28 December 2008

As we approach the end of 2008, it is a natural time for reflection. How have we coped personally over the last 12 months; what will 2009 bring?
In France, there is a host of changes afoot - changes affecting all areas of life from health, home and business to transport, pets and education. These include interest-free loans of up to 30K euros for so-called 'green' improvements to your home, extra charges for polluting cars, new Sunday opening-hours, changes in schools and universities and at last France is simplifying business start-ups - the auto-entrepreneur. This last has been so complicated that even Alan Sugar would have found it difficult, let alone newcomers learning the language. And it gives possibilities for retirees to supplement pensions by establishing small businesses with far less bureaucracy and hassle. Familiar objects will be changing too: car number plates and light bulbs, for example. As in the UK, the light bulb change is crazy. The long-life bulbs use more energy to make and to destroy, making a nonsense of the whole thing. And how many householders realise that these bulbs only make sense economically if you burn them all-day long? But what do I know.....
Personally, I've been writing this blog every day for over 7 months now. Some of you leave welcome comments - thank you - but I plan to reduce my blogs from now on to every Sunday only. Please feel free to comment and particularly whether you've enjoyed my ramblings over the past months.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very happy and healthy 2009. As Spock would say: live long and prosper!

27th December 2008

Talking about the poor yesterday - and I should know! - it came as a surprise to read that help is now at hand. It looks as though UK pensioners in France may now be eligible for benefits as the low pound puts them under the poverty line. A report in the January edition of the Connexion newspaper, hot off the presses, reports that UK expats now qualify for French state financial aid of up to 467 euros p.m. for a couple. They may also be exempt from income tax, taxe d'habitation and TV licence (audio-visuelle) - a potential saving of thousands. For those who have reached the doddery age of 75(!) you are also exempt from taxe fonciere.
If you receive 100% of the current UK state pension (which I don't because of the years I took off work to have children), it's currently about £394 or 418 euros p.m. This makes many UK pensioners eligible for the allocation de solidarite aux personnes agees (aspa) - similar to the UK's pension credit scheme (to which expats are not eligible). If successful, aspa tops your income up to 648 euros p.m. for a single person, or 1,135 euros p.m. for a couple.
But, just as I was about to get out the French dictionnaire to try and work out the right phrases to make a claim, I spotted a clause: you must be 65. Here's a website anyway for further info: www.saspa.fr, before you make your application directly to your local mairie.
Oh well, I'll just have to struggle on for another few years yet. The carrot looks tempting though.
Whilst the British, Canadians and Australians are today celebrating the old colonial traditions of boxing-up presents for the 'poor', I wondered what the French, and in particular the elite, would be doing.
Speaking on her 41st birthday in Brazil, Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy said that now she was married to President Nicolas Sarkozy she had given up her man-eating ways of old, which included a string of former boyfriends from Sir Mick Jagger to Donald Trump. "I can no longer seduce because I love my husband," she told the Brazilian edition of Marie-Claire magazine."I don't want to hurt him. I am no longer a man-eater," she said.
While Nicolas was sealing an £8 billion arms deal with his Brazilian counterpart President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy was 'working hard' to promote her humanitarian credentials. She visited a breast milk 'bank' in Rio de Janeiro that provides sustenance to impoverished Brazilian children and spent her birthday touring a Rio slum.
But, following their official duties, Mr Sarkozy and his wife will stay on in Brazil for a private holiday until Dec 29, staying in a palatial suite in the Copacabana Palace – the preferred hotel of celebrities and VIPs from Marlene Dietrich to Princess Diana. Hardly seeing how the poor live! They have been spending Xmas with the first lady's biological father, Maurizio Remmert, a Brazilian industrialist.
It always gives me a wry smile to see how humanitarian efforts by the great and famous, and even serious political committee meetings, always seem to be booked in beautiful, exotic places away from the winter chills. When there comes a time that such events happen in such places as Scunthorpe, or Wigan or Ladywood - then I'll know they're for real. But until then....

Xmas day

Yesterday the mince pies turned out O.K. (yay!) and I distributed them to the other 4 neighbours in our lane. It reminded me of 3 years ago when I invited them all around for an apero to introduce ourselves - puzzled looks all round. Oh well, that old keyring with my name on it that said: '....always does more than is required...' still rings true for me.
The theatres all around the country enact little plays called crèches, displaying clay figures known as ‘santons’ or 'little saints.' Those that do decorate their houses fix tiny red Father Xmases climbing up the outside of their houses. Whilst some regions celebrate today, in the eastern and northern regions, festivities began on 6 December, known as ‘la fête de Saint Nicolas’. In southern France, ‘Le pain calendeau’, a particular type of Christmas loaf, is distributed among the poor and the needy people.......where's my bread basket, so I can stand in line???
It's possible that all was quiet yesterday as people attended ‘la Messe de Minuitor’ or the midnight mass held at our nearby church. I'm told that after the midnight mass, the whole family enjoys a late supper known as "le réveillon" where traditional dishes like buckwheat cakes with sour cream, oysters, foie gras, turkey, chestnuts and tasty wines such as Muscadet, Anjou, Sauterne and Champagne are served. Not much hope for my mince pies then! It's certainly true that these French traditions present a wonderful overview of French culture and their unique way of celebrating this festive season.
Whatever your faith, whichever your country, however you plan to spend today, my message is simple: 'Good health and peace to everyone in the World'.

24th December 2008

Went to Intermarche in Caussade yesterday to do a big food shop. It's worth the 30 km drive because the prices are so cheap and the range better than locally. However, you could tell this is France. Two days before Xmas and there was plenty of room to park and not much evidence of special Xmas fare/wrapping paper anywhere!
Thought I'd get some dried fruit and plain flour to make some vegetarian mince pies. Couldn't find any currants, though, nor one of those patty tins that would have been useful. Plenty of sultanas/raisins and prunes, but not the tiny dark ones. The cakes will have to be my own variety as I substituted dried apricots for the currants. As my family will tell you, I'm not much good at making cakes. When they were small, the same little bottle of green colouring for the icing was in my food cupboards for years and years.
Anyway, it's now or never, so I'm off to try and make shortcrust pastry. Would be so much easier if French supermarkets stocked those little packets of ready-made pastry in their freezers. Oh well, c'est la france. Don't know whether to try again that new foodblender that friends gave me - still haven't fathomed how it all fits together - and I end up with a sticky mess that then needs to be scraped out into another bowl!
If it all works and I end up with passable mince pies, I aim to distribute them to our neighbours and try to explain exactly what mince pies are. That could be more difficult than the baking.
But if all else fails, Him indoors should like them as I'm going to add a spoonful of whisky to the mix....

23 December 2008

It's a strange time of year for expats. Below, two European expats tell whether they miss the mistletoe or relish la difference.
Joanna Lamb-White, 45, retired, Le Marche, Italy:
This will be our second Christmas in our Italian casa. Our decorations will honour the style of our adopted country: minimal and classy. We really don’t miss the blatant commercialism and tawdry display so prevalent in Britain. This year, it’s just the two of us, so we might opt for some other Italian Christmas fare - lamb, or agnello, with fresh vegetables picked from our garden and oil pressed from our olives. We’ll visit a few neighbours and take them homemade mince pies, which are popular. They might give us a poinsettia in return, or maybe half a dozen fresh eggs. And there will be a glass or two of chilled prosecco. Buon Natale!
Honor Marks, 43, mum and gîte owner in Languedoc-Roussillon, France: We will be celebrating our second Christmas at our home in Ferrals-les-Corbières, a village nestling between medieval Carcassonne and Roman Narbonne in southern France. It will be just me, my husband, Simon, 39, a builder, and our six-year-old daughter, Holly. Our home is a four-bedroom former wine domaine. We are in the middle of renovations, but work has stopped on our own house while we convert the barns into holiday flats. The kitchen is old and horrible, with an ancient oven that burns everything at 300 degrees, so we have ordered a new, state-of-the-art cooker. Hopefully, it won’t burn the turkey. Until recently, it was difficult to get a turkey; last year, we drove one down from London. I miss lots of things about Christmas in England: the parties and cocktails and glittery dresses. There’s not much need for these in deepest, darkest rural France. Then again, on Boxing Day, it’s a short trip to the ski slopes of the Pyrenees, for the much-needed snow and mulled wine.
Good idea, that, about the home-made mince pies. I must learn how to make the suet-free version!

22nd December 2008

Well, for some, it's au revoir. Unbelievably, a retreat from the French idyll is under way as a plunging pound sends Britons dashing back across the Channel.
When Mandy O’Sullivan and her husband Richard bought a stone farmhouse in Eymet 5 years ago, they thought it was for good. They sold their house in Kent and spent heavily on restoring their new home. “When we started out here, the euro was 1.50 to the pound, now it’s down to 1.07. When you’re on a pension, it’s frightening. The cost of living has shot up in France, for things like food and utilities,” she said. “Our electricity bill is up 45% over the past year.”
Sidney Wynn-Simmonds, 73, another British resident of Eymet, said: “Our pensions have dropped in value by a third. "We don’t have aperitifs, only from time to time.” Shame! However, as in the UK, all are finding it difficult to sell their homes in a falling market. And just how do these people think they can get back on the British housing ladder? Or maybe they were never really dedicated and kept their English house 'just in case'?
So, what does all this tell you? Don't emigrate on a whim. All places have their downsides. The trick is to maximise those things in life that are important to you, and learn to deal with the difficulties.
And my economical advice to those still contemplating coming to live here? You need a basic 1000 euros a month. More - and it's paradise, less and you'll struggle. It's as simple as that.

I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

For those who have chosen a self-publishing route like Lulu, you may well be asking: well, if I can publish my book myself, what was the point in trying so hard to get a literary agent/publisher in the first place? The answer is one word: marketing. That's the most important difference. Your own personal agent has years of connections and contacts who can not only distribute your book in all those coveted bookstore windows, proofread and edit, get promotional articles printed in leading newspapers and literary magazines, promote your book to major 'Golden Globe'-type book competitions and TV programmes like Richard and Judy, but also get you, the author, a handsome 6-figure advance on future royalties.
But now, back to the real world. That elusive agent/publisher didn't want to know, so you must go it alone.
There are various on-line marketing techniques you can try.
1. Make yourself a free website (like this one) and add the Lulu icon to your book in a prominent position. Your bloggers can then simply click and buy your book quickly and easily directly from Lulu.
2. Advertise. A simply way is to add an automatic signature at the foot of all your emails, e.g. 'Hot off the presses, Olga Swan's new book 'Paradis' now available. Click on lulu.com/olgaswan to read a free preview."
3. For more sophistical advertising, you might wish to invest in various offers, like the one below. However, as with all advertising, there is no guarantee of sales. But you have to be in it, to win it. so nothing ventured...
4. Some offer a payable 'click' service. A click is when someone clicks on your ad in the sponsored search results on Google, Yahoo! or MSN. Your ad can be viewed over a million times, but is not considered a click until someone clicks on your ad to go the web site. For example, if your book is about how to grow roses, your ad might show on a web site dedicated to growing roses. What is a landing page? A landing page is where you want your customers to go. It can be your Lulu storefront or your Lulu content page. When someone clicks on your ad, they will be directly taken to your landing page. If you pay for this service, you will be asked to provide a few words that describe your book. You will eventually be sent a detailed report showing how many people visited your landing page each day as soon as your allotment of clicks has been delivered.
5. So, if you want to pay for one of these marketing techniques to boost sales, search your self-publishing website for 'marketing tools', and off you go.
6. There are other things you, yourself, can do. Contact your local BBC Radio Station, especially if your newly-published book is about local issues. I did just that and appeared on a BBC Radio WM programme, that was streamed all over the world (so my family could hear me live). Contact your local book store and ask them if they would be prepared to stock your book. However, most are not interested in POD because there are no sale-or-return possibilities. You would need to invest heavily by first buying a stack of 'author-discounted' copies yourself, then taking them around to any store that has agreed to sell them for you. Negotiation with the store manager over percentages is crucial in this case.
........So, that's all there is to it! Not easy, but if you are successful, the world's the limit as JKR discovered. My own feeling on JKR is that she was very very lucky. In this world you need to give the right message to the right person at the right time. But she managed it, so why not you? Good luck!

20 December 2008

First, well done to those who spotted my deliberate mistake a few days ago in giving the UK Prime Minister a new first name! There was a past MP called George Brown who, as I recall, was slow, large and ponderous and believed he was the answer to everyone's prayers......not much difference there then.
Here in France, the usual troubles that beset governments everywhere drone on. However, a new salacious slant is that the person doing the complaining is the President himself. As we all know, our Nicolas led a very colourful private life before he took office - and afterwards too. Well, it seems that a former domestic intelligence chief, a Monsieur Bertrand, actually kept secret files on Nicolas's personal and sexual life!
So, of course Sarkozy has launched a probe into the former head of the General Intelligence agency -- France's former political police. We all know that the French are, allegedly, in a permanent state of unbridled eroticism, but it appears they don't wish their own personal exploits broadcast in one man's files! So the prospect of a formal investigation has sent shudders through the Parisian elite, as cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, business leaders and celebrities are among those named in the notebooks. Between 1998 and 2003, Bertrand filled 23 spiral-bound pads with cryptic handwritten notes recounting tales of sexual and financial indiscretions, feuds, and insults and alleged crimes among his high-level targets.
Now, French people are never happier than when they are complaining about something, and (as we've seen with the recent teachers' protests) manifestations are commonplace. What makes this latest scenario so interesting is that it merges their love of protest with their alleged reputation for licentiousness, but also with their renowned insularity - worse than the Japanese. Also, of those they hate, the French reserve their greatest enmity for their fellow countrymen, but especially those who live in Paris! Never the 'twain shall meet?
On verra - we shall see. Makes for some festive entertainment anyway.

19th December 2008

It's always interesting to see the difference between how the English and the French celebrate the festive season, so how do the English celebrate here?
It's often the case that, in the first few years of living in France, many Brits cling on to their old patterns of overspending, overeating, getting stressed and spreading themselves too thinly. But, Counsellor Kate Reeves, who works at the Alive Centre in Couzedoux, has now decided that the best way is to celebrate at her home in in the Correze region of France. She says it's cheaper, less stressful and, with the current economic climate, staying here is an option many other expats are taking. Shopping is less stressful here - shops are emptier, parking is easier and the French are generally more relaxed and polite.
Others, like Penny and Derek Griffiths in Haute Normandy, invite their French neighbours around to enjoy an English Xmas, including turkey, crackers and mince pies. But, for me, this is the wrong thing to do. When in Rome.....
I even heard of a British couple who celebrate Xmas Day by having a lakeside picnic with the kind of food they like - yes, in the freezing cold. But they often visit some amazing Xmas shows, like the Chatellerault street carnival.
Certainly, in our village, there is little evidence of consumerism anywhere. There is a decorated Xmas tree outside the Pharmacie (with wrapped presents tied to the branches - which no-one steals!), and pretty lights strung across the road. But that's it.
So, the message seems to be: we like the festive entertainment and Xmas markets, but are sick of UK consumerism, overeating, shopping madness and family expectations.
Vive la france!

18th December 2008

My views on Europe have changed markedly since we came to live in France.
And now, our very own Nicolas feels the same! As Sarkozy steps down from his 6-month EU presidency, he says that Europe has changed him: "I tried to change Europe, but Europe changed me....whatever differences we have, there are so many things that bring us together." With this last presidential speech, he outlined what he had achieved: a 200-billion-euro (274-billion-dollar) economic stimulus package, an ambitious climate change and energy package and a deal for Ireland to hold a second referendum on the bloc's reforming Lisbon Treaty. So all is sweetness and light then in the EU think-tank?
Not everyone feels the same. Those dratted Irish will just have to keep on voting until they get it right! And even beloved George Brown has started to think the unthinkable. At yesterday's count the pound was wobbling at 1.08 euros, and heading rapidly towards equal parity. Could it be that the UK at last will ditch sterling and take on the euro? Who'd have thought it? All I know is that my sterling pension buys me fewer and fewer euros every month. Why, if this goes on, Him indoors will have to forgo some of his luxuries, and we can't have that. Over the past 41 years I've always strived to keep him in the style to which he's long been accustomed. But it's no good - the caviar, foie gras and venison will just have to go. Quel sacrifice!
So, come on George Brown: take on the euro. You know it makes sense (and Him indoors will be eternally grateful).

17th December 2008

I see that French teachers and students are revolting again! Faced with this unrest, Nicolas Sarkozy has backtracked on his flagship education reforms. He had such high hopes of making sweeping changes to the school curricula, but in the wake of recent street violence in Athens, he was fearful of that happening in Paris also. So Education Minister Xavier Darcos announced on Monday he was delaying for a year a broad overhaul of the school curriculum, a move seen as the first major retreat from reform since Sarkozy took office in May 2007.
I was put in mind of protests in the UK a few decades ago. It's as if people sometimes get bored of the everyday grind and need something to fire them up. I was intrigued to see that, despite France's capitulation with this latest wave of education protests, Parisians had already been so worked up they couldn't stop the momentum and went ahead with the protest anyway!! So, scheduled nationwide marches still happened, with violent protests spreading to Brest, Rennes and Lille. It's not that I'm diminishing in any way one's right to comment on issues that impinge on your life and career. Rather, it's more that because these northern cities are struggling with so much economic hardship, it would only take a small match to light the flame of unrest amongst people who are looking for someone to blame. Then, it becomes less of an educational issue and more of an anarchist's fieldday. There are trouble-makers everywhere just looking for something - it doesn't matter what - to drive a nail into the democracy they hate.
I do hope that, because of the similarities with the 1929 economic collapse, Europe isn't heading for more and more conflicts. Just when we were beginning to settle down here......

16th December 2008

Sky TV News last night contained wall-to-wall coverage of that Baghdad reporter who threw his shoes at George Bush. We all learned that shoes are considered unclean in the Islam world and, despite tight security at the press conference in Afghanistan, here was a very effective means of showing one man's disdain for (and hence misunderstanding of) the outgoing President of the United States.
A news item that didn't appear at all to my knowledge was something FAR FAR GREATER. Yesterday - and we should all note the date, as something truly historic occurred - 85 Immams, Rabbis and Christian clerics met in Paris. Many of these came from Israel and the Palestinian territories to discuss 'new actions' to promote peace in the Middle East. Individual Immams, some from places like Iran, were seen talking peaceably and amicably to individual Rabbis, some from Israel. All were saying the same thing. As individuals they never get to speak to one another. They discovered they all wanted the same thing, without exception. They wanted to build bridges across the world, to speak to each other, to understand each other. All understood that most global troubles were caused by a complete lack of understanding of each other's beliefs and mindsets - all caused by A LACK OF COMMUNICATION.
As a new secular year approaches, may all individuals of the world communicate one-to-one with each other, appreciate each other's customs and beliefs, and work together for peace.
In Paris yesterday, 15th December 2008, something quite remarkable started. Let us hope it continues. Amen.

15th December 2008

On a day when heavy snow has cut power to 100,000 homes in several areas of central and southern France, I looked with trepidation outside our window this morning. Good! No snow. I know it looks pretty, but having already broken one bone this year..... And I understand that the 6 - 24" that has already fallen has snarled transportation and cut power for tens of thousands of people in the particularly hilly regions like Lozere, with some in nearby Aveyron also losing their telephone service. Whilst a total of nine French departments are currently on weather alert, with some snow forecast for our region, we'll wait and see. I see that those in New England have suffered a severe ice-storm - now there's a region that knows something about snow! They could certainly teach the UK a thing or two.
In the meantime, our new double-glazing is doing well. No condensation anywhere. Hurray! The temperatures aren't too bad here. In fact, we still only have our expensive gas heating on for two hours in the morning and from 4.00 in the evening. In the middle of the day, when it's particularly cold, we light our wood-burning stove. But at least we haven't been taken in by the latest heat pump sale scam, like some residents here. An English woman in the Herault found to her horror that what she thought was merely an estimate (un devis) was actually a contract for over 45000 euros. It's difficult enough to avoid being conned in your own language......We've been warned.
Yes, I know. It's time for Him indoors to go to the forest and collect some more twigs and logs. At least that's something we understand.

I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

Part 4.
How to actually publish your book on Lulu.com.
You're getting pretty frustrated. You've tried all the reputable literary agents, publishers won't look at you, but you know you have a saleable product. Now's the time to consider publishing your beloved mss. Below is how to do this on a site I can personally recommend: Lulu. They are efficient, cheap and deliver the goods instantly.
1. Make sure your Word or pdf file is exactly how it should look as a book. Compare it with a book on your bookshelf. Single-spaced, paragraphs indented, pages numbered, mss separated into chronological chapters. Add a title page, then copyright page: copy from a published book, substituting the word lulu as publisher. Don't worry about the ISBN no. at this stage. This is added later. Follow this with a dedication page, e.g. 'For Grandma'. Then Chapter 1. When you are absolutely sure your mss has been edited, checked for grammar, and is as perfect as you can manage, save it as luluv1.
1. Go to www.lulu.com and click on publish.
2. Click on paper-back books.
3. Follow the simple step-by-step instructions. This includes first giving your book a title, author name and choosing a size (I went with the standard US size 6x9" which Lulu prefers). Then upload your own preferably pdf file (via Browse and upload).
4. An exciting stage is then to choose or upload a cover. If you are clever with design and know exactly how you want your book to look, then upload your own image, but it's tricky to upload a wrap-around version. Follow lulu's guidelines. If, like me, you don't know how, then choose from a range of Lulu designs and simply click on the one that best suits your mss story. Lulu then converts the design and your first image of your very own book is displayed, complete with title and your author name. You can choose font size, background and spine colours. Then decide what you want the blurb on the back page to say - a few lines is best, and upload that when prompted by Lulu.
5. If at any stage, something goes wrong, you can either go back and start again, or there is a 'live Lulu person' button. Rest assured, I used that many times!
6. The whole process should take no longer than 20 minutes, after which an amazing message comes up: Congratulations, you have successfully published your book.
7. It is then recommended you purchase a copy for yourself to look at, before arranging distribution. You, as author, buy this at a discounted rate, but you get to set the purchase price for your future readers, from which you receive creator revenue of 80% of the purchase price. You can also set a PC-view royalty revenue of c.$4, whereby the public can pay to read your book on-line.
8. Distribution options: 1. a lulu-only book, where readers buy it on-line from lulu.com, and the hard-copy book gets sent directly to their door; 2. distributed-by-lulu package, where your book is advertised at 60,000 bookshop sites, Amazon etc. Originally, this cost around $50, but Lulu offered this service to me free recently. It's only with this package that you get an actual ISBN number. Once Lulu allocates you a no, you need to add this to your copyright page and upload the mss again. An ISBN no. is a useful resource for buyers without PCs to order your book at walk-in shops, so I would recommend this route.
9. You then build your own Lulu online storefront. I link this to my own blog-site to generate direct links, and more sales.
10. Remember. You can forget inventories — when a book is purchased, it gets printed, shipped and delivered on demand. Your buyers even receive a pre-printed thank-you note from you, the author. Importantly to you, the strapped-for-cash budding author, the lulu publishing process can be absolutely free of charge to you. In most cases, all it costs you is the purchase of your own first copy.
So, what do you think? Could you do all that? You never know, until you try. The important thing is to work on that mss of yours. You've always wanted to write a book, so now there's no excuse. Just mention me on your Acknowledgements page!
Good luck.
.................................................Next week, I'll talk about how you can market your book

13th December 2008

As we wave goodbye to our new friends from Cap Breton in Nova Scotia, it was interesting to hear how much they loved the gite they stayed in during their visit. But, at a time when many people look to buy a French gite to boost their incomes, there still seems to be some confusion over holiday letting arrangements in France.
Many gite owners, like Geoff Botley of nearby historic Carcassone, become exasperated over messy guests. He says that many families when on holiday go completely wild, wrecking his property and smiling indulgently while their children run amok. Another owner, David Middleton, agreed when one family staying at his villa in the Var, on the Mediterranean coast, smashed up the place and then denied all knowledge. He said it took 11 hours to restore the villa completely after they had left. However, another owner, Rosa de Javel, has a different view. After renting holiday gites for over 30 years, she knows a thing or two about the subject. She says that if you're not prepared to do some cleaning then the simple answer is not to let out your property at all. She added: 'People don't go on holiday to do housework. That's why security deposits were invented. After they leave and you open the door, always expect the worst.'
So, for all new gite owners looking forward to letting out your property: beware. If a family's first comment after arrival is 'oh, it looks so clean', it could mean that their own home back home isn't as clean as this, and they're likely to leave it in a state they're used to, i.e. a mess!
Ah well - nothing comes easy in life. I think I'll stick to chez-nous with Him indoors. At least, after 41 years together, I know what to expect!
......................P.S. Don't miss tomorrow's episode of 'I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published'

12th September 2008

More things I don't like about internet shopping or payments.......
The fact that nameless individuals have your hard-earned banking details. I know, I know, there's usually a gold padlock or something to show that it's private, but nevertheless, being a worrying kind of a person.....
Specialised companies like PayPal don't seem to understand that sometimes I might want to use pounds sterling from an English bank account, and sometimes euros from a French bank account.....
I was recently successful in a bid for a creative writing project at the PeopleperHour.com employment site. But, how to make PayPal understand that depending on the country of origin of the payer, I want to choose the currency I'm paid in?........
Why do internet sites automatically assume they know all the questions you might want to ask? All seem to have a FAQ site, rather than letting you contact them specifically with your own individual query. I find myself shouting at the PC: I'm NOT a machine, I'm a person, and my needs don't fit into your pre-conceived idea of what I might ask......
Being British, but living in France, I find that if I do ignore all of the above and actually try to buy something, I still fall foul of the company's pre-conceived notions of my address. "What country do you live in? France?" asks the machine. Then the text changes to French! Grr....
"So, you want to pay from an English bank account? Sorry, we don't recognise your (French) zip-code." Grr.

I see that French law says that internet sellers have obligations - they must give rules on retractions and a delivery date. And if the buyer is not happy, you have 7 working days to complain. But, when you log in to complain, what happens? Yes, you guessed it, there's the usual FAQ boxes, which NEVER match just what I want to say to them!!
Oh well, back to the old and trusted method, then.......the 1950s style I love - walking into an actual shop and looking at actual goods. At least they won't disappear when the electricity goes off, or when I press the wrong button. And, even better, shops don't have a Frequently Asked Questions box at the entrance door.

11th December 2008

Ever since the French engineer took our old dishwasher away, we've been waiting for the repair estimate. I knew it would mean a decision was needed, and I hate decisions. In Esther Rantzen's latest book about oldies like us, she says you need to spend money now - because if not now, when? But I've always been a 'but on the other hand...' kind of person. Well, we received the estimate yesterday and the bill was a dreadful 270 euros. So, do we get it repaired and hope the problem doesn't reappear, or do we take Esther Rantzen's advice and buy a new one?
Soon after we first arrived in France, an Englishman who'd been here for years and years told me 'you need your French head on', and I wasn't sure then what he meant, but I do now. There's definitely a different way of thinking between the English and the French. If the English need to buy something, they search around for the cheapest and best deal around. So, bearing this in mind, I did do a search on the internet and found several new dishwashers that I could possibly order. But what do I do if something goes wrong? I would be buying from some nameless internet co. I've never heard of. And, have I understood the French internet instructions correctly? How do the French around here deal with purchases? Cast your mind back to the 1950s and you'll get a better idea.
So yesterday I did as the French did. Yes, I know it wasn't the cheapest and best deal around, but I went to a local shop in Caussade where I already know the owner, spoke at length about our plumbing problem, he reassured me on several points and agreed to take a look when he delivered our new machine chez-nous. What it means is that I have a definite point of apres-vente that I can locate in the future. The price may well have been more than on the internet, but for my peace of mind in this new strange land........

10th December 2008

An Irish ratings service has just published a ranking of countries in terms of quality of life. France is considered the best in the world coming before Switzerland and the US and, not surprisingly, 191 places ahead of Iraq, which comes in last place.
Some young French people have already responded to their country's high ranking. An unemployed 36-years-old from Nice, a currently-unemployed retailer from Paris and a business student all said the same things. Although French dole money is currently at 450 euros a month, people said they were grateful for the social services that help people to keep their dignity. The students reported their satisfaction in the quality of culture and leisure available, good working conditions, the 35 hour week, well-maintained state infrastructure of the road and quality buildings - all because of the correct level of taxation. Even the unemployed retailer had good things to say about the country, stating that the strong economy produces a wide range of products, renowned gastronomy, and a good geographical situation in the heart of Europe, with different climates.
I find all the comments amazing. Certainly, if an unemployed retailer, a student and a young person on the dole in the UK were to comment about their country, the comments would be very different! But then, the English in particular are famous for NOT displaying a nationalistic pride for their homeland. The French, like the Americans, are proud of their country and seek to show it everywhere they go. They never seem to run it down in public as do the English. You can't say that the English attitude is a result of the hordes of invading forces over the centuries, because America is also a land of immigrants. You never hear an English PM say to his 'adoring' fans: '...my fellow English.....'. Maybe that's the trouble - he should!
Anyway, well done France. You must be doing something right.

9th December 2008

In a small corner of Burgundy is a place that teaches hope. Its name is Taize, founded by a man everyone called Brother Roger. Essentially it's a community of peace-loving monks, who live by making items like pottery, jewellery and stained glass. As it's situated just south of the border between what used to be the occupied part of France during WW2, in the 'free zone', Taize was well-placed to shelter refugees such as Jews fleeing from the Nazis.
But history is littered with good men who were murdered by the very people they sought to help. So too was Brother Roger in 05 when he was stabbed to death during evening prayers. But the community lives on with a new leader, still striving for a better world.
On a day when I see that hundreds of Muslim tombstones have been desecrated with swastikas in Arras, I wonder whether man can ever learn to love those who are perceived as 'different' from himself. The old conflict of one tribe v another tribe continues ad infinitum. The 'tribe' names may change, but so the enmity goes on - until one magical day in the future when we are all members of one community: that of earth.
In the meantime, thousands still come to Taize to find inspiration in this still turbulent world. Forty-thousand are expected at its New Year meeting, which this year will be held in Brussels. Those wishing to go on a French-organised coach can contact rencontres@taize.fr to book a place.
And for me? I don't care what label people put on themselves. I look for the goodness within.

8th December 2008

Yachting is a symbol of affluence and carefree enjoyment of your riches - so they tell me! As the financial crisis rumbles on, I can't think of a worst time to hold a boat show. But, on Saturday, my birthday, the organisers were expecting maybe 200,000 brave people to the 48th Paris Boat Show. As the day wore on, and it became clear that a yacht was not going to be wrapped up on my doorstep, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the organisers. As Him indoors would tell you - and he should know - there's nothing worse than standing in a freezing cold shop waiting for elusive customers to come in and buy.
A little closer to home, the club in our village holds regular functions to keep its residents warm and amused. Although a visit to the Paris Boat Show wasn't on the menu - for some reason I don't think many of our neighbours seemed interested - it is planning a few exciting watery events next year. In February, there's a trip to the Nice carnival and the fete du citron at nearby Menton: c'est an escapade sur la riviera des fleurs. And in October, la piece de resistance, a Mediterranean cruise, organised by la federation nationale des aines ruraux. This is a national organisation encompassing social clubs in most rural villages like ours.
This club is a valuable way to get people out of their homes and meet other people. In fact, when we first arrived, we thought we were the only English people here until we attended a meal catered by the club at the Salle des fetes (village hall). I remember arriving and chatting to a couple of French ladies near the entrance door. They said 'Are you going to sit at the English table?' I said 'What English table?', surprised. That was nearly four years ago now, and we haven't looked back since. Vive la france and especially vive les francaises. They've really made us feel welcome here; long may it continue.

I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

Part 3.
O.K. You've sent your valuable mss around all the reputable AAS agents and been rejected. There are now several routes you can try: literary competitions, the vanity press, POD or self-publishing.
As an unpublished first-time author of fiction, you can do an internet search of literary competitions. Problems: some, like the current Amazon 09 competition, restrict residents of some countries, e.g. France! (I don't know why). The second is whether you are eligible if you have published other works in the self-publishing field. The rules are often ambiguous. The prize for the winner, though, is great: a contract by an established publisher.
The next thing you might want to consider is the vanity press. I wouldn't! The vanity press publishes books at the author's expense. Just remember: if someone wants money from you up-front - whether to read your mss or to publish it - they ain't legit! Unlike legitimate publishers, the vanity press makes its money from you, the author, rather than the paying public. So, what's the difference between that and self-publishing?
Self-publishing is the publishing of books by the author, rather than by established, third-party publishers. The key distinguishing characteristic of self-publishing is the absence of a traditional publisher. Instead the creator or creators fulfill this role, taking editorial control of the content, arranging for printing, marketing the material, and often distributing it, either directly to consumers or to retailers. All rights remain with the author, the completed books are the writer's property, and the writer gets all the proceeds of sales. Remember: there are many reasons why authors choose the self-publishing route. If you choose carefully, the process is free for all on-line sales, legitimate and offers an option for your customers to either buy on-line from your chosen self-publishing company or to order from Amazon and walk-in bookstores directly. To make you feel better, here are some best-selling authors who started off by self-publishing: William Blake, Virginia Woolf, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Benjamin Franklin, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw....to name but a few.
So, if they did it, so can you.
Next week, I'll show you the mechanics of how to actually self-publish your mss with a reputable self-publishing company. Don't miss it.

6th December 2008

I see that a former English newsreader and Clothes Show presenter, Selina Scott, has complained to Channel 5 TV about age-discrimination. And I thought, so what's new? On the day that I hit 61, I look around me and see that the international media is as one: youth and beauty are everything. But at least in Britain male news presenters are often old (presumably signalling age and wisdom), whereas on French TV all the male newsreaders seem to be young, slim and absolutely georgeous (one called Francois Picard is a case in point). But what on earth has happened to all those female air hostesses, presenters, beauty consultants and models of yesteryear? They, together with all my pens of yesterday, have been consigned to that giant rubbish dump of life - hidden from all prying eyes.
Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to find a birthday or anniversary card in France. Maybe they think that if we don't celebrate it, getting older won't happen! Sometimes I buy what looks like a greetings card, only to find after I've bought it that it is in fact just one piece of cardboard and doesn't actually open. Reminds me of a similar card I received from a relative a few years ago: 'This card is like me - it never does what it's supposed to!'
But I'm sure that things are beginning to change as we oldies become a greater proportion of the populace. Governments are starting to realise that if they need our vote, they can't hide us away any longer. And Selina Scott, at the grand old age of 58? Yes, she won her age-discrimination court case against Channel 5, being awarded a suspected quarter of a million payout.
Chance for me yet then.
P.S. Don't forget to read Part 3 tomorrow of my serial: I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

5th December 2008

As you will have gathered by now, I like old traditions - particularly those from the '50s when I was growing up. So, when we moved here, I was delighted to discover a tiny, but wonderful, cinema in the nearby town of St. Antonin. Despite its strange name (Le Querlys), it shows some marvellous films. Depending how brave you are, there is a selection in the French language, plus others - mostly English. And the proprietor somehow manages to obtain all the latest films even before they are premiered in the UK. Inside, it has that wonderful intimate feel I remember from the Gaumont in the '50s: all velvety chairs packed close together. You almost expect to see an usherette walking backwards down the aisle, shining a torch on the selection of Kiaora and Walls icecream. Ah, those were the days.
It seems that even today there are others who feel the same way, as a legendary club returns to its music hall heyday. Paris music hall Le Palace has reopened after being abandoned for over a decade. For those old enough to remember, it was famous for hosting such stars as Maurice Chevalier and Charles 'AsNoVoice', followed in the '70s by such names as Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer. Following a 3million euro re-fit, the venue has now been transformed. But when I read of the new performers there: a French comedienne Valerie Lemercier, and next Spring Jane Birkin, former wife of Serge Gainsbourg, I wonder.
You can certainly transform a building, but how do you bring back the stars of yesteryear? I watch the X-Factor every week, hoping that Al Jolson will waltz on to electrify everyone with 'Mammy'. Will the new venue in Paris be able to bring back Edith Piaff? As Bruce Forysth would say: I don't think so. Domage!

4th December 2008

One of the biggest difficulties facing new arrivals in France is how and where to find help with day-to-day problems. As usual, the level of your competence in French is crucial - not so much in working out what to say on the telephone, but, as we've found to our cost, in understanding the answer! So, my heart sank when I realised we needed to find someone to fix our dishwasher. I know - hardly an emergency, but little things can build up when you live in a new country. Well, over the last few weeks, armed with the Pages Jaunes (yellow pages) and the telephone, I tried several electromenagers depannage (appliance breakdown) places. Each time they were very polite and promised to get the engineer to ring me back, but - you've guessed it - nobody did. Could it be that they wanted nothing to do with a mad foreign woman who couldn't even explain herself properly? The problem with the phone is that you have to rely solely on the words, without the help of gesticulations, facial expressions etc. So, in complete frustration, we walked into an electrical appliance shop in nearby Caussade and asked for their assistance. Much better. Not only did they contact their own engineer for us, but he actually turned up chez-nous yesterday. Of course, nothing is simple in life: he said he had to take it away to the factory for a repair estimate.....somehow I can see the necessity for a new machine looming on the horizon. Yet more money. Oh well, c'est la France.

3rd December 2008

The French sometimes struggle to come to terms with this internet age. Living here is a curious mix of the ancient and the modern, each jostling for position in a land famed for its love of tradition and old values. On the one hand, no-one seems to knock anything down, preferring to leave in situ all those ancient, wonderful chateaux and riverside watermills - waiting for the arrival of les rosbifs (the English) to spend vast swathes of money on renovation. But, on the other hand, the French still feel they are the most superior people on earth so don't wish to be left behind in this internet age. Sometimes I get a fit of the giggles when I see an IT engineer struggling through some ancient stony portal in order to establish a broadband connection in one of the oldest villages in the world. Never the twain shall meet?
Well, now French TV seems also to have come of age. There is a plan for the French government to launch its own 'Web TV' site, with proposals to respond to questions about public services and reforms. However, comme d'habitude with anything new, the public is up in arms. Enter stage left, government Information Services Minister Thierry Saussez, who tells everyone not to worry. "Propaganda is saying the president is the greatest', he says, "so we don't be doing that." Quite. Everyone knows that we don't need a web TV for that: the man himself is more than capable!

2nd December 2008

Good health is vital to us all - indeed, it was the primary reason for our moving to a country where the health care is one of the best in the world. But, there is one affliction that looms larger than all others, and about which we all seem to fear more than anything else. Yes, it's that dreaded word: cancer. Every so often, hope is stimulated when reading about the latest advances in curing the disease, only to fall again when nothing obvious is happening. However, I was particularly interested to hear that the French PM, Francois Fillon, has just unveiled the world's most powerful cancer weapon: the Arronax cyclotron (named after the Jules Verne professor in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea). How the machine differs from smaller machines already in existence is that it can make much larger quantities of injectable substances which target cancerous areas directly, rather than the alternative chemotherapy, which is not targeted and doctors just proscribe and hope it works. In the past, typically a doctor would remove the tumour, if at all possible, and hope that the person gets better, but often the cancer would persist in the body, ready to fire up again. This new radioactive medicine would kill for ever those micro-tumours lurking in the body.
Having lost a brother earlier this year, plus a mother, grandmother, aunt and grandfather decades ago - all through cancer - I fervently hope that this new machine can do what all other measures have so far failed to do: stop the big C time-bomb. Of course, what I really hope and wish for is for someone to discover the fuse that lights the bomb in the first place. Now, if Jean-Francois Chatal, the professor of nuclear medicine who developed the Arronax, and the rest of the Nantes research team could only come up with that.....

1st December 2008

Some time ago I wrote about a national English-language newspaper in France called the Connexion. It is particularly valuable to us because however hard we try to speak and understand French, it's never the same as reading the news in your own mother-tongue.
The December issue has just arrived, hot off the presses, and guess what? On page 44 is a picture and review of my book 'Pensioners in Paradis'! The books' page, which is sponsored by W.H. Smith, is entitled 'The twenty minute book review' - they say that in the interests of fairness, time and first impressions, each book gets 20 minutes.
Anyway, thought you might like to read their review (sic):
"Pensioners in Paradis
Olga Swan, 200 pages, ISBN 978-1-84799-415-8
The opening chapter to this book makes you want to read on. It tells the story of two English Midlanders who, experiencing disaster when their livelihood is burnt down at the local market, decide to give it all up and move abroad.
You immediately strike an affinity with the couple, written from the wife's point of view and who refers to her husband only as Him. There is clever use of detail, description and sayings which can really make you identify with the characters and you are eager to see how their adventure unfolds.
The blurb says 'Read hilarious accounts of how they adapt to la view francaise' but from scanning the contents it seems the tales of France do not begin until part two. However the author looks set to tell tales with a certain wit and humour already proven at the beginning of the book. With chapters entitled Searching for that Dream French House and Communications and panic: The French telephone system there will, no doubt, be many more scenarios with which readers will identify.'
Fame at last? Not quite, but I'm getting there.......

I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

Part 2.
O.K., so you're not a celebrity; maybe also, like me, you're not young, slim nor beautiful either? In which case, please read on to find out how to publish that book you've always wanted to write.
How to approach a reputable literary agent

Reputable is the key word here. The best way is to choose a selection of such agents from the 'Writers' and Artists Yearbook' (published by A. C. Black) on writersandauthorsyearbook.com. Click on Search, then on Agents. It only includes agents who are members of the AAS authors' association, and who do not charge a reading fee. You can choose from agents around the world, but if you're from the UK it's best to stick to those in the UK, and vice versa if you're from the US. If any agent you approach charges you money, then they're not reputable so avoid them like the plague. Each agent's own website includes their preferred submissions method, but in general here's how to approach them: 1. an email enquiry, or a letter, with a brief description of your book; 2. if they say yes, then send by standard mail a covering letter, a one-page synopsis of your finished book, plus the first 3 chapters (word-processed in double-line spacing, right-justified, with each page numbered). Don't even think of emailing your wondrous manuscript to them. Most won't open email attachments. Then, you pray. I'm sorry to report that even the best ones can take as many as 8 weeks to reply, and some don't bother to reply at all!
It's a real jungle out there. Remember: most agents receive hundreds of unsolicited mss every week, so your submission will not be their top priority. And don't even think of approaching publishers directly. They no longer accept any enquiries or submissions from unsolicited authors, preferring their associated agents to do the hard slog of editing, selecting and weeding-out the inferior for them. It's a hard fact of life but all are more interested in their already-contracted clients. So, only those of you with supreme staying power will last the distance.
Next week, I'll tell you what to do if the above methods have singularly failed (i.e. you approached zillions of agents 6 months ago, and none has replied - been there, done that, and worn the T-shirt!).
................................see Part 3 next Sunday on how to recognise the difference between the vanity press, POD, and reputable self-publishing sites.

29th November 2008

Yesterday we were visited by a charming couple from Cap Breton in Novia Scotia, on the north-eastern tip of Canada. With a name like Cap Breton, I wondered at its French origins as I knew that it's some distance away from Quebec and the bilingual French-speaking residents there. Our visitors told us that Novia Scotia is actually an island, now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Delving a little deeper, it seems that centuries ago the island saw active settlement by France when it was included in the colony of Acadia. The French originally named the island 'Île Royale' and it remained part of colonial France until it was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Eventually Britain merged the island with its adjacent colony of Nova Scotia (present day peninsular Nova Scotia and New Brunswick).
I find it difficult to get my head around how the modern world deals with all the European colonial 'acquisitions' from the past. It made me think of the Falklands crisis, when Britain felt so stirred up about a tiny island thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic. What has that part of the world got to do with Britain now? The same could be said for Gibraltar, and similarly many of the 'French' islands around the world. (But not the Middle East, whose residents can trace their roots right back to the beginning of time). If I were the British PM or the French President today, I would hand back all colonial 'acquisitions' of the past, such as the Falklands or Martinique, to the nearest geographical nation and give free rights of living to current dwellers, in exchange for some sort of trade agreement between both participating nations.
But then, I'm not the PM or the President, so I'll just have to go back to being a humble writer with attitude. Must say, though, it felt good to sign a copy of 'Paradis' to my new fans from Novia Scotia. Long may it continue.
................Don't miss tomorrow's (Sunday's) serial: 'I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published'.

28th November 2008

As part of the global economic crisis, which just seems to go on and on, it is revealed that France's unemployment level has just risen to over 2 million. The unemployment rate in France is calculated on a quarterly basis and came to 7.2 percent of the workforce in the second quarter, according to the national statistics institute INSEE. But the government and analysts warned a recession in Europe's biggest economy would soon be putting even more people out of work.
But the internet is a marvellous tool. It allows someone like me, living in the isolated countryside of S.W. France, to supplement my meagre(!) pension by registering for a site called PeopleperHour.com. When I retired here, I thought I was finished with work for ever and ever. Yet, this site provides quite a stimulus for a writer like me. It requires me to bid for any project that appeals to me and to quote either a fixed-fee or a per hour rate. So far, I have bid for 7 projects, including a book reviewer, blog-writer (!), greetings-card verse compiler and many more....... As this is all very new for me, I'll report soon on how successful or not I've been.
A couple of decades ago, when I was working as an administrator at a major redbrick university in the UK, I hated having to learn how to use, first, a BBC wordprocessor, then an AppleMac, swiftly followed by the advent of the PC. (Back then I wanted to stay in the comfort zone of my beloved IBM golfball typewriter. How times change!) But now I'm really grateful that I was forced to learn, because I now can't do without it. It really provides that essential link with our current lives and the world outside.
C'est merveilleuse!

27th November 2008

It is now one year since the traffic accident that cost the lives of two teenagers when their motorbike collided with a police car in a place called Villiers-le-Bel, a suburb of Paris. Amazingly, the protests that followed it are still going strong now. I still remember all the unrest that followed, when a hundred police officers were injured and several shops and buildings were burned. Six inquiries have been launched into the incident but to date none have been concluded. As in all countries, the judiciary moves at only one pace: dead slow.
But the interesting point for me was how, on the one hand, the poor families of the deceased seek to justify that their children should have been left alone to do whatever criminal action they wished, whilst on the other hand, the police seek to justify that they are above the law and can do as they please on the roads. "The police car, which was traveling without warning lights or signal and above the legal speed limit, could have posed a danger to anyone", said Jean-Pierre Mignard, the lawyer for the victims' families. Well, yes. Lawyers seem to be able to say or do anything in our courts, displaying a marked abililty for acting and obfuscation - in fact, anything that promotes their cause and bank balance, irrespective of whether real justice is seen to be performed.
In the year since the incident, the state has contributed 6.4 million euros to reconstructing a school and a library that were damaged in the unrest. The destoyed Louis-Jouvet library has now been replaced by a new one, the Aimé-Césaire, which opened in September.
And in the future? Will anything change between anarchic young people, hapless keystone cops, and money-grabbing lawyers? On verra. We'll see, but I doubt it.

26th November 2008

Back in May, whilst basking in the Mediterranean warmth, we decided to make sure that the coming winter wasn't filled with steamed-up windows, running with condensation. Yes, that's right, we ordered double-glazing. But, comme d'habitude, we found that the system doesn't work as we'd expected. At the time we thought we'd been clever: get the work done in the summer so that we don't freeze whilst the house is temporarily windowless and doorless. Well, it's now six months later and finally the window man has arrived to do the job! Yes, whilst the temperatures are plummeting alarmingly outside. But, we have to admit - he knows his stuff. He works fast and efficiently, fitting the new doors and windows with an ease that shows he is a true artisan.
I asked him how long it had taken him to learn his trade. His reply? 15 years. The French apprenticeship system puts the UK system to shame. Many young people in France look forward to starting work and learning a trade and the vast majority who don't go on to higher education enter an apprenticeship or another form of vocational training. Few schoolleavers go directly into a job without it. The French apprenticeship scheme is rightly recognised as one of the best in the world. It's a combination of on-the-job training and further education, where 1/2 days per week are spent at an apprentice training centre (centre de formation d'apprentis/CFA). A standard apprenticeship lasts from 1-3 years, depending on the type of profession.
So, do we want to go back to the English double-glazing hype of 'you buy one, you get one free' (BOGOF) ? In a word: no. BOGOF is correct! We may have had to wait an eternity for the Frenchman to arrive, but when he did, the job was done amazingly well. Yet another example: c'est la France.

25th November 2008

It seems that the current hullabaloo about standards and advertising on the BBC is spreading to France too. I, personally, have never understood why the British licence fee was set up to cover the costs of the BBC, but that viewers wishing to view only the commercial channels still have to pay the fee.
Now, French deputies are meeting to examine plans to reform French public broadcasting. The planned law has been controversial since the announcement of Nicolas Sarkozy to halt advertisements on French TV, which is publicly owned, as from Jan 5. Apparently there is to be a vote by the National Assembly on Dec 9, but so far, whatever Nicolas wants, Nicolas gets.
Up until now the public channels in France have been allowed to raise 25% of their revenue from advertising. However, limits have always been imposed on the amount of TV advertising, which may not average more than 6 mph per day, with a maximum of 12 m in any single hour. A TV licence (rédevance sur les postes de télévision) is required by most TV owners in France, costing currently around 120 euros a year for a colour set. The licence fee covers any number of TVs (owned or rented), irrespective of where they’re located in France. Even if you bring a UK set to France and intend only using it to watch videos, you must still have a valid licence. The current method is for the taxe d’habitation (residence tax) bill to include as standard the licence fee, making it far more difficult to dodge paying it. Damn! It’s called inertia selling (‘invented by a Scotsman,’ says H – ‘in Ayrshire’), forcing the few who don’t possess a TV to actively claim back the licence fee tax.
We'll just have to wait and see what happens if the new bill goes through, but my guess is that, as usual, the poor old viewer will have to pay more. Tant pis (too bad).

24th November 2008

Many of you familiar with my blogs lately will know that I'm not a great advocate of celebrity for its own sake. Fame should come from extraordinary feats of skill or bravery, especially for life-time achievements. When I look at Britain's new year's honours lists, for example, I gnash my teeth in frustration at the number of so-called celebrities who have achieved fame simply by their looks or being in the right place at the right time.
It was all the more remarkable, therefore, that I heard of two well-deserved honours for a woman called Simone Veil. It's not often we hear of someone being awarded not only a British damehood but also be elected to the Académie Française, the centuries-old body that acts as guardian of the French language.
Her story is remarkable. She was born in Nice in 1927. Her family was sent to Auschwitz during WW2, where most of them perished. At the age of 18, Veil began studying law and preparing for a life in politics. When she became Minister of Health in the goverment of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1974, Veil helped to legalise abortion. She was then elected first female president of the European parliament in Strasbourg and, in 1998, she was instrumental in pushing for a treaty to establish a constitution for Europe.
What a story! Not many of us who were belittled by Germany during the war, would then set about rising the ranks and personally achieving miraculous results during a lifetime's work. At the age of 81, here is one lady who truly deserves her honours.
Now we have a black President, who represents thousands of downtrodden slaves in America's past, I will look for a future Jewish or Gypsy leader of Germany. Having seen what Veil has done, anything is possible.

I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

For those of you who wish to write your own novel, but have not yet ventured into the murky waters of publishing, here is a cautionary tale. The literary world is governed by the literary agent. What they say is paramount. Publishers themselves no longer receive manuscripts directly from aspiring authors, preferring to have the preliminary selecting and editing done by allied agents, and the agents themselves are so highly-selective it is almost impossible to break through the ranks.
So, how to get yourself noticed? Rule number one: you need to be a 'celebrity', young, thin, famous and beautiful. If, like me, you score dismally in any of these 'required' fields, then another tack is required. No longer is a veritable work of art, your masterpiece, judged solely on its own individual, literary merit. This has been proven by an experiment run by a leading newspaper in which several past classics, e.g. works of Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare etc., have had their character names changed for obfuscation, then sent to leading literary agents. The result? All were rejected! Clearly, these classics did not have sufficient modern 'celebrity' status to merit further reading.
The music industry, too, is full of young beautiful people, dressed amazingly, dancing attractively, but with absolutely no singing talent whatsoever!! Ever since John Lennon asked his audience to 'rattle their jewellery', the old values have gone. No longer does one respect one's elders, nor does one recognise individual merit if it's allied to someone not fitting the 'celebrity' rules posted above.
As in most industries, the literary agents' world is full of charlatans. The best website I have found is the writersservices.com site, listing the reputable manual 'The Artists and Writers Yearbook'. All the agents listed there are members of the reputed Authors' Association (AAS), and you can search therein for the genres you need, with full contact names, addresses and websites. However, many of these agents state that they are not looking for new writers, and of the ones who do, many will not answer so-called 'unsolicited' approaches, emailed enquiries nor emailed submissions! It appears that each agent's working priority is their own already-contracted clients. All new mss received are put in a giant 'slush pile', to be read by a junior member. Hardly any priority is given to them at all. I suspect that many are simply ditched, and of the remainder, only the first few lines are read, if at all.
So, if by now you haven't become completely disillusioned, read this blog next Sunday to find out exactly how to approach these gods of the literary world. After all, you have slaved and sweated over your mss for aeons and aeons. This is not the time to make a costly mistake.
......................................See next Sunday's blog for what to do next

22nd November 2008

There's a TV programme in England called 'I'm a celebrity - get me out of here', in which so-called celebrities compete against each other. Similarly, 'Strictly come dancing' is supposed to show the quality of the stars' dancing ability. Most of these shows comprise young people, but with a smattering of oldies to make up the team. What was surprising last week was how the oldest dancer by far, John Sergeant, continued to get the viewers' votes even if not for his dancing!
The only thing remotely resembling reality TV in France lately has been the socialist elections. But even here, the oldest candidate won. Martine Aubry, who gave France the 35-hour work week, edged out ex-presidential candidate Segolene Royal on Saturday to win the leadership of the opposition Socialist Party by a few dozen votes.
I suppose what I am trying to show here is that the public, at last, recognise that indefinable je ne sais quoi naturally embodied in those of a certain age. But, the public still haven't got it right in my view. We don't want the public to vote for us oldies because we seem 'cuddly' like John Sergeant, but because of the talents we have learned and honed over the years.
So, that is why tomorrow and each successive Sunday on this blog I will do a piece called 'I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!'
You'll have to tune in tomorrow to see the first episode - don't miss it.

21st November 2008

I have often written about the many differences between urban life in the UK and rural life here in France. Noise is a case in point. None of us wants to live in a silent vacuum, but the excesses of modern-day living can reach crisis proportions to our hearing. Living in a major, busy city has consequences for all residents, from the early-morning roadworks just outside your door, to the intense decibels of that disco you attend Friday nights, or even your own alarm clock reverberating inches from your ear every single working day. It's time to stop. There are things you can do about it.
Now, the French know a thing or two about noise. For a start, they fit wooden shutters either side of every window and door. Once shut and locked at night, as well as providing perfect security, they also effectively block out insidious outside noises - like that early-morning cockerel next door! And your alarm clock? Instead of setting it to heart-attack country, use a CD model and set it to play a Chopin nocturne to lull you gently awake. And in the daytime? How to deal with that noisy dog chained up outside? In France you can apply to www.bruit.fr , who act as mediators in local neighbour disputes involving noise. If all else fails, you can even contact your local Mairie who have powers to intervene.
Voila! Problem solved. Your hearing is precious: do all you can to cut down noise levels in your own personal space.

20th November 2008

That woman with the je ne sais quoi - you know, Carla la magnifique - has been in the news again. The imminent arrival in the White House of someone with an African Muslim name has prompted a new campaign for racial integration, supported by the President's wife.
Under the Obama (or Bob the Builder!) slogan "oui, nous pouvons" (yes we can), the manifesto points to the "cruel contrast" between France's racially divided society and the lesson of inclusion that came from the US. Bruni says that she loves multi-ethnic France and that it is time to "help the elite to change". The Obama election has spurred young descendants of non-white immigrants to drop their given names - which their parents gave them to help them integrate - and claim new ones from their Arab/African backgrounds.
Names are a serious matter in France. Until a reform in 1992, parents could only register their babies with prénoms that were on an official list. Even now, to change a first name, you have to file a request with the local prosecutor's office and often argue your case before a judge. But now the trend in which Louis, Laurent or Marie want to become Abdel, Said or Rachida has connotations directly contrary to the French desire for integration of all immigrant groups.
And my opinion? If you choose to live in a different country from your own, do as the Romans do.

19th November 2008

As others of the 'baby-boomer' generation will have noticed, changes in society have followed us all along our life's journey. But have you also noticed that scientists often spend a lot of time, effort and cash to come up with a result that we knew all along? 'New' research from the national statistical institute has found that the French are happier in their mid-sixties than at any other time of their lives. Enjoyment of life goes downhill from the age of 20 and reaches a trough when people reach 50. Then la joie de vivre kicks in just before retirement age and builds to a peak in the late sixties. Good! That suits me fine. The researchers, via Insee, the statistics institute, produced their study from annual surveys since 1975 by the E.U.'s Eurobarometer agency. The downward trend to midlife misery is broadly matched around Europe. The sixties "are an age when leisure time, health and good income come together," the report says. Yes: that's why I wrote my 'Paradis' book.
The happiness curve suggests a correlation here: France offers earlier and better-paid retirement to its citizens than any other big European state. The French in their sixties report greater happiness than most other Europeans. So early retirement makes people happy. Wasn't it the philosopher Mill who said that we should all pursue personal happiness, so long as it doesn't harm others.
But what's this I read today? M. Sarkozy now wants to raise the retirement age to 70! 'You can't use a "pay-as-you-go" system if the number of workers is decreasing relative to those who are retiring.'
So here we go again. Some people never learn.

18th November 2008

One of the things we really like about living in France is the excellent health care. So, it was with chagrin that I learned of a planned healthcare shake-up in 2009. The Health Minister, Roselyn Bachelot, wants every hospital in France to have its own manager with its own individual budget. Non, non, non! She's only got to look across the Channel to see what a disaster that idea has been. Why do 'new suits' always want to change everything? If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
The other day I read with sorrow of the death of the young actor, Guillaume Depardieu, who was the son of actor Gerard Depardieu. He was only 38. Despite the otherwise excellent health care in France, he died in hospital from pneumonia following a knee injury. Have you noticed how many people seem to die of pneumonia in hospital? Frank Sinatra comes to mind. Now, you wouldn't think that someone would die of pneumonia in a place like L.A. Could it be that the drugs that hospitals dispense around the world are just TOO STRONG? Could it be that the medicine is worse than the original complaint? The too-strong drugs override the body's natural immunity and cause you to die of something ridiculous like pneumonia, which you would never have contracted at home. As my brother always says: keep away from hospitals, don't take drugs, let your body recover from colds all on its own, and you'll live long!

17th November 2008

This morning, France's newspapers have banner headlines: Prepare yourself for a week of strikes which will disrupt public services. Where have I heard all this before? It was decades ago when a very different Conservative leader was elected into 10 Downing Street that the same problem reared its ugly head. The UK was then labelled the 'sick man of Europe'.
Now the disease has reached these shores. France is bracing for a week of transport and public sector strikes affecting rail transport, schools and postal services as unions launch a spate of campaigns against the proposed labour reforms of its new President. Hundreds of domestic and international flights were cancelled for a third day on Sunday as Air France pilots pursued a four-day strike, due to end later today. Tomorrow, French train drivers stage the first of two strikes over freight sector reforms and on Thursday, demonstrations by teachers over budget cuts threaten school closures. As though this weren't enough, next Saturday postal workers say they will strike for a day over partial privatisation plans.
Give me a break! When will people ever learn? It's the old political divide all over again. A new leader is elected on a ticket of reform, only to subsequently suffer the consequences by petty, selfish, groups out to maintain their own insular aims at the expense of the whole nation's more global wishes.
All this worries me of course. There's another new leader the other side of the Atlantic. Let's hope, after the honeymoon is over, that he doesn't suffer the same as President Sarkozy (and Margaret Thatcher before him) as his new idealistic policies start to bite.
Until we learn from history, we are set to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

I told you I was ill!


I shook my head from all this past reverie and put my mind to the job now in hand. We had the French attestation (paper confirmation) so went along to our local doctor in the next village. His office was situated on the Place de la République, over the railway line with its frightening red and white barriers permanently at half-mast, over the picturesque bridge shading the river Seye, and then left at the little lane by the expensively-lit pharmacie.
In the salle d’attente waiting room were seated three other people, all elderly. We entered, wishing them all a bonjour, as is the custom. We refrained from the usual ça va? (asking how they were) because clearly if they were all right, they wouldn’t have been there. We looked around for a receptionist, but evidently such an officious person, so beloved back home, wasn’t required here. We waited. Soon, the doctor breezed in, issued bonjours to us all, then welcomed the next in line into his surgery.
I tried to make polite conversation with the lady sitting on my right.
‘Monsieur le docteur, il est un bon docteur?’ (Is he a good doctor?)
‘Mais oui,’ (of course) shaking her head at such a stupid question.
I shut up and concentrated on translating the several posters pinned to the walls. As I was neither pregnant nor likely to be suffering from Aids, I didn’t bother attempting to read further. When the time eventually came for us to go in, I shook hands with the doctor and explained as best I could that I had come as translator for my husband. He nodded and ushered us into his surgery.
‘What has brought you to my surgery this morning?’ he enquired politely, whilst punching up some details on his PC.
‘Our Citroën C4!’ said H, quick as a flash.
Nothing wrong with his humour then.
The doctor looked puzzled, as well he might. However, we have hit upon a useful introductory phrase, which always seems to work. ‘J’ai mal au…….,’ (I've a pain here....) pointing to the offending part of the body. Soon the offending leg was being prodded, pummelled and the knee hit with a hammer. The doctor looked, then gravely pronounced:
C’est normal pour un homme de votre âge.’ (It's normal for a man of your age).
‘But, my other leg is just the same age, and that one doesn’t hurt.’
The doctor grunted several times, making copious notes into a file, before telling me that it was best if we sought a second opinion at the local Hôpital Chartreuse in yet another town, Villefranche de Rouergue.
‘Why do we need a second opinion, when we don’t know the first yet?’ said he logically.
‘Shh,’ said I resignedly.
The Hôpital Chartreuse proved clean, friendly and efficient. I had decided, whilst there, to take up the offer for me to have a mammogram. The French health service, rather like the NHS, invites all ladies over fifty to have a free test and as I had undergone this procedure several times in the UK I didn’t think it would be a problem. However, I had forgotten that tiny problem of language.
‘Please fill in this form,’ said the receptionist.
I glanced quickly at it, but was puzzled.
‘Why does it ask me for the name of my daughter? How did you know I had a daughter?’
‘I don’t understand, madame.’
‘See, here,’ said I pointing to the first line. ‘Nom de jeune fille…’ (young girl's name)
‘No,’ she explained resignedly. ‘We need you to put the name you had before you were married.’
I felt foolish. And the feeling persisted right into the consulting room. The nurse gabbled something quickly before leaving the room. Did she say I was supposed to undress? What if she didn’t say that and then I am led in my nakedness along a public corridor? Oh God, why ever did we come to a foreign country…?
But once I had at last finished with my radiology, and I was thankfully pronounced fit and well, we proceeded to the Physiology Department, where H’s treatment proceeded much better. The Korean doctor we saw there was charm personified. I explained as best I could H’s leg problem, furnishing the doctor with the usual difficult-to-read note from our own doctor. He got straight down to business, asking if the patient could lie down on the narrow, short (!) bed (all Frenchmen are short) whilst he did several tests on H’s nerves and muscles. At some point the doctor unravelled a long cable with a needle on the end. I thought I’d better say something.
Uh, mon mari n’aime pas les aiguilles.’ (My husband doesn't like needles). This translates medically as either ‘my husband has a low pain threshhold’ or more realistically ‘my husband is a coward.’ Either way, the doctor seemed to catch on straight away. He told me that as soon as he was about to puncture the patient’s foot with the long needle, I should divert his (not the doctor’s) attention. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this, but waited for him to nod, before suddenly coughing. My cough was followed instantly by a howl of pain from the unfortunate patient.
The doctor said that in his professional opinion the difficulties with the leg stemmed from problems in the lower back and the fact that H wasn’t getting any younger. I translated. To which H replied: ‘it’s not younger I want to get, but older...!’
Anyway, the doctor pronounced that the problem with the leg was nothing too serious that could not be corrected by the purchase of a bicycle.
‘See,’ I told H, ‘it’s what I’ve always thought:
He says you’re to get on your bike!'

15th November 2008

Writing occasionally allows me to be creative and, sometimes, to do something extraordinary.
Earlier this week The Telegraph had a piece on Clint Eastwood's film career. "The main thing is I'm a storyteller," he says. "I ask myself, 'Is this the kind of story I would be interested in seeing?' If the answer is 'yes', then I go with it."
As he has aged he has branched out into more forgiving roles which allow him to use his age as a plot device. "I like heroes that have a personal flaw or an obstacle they have to overcome," he says. "Those are the kind of characters I can relate to. Besides, I'm too old to be playing a young character doing things nobody would believe."
Whilst reading this, I thought instantly of the perfect role for him. A while ago the actor was awarded the coveted Legion d'Honneur by the then French President Jacques Chirac. In his acceptance speech the actor said that his lifelong desire would be to make a film in France. At 78, Clint Eastwood would be ideal to play the part of Philippe Petain in my novel 'Je ne regrette rien' (ISBN 978-1-84753-366-1). The role would have all the elements that suit his style: a man beset by inner feelings of guilt and anxiety but determined to do what he considered right for his country. So, I did something extraordinary. I sent him a copy of my novel.
So, come on Clint, MAKE MY DAY!

..........Don't miss Part 3 of 'I told you I was ill' tomorrow

14th November 2008

I like a country with four definite seasons. Like the raging waters of our local river, the constantly moving seasons tell us that time is moving on and we must enjoy our lives.
It's now mid-November, time to use what I like best about the winter: our wood-burning insert stove. There's nothing like a real fire. It takes me back to my childhood, a time before central heating, when everyone had a coal-house outside and you learned how to light the fire using twists of newspaper and pyramids of wood-twigs, to allow the air to flow underneath.
In modern-day France, around 7 million homes use wood for heating (chauffage au bois) even though wood can be expensive. People generally order ready-sawn logs directly from wood merchants - if you can understand them. In my experience they speak French like nothing I've ever heard before....a sort of grunting dialect, that suddenly becomes transformed into something comprehensible the minute that money is discussed. They usually charge around 35 euros per cu.m. The trouble is, they won't deliver unless you order a lorry load - and we don't always need that much (because our insert supplements our already-expensive gas central heating). So, what to do? Yes, you've guessed. I send Him indoors out at dead of night to our local forest. He takes with him the wheelbarrow (after carefully oiling it to stop any creaking - the barrow, not him) and comes back with all the fallen branches he can fit into the load. He says he's branching out. It may not be entirely legal, but what the hell. It's free and nearby. After all, almost a quarter of France is covered by forest. And if he's stopped by the Mairie? The usual je ne comprends pas generally suffices.

13th November 2008

Despite the current recession there are still UK people looking to start a gite business in France. For those with money, the dream is to buy a rambling old stone farmhouse, convert the many dependances into individual gites, and for the owner to live in the main house permanently to oversee things. For the less-affluent, what they seek is a buy-to-let mortgage, but not all French lenders will offer mortgages for this type of purchase because they see it as essentially a business venture. However, some do, taking future income from the business into account. They will, however, typically want at least 30% deposit up-front plus all legal costs, together with a business plan and projected income figures to work out the level of permitted borrowing.
If all this seems daunting in this climate, never fear. Help is at hand. Apparently, if you can find someone else to run the gite in your absence (e.g. an agent), while you continue working in the UK, the deposit requirement would be considerably reduced as the borrower would be deemed less reliant upon the gite income. And, because you would still be working, your UK income would be taken into account so raising the mortgage amount you could borrow.
Even non-married partners can secure a joint-mortgage in France - as can friends and colleagues - but to be able to use joint incomes as collateral, non-married partners must have secured a French pacs agreement. Friends, siblings or colleagues, however, would need to prove that they could afford to service the whole mortgage should the others default.
Still scary though!
Think I'll stay with what we've got. May not be much, but it's all ours - every euro's worth.

12th November 2008

Whilst President Nicolas Sarkozy was yesterday laying a wreath at Verdun, we decided to attend a much smaller ceremony in the heart of our own village. In France, national days are always held on the actual date, rather than on the nearest Sunday or Monday, as in the UK. It's always difficult to know what time to attend, as the Maire has to perform the same ceremony at each village in his commune. So, at around 10.30 a.m., and wearing black coats, we walked up our lane, avoiding the enticing aromas emanating from the boulangerie. Although every other shop was closed all day, it being a national holiday, the boulangerie was open as usual. And so the temptation continues.......
Crossing over the main road - not a car in sight - we ambled down past the crumbling facade of our ancient castle, and approached the place which houses the bronze figure of the unknown soldier. It is a tiny, garlanded, site with the tricolour flag at half-mast. Fortunately there is a bench as nothing moves fast in France. At around 11.30 a.m. the Maire arrived direct from the ceremony at nearby Verfeil. In previous years the service has been heralded by an accordionist playing la marseillaise. But it seems that this unfortunate gentleman had now died, so the music had to be played on a portable music player instead. Domage. As we looked at the faces around us, we were pleased to see a good proportion of English. I think it's so important to try to integrate, and what better way than to attend a ceremony commemorating when both countries fought side-by-side.
After the ceremony, Him indoors (especially) was pleased to discover that the Maire had sponsored drinks at the village's only bar, le cafe sport. But for me? I'm not much of a drinker. One glass of wine is the most I can take at any one time - unless it's champagne of course! But it seemed that Pernod was the proffered drink. Uggh! Still, chacun a son gout. (Everyone to his own taste).
At least we've done our duty this year.

11th November 2008

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
John McCrea

On the day when France celebrates the 90th anniversary of the end of WW1, a government-commissioned report says France should cut back on the number of official memorial days. As you can imagine, this statement has created conflict all on its own!
On the one side are war veterans everywhere, horrified at the very thought that the world should forget all those who fell during both world wars.
On the other side are those who say there are already 11 other national days in France. "It is not healthy that within half a century, the number of commemorations has doubled," said historian Andre Kaspi. So, the report recommends retaining Armistice Day, the May 8 celebration to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Bastille Day celebration on July 14, relegating all the others. I, of course, agree to keep the May 8 day. But to forget 11 Nov and keep July 14? It's as if they're saying 'let's forget all those brave WW1 soldiers who gave their lives for their country, but (rather like the UK on 5 Nov) let's celebrate those lawless people who stormed the Bastille all those years ago and beheaded the monarchy via Madame Guillotine!'
In contrast, a $500,000 memorial has just been unveiled in Normandy in honour of the forgotten US Navy servicemen who took part in the D-Day landings. And WW1, fought in large part on French soil, cost more than 1.4 million French lives and remains firmly anchored in the country's memory even after the death this year of Lazare Ponticelli, its last surviving veteran.
And for the future? All those poppies will symbolically lie in the soil undisturbed for years, in the hope that no future battlefield will force us to look fully at all that 'red' blood again. Amen.

10th November 2008

However wonderful it is to live in the Mediterranean region, with all that sunshine and open space, there are nevertheless worries. Especially for a pessimist like me! What if a global catastrophe occurs? What if I have a family disaster/emergency on my hands and there is no-one nearby to whom I can turn? Another thought: what if a family emergency occurs elsewhere and no-one knows where to contact me?
For all these reasons, I was pleased to see that the British Embassy have launched their new LOCATE service. British citizens, whether living permanently abroad or preparing for a trip, can now tell them their foreign address or destination so that the embassy and crisis staff can provide better assistance in an emergency such as a tsunami or terrorist attack. Then, if a major catastrophe does occur they'll have an instant record of your details so they can contact you to make sure you’re OK and provide advice. Also, it's an invaluable tool if family and friends need to get in touch with you as they can help them to find you. All British Nationals travelling and living overseas are encouraged to register, even for short trips. How do I register with LOCATE? Complete the short online registration form. Your details will be stored on a secure database which can only be accessed by staff at British Embassies or their Consular Crisis Group. You can delete the details of a trip once it has ended or if your plans change. You can even subscribe for country travel advice email alerts.
Anything to reassure worriers like me, living far away from their country of birth, is a good idea as far as I'm concerned. I'm not worried about the 'big brother' afficionados. For peace-loving, law-abiding citizens like me, I'm just happy to find something to help in a crisis situation and reduce delay and worry in times of stress for family and friends back home.

I told you I was ill!

Part 2.
Later on, the afternoon proved to us what we had always suspected: the French are a nation of form-fillers. Eventually, I was issued with un attestation from the Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie (CPAM) attesting to the fact that we were both now eligible for French medical benefits. It seemed that in practice, all French citizens pay up front for their medical costs and receive some back. The normal ratio is one hundred percent up front, and five days later, seventy percent of the cost is refunded directly to your French bank account. We still didn’t understand when we might receive our carte vitale, that all-important card that would give us credibility in our new country, but in the meantime I suppose the attestation will have to do. Mind you my inner neuroses were working non-stop. I could visualise that nightmare scenario of our lying in the road somewhere waiting for the ambulance to arrive, then groggily trying to explain to the trauma team just why we hadn’t a carte vitale but that we had got a vital piece of paper that was probably in my handbag somewhere!
Of course, if we hadn’t been residents and merely visiting the country, we could have applied for a CEAM card, which gives visitors the benefits of European-wide health insurance. But we had to come to terms with it. We were now bone-fide residents and must deal with the issues involved.
On the plus-side, it was clear that the standard of hospital treatment in France is second to none, and we were told there are virtually no waiting lists for operations or hospital beds. Apparently public and private medicine operate alongside one another with no difference in the standard of care between them. Everyone tells us that the quality of health care and facilities in France is among the best in the world, and much private treatment costs considerably less than back home. If ever we develop cataracts, for example, the cost of private treatment would be around nine hundred pounds sterling here, compared with three thousand pounds in the UK. Enough said.
However, our neighbour Franck told us that la France has long been a nation of hypochondriacs, famously satirised by Molière in Le Malade Imaginaire. He told us that he reckoned the French visit their doctors more often than most other Europeans and buy large quantities of medicines, health foods and vitamin pills. This must be why, in nearly every run-down dilapidated village we have driven through, the pharmacie looks the most modern, expensive building in the place.
H looked thoughtful. ‘The French must be hypochondriacs; I mean, everywhere I look are adverts for Piles.’
‘No!’ I told him horrified. ‘Those aren’t adverts for haemorrhoids; piles is the French word for batteries!’ I just knew that this foreign language thing would get us into trouble.
When Franck told us that the incidence of heart disease in France is among the lowest in the world because of the high consumption of red wine, my resident alcoholic’s face lit up. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?
We both wondered, though, why the NHS couldn’t operate in the same manner as the French health service. It seems obvious to everyone except the UK government that the increasing size of the population can no longer sustain a completely free health service. Some sort of charge needs to be levied on all wage-earners. We thought long and hard about the difficulties we had always experienced with English hospitals. The problem seems to lie not in the staff, who always appear surprisingly cheerful in the circumstances, but with the fabric of hospital buildings built in another time with a different set of values. No longer are staff in English hospitals prepared to scrub floors on their hands and knees, preferring modern polishing machines instead. Hospital clinicians seem conditioned to rely on modern antibiotics to kill germs absorbed internally by their patients, rather than the preventative, old-style carbolic administered liberally on floors and walls to disinfect the building rather than the patient. I just don’t know why the British put up with such a system. Closing all the old Victorian hospitals and building new, purpose-built buildings capable of maintaining high levels of surgical cleanliness would be a start. The hospitals everyone loves are not the bricks and mortar that hold them together, but the people who actually serve within them. These caring people will still be there in newer, cleaner and more hygienic surroundings. It is the very least staff should expect and what patients deserve, particularly in times of crisis. And if all this requires wage-earners to contribute more, then so be it. It would be worth it.
......to be continued next Sunday