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.......