Passe-moi le Fromage! Irreconcilable differences.

On New Years Eve some very good french friends of ours arrived unexpectately at our door bearing a ‘Tarte aux Pomes’.  We have what we like to call a ‘reciprocal relationship’ which means that if one of us has lent a plate, the other will return it with an “offering” on it. The plate for a superb tart aux courgettes was returned with Haggis, neaps and tatties in the form of apéros (yes this is possible, we are frenchified scottish anglophones after all), which was returned with a tarte aux Pommes, which was returned with a lone mince pie! (we only had one left!)


“Venez chez-nous pour fêter le nouvel an” “come and celebrate the New Year with us” they asked handing us the Tarte aux Pommes and momentarily we hovered in indecision -feeling the lure of great company verses the desire to celebrate with our children -before giving our regrets.

No sooner the door was closed than our two eldest declared that they were out to party with friends, and our two youngest were all but brushing us out of the door knowing our absence would allow internet time, and (clearly) pre-arranged gaming with school friends. And so after a minute or two of discussion, knowing well that our dear friends had proffered the dessert (with guilt strings attached) exactly because they knew their invitation would be difficult to refuse, we  decided to go.

Our friends are the kind where we can truly let our hair down, but they had explained to us that one of the invitées had recently come out of a long term relationship and was a little ‘triste’ (sad), and Husband à l’Etranger decided therefore that this occasion was one that called for his Kilt.

As we weren’t expected at any particular hour we arrived towards the end of dinner to discover the assembled company in a very sombre state. The poor sad lady had not uttered a word all evening. The arrival of the Kilt had an astonishing impact. Husband à l’Etranger whose beard had grown into a bushy affair after three months of gardening leave really doesn’t have to try hard to resemble one of the main cast of ‘Whisky Galore’ with his wild red hair, and particularly with a bottle of GlenLivet to hand. But six years in France also have honed his senses to arrive perfectly in time for the cheese course.


Whisky Galore, the film with James Robert Justice

The ‘triste ‘ lady at the table looked up in astonishment at the wild Scotsman whilst the other rather chic lady with a penchant for Phillipes (currently  number three) launched into a thousand questions, the primary being whether the Scots really didn’t wear undergarments under their national dress! Our generous hosts laid the table with more cheese plates and we set to work on a very fine Livarot and a velvety red.


But what really livened up the party was when I recounted to the table how Husband à l’Etranger had caused a rumpus during our Christmas visit to the family in England when my dear father-in-law brought dessert to the table before the cheese defying all french convention. Father-in -Law tucked into his dessert, whilst frenchified Husband à l’Etranger held out an agonising hour for all traces of sweetness to have disappeared from his palate before belatedly savouring his cheese, having tried unsuccessfully to convert father-in-law à la français.

If you really want to get a group of very glum French people talking all at once, try telling them that the English eat pudding before their Stilton and you will create havoc,  declarations that the English are catagorically “fou” (mad), barbarians and lacking in all forms of civilisation.

It was enough to even draw words from our very “triste” companion.

Bonne Année!


Normandy Doesn’t Just Produce Smelly Cheese!

Last night, just conveniently after I had put the kids to bed, and having suffered an evening of intoxication by nail polish solvant thanks to my teenage daughter, I became aware that the apartment was filling with a very strong smell of gas.

Having rushed about the apartment trying to find the source of the leak, and being absent-mindedly amused by my anxious son’s inspection of his bedroom radiator (doesn’t he know it is filled with water) I started to become increasingly concerned. Was it from my appartment, from my neighbours above, or from my neighbours below and should I wake the kids and evacuate into the sub zero temperatures?

Probably the most disconcerting factor was being unable to reach the emergency services who had been, unbeknown to me, overwhelmed with calls. Thankfully I reached for the windows to let the gas out, only be affronted by a wall of gas coming in. It was, I deduced, something vastly more serious for the town, but thankfully less serious for me.

A Lubrizol refinery on the Rive Gauche had had an instability in one of its pipelines earlier during the day and released an enormous cloud of gas into the atmosphere above Rouen. The intense smell was in fact  the ‘odeur’ used to provide an alert to the presence of a gas leakage. At 10pm yesterday the super sized ‘gas’ cloud, which did contain a small quantity of actual  gas loomed over a 30 kilometre radius of Normandy, directly centred on Rouen. Aparently non-toxic, nevertheless a sizeable quantity of Rouenaise inhabitants were complaining of headaches and nausea this morning.

As reports came in this afternoon that the Parisians were complaining about the smelly Rouenaise yokels, followed by complaints from the Norman cousins in Kent, it would appear that our smelly cheeses are not the only products making the headlines nor tickling the nostrils of the unwary…

..though if you’ve ever sat in a hot car whilst in possession of a Livarot cheese for several hours, you might be forgiven for getting confused between the two!

7. Septembre – Education

A French friend told me that Rouen has more distinct seasons than back home. September has been a fabulous month – clear blue skies and glorious heat. One of the biggest changes for us has been lunch-times. We get to see each other! Instead of Harry’s  four hour daily return commute to London – it’s 10 minutes to the office. Consequently lunch en-famille is possible!  No-one  believed us when we said we ate fresh baguettes from our local boulangerie (as often as not still warm from the oven), plus good old French cheeses bursting at their seams with ripeness, brie oozing at its middle, olives from the market stall (so many wonderful varieties to choose from) and fruit tarts with a shiny glaze or mille feuille to finish with. Why are the French so outrageously good at their cakes and tarts – each one an absolute work of art? They have such fabulous names too – Tarte Grande Mére, Diplomat etc

The kids are relieved to get away from school at mid-day! It’s hard to say goodbye in the morning seeing their anguish at what lies ahead and knowing that they understand nothing. Both the kids in collége have been given a Carnet de Correspondence, a very useful booklet to allow parents and teachers to communicate. The English schools could learn a thing or two! Each day Anabel demands that I write a note to her teachers explaining that she is English and doesn’t understand anything. Poor thing – I think they already know that! She is terrified to be caught without the right equipment or books and has a total fear that someone might ask her a question. They’re all in the same boat, no-one has a clue what is going on. They just turn up and write down what they can and hang in there till lunch. I am amazed that they haven’t thought to mutiny!

Nothing can wipe from my mind the first evening’s homework. Just as at the beginning of English senior school, the first night the teachers really piled on the homework – just so as to remove any idea of complacency. Complacent we were not! Harry, being still at work, was unaware of the frenzied attempt to complete the task before us. There was an absolute certainty that this homework would have to be completed since none of the kids had the vocabulary to explain to an irritated teacher why they hadn’t done it – though I could see that Anabel’s phrase of “Je suis Anglais” would be getting more practice! In no particular order I began to laboriously translate 4 children’s homework, entice them into completing it in English, retranslate it and encourage them to write it out in their own handwriting. There were not enough hours that night, and I began to laugh rather hysterically at the thought of Theo learning by rote the Poesie (poem) for the following morning whilst not comprehending a word that he was saying! Toeing the line is not his strong point! Needless to say, I was still at the table long after the children had gone to sleep, trying to get it finished.

There have been a great many tasks to complete to get us “up and running”. All the children need insurance to cover them whilst at school. We have had to sort out the school fees, and have been faced with innumerable letters home on every subject imaginable! The letters are often written in such flowery prose that at very least degree level French is advisable! “Veuillez croire, Chers parents, en mon sincère dévouement auprès de vos enfants . »writes Angus’ teacher at the end of a short note regarding an outing where they need to come armed with a euro. ( Would you believe, dear parents, in my sincere devotion towards your children)  However I am getting faster at flicking through my trusted French dictionary. Throw away concise dictionaries – they simply don’t contain enough words and get a really hefty tome of a book!

The trouble, of course, with having to ensure that your children have the requisite insurance is to be able to understand the small print of the insurance documents. Small print is hard enough in English! More worryingly still is when the window of the Acceuil (school reception) is thrown open for the very efficient secretary to call across the playground “Madame , S’il vous plait….” And you just know that your French is going to be REALLY put to the test. I really didn’t know if we had organised the insurance, there was a glimmer of possibility that she was inviting me to join the schools preferred insurance provider, and a definite comprehension that I really needed to reply by lunch-time. Which all in all promised the opportunity  for me to ring the household insurance policy holder that very same morning and to hope that he would answer me with a “yes” or “no”! It is really quite extraordinary how the French do not answer with a simple affirmative, just when you really need them to! No matter how well you word the question to land them with only an opportunity for “yes” or “no” answer, they invariable reply with a question, leaving you in an unspeakably agonising position of admitting that you have absolutely no idea what they have just said to you! It happens to me all the time.

This month I received a new cheque book in the post. It was very exciting, not least because it was completely different to an English one, and not completely clear how to fill it in. The school secretary however was very efficient in talking me through it! In the same post I received a letter from the bank with some instructions on in “bank-speak”. Aware that I was being asked to do something, I braved the telephone. Sadly I did not make it past the automated bank answering machine. I hung up, and made a couple more futile attempts before I finally reached a real person. I felt, understandably thrilled by this achievement until it came to explaining why I’d rung. However after some more very patient bank-speak I came to understand that I hadn’t needed to do anything. The letter was sent to me to tell me to contact them if I hadn’t received my cheque book, which of course I had, and therefore I had just wasted my entire morning on a job I hadn’t actually needed to do!

This month we have also visited the CAF, (Caisse Allocation Familiale). This is the hugely important department which sorts you out with a social security number, and armed with this vital piece of information, you can then receive Family Allowance contributions which are significantly better than in the UK, and proceed to the  CPAM (Caisse Primaire Assurance Maladie) and set yourself up with the health service and access a Carte Vitale for all reimbursement of medical costs. We arrived armed with endless copies of our birth certificates, passports, marriage certificates, proof of employment and so on. Having waited in line and filled in the documents we left and waited…. And waited….And waited… And are still waiting!