cup of tea,” I suggested. And we started looking for a way down. No one ever really talks about getting down, it’s all about reaching the pinnacle, getting to the summit, scaling the heights etc. How come no one ever mentions getting down?
The way down in not to be underestimated, especially not when you are dealing with bare cliff-face. My husband admitted that he had put us all through the adventure of climbing up to make sure we weren’t deprived of that lovely sense of achievement. “But I’m sure there is a path down somewhere,” he smiled.FullSizeRender 5
I thought about killing him on the spot, but decided to wait until he’d found the path.
He didn’t find the path, so we had a rather harrowing descent, mainly on our bottoms. I have never been so happy to see a gravel track in my life.FullSizeRender 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The moral of the story is two-fold; definitely push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you’ll feel great afterwards (and really enjoy your cup of tea). But don’t forget about the way down. While I was happy to get to the top, I was even happier to get to the bottom.

Pesky Neighbours…

The Brits and the French have been sparring intermittently for the past 1,000 years. So far no one has managed to land the killer blow. In fact in recent years there has been a dangerous outbreak of entente cordiale, at least off the rugby pitch.

Hostilities have now been resumed in the Aude, the only twist being that this time it is between two British camps. John and Faith Dyson bought a retirement home in a small village near Toulouse in 2004. They had only eight months to enjoy their French idyll before the house next door was bought by a couple of Brits. The new neighbours, the Dunlops, announced their arrival by immediately objecting to the fact that the Dyson’s overlooked them. In addition, that they had access through their driveway to their front door.

You’d think they might have thought about that before they signed the compromis de vente, but they didn’t. The two couples have been fighting about it ever since, if not a hundred year war at least a decade long one. It started with the Dunlops putting a sign up saying ‘You have no right to look’. Look at what I wonder? It rather reminds me of sitting next to someone at a dinner party who tells me they are terrified of speaking to me incase it ends up in the papers. ‘As if anything you would say could possibly be of any interest to anyone,’ I am always tempted to respond.

imagesThen the Dunlops parked their van in front of the Dyson’s door, thus forcing them to use a side entrance. The denouement came when the Dunlops built a wall across the front of the Dyson’s house, plunging it into darkness. In a particular French twist to the tale, the villagers have now got involved in the dispute.

Unlike rural England where everyone would hide behind their net curtains, around 100 of the 258 villagers marched on the house and tore down a barricade that had been erected by the Dunlops to obscure the Dyson’s view. Although I guess the other 158 are still sitting on what is left of the fence?

On the whole British expats moving to France don’t run into these sorts of disputes. France is such a big country (more than twice the size of the UK but with the same population) that people tend to be a little more relaxed about a square foot of land that may or may not be a right of way or an oleander twig touching your car.

We moved to rural France in 2000 and so far things have worked out well, although we do live in the middle of nowhere. Even so, I can’t say we have been left totally alone. For example just a few months ago the post office informed us they would no longer deliver letters to us unless we installed a letterbox at the bottom of the drive, which sent us into a slight panic. But these are minor irritations compared with what might have transpired living as we did between a pub and car park in Sussex. Every day there seems to be some hideous story about someone plotting to murder their neighbour or at least chop down his Leylandii.

In France, however, the Dysons are in a minority. I haven’t come across another saga like it, which is why it is in the papers I suppose. First of all you are unlikely to have the misfortune of another Brit moving in next door. Secondly, you would hope to leave these sorts of petty arguments behind you when you cross the channel.

You can of course run into dreadful people wherever you live, but the sorts of dangers though that lurk in France are more to do with the powerful system of government than individually pesky neighbours.

I know of one couple who moved to their dream house in the Languedoc region of France only to find the council had the right to take away more than a quarter of their garden and build a housing estate on it and the adjoining field. They have now sold up and are back in the UK. This kind of thing is terrifying enough in a country where you’re familiar with the laws and the language. Try dealing with a land dispute in rural France where the local town or village council is all-powerful and everyone speaks incredibly quickly, often with thick local accents. I do, however, blame the people who sold my friends their house. This issue was mooted at the time and they swore blind that the council would never use its right to build. They were not canny French peasants as one might expect, but another foreign couple whom my friends trusted implicitly, in part because there is a kind of camaraderie between expats there. Clearly up to a point.

The fight between the Dunlops and the Dysons is an anomaly. This is not what usually happens when you move to rural France to get away from it all. Most of the time you really do end up living the dream. Obviously you can get unlucky, but you could get unlucky anywhere. I still marvel at the walks around us, the starlit nights and the cicadas drowning out the sound of the children arguing.

Chances are you will be fine in France. Unless of course you happen to end up next door to another Brit. In which case you might think about selling up immediately.

French emergency

As I dropped Leo off this morning at the hallowed Chelsea training ground in Cobham I was more than usually relived. It is always a joy dropping him off at any sporting venue, but this was particularly poignant because only a few days ago he was lying in hospital with a gas mask on having a false toe-nail sewn on to his middle toe. And for two days after that he was hobbling about on crutches.
On our last evening in France he was racing around a beach-front restaurant when he caught his foot between some floorboards and his toenail came off. I immediately decided to take him home but a wise man at the dinner suggested I go to hospital with him. IMG_0135Turns out it was much the right thing to do. A toe-nail that has been ripped from its home will apparently not grow normally again unless treated. And actually seeing the damage in the hospital lights made me realise how serious it was. As always the French hospital experience (apart from my little boy suffering of course) was incredible. Say what you like about the French, the horrendous taxes and so on but I know where I’d rather lose a toenail. As Leo lay with a gas mask on telling me he loved me and giggling in between brief stabs of pain as the needle went in with the anaesthetic into his toe, one of the nurses asked me what I do. I told her I am a journalist and a writer.
“Oh we had a lovely lady in here on my first day,” she said. “She came in with her daughter and wrote a whole article about us in the Sunday Times.”
I asked her when it was. She told me it was in 2005.
“That was me!” I said. I had been in with Bea who had a very nasty splinter that looked like taking over her entire foot. At least I think  that was incident. I have been there so many times with poor Bea it could have been that or the torch on the head incident or the dehydration episode etc etc.
As we left she said goodbye. “This is my last day,” she told us. “So you were here for my first day and my last.” She said she was going off to do “something else”.
I was of not happy to be there on either occasion but as far as hospital visits go, they were both as good as they get.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Landscape, what landscape?

I am getting old. The reason I know this is not the wrinkles or the aches and pains, but that I have discovered landscape.
Landscape was a word that used to make me switch off as soon as I heard it. I found people droning on about land (yawn) scape was about as interesting as my cleaning lady detailing the benefits of one type of bleach over another. My husband and his great friend Simon used to talk about it endlessly. They even wrote a book about it, which I did manage to read but only because it was about wine as well.
Now I am a convert. I finally get it. And I can’t believe how blind I have been.
This has not been a gradual process. I arrived in France ten days ago and on a walk to the top of a hill to look at the house I suddenly realised that this place is ASTOUNDINGLY beautiful. Now I just can’t stop appreciating it. I have become a landscape bore. A born again landscape follower. Everywhere I go I gaze at the colours, the contours and the contrasts nature has created. I just can’t believe it has always been there and I’ve never really LOOKED at it. I suppose when we lived here it was just home and that was the way it was. It probably also helps that I have spent the last five years in a place where the landscape consists of sand, more sand and oh there’s some sand.
Whatever it is I am thrilled to be a landscape lover, even if it has only come at a certain age.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

The French role model (again)

Just after Christmas we went to a party at the home of a French family we are quite friendly with. Like us, they have three children aged between nine and 13. Unlike us, these children look and behave like they have leapt straight from the pages of a ‘how to bring up perfect children’ manual.
When we arrived, instead of cowering in the corner in their hoodies like any self-respecting English teenager the three of them stood in line to kiss us bonjour. They were dressed immaculately, in the kind of clothes that my girls would refuse to even try on if bribed, their hair was washed and nicely combed. They spent half the party handing food around to the guests and the other half performing a perfect recital. The little girl is already a Grade 4 pianist and she is only 11. My 13 year old is still struggling with Grade 1. Their son, aged nice, plays the flute perfectly and the oldest girl is a cellist.
I left the party deeply depressed. As if dealing with perfect French women isn’t enough, we now have to compete with their impeccable offspring too.
I remember when we lived in France being endlessly furious with our children who would run around restaurants like they were football pitches, while their French contemporaries sat at the table calmly eating their snails and probably discussing the benefits or otherwise of existentialism. There was one particularly bad occasion when Olivia was only about four and we were told by the neighbouring table that our daughter was clearly too young to be taken out to lunch. I think they felt the same way about her parents.
There is now a book out called something like ‘French children don’t throw food’ that purports to teach us all how to bring up perfect little people who will instinctively know how to tie a scarf and shrug in that Gallic manner. I do have it, but have not yet dared read it for fear that it is all too late. Maybe I was supposed to tie them to a chair with my scarf at an early age to get them used to sitting still?
Anyway they are all off to boarding school in a few weeks’ time, that marvellous British institution that will teach them, if nothing else, how to wield a lacrosse stick and not be a sneak.
Admirable qualities some other nations could do with a bit more of. Even if they can sit still at lunch.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Lawyers, orphans and the pathetic Mr Putin

Several years ago,when I was still editing the magazine Central European (a must-read) I used to travel to Russia every few weeks to write a supplement we ran called Russiamoney. This was back in the early 1990s when Russia was just opening up, and there were fortunes to be made overnight. I remember meeting one future oligarch in a Moscow bar. After our chat, he was going off to buy a flat with three suitcases of cash. And today, as I read about the pathetic Mr Putin’s reaction to the law passed in the US banning visas for officials implicated in the hideous death of the whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (pictured here), I am reminded of another encounter I had, this time on a plane from St Petersburg to London.
I had spotted the family at the airport. The attractive blond parents with their two daughters, kitted out entirely in Osh-Kosh. The kids running rings around them, the parents trying to remain calm.
“How spoilt,” was my silent reaction as I buried my nose in my book. These were the days before I had children, and I assumed that as a parent you would be able to control your offspring.
I was horrified to see when I sat down on the plane that they were behind me. I cursed my stupidity in forgetting my walkman (yes, it really was that long ago) and settled down grimly in preparation for a long flight.
The first thing the children did was repeatedly take the plane phone out of its cradle and shove it back in, bashing my seat every time they did it. And they argued, and fought and shouted and screamed and didn’t sit still for more than 30 seconds at a time.
After an hour I could take no more. I turned around and snapped at the ineffectual mother:
“Can you please control your children?”
“They’re pretty good…” she began
“No they’re not,” I interrupted.
“They’re pretty good,” she continued,” considering they left an orphanage this morning.”
Needless to say, this shut me up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I had no idea.” She told me their story. They were daughters of a drug addict, prostitute mother. The reason they had been allowed to leave Russia to move to the US with their adoptive parents was due to medical reasons. The older girl sister had suffered 80 per cent burns on her body protecting the little ones from the flames that engulfed their home and killed their mother, who had fallen asleep holding a lit cigarette. The item they had been fighting over was a small wooden box filled with sweet wrappers.
“It’s their favourite toy,” their new mother told me. “In fact, it’s their only toy.”
She showed me some of the older girls’ scars, she must have been only seven or eight years old, they were horrific and covered her whole back, her neck and her arms. Her little sister was around four years old.
The couple already had two teenage children of their own; healthy, happy girls, and they felt very strongly they should do something to help those less fortunate. The mother was well aware of the potential problems that lay ahead, not least that the girls spoke no English, and they spoke no Russian. But they were willing to risk their stable, secure lives to bring in two girls who would otherwise have spent their lives in a dank orphanage and then possibly gone the same way as their mother. And these are the kinds of children Putin is punishing because he is angry that someone has pointed out that murdering innocent lawyers in jail is not the done thing if you want to be part of the civilised world? What a coward.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012