Saturday, February 28, 2004

France and headscarves 

This is a post I wrote over a month ago, and which has sat as a draft until now, because I was slightly nervous of it. I'm pushing the boat out now and saying "oh well", possibly because of my Gallic "je-m'en-foutisme" (Do you see the shameless way I claim to be French when it suits, and English when it suits me better- there have to be some perks to growing up seemingly rootless.)

Preamble: I am not saying there is no racism in France. If you feel that's what I'm saying after reading this, then please reread, and feel free to tell me your thoughts. Of course there is racism in France, but to the best of my experience and knowledge it is not as institutionalised as it is in many other countries. Of course there are individual racists, as there are everywhere else. This post is exclusively about French institutions, specifically schools.

As a British adoptive French person, I find myself in a really great position when it comes to debating the short-comings of either of my countries; I have the benefit of objectivity because I'm able to compare situations without being too partisan.

The point I'd like to develop today is the one which seems to be rehashed ad nauseam as proof that France is inherently racist, and clearly far more racist and repressive than any other developed country: Muslim headscarves in schools.

France, thanks to its colonial past in North Africa, has the highest population of Muslims in Europe- 6 million out of a population of 58 million- that's 10%; most are from North Africa, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where French is still a significant language. If France were inherently racist, it would surely have organised that there not be 6 million people ostensibly from outside France living within its borders; such as the tactics employed by the British government to prevent mass immigration of Hong-Kong people around 1997. That is my first point.

France welcomes new people, and its customs officers do not discriminate against people of a darker hue at airports in quite the same way as British customs officious officials do. That is my second point, designed to illustrate for you that France is not an institutionally racist country on quite the same scale as certain other countries.

Thirdly, France has a policy of live and let live, but expects a certain amount of uniformity, nay conformity, from its children. However French schoolchildren may behave in Brighton or London or Leicester, France expects certain standards of uniform good behavior and politeness from all its children, whatever their background The institutions, whether school, penal or family services, are set up to ensure that all children, regardless of their background and family income, have the same chance of a good education. This involves school taking on more of a nannying role than seems palatable in Anglo-Saxon communities, where parenting is seen more as exclusively the domain of the child's parents, and where "none of my business" is king. This means that children with dodgy parents get a more even deal than a similar child in America or Britain, where socio-economic reasons are used to justify poor academic achievement. That is point four.

Point five involves going back in history. In 1789, the French Revolution began a permanent process of separation between state and religion. The Church was seen as the buttress of royalty, an assumption which was proved throughout much of the 19th Century when power was passed back and forth between monarchists and republicans, with varying amounts of violence. In the late 1860s, the republican government, pondering about the seemingly impossible task of overthrowing for ever the royals, worked out that the reason they still commanded such support, which made social unrest a constant factor, was that many children, particularly in the countryside, were being taught in village schools run by the local priest. The local priest was more often than not also royalist; you probably know the old Jesuit saying about, taking a child for the first seven years of its life; the effect of schooling by the parish were waves of new royalists perpetuating political instability generation after generation.

So the French government set up its own education system, and one of its founding principles, in common with the French organs of state, was the total separation of Church and State. This is still fully in vigour today. One of the main ways that this is expressed is in the complete ban on religious symbolism in public buildings, including about the person of anybody who sets foot in a school. The "enemy", the original reason for this divide, was never Muslims or Jews, though: it was only ever Catholics.

Which brings me back to the hijab. The hijab has been very much in the news. If you did not know any better, you might think that the French government's law is only about banning headscarves. This is patent nonsense. The law includes all religious symbols, as before, including skull caps, crucifixes and head scarves. It does not apply to private schools, where religion classes are the main reason for the whole school. Private schools in France are almost entirely funded by the government. They follow the same programme as the rest of the country. The only difference is the availabilty of religion classes, whereas in state schools only civic education is offered - teaching children how to be good citizens, about their rights and responsibilties. Private schools are therefore very cheap- usually about 100 euros a term, since the parents are only paying for the religion classes.

The young ladies who want the hijab, their beautiful faces gracing the front pages of newspapers around the world, are the only ones whose voices are being heard. Where are the lobbyists for skull caps, for crucifixes, for the few Sikh turbans of France? Who knows? We see only the head scarf protesters. They are bolshie because they are young. They know their Human Rights. They are angry that a 130 year old ban on religious symbolism prevents them from expressing their individuality. All very normal. What is less normal is that they have almost for the first time used major courts to assert their rights. The problem with their request is that it puts the whole educational institution as it stands, the State even, in jeopardy. It is not a stand-alone request, but something which shakes the whole setup to its core. Some might think that is good thing. But it is not a decision to be taken lightly. It is expensive, potentially destructive and revolutionary, and must be very seriously considered. It is my earnest wish that the law be passed; I know that it would be the right decision for France.

The way the furore in France is being reported around the world by ignorant pundits, you might believe that the law being enacted is an outrightly oppressive, racist piece of legislation which has no place in a first world country. I just wish that reporters would bother to do their research before reporting such inflammatory nonsense. The pertinent question I would love to have answered is this one: why do these allegedly well-informed people around the world seriously believe that only the head scarf is being targeted? You have to wonder in whose interests it is for that to be the case.

And as a last stick of wood on the already blazing fire, I would like to point that a similar ban on headscarves exists in certain schools in Montréal, and that earlier this year, a couple of girls were asked to leave their schools because of their refusal to take off their scarf. And that was without the backing of any kind of rational argument in favour of such a ban- Canada does not operate a separation of Church and State.

Friday, February 27, 2004

How I virtually quit blogging and became a walking fanatic. 

Reading last week about this survey of Amish walking habits prompted me to go out and buy a pedometer yesterday afternoon -purely in the interests of research you understand. I also thought it would be nice to know how far I was actually walking in my daily constitutional every day. So far, and it's not even 3pm yet, I've logged 17,851 steps- over 7.5 miles, achieved by walking the children to school, over to the mall to change an item, back to school for my Pilates class, to the skating rink to watch Hen skate with her class, to the grocer, and general walking around the flat.

I wouldn't mind, but for two things:
1) All this exercise is taking time away from blogging, which may or may not be a good thing.
2) As yet, no noticeable difference to the size of my bum. Grrrr!

Thursday, February 26, 2004

I am still alive. The Boff has stayed at home today to work, and amazingly he is claiming preferential access to the computer on the grounds that he is bringing home the bacon with it. How unreasonable is that, I ask you? So I just distracted him with a Belgian Chocolate and made a break for it while I could.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

OK, I'm officially weird. It was as I peered longingly at the information board on Mont Royal earlier that I realised that my interest in that board really went beyond the strictly informational. I realised that I have a thing about aerial photos.

I put before counsel for the prosecution the following damning evidence:

1) My bookmark of multimap.com, which you will of course know carries aerial photos of most of Britain.
2) My copy of "La Terre vue du Ciel" by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a very large volume of stunning photos of places around the world, taken from a small plane.
3) The tome as large as a house of aerial photos of the whole of England, picked up as an absolute bargain from the Book People last year. We had to have the floor strengthened to accommodate it, but it's been worth every girder.
4) My hitherto inexplicable urge to buy for The Boff the Arthus-Bertrand desk calendar, never yet carried out because I fear that I'll never get to see if I do.
5) My inability at parties to sustain a conversation with the host, or anyone else for that matter, while I can see over their shoulder the proudly displayed aerial shot of their house.

What is wrong with me? Is there a cure? Is there any hope?

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Theory and practice 

By the way I represent my parenting skills on this blog, you must all (rightly ;)) have me down as a latter-day Mary Poppins. I thought I'd share with you some of the major influences on my parenting technique, in no particular order.

1) Libby Purves' "How not to be a perfect mother". Her thesis: do your best, let the rest slide; best advice ever.
2) The best, least noxious bits from my mother's and my father's parenting schemes- very different from each other- but they always say in all the parenting books that children should be exposed to as wide a variety of different parenting techniques as possible, don't they? Or is that foods? *Goes to check*
3) Positive discipline- unfortunate habit acquired through Penelope Leach's "Baby and Child" and later reinforced by teacher training. This means seeing the good in everything, always noticing the silver lining in every cloud- "Have you been fiddling with Daddy's spray paint again?"
4) That lovely scene in Witness where the grandfather sits Samuel on his knee and explains very gently why the boy should never, ever, touch guns. Surely it's OK to bring one's children up according to a 40 second section of late Eighties filmography?
5) My own special evil brew, used for coercive purposes: this is a heady mix of enveiglement, trickery with words, veiled threats, blackmail, pocket money and sweet withholding, outright menaces, and last but not least, pulling rank. Strangely this ingredient gets quite a lot of use.

Miraculously, despite my best efforts, my children appear to have survived so far, and they are actually growing taller and stronger all the time. They're costing a fortune in clothes actually, so soon I shall begin to model myself on the Granny in "George's Marvellous Medicine"- the bits where she barks at him to "stop growing".

Monday, February 23, 2004


I am here today to talk about words, as part of an ongoing debate I was having with the late, lamented Mr Ron of RW3, shortly before his tragic demise. My contention, that words were mere tools to be used to convey meaning, cut no ice with Mr Ron, who went to his grave unhappily trying to explain to me the beauty of words such as "gynotikolobomassophile".

My thesis is this: if words may be likened to kitchen utensils- and I think they may- then the bulk of our language is made up of spoons, forks, knives and spatulas. They can easily do most of the jobs required- the ultimate effect depends on the skill of the user. For slightly more specialist jobs, such as grating cheese, you might need a slightly more specialist tool- such as a cheese grater. Some words are melon ballers. You might use them once in five years, or more often if you want to show off, but in the main they're a waste of drawer space.

That's it.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

The chicken house 

Living deep in the countryside, you pick up throughout childhood bits of rural wisdom, common sense of the type which enables each generation to live slightly better than the preceding one. This is the type of common sense which tends to vanish on contact with city comforts. I have filed away a large number of unconscious pieces of rural common sense, mostly linked to animal husbandry, vegetable growing and most importantly to house maintenance.

One of the most important bits of horse sense -bordering on the superstitious- that I possess, is to do with always ensuring that ones roof is perfectly sound. Without a roof, a house is never a house, but just a pile of cleverly arranged stones, slowing eroding, collapsing, and eventually disappearing into the ground. This is why the locals stared in pity and wonder at mad foreigners taking over wrecked ancestral dwellings and attempting to make a home of them. Might as well build from scratch, said the peasants, tapping their foreheads knowingly and gluggling down another mouthful of "petit rouge".

In front of the house we lived in for eight of my most formative years was a chicken house. By the time we moved into the five hundred year-old house, the chicken house was already in a state of disrepair. The house, although empty for over twenty years, had been used by our closest neighbour as a tobacco drying shed, and the roof maintained for that purpose for decades. The chicken shed however was a different affair. Too small to be useful to them, it had been neglected, and despite its excellent construction -it could have passed for another small house, complete with porch and upper floor- it was beginning to show signs of wear.

The roof, made of that type of tile common to any house south of the Loire valley and all the way to Rome, had a few holes through which summer storms forced water to the beaten earth floor. The walls, half a metre thick limestone flung together with clay gouged from the surrounding grounds by a whole long-gone family for one of their own, slowly eroded, as the "mortar" washed away with every rainfall. Thin etiolated brambles snaked their way through the eaves, and gasping for light, forced back outside through these impromptu skylights. The pine vertical clapboards, traditional in Landes houses, curled upwards at the ends, deep grooves dug between the veins of the wood. Where they parted company from each other, the woodwork of the house was exposed to the elements. Worm holes had allowed wet rot in, and the whole building was decaying slowly from the inside out.

The building was still rescuable, or it would have been in the right hands. As I watched my father, angry from his recent spectacular business failure, make his mark on the neglected garden by savagely hacking it all into a barren wasteland, it became clear that destruction, rather than preservation or creation, was the driving force of our little marooned family unit. This chicken house would not be rescued. As a standing symbol of the dangerous side of my father's nature, it haunted us for the next eight years, gradually becoming more decrepit totally unchecked. We kept guinea pigs in one of the downstairs pigsties, at the back, where the roof was more reliable. Apart from trips to feed them and stroke them, the chicken house was extremely unsound and out of bounds to us. For this reason, it was unbelievably attractive to us- my sister and I used to dare each other to cross the rickety boards of the upper terrace, which having been designed for hens, was totally unsuitable to bear the weight of a child. We were always lucky.

By the time we moved to Normandy, when I was 14, the shed was on the verge of collapse. The tenants accelerated the process by starting to burn the wood harvested from the eaves and cladding of the structure. When I returned to the see the house in 2000, the chicken shed had all but disappeared completely. The new owners had reused the stones in building projects throughout the main part of the house. The house felt odd and incomplete without the chicken house, even though it had always been an eyesore. It was just a part of my childhood.

Fifty short years, less than a human lifespan of neglect, had been enough to make the centuries old chicken house vanish into the ground whence it came, for want of a few tiles and some maintenance. In darker moments, its memory reminds me that we are only ever battling gravity and the elements, that by cleverness we can postpone natural processes, but that one can never feel totally secure of even seemingly indestructible structures. Mother Nature will have the last laugh. And these pearls of wisdom learnt at the knee of gnarled and wily peasants are the only way to delay her.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

La vache qui danse 

Here's a little something for you: build an exercise routine for an insomniac cow. Have fun!

Friday, February 20, 2004

Please forgive my lack of entries for today. I'm not feeling inspired. Not even to tell you about the reappearing flowerbeds, the sudden abundance of mud everywhere, and the thawing dog do seeing the light of day on the pavements. I won't stoop to a meme, I can't think of any pictures you might like to see at the moment (apart from maybe one...hmmm, I wonder?), and I can't think that you'd find homework hysteria all that entertaining. In short, I'm bloglite today. See you tomorrow.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Have just read about the documentary "Etre et Avoir" by clicking on a link chez La Witho. I simply must see this film. How can one procure it? Is it available for hire? To buy?

Not a lot of people know this, but I attended a single class rural school in France for 6 years- most of my primary schooling, and can honestly say that it may well be the most formative experience of my life. My teacher, who is now the village mayor, taught children from four year-olds to gifted 11 year-olds with the same patience and unblinking determination to send everyone out with good bases. Her father kept the school before her, and she taught alongside him for a few until falling birthrates forced the school to become a single teacher school. She taught at the school for her entire career, and retired in the late Nineties, looking not a jot older than in 1974. I went to see her in 2000, and she still had class photos from her whole career, including ones of me and my sisters.

Children left her school and went on to very different occupations- some almost straight to their parents' farm via a few years in the local junior secondary school, some to more technical jobs further afield, some to very good universities and abroad. And they are all her successes. She recalls every one of her past pupils fondly, remember their foibles, their particularities. Long before the birth of the multitude of buzz-words now in use in education, she practised differentiation (treating each child according to its idiosyncracies), challenging (eg teaching square roots to a gifted boy at his request), consistent, firm, discipline without ever raising her voice or using corporal punishment (which has been illegal in French schools since 1874), standards (every child left with at least a good minimum, which included being able to read, to write joined up, to add/subtract/multiply/divide and knowing all their times tables).

It's not every day that on the way back from the Japanese grocer with a bag full of desiccated anchovies, you get to shake the hand of a Mohawk conman, and politely decline his request for petrol money.

*sigh* How will I ever re-adjust to life in rural Devon?


The Boff told me this marvellous piece of anti-common sense which he heard from a colleague. It's about Subway, the American sandwich emporium which also has branches all over Canada. Apparently they have had to stop serving beef sandwiches because they are no longer allowed to import beef across the border- Canada and USA have for "reasons of BSE" closed beef borders to each other at the moment.

Now, the last time I looked, there was a very lively beef agriculture in Canada. This ban may well go on for several months, nay years, given that realistically it is not about BSE at all. So why the hell are Subway in Canada are they not re-sourcing beef in Canada? If they can be treated as two separate countries for the purposes of import-export, then why is company behaving as one giant cross-border firm without any difference in supplies from one country to the next?

I am economically incompetent, I know, and I am genuinely asking for an explanation to this. Is the single supply done this way for reasons of cost? Or to respect some "buy USA" agreement? What strikes me as absurd is that much of the beef formerly supplied in Subway Canada may well have been beef from Canada which had taken a long trip to get back there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I don't know where he gets it 

Young Sim has been planning his gap year for some time now. Since falling in love earlier this year with judo, he has been talking about learning Japanese as soon as his French is up to scratch. Last night, at his Judo club, I noticed on the wall a poster about the International Programme at Budo University in Japan. The main aim of the course is to increase knowledge of Japanese language and culture, as well as offering extensive training in either Kendo or Judo. They take young people who have completed 12 years of schooling. Furthermore, they offer a bursary, which covers most of the costs involved. The point for the Japanese governemet is to export their culture and create international ambassadors.

Sim is delighted, and really enthusiastic. He went on the internet last night and looked up all the details. He had been talking about teaching English in Japan during his gap year, but this seems a fantastic opportunity. The only worry is whether the programme will still be going in seven years' time...

My next question is this one: Can any of you remember ever being this determined? I barely even knew what time of the day it was when I was ten. Sim cannot put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket without being nagged, yet he can plan for something to happen in seven years' time. Weird.


I just received this bizarre email to my Purple Pen inbox.

Dear Website Owner,

Great response for Purplepen in Radio Times

I hope that you don't mind me sending you a quick email to tell you about the great opportunities that we have for potential advertisers. We think that you have the kind of website that would appeal to our readers and with Web Windows reaching an audience in excess of six million people it is the ideal, affordable way of promoting your site nationally.

Web Windows is an eye-catching magazine page which showcases 15 credit card sized colour adverts. It runs fortnightly and is a highly affordable means driving traffic from consumers who may not use search engines (55% of websites are found through newspapers and magazines).

The Radio Times boasts a readership of 3.5 million who actively use it as a source of TV, Radio and Website ideas for the two weeks from it's first date of sale. To view a sample page, click on Radio Times Page.

I only have a few panels left for the issue, and I have to fill them by 4.00pm on Friday. The winter months often see the best returns from printed advertising, and with the special price which is now available, it's a prime time to try out advertising in one of the UK's best-selling magazines.

How Much?
I am now able to offer extremely reduced rates on these last-minute issues. The first three issue dates are, 9th March, 23rd March and 6th April. To see the last-minute offer price please click on the Radio Times Package

All I need is the go-ahead from you and our designer will produce some great looking artwork based on purplepen.net. I hope you'll be able to take up this short-term offer as last time we got close to this price, it was hugely over-subscribed.

Please e-mail or call me on the number below.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Best regards,

Andrew Mogridge.

Now, call me naïve, but have they seriously done their market research before giving someone the job of generating the web pages and emails, and sending out this stuff? Do the Telegraph and the Radio Times seriously imagine that weblog owners will want to generate more readership this way? There's nothing in it for most of them except potentially having to buy more bandwidth. Maybe it's just me, but I'd much rather my site spread by word of mouth than because of 15 "credit-card sized adverts" in the Radio Times.

Now, when it comes to sites with a commercial arm, such as Scary Duck's, you might almost see the point, except that even Scary Duck is basically selling his mugs to his blog friends. The only reason I can think that you might want to publicise your site to the public at large would be if you were actively seeking work in journalism. If you had a book to publish, the last place you would put would be on the internet- far too much potential for plagiarism in an ill-defined legal field. I don't know much about copyright law, but frankly I don't think those gentle reminders not to pinch stuff really have much swing in cases of infringement.

Or are they relying on a "vanity publicising" clientele of people who feel that more readers means more self-worth? If so, someone will probably go for it... For my part, I feel honoured if even one person wants to read my oozings.

Am sitting at home in a totally uninspired way, waiting for the guys to deliver our spanking new, latest model, hire car. We seem to get preferential treatment because of being long-term hirers. Hiring certainly has a lot to commend it- we don't need to trouble our pretty little heads with details such as maintenance. If anything goes wrong, we just take it back and get a new one. And at 500 CDN a month (currency converter here), it's not much more expensive than repayments on a bought car. Our current one is a little dirty, so we're changing it. That and the small matter of the ABS not working properly.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

I've had this really stupid habit for a few years now of drinking nothing but coffee in the daytime, then feeling parched late at night, and drinking about a litre of liquid soon before going to bed, with obvious consequences. Furthermore, I can't stand the taste of tap water, even filtered, unless the filter is really new- think drinking the water in the baby pool at the local swimming baths; you can't quite see the turds floating in it but you can definitely taste them- which rather puts the dampers (as it were) on upping my water intake.
So yesterday I invested in a Rubbermaid 973ml sippy cup- more like a sports bottle really. My aim is to polish off two and a half bottles full a day- mainly fresh juice cut half and half (why does that always read as "fnar fnar"?) with water. I could start a Bridget Jones style record of my fluid intake, but I won't. But if this is anything to go by, I may as well not bother with the extra drinking...Or I could drink only beer.

I can't remember when I first realised that the meek would never inherit the Earth. All I know is that by the time I worked it out, I'd already been conditioned to apologise to people who stepped on my feet.

As an unhappy withdrawn teenager, I had the ability to project myself into the minds of others, to see me as others saw me. And they usually saw a thin little girl, head hunched into shoulders, slumped unhappily and palely on the early morning bus to school, ready to apologise to anyone and everyone.

Self-expression was not encouraged in my house when I was growing up; self-repression was very prized. Any kind of outward manifestation of emotion was frowned upon by my father, dance was mocked, art treated with contempt, music discounted. The only form of self-expression left to me was writing. I could write in the back of exercise books wihout fear of being found out. As a teenager therefore, my thoughts came out ready-written. I saw them on the page before i put pen to paper.

Sitting in the glass window of Starbucks earlier today, watching passersby, flipped me right back to teenage. I wondered momentarily what those people hunched into their winter garments saw as they glanced briefly and blankly into the shop. In my thirties I am more confident than ever before, but huge feelings of inadequacy still wash over me in any situation where I feel conspicuous. However, I am no longer paralysed by them. My unease no longer manifests itself as bright red blush or stammer (not often anyway), but as a certain comfortable grumpiness. I can get away with a bad day with strangers. They will never find how very outnumbered my good days are.

And yet, and yet, I have many friends, forgiving people all of them.

And as I sit sipping my coffee, waiting for my hobbling husband, I think not "How should I presume?" but "How should I dare?". How should I dare not to care really whether or not I fail? How to overcome the apathy that haunts me at times? How many opportunities have I passed up through fear of failure? How many more to come? How to be a doer rather than a thinker?

Monday, February 16, 2004

It's the light levels, you see. They're confusing me. I look out of the window in the morning and I think clay tiles under a bright blue sky, mimosa flowering over a small courtyard, as it does at this time of year, muddy browns of hilltop settlements near Salamanca, messy storks' nests atop telegraph poles.
Over the last four years, I have twice spent part of February in the Mediterranean, more specifically in Nice in Southern France and Salamanca, in central Spain. Montréal is at the same latitude (45 degrees North) as Lyon in south central France. Nice is at 42 degrees. London is at a positively boreal 51 degrees. This light you would expect around end March to mid April there, just the time when the plants begin stirring.
Despite my northern ancestry, I am a southern type. At this time of the year, at these light levels, I hear plants calling me, little roots stretching and yawning beneath the first warmed layer of earth, birds calling each other in the trees, and marking out territories. It is only when I step out into the biting cold that I truly remember where I am. The little plants may be getting some of this light, but it is being filtered through half a metre of snow. The little birds are singing more in hope than in aggression, for there is nothing yet to fight over; the food will stay buried for some weeks yet.
Apparently spring here creeps up on you. I read somewhere that we can expect occasional warmer days flanked by winter until the day when we wake up to find summer has arrived in the night. For the time being I turn up the collar of my jacket, keep the hat firmly in place, cover my ears and wait with the plants and birds for true spring.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Awkward no longer, that situation 

You may remember that a few days ago I told you about a problem with some new acquaintances. I think the more moderate suggestees may have won this one (It's not a race, you know! Ed.). I rang them on Thursday afternoon (deliberately at that time to speak to her) to invite them for supper today. I introduced myself, explained myself and she said she'd have to check with 'im indoors when he got home. Later, she rang back and clearly stated her name before accepting our invite. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Ice World 

Apologies (not!) to all you people whom these pictures drive mad with jealousy.
It just has to be done.

Friday, February 13, 2004

I thought that The Boff was trying to mess with my brain recently by putting single socks through the wash, until I remembered that he has a leg in plaster.

Have realised with consternation that am now so lacking strength in my wrists, that in the absence of my dear husband would have to drink screw-top wine or nothing at all. Cannot decide which is worse.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Lakeside home in the Laurentians, February 2004.

Parents and careers 

Update: There seems to be a lot of misapprehension around and about that I am talking about working parents in this piece. I am not. I am talking about parents who also want a career, which for the purposes of my piece I define at the start of paragraph three.

You cannot bring children up adequately in a two-career household.

I believe this so fundamentally that I am quite prepared to stick my neck right out and risk having it chopped through by violent feminists. I believe, even though I am a very well-educated woman, that it is perfectly right that I should give up my chance of a career to bring up my children. And I believe that women in particular have been sold the biggest lie ever, when they were told that they could "have it all". And here's why.

By career I mean an occupation which all-consuming, which one finds fulfilling and challenging and to which one is prepared to devote as many hours in the day as it takes to get the job done; in my mind a job and a career are two very distinct things. The reason it is right that I should give up my chance to have a career and to settle instead for a job, is that I firmly believe that when a couple decides to have children, it is the job of those parents to rear that child, to bring it to adulthood, as successfully as possible. Children need a number of things in order to thrive: they need to have material things such as food and shelter; they also need an environment in which they are permitted to thrive, and most importantly, they need a value system.

A value system is a set of values needed by every person in order to become a successful, autonomous adult. We inherit our value systems in the first instance from our parents, and as we grow in to maturity and leave home, we adapt it a little to suit our own needs, taking a little off here, adding a little there; whether we like it or not, many of our basic values come from our parents. The child of a professional family will tend to develop the same set of values as its parents, if it has been adequately brought up. The child of thieves, raised in a strong family, will also learn a strong set of values- they may not be very socially acceptable ones, but they are indisputably values. These children will grow up secure about who they are. They will recognise their parents as their points of reference, and know that they fit in somewhere.

Transmitting the early parts of a value system is easy. It is achieved through everyday contact with the infant, through feeding and cleaning, through play and simple speech. We teach cooperation, gentleness, reasoning, creativity, articulacy. Almost unconsciously we pass on the things which we hold dear. As the child reaches school age however, oppportunities for passing on values become harder to engineer. With the child at school all day, whith homework to complete in the evening, days whizz by with very little high-quality, value transmitting contact between child and parent.

As the child heads for teenage, it paradoxically needs more guidance in how to do the right thing than ever before, and often its busy life prevents it from observing its parents in everyday situations. This is bizarrely when many parents begin to feel that their job is done, and that their child is independent. As a teacher and observer of teenagers, I have to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Teenagers need their parents more than ever at this time. Just because they have grown-up bodies does not mean that they are able to face the challenges of adulthood, either emotionally or in terms of their skill base. A teenager who is incapable of the social graces necessary to keep a job, is incapable of living independently. A teenager who cannot budget or cook is incapable of living independently.

So why then are their families all over the developed world in which the teenagers hardly see their parents, in which peer group pressure is a stronger motivator than parents' wishes? Because the parents have at some point, usually earlier on in their child's life, abdicated their value transmitting role. And nature abhors a vacuum. If a child receives no value system from its parents, you may be sure that it will get one from somewhere. And that somewhere may be any one of a number of increasingly sinister options ranging from their extended family, neighbours, through equally misguided friends, to drugs dealers, older boyfriends, or 45 year-old truck drivers met in internet chatrooms.

A family in which the parents are eating a lovingly cooked dinner with friends while their teenagers lounge upstairs with a takeaway pizza- an actual scenario reported to me by a friend- is a family with problems. What is wrong with incorporating those teenagers into the dinner party? Are they so unpresentable? Do they lack table manners? They will learn how to fit in by eating in company. And if their own parents are not confident of their ability to behave at the dinner table, then they are the ones with the problem. Since when were children to be kept hidden away like lepers?

Which brings me back to the work thing. A child, in order to inherit the value system of its parents, which from the parents' point of view is always preferable to the value system of Bert the Trucker, needs to spend time with its parents. If both parents are working crazy hours, getting home after the children are in bed and leaving before they get up, then they should not kid themselves that they are bringing their children up. They are not. Their nanny is. And they had better choose their nanny with very great care if they want their children to end up with a vaguely similar value system to their own.

Some of the most deprived children I've ever met, not materially I hasten to add, were the kids of two parents both working in London, when I taught in Surrey. They had goods without end, but lacked a solid structure in which to evolve. They hardly saw their parents. Children as young as fourteen years old were left alone in a house with a load of alcohol on New Year's Eve, while their parents went out for the evening- obviously to somewhere far too posh for teenagers to be present. By contrast, in the same area, some of the most solid, well-adjusted kids came from large dirt-poor families where neither parent worked, but stayed at home to care for their children. Coincidence? I think not.

Kids do not learn their parents' values by merely breathing the same air as them. They need time to be spent on them. Situations need to be engineered by the parent in order to facilitate what is an increasingly difficult job as the child gets older and more rebellious. Fishing, cooking, sports, volunteering, DIY, environmental work; all of these situations, in which the child spends time alongside their most significant adults, are ideal situations for transmitting values and knowledge. Could "quality-time" be another big whopper designed to keep people at work longer every day? Ask the children, and I think you'll find they think so...

Which brings me to working. Many women work in jobs far beneath their level of ability, competence and education. This is not out of apathy, but often because the woman correctly identifies her childrens' needs, and is willing to make the sacrifices it takes to bring them up. Many dads do as well of course, but it is still not socially acceptable in Britain or the US for a dad to leave work early because of some child-related thing.

Parents are bitten on the bum whatever they do though; on the one hand, many childless colleagues rail and moan about the tiniest concession made to working parents, on the other hand, people bemoan the unruliness of modern children. You cannot have your cake and eat it. Unless one is planning on phasing out the human race in fifty years, and with it all future job opportunities, then juggling is always going to be a reality for most adults. Children need their parents around them. Well-supported children usually become balanced adults. I do not see any reason why I should please myself by developing my wonderful career, and at the same time neglect my children emotionally so much that they are unable to achieve the same status as me. If I had really wanted a career, I would never have had children. As it is, my children have one parent with a career, and one parent who sporadically works, but with a fickle heart. My children come first, and will continue to do so. It is a fine and constantly evolving balancing act- if I go back to work while they are still young, it will most certainly not be a career move.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Living history 

Montréal used to be a major trading post for products in and out of Canada. Lachine, on the southern tip of the island, was once the biggest fur trading post in the whole of Canada. Because of Montréal's history, there are all over the island vestiges of its industrial and commercial past.

Canals, once the main routes used to move goods up and down the St Laurent waterway, by-passing its choppy rapids south of the islands, have been re-habilitated as outdoor recreational facilities. Alongside the cycle, skate and footways, lie disused railways. Upon some of these, redundant box-cars and locomotives stand, painted and maintained in a piecemeal fashion in tribute to their crucial role in the city's ascent. Rusting rails bisect the roads in places, running straight over the car-choked tarmac into banks of snow, which by their very presence cruelly demonstrate the redundancy of the railway. They can damage the bottoms of the cars of people unwary enough to drive over them at speed.

Victorian girder bridges span both canals and river in various places, offering the car passenger an uncomfortable view all the way to the water below the wheels- not good bridges for the vertigo-sufferer. Many of these bridges are still in use as vehicle throughways, although the mechanism designed to lift them out of the way of passing barges is for most of them rusted up and unuseable. They are hopelessly inadequate to carry modern volumes of traffic; they date from an age when the aquatic vehicles had priority over land ones. Every day, several times a day, traffic jams form at these anachronistic passing-places.

The bridges and trains, the canals and rusted up mechanisms are not beautiful. They are not so useful that they could not be replaced. They serve to remind the city's inhabitants of their history, of the reason for their city, of the back-breaking work which went into the place's transformation from barren island to thriving modern city. Despite their many problems, I believe that they are a useful piece of living history.

And I thought Britain was bad for waiting times... 

I've always thought that Britain, with its huge waiting times in Accident and Emergency, must be lagging far behind any other first world country. It appears that my view was coloured by my experience of the French health care system. Yesterday I realised that there are a few problems here as well, to put it mildly. We went to a walk hobble-in clinic at 10am, where we waited until nearly twelve for my husband to be seen by a doctor and sent to the radiology department. The X-ray technician took one look at the proofs and expressed surprise that he was still walking before sending him back to the first doctor.

The first doctor expressed surprise and disapproval that he was still walking, and referred him to our nearest hospital, which we reached, with a letter of referral for a plastering, at 1pm. There we sat for several hours in the sadly mis-named "Emergency Room", "Urgences" in French, in which it was more than obvious that urgency was the last thing on the mind of the doctor on duty. A man was also there, in very obvious extreme pain, and The Boff later found out, as he went in to see the doctor just before, that the poor bloke had been there since 8am suffering from something like gall-stones or kidney stones- these are supposed to be the closest you blokes ever get to the pain of childbirth.

I left my husband shortly before three to fetch the children from school, and was preparing dinner when he rang at around 6pm to say that he had got nowhere. We decided to take the poor man some dinner, and arrived soon after 7pm to find him rady to leave. I appears that there had been an extemely inefficient doctor on all day, but that at 6pm, a super-doctor starts her shift- she could clear the waiting room in two hours according to the triage nurse: I don't know if any actual euthanasia is used in the process, but who cares? She was efficient and she didn't put my husband down.

He has to go back to another clinic next Monday for a permanent plaster (well six weeks anyway), because after walking around on it for htree days, the ankle was a little too swollen for a proper plaster and he has one of those temporary things. He toyed with asking for a slim-line plaster that would fit inside a ski boot, but he thought he might just be pushing his luck with the doctors. So, as suggested by Daisy, and because obviously he'll never see it anyway, please feel free to leave your message to be transferred to his permanent plaster, if you so wish. He is slightly pissed off because he will almost certainly miss the best of the winter sports season- it's the perfect temperature, hovering around zero, and lots more snow is expected. Ho hum.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Today I will mostly be investigating the Québec health care system for your delectation (God, the things I do in the interests of reporting...). The Boff has very kindly agreed to be the guinea-pig in my first investigation, The Hobble-in Clinic, where he will have his ankle X-rayed and be asked a series of questions about why he has waited three days before coming in.
Later I might tell you about the lovely day I had yesterday. Or I might not.

Update: My flighty daredevil of a husband is now a daredevil with a concrete boot. The ankle was fractured, and he was told he should not have been walking on it. He is still waiting at the hospital for his plaster- a mere 6 hours after we set off- he might be out by midnight... Must dash, have to fetch some children from school!

Saturday, February 07, 2004

I waited up until late last night for The Boff and Sim, who'd gone skiing at a floodlit ski centre about an hour's drive away. It had been snowing for several hours by the time they set off, so my nerves were more than a tad frazzled worrying about whether they'd get there in one piece, and if they survived the skiing, whether they'd make it back again through the continuing blizzard- you hear these horror stories about people driving off parapets into frozen rivers, managing to get out of their vehicle only to be swept away by the current to a frozen watery grave; you hear horror stories about people driving off the road and ending up stuck in their cars in a bush until the spring when their frozen remains are spotted by walkers; you hear horror stories about people skiing into trees and doing nasty things to their head. These things all bring out the inner neurotic control freak in me, especially when I am waving off one of my children with their father.

It's really not that he is utterly foolish- it's just that his definition of danger and mine do not see eye to eye. The Boff is far bolder than me, and he tends to accomplish rather daring feats without hurting himself or anyone else, much. I blanched rather at the memory of the last time we went skiing, Sim's second time on skis, when he dragged the poor child down an icy black run masquerading as a blue. Sim sensibly removed his skis at one point and shuffled down on his bottom. However, anyone who knows Sim knows that this caution is not likely to last.

So when they shuffled home last night- or should I say this morning- at half past midnight, I was very relieved to see that it was only The Boff who'd got hurt. He'd taken Sim down a black run, albeit nicely padded with fresh powdery snow, gone over a rather large jump, and landed heavily, spraining his ankle nastily in the process. He hobbled around uncomplaining all day until I fetched him some medication; he is now dosed up to the eyeballs on Ibuprofen, grinning and bearing it. I suppose that he feels just a little silly, and glad that Sim was not injured as well, or he'd be nursing something a little more serious than a sprained ankle. Over-protective, moi?

Friday, February 06, 2004

In my mind's eye 

I am dreaming of a quiet country kitchen suspended in the 1950s. Cream wall tiles over quarry tiled floor. Smooth plain surfaces, polished wood kitchen table, slow tick-tick of a grandfather clock. A minimum of appliances, toaster in chunky rounded-off stainless steel, microwave hidden away, cream cooker. Chunky enamel sink, gunmetal taps. Dishes white, cheap, replaceable, from a bargain basement, maybe with a touch of blue at the rim. Mugs unfussy, unpretentious, plain. Cutlery plain, unadorned. A place for everything and everything in its place. Just one of everything necessary, no more, no less. No gadgets. Since there must a be a microwave oven, let it be behind a smooth painted cupboard door- sky blue, shy blue? No clutter.

This kitchen is not just a place for cooking food, or the nub of the house- it is also a reflection of how I'd like my mind to be- slower, quieter, stiller, more confident. In a kitchen like this, ideas would grow to fill the gaps where adornment and detail usually abound. Thoughts, too often side-tracked or waylaid, would flourish and prosper. Projects would reach fruition. I would have closure, I would have come full circle: back to the onion-hung farmhouse kitchens of south-western France, where the days were endless and the mind raced unchecked.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Awkward situations 

The Boff and I have once again got ourselves into one of those socially awkward situations which we ought to see coming by now, since it's not the first time this has happened.

A few weeks ago, we happened to meet on Mount Royal a dad with his two sons. They were newly arrived in Montreal, and we made acquaintance when I volunteered one of our sledges to one of his boys. The following week, we received an invitation to lunch after tobogganing on the Saturday morning. We had not yet met Mrs or small daughter who had been staying at home avoiding the cold. We duly accepted. So far so good.

When we arrived at their house, our new acquaintance introduced his wife to us. The Boff heard: "This is my wife Mfrfffpp." He's quite used to missing peoples' names, so he thought he'd just ask me later what she was called. I heard: "This is my wife." Instead of doing the sensible thing, and asking her to repeat her name, I waited just a fraction of a second too long, Mr had offered drinks and we'd moved on from introductions. I decided to keep my ears open to hear her name in conversation or to ask the Boff later.

Would you believe that the bloody man never ever used his wife's name again for the rest of the afternoon? And later of course I discovered that the Boff did not know either. So to recap: we talked all afternoon, we ate the food that the good lady had prepared, we took her to an out-of-town shopping mall and advised her about gloves, and we still don't know her bloody name! The last time this happened was with one of Sim's friends' mums, and we found out eventually by getting Sim to ask his friend what her name was. This is not an option now. What do we do this time, especially since we owe them an invite?

Wednesday, February 04, 2004


I have a big problem with respect. There are of course two types of respect: one which is more akin to common courtesy or politeness, which is all the rage among the youth of today, and another more elevated sentiment, more like reverence. I shall be talking only about the latter in the following paragraphs.

You see, I don't think that respect is something you are ever owed. Respect is a gift which people choose to bestow on you in recognition of the confidence you inspire in them, for your good qualities, for your abilities and personality. I may be a dangerous anarchist, but I don't think that respect is owed to a leader merely because they are a leader. It is ovbiously better for the running of any organisation, be it a country, a company, a classroom or a family, if mutual repect abounds, since respect is usually conducive to better morale, working conditions and productivity.

However, if there are problems within an organisation, no amount of respect is going to paper over the cracks. Unthinking respect has the unfortunate effect of staying the breath of the legitimate whistle-blower, of ennobling ignoble acts, of concealing the truth for too long. History has taught us time and again that the truth has a tendency to out, usually taking with it the paper dictator kept on the throne too long by superannuated respect. I do not think that misplaced reverence is healthy. I think in fact that it leads to immense hypocrisy, the underdogs presenting one face to their leader, and a very different one away from them.

I believe that respect is not due but earned. We should not expect respect for having successfully put off death longer than others for example. When we are old, we may expect kindness if we are frail, or friendliness if we are lonely, or compassion if we are lonely, much as we do earlier in life. We should never expect respect which we have not earned however. Many older people have an amazing wealth of achievements to their names, all of which should earn them respect. Others have spent feckless dishonest and irresponsable lives- should we respect them for being old? I say no.

I think that the Victorian attitude towards respect, that the paterfamilias was owed every respect regardless of how he behaved or what he achieved in life, is arrant nonsense designed to pander to a fragile ego. Each man a little mandarin in his own little castle with the drawbridge drawn up. Sound ridiculous? Believe me, it is.

I will continue much as I ever have, bestowing respect where I feel it to be due, and being as polite as possible to everyone, including anachronistic Victorian partiarchs struggling to come to terms with our modern ways.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Questions, questions, questions... 

Why do really slow people always walk down the middle of the pavement and stop you passing them by moving in front of you whenever you try to overtake?

If advertisers are so keen on targeting their product, how come you never see large people advertising snack food? Are they trying to feed people up? Conversely, why do they use large people to advertise "health" products such as Benec0l or cereal?

Does using men in advertisements for domestic cleaning products fool anyone?

Why do the local dog-owners think that the lamppost on the grass outside the childrens' school looks like a really good place to dump bagged dog crap? I once saw a kid fall face first in the pile of dog crap bags.

One of the horsemen rides into town 

I'm a little stressed at the moment, and I probably sound it. My father is in town visiting for an epic ten days, which doesn't sound too bad if you've never met him. Unfortunately my father is one of those people (and I say that lightly, considering that I've never met anyone like him- maybe I instinctively avoid people like him? must investigate) who makes you doubt your own sanity after about two minutes in his company, and makes you want to put your head in a lit gas oven after about an hour.

I can honestly say that any conversation with him is an ordeal; every quip or light-hearted answer to anything taken apart minutely, dissected into its components and scanned for both positive and negative connotations or implications, and the negative option taken every time. Add into that a heady mix of cynicism, depressive tendencies, pathological drinking and paranoia, and you are coming close to an outline sketch of my father.

None of his children has ever been anything but a disappointment to him- we've all failed in multiple ways. The only time he ever approached paternal pride towards me was also the last time I ever did anything to try to please him. His love is utterly conditional- I knew it as a 6 year-old but did not bother me then because living up to his expectations was easier as a child. I can't say that it exactly bothers me now- I've learnt to be pragmatic about it, shall we say.

When my first child was born, he decided that I had "totally fucked up" and he did not speak to me for nearly two years. He then re-emerged, and since then has had this really ambivalent attitude towards my children. He loves them I think, but he takes every opportunity to tell me how and in what ways I am "destroying" them. I sincerely believe that he intensely dislikes my son, who does not quite meet his expectations.

So, I have ten dicy days ahead, followed by around six months of breathing space. Please bear with me. I may well need moral support as early as tomorrow- I'm meeting him for lunch. "I need to talk to you" he said in hushed doom-laden tones; those words always strike dread into me- I know I'm in for a rough three hours. I only hope that I have the sense to walk if he starts to get unpleasant.

Monday, February 02, 2004


Up into a tiny village in the Laurentians, St Adolphe d'Howard, for a snowshod walk with the Boff's more outdoorsy colleagues. Spring is in the air, in the brightness and quality of the light, and the temperature, at minus 6, reminded me suddenly and inexplicably of summer.

At the hire shop, the jolly smocked owner looked downcast as he considered our two girls, Dill particularly. "I'm sorry", he said, "she's too small for snow shoes." Dill began to look thunderous and the start of a size-related tantrum loomed. "But she can have these," he continued, reaching up above his head for some green plastic dinosaur feet to strap onto her boots. That's when the adults started to look thunderous and jealous, and Sim and Hen went green with envy. Problem solved for Dill though, who spent the next three hours happily leaving yeti tracks in the silent forest. Sadly they don't come in adult sizes.

On the way home through the countryside, we were treated to five minutes of glorious northern sunset, the sky setting trees, farms and far-off ridges on fire. These sunsets do not last long: you have to be ready with the camera. By the time you round the next bend, the sun may well have dipped below the horizon, and taken the puce with it.

Happy Groundhog Day! 

Wiarton Willie emerged from his burrow this morning, failed to see his shadow, and stumped grumpily back inside. this means that we should expect 6 more weeks of winter. Punxatawney Phil apparently came up with the same result. So there you go- who needs numerical modelling when they can use cute furry animals instead?
Update: After consultations my in-house experts I feel the need to publish an erratum. Wiarton Willie, did in fact see his shadow, confirming the likelihood of winter lasting another six weeks. end of statement

Also, Wiarton Willie wishes it be known that he has his own website, but that it is a little busy today, so you might have trouble accessing it.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

A thought for Sunday 

They have some very good quotes on the front of our local Newspaper, the Montreal Gazette. Here is Thursday's for you- it seems apt.

Writing is not an activity, but a condition. Robert Musil.

(nope, I've no idea who he is- he is a purveyor of good quote(s) though)

Late Saturday evening, after seeing Les Triplettes de Belleville again, edited version of this afternoon's post.

....whinge, whinge....social life, whinge....Boff, whinge...better home, yeay...might train to be translator and stay at home...(there. that looks better. it just needed pruning)

Now for a perplexing domestic issue. How can our house remain warm at minus 30C when the heating goes off at night and the outer walls are very cold to touch? Is there some miniature power plant beneath the house warming it with poisonous effluent? Or is it the methane rising off Sim's piles of dirty clothes in the corners of his room? Just as well he doesn't smoke, eh? (see how cool Canadian I've become- there's hope for me yet Jen, eh?)

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