People watching

Is there anything better than sitting down with a nice hot or cold drink, depending on the season, and indulging in a spot of people watching? My beloved and I adore – okay it’s mostly me –  speculating on the nationality, profession and reasons why other people are inhabiting the same space as us.

When I was a kid, I had NO shame. I would go over and ask. Of course, when you’re a cute kid – and I was cute –  you can get away with this. In fact, totally unprompted and uninvited, I would sit down and subject the person or persons who were the object of my speculation to a barrage of questions. I don’t remember anyone refusing to respond, ever.

I’ll be honest, as I’ve grown older, little has changed. I loved auditing lots of different companies because I could legitimately ask them loads of questions in the course of my work. Also, I could tell you loads about everyone who worked with me but I know the reverse wouldn’t have been the case. They’d have told you I was married, had worked for the company for x years, supported Aston Villa and then they’d have struggled. They might’ve said I was a good boss, a good listener, someone who “walked the talk, ” who knows?

Nowadays I exercise my endless curiosity interviewing fit, young, guys and gals who cycle. But, to be honest, no one is safe. Sit next to me at dinner and you’ll leave having had an enjoyable time. I’ll know pretty much all there is to know about you, while you’ll know very little about me. You’ll have been hacked without even realising it. The upside is it will’ve cost you nothing.

It’s not that I’m deliberately coy, I do write a blog after all.  It’s just that as well as being able to talk the hind leg off a donkey, I’m a very good listener. I lean in, ask a leading question and then nod encouragingly. It NEVER fails. My husband often says he feels sorry for my victims. “Victims?” I like to think of them as willing participants. After all, who doesn’t love talking about themselves?

Of course, I’ve had to restrain myself. I can’t go round accosting strangers and asking them all manner of questions, hence the endless speculation. However, as I get even older, I plan on becoming a sweet, determined, eccentric old dear who asks anyone, anything she wants. There’s got to be some benefits to being elderly!

I’m not on holiday, I’m working!

One of my sisters bought this cushion which says: “Happiness is having a large loving family…..in another city!” So true –  although to be on the safe side, we’re in another country –  and never more so than the past couple of weeks while that sister has been over here on an extended vacation. She’s not staying with me (thank heavens) but is just down the road in our old holiday flat which she and her husband from us over 10 years ago.

One of the biggest problems of living (and working) on the Cote d’Azur is that when people come to visit, as they inevitably do, they’re on holiday. Furthermore, they tend to presume that you’re on holiday too. In fact, they think you’re on holiday all the time!

The worst offenders are my family, specifically this sister and her husband. When they first bought the apartment from us,  I offered to lend them a helping hand until they’d become accustomed to the way things worked in France. Sadly, because Big Sis is always available, neither of them ever bothers to sort out anything on their own. To add insult to injury, they rarely bother to follow my advice and then wonder why things go wrong. Nor have they tried to learn much French in that time, relying instead on me to translate everything.

This past week my beloved was on a business trip and I was looking forward to time on the bike and tackling my clients’ projects. Unfortunately, I’ve spent several days sorting out my sister’s ill-fated attempt to buy stuff over the internet. The last time she did this I had to accept delivery of her bed head after she’d returned home, and then pay to have it taken down to her apartment!

This time she bought a number of bedside tables so that she can finally return the ones I lent her over 10 years ago. Needless to say they are no longer in a pristine condition and I’ll have to pay to get them restored. Initially, she complained about having to wait in all morning for a delivery and had me chasing it up. I managed to persuade the delivery man to take the package up to her apartment. They typically drop off at the door to apartment blocks.

She signed for the delivery, noting that she’d not unpacked and checked it before the carrier left, as I advised. The box was damaged and so was one of the bedside tables. I immediately notified the vendor and subsequently sent photos showing the damage. Initially, she wanted to return both but has now decided to keep the one that’s undamaged. This has generated a flurry of emails which I have had to translate and then craft her response.

The other bedside tables she’d ordered cannot be delivered while she’s still over here. I don’t want to accept delivery, just in case she doesn’t like them, so we’re attempting to cancel the order on the basis that the delivery is taking a month longer than indicated when she placed the order. More emails, more translations.

I had hoped that buying stuff over the internet would avoid the necessity to go shopping with her – my idea of hell. However, now that I’ve resolved the problem with the bedside tables she’s moved onto lighting. Asking if I could take her to places that sell lighting. My sister fails to appreciate that unlike her I don’t regard shopping as a leisure activity. I’ve suggested a couple of places she can visit but I am so not going with her. Trouble is she only has the car for a couple more days and doesn’t do public transport.

I can only thank my lucky stars that I’m off to Paris while she’s on her own for a week pending the arrival of one of her friends for the final week of her (far too long) vacation. Also, thank goodness they bought their own apartment otherwise they’d be staying with me, expecting me to wait on them hand and foot and, while we might not have to worry about bedside tables, I’m quite sure there would be something else.

The hills are alive with the sound of…………………

I’d like to be able to tell you that the hills are alive with the sound of music, or at least birdsong, but I can’t. Instead they’re primarily alive with the sound of chain saws and mowers. Several of our trees toppled over in the recent bad weather, plus the plot immediately to the rear of the Domaine is being cleared. Whether this is ahead of further construction or just a tidy up, I know not.

In addition to which, today the men from SNADEC have been clearing the building’s drains. I suppose they do this on a regular basis to prevent the build up of fatbergs. I suspect the contents of our smaller bergs are far less interesting and certainly not, like those in London, worthy of their own television programme.

large blackbirds

This hive of activity from 08:00 in the morning is tending to drown out the lovely birdsong at this time of year when the birds are building nests and laying eggs. A few years back, a large number of rooks/ravens/crows aka very large blackbirds, sinister enough for a starring role in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” made their home in the Domaine. They make the most awful racket and generally boss all the other birds about. They like to sit on our terrace railings and, if you encourage them to move off, tend to regard you quite belligerently.

One landed on the railings yesterday with a branch in his mouth. It was far too large to call a twig. I was surprised he or she could fly with it, but it swooped off no trouble. The rooks/ravens/crows whatever have tended to colonise the woods to the rear of the Domaine leaving the trees in the more formal and informal gardens to the front for the smaller birds who wisely steer well clear of the larger ones.

Let’s not forget the ducks from our lake who are often given to wandering around the gardens at this time of year, evidently up to no good. They generally don’t stray too far away and particularly not after the unfortunate duck crushing incident  a few years back. However, you do have to keep an eye out for them as they’re given to waddling, or worse stopping, on the access road and regarding you with their heads to one side.

The Domaine sits above the A8 motorway and main railway line, neither of which are audible unless you strain your ears. Of course, the trains are only running for three days out of every five at the moment in protest at changes proposed by M Macron for new railway employees. Those currently employed have jobs for life and the ability to retire at a ridiculously low age. My money’s on M Macron as the railway workers have little or no support from the general public.

The recent mix of sunshine and showers means the grass has grown alarmingly quickly and the gardeners are out on their ride around mower. It looks great fun and I’d love to have a go. The bits the mower can’t reach are tackled with a mighty big strimmer. As if that wasn’t enough noise, loads of my neighbours are availing themselves of tax breaks and upgrading their windows to double-glazing. Such are the sounds of spring!

A bad case of cabin fever

When you’ve spent all of your working life at a desk in an office, one of the joys of retirement – or early retirement in my case – is pleasing one’s self. Move to a warmer climate and instead of being cooped up inside, you’re out and about every day soaking up that all important vitamin D. Or, I was. After last year’s wonderful weather, it’s suddenly payback time.

When it rains in France, it pours. For a morning, for an afternoon, and then the sun comes out again. A significant amount of rainfall occurs in early spring – to help stuff grow – and late autumn. But this spring has been quite exceptional, and not in a good way! We’ve have four times as much rain as normal in the month of March and April’s been a shocker. We’re currently half-way through ten days of quite Dantesque conditions, Noah has the Ark on standby, and I’m very grateful I live in a flat built on a hill.

It’s been far too wet, all day and all night long, to do anything other than the most urgent of tasks. Forget going out for a bike ride, I’d be drenched from head to foot before leaving the Domaine. This means I’ve been on the home trainer (again).

I read in the paper this morning that we’d had a mini-tornado overnight which damaged a number of industrial units, restaurants and shops. Thankfully, no one was hurt. It was strong enough to move the garden furniture on the balcony and wrench plants from my pots!  Plus, it woke me up and I sleep like the dead, particularly when I don’t have to listen to my beloved’s snoring. More hail is on the menu today. If that wasn’t enough. I spoke to someone yesterday in Normandy who said they were enjoying sunshine and 17°C.

The weather, rather than the price of fruit and vegetables, has been the main topic of conversation with my neighbours when we meet in the lift and common parts. All have declared it the worst spring ever. I suspect there’s a wee bit of exaggeration there but it’s certainly our wettest and coldest spring since we moved to France.

Looking on the bright side – because there’s always one. I haven’t needed to clean my car –  why bother when it’s only going to get wet again. The heavy rain has done a grand job of cleaning the terrace, so I don’t have to do it. The trees, shrubs and grass are a lovely bright Kelly green. We shouldn’t run out of water anytime soon.


Hopefully though the end is in sight. The weather forecast for next week looks so much better. Which is fortunate, as one of my sun-loving sisters is arriving on Monday and woe betide me if she doesn’t get wall-to-wall sunshine.

(Images 3, 4 and 5 courtesy of Nice-Matin)

Things about France that surprised me: popularity of le hamburger

Allegedly the hamburger has overtaken the ham baguette in popularity in France. Now, I do find this hard to believe even though I live a short walk from two branches of McDonalds, one of which is a drive in, both of which are gold mines. Initially, I couldn’t understand the attraction but, having lived here a while, I now do.

Yes, McDo’s – as we call it in France – the world’s largest fast-food corporation has turned the home of world-renowned gastronomy and Michelin-starred restaurants into its second-most profitable market in the world. The chain has just shy of 1,400 restaurants in France — all locally owned franchises — and over 70,000 employees.

How has this happened? The three main reasons for McDo’s success are local responsiveness, rebranding and a robust corporate ecosystem. In other words, they’ve made it their own.

Local Responsiveness

Firstly, it understood the cultural particularities of French consumers who rarely snack between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Consequently, French meal times last longer, and more food is consumed through multiple courses, creating unique opportunities and challenges for fast-food dining. McDonald’s installed electronic ordering kiosks to free up staff to provide table-side service, particularly in taking orders from lingering diners inclined to order an additional coffee or dessert item. As a result, the average French consumer spends about four times what their American counterparts spend.

McDo7

To solve the issue of empty tables during non-meal times, McDonald’s introduced the much envied McCafé in France — a range of high-end coffees and pastries available from a separate counter. McCafé pastries come from the Holder Group, a baking conglomerate that operates the popular Paul and luxury Ladurée brand stores, which increased revenues by 5% but also contributed to the embourgeoisement (gentrification) of the chain’s image. It subsequently added another ubiquitous French food icon: the baguette (also supplied by the Holder group).

Ambience

Probably the most striking aspect about McDo’s isn’t on the menu — it is the restaurants themselves. McDonald’s franchisees have invested heavily in refining their tasteful, diverse and regionally appropriate restaurant interiors to create a welcoming environment which encourages customers to linger. Outside, the store’s visual profile and signage are so subdued as to be practically invisible to passers-by until customers are directly in front of the restaurant itself. And, let’s not forget the free WiFi which was introduced back in 2005.

McDo8Header

In trying to appeal to the modern restaurant goer, McDo’s has heavily publicised the “greening” of its image. Here, the golden arches are not surrounded by that familiar red background, but by a forest green colour. Furthermore, the company heavily promotes its green credentials in reducing gas emissions and recycling frying oil, paper and plastic.

In line with the strategy of redefining its image, McDo’s includes nutritional and caloric information on all all food packaging. In addition, it has reduced the amount of salt on french fries, introduced fresh fruit packets (2007) but “le Big Mac” with a whole-wheat-bun option has sadly been discontinued.

Suppliers as Partners

McDo9

Perhaps the company’s greatest strength, has been its ability to redefine the American model. It has created an entire ecosystem that has been critical to its current success. McDo’s ad campaigns tell customers more about itself, where it comes from, what ingredients it uses, and who it employs – demonstrating how French it has become. It then strengthened ties to French agribusiness, advertising widely that 95% of the company’s ingredients come from its partners in France, with the rest coming from the European Union.

McDo’s leverages its franchises and their proximity to customers by ensuring that 20 elected franchisee representatives vote on every marketing campaign and product launch before they are implemented. It consulted French doctors when discussing how to improve McDonald’s nutritional content, and engaged with Greenpeace over its environmental strategy.

Ask any French person the “nationality” of McDonald’s, and he or she will most certainly say it is an American brand. However, 95% of all McDo’s products are sourced from French farms. The company’s management, employees and franchisees are 100% French and operate nearly autonomously from the U.S. parent. Plus certain of its menu items, designed by French chefs, are found nowhere else in its global network of restaurants.

So, although McDo’s leverages the power of the global network — contributing to, and benefiting from, the brand and innovation — it has redefined itself as a French company that is constantly looking to adapt to the needs and preferences of the French culture, and therein lies its success.

Of course, hamburgers aren’t just sold in McDo’s. I’ve noticed that more and more local restaurants are serving them, and there’s plenty of hamburger only joints too. So, is le hamburger more popular than le jambon-beurre? Probably!

Things my beloved does: funds his employers/clients

One of my main tasks is making sense of my husband’s expenses and billing the correct clients. When I first took on the role I realised that if he incurred an expense on behalf of a client or employer and subsequently lost the receipt, we paid for the expense! He only claimed for those where he could find the receipt. The CFO of one of his former employers, and a good friend, confirmed this to me!

I confess that in order to perform this task correctly one requires the skills of a forensic accountant. It takes me back to my early years training to be an accountant and incomplete records! However, nowadays, this exercise is spread across numerous currencies, cash and credit cards. I try to ensure he pays for things by credit card so that there’s an audit trail, it’s harder when he pays for things with cash. I have to go back to the sum withdrawn, deduct the sum in hand and try and account for the amounts spent. It’s often a thankless and frustrating task.

I frequently have to quiz him as to how he got from place to place and what and where he ate his meals. As we all know, he’ll never willingly forgo a meal. Mind you, his memory, never good at the best of times, rarely reaches back more than a few days. If he can’t find a receipt, I can often get a duplicate, particularly from hotels or restaurants,  but not before I’ve had a thorough search of his belongings. I often find receipts in the oddest of places.

My insistence on a receipt is founded on the principle that if I don’t have a piece of paper to justify the expense, there’s no tax deductability! The French tax authorities are very strict.

Of course, my beloved doesn’t  care, because he doesn’t have to sort out the ensuing mess. You’ll notice a recurrent theme here. My beloved doesn’t do something properly and I swoop in and sort it out! He knows this is going to happen, therefore doesn’t care. If I allow him to do his expenses, it’ll cost us money! What’s a girl to do?

I schedule, analyse and invoice his expenses with the relevant supporting documentation on a monthly basis. Depending on how much he’s travelled, this can take anywhere from 1-2 days of solid detective work. I take the company’s expenses to the accountant every quarter but still check them monthly as it’s then easier to chase up missing receipts or obtain duplicates. This is one job I won’t miss when he finally retires.

What do professional cyclists do when they’re ex-professionals?

“I vacuum all the time” – Fabian Cancellara adjusts to retirement! This was the header on an email from Rouleur which rather set me thinking. I’ve interviewed a lot of cyclists, many of whom are now retired, though some are still very much connected to the world of cycling, and none of them have come clean about their domestic prowess. So I was shocked/bemused/surprised to discover that Fabian Cancellara has assumed responsibility for some domestic duties at his place. Perhaps Mrs Cancellara had gotten fed up of picking up the slack while he was off winning Monuments and maillots jaunes?

Clearly, he doesn’t need to work, I believe he acts as an ambassador for a number of high-end brands, but obviously neither does he now earn enough to afford a cleaner. I’m not sure of the going rate for one in Switzerland, but it’s probably more than I’d pay on the Cote d’Azur where, coincidentally, the costs are tax deductible. Maybe that’s not the case in Switzerland.

I’ve checked in with the other halves of a number of ex-professional cyclists and it appears that Spartacus is the exception, rather than the rule. In which case Mrs Fabs is to be congratulated and I’m wondering whether she’d like to train my beloved in the art of domesticity? He’s resisted any attempt on my part to domesticate him and we’ve settled on this uneasy truce whereby he tries not to make too much mess. You’ll note that I’ve not insisted on “no mess”. Objectives should be achievable.

Over the years I have found that my beloved is much more likely to help with a chore if I buy him a gadget to do it. Perhaps Fabs is the same and his missus bought him the Ferrari of vacuum cleaners as a retirement present and he daily swoops around Casa Cancellara putting it to the test. I wonder if he does the vacuuming in his Gore kit and records it on Strava? Just a thought.

 

 

 

Division of labour

With the prospect of full-time retirement looming on the horizon, I have belatedly been trying to lay down a few ground rules. Throughout our married life my beloved has done his job to the best of his ability and that’s it! I’ve done my job, helped him to do his better, and looked after pretty much everything else.

Until recently, I was resistant to the idea of staying in a self-catering apartment for a vacation because the only place I ever get waited on hand-and-foot is in a hotel. Staying in an apartment abroad was akin to still being at home but with better weather. In the early years of our married life, we spent many a holiday in one of my parents’ Spanish apartments where I would fiercely resist doing too much cooking. I was on holiday for goodness sake!

I can occasionally get my beloved to do a few household chores. He’s Officer in Charge of Drinks which generally means he’ll make the coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon and serve any alcoholic beverages I may desire. Occasionally, I’ll get him to take out the rubbish and, about twice a year, he’ll clean the windows outside. I have to do the inside. And that’s pretty much his sole contributions to domestic chores.

Of course, I always say I’ll settle for him creating less mess. Easier said than done. I’d just washed the marble floors this morning when I spot he’s walked muddy footprints from the front door round to his bathroom. Of course, while we both wear Birkenstock sandals, Marabis slippers and ON trainers, it’s easy to identify the culprit from the size of their footprint. He knows he’s in the doghouse so he’s been lying low in the office, teleconferencing all afternoon.

I have tried to explain that once he retires, I’ll expect him to give me more of a helping hand around the flat otherwise I’ll only be looking after myself. He thinks I’m joking. I’m not, I’d like to retire too!

Back on the trainer!

Yes, I’m (unexpectedly) back on the home trainer. We enjoy around 300+ days of sunshine every year leaving around 65 when it’s not so great. Some of those 65 have occurred in the last two weeks. It was lovely the week after we returned from Dubai, but it’s been downhill ever since, culminating in snow. That’s right, SNOW! A pretty rare occurrence on the Cote d’Azur.

It never lasts long but chaos ensues every time. The morning snow was forecast, I was up at the ungodly hour of 05:00 am to run my beloved to the airport to catch a flight to Prague, by way of Lyon. We had thought it might be a difficult drive but the temperature was 4ºC and I dropped him off before returning to my bed. When I awoke a couple of hours later it was a whole different ball game. Snow was falling, and sticking!

We try to get out most days but have become perhaps overly cautious when it’s wet or damp, which covered most of the last ten days or so. We’re already recognising that it’ll be a cold week-end in Siena for the Strade Bianche race and will be packing plenty of cashmere and wet weather gear. On the bright side, we’ll only be watching, not taking part! Cakes will no doubt be gratefully received by those riders I know who are taking part in what’ll no doubt be a long, hard and cold race.

That race coincides with the start of Paris-Nice which may not be a race to the sun this year! The outlook is not favourable, we’ll have to wait and see. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed as this year’s route means I’ll be watching it live from Wednesday onwards, not just at the week-end.

 

Things my beloved does: apes the outlaw

They tell men to take a long hard look at their mothers-in-law before marrying their daughters. It’s true, I am morphing into my mother. Not that my beloved minds, he worshipped my mother and she reciprocated. He might only have been one of her three son-in-laws but he was most definitely her favourite and, in her eyes, could do no wrong.
However, there are a few clear differences between me and my late mother. I’m much tidier and better organised, I get that from my Dad. If there was something my mother wanted or wanted to do, she would organise it, or get me to arrange it, otherwise she was happy to let Dad deal with everything else, while she occupied herself with the house and garden. I’m far too much of a control freak to allow that to ever happen. Plus, my beloved is nowhere near as reliable as my late father.
By the same token, you might imagine that my beloved would be turning into my late father-in-law. But, no it’s my brother-in-law, his younger brother, who’s the dead ringer. Instead, and much more worryingly, my beloved is turning into the outlaw, a women I haven’t seen for eight years and haven’t spoken to in around five. That’s not a complaint you understand, merely a statement of fact.
Horrifyingly, from time to time, I observe my beloved emulating odd habits or behaviours of hers. For example, my mother-in-law  is a total hypochondriac. Most of my beloved’s weekly conversations with her are given over to her airing her various ailments in graphic detail. I know when she’s doing this from the look on my beloved’s face. She sees her weekly (minimum) trip to the doctor’s surgery as a social outing and she’s up for anything she can get out of him. To say that she’s a drain on the NHS is putting it mildly.
I still recall the last time we had dinner together, many years ago, to celebrate her 80th birthday – she’s now 92. She’d just had a colonoscopy and was intent on telling us all about it during dinner. I put my hand up and said; “Val, we really don’t need to know all the gory details, particularly not during dinner. The important thing is that the examination provided you with reassurance that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you”.
My beloved betrays worryingly similar issues. He’s regaled anyone who was foolish enough to ask chapter and verse about his broken leg and subsequent recovery. I keep telling him that people are merely being polite and all he needs to say is that everything is progressing nicely and he’s now fine.
In addition, and I suppose it’s inevitable as we age, I get daily updates on his health niggles. For example, he’s always imagining he’s got a pulled muscle which requires the application of some unguent or other. He has a large cupboard in his bathroom chock full of medicaments and implements such as infra-red heat lamps for self-medicating. I’m the complete opposite. I have a couple of plasters, some cream for insect bites and that’s it – not so much as an aspirin.
If challenged about his hypochondria, he’ll hotly deny it but……….. he recently went to the doctor to get a medical certificate to join a new cycling club and, to his delight, she said it was time for another blood test. The French are (quite rightly) keen on these and most people have them every six months, early detection and all that…..he’s off to the medical centre tomorrow. When he gets the results, he’ll pull out the one from last time, make comparisons and then check out on the internet whether he’s showing signs of anything. I keep telling him that’s the doc’s job!
Although, I joke about his similarities to his mother, given her current longevity, I can safely assume he’ll be keeping me company for many a year to come.