Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eleven years and six months ago, almost to the day, I nearly passed out in the office of the local ob/gyn. It wasn't just expectant mother lightheadedness- I'd just found out that I was going to have twins.
The girls were born nearly six month later on February 28, 1998.

In honor of this big event, we are having a party. Nothing like the huge bashes we used to have back in Ouagadougou, but their friend from school will come and we'll have cake and pizza

The girls and I made the candy tree on the left. It turned out very cute.
The cake, of course, is my own handiwork.
I kind of amazed myself by freehand drawing the tiger with black icing.

The guest arrive in just half an hour. I'd better get out of my frosting-covered clothes!

Monday, February 23, 2009

I’ve missed my blog this last week. But circumstances have conspired to keep me far from my keyboard. The second week of holiday was a lot less tiring than the first half, but no less busy. The house needed a thorough cleaning after all the mess of the renovation work. Plus, there was LOTS of snow to be shoveled. We even had some fun and got out for a bit of cross-country skiing.

But all that’s over. As of this morning, the kids are all back in school. And I have a free afternoon, as I am NOT teaching English today. I showed up at 1:20 with my lesson plan in hand and got sent right back home. I had been replaced by a woman teaching the kids about electricity. A bit of a planning mix-up had occurred, apparently. So, I left the kids to the joys of volts, amps and whatever, and happily headed back home, intent on getting a blog entry written.

This is not going to be about my home renovation mishaps, though. I’ll leave that until next time. Today, I feel inspired to write about and important topic: The Service Industry in France.
Don’t worry. It will not contain any complicated graphs or statistics, (unless I decide to randomly make some up). This is really more of a rant. It's kind of angry and unfair, but stay with me. It will be fun.

On Friday, I went to a shop and bought a ski rack. On Saturday morning, JP put it on the car. I’d say it took him well over an hour. That includes the time that JP spent walking back up to the house, telling me that an important piece was missing, me putting on my coat, me going back down to the car with JP, me insisting that the bolt was probably around somewhere, both of us looking around in the back of the car and on the ground and, finally, JP spotting the bolt laying in the gravel just behind the car.
I went up to the house. But JP was back just minutes later with more news. And it was bad news, as is so often the case.
« It’s broken. You have to take it back. »
« Already? What…? »
« It’s cracked. »
And then I said something like « Aaaarrrg », some sort of ‘anguished groan’ kind of thing, because I KNEW how horrible it would be to return it. It would be dreadful and dire because I would have to deal with someone in the French service industry.

As we all know, there are two basic kinds of jobs: There are the jobs that produce goods. The people make stuff, such as nice aircraft.
Then, there are the people that provide services. They drive buses, for example, or work in retail sales. The French people that have this second type of job tend to be very …unhelpful. Maybe this is because they’d rather be making planes? I don’t know. But they’re very, very unpleasant.

I walked into the shop with the offending ski rack and set it on the counter. The service industry employee there asked me what the problem was and I showed him my receipt, the guarantee and the crack in the plastic closure.
He peered at it suspiciously and glared at me.
Yes, he glared. Really.
« Well, you DROPPED it, didn’t you? He declared accusingly.
« Yes! You caught me out! It’s true. And I didn’t just drop it. I actually hurled it to the ground and then backed the car over it. Twice. Sorry to have bothered you. Goodbye, you master-mind of scam-detection. »
THAT’S what he was obviously hoping I would say, anyway.
What I did say was: « No, I did not DROP it .» and I glared back.
He muttered a bit as he examined the crack with great intensity. I don’t know what he thought he’d see. Tell-tale bits of gravel, maybe?
Finally he said in a long-suffering tone « I suppose you want another one? »
I had been pretty patient until then. I hadn’t expected good treatment. But this was beyond enduring.
« No. I do NOT want another one! This is brand obviously poor quality, as it is broken and I didn’t even drop it. »

Sadly, this kind of thing is pretty common in French shops. The service you get in the « service industry » goes beyond poor and on into the realms of aggressive and very rude.
Almost every time I go into a shop, I experience or see someone else experience bad treatment in places that are supposedly there to provide a service.

When I took Cristian to a DIYstore recently, he was shocked at how the cashiers ignored us, leisurely chatting away while we waited to pay for our stuff and get back to work.

And JP had a blood pressure raising experience at the health club on Sunday. When he was showered, dressed and on his way out the door, one of the guys that work there chased him down and told him to get himself back up to the gym, pronto, and put away his weights. This seemed kind of extreme as JP had only forgot. He’s not an evil serial weight-leaver-on-er. Also, was this really the best use of this guy’s time? He had a choice between putting back the weights himself (which would have taken all of two seconds) or running downstairs, finding JP and yelling at him. I guess that, if you are French, the right choice is b. Humiliate and offend the customer so her never wants to come back.
Good job there.

You get the distinct feeling that the customer is an unwanted intruder. In fact, most French people working retail seem to think a client is a creature that should, ideally, walk into the shop, hand over the complete contents of his billfold and then walk out again.
You certainly shouldn’t ever attempt to talk to a French « salesperson ». They are VERY busy chatting with their co-workers about, well, anything except customers. They shouldn’t be disturbed, as it makes them even more testy than they already are.

The above is, of course, not always true. But I know it’s mostly true, as I’m so very pleased and grateful when I run across service industry workers here in France who are helpful and don’t seem to regard customers as some kind of disgusting pest, similar to a cockroach, but less appealing.

Now, I know that these kinds of jobs often , well, suck. They tend to be poorly paid and the hours not so good. Right. But get this: working conditions are FAR worse in the USA . In France, it’s nearly impossible to fire anyone and there’s universal healthcare.
However, I find retail workers in the USA are, on average, very invested in their work. They tend to see the customer as someone they might want to treat well, so that the customer will come back. The idea behind this being that if the employees DRIVE AWAY all of the customers (by, for example, accusing them of dropping ski racks on the ground), soon there will be no more of them. And then the business will fail. And then the retail worker will be OUT of a JOB.

This chain of logic would seem reasonable. But I guess it’s not very French.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What is the absolute BEST thing to do after spending about a month being sick?
Taking on two new home renovation projects is, of course, NOT the right answer.
But I did it anyway.

Last weekend, JP was still in Africa, but I knew that our good pal Cristian the Romanian Handyman was available for the week. So, I picked him up at the Swiss border on Sunday morning and brought him home. After a big lunch, we went to work.

The first project we tackled was the smaller of the two. Our downstairs entrance hall has been looking distinctly shabby, as you can see below:
The wallpaper that my father in law and I put up when JP and I first bought the house was looking pretty bad. And, frankly, I was no longer happy with the whole striped wallpaper and pale peach trim look. It was just not working for me.
So, we pulled it all down. The green paint you see below is the original wall color from back at the turn of the century, when the house was built.
The "1994" was painted there by my FIL. Roger taught me everything I know about hanging wallpaper.
When we got the old paper off, we put on a base coat. Then Mallory and I painted the woodwork. I went with Provençal Green paint that I chose after much anguished deliberation in the paint section of my favorite DIY store.
Although JP and I chose the wallpaper together, we never got around to talking trim. And JP tends to have definite ideas about these things.
I loved the green, but was somewhat afraid that JP would return from Ouaga and the first words out of his mouth upon entering our home would be "Well, THAT'S sure ugly" or something equally uplifting.

But the green turned out great, with a softly old-fashioned feel to it and it looked wonderful with the retro wallpaper.
We took down the raditor and repainted it.
And Cristian put in new light switches. They're a bit too modern looking, but much safer than the old ones.
All this took about a day and a half. By Tuesday morning, we were ready to start on the twins' bedroom.
I knew it was going to be a pretty big job. The room hadn't been touched in decades. When we bought the house back in 94, we kept the same wallpaper. We didn't even repaint the hideous gray woodwork.
And the room only got worse while we were away in Africa. The walls had terrible cracks and one was even crumbing away under the window sill.
This was going to be bad. And we only had five days. CtRH had to leave by Sunday morning and I knew that without his energy and know-how, I could never finish it on my own.
So, we went to work on Tuesday morning, really motivated to get things done. Unfortunately, within five minutes we hit a major roadblock. And little did we know this would be the first of MANY!
To be continued...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I briefly considered posting a cute Valentine's Day -themed picture here. Perhaps one featuring an adorable cat saying something humorous.

But I'm too tired. MUCH too tired. This home renovation stuff is exhausting, especially when it's done in an old house, full of surprises. Bad surprises.

The down stairs hallway went fine and only took about a day and a half. But then we started in on the twins' room, and the fun began.

By "fun", I mean the opposite of fun, as in "sheer hell".

Cristian the Romanian handyman was brilliant, as always. And the kids helped so much. Valentine was especially great, taking charge of much of the painting.

I'll post more details, plus pictures, tomorrow.

But at least now, it's done.
That's right! We finished at about 6pm this evening.
I'd celebrate if I weren't so darn tired...

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I mustered the energy to go to the grocery store last night, after I got done at the school. As I wandered the aisles, I reflected on the love-hate relationship with going to the grocery store in France.
No, make that hate-hate relationship. That means I really, really hate it, right?

When we first got to France, I did sort of love it, though. It was so clean and cool there. And so much choice. But it turned out to be too much choice (see this blog post) and so many other things about it drive me crazy these days.
First of all, the gocery carts are all out in the parking lot, chained together and the only way to get one is to slide a one euro piece into a slot. It's SO annoying, especially if, for example, you go for a big shopping expedition because all you have left at home to eat is a half a shrivelled eggplant and a box of corn starch and you find that the one euro coin that you ALWAYS leave in the car just for this purpose is gone, possibly taken by one of your kids to buy gum.

So, you rummage in your wallet and find that you actually have one euro worth of 1, 2 and 5 cent coins. Hoping to trade this huge handful of change in for a one euro coin, you go into the store and find your way to the "customer service" desk, where they do the huge service of telling you that they don't have access to any money, sorry. You'll have to ask one of the cashiers. Yeah. One of those harrassed looking people over there facing lines of customers 15 deep. Right.

If you can't get a cart, of course they do offer free of charge a shopping basket you can use. It is just about big enough to hold a four pack of yogurt and a baguette. It's just the ticket if you are shopping for a single person, hopefully an anorexic one, but is useless when shopping for six normal human beings.

And if that wasn't enough to hate, I heard no less than two songs by The Police and one by The Cure being played over the loudspeakers at the Super U. It was a bad moment for me. Nothing hurts like hearing something that you think is cool being played at the local supermarket."This is what passes as Shopping with Old People music now??!!" When did The Cure fall so low? Supermarket managers in rural France got the bulletin on this and not me?" I silently lamented.

And how about this: There you are, finally in the checkout lane after a long grueling shopping session and you are thirsty. If you are in France, you are flat out of luck. You'll just have to dehydrate, get kidney stones and die alone in terrible pain. You can't find water- not like in the USA where many shops have a nice drinking fountain right near the restrooms.
In France there are fountains, but they are the kind that are large, ornamental, outdoors and marked "non-potable".
And don't think of dragging your sadly desperate self into the restroom for a quick drink out of the sink there. That's marked "non-potable" as well.

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if they sold cold drinks in the supermarket, but they don't. You know how US stores like to use that space near the cash register for impulse buys like candy and drinks? There's usually a grizzly bear sized cooler filled with small bottles of spring water, water with vitamins, water with extra oxygen and all sorts of other drinks, including my personal favorite: Diet Dr. Pepper, which is probably made up of 700 different kinds of cancer causing substances, but I just don't care.

Well, in France, forget that. No water, no anything.

So, there you are- all parched and annoyed and now it's time to unload your shopping cart. If you were in , say, Ouagadougou, the cashier would check out your items and they would pass down the conveyor belt and into the capable hands of two or three really nice young men who would quickly box everything up for you, carry it all to your car and load it for you. And you could give them a small tip and they would be really pleased because (can you believe this?) lots of people don't tip at all. Cheapskates. Then you drive home quickly and have a nice glass of water. (there's no water available in Ouaga supermarkets either)

In general, under the above system, everybody goes home happy.

In France, though, this is the point where the major stress is just beginning. You unload your cart as fast as you can and the groceries zoom past the cashier and are shoved down the conveyer belt. They pile up at the end, a veritable Mount Everest of groceries. This is when you are supposed to whisk out your handy, ecologically correct shopping bags Wait! Don't tell me you forget your re-usable canvas shopping bags? If so, too bad for you, because there are no free bags at the store.

Bags or no, the cashier keeps pushing stuff at you and you deal with it as fast as you can, but it's never fast enough. She calls out the total and you're not even half done packing everything, but you fumble around for your "carte fidelité" and your carte bleu so you can pay for it all.
You punch in your code and start bagging again as the line behind you grows and grows.In fact, it seems like the entire population of France is in that line, waiting for you to get your show on the road. Babies are wailing, people tap their feet impatiently and yes, that elderly priest is glaring at you.

So you throw all your stuff into bags, trying to keep from putting the bottles of orange juice on top of the tomatoes....You get the general idea by now, probably. Guess I woke up in a rant-y mood this morning.

What else is new around here?Well, it's been snowing like mad since last night, but I guess that's not really anything new. The kids are out right now, all four of them, rolling around in the piles of snow and falling flakes. I'm glad someone is enjoying it. I am just dreading having to dig the car out.
I'll probably manage to avoid going out today, but I'll have to tomorrow, as I have to go pick up Cristie the Romanian Handyman tomorrow at noon. He's coming back to help out with more work around the house. Lots of wallpapering, painting and small repairs remain to be done and Cristie's energy is needed to get us rolling again.
I'll be sure and take pictures of the work for all you HGTV fans out there

Friday, February 06, 2009

Today's English class went well.

Except for the part at the end when a little boy collapsed on the floor, weeping piteously.

Other than that, it was good.

In fact, it was perfect until that point. The kids all seemed pleased to see me again, a couple of them even coming up to me before class and trying out their English.

After a few lively choruses of "Head, Shoulers, Knees and Toes", I explained the days activity: the kids would divide into groups of three and change the words to the song. They would rehearse it, make up new gestures to accompany it and then perform their creation in front of the rest of the class.

They all got to work and really seemed motivated. Of course, it was harder for the nine year olds than it was for the 11 year olds that have already had a few years of English. But they all went at it with energy.

And no one was more energetic than Thor. Thor (Not his real name. Duh.) is the object of admiration and adoration of every eleven year old girl in the valley. Thor is smart, charming, creative and more good-looking than can possibly be good for him. He has long platinum blond hair that is almost as beautiful as Mallory's. He is also the star of the ski team. And as if all that weren't enough, he plays the drums in a local rock band. Not only that, I've heard him play and the kid is really good.

So, you will not be surprised to learn that Thor's group made up an entirely new melody, with very clever, funny gestures and it was all very brilliant. This made it what happened afterwards even worse.

Right after Thor's group sang, there was thunderous (well, as thunderous as 16 people clapping can get). Then the final group came up to the front of the classroom. The three boys started their little song were about halfway through it, when every single word of English they knew apparently flew out of their little heads. The song stopped dead. And the little brown-eyed boy on the left end slid down to the floor in a heap and started to wail.

Good grief!

I knelt down beside him and tried to convince him it was ok.

"You can start over. It's ok. Really! Nothing to cry about. This is just supposed to be fun!" I said encouragingly.

He looked up at me with pure misery in his eyes "But Thor's group was so good. Everybody was good but us. We're losers."

Poor little guy.

I somehow got him to stand up and the boys had another go. It went fine.
And that was today's English lesson.
BTW: The picture above is of Thor's group performing their song.
The blonde in the foreground is Mallory.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

This rotten case of whatever I've got (plague, perhaps?) has really got me down.

I haven't even had the computer on for two days, reserving my energy for the strictly necessary things in life. That mainly means laundry and feeding the cats. And also skiing. Taking the twins skiing, I mean. We went up to Les Haberes yesterday afternoon and they had a lesson with an instructor while I huddled in a corner of the café , coughing and drinking tea with lemon. They were in good hands with Jean-Claude. He seemed very sensible and patient, about 60 years old- though it's hard to tell with ski instructors. His skin was hard, brown and wrinkled, giving him the look of a very fit, elderly turtle. A nice turtle. The girls said he was kind and very helpful.

Monday afternoon, I was back at the school giving another English lesson. As I finished up, the new teacher asked if I would come back on Friday.

"Isn't it usually on Thursdays?" I asked.

"I'd like to take them to the library on Thursday" said the teacher.

"Oh. Do you have someone to run it?" was my surprised response. As far as I knew, the other Libarary Lady (Olivier's mom) wasn't available this week and no one had asked me.

The teacher said "????" and then she added, a bit frazzled, "There's no libararian? I need to find someone to run it? How does this all work?"

And of course I said not to worry and I'd be there Thursday all afternoon for the library. And on Friday for English again.

I'm glad to help out- don't get me wrong. But I do think it's rather scandalous that the school board won't pay for an actual English teacher and a real librarian. They say they are committed to keeping the small village school open, but more and more elements of the education offered there are falling by the wayside.

All has become clear now. This is not just plague. It's also stomach flu.
Right after writing about the village school above, I had to abandon my post and have an ugly experience in the bathroom. I won't get too graphic, but this is not good.

I hope it clears up by this afternoon. Otherwise the children of Saint André won't get to go to the library this week. And as there is a two week holiday coming up, that would be a bit sad. No books for the kids over the vacation...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

When I met the twins' new teacher on Monday, one of the first things she said to me was "I speak English like a Spanish cow."
Good thing I'm not a complete French-language neophyte and know that "speaking like a Spanish cow" is a French expression means that you speak a foreign language really badly.
And her Spanish cow problem is an issue, as she's expected to teach English to a room full of children.

Why do the twins have a new teacher, you may ask? Well, their old one is out on a long-term sick leave now. It seems the week spent tramping around on the ski slopes with the children was not the best thing for someone six months along, so now she has to rest until her baby arrives.

And that's why I've agreed to come twice a week and take care of the English lessons at the school. On Thursday afternoon, we reviewed the parts of the body they've already learned and added a few more, accented by several choruses of the monotonous, yet very popular, childhood classic "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes".
I spent lots of time listening to their pronunciation and trying to correct it.
"Dis is my eye"
"Sis is my nose"
The "th" sound is a huge problem. Mallory and Alexa seem to be the only ones that can get their tongues between their teeth and say "this" correctly.

And wandering "h"s are a big issue. "Head" and "hand" are usually "ead" and "and", but somehow "arm" always picks up a carefully aspirated "h" and becomes "harm".

So, plenty there to keep me busy.

On Friday afternoon, I got Severin out of school early (he just missed an hour of study hall) and took him on a shopping expedition. He's easy to shop with because he just wants it to be over. if it fits, he'll take it. So, our trip was quickly over. We even found him a good ski jacket. Sadly, it doesn't have the Recco Avalanch System. But he is now under strict instructions find his sister and hold her hand if an avalanche strikes.

Saturday, I drove the kids into Geneva and we had lunch with Valentine's godmother. Then we went to the Natural History Museum. The kids hadn't been there for years and didn't remember it at all. I know the place quite well, though. Back when I was a student at the University of Geneva, I took some paleontology classes at the museum, spending many hours among the vast bone collections in the basement and often visiting the displays on the upper floors.

Today I'd planned to take the kids skiing, but it's been snowing like mad since early this morning. So, we're all in front of the fire, everyone with different things to do. Valentine is studying for the Brevet Blanc on Wednesday, Mallory is struggling through a huge Brian Jacques novel and Alexa is playing DS. Severin poring over his D&D manuals.
A nice Sunday afternoon.