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.

Summertown sadness

imagesAn email from the school headed ‘important news – please read urgently’ was the first I heard about the hideous events of last Wednesday.
It went on to say that there had been a serious sexual assault in the Summertown area at 8.30am “involving a student wearing school uniform.” It advised parents to accompany children to school.
As we walked Bea to school we still had no idea of the enormity of the crime. A “serious sexual assault” is of course just that, but it could mean any number of things.
Not for a moment did we imagine that what had actually happened was that a 14 year-old girl on her way to school had been abducted from one of the busiest street corners in Oxford, thrown into a van, driven to some nearby woodland where she was subjected to a three-hour sexual assault and then dumped a mile away from where she was picked up.
The crime is shocking on so many levels. This was not a girl walking home at 2am alone. Not that that’s an excuse to rape someone. This was a girl on her way to school at 8.30 in the morning. Of course awful things happen during the day as well as the night, but the fact that these people were so brazen they picked on someone in the middle of rush hour just makes you wonder if anyone is ever safe. Hundreds of children walk down that road to schools. I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting Bea and Olivia walk alone there aged 14.
The victim was abducted on the corner of Banbury Road and Marston Ferry Road. It’s about five minutes from our house. Bea walks there every day on her way to school. (Incidentally the girl was not from Cherwell School where Bea is, but from another one nearby.) The corner is just at the end of the shopping bit of Summertown with its Marks & Spencers, Gail’s Bakery, Farrow & Ball, numerous charity shops and Oliver Bonas. It reminds me of the nicest part of Hampstead, but it’s even better, because it’s in Oxford with its fresh air and surrounding countryside, and not London.
If Inspector Morse were investigating this case, he’d say that daylight abduction and rape of minors just doesn’t happen in Summertown. Even the name has a kind of innocence to it.
Sadly this innocence has now been eroded. Bea’s school-friends can talk of little else (many of them know the girl it happened to), no one will stand on that corner again and be able to stop themselves thinking about the moment that poor girl was apparently bear-hugged to make it look like she knew her kidnappers and bundled into the car to God knows what kind of ordeal. I heard from one of Bea’s friends that she managed to text her mother to say she’d been abducted. So for the hours between the kidnapping and when she was found in a traumatic state frantically knocking on doors she was a “missing person”.
This was such an evil crime. I can’t imagine how the victim and her family are coping or dealing with it. Everyone around here is so shocked and saddened. Summertown will take a long time to recover, people will never ever forget last Wednesday.
I can only hope the poor girl it happened to can in some way get over it. And that they catch the bastards who did this.

Someone call the tooth fairy…

It all starts with a phone call.
“Mummy,” Olivia yells. “It’s an emergency, I came off my bike and my tooth has come out. There’s blood everywhere.”
It is impossible to work out from the hysterical rant where she is but we rush out of the house at 11.30 at night in the general direction of Headington. By the time we are half way there Olivia has taken control, called an ambulance and is being looked after by paramedics. We arrange to meet at the A & E unit of the John Radcliffe hospital.
“We’ll probably be here until four in the morning,” I half-joke to Rupert as we walk in.
Soon afterwards Olivia gets there. She looks awful. Swollen lips and blood on her face and hands.
“I have the tooth,” she tells me proudly. I want to weep.
The ambulance lady tells us to go to the waiting room while she sorts out the paperwork with the admin staff. An hour and a half later we are seen by a nurse who takes Olivia’s temperature, does some blood tests and runs an ECG.
“You’ll have to wait to see the doctor,” she says.
“How long?” asks Olivia, who is by now in pain and terribly uncomfortable with ECG plasters all over her and a needle in her arm.
“Well, there are nine people in front of you. Probably about an hour and a half.”
I look at my phone; it is just after 1am.
“Why don’t you go home?” I say to Rupert in true Swedish masochistic fashion. “There’s no point both of us waiting.”
Rupert leaves quicker than you can say Zlatan. Olivia and I settle back into our chairs in the waiting room.IMG_0337
Happily there are no horrific injuries. In fact with some people it’s tough to determine who is the patient and who is the carer. Opposite us there is a mother there still wearing her Oratory School overall with her two red-haired sons who look like they are in their late teens. To our left an elderly woman is huddled up in the corner using a nylon onsie as a pillow. I have no idea what’s wrong with her, apart from her onsie that is, and some rather dodgy slippers. Olivia offers to help her open a carton of orange juice she is struggling with, but she firmly refuses. A boy in white football kit sits on the other side of the room, the initials LM on his shirt, just like the pros. He is barefoot so I assume something has happened to his feet. To the right of us, almost hidden by a coffee machine that invites us to “relax with a long milky latte” on a small screen, is what I think must be a homeless man by the look of him. He is snoring lightly, clutching a green plastic bag with ‘Patients Possessions’ written on it in black. He wears thick red and white socks and no shoes.
An elderly man arrives and plonks himself next to us. He immediately offers Olivia an orange juice from a white paper bag. Olivia shakes her head.
“The snack packs you get at this time of night are not up to much,” he tells us helpfully. He must be a regular. Olivia groans in pain and looks for her headphones. They’re covered in blood from the fall. I wipe them with a tissue.
“I’m diabetic as well,” says the regular to no one in particular.
“Philip,” we hear a nurse raising her voice from a treatment cubicle not far from the waiting room. “No spitting.”
“I’m from AFRICA,” shouts Philip in defiance. “From Uganda.”
“That’s great,” says the nurse. “We need to rehydrate you Philip, you’ve had too much to drink. I need to put this needle in.”
The regular burps or farts, I can’t tell which. “Pardon me,” he says smiling at us. “Does your friend want some orange juice?” he asks Olivia, nodding towards me.
Olivia removes her headphones. “She’s my mother.” Then she lies back in the chair and closes her eyes.
“How long did it take you to do your nails?” asks the regular in his warm Oxfordshire tones. Olivia doesn’t respond.
“I think she’s asleep,” I say.
“Oh,” he replies. “I thought she was just dozing.”
There is a loud crash. Philip has thrown something at the nurse.
“You’re the devil,” he shouts.
“I’ll call security,” she threatens.
There is an alarm coming from somewhere that never ceases. It is made up of two beeps, one low sonorous one and the other shorter and sharper on top. A rather repetitive hospital concerto.
The regular huffs and puffs and tries to strike up a conversation with the lady with the onsie, she’s not interested.
“Liam Mulligan,” calls a blonde nurse. The young footballer gets up and follows her on his shoeless feet.
“Philip do you know why you’re here?” asks the nurse in the distance.
Philip grunts.
“Your neighbours found you collapsed in the lift and called an ambulance.”
Everyone is here for a reason. Obviously most people come because they’re ill or hurt. But the regular just seems to be looking for someone to talk to. I wonder how often he comes here. He still bears the marks of a normal human being, for example his blue check short-sleeved shirt is immaculately ironed. But he wears filthy slippers and his hair is dirty. His manners though are impeccable. The regular was obviously a man of discipline and rules before he fell into this circle of hell that is the A&E unit. Now he can’t seem to get out. I imagine him there night after night with his inferior snack pack trying to strike up conversations with people who don’t want to talk.
As it gets later (or earlier depending on which way you look at it) the circles of hell get more sinister. After 3 am we are getting to the business end of the night. A fat drunk person of indeterminate sex and more tattoos than clear skin walks in, glares at the woman with the onsie for a few minutes as if they are about to murder her (or maybe steal her onsie), then lies down on the floor and falls asleep.
In the distance the alarm churns out its monotonous symphony. It has now penetrated my head to such an extent that I think if I will hear it for hours after we leave, rather like you sway after getting off a boat.
The tussle with Philip is finally over. He must have fallen asleep.
It is now almost 4am. Olivia is still asleep. Three young students come in; one of them so drunk he can barely move. He sits down next to the Oratory school mother who moves seats immediately in case he projectile vomits. He doesn’t, he just leans forward onto his arms and falls asleep, his head hanging like a heavy pendulum from his neck.
His two friends sit close by: a boy and a girl. They are formal with each other, almost shy. The girl, who has blonde hair scraped back into a ponytail, has brought some studies with her. Very sensible.
A nurse comes and calls the name Thomas. The pendulum sways slightly.
“Thomas, can you stand?” she asks, approaching him. Again there is a sign that he has heard her, but barely any movement. The nurse and Thomas’s friends heave him to his feet and take him off to a cubicle.
Oratory mother’s son comes back from his check-up and they leave. So now it’s just us and the nutters. The regular has fallen asleep, an unopened orange juice in one hand.
The homeless man is called. He moves unsteadily, obviously drunk as well. As he sways past us I see a tattoo all the way down his left arm. Carpe Diem it reads. He clearly didn’t.
It is half past four. Olivia wakes up in pain. “I just want to go home,” she wails. I ask the nurse how many more until we see the doctor. Two more. The bright neon lights now feel like an instrument of torture. Everything hurts and I’m not even injured.
Thomas is wheeled past. His friends get up to follow the bed. They stand a respectful distance from the cubicle, but close to each other. They talk about Thomas, just to keep the conversation going. They smile a lot. I wonder if they were at a party and about to start snogging before Thomas lost the plot. Maybe they will joke about this night on their wedding day.
A nurse comes in and wakes up the regular. She gives him a small plastic pot.
“No rush,” she says. “But when you can.”
The regular looks at her and then the pot. “If I don’t want to widdle I don’t want to widdle. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
Another drunk arrives. He sits down for a minute then gets up, his frayed, dirty jeans covering his bare feet. He shuffles up and down the corridor opposite the waiting room like a tiger in a cage. Does anyone wear shoes in this place?
At 5 o’clock a doctor finally comes for us. He is neither McDreamy nor McSteamy. In fact the closest we have had to any lookers is an orderly with a fleeting resemblance to Eden Hazard.
“Hello,” says the doctor brightly. “And what brings you to A&E this morning?”
“Actually we arrived last night,” I tell him.
He examines Olivia, asks some questions and then we are free to go. My neighbour who is a doctor thinks they might have kept us in to check for any signs of concussion, but they might have told us that. It feels like an extremely long wait for not much.
The ambulance lady from earlier reappears.
“Have you come to drive me home?” asks Olivia sleepily.
“You wish,” she smiles, giving her a hug.
We walk out into the broad daylight.
“You go in when it’s dark and come out when it’s light,” I say to Olivia. “It’s the opposite of going to the cinema.”
We see Rupert driving towards us. I can’t wait to get home. “And I thought the film went on a bit.”

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.

Ciao bello….

I was slightly surprised that my aunt was up so early. It was half past eight and normally she doesn’t surface until around ten. I had been up since seven watching the Chelsea game from the night before, which I missed as I was in the hospital with my father.
I had stayed for several hours, talking to him about everything from Bach to my children and football. He was, as my aunt had warned me, “closer to death than to life”. There were flashes of him, but mostly he just lay there, breathing heavily, eyes closed, moaning and now and again yelling “Ostia!” 523931_466908883349736_884495519_n

So I chatted on. I told him at one stage that he’d been a wonderful father, and he opened his eyes almost in shock. I suppose the fact that I didn’t see him between the ages of two and 12 might preclude him from the category of ‘really good dad’. Also his method of fathering would not meet with universal approval. To him the most important thing was that I could speak five languages and quote Dante, he didn’t really care if I ate my greens or had casual sex.
Next door to my father in another bed was a man my aunt called “il mostro“. It is true he was not attractive. He didn’t say much, but now and again shouted out “mamma” to which his ever-present and ever-patient wife would respond: “No I’m not your mother, I’m your wife.” She repeated this sentence with the same regularity that she repeated one other. “Let’s hope Napoli won.” I felt terribly sorry for my father. Not only was he bed-ridden and in pain, but he had a couple of Naples fans next door, one uglier than the other. I could just imagine the abuse they would have received if he had been able to speak.
“This isn’t real,” I told him. “You’re not here. You’re at La Scala, we’re about to see Don Giovanni and at the moment you’re reciting Dante to some beautiful unsuspecting woman. ‘Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria….'” There I had to stop, because even though he has recited this canto to me thousands of times, I couldn’t remember any more. I felt I had let him down. “You’ll have to finish it,” I told him. He looked at me and clutched my hand. “Let’s hope Napoli won,” said the monster’s wife.
When my aunt knocked on my door yesterday morning I was still in my underwear. I had got distracted after the football by the Australian Open. She was fully dressed. I was about to ask her a question I had been thinking about all morning. Could we take some nail scissors and cut my father’s eyebrows? They were really unwieldy. And as I know he likes to shave them off and send them to his enemies I figured we could pop them straight into an envelope and put them under il mostro‘s pillow. I didn’t mention the eyebrow stuff, partly because this is a joke he shares with my children and she would not have understood, but mainly because I didn’t have the chance to open my mouth before she hugged me and said “He’s dead. He waited to see you and then he died. If you want to know what love means, it is that.”24598_101777316529563_3127801_n
To be honest I still don’t really know how his death will affect me, because even though I have met countless people who keep telling me they’re sorry, and I’ve been to the funeral parlour and I’ve met the doctor who treated him and I’ve even seen his body, it just doesn’t seem real that he’s gone. Forever. That’s it. Finito Benito as my father would say. To me he just doesn’t seem to be gone if that makes sense.
He is now lying in state like Stalin (whom he once played in a film). Unlike the other dead there who all have pictures of themselves aged about 80, my father has adopted the columnist’s trick of using a picture from about 50 years ago. So instead of looking like some old codger, he looks like a cross between a young Richard Burton and a less gay Burt Lancaster.24238_108594169181211_1327112_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends and relations are invited to come and pay their respects until tomorrow when he is driven to the crematorium in Ravenna. When the funeral director told my aunt that was where it was she told him that Benedetto would be so pleased, because it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 to 476. The funeral director nodded and looked sympathetic.
“Take a card,” he said, I suspect in an effort to change the subject.
“I’d prefer not to,” said my aunt.
I am on my way to England where I have the difficult task of breaking the news to the children. The girls especially were really close to him, they loved his zany ways and crazy imagination. No one could make them laugh like he could. I’m just so happy they all saw him as I want to remember him, sitting on a rock in a beautiful garden close to Rome reciting Dante.
In life as in death my father did as he wanted. I believe he decided when to die, and I guess that makes it easier to bear.
He has one last act of rebellion too. We forgot to bring his underwear. So although he is dressed in his Sunday best, he’ll be heading to the crematorium commando.
He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

The (original) Wolf of Wall Street

Last night we went to see The Wolf of Wall Street. I had a conference call at 10pm our time so was trying to work out what time the film would end. In the rest of the world it is three hours long. Here it is two hours and twenty minutes.
“Why such a difference?” I asked Rupert as we pulled into the car park. images
Yep, you guessed it. Censors. Sadly we realised too late.
And while the length was good for my business commitment, it was not good for the film. It was a mess. Several scenes made no sense. Several sentences were mangled as the censors tried to block out every single f*** (547 of them apparently). We felt robbed. And I knew there was more to it than what we had just seen. Partly because I’ve seen the trailer, but also because I know one of the Wall Street types the film portrays.
Brad, as I will call him, was at Durham University with me. He is American and immediately acquired a certain reputation as “loud”. Loud is an understatement. This boy could (and often did) wake up the entire city of Durham, roaming the streets in the early hours singing (and I use that term loosely) ‘you’ve got to FIGHT for your RIGHT to PAAARRRTTYYYYY’. He was my best boyfriend. And I mean boy friend. We share a birthday and, back then, we both had an overwhelming desire to party. Hard to believe I know, but I was wild in those days. Although not as wild as Brad. One of his most famous party tricks was to put his BMW on cruise control, tell me to steer, open the sunroof, climb out and then climb back in again through the window. All on the motorway, going at 90 miles an hour, in the freezing North-Eastern winter. He was also the only student I ever met who thought nothing of showing up at a party with a crate of champagne. My kind of guy. Where did he get the money to buy champagne? He convinced his parents back in the US that Thresher’s was the student book shop.
Sadly after just one fun-filled year he was thrown out of university. I missed him terribly, as did Thresher’s. He went to Wall Street and became even wilder. I remember visiting him, well actually I don’t remember that much of the visit, but there were stretch limos involved and I did feel like I was in a film. On another visit I was rather surprised to stumble over his pet alligator on the landing.
Brad never stopped fighting for his right to party. He also made a lot of money. But once Jordan Belfort gave the FBI and the SEC access to his little black book, the party was over.
Brad is fine, after a few rather harrowing years fighting for his right to stay out of jail. But one thing is certain, even now his life has a lot more spice than the version of the film I saw last night. I just hope he gets his passport back one day so his goddaughter Bea can finally meet him. Although she might quite like a trip to the US…

They think it’s all over….

Yesterday as I was clearing out the attic at home in France I stopped myself from throwing away one of Leo’s favourite baby toys. My reasoning was that it might come in useful for my grandchildren. At the time, it was a terrifying thought. Not that I am worried about an imminent teenage pregnancy (why do you think I picked an all girls school?), but I have really never thought of myself as even a potential grandparent.
Now it seems, I might have saved the toy in vain. Scientists in Ukraine are predicting the end of the world in 2032. Apparently an asteroid called 2013TV135 is going to hit the earth with the force of 2500 nuclear bombs. Which has made me wonder, on this rather quiet morning at Sainte Cecile before the children arrive for half term, about all the things I am desperate to get done before that happens. Apart from clearing out the attic of course. Imagine the shame of facing the end of the world with a chaotic attic.
At the risk of sounding smug, my first thought is that although I may not be a grandparent I have had quite a good stint already and in the main achieved what I always wanted to. I have written (and more importantly) published books. I have had three incredible children and two equally wonderful step-children. I have been very happily married for longer than I ever expected to be (looking at my family history).
I guess if it all ends in 2032 one want to remember the big things? But what about the little things, the details that make life worth living every day? Things like buying your first pair of designer shoes? Having wild sex in a car at a French rock festival? A very small car come to think of it, I’m not even sure I’d fit into it any more. Dancing on tables at a nightclub in St Tropez (OK so I didn’t do it, but I did think about it). A long lunch in the sunshine with good friends turning into dinner.
And then of course there are the things one is going to have to squeeze in before 2032. Writing a best-seller would be top of my list, but then that’s always top of my list. My husband is desperate to walk the South Downs sway with his daughter. I’d better tell him to get on with it. I need to visit my father before either his demise, or the end of the world. Judging by his tone on the phone recently my money’s on him watching 2013TV135 come hurtling through his window. He ought to have his own TV show. His opinion on the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? “She won it because she’s a woman and she drinks beer every Sunday.” imgres
Most crucially does the fact that we’re all going to die in 19 years’ time mean I can stop doing sit-ups? See, there is an upside to the end of the world after all.

I vow to thee my country…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only a foreigner (like me) can have such a ridiculously romantic view of England. I am at my happiest when in England, especially now with Wimbledon in full swing, the sun shining and Pimm’s flowing. When I am away I yearn for her green fields, M and S and the Daily Telegraph. In Abu Dhabi I shop at a pale imitation of the real Waitrose even though it is at least twice as expensive as anywhere else because it makes me feel “at home”. IMG-20130608-00333
Despite being half Italian and half Swedish, home for me is England. The minute I land here I feel at ease. I remember when I first came here as a seven year old telling my mother how friendly everyone was. Amazingly I don’t think that has changed, even if a few other things have. The food for example, has got so much better. And pubs! I just LOVE pubs now. When I was growing up they were dark, dingy places full of people drinking lager and eating salt & vinegar crisps. Now they’re like wine bars only with Sky Sports.
When we decamped to France in the year 2000 my aunt told me I should be wary about leaving my culture behind. At the time I was more focused on moving from a small house opposite a car park to a glorious villa in the middle of nowhere with a swimming pool. But her words stayed at the back of my mind and although I don’t regret moving for a moment, we gave the children the very best start in life there, I knew there would come a time when we had to get back to our “culture”. You see unlike a lot of British expats, I really didn’t want my children growing up to be French and thinking Napoleon was a good bloke. I love hearing them speak French, they sound gorgeous, but actually before we left for Abu Dhabi (which of course has more in common with England than France) they were turning into little French people I was worried I would not be able to relate to.
Living in Abu Dhabi where English is spoken everywhere and most of our friends are English meant they got back in touch with their roots a little more. And then we took the monumental decision to send them back to England to school. Looking back on it, it was possibly slightly nutty. What would we have done if they had loathed it, called us up crying every five minutes and refused to learn anything at all?IMG-20130503-00252
Happily it could not have gone better. They are blissfully happy. Of course in my view they jolly well should be. I want to be at an English boarding school with its beautiful green acres, tennis courts and surrounding woods. They have already made really good friends, their reports vary from truly excellent to rather middling, but nothing disastrous.
The other day Rupert said jokingly to Leo; “Well, we may be able to afford the school fees next term, looks like your mother is going to do some work for once.” Leo did not find this amusing. His eyes filled with tears. “Can’t you pay the fees next term?”
They seem to have embraced the English way of life as only a foreigner can.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Coma, what coma?

It all started with an email entitled ‘worried’ from my mother.
No one had heard anything from my father for two days. “He’s not answering the door, or the phone,” she wrote. “The lady who lives below him hasn’t heard anything at all. And he’s locked the door with the key from the inside, so the cleaning lady can’t get in either.”
My parents split up when I was two years old, and although when my mother moved back to Italy a few years ago some old romantics (including me) thought they might rekindle their relationship, they live three and a half hours apart by car. But whenever there is a crisis, my mother hot-foots it up there from her home close to Rome, ever loyal and always heroic.
I had spoken to my father a few days before the email, and he had asked me to get Quentin Tarantino’s email address. “I have an idea for a film for him, about Fellini,” he told me. Being a dutiful daughter I had found his agent’s email address and sent it to him, I had not heard back. This is not unusual, my father corresponds as and when he feels like it. In fact he does most things as and when he feels like it, including answering his doorbell.
The day after the email my mother called to tell me that my aunt and uncle were on their way to my father’s flat and that she would be joining them as soon as she could get there. “I fear the worst,” she said.
I spent some extremely sombre hours imagining that my father had fallen over and hit his head and was lying somewhere in the apartment suffering, dying or even dead. I kept thinking about all the things I still want to talk to him about, and how I had been planning to see him in April.
Eventually the news came through that the fire brigade had broken into the flat through a window. It is a first-floor apartment in the main square of Novafeltria, a small town in northern Italy, and the gathered crowd enjoyed the drama enormously. They had found my father in bed apparently in a coma. He was carted off to hospital where my mother arrived soon after and sent me a text. “Benedetto in fine form,” it read. “Call us.”
I was utterly amazed. How could he go from coma to fine form in a matter of hours?
“What happened?” I asked him when I called. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” he told me. “I’m not in a coma, it’s everyone else that’s in a coma.”
He then spoke to his granddaughter, Olivia. “I couldn’t understand a word he said,” she told me, handing the phone back. “But he’s talking, and that’s the main thing.”
I’ll second that. He is being discharged in a couple of days, to give them time to fix the window.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

London Living

Everyone has settled in extremely well to London life. I guess it’s not difficult to do if you”re living in the middle of Chelsea. We are in a tiny street just off the King’s Road, where the houses are painted various pastel shades. In fact opposite is the fictional home of George Smiley from the spy books. Every morning we have a breakfast of blueberries, strawberries and raspberries followed by poached eggs on toast. All food comes from either M&S or Waitrose, both of whom do a marvellous home delivery service.
I am not going to the gym, but rather exercising by housework. It is possibly not as effective as the gym, but can be tough. For example, if the home delivery service is not available I carry the shopping home, very good for the biceps, and the dishwasher needs emptying at least twice a day, which involves lots of bending, not to mention carrying the bin bags out. I do miss my maid (s), but to be honest, life here is so good I think I could even get used to the ironing. Possibly.
Yesterday was a typically lovely day. We went to the V&A to the fashion exhibition there, had coffee outside with a friend (yes, a crazy English friend whose idea of a summer’s day is one where it is only spitting with rain not pouring). Then the girls and I walked to Knightsbridge via a vintage (well, charity) shop where I picked up a great handbag for nothing, followed by an encounter with Graham Le Saux (former Chelsea player, see pic). After a quick stop at Zara and Top Shop we took the bus back home for lunch and an afternoon of work.
So many things have struck me about being here but I think the main one is how NICE everyone is. Everyone from the man at the tube station who activated our Oyster cards (one of the greatest ever inventions) to the shop assistant in Scribbler, to the cashiers at M&S, to the chemist on Sloane Street who listened patiently to all the children’s extremely minor ailments, to the lovely hotelier at Woodlands Park Hotel in Surrey who told us the entire Chelsea squad would soon be traipsing through reception. Here is Leo with Gary Cahill.
I am loving every minute of life here, even though it rains constantly. Maybe I am in such a good mood because I don’t have to go to the gym any more? But I think it has more to do with being home. And bumping into Chelsea players on a regular basis.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012