Thursday, 30 August 2007

Doctor's orders

I was supposed to take the boy for a medical this morning but I had to abandon that idea as I needed to go to the doctor myself to get her signature so I could play in the journalists' tennis tournament at Roland Garros over the next few weeks.

I was quite looking forward to taking my son along for his series of checks. I went with my eldest daughter a few years back and they test everything there is to probe. Ears, eyes, logic and probably ask the parent a few searching questions to make sure the bairn is being reared properly.

So my partner left early to take him off while I had the pleasure of staying with the girls who would accompany me to my 1040am appointment.

To butter them up I suggested tartines at the cafe before. Actually there was quite a lot of butter on the bread. That didn't seem to be that healthy so I scraped about a teaspoonful off. That was easy to deal with.

What's not so simple to cope with usually is the waiting at the doctor. Especially with the baby who either wants to spend the time screaming or clumping around. So the trip with an eight and five-year-old was a joy.

The eldest read her Totally Spies book while the other played with the various toys in the room.

At 1115 it was my moment. The youngest came in with me obviously intrigued by the idea of me going in for a check up.

The doc did my blood pressure. Good. Quizzed me about smoking. None. Knew my cholesterol was low because that was checked last year. I said I was cutting down on the alcohol (in readiness for the new football season in the top flight) and I added that I was going more regularly to the swimming pool.

She pointed at my belly and said running is good for the muscles. Well I guess I was being self-congratulatory.

Everything was whirling along. She asked me to do 30 squats. Mimi started counting with me at around 15.

I completed the task and my heart slowed down in a healthy manner. I got my certificate and got one thrown in for the forthcoming football season.

The entire family came with me over to Auteuil to deposit the dossier at Roland Garros; the cheque for 23 euros; photocopies of the French press card; doctor's certificate and a grid detailing availability.

I left the family at the Serres D'Auteuil - a series of greenhouses holding an array of wild and wonderful plants.

Once inside the Roland Garros complex I was directed to the press centre at Court Suzanne Lenglen.

I haven't been anywhere near the stadium since Rafael Nadal unhinged the machine that is Roger Federer in the men's final back in June.

Could I too conquer my foes on the terre battue and emulate the Manacor Matador?

Unlikely. I'm not a son of the soil. Worse still I'm not even left-handed.

Back in the world of level-headed people. I found my way to the event organiser Michelle Laune. She was seated at a table covered with piles of entry forms.

I introduced myself and asked if there were likely to be any problems with me being away on Sunday and Monday in London and working most afternoons in Paris.

"Actually we're not playing on Sunday," she informed me. "Paris St Germain are playing Marseille and they're locking down the area."

"With good reason," I chimed

"Can you play this Saturday morning at 9 or 10am?"

Given my limitations it seemed churlish to say no. But if I do play on Saturday my limitations will be fairly evident.

I haven't played competitively since my school days and more importantly I haven't played since my knock-up with my godson in Denver back in July.

But this is for the experience of gracing a clay court at Roland Garros. As I went to find the family in the Serres d'Auteuil I found myself chanting: "I'm going out on the court to enjoy myself." Clichéd gunk but I felt like a professional for saying it.

One of Ms Laune's helpers said there were about 170 people down to take part. I'm relaxed about the form of it all as I plan to go out and give it my best shot because I'm a Corinthian at heart and besides I don't have any rivals on the sports journalist circuit whom I just absolutely have to annihilate.

Would PSG and Marseille approach their Division 1 matches in a similarly beatific way. Their rivalry knows no bounds. But it's a pitifully young animosity in comparison to a clash between Rangers and Celtic or Arsenal and Tottenham or even Liverpool and Manchester United.

Why it couldn't really hold a flare to the intricate republican/fascist angst of a Barca v Real Madrid showdown.

Essentially the PSG Marseille squabble goes back to the early 90's, when Marseille was dominating the championship and the TV channel Canal+ bought PSG and made it a big team.

PSG don't really do great things in the league now. No one does because Lyon has usually had the title sewn up before a ball is kicked in anger.

In fact at the moment it's fascinating in France because Lyon aren't 200,000 points clear after five games.

Winning six games is my motivation at the moment. I just have to make sure the opponent doesn't have seven.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Brave new world

I just hope the reality lives up to the hype. In the soon to be defunct frequent travellers lounge at Waterloo, I notice that Info – the magazine of the French Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain — is leading on Kings Cross: The Construction Game.

Inside the editor Delphine DeWulf writes: “The development represents a wealth of opportunities that many Chamber members have started to grasp.”

And they won’t be alone. For the magazine cites figures from the London Development Agency from March 2006, which reveal 740,000m2 of development; 173,000m2 of residential; 47,000m2 of hotels/apartments. There will be 250 businesses (including the Guardian) and 50 eating places.

Eating places sounds a little vague to me. A fish and chip shop is an eating place. But what the hell this is the largest city centre brownfield regeneration project in Europe.

And just to think in a few short months I’m going to be a regular part of this groovy wonderland.

Richard Brown, chief executive of Eurostar, says that my chums will want to be meeting me off the train.

“St Pancras International itself will be a ‘destination’ in its own right where people will want to go rather than just transit through,” he coos. “Inspired by New York’s Grand Central Terminal, there will be a 90-metre champagne bar – the longest in Europe, specialist shops, restaurants, and a farmer’s market full of wonderful produce.”

Problem is my mates aren’t the champagne bar types. Maybe I could instruct them in such ways. Maybe they’ll come flocking to greet me as I emerge from my 135-minute surge through northern France and south-eastern England.

But I soon realise that friends coming to St Pancras to meet me just because it’s St Pancras is as likely as me arriving at the terminus and making a beeline for the farmer’s market.

It’s odd what constitutes a selling point these days. I’d never have thought a farmer’s market would be the thing to lure people just returning from France or just about to set off there.

While the viability of the outlets is yet to be gauged, what is certain is that a chunky slice of London is on the cusp of renegotiating its own status within the metropolis and within the European context.

If London is 1 hour 51 minutes from Brussels and 2 hours 15 from Paris, then these become daily commutable distances. More so for the Belgian capital. Of course then there’s the chance to link up with the mainland European rail networks.

But there is a word of warning. Jackie Herald, a garden designer at the London-based Extra Room says: “It’s vital that the established international business community and increased values of property do not displace either the strong local residential community or young creative entrepreneurs that give the area its character and potential.”

A look at Herald's website suggests this is a person who has a wide range of experience throughout the world.

And this is the dilemma about regeneration. Is it just a stalking horse for gentrification?

At the moment Kings Cross is one of the murkier parts of London. It’s red light district providing the backdrop for many a TV drama and of course Neil Jordan’s film Mona Lisa which starred Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson.

If the area becomes well scrubbed where do the elements perceived as dirtier go?

They’re unlikely to be rolling into much of the 173,000m2 of residential development because those pieces of real estate are doubtless going to cost a couple of hundred thousand pounds.

I’ll be intrigued to see the amount of space allotted to the hoi polloi. The Kings Cross we’ve grown up with in London runs contrary to the zone that’s being promulgated.

Eurostar’s glitzy blurb for St Pancras International says France and England are getting closer. True. But what’s it doing to London?

Monday, 27 August 2007

Cross purposes

In the frequent traveller lounge at Gare du Nord the powers that be have decided to show a video bugling the joys of the new facilities at St Pancras International.

After collecting the usual haul of British and French newspapers and magazines, I became so engrossed in the delights awaiting me in London from November 14 that I had to be prompted to get out of the comfy chair and get on train 9063.

The taster of marvels to come told me that L’Angleterre et la France se rapproche. I thought they did that in the Entente Cordiale back in the early 20th century.

But no I’m being fascetious. And very wrong. Now they’re doing it physically. Come the wonderland it will take only two hours and 15 minutes to whisk me (and many hundreds) to London.

But when I read: "Eurostar vous invite à New London," I got worried. I suppose I’m a victim of the Conservative smear campaign from a few years back that said New Labour, New Danger.

New London, New Prices?

All this glass, chrome and squeaky cleanliness must come at a cost. I’m going to wait to see what happens there because my thoughts are turning to Waterloo.

Not the Abba song, which I was merrily listening to on the coach ride into Stockholm from the airport 10 days or so ago but the terminus that I used to think was central London.

No. The video now tells me that St Pancras/Kings Cross is the new heart of the city. I know I’ve been more of a Parisian than a Londoner these past seven years but when did Kings Cross become a heart throb?

Honestly what guff. I can just imagine it. “Meet you in the centre of town,” says A. B replies: “I can get to Leicester Square at around 8ish.”

“No," says A. “I mean Kings Cross.”

I don’t ever see that conversation happening. Just don’t. But I shall take a straw poll over the weekend to evaluate.

I didn’t mean for the 9063 to become an ontological inquisition. But how does such change occur? And who in the Eurostar marketing team thinks that savvy travellers are going to suddenly believe that Kings Cross is the centre?

I know the Guardian is moving to Kings Cross next year but as far as I’ve heard that’s not to be in the centre, just a good deal on a building as lovely old 119 Farringdon Road is just getting to creaky for the überbrand.

And if Kings Cross is the centre, does this mean I can apply for compensation for being dumped in the suburbs all these years?

I for one will keep singing the praises of Waterloo. It was where my twin city lifestyle started.

On a cultural level it’s been ideal as it’s so close to the Hayward Gallery or Tate Modern where I’ve been to browse on many an occasion before going into the Guardian on Sunday.

But this is no time to mope about old happiness. I must embrace the modern world.

And if Eurostar executives say a couple of miles north is the new centre, then I guess I, like the station, am – to cite a certain song – finally facing my Waterloo.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Slave to rhythm

My life at the pool has been revolutionised. The Speedo goggles have gone. The super light strap was looking a bit scraggy in Rhode Island and it broke as I plied the waters of Tooting Bec Lido a few Sundays ago.

Well all that was before Stockholm and now back in Paris the replacements have been put through their paces at Pontoise

They weren’t altogether brilliant as they let the water in. I wondered if it was a tad too demanding to grumble about that when I was in for free and there was a peaceful pool.

I grimaced a bit and managed to vacuum pack my eye sockets. Not much water was going to come in now. Though I was worried the suction pressure of taking the goggles off might rip out the eyeballs.

But that ouch was for later. It was time to splash. There’s been something elegiac about the pool – almost the last days of splendour before the avalanche. I made the most of the changes.

Transformation is certainly the key chez Eric and Eleanor. They went off to the countryside on Friday morning and on Thursday night I went round to see the new flat.

It’s a vast change from their previous place – not as many boxes for one and no obvious sign of Jack Bauer and his free world saving operatives. Space for the adults and the two children. Made me wonder somewhat about our own apartment. Reconfiguration will have to come at some point but without mutilating the bank account.

I guess I’ll have to find other ways to make cash and if those aren’t successful, then I’ll just have to be content with what I’ve got.

It’s not rocket science.

And apparently you don’t have to have a big brain to make the move to another country.

Record numbers of Britons are leaving their homeland in search of a sunnier life abroad.

The latest population figures revealed that nearly 200,000 Brits hit foreign climes last year.

If any of them have been sizing up a move to Paris over the past couple of days, they’d better go to Outdoor World and stock up on waterproofs. Worst August in 30 years the papers here were saying on Friday.

But enough of this short termism. Most Britons — around 71,000 of them — are venturing off to Australia. Spain is also popular.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics suggest that Brits who flee are seeking two things: the sun and other Brits to share it with.

That covers me only on one count because Paris has more or less the same volatile climate as my erstwhile home in London and I did come with a British partner.

What seems interesting though is that people, according to the data, are seeking better jobs abroad.

When I was but a young man, actually it was 1981, Norman (now Lord) Tebbit, rhapsodised about the 1930s when his unemployed father had got on his bike to look for work rather than spend his energy burning up his local town like the jobless youth had done on streets of Handsworth in Birmingham or Brixton in south London.

In the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, Tebbit was always shown as a leather-clad bovverboy to Margaret (now Lady) Thatcher’s cold-hearted controller.

It seems that after 10 years of Labour we’re all Tories now. Or is it that Labour isn’t working to such an extent that more and more are bailing out.

Well the flow of people is the history of the world.

And I’d be the last person to quell the wanderlust for fulfilment. But having hosted a few debates at the radio station on issues around migration, the portrayal of this is quite striking.

For Europeans it’s presented as a social trend. For almost anybody else, it’s apocalypse now.

Deeply strange especially when loads of Europeans once went over to Africa and brought scores over here against their will. Fast-forward a few hundred years and guilt complexes and European countries want to stop what they to a certain extent, may have started.

Before my tussle with the goggles, I was listening to a podcast on in which Bryan Welch, the publisher of the American magazine Utne Reader, called American reliance on illegal immigrant labour the moral equivalent of slavery.

It certainly made me think about whether there’ve been any high-profile prosecutions of the employers in France who aren’t as scrupulous about a person’s origins as they should be.

The immigration lawyer who appeared on one of my debates about Sgt Major Sarko’s hard line on immigration was just as scathing about the Socialists. They never made it any less complicated for migrants searching for a valid life.

France might be a desirable destination for 41,000 Brits. For thousands of non-Europeans who are moving away from a subsistence in the sun to improve their lots, it will be nothing more than a cold Kafkaesque catastrophe.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Taking Stockholm

They're having a laugh are those airport retail outlet bosses. At Stansted - no that should be Scamsted - the WH Smith was chaos. The queue snaked through the shop to such an extent that it was difficult to discern whether someone was looking through Good Housekeeping or waiting to hand over the cash.

Direct action was the only way. "Are you queuing?" I ventured to a shaven-haired man in a suit. 'I certainly hope so," was his jovial reply.

For who could fail to be animated. The early flushes of an August day were upon us and we were all a communion of souls, a happy band of gallant travellers.

For my own part, I caught the 5.10am Liverpool Street to Stansted Express. I'd actually planned to take the 5.25am. But thanks to working out the machine for pre paid train tickets in less than 27 years, I was at the airport 15 minutes earlier than scheduled.

I had therefore even more time to kill. The minutes drag and hours jerk when I'm on my own at an airport without the attendant troubles of the children to take my mind of the impending horror at 30 million feet.

It was strange waiting for a paper on a Tuesday morning. Usually I sweep into the Eurostar lounge and choose from the plethora of titles before taking up my seat on the train.

Oh well vive la différence.

As I stand and survey the wondrous cross section of people in WH Smith, I see we're all essentially victims of terror even on the ground.

True there were about six people on the tills but they had to keep calling out when they were available. It was all so robotically demeaning. It appeared no thought had gone into the layout. But as I drew closer it was obvious there was a mind at work.

It was probably a mind tinged with a quirky madness for next to the Anadins, were contraceptives and adjacent to those were boxes of Calpol.

The word Calpol entered my vocabulary in 1999 soon after the eldest was born. By the time I was administering nocturnal doses to her to arrest sniffles, I'd long been aware of both Anadin and Durex. Since Calpol's integration into the modus operandi, I seem to have needed more Anadin. As for the products on the other rack, well that alleviates the likelihood of entering such a vicious circle.

From this reverie into the concourse and another queue: this time for Starbucks. More direct intervention. This time a man responded that he wasn't queuing. It's just that his family was blocking the queue.

I joined and waited for what seemed an awful long time for a tiny bit of coffee. To increase productivity, they should link quantity to the time you wait in line. That would spur the executives to rethink.

In the States that would probably not work but airports are failed states and should be included in the axis of evil.

It was my first flight with Ryanair. Booking the ticket was clear and I went through the checking in procedure without any hitches.

The seat was comfortable though I did baulk at paying £1.90 for a cup of coffee. It was such a smooth passage that I even looked out of the window - rare for me on airplanes.

As I was going to Sweden I whipped out the laptop and listened to Abba.

No original thinking there then. But I figured it's a holiday, get into the groove and listen to one of the country's biggest exports. One thousand years after the Norsemen went round ripping up the world, Abba and Bjorn Borg put them back on the map.

There was a piece in the Times on the 14th in which Professor Eugene Sadler-Smith explained that from his research he's found that the unpremeditated spark of creativity does not come in an unprepared mind. The Surrey University don said in the article that it is the result of extensive learning and experience which are both essential for accurate intuition.

Well back in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest when Abba had finished performing Waterloo, probably a billion people across Europe intuitively knew that the Swedes would run off with top prize and into multi-million dollar pop success.

One of my colleagues at the Guardian, on hearing that I was heading to Stockholm, told me that an Abba museum is to be opened in the city. Sadly it's not yet up and running and is slated for the end of the year.

Shame. But given the daughters' love of Voulez Vous, we might just all come back to look, listen and learn.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Swap options

Going to Stockholm was organised well before the horrors of the trans-Atlantic flight back from Boston. If I’d known way back then what I know now, I wouldn't have even entertained the notion of flying to Stockholm with the boy.

But it was agreed. Mathilda and Joakim would have use of the flat in Paris between August 6 and 19 and we would stay at their place.

Through various life complications such as work and not being able to take two weeks off after spending virtually a month in America, I had to be in Paris while the Stockholmers were in the apartment.

No problem said my mate Eric, you can stay with us in our new big apartment. Well that was a beautiful offer but the reality snagged somewhat.

Eric and Eleanor's move was delayed and so I've been staying with them in their soon to be old apartment amid the boxes and the late night packing.

The great thing about me, as I've come to self-actualise these past few days, is that I really don't get in the way. It's Paul the Obscure.

True it has been easy at Eric and Eleanor's place because so many boxes have blocked any clear lines of vision when they've emerged from watching Jack Bauer in his 24 hour mission to save the universe as we know and understand it.

But given a key, a room, a laptop and a few Seinfeld (rather than 24) DVDs, I am a perfectly discreet guest.

Or rather at this stage of my life I know how to behave. Maybe that's it.

I haven’t been a nuisance since my arrival back in Paris on Tuesday because I've been out with friends. Firstly to catch up and, more importantly, so as not to get in the way. The one night when I planned to go and see a film, I realised the swimming, cycling and work had got to me and I went to bed.

A quick drink last night with a friend was followed by fun on the Eurostar website booking tickets for mid-September when we have to go to Brighton for a wedding reception.

The removal men were scheduled to arrive at 7am this morning. So the door bell went at 8am. There followed some wrangling over the fact that there were more boxes than they had been told by their office.

Eric's partner is French so there's no way that there'd be a problem over comprehension. When this kind of thing happens to me I instantly assume my French isn't good enough. Perhaps when I say vingt, the French firm hears mille.

Whatever. I left. Mainly because there was nothing I could do to help. And sitting around asking: "Can I help?" would eventually get dull.

So I repaired to a cafe to write some cards to thank people for their hospitality during the America trip and also to wait for the Stockholmers to wake up so I could deposit a few bags in my apartment before heading into the radio station.

The journey to work has been joyous of late. I've been taking in the Piscine Pontoise in the 5th arrondissement. It was made famous by Juliette Binoche in Three Colours Blue. In the film I seem to remember the 33 metre pool being a hazy blue basin of liquid tranquility.

And during the August lull it really is. Come la rentrée in a few weeks, the violence will return.

The problem is that one of the public sessions at the pool is between 1230 and 1.30pm. And it's something of a mad dash to notch up the lengths.

I circumnavigate the atrocities by giving myself lots of time to do my 20 or so lengths and by also keeping in mind that it's free thanks to having three children.

But because we haven't had a crèche place for the past year, neither of us have been able to take full advantage of this benefit.

From September the boy will be at a halte-garderie for four mornings a week, so while he's there we might be able to take a dip at this or one of the other 20 odd municipal pools.

But then again we'll be splashing out on child care costs. It's seven years that I've been here in Paris and life really is swims and roundabouts.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

In transit entertainment

Eurostar - what a doddle. After the boy's five and a half hour bellow at 30 million feet on the night flight back from Boston, three hours on a train between Paris and London flew by so to speak.

Maybe it's because we're familiar with the journey, maybe it's the fact that we can all see the ground speeding past. Whatever it was both parents agreed that a long haul trip every now and again is an excellent if painful way to put travel into perspective.

Last night's train was quite full but with most people locked into their digital worlds, very few noticed the gurglings of a 16-month-old child.

The grumblings of an eight-year-old and a five-year-old are by comparison easier to remedy. The girls were keen to listen to a CD played incessantly in the car during our three and a half weeks in America.

When I told them it was actually in the car in London, they were naturally disappointed but intrigued when I said that we could recreate the sounds from the iTunes library

So minutes passed by trying to remember the order in which they came. No problems with the first as the CD is known as the one with Voulez Vous. The second is in fact the Basement Jaxx's Red Alert.

They like it because it starts with something that sounds like the swansong of a Swiss mountaineer: "Yo yo yo, yo yo, yo yo......

Eventually they compiled most of the tunes; Boogie Wonderland, Spacer, You Can't Hurry Love, a few from Madonna, Vogue and Into the Groove. Even though it wasn't the complete replication, they sat and listened for 44.9 minutes (iTune timing).

The boy meanwhile was slumbering in a corridor. A contrast to his performance on the flight the previous week where it got so bad that one of the stewards emerged from his darkened haven and offered us a small bottle of whisky recounting how his mother used to daub it on his gums as a way of easing teething pains.

Well it certainly worked. Two hours later as we hovered above Charles de Gaulle on the final approach, the boy fell asleep.

Touchdown, at least, was tranquil.

If I could get away with it I too would scream throughout a flight. Sadly I'm not as adorably cute as the boy.

I can now see why some people load up on the drinks. We had precious little entertainment. The films — Breach and The Bourne Identity — weren't exactly appropriate for all passengers.

I guess bosses at American Airlines think that the youngsters will be sleeping.

Have they never travelled with their babies?