I am still here in Paris, but I recently took a brief return to England to see my niece for the first time and to celebrate her first birthday. Although my life in Paris has only amounted to little over two years, it was still a strange experience to observe English traditions and behaviour having spent some time away.
When Mme. Grenouille used to come and visit I was living in Greater Manchester (close to Stalybridge) at the time. I remember trips to Liverpool and Manchester where her jaw would gape, watching in wonderment at the carefree fashion of the British. Back in her native pocket of Paris, the majority of people dress the same with a very chic/classic look, rarely in anything colourful or attention grabbing, and certainly nothing that reveals long thighs or exposed belly buttons. Even baby clothes are non-adventurous here, and bébé Tétard attracted some bemused looks in Paris, when we dressed him in an English Halloween skeleton babygro last year. She was also dumbfounded (and impressed) by the British queue-forming etiquette. I hadn’t fully understood her amazement until we popped into Leicester, where outside the pound shop (incidentally you’d never find the equivalent of the pound shop in France!), a colossal queue composed of all ethnicities had sprouted into a perfect, patient line. I’d almost forgotten such bus queues ever existed. In Paris you could be eight months pregnant and knocked out the way whilst getting through the door, because some young fit person wants to find a seat.
During the week, we drove down to Suffolk, Bury Saint Edmunds way to visit ‘Donkey Nanny’. When I was a young nipper one set of grandparents lived on a large orchard with donkeys, and the other in a council estate in Norwich (the city where I was born). The latter had a cuckoo clock and became ‘Cockoo Nanny’ and the other ‘Donkey Nanny’. Donkey Nan is getting on in years, but has spent her whole life working long hours outdoors and is still very active, healthy and with a sharp mind. She also has a wonderful Suffolk country accent, and does all the stereotypical country Nan things, like making cakes and delicious crumbles, and tending to a flowery garden. She took us on a tour of her village whilst walking the dog, pointing out some of the nice country houses and churches built from flint.
We took her out to the National Trust’s Ickworth House, just visiting the gardens so missing out on their silverfish collection in the museum room, which I assume are aquatic, as I had an interesting picture of a taxidermy insect thing going on in my head. The weather was grand, the gardens well groomed (the park was created by Capability Brown) and the neoclassical architecture, resplendent. In the evening I met with cousins I have not seen in twenty plus years, and enjoyed a family barbecue with chilli burgers and fragrant sausages (I’m drooling on my keyboard as I type).
Most of the week was spent in Leicestershire’s Ashby-de-la-Zouch, with my folks, where in the course of another barbecue, a hawk descended into their small town garden, and sat on their baby blackbird before flying off with it.
My niece’s first birthday was at Chester Zoo, and we very much enjoyed the day out despite my ambivalence to these places. The bats (one of my favourite animals) had a great enclosure, but it wasn’t the same for some of the larger creatures. The bustle of tourists racing from pen to pen, with cameras and videos is also annoying, though I did take just a couple of photos in a somewhat sombre, anthropomorphical fashion. Bébé Tétard was completely indifferent to his first zoo experience and sulked in his pushchair for most of the day.
When it came time to return, we arrived at East Midlands airport with at least two hours in hand. Despite we were near the front of the queue, BMIBaby were insistent that everybody squeeze their hand luggage into their metal measuring contraption. This caught out a significant number of people who had to cough up, and I thought I would fall victim with my trouble-free, well air-travelled rucksack which was plenty short enough, but a bit podgy for all the things I’d stuffed inside. I resolved the problem by taking out my camera and handing it over to my mum, and then putting it back in the rucksack afterwards. It took some time before we got through, so I said my farewells and went through security where a large queue had already formed. As we piled our belongings into the plastic tubs, security pulled out all four of our items. We were made to drink some of the emergency cartons of baby milk (I left that treat to Mme. Grenouille) and empty the rest into bottles. They searched the baby’s case (which was only clothes and soft toys) and were baffled because their machine apparently showed something else was in there, and as they worked their way through (with the baby crying) we were stuck for a long, long time whilst crowds of people piled past us. The security chap looked a little embarrassed when he eventually picked up Mme. Grenouille’s handbag and said ‘I don’t suppose this is yours too?’ and apologised saying it had just been flagged for a random check, as he removed the camera and checked it for traces of semtex. By the time we got through to the boarding gate, the queue was boarding the plane, and this was despite we’d arrived two hours in advance! Incidentally BMIBaby do not offer priority boarding for babies or pregnant women. Even as we boarded they were checking the size of luggage to squeeze out the last few remaining pounds from as many passengers wallets and purses as possible; with my hands full and carrying a baby they didn’t trouble me fortunately. I was also a little peeved on the flight out from Charles de Gaulle Paris when the lady at the check-in desk tried to insist we all pay check-in tax! Fortunately we found a print-out that showed we had already paid which was met with a minor apology. They also send an email two days prior to flying, saying if you don’t confirm your passport and identity online you will be charged for that too. I thought it a hoax until I googled it, but it turned out to be genuine and fortunately I’d avoided more fees. The perils of budget airlines! Even bébé Tétard’s seat (who was 10 months old) was the same price as us adults. This video “cheap flights” is quite amusing and holds many truths.
Once the Roissy bus took us from Charles de Gaulle to Opera Paris, we were soon reminded that Paris is not baby friendly. You can either suffer the misery of a cantankerous Parisian taxi driver or risk the metro. Dragging hand luggage, a large suitcase and baby down the obligatory steps is challenge enough, but then you have to find an attendant and ask them to open the larger gates (if possible) or face the obstacle challenge of squeezing everything, over or under the normal turnstyle barriers trying to avoid not getting trapped in the mechanism yourself. There’s usually another set of steps to negotiate, and then the subsequent struggle to squeeze yourself onto the train without crushing feet or becoming a barricade to those who want to exit at following stations. Thankfully the apartment is on a direct line from Opera and the metro exit a mere half minute walk from where we live.