Tuesday, 29 December 2009

All I want for Christmas is a cerebral hemorrhage

For many people, no Christmas is complete without a visit to casualty. Thanks to the copious amounts of alcohol consumed and the constant presence of near and dear ones, there's never a better opportunity to cause injury to yourself or to others.

Before now, I have had only one festive trip to hospital: I was eleven and my pierced ears were infected. My dad, after he’d finished his turkey, rushed me to Malmesbury A&E where my mum’s cousin. Dr Brummit, wiped the lobes with disinfectant and gave me antibiotics. Since that one genuine medical emergency I’ve spent most Christmas’ convinced I’m dying of some serious disease or other, having self-diagnosed myself online. All I can suggest is that I must have too much time on my hands over the holidays.

Not that my hypochondriac tendencies are exclusively a Christmas thing. As far as I’m concerned it’s never a headache, always a tumour. On average I become infatuated with a new illness every couple of months. Recently my focus has been on cervical cancer: I’ve already played out my tragic death over and over but at no time have I actually been to see a doctor. I never do. Normally I’ve moved on to the next condition before I’ve got around to booking an appointment.

This week, however, I’ve been suitably ill enough to be rushed to hospital for a second time. “Have you just Googled the symptoms for brain bleeding?” my mother eyed my suspiciously. As a child, she would often catch me behind the sofa with The Reader’s Digest A-Z of Medicine, bypassing the likely causes for the terminal ones. “Maybe,” I shrugged, “but all it’s confirmed is that I am, in fact, showing… a number…some of… signs of cerebral hemorrhage. See,” I sighed, “even my speech is starting to slur.” “You sound alright to me,” mum retorted. “Come on Dad, if my brain’s bleeding then there’s no time to spare.” My dad reluctantly turned his back on his full plate of chicken and rice and grabbed a baguette. I drove myself to the emergency room.

“What happened?” the doctor looked me up and down. “Je suis tombé.” I mimed falling off the side of the trolley. “I was drunk,” I added, holding up my hands, “my fault.” I laughed. He didn’t. I hadn’t imagined I could ever feel more embarrassed than I had the morning before, when my flatmates told me I’d passed out in the pub on Christmas Day and been carried out like a small child by their gay best friend. “Did you lose consciousness,” the doctor went on sternly. I shook my head. “Oh but I did pass out, quite soon after. I think.” “So you lost consciousness,” he nodded. I looked up at him, eyes wide and slightly teary, “Is this bad?” He paused before stammering, “No, er I not sure but I zink it not very important. Perhaps a problem with your brain,” he diverted his gaze, “or with your spine. We send you for a scan.” This was serious: I could tell I was on the brink. At least my medical assessment had been right for once: I mean, I really was dying this time. This provided me with some comfort as I began to change into a gown that was going to make me look like a pasty frump.

The porter had the cheeky chappy cliché down to a fine art. Since Casualty, I’m fairly sure that this is a pre-requisite for the job. He laughed at my French accent, corrected my pronunciation and winked a lot. “Bon courage,” he grinned as my head disappeared into a tunnel of infrared, “a tout a l’heure.” He must have been ordered to be especially nice because the doctor feared the worse. As the scanner turned around my head, I wondered if he was actually cute or if it was simply the hemorrhage talking.

Back in A&E I was pushed into a large communal area. The old men and women looked at me a little bewildered. At least they’d had a good innings I thought, what had I got to show for my life? I was too young to die. “If I make it through this, I will write that book.” I nodded over to an elderly gentleman. He pointed at his hip, “Je suis tombé.” “Moi aussi,” I pointed at my head. We were bonding.

The headache was bad now; I could feel the pressure building under the skull. And where was the doctor? Any time I saw a member of staff rush past panicked they appeared to me looking at me mournfully, as if there was no hope. This would never happen in Seattle Grace. Doctor McDreamy or McSteamy or whoever would have had me in surgery in seconds. And they would have saved my life. If only I was in a TV hospital with a TV head trauma, the prognosis would be so much better.

Not that the French doctor couldn’t give Patrick Dempsey a run for his money in the looks department. If death were around the corner, I’d need to have sex at least one more time. I might have to play on his kindness and get him to give me a quickie in a cubical. If he weren’t willing to break our patient-doctor bond or whatever, I’d settle for the porter. And if he had gone off duty, I’d probably take the guy next to me. He gave me a grin as his trolly was pushed into a private room. Fortunately, the doctor came over flustered and waving papers at me before I had a chance to go after the hip-replacement. Now, he really was cute…

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

A Single Girl’s Guide to Dating Men Who Don’t Know They’re Dating You

‘Maybe we should go for a drink with the boys this evening,’ I leaned back against the window ledge, rested on the pane and raised my eyebrows at Mindy. She frowned, ‘Are we going to bother to tell the boys?’ I shook my head. ‘So we’ll rock up, sit down at the bar and “have a drink with the boys” without the boys realising that they are having a drink with us?’ ‘Exactly,’ I replied, ‘just because our other halves don’t know we’re dating them yet doesn’t make the actual date any less valid. Mutual consent is only a technicality.’ I was, in fact, coming to the conclusion that things might be much easier with a faux boyfriend: they won’t cancel you for the football and they don’t complain when you turn up late.

Mindy and I met our new "boyfriends" in an underground Old Town sweat pit last Saturday night. As per usual, I had been monopolising the dance floor, using my hot lesbian flatmate Maggie as a pole, when I span around and recognised an English lad from the Irish pub. His black curly hair and blue eyes shimmered like an oasis in an otherwise parched desert and I quickly went about instigating a conversation about how we may or may not, possibly, know a couple of the same people. As coincidence would have it, my new boyfriend’s friend recognised Mindy from their university days. ‘It’s terrible,’ she said as we stumbled home at 5am, ‘I don’t remember him at all. And he says that he was the only boy in the whole class. Perhaps he wasn’t fit back then. I’d definitely have made a mental note of him if he looked like he does now. Maybe bumping into him, my French classmate, in France, is destiny or something.’ ‘I quite fancy his mate,’ I interrupted and grabbed her hand, ‘we should double date.’ Mindy smiled and nodded at me like I was a child, whilst at the same time trying to tug her fingers free from mine.

The following lunchtime, we rolled out of Mindy’s bed and shuffled to the kitchen in our pyjamas. ‘You know,’ she said, her throat hoarse, ‘we could be onto something with this concept of dating someone without them knowing.’ I agreed: there’d be no waiting around for phone calls (well, he can’t call if he doesn’t have your number can he?), there would be no arguments. I widened my eyes at Mindy, ‘We’d never get dumped.’

We sat opposite each other, quietly mulling. ‘Can you imagine,’ Mindy broke the silence at last, ‘going up to a random bloke in a bar and acting like you were on a date? Rush up to him all flustered, apologise for being late, call him honey, ask him if he’s ordered you a drink.’ ‘You could lick a napkin,’ I interjected, ‘and scrub at an imaginary mark on his face, compliment him on the shade of his shirt, ask him about his day... Oooo,’ I squealed, as if I’d hit on the theory of relativity, ‘we should totally do it, one night this week. See how men respond.’ ‘Hang on,’ Mindy waved her cigarette at me, ‘are you suggesting that we cheat on our imaginary boyfriends by going on dates with other guys who don’t know that they’re dating us?’ I nodded slowly, ‘No harm in keeping our options open, is there? I’m sure that there’s some relationship manual that advises you to keep dating as many men as possible until you’ve had at least five dates with one of them, then you can think about committing.’ Mindy was momentarily silenced by her smoke inhalation but managed to wobble her head to signal that I had a point. On reflection, I wasn’t sure if I had remembered the manual, accurately: I think the rule is five dates before having sex. Or maybe that’s three. Either way, I wasn’t sure how I’d get around it with my imaginary boyfriend; by the time I’d got to my third or fifth date, he’d still be stalled on zero.

When we arrived at the pub later that evening, Mindy’s date was already there, working the floor. ‘God, I really do like my boyfriend,’ she whispered as she watched him walking into the bar, ‘He’s shaved since last night, he looks even better.’ ‘He probably did it for you, because you don’t like beards, that’s pretty thoughtful. I think my boyfriend’s inside,’ I craned my neck but couldn’t make out the shadows through the doorway. After five minutes, I made a strategic trip to the bathroom. ‘So,’ Mindy said as soon as my bum touched back down on the plastic seat, ‘did you talk to him?’ ‘Of course I didn’t,’ I sighed as if stating the obvious. ‘He’s working. I’m not going to interrupt him when he’s busy. Besides, I’ve not suddenly become a limpet just because I’m going out with… with… with what’s his face now.’ I wondered if it is always necessary to know what your boyfriend’s called. Or perhaps a name is a dating technicality too.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Best Boy Friend

This week I started Backwards in High Heels, a book given to me by a dear friend who felt, with my current lifestyle, it might prove to be an inspiring reading. I knew she’d got it right on page twenty: ‘There are some men that you will never, ever, want to sleep with,’ authors Tania Kindersely and Sarah Vine stated. ‘This is not an insult, because you know perfectly well that you have leapt into bed with humans whom otherwise you would rationally cross the road to avoid… But it is possible not to fancy someone and still adore them unconditionally.’ ‘Hallelujah!’ I shouted aloud, clutching the hard cover to me chest; surrounded by hormonally charged Frenchies, I was starting to think that I was the only person left in the world who believed men and women could be friends.

‘But surely it is obvious that a relationship between a man and a woman is better with sex than without,’ the Professor said matter-of-factly over a petite café on Tuesday afternoon. ‘No,’ I frowned at him, stalling my cup in midair, ‘it is not obvious. Can’t you enjoy a person for their intelligence, their warmth, their sense of humour?’ He smiled slowly, as if charmed by my innocence. ‘I think that when men and women spend a lot of time together, if they enjoy each other’s company, then something physical is simply a natural progression.’ ‘That’s not true,’ I retorted, trying to regain the upper hand, ‘some of my best friends are men and sex has never been an issue with any of them.’ Alright, so the “never” and “any” were added to bolster my argument - like most people I’ve had a couple of perfectly good friendships ruined by a drunken fumble or a declaration of love in a fleeting moment of lunacy – but on the whole, it’s true that most of my best boy friends are, and have always been, just my mates. The Professor shook his head in disbelief, ‘Really? Perhaps this is the way in England but in France men do not have women friends, not unless they are hoping for something more.’ ‘But what about us, Professor, you’re French and we’re friends.’ He didn’t say anything, just gazed out at a boat pulling out of the port, and I realised that it was safer to leave him in his own little world.

In all fairness, there is truth in what the Professor was saying: the concept of platonic mixed-sex relationships doesn’t seem to wash in the continental climate. Sure, you see groups of guys and gals out on the town together but most often they are in couples. When I occasionally come across a French male-female friendship, I nearly always find that there are underlying sexual tensions.

‘Surely, in England, you have… what’s the name? Fuck friends?’ my Argentine Neuroscientist batted his eyelids at me innocently and took a sip of his pression as he waited for my reply. I’d only mentioned my conversation with the Professor because I’d assumed a bright, young brain specialist would understand my point of view; instead, he seemed to have misread my intentions. ‘Yes,’ I nodded, ignoring the predatory nature of his enquiry, ‘but I have a lot of non-fuck friends too. Don’t you?’ ‘Actually nearly all of my mates in Buenos Aires are women,’ he replied, puffing out his chest. ‘Well there you go then. You haven’t had sex with all of them, have you?’ He shrugged, ‘Si. Pretty much all of them,’ he paused to do some mental arithmetic, ‘at one time or another.’ No wonder he prefers having female friends, I thought; like I said he’s a clever boy.

The only place in Nice that I have managed to make bona fide male mates is in the safe haven of the Irish pub. Celts don’t seem to have any problem sharing a few drinks with a lassie without trying to get in her knickers. Okay, they do try sometimes, but only on the off chance that you might be drunk enough to say yes. Where they differ from the Latin-blooded male specie is that, if you’re not up for a bit of intoxicated bed-hopping, they’re happy to hang out with you anyway.

Only the other night I was having a beer with the Scot, watching our friend Frankie play an acoustic set at the Scandi bar. Frankie, another highlander, launched into a song that celebrated his platonic friendships with the opposite sex. I glanced at the Scot and smiled. ‘I know’ he said over the music, ‘that we annoy the hell out of each other but I am actually going to miss you, when you bugger off back to England. We’ll stay in touch, won’t we?’ ‘Of course,’ I said, looking him in the eye, ‘you’re one of my best friends now, even if you do shout at me when I get questions wrong on quiz night.’ ‘Ach,’ he slapped a hand to his chest, ‘stop it, you’re killing me here.’ Getting up to order another drink, he punched me softly on the arm, ‘No ifs or buts, you’re having a pint.’ A Stella and a Magners landed on the table, he settled down and returned to our unresolved argument over the origins of 1990s pop sensation, Whigfield (no matter how much a person says South Africa, it doesn’t make DENMARK any less the right answer, sheesh). At 2am the debate was still raging so we agreed to disagree until the next day, kissed goodnight and stumbled to our own beds. No ifs and definitely no butts.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Confessions of a Teenage Alien Lover

Many years ago, when I was doing my A-levels, I developed an obsession for a US teen drama called Roswell High. It was on BBC 2 at 6pm on Wednesdays and during season one I didn’t miss a single episode. At the end of every show I would sit on my Granny’s living room floor (because she had a bigger television) refusing to avert my eyes from the screen, hoping that if I stared hard enough it would magically fast forward to the next episode.

My appetite was fuelled largely by the on-off relationship between an alien, Michael, and a human, Maria. Unlike the full-blown, starry-eyed love affair between Max (alien) and Liz (human), there was something honest and real about the budding romance between this emotionally stunted extra terrestrial and mouthy waitress. No hormonal seventeen-year-old was as soulful and sensitive as Max but every boy I liked at school reminded me of Michael, only he was a much better kisser. And was better looking. And the actor Brendon Fehr was probably not a spotty teen but a Hollywood actor in his twenties. These were all minor details though. As far as I was concerned Michael was a boy, the same age as me, who had the ability to be passionate and poetic and fall in love. Surely there had to be at least one moody bad lad in my History class who could be as deep and meaningful? Alas, by the end of season one the whole alien-human thing had ruined the romance for Michael and Maria whilst the boys in History continued to ping the girls’ bra straps and throw rubbers at the backs of our heads.

When I started university, I became so consumed by my own, real life romantic traumas that I didn’t have time for the likes of Roswell anymore. Fast forward ten years and my brother, possibly as a joke, possibly not, gave me the DVD box set for my birthday. It was a thoughtful gift; he had remembered my old infatuation when I had long forgotten that the show ever existed (probably he retains mental scars from being forced to watch it week in and week out for half a year). I promptly put the box on my shelf to collect dust next to Pretty Woman and the Peep Show. I once took it down and momentarily considered putting on the pilot episode but I couldn’t quite go through with it. Then, last Sunday, a friend and I lay curled up in my bed after a reckless Saturday night out in Nice. The first disc was missing from my Grey’s Anatomy box set and we weren’t in the mood for a movie. Roswell was all we had left.

My friend and I settled down and got through four episodes. The next night we watched five. I was seventeen all over again and as soon as the credits rolled I immediately wanted to go on to the next one. After my friend returned to London I did consecutive nights propped up in bed: two episodes, three and then another two. I eked out the last disc and had an additional session dedicated to the extras. This morning, when I woke up and realised that it was over, that there would be no Roswell tonight, I felt bereft. I got out of bed and immediately ordered the second and third seasons on Amazon.

I hadn’t been expecting to love Roswell as much now as I did the first time around but, if anything, I think I may love it more. I laughed out loud when Michael and Maria bantered like Hepburn and Tracey, was breathless when Max strapped his biceps around Liz and kissed her for the first time, and was a weeping mess when Maria comforted her distraught boyfriend after he’d had a fight with his abusive foster father. And he may be seventeen and an alien but Michael still makes me swoon. To think that all these years I’ve been hell bent on having a human boyfriend, when what I actually need is something extra-terrestrial.

In all seriousness, I have found it slightly disturbing to discover that my dreams and desires haven’t developed that much since my adolescence. You’d imagine that my experiences with men over the years might have taught me that such intense, absurdly romantic relationships don’t exist anywhere but in American teen dramas. Well apparently not, because I’m still holding on to the slender chance that there’s a Michael out there to make me his Maria. On the flipside, the fact that I’ve clearly not progressed mentally or emotionally since I was a teenager is helping me to view my infatuationist ways in a whole new light; suddenly my fantastical imagination, irresponsible behaviour and short attention span are making perfect sense.

Does this mean then that I am destined to spend the rest of my life snogging boys behind bike sheds? Probably. You never know my luck though, I may happen to stumble across a tortured, poetic, desperately handsome alien on the Promenade des Anglais…or, better still, Brendon Fehr.

Until that day - or until I grow-up - I’ll just settle for a poster.

Thursday, 9 July 2009


This summer has seen me go raving mad. Literally. As in I’ve gone crazy for Ibiza anthems, repetitive drumbeats, glow sticks, whistles – the whole lot. I caught the rave bug after a number of late night dance sessions around a camper van whilst on holiday in Sicily in May. The music of choice was a lurid techno/cheesy house mix and when I got back to Nice the rhythms went on banging and banging and banging in my brain.

Thankfully, at the beginning of June Kitty threw a party up at the villa and I had an opportunity to rave on once again. I was so excited that I deigned the event an official rave-a-thon. One of the boys at the party took to the idea immediately but felt that the concept needed clarifying. ‘Explain to me again, why rave-a-thon?’ he asked. In all honesty, I just liked the word. ‘Imagine raving but seriously, seriously hardcore,’ I tried. ‘What? That’s it?’ he frowned, looking disappointed. ‘I had been imagining something along the lines of a marathon, only with dancing.’ Hmmm, 26.5 miles of raving? I had to admit, this had legs. At that moment Kitty’s DJ brother started to spin 9pm (till I come). It was our starter gun. The boy and I looked at each other and nodded. We were off. For the rest of the evening revellers were split between those sipping rose and having civilized conversations and those bouncing up and down like lunatics and waving their hands in the air. I was, of course, the life and soul of the latter; right up to the point that I stumbled to the lounge and lay down on the sofa. It was intended to be a power nap. Not long after I’d dropped off, a hand shook me roughly. ‘Oi, there’s no way you’re going to sleep yet.’ I swotted at the boy. ‘Seriously,’ he continued, sounding annoyed, ‘what’s happened to the rave-a-thon?’ I lifted my head and managed with surprising force, ‘It’s only a fucking warm up.’ I dropped back on to the pillow, now beyond the realm of napping, and the boy tiptoed away to complete the remaining 24.5 miles by himself.

The following week, I had a chance to salvage my reputation at Kitty’s housemate’s party - same venue, same music, same vibe. Alas, due to my dalliance with the bus stop boy the night before, I’d had an hour’s sleep and was heavy with hangover. By 6pm everyone else was well on the way to having a very merry time, whilst I remained sober and sombre. ’Rave-a-thon?’ Mindy looked me up and down with disgust, ‘More like rave-a-non.’ Realising that I couldn’t take the humiliation of another failed performance, I rallied myself and, ignoring the stabbing pains in my stomach, I forced down a cocktail of gin, cava and larger. It didn’t take long for a wave of Ibiza-esque euphoria to wash over me. Suddenly carried away by this new surge of energy I grabbed JC by the hand. ‘Shots!’ I shouted and dragged him to the kitchen. ‘Steady on raver, we’ve got no mixers.’ ‘And?’ ‘We’re not having neat vodka,’ JC looked at me with concern, he clearly thought I’d had enough. His compromise was to dilute the spirit with citron syrup found at the back of one of the cupboards. I downed five of these in the space of half an hour. Half an hour after that I was passed out on the same sofa as the week before. At 1am I had declared on Facebook: “Rave-a-thon! Whoop whoop!” By 1.30am Mindy had added: “Yeah, rave-a-non.”

The following weekend, I felt the need to prove, if only to myself, that I still had the youthful stamina to pull an all nighter. Unlike the majority of my fellow ravers, I was not having it large in the dance tent at Glastonbury but was rather jigging wildly to a schoolboy folk band at a steam engine rally in the heart of the Kentish countryside – an altogether more hardcore affair. After the live music was shut down at 11pm, my five friends and I felt suitably pumped to take the party down a quiet country lane. We turned up the car stereo, took swigs of vodka from the bottle and jumped without coordination. Despite the attempts of the fairground security crack team to shut us down (at one point we were involved in a high speed car chase around rural Kent) we managed to keep going until the wee hours, and I was up until the bitter end. I’ve now come to the conclusion that the key to a successful rave-a-thon is ensuring that one always dances around a stationary vehicle.

‘Sounds as if you’ll be in need of some peace and quiet when you get back to Nice,’ my mother said on the phone, ‘You’ll probably enjoy having a bit of a break.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I scoffed, ‘it’s the Riviera and it’s summer, the next two months will be one long party.’ ‘Dear,’ mother tutted, ‘you’re nothing but a playgirl. Only you’re not rich. I don’t know how you manage it.’ I swear underneath the pretence of disdain, I could detect a little pride.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Half your age... plus seven

How young is too young? Or, more specifically, what qualifies as too much toy and too much boy?

As a result of a tryst with a floppy-haired Frenchie last Friday night, it’s a question I’ve been mulling over considerably this past week. Actually, as I met him at a bus stop at 5am I think technically the tryst took place on Saturday morning. I’m aware of how this sounds but in all fairness at the time my friend Mindy and I had been seeking protection from a toothless tramp, one that had pulled down his pants and tugged at his penis in a most unsavoury manner before following us down the street.

On hearing of our trouble, the bus stop boy and his friend agreed to act as our chaperones. Alas, the toothless one was persistent and, failing to lose him, we decided to hide in the boy’s nearby apartment until the stalker got bored and went away. Of course, once ensconced in the cosy living room Mindy and I were more than happy to share a bottle of Merlot and a game of cards; just because we had to be here, for our safety, there was no reason why we couldn’t enjoy ourselves as well. The friend was a croupier and he wowed us with his nimble fingers and magic tricks. In return we taught them how to play Shit Head. By the time I’d noticed the sunlight streaming through the window, I was curled up on the sofa with bus stop boy, his silky locks against my cheek. When Mindy hinted that we should go, I simply shrugged and told her to watch out for the sex pest on her way home.

Arriving back at mine around lunchtime, Mindy raised her eyebrows, ‘Have fun?’ I rubbed my temples. ‘Where’s the boy?’ Mindy continued, ignoring my scowl, ‘Back with mummy? Or is he doing his homework?’ ‘He wasn’t that young,’ I mumbled, barely mustering the strength to form a defence, ‘he’s doing his finals.’ ‘Yeah, his baccalauréat maybe,’ Mindy scoffed. ‘Did you not see the timetable on his desk? If he’s at university why is he studying Maths, Art, Geography and English?’ I shrugged, ‘Obviously the French education system is a bit different. Come on Mind, he’s so not a schoolboy.’ ‘He’s just passed his driving test!’ Okay, this was true. In fact, he had received the letter only that morning and was as excited as a baby lab. I’d found it endearing at the time. I gasped. Dear God, he was still a teenager. ‘Serves you right for letting your friend walk through the streets of Nice in a black body-con mini dress at 7am,’ Mindy folded her arms and nodded at me sharply. ‘And to think, people were assuming I was a prostitute when you…’

Later that day, at Kitty’s pool party, Mindy kindly spread the news that I had a new amour. ‘So hang on a second,’ JC looked up from his plate and held his BBQ chicken in midair, ‘you met two men at a bus stop at 5am and then went back to their apartment? That’s sensible is it girls? And then you…’ JC shook his head at me, ‘and with a child too.’ ‘He was twenty-one,’ I screwed up my eyes and aimed a balled up paper napkin at his forehead, ‘he drank bloody Merlot for Christ sake.’ ‘We’re in France,’ he threw the napkin back, ‘that’s what the kids drink here.’ I sighed, unable to see what the fuss was about; I’ve always liked younger men. In fact, at university I had such a thing for preppy boys in their school uniforms that I had to rule out being a teacher on the basis that an affair with one of my students would be inevitable.

Now that there is a full decade standing in the way of me and a sixth former, the schoolboy thing doesn’t really hold the same allure as it used to but surely any guy over the age of twenty is fair game. As Aaliyah sagely pointed out, age ain’t nothing but a number and this whole bus stop boy incident was making me wonder if it wasn’t time to accept that I was destined to end up with a toy boy. ‘So,’ I enquired ‘how young is too young?’ Snoozie, so called because of her narcoleptic tendencies, had a definitive answer, ‘Half your age plus seven. Any figure below, kiddie fiddling.’ I worked on the maths. ‘Twenty-one is totally fine,’ I said eventually, feeling vindicated. ‘Oh yes, fine. Don’t worry, my boyfriend is younger than me too.’ ‘He’s two years younger Snooz,’ Mindy interrupted, ‘it’s hardly the same as deflowering an adolescent.’ ‘I did no such thing,’ I wailed but I could see arguing was futile; by the end of the party I would be known only as the girl who “deflowers” teenage boys.

‘You know,’ I said, brightening up, ‘if he’s on his school holidays he’ll have a lot of time free over the summer.’ ‘Yep, you can hang out together at the arcade,’ JC winked at me, ‘or loiter in the shopping centre. You can watch him do tricks on his skateboard in the park, treat him to an ice cream.’ ‘Now hang on JC,’ I rolled my eyes at him, ‘your letting your imagination run away with you now. I’m no sugar mummy.’ Realistically, with his pocket money alone, bus stop boy probably had a better income than I did. The ice creams would definitely be on him.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

And They Call It Puppy Love

A couple of weeks ago my little ward took me to her local piscine. She is enviously proficient in the water and took great pleasure in correcting my front crawl (I have the technique of a toddler). I was trying to concentrate on her instructions but the strapping lifeguards patrolling the poolside were proving to be a distraction so she gave up and launched into a synchronised dance whilst I attempted to find a sexy way to tread water. Alas, next to an adolescent aqua nymph, I feared my uncoordinated splashing would do little to impress the finely honed athletes. Finally, after my ward had challenged me to an underwater summersault contest, one of the Olympians blew his whistle and told us to get out of the way of the grown ups doing lengths.

We retreated to the children’s pool and, with our feet firmly on the ground, we relaxed against the side. Suddenly, my ward looked over her shoulders to check the coast was clear, then whispered, ‘I want to ask you something.’ I smiled at her to go on. ‘It’s just that all the boys who like me are the ones that I don’t like. Why is that?’ ‘That is one of life’s greatest mysteries,’ I waved my hand helplessly. ‘The ones you don’t want won’t leave you alone whilst the ones you do will be impossible to get. Always.’ I paused and narrowed my eyes at her, ‘By “like”, you mean like right?’ She nodded and I gasped: I’d always assumed she was the sweet and innocent type.

Of course, it was inevitable that she would be corrupted by the opposite sex eventually and, once I got over the initial shock, I was delighted that she wanted to share her romantic troubles with me. Mind you, as she reeled off the names of all the boys trying to court her, it occurred to me that she really didn’t have much to worry about. Obviously, the one she wanted was a moody bad boy. But it sounded like even he was putty in her hands. ‘If he likes you,’ I advised, ‘then tell him that you like him back.’ She shook her head adamantly. ‘Okay, if you can’t face doing it then get your friend to tell him. That will give him the confidence to approach you. Just be straight with him. No games.’

The following week, she ushered me into her lounge excitedly. ‘He asked me,’ she said, jumping on the spot. I frowned. ‘Jonas?’ she rolled her eyes. I squealed and joined her in the jumping. ‘My friend talked to him in registration and at break time he asked if I would I like to be his girlfriend. Go out with him. Do boys say that in England?’ ‘Sure they do… when they’re fourteen.’ I felt a sudden pang for the days when it was all so simple. ‘Anyway, you said yes, right?’ ‘I said I need time. For thinking.’ I raised my eyebrows, ‘Playing hard to get?’ ‘No. It’s just that there is this other boy…’ Another boy? I sighed and sat down heavily on the sofa. She sat on the armchair beside me. Arno was, by all accounts, less good looking but funnier and he was suddenly making a play for her affections.

When she had finished explaining, I grabbed her by the hand, ‘Now listen to me, I am wise… Okay, I am older than you and I won’t let you make the same mistakes. Last week, when he was “a challenge”, you wanted Jonas. Now he wants you and you’re not sure. This is human nature. But although the grass may suddenly look greener elsewhere it’s not, believe me.’

We decided to resolve the contest by methodically measuring up the credentials of the two suitors. We logged into Facebook. When it came to looks, there was no comparison: obviously Jonas was a tad too young for me - at the moment - but by teenage standards he was seriously hot. I then squinted at Arno's thumbnail. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’s a nice lad but funny isn’t everything. I clicked back to the hottie. ‘Go for this one,’ I commanded. She looked at the gelled black hair, blue eyes and dimples. ‘You are right,’ she eventually nodded, ‘I do love Jonas.’ ‘Not love,’ I corrected, ‘like, you like Jonas.’ ‘No,’ she replied firmly, ‘I love him.’ ‘No, like.’ She looked confused, ‘LOVE.’ ‘Fine, you love him,’ I conceded reluctantly, given that she had been considering dumping him only moments earlier I thought her on shaky ground, ‘but you’re not in love with him, not yet.’ She cocked her head, ‘In love?’ I tried to think of a way to explain the difference using rudimentary English and gave up instantly. She’d understand one day.

Going back to FB, I showed her my latest French fancy. ‘He is also good looking,’ she said approvingly. ‘You love him?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I sighed, ‘but there’s no hope, he’s not like that. He’s just for fun.’ ‘You are a bad girl,’ my ward giggled. I didn’t see any point in denying it. ‘Oh, don’t look so worried! I am a bad girl too,’ she tried to make me feel better. ‘And it’s good to be bad,’ she winked at me.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's a Tramp's Life

Now that summer is in full swing, the down and outs residing under the arches close to my apartment are in their element. A sheltered suntrap, this particular strip of sidewalk is, evidently, one of the premier spots in town for picking up a tan. I can only imagine how difficult it is to procure a square of pavement; it seems to be run by some kind of cartel that allows only the crème de la crème of Niçois homeless to pass out there.

Riding my bike past the arches with my boss Tommy the other day, we rounded the corner and came across a bunch of residents congregating behind the Notre Dame church. They were sitting on moth-eaten armchairs and upturned crates, kicking back in the early evening sun, drinking vin straight from the bottle and listening to tunes on the radio. One was donning a sombrero. ‘Bloody hell,’ Tommy shouted as we peddled by, ‘on the Riviera even tramps have civilized soirees.’ He wasn’t wrong: it looked more sophisticated than any party I’d been to for a while. ‘I’m tempted to gatecrash,’ I said, ‘one of them was fit.’ Tommy laughed, ‘Maybe you should go back, ask if he comes here often.’ I looked over my shoulder and seriously considered turning around.

Is it really so wrong to fancy the homeless? Or has something gone slightly askew? Either way, I noted with concern that most people at the street party looked better than me. Tommy told me not to worry: he regularly saw this crowd rummaging through the refuse sacks dropped off by benevolent jetsetters outside Nice’s premier charity shop. They were actually kitted out in some of the best second hand gear in the world. ‘You’re telling me that I’ve been buying clothing already discarded by prostitutes, squatters and junkies?’ I wailed. This was a new low. ‘In all fairness,’ Tommy said, trying to make me feel better, ‘their life isn’t that great.’ To illustrate, he told me about a tramp in his neighbourhood who lingers over the freshly baked pain au chocolate in the corner shop every morning. Tommy said that it was painful to watch the guy looking between the bottles of cheap wine and fresh pastries, weighing up which one he should spend his money on. ‘Of course,’ Tommy concluded, ‘the wine always wins.’ I related to this man's dilemma but deemed it better to say no more, Tommy being my boss and all.

The next day B came into Nice to pick me up. ‘I’m parking the Lambo in front of Notre Dame,’ he shouted down the phone, ‘you know the spot where all the old hobos sleep.’ ‘Hang on B, isn’t that a little thoughtless?’ I interjected. ‘I’m not sure they’ll appreciate you rocking up in your expensive car. Sort of rubs it in.’ ‘Hey,’ B said, clearly offended, ‘I like the homeless. I actually befriended a tramp once. I was hanging out with him for days. He was a great guy.’ To prove his affiliation with street dwellers, B then pressed money into the palm of a man who knocked on the car window when we were stopped at the traffic lights. It suddenly occurred to me that B might see me as a kind of tramp too; that could explain why he was so good to me.

Going to Cannes on the Friday morning I was forced to harness my own inner samaritan as I watched a homeless guy stumble onto the bus and wobble over to the seat next to mine. You could see the mixture of relief and pity etched on the face of the woman sat in front of me. Of course, the stench was horrendous but I reminded myself that the poor man probably didn’t have access to a hot shower. He rocked in his seat and talked to himself; occasionally one of his scrawny limbs would fly into the air without warning. At 10am, half way into the two-hour journey, he opened his beer and the froth spurted everywhere. I had a doctor’s appointment. He was going to think that I had a drinking problem. I considered moving to another seat but then I remembered my benevolent B and decided against it; this guy had probably experienced enough rejection in his life.

I was about to get off at the next stop, hide behind a tree and wait for the following bus, when the man stood up. He gave me a nod, or possibly it was the tick. I fought the impulse to hold my nose and managed a smile. I then watched as he fell from the vehicle and sloped off towards the beach, a towel over his shoulder and a beer in his hand. Living on the streets in the Riviera, really wasn’t such a tough life. If you could just get a coveted spot under the archway then you'd really made the big time. I wondered what I'd have to do to get on the list.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Yugo Nowhere

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m in love with my car. Once upon a time I thought only boys were capable of such stupidity; I mean we’re talking about a machine made of metal and rubber that takes you from one place to another. Then, two years ago, I trekked half way across Europe to buy a bright orange bubble on wheels. It was falling apart and I fell head-over-heels. Since then it has spent more time in garages than it has out on the open road, and it has left me on the edge of bankruptcy, yet the idea of dumping it in the scrap yard sends shivers down my spine. It’s the car equivalent of the bad lad you can’t help going back to, even though you know he’s going to treat you like shit.

For the last week or so, Yugo, as I affectionately call him, has been parked outside my apartment collecting tickets from traffic wardens. I left a note on the dashboard explaining that I couldn’t start the engine without at least three burly men from the PMU bar coming to push me, but it was to no avail; everyday a new slip was wedged under the windscreen wiper. ‘Don’t worry,’ Kitty reassured me as we splashed in her pool, ‘you’ve got British plates; they’ll never chase you for the money. JC throws his in the bin.’ This sounded like my kind of a theory but still I couldn’t sleep easy; I’d lie in bed at night imagining tow truckers manhandling my bambino and in the morning I’d rush downstairs in my dressing gown convinced that he would be gone.

Sleep deprived, I paid a visit to my neighbour – a motorcycle mechanic who routinely helps Kitty with her Fiat Uno, Bruno, when he breaks down outside my apartment. ‘Non!’ he barked at me before I’d even opened my mouth. ‘Je suis mechanic moto! Pas voiture! Pas ici!’ ‘Please,’ I implored. ‘Non! You come in ‘ere, pretty English girls, you smile… Enough! Go across ze street, iz mechanic for cars.’ ‘Oh,’ I tried innocently, ‘you don’t understand. I don’t want someone else to fix my car. I want to learn how to do it for myself. Can’t you show me?’ He laughed. Loudly. ‘You? Mechanic? Ha!’ ‘Hey,’ I bristled, ‘I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty.’ He looked me up and down, eventually resting his gaze on my flimsy white mini skirt. Sensing his resolve was faltering, I tried again, ‘Come on! ‘Motorbikes, cars, they can’t be that different. It’ll be fun!’ ‘Sorry,' he shrugged at last, ‘I can’t. My wife will get angry.’ He slapped his own wrists. ‘I’m asking you to teach me basic mechanics. That’s all.’ He just winked at me. Being French, it was only natural for him to assume that what I really wanted was sex. I turned around and walked across the road.

Yugo now being cared for by a proper car mechanic, Kitty came by on Friday night to collect me for dinner. Parked up by my building, she tried to start Bruno but he only coughed at her and then cut out. ‘Oh come on, don’t do this to me.’ She turned the key again: there was another coughing fit. Kitty looked at me expectantly, ‘Why don’t you go and get your Scottish friend?’ ‘No way,’ I said firmly. The Scot was still annoyed about an autoroute SOS call I’d made two weeks earlier. He’d had to miss the second half of the football to pick me up. He’d never forgive me if I pulled him out of the pub again. ‘Fucking hell,’ Kitty thumped the steering wheel, ‘I’m going to have to call JC. And he told me not drive Bruno tonight,’ she sniffed, the tears welling in her eyes, ‘he’s going to kill me.’

There was a tap on the window. The motorbike mechanic and his assistant were grinning through the glass. ‘Who’s more important JC?’ Kitty was sobbing down the phone, ‘Your friends or me?’ I wound the window down and widened my eyes, ‘Can you help us, please?’ ‘Je suis desolè,’ the mechanic said, ‘je doit aller chez moi. Ma femme,' he raised his eyebrows. 'But you iz mechanic! You fix it!’ I ignored him. ‘To learn about ze engine,’ he continued, ‘you at least need boyfriend who iz mechanic. To teach you.’ He shoved his assistant in my direction and gave me another dirty wink. ‘Seriously,’ Kitty whispered, ‘take one for the team.’ I looked at the boy, cross-eyed and muttering something about a drink, and shook my head. ‘Oh it’s alright,’ she waved her hand, ‘JC’s on his way.’ She reached across to a bag of groceries and found a bottle of wine.

By the time JC had arrived, Kitty and I had consumed most of the rosè and had started on the cheese platter. Kitty almost landed on the curb when he pulled open the door. ‘Girls, you have got to get new cars. I’ve had to cancel a dinner party for this.’ ‘But I love Bruno,’ Kitty giggled. I pointed in the vague direction of the old man’s garage, ‘And I love Yugo. He’s so pretty.’ ‘Yep, looks good, but it DOESN'T FUCKING WORK.’ JC slammed the door and went to get a tow bar from his boot. Kitty looked like she might start weeping again. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, putting a comforting arm around her, ‘when it comes to cars, men simply don’t understand.’

Monday, 25 May 2009

Diamond Dealers are a Girl's Best Friend

Right now, I am sitting on my balcony. The air is warm and still. All I can hear is the faint laughter of children in a nearby playground. A super yacht, gleaming white in the sunlight, is slicing through the water in silence. Everything is perfect. Or at least it would be, if I could only get my head to stop throbbing. I’m discovering that headaches are what happen when you adopt the lifestyle of Paris Hilton but don’t have the pedigree and the years of training. I’m convinced that Paris, Nicky, Tara P-T et al must have gone to a special school, one that gives classes on drinking on an empty stomach and getting in and out of sports cars wearing short skirts.

Yesterday, I was at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. It was Grand Prix day and as I tottered about in my white mini dress and four-inch heels clasping a glass of champagne, I imagined I was blending in flawlessly with the high society beauties. I mean, considering that I don’t frequent this sort of establishment everyday I thought I was doing rather well. Still, given that I was only there because my playboy friend had a spare ticket, I couldn’t help feeling a little like a gatecrasher at a party.

B had called on Wednesday and left a message on my answer phone: ‘Hey lady! Got a proposition for you. Sunday. Monte. Grand Prix. Got a table at the Hotel de Paris and a spare ticket. Fancy it?’ Hmmm, it was a tough one. So there I was, sitting around a tiny table with B and his girlfriend, a banker friend of theirs from the Bahamas and a diamond dealer recently moved to Monaco from Switzerland. It was midday and we were already on our second glass of champagne. The Diamond Dealer was telling me about some £40 million rock just auctioned at Christies. Apparently, when it comes to rare gems the credit crunch is an irrelevance. I asked him how much an average diamond costs nowadays. ‘What do you mean average? For you?’ I laughed, hysterically, and he frowned. ‘Oh,’ I managed eventually, ‘I’m not really in a position to be buying diamonds.’ He raised his hand to me, ‘Seriously, they’re more affordable than you might think. You could get a nice pair of studs for just a couple of grand.’ This time I managed to keep a straight face; it is a skill I’ve been able to hone thanks to B regularly making statements like, ‘I bought my second Lamborghini on a whim’ and ‘This flat is super cheap to rent. Twenty grand a month in Monte is a bloody bargain.’

After the Diamond Dealer and I had a disagreement over whether or not I could be a classic car journalist when I couldn’t provide a definition of a frogeye, I decided to head outside for a breather. The crowd on the roof terrace had their noses pressed to the wire fence. Every few seconds, a distant burr would build to reverberating roar and a car would flash past. They were so fast. I shut my eyes, let the sound pass through me and felt my body shudder. Admittedly, it did begin to get a bit samey after a while - the cars went round and round, no one crashed - so I went back inside.

The party was hotting up and a swarm of pretty young socialites had started dancing to Eurohouse whilst the Bulgarian Mafiosi were holding court in one corner of the room. I decided that I could probably get used to the Grand Prix scene and wondered if I was too old and short to be a pit girl. I saw that B had a fresh glass of champagne waiting for me, my ninth or tenth, and I wobbled towards the table. With my feet squashed into these ill-fitting stilettos for several hours now, I suddenly felt compelled to kick them off. I also felt compelled to stand on a chair and start techno dancing. This raised position happened to be much better for scoping out handsome richies; not that I was going to be fussy, I only had to persuade one of them to kiss me and then we could get married. The plan was progressing apace and I was making out in the corner with some dapper continental chap in cream chinos and creaseless blue shirt when I felt someone tugging at my arm. ‘Hannah,’ B’s girlfriend said sharply, ‘we’re going.’ I looked up at my new beau: he was so smooth and shiny. ‘Please,’ I implored, ‘can’t we stay a bit longer.’ ‘No,’ she yanked me from the boy’s embrace, ‘the driver’s outside. Come on.’ As I was pulled towards the door, I looked back at the boy who was blinking at me, clearly bemused. He looked like a deer caught in car headlights. A really good looking deer. This was so unfair: of course she could go home, she already had a rich boyfriend. I, an impoverished writer on the other hand, was still without my trophy husband.

Now, looking down on the yacht sailing out to sea, it's dawning on me that if I want to achieve the Grand Prix standard of living I'll have to make my own money. Morally, I'm not sure I have what it takes to be a diamond dealer but, then again, I'll never know unless I give it a go...

Friday, 17 April 2009

In the Blood

'Oooo that’s really not bad, not bad at all.’ Peter leaned backwards slightly, titled his head to the side and re-scrutinized the canvas on my easel. I squinted at the brown and yellow smears, then turned and narrowed my eyes at him. ‘Really?’ ‘Absolutely!’ He reminded me a little of Neil Buchanan presenting Art Attack, when he’d needed to encourage one of the more artistically challenged children. ‘You know,’ he continued without a hint of sarcasm, ‘you can tell you come from a creative family, you have a natural aptitude for this, it must be in the genes.’ I too leaned back from the painting and tilted my head, hoping that this would offer a more favorable angle. ‘Well, I’ve never really done this before, not life drawing and not with oils. I guess it’s not bad. For a first go…’ I looked at Ingrid’s curvy form stretched out on the chaise longue, ‘…Kind of abstract.’

I had been working frantically, brushing paint to canvas, for three hours. The oils had worked their way up my forearms to my elbows and had been smeared across my cheek and brow. It reminded me of a photo in the Museum of Modern Art of the French-American artist Nikki de Saint Phalle: her sleeves rolled up, her hands covered in paint, her face spattered and her hair sticking up on end. I love that photograph. I love Nikki de Saint Phalle. It was, in part, my infatuation with her that made me want to move to Nice in the first place. I looked at the composition again. I was a mere novice, my opinion hardly counted for much. Peter was the expert. And Peter swore it was good. Maybe, I thought, he’s hit on something here; maybe this is my destiny. Suddenly it occurred to me that there was little point toiling away as a cash-strapped scribe if my natural talents were more inclined towards the visual arts. Artists made tons of money. Look at Damian Hirst. He earned millions for chopping up livestock.

As the week at the retreat progressed I found myself increasingly absorbed by my newly acquired passion for painting. Instead of writing, I used my time off from modeling to go down to the studio in the basement and in my oversized man’s shirt and apron I’d splash the paint on my canvas with wild abandon. ‘Your father says you can’t possibly have painted anything that good in a few hours,’ my mother said on the phone one evening, trying to quell the artistic fire burning in my belly. ‘How long did your grandfather take to finish an oil portrait? Months, that’s how long.’ ‘Honestly Mum, Peter says that I’m a natural. As you’ve just pointed out, it’s probably in my blood.’ ‘Darling,’ she sighed, ‘do we honestly think that this is enough on which to base a new career as a professional artist?’ Admittedly, I had spent the past six months touting myself as the next Jackie Collins and now I was threatening to ditch the romantic novel thing so that I could experiment with installation art, probably it was a lot to digest. So I didn’t argue and instead made a mental to note to say ‘I told you so’ when my first solo exhibition opened at the White Cube.

On the final evening, when I refused a glass of champagne because I didn’t want to stop painting, I understood what a profound impact week erotica had had on me. ‘You are really clever,’ one of the lady students tottered over to my easel with her bubbly, ‘clever to be painting.’ Her Scandinavian lilt was almost musical. ‘If only my mother was around to hear you say that,’ I sighed, ‘maybe then she’d accept that this is my true path.’ She shook her head and sang, ‘In Norway we say “You only borrow your children” and that is what I would tell to your mother if she were here. Really.’ Cryptic and wise, I had no idea what she was talking about but it sounded good so I nodded enthusiastically. As the rest of the group made their way upstairs for the last supper, Peter tried to pull the pallet from my resistant fingers. ‘I’m not ready,’ I moaned as we tugged it back and forth. ‘Do I have to leave tomorrow? Can’t I stay here, at the commune, forever’ He shook his head at me, ‘No, you can’t. And we’re an international art school if you don’t mind.’

Next day, staring at the grim façade of my apartment block from his van window, I looked like a caged cat on its way to the vet. I thought of the domestic drudgery, the plates of beans on toast and the neighbour’s hip hop beats banging through the wall. ‘Please Peter,’ I wailed, ‘don’t make me go back out there. I’m not sure that I can.’ He laughed and went to fetch my suitcase from the boot before opening my car door. He thought I was joking? Before abandoning me on the street curb, he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now don’t forget, keep at the painting. It’ll be good for you. It'll feed the writing.’ Yes, I thought, I suppose there is always my painting. I wondered where all the trendy artists in Nice hung out. If I found them I could have Yves Klein parties and maybe set up a commune of my own. 'Yes, I'll paint every day,' I said out loud to myself as I rummaged through a storage box for an unused water colour set. I put the paints down next to my computer and promised to pick them up the following morning. And then I started to type.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Art of the Striptease: Part 2

Sprawled out on a bed in a black bra and matching knickers, stockings and a pair of stilettos, I shut my eyes and tried to ignore the hand gently resting on my knee. My own hand was sitting motionless, loosely grasping the flesh of a warm thigh. I’d been lying like this, next to and facing a semi-clad Swedish woman, for the past fifty minutes. ‘It’s just like being backstage at the Moulin Rouge, isn’t it?’ the director said waving his arms around excitedly. I thought this somewhat hopeful but I appreciated his enthusiasm. ‘Peter,’ a Norwegian woman hollered at him from behind her canvas, ‘she look like a man. She has a man face.’ Ingrid and I looked at each other with concern, unsure which of us she was referring to. ‘It’s because her face is too fat, isn’t it?’ she continued and pointed her paintbrush at me. The director looked between the painting and me and nodded. ‘And it’s too red and her breasts are too massive.’ She folded her arms in resignation. It was a struggle not to leap up and see what she’d done; I was beginning to imagine something along the lines of a WWF wrestler. A small smirk escaped from Ingrid and within seconds the two of us had collapsed into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. ‘Seriously,’ the guy directly in front of me held his charcoal up and sighed, ‘I’m trying to draw your face.’ ‘Sorry,’ I managed breathlessly before realizing that, to wipe away the tears, I was going to have to move my arm.

After one week on the retreat, this was our last foray into the dark and twisty world of erotica and this was about as steamy as things had got. Since the opening session, I’d had no further opportunity to work on my stripping technique and at no time had I been required to harness my inner Von Teese. It turns out that, from a model’s point of view, erotic art is not so very different to normal art: take clothes off, find position, hold position for a very long time. And, quite frankly, it is hard to convey sexuality and sensuality when a) your muscles are twitching b) you are trying not to flinch c) you have no feeling left in your arms and legs. ‘You do tend to look annoyed,’ one of the male students noted during a mid-morning coffee break, ‘and you can definitely tell when you’ve had enough.’ Bloody Ingrid, I thought, if she wasn't so amenable I wouldn't look half as bad. It was hardly my fault that the statuesque blond had an unnerving ability to hold contorted positions for extreme periods of time. Of course, in comparison I was going to be the short, bossy one who seemed unable to sit still and refused to do anything uncomfortable.

At least modeling for three hours a day, six days in a row, gave me plenty of time to improve my technique. And although it did little to expand my "horizons", I did get the chance to think about my body in new and unexpected ways every day. 'It might be interesting if I twisted this way,' I'd think to myself as I'd try out a new pose, 'and if I let the light fall across me here it will cast beautiful shadows.' As the week went on I found myself getting increasingly creative. I painted my nails siren red, draped oriental fabric behind me, wrapped a white turban around my head and posed flapping a fan of green feathers (one prop too many according to Peter, who promptly told me to put it back in my suitcase). ‘Perhaps,' I suggested on the fifth day, 'we should try doing an Yves Klein?’ One of the guys raised his eyebrows at me, ‘You want us to paint you blue and watch you roll around on a giant canvas?’ I nodded; I couldn't think of anything I'd like better.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Art of the Striptease: Part 1

Last weekend, I came across an article in the Sunday Times that asked, ‘Are women sexually liberated or just confused?’ Having just spent the previous seven days at an artists’ retreat modelling for a painting course entitled, “Erotic Art”, the piece seemed perfectly timed. Being an artists’ model, people often assume that I must be sexually liberated. It's fair enough: for a person working in accounting or retail, getting naked for complete strangers can seem pretty risque. Few people realise that baring your body in the name of art actually involves sitting rigid in a cold studio full of retired housewives and has absolutely nothing to do with sex (not unless someone has a fetish for paint that is, or happens to be very, very desperate).

I couldn’t help wondering though, if this job at the retreat wasn’t going to be a bit different; clearly the course title was open to interpretation but I was pretty sure that there had to be more to ‘erotic art’ than simply sketching out body proportions. Half of me, the radical right half, was excited: this was exactly the kind of experience I needed to expand my creative and sexual horizons. The other half of me, the logical left, imagined a prop basket filled with handcuffs, whips and crotchless knickers and I began to feel sick. ‘What exactly do they mean by erotic dear?’ my mother interrogated me the day before I headed for the hills, convinced that I was being lured to a house of ill repute. ‘Are they expecting you to lie down and spread your legs? Or perform a live sex act?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I did my best to sound nonchalant, ‘I’ll have to wait and see. Don’t worry though, I won’t do anything I’m not comfortable with.’ This didn’t reassure her as much as I had expected. ‘But darling,’ she wailed, ‘what if it’s a cult.’

When I arrived on the Sunday evening, the “cult”- older Scandinavian women in smart trousers and silk neck scarves - were sitting on sofas nibbling nuts and discussing Renaissance art. After a civilized four course dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, I had come to the conclusion that I was ready to be brainwashed by them and taken into the fold. My left half began to relax: I was fairly certain that I wasn’t going to have to swing any porn star moves and there wasn’t anyone at the table who struck me as a hardcore sexual deviant. Indeed, it seemed to me that too much erotica might induce sever palpitations or fits of fainting.

I was, therefore, somewhat surprised when the director of the course took me to one side the following morning and said, ‘How about, for this opening session, you do a little striptease for the group? Could be fun, what do you think?’ ‘Fun?’ the word nearly chocked me. My face must have been contorted because the director looked at me with concern. ‘Striptease?’ I tried to breath and keep cool, ‘What do you mean exactly?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ he shrugged, ‘you could do whatever you wanted. Why don’t you give it some thought.’ ‘I’m an artists’ model,’ I bristled, ‘not a professional stripper.’ Now it was the director’s turn to look stricken. ‘Oh of course you’re right,’ he stammered, ‘the word striptease isn’t correct. I shouldn’t have used it. All I mean is that I want you to go from dressed to undressed, holding the poses in mid-motion. It doesn’t have to be sexy. Just imagine that you are at home getting changed for bed or undressing at the beach or stripping for your boyfriend.’ ‘I’m not being funny,’ I replied haughtily, ‘but you can’t possibly expect me to do what I would with a boyfriend in front of a group of strangers.’ ‘No, absolutely, not boyfriend,' he jumped in again. 'I mean just undressing as you would on your own at home, nothing more. If you think this is inappropriate, if you think anything is inappropriate, you must say. I’d hate to put you in an awkward situation.’ I suddenly felt guilty. He was a nice guy; pimping me out to his Scandi students was clearly not his intention. Besides, what had happened to expanding my sexual horizons? I was behaving like a prude. ‘No, no, it’s not out of line,’ I reassured him. ‘It’s just that I’m not used to modelling in this way and I’m not sure how good I’ll be. I can try and come up with something, leave it with me.’

I wandered down to the studio: half a dozen ladies were all positioned behind their easels in a crescent. They were dressed in cashmere cardigans and paint spattered aprons and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to take my lacy knickers off in front them without looking like a whore. This was only session one. Where on earth would we go from here? I found a good spot to focus my gaze. Think of the horizons, I thought, and began to pull off my jumper…

Thursday, 19 March 2009

L’hymne á l’Amour

Today I had my weekly lunch date with The Professor. We were happily settled on the restaurant terrace enjoying the sunshine and the sea view when, out of nowhere, he blurted, ‘I think you are afraid.’ I raised my eyebrows, ‘Of what?’ ‘Of love.’ ‘Excuse me?’ ‘It is something that I have been thinking since we translated the Edith Piaf song.’ I racked my brain. ‘L’hymne á l’Amour?’ He nodded. He was referring to the French assignment that he had set for me a few weeks previously. At the time, after I had read out my translation, he had said, ‘Imagine that the man you love is saying these things to you. It is romantic, no?’ I squinted at the lyrics:

If one day life tares you from me
If you die and you are away from me
I do not care if you love me
For I will die also
We will have eternity for us
In the blue of the immensity

Okay, it was hardly word perfect but still… Romantic? ‘I’d run away from him as fast as possible,’ I’d spluttered. The Professor had looked confused, ‘But why?’ ‘Seriously, look at the words. It’s a bit full on. He’d have to be mental.’ The Professor scrutinized me in silence for some time. ‘You are very strange for a woman,’ he eventually concluded. ‘Very, very strange.’ I didn’t argue, it was probably a perfectly fair assessment, and then I thought no more of it; until today I’d had no idea that I had left such an indelible impression on him.

‘Why,’ he now continued, ‘do you not talk to me of your sentimental relationships?’ I chewed my lasagne to buy some time. ‘Well,’ I began tentatively after swallowing, ‘I don’t talk about my sentimental relationships with everyone. I mean, I don’t talk to my father about them for example.’ This was an out-and-out lie: my dad is in fact privy to many details regarding my romantic life; discussing it with The Professor, however, would be tantamount to talking to my grandfather about sex (you just don’t, do you?). I decided that, from an age point of view, The Professor might be offended if I likened him to my late grandfather though so I plumped for the dad thing.

He rested his knife and fork on his plate. ‘You know I have some knowledge of the psychoanalysis. I analysis [sic] what you say about the Edith Piaf, about running away, and I think: “Ah, she is afraid. She is afraid of sentimental love.” ‘Oh no, not afraid of love!’ I tried to laugh. He went quiet again, his gaze lost focus and he went sort of cross-eyed. ‘You’re analysing me now?’ I finally interrupted, putting down my own cutlery. ‘Yes, yes I analyse you. You are nervous?’ Well, I hadn’t been before but… ‘Look,’ I countered, ‘let me assure you that I am not afraid of love, sentimental or otherwise. I’m scared of commitment but that’s not the same. I am a very loving person,’ I crossed my legs and folded my arms, ‘and I’m very lovable.’ He didn’t look convinced. ‘The trouble is,’ I continued, now as much to myself as to the tiny elderly man sat opposite, ‘I like to have options. As soon as I settle on someone I become aware of all the other choices I could have made; of course, they always seem to be much better than the thing I’ve chosen. Does that make sense?’

‘You should not be so tough. It will not be easy to be the man in your life.’ He sounded concerned. ‘As it is, understanding the desires of a woman is very hard for us. What women desire is very complicated whereas a man’s desires are obvious, simple.’ ‘Don’t generalise,’ I lectured him, ‘sometimes a woman’s desires are obvious too.’ Given the whole grandpa thing I thought it best not to elaborate here. ‘I am not saying this is 100% applying to everyone,’ he carried on, ‘but it is true that when a woman starts a sentimental relationship normally she is thinking about the future, she is planning. It is not like this for a man, he is happy with what he is getting in that moment. He is happy to take what he can get.’ ‘How charming,’ I muttered and then said more loudly, ‘I suppose there may be some truth to what you are saying, often the woman considers the future before the man.’ ‘Do you?’ ‘Not in the way you’re talking about.’ He leant forward, his eyes glinting. ‘I get infatuated,’ I explained. He didn’t know this word so we looked it up on his little pocket translator. ‘Ah, entichement! So when you are infat, infat…’ ‘Infatuated. Yes?’ ‘When you are infatuated you are in love?’ I frowned. ‘Sort of, at least I believe I am in love at the time. Only the feeling fades too quickly to be true. Anyway,’ I waved my hand in the air, ‘I am trying very hard not to be infatuated these days. It does me no good whatsoever.’

We rose, with some effort, from our plastic garden chairs and walked down the steps to the car with slow, heavy footsteps. He looked across and gave me a mischievous smile, ‘So I am clever, no?’ I frowned at him. ‘To guess that you are afraid of love.’ ‘Absolute genius Professor,' I sighed, 'really, hit the nail on the head.’ It was only ever going to be a matter of time before he discovered the truth now, wasn’t it?

Monday, 2 March 2009

Easy Come, Easy Go

On Saturday I was in the Irish pub having a few drinks with the Scot, his friend and his friend’s colleague. The colleague, who was French (of course), spent the entire evening trying to smooth talk his way into my “affections” and when the clock began creeping towards twelve he decided to take a slightly more forward approach. He came up from behind, wrapped his arms around me and began pawing at my waist. ‘Take your hands off me,’ I snapped and elbowed him in the ribs. ‘Believe it or not,’ I wagged my finger at him, ‘an English girl doesn’t jump into bed with every man who offers.’ This news, combined with my unexpected outburst, seemed to render the man speechless. I yanked at the Scot’s coat sleeve. ‘Come on,’ I fumed as I dragged him away, looking back at the Frenchie with disgust, ‘I’m fed up with the men around here thinking that British women are easy.’ The Scot, with half a pint left in his glass, was resisting my tugging, ‘Well aren’t you? Not British girls generally I mean but…’ ‘I am not EASY,’ I screamed. I must have resembled mad Carrie at the prom because my friend’s face was suddenly stricken with fear. ‘Oh don’t worry about it,’ I turned on my heels, ‘I’m going home. ALONE.’

I flounced all the way back to my apartment with the word “easy” ringing in my ear. I was in a sulk, this was so unfair: since the mop-topped barman, I had been nothing but a model of virtuousness. And that was New Years Eve (so it doesn’t even count). This adds up to weeks of good behaviour. Weeks that have seen me wooed by the Silky One, enticed by the Neuroscientist and drunkenly hit on by the Crazy Canadian. I have refused all their persistent advances and for what?

I’d never had a problem with my promiscuity before I moved to France. In fact, compared to my other single girl friends, I’d always considered myself normal, even angelic. Then I came here and people assumed that I was a slut simply because of where I was from; it had the effect of making me question how normal I was after all. One evening, dancing in some Old Town dive, I fell into the arms of a Glaswegian with a huge blonde Mohican. He’d mastered this hypnotic back rubbing move that I was, apparently, powerless to resist. The next day, as I lay paralyzed, still drunk, in my bed, my mother gave me a lecture. ‘Dear you’re terribly easy,’ she said matter-of-fact. ‘He only had to rub your back…’ It pained me to admit it but I knew she was right. Then, in my tango class, José suggested that I work harder at resisting men. ‘You are too easy,’ he barked, ‘don’t be so easy. Resist. Resist!’ Obviously he was referring to my technique but, after giving it some thought, I decided to apply his advice to my life more generally. And thus, I ended up in my present predicament: English but not easy.

Post-dinner at the Silky One’s a couple of weeks ago he moaned, ‘You are like a French girl, not English at all. You’ve been taking lessons?’ It was a genuine enquiry. ‘Oh please,’ I shooed him away like a fly, ‘I may be English but I am capable of restraining myself.’ I scrutinized him and went on, ‘Incredibly, I’m actually finding it pretty easy to say no to you right now.’ Still, I was confused. Was it good for me to be like a French girl or was it bad? According to my Neuroscientist it was the latter. ‘Women here treat sex as if it is an oath,’ he explained. ‘They pull out the white dress after one sexual encounter. In Argentina it’s different, sex is without expectation; six months down the line you’ll wake up together and think this is really cool, this is a person I want to be with.’

Gabrielle, however, was adamant that this approach couldn’t be more wrong. ‘Men,’ she told me over lunch yesterday, ‘are stupid. That is why you can – no it is why you MUST - play them.’ ‘Huh?’ I was baffled; what happened to having a laugh with them? ‘These days,’ she continued, clearly taking to the theme, ‘sex is too easy. Men can get it anywhere, anytime. Women give it away. Give it away right at the beginning. Why then will a man bother hanging around? They’ve had everything they want.’ I thought about my Neuroscientist and tried to reason with her, ‘But sex isn't a gift, Gabrielle, to be bestowed or held onto and dangled in front of a man to trap him. Shouldn’t it simply be fun, happy, relaxed? Surely then a guy will hang around.’ ‘Well, anyway,’ Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at me accusingly, ‘it is true about English women. My friend who lives there says all the girls have sex really easily.’ So that was that then, I shrugged with resign: I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

This morning the Scot called. ‘Sorry,’ he began, ‘I don’t think you’re easy, not at all, in fact not easy enough by half. Besides, you were right about that French guy, turns out that he’s married, removed his wedding ring at the start of the night just so he could pull…’ And here I was questioning my morals? The French women, I thought, are welcome to their games and to their men. From now on I was English, easy (if I wanted) and proud.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A Running Joke

Just as there is a very clear line between those who go through life stalking and those who don’t, the same is also true of running. You are either a “runner” by nature or you’re not. The divide has become more obvious to me in recent months because there are an abnormal amount of “runners” in Nice. In fact there are so many of them sprinting up and down the Promenade des Anglais, I have come to believe that its 19th Century architects somehow knew that the Riviera would one day be populated by the world’s most beautiful men and women, the long-limbed and honey-skinned for whom Lycra shorts were invented.

When I first arrived here, I too found that I was irrationally compelled to jog along the seafront several times a week. I would get up at seven, be out by seven-thirty and home again before half eight. The promenade was perfect at that time of the morning - the pale sun was warm, the sky was golden - and when I got back to my apartment I was always full of energy and ready for the day ahead. I imagine that even Madonna - a woman who famously claimed that her body ‘doesn’t know it’s Christmas’ - would have found me a nauseating person to be around.

Obviously, I didn’t stick at it for longer than a month. As far as I was concerned, the torrential winter rain and the tragic loss of my Ipod gave me perfectly legitimate reasons to bin the regime. I knew, of course, that I’d simply latched on to the most convenient excuses. If I hadn’t been so careless, if the storms hadn’t raged, I would have found other reasons to stop; because, no matter how much I like to believe that I am a “real runner”, as a serial infatuationist it is impossible for me to make the long-term commitment “real running” requires.

Happily, the recent reappearance of the sun had meant that I have, for the time being, found my running groove once again. With my passion for pavement pounding fully reignited, I settled down last Wednesday with a copy of Haruki Murakami’s, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book has been sitting on my bedside table since November, taunting me throughout my jog-free winter; last week was the first time I felt I had run enough to justify opening the front cover. Sipping my Diet Coke in the pub on Friday night, I told my Scottish friend that I believed Mister Murakami – a bestselling author and dedicated marathon runner – to be a kindred spirit. He shrugged, ‘Can’t say that it sounds like my cup of tea.’ ‘Well no, I don’t imagine it would be,’ I looked at the pint of beer in his hand with disdain. ‘I think I must feel a sort of personal connection with what he's saying because, you know, I am both a "runner" and a "writer".’ According to my friend, I am also a "twat".

And perhaps he has a point. Thanks to - what I now refer to as - the Murakami effect, my behavior is rapidly beginning to reflect that of a “real runner”: smug and slightly fascist. For example, on Saturday afternoon I was jogging briskly down the promenade to some upbeat Girls Aloud number when I (literally) ran into a Canadian friend of mine just outside of the casino. ‘Sweet!’ he said when he clocked me, ‘I just tried to call you. Man, it’s such a beautiful day. What you doing?’ I blinked, kept jogging on the spot to the Girls, who I had left blaring loudly in one ear, and said nothing; I wasn’t going to waste valuable breath stating the obvious. ‘Was gonna see if you wanted to join me on the beach, soak up a few rays,’ he continued, annoyingly happy to see me. ‘Um, thanks for the offer but, you know, I’m running so can’t right now.’ I spoke to him as if I was explaining something very basic to a child. He began telling me what his plans were for the evening. I blinked harder at him; did he honestly think I had time for this chitchat? He must have registered that my bouncing was becoming increasingly agitated because he suddenly appeared disconcerted. ‘Anyway,' he muttered, 'guess I’ll catch up with you later...’ His lips were still mouthing 'good bye' when I began sprinting off in the opposite direction.

As I waved back at the Canadian, now a fuzzy dot in the distance, it occurred to me that if I continued to behave like a “runner” most of my “civilian” friends were going to dump me before very long. Perhaps this jogging malarkey wasn’t such a good idea after all? At that moment, an Adonis in tiny cycling shorts ran past and gave me a little smile, as if the two of us shared a secret. Fuck friends, I thought, guys like him are too healthy to go to the pub anyway. I held my head high, put my best foot forward and I kept on running.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Johnny and Evita

Towards the end of my tango class on Tuesday, I was attempting a tricky leg-sweeping move with the Silver Fox when a pair of strong hands grabbed my waist and swept me clean away. It was my Argentine Neuroscientist. We embraced warmly; we hadn’t seen each other for two weeks. ‘Where have you been?’ I cried. ‘My friend is here from Buenos Aires. I’ve had to reduce my tango hours.’ ‘Goodness, what a terrible burden’, I sympathized. ‘How long will she be staying?’ He smiled and winked, ‘He’s here a long time, until mid March.’ The idea of not dancing together for a month was unbearable. He must have sensed my woe because he looked into my eyes and said, ‘It’s not so bad. Let’s see what we can do.’ I suddenly felt horribly guilty; I’d been so busy kissing my frog lately that I had completely neglected my Latin Prince.

Having decided that I may have been a bit hasty putting all my eggs into the one (French) basket, I have now resumed my scheme of diligent tango practice and improvement. By the time the Neuroscientist’s no-mark friend has buggered off back to Buenos Aires, I am sure to be able to wow him with my eight-point pivot. Inevitably, with myself as my partner, I am making slow progress. After a frustrating morning stepping on my own toes, I almost relented yesterday and agreed to Pervy P’s proposition of private tuition. PP is my tango classmate and my English language student. For some time now he has been offering to ‘emphasize’ my ‘charming steps in tango’. (He also routinely pats my knee under the table and tells me I am ‘very preeety’, which no doubt violates a teacher-student code of conduct.) Luckily, just before I’d committed myself to some hands on teaching with him, I received a message: ‘We didn’t dance together much recently. I can help you work on your steps if you like.’ It was my prince! He had come for me and I hadn’t even had to leave a shoe. We agreed to rendezvous that very night.

As soon as I got home, I cleaned my flat like a demon. It had to look like it belonged to the type of girl who a brain doctor could, one day, marry. I particularly wanted the bathroom to look nice. As it takes several days to psyche myself up to mop, I had to hope that the dimmed lighting would disguise the dirt on the tiles. I also managed to squeeze in a phone call to my mother. She asked my dad, who was obviously somewhere in the background, if he thought ‘working on my steps’ was, in fact, a euphemism. I hoped so. My father declined to comment either way.

When the Neuroscientist arrived, he requested that we dance by candlelight. There was a tension in the air. Although it was not unpleasant, my instinct was to giggle. To lighten the mood I suppose. The Neuroscientist was having none of it though; we were here to work. With him in the role of the maverick dancer and me playing the frustrated student desperate to impress, my DIRTY DANCING fantasies were fast becoming a reality. ‘You should read your partner like a hummingbird’, he instructed, gazing into my eyes. I wasn’t entirely sure how one could ‘read a hummingbird’, but I accepted that this was the closest I was going to get to Johnny’s ‘It’s a feeling; a heartbeat’, and tried to look suitably mesmerized. After dancing to the same slow song several times, our embrace was so close our foreheads were touching. The music stopped and he lingered, perhaps mulling over how appropriate it would be to steal a kiss. I pulled away coquettishly and we took a breather.

‘In Argentina,’ he explained over his glass of rosé, ‘most people turn to tango after a heartbreak. It is as if a tragedy triggers a connection with the dance, a need for it or a longing.’ He began to talk wistfully about Buenos Aires. Through his eyes, it became the most beautiful and bohemian city in the world, full of poor but passionate artists and actors, musicians and dancers. I studied him as he spoke: he had the potential to be a man of the people. I imagined our life together: doing our good work in the shantytowns by day and dancing our tragic tango in the milongas at night. Forget Baby; I wanted to be the next Eva Peron.

Around 2am there was a bang on the door. A man in a towel dressing gown was mumbling something about shoes on the floor. My Latin Prince called the neighbour a name in Spanish that implied he wasn’t getting enough sex. His frustration was understandable; with the mood ruined, his own amorous intentions would have to be put on hold. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever complained about the noise Eva’s stilettos made when she danced. Of course, she had lived in the coolest city in the world. I lived in France.

Monday, 16 February 2009

A Practical Guide to Fine Dining for Those Who Can't Afford to Buy Food

Most of my friends in London seem to be under the impression that life in France automatically lends itself to a diet rich in fine fromage, foie gras and petit fours. If only this were true. Like everything on the Riviera, good food carries an exorbitant price tag so that even a basic supermarket shop here can result in financial catastrophe. Indeed, it is thanks to last month’s grocery bills from the Monoprix that I now find myself balancing precariously on the breadline (for the sake of economy, the loaf is sliced and frozen).

A couple of Sundays ago, I spent the last euro of my week’s wages on a pain au chocolate. Cradling the bag as I walked back to my apartment, I was convinced that as purchases go, it was deliciously decadent and frivolous. The next day, as I was rushing to get to an interview and didn’t have any money to get on the tram, it hit me how tough times had got: in Nice not even the tramps consider croissants luxury items, and they always seem to have enough spare change to go up and down endlessly on the tramway when it rains.

And the situation is worsening by the week. Today, as I tried to eek out 5€ in the local Carrefour, my list read:

x1 Tomato (x2 lunch)
Tin Tomatoes (makeshift pasta sauce)
Goat’s Cheese/Pate (for pasta sauce/lunch)
Bread (breakfast/lunch/dinner)

It occurred to me that the most professional chefs on "Ready, Steady, Cook" would struggle to create an appetizing dish out of the contents of my shopping bag. I tried to stay positive; at least with the cheapest baguette, fromage de chèvre and Terrine de Campagne I wouldn’t starve to death. Annoyingly, I probably wouldn’t even look malnourished.

Chez moi, I was searching on Google to see if it was possible for an adult to suffer from rickets when I remembered, with a sigh of relief, that my weekly lunch date with The Professor was scheduled for tomorrow. Thanks to The Professor, an elderly Egyptian-French man from my tango class, I dine once a week on Steak Tartare and frites followed by warm Tarte Tatin and cream. In return for a nutritionally balanced meal, I am his lively and pleasant companion, happily strolling along the promenade with my arms linked in his.

Also, on Wednesday, I am sure to be taking some form of afternoon tea with my little ward because, over the past few weeks, she has developed this habit of concocting reasons to include something edible into every lesson.

It began when she suggested that we bake a cake to tie in with a food module she was covering in her English class. I was excited; picturing, as I was, a scene from LITTLE WOMEN, giggling in our aprons and rubbing flour from our cheeks. However, when my charge led me to the kitchen I was disappointed to discover that she was badly prepared, with no cookbooks and a cupboard that was almost bare. There was not an apron in sight. I rolled up my sleeves and improvised. What emerged from the oven forty minutes later was a little flat, a touch flavourless, but considering the constraints it was also a remarkable achievement. My ward looked on dumbstruck as I consumed two thick slices one immediately after the other. I believe this was the moment when it occurred to her that I'd appreciate food related activities.

For the next lesson, she proposed that she would prepare an afternoon ‘teatime’. Unsurprisingly, the French adolescent didn’t quite grasp the finer details of high tea and, having promised traditional ginger cookies and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, she ultimately greeted me with a bowl of butter biscuits.

I got home from class, still feeling slightly queasy, to find I had an email in my inbox with the subject: “An invitation to lunch”:

Would you like for the next time lunch at my house?
You are coming at 12 hours et we are making a lunch and after we are eating. This is not an obligation, is if you like and if you can. XOXO

It was charming; I was delighted to see her English coming on so marvellously. I could never decline the invitation. Besides, in principle, the menu she went on to suggest sounded perfect: salmon quiche and goat’s cheese salad, followed by chocolate eclairs and a selection of local fromage. I am quite certain that it would have tasted good too but as my ward forgot to purchase any of the ingredients necessary to pull the meal together this remains mere speculation. I made us an omelet.

Nowadays, we simply stick to whatever confectionary is in the kitchen cupboard. After tea, my ward describes at length how much jogging she will need to do to burn off the calories. No wonder French women are thin. Last week, after describing to her the delicious Raclette the Silky One had prepared for me the previous evening, she barked, ‘Raclette? You went jogging today, right?’ I shook my head. Hardly. I didn’t know when I would eat anything that divine again; I wanted to hang on to those extra pounds. The jogging Gestapo was having none of it: consuming Raclette equated to roughly 200 sit-ups or 45 minutes running. I shut my eyes, evoking the memory of the cheese melting into the crushed potato, and waited for her to shout, ‘Give me fifty.’

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Every Sunday morning I go through the English papers with a croissant and a coffee. The experience feels less authentic these days - rolling my mouse leaves no opportunity to rub inky smudges on my cheek – but still it is an important ritual. Last Sunday, as I was following the links on The Times website, I fell across an article entitled “He’s Just Not That Into You: …Even Though He Says So”. The piece was about the game playing endemic in sexual relationships. The journalist’s argument was that modern women seem to believe that they must stick to certain rules if they want to attract potential suitors, and yet in practice such rules are idiotic, inane and inaccurate. Her theory was sound, of course; trying to second-guess a man on the basis of a text message is as pointless as using a sieve to carry water from a well. So why, as I read along nodding my head, did I have half an eye on my phone waiting for word, literally any word, from the Silky French One?

I rested on the final full stop and began to mull over my recent behavior. Do I waste whole days looking at my phone expectantly? Do I scrutinize messages for clues and place emphasis on small gestures (e.g. Is there a written bisous or an x? Is ☺ a friendly brush off or a more subtle way to be flirty?)? Do I purposefully delay replying? When he doesn't respond at once do I freak out and assume he's not interested? Worryingly, for each question I could answer in the affirmative. I was starting to feel uncomfortable: this had all the hallmarks of OCD. It is almost exactly one year ago to the day that I last went through something similar. Ironically, I was just starting to get my obsessive compulsiveness under control when the boy in question dumped me unceremoniously, without even so much as a text.

Presently, I am awaiting messages from the Silky One with the same rabid, mouth frothing as I did when I first started dating the “man who never dumped me”. I’ve tuned my ear to pick up the chime of an incoming SMS so that even if my phone is hiding in the bottom of a bag or under the duvet cover I’m able to jump to attention. On Saturday, I followed my sensitive hearing to a coat in my closet. I assumed that it was a message from Orange France; they update me on my credit status around twelve times a day. It’s very considerate of them; most weeks, they are the only ones bothering to get in touch. ‘Coucou Hannah! Comment vas-tu?!’ Orange France was never this friendly. I registered the date and time: 9pm on Saturday. The most social night at the most social hour and the Silky One had thought to enquire into my wellbeing. This had to be a good sign. I emailed my friend. She has a Blackberry. She confirmed that it was, indeed, good. When, my obsessive behaviour spirals out of control this is the girl who tells me to get a grip. If SHE was saying that it was a good sign then it was a GOOD sign. I replied to him straight away. According to Orange, I had until midnight to utilize my remaining 89 cents; sod looking keen, I was working to a deadline.

An hour passed, no reply. To prove that I wasn’t hanging out for him, I recklessly sent half a dozen text messages to my friends in the UK. The OF Control Centre went into overdrive: Attention! Votre credit de 0.80 EUR; Attention! Votre credit de 0.62 EUR; Attention! Votre credit de 0.50 EUR. I imagined the kind of fascist regime Orange France would implement if they were running the country. At eleven thirty, half way through an episode of GREY'S ANATOMY, I finally received more from the Silky One. He said that he was away skiing until tomorrow. He suggested that he test me on my argot vocabulary when he returned. GOOD SIGN. There were a couple of punctuation wobbles. Was he drunk? Even better.

By Sunday lunchtime, having fully digested the article, I had resolved to turn over a new leaf. There would be no more afternoons messaging the Silky One with my little ward (‘Yes send him an SMS,’ she advised last week, ‘and say “I love you”'). There would be no more psychoanalysis sessions with my best friend in Australia (‘If I want to text a guy then I just do. I can’t be bothered with all these stupid rules. What a waste of energy. Text him. If he’s not interested then there are plenty more tasty men out there.’). There would be no more research into the textual behaviour of the Gallic male (attempting to establish a few facts at a dinner party recently, I enquired into whether it was good if a boy signed off with a bisous and the woman next to me said I shouldn’t get excited. I wasn’t sure what was more annoying: that his bisous wasn’t a declaration of love or that I was hinging my future happiness on one word at the end of a message).

So, OCD put away with the lid firmly screwed back on, I tucked myself into bed. My phone tinkled. An invitation from the Silky One: dinner at his on Tuesday. There, you see? Sometimes all you need is a little patience.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Wearing only a Wimple and a Smile

I awoke yesterday morning, after a tossing-turning kind-of-a-night, with the sense that the weight of the world was resting on my shoulders. It was making me feel anxious so I went for a run along the Promenade des Anglais; the sea air and the fit French men in lycra normally remedy the most severe premenstrual mood-swings. However, on this occasion no amount of feet-to-concrete pounding could shake off what was bothering me. Jogging into my apartment, semi punching the air to the theme from ROCKY, I felt a wave of energy to get on and do something meaningful. I put my leg up on the counter and as I stretched towards my toes I spotted a number scribbled on the back of a Monoprix receipt. I picked up the phone…

I have, for sometime now, been rather taken with this notion of devoting my life to others. Two years ago, fancying that I would make an excellent modern-day Florence Nightingale, I volunteered for a charity that used football to help young homeless men in London. As predicted, I took to the role of do-gooder with aplomb and when I moved to Nice last year I was adamant that I would continue to follow in Ms Nightingale's footsteps. On arrival, I did a rough headcount and gathered that there were a lot of young men living on the streets; so plenty of work to be done then. Yet for all my good intentions, I quickly discovered that finding one’s way into France's charity sector was rather difficult and, after a few false starts, I lost the impetus. Rest assured, I did not abandoned the homeless altogether, it’s just that drunkenly kissing a handsome tramp in Vieux Nice was not the form of aid that I had initially envisaged providing.

Then last weekend, as I was waiting rather impatiently for a declaration of love from my caddish French amour, a friend of mine suggested that I distract myself from my romantic woes by throwing myself back into my charitable pursuits. ’Why not,’ she said matter-of-factly ‘set up a mini football-for-the-homeless project like the one you worked on in London?’ I latched onto the idea at once; this way, if the Silky French One rejected me, I would not only take comfort from the indisputable fact that I'm the better person but I could also develop the Mother Theresa thing and move into a local nunnery.

It was thanks to this renewed vigour to do good that I impulsively picked up the phone yesterday. The number belonged to a friend’s ex-girlfriend, Gabrielle; a French woman who volunteered for a local charitable association. The husky voice at the end of the line suggested that we rendezvous at a juice bar. I was expecting one of those vegan hippy types so you can only imagine my surprise when, on entering the café, I was greeted by a chic woman with cascading blonde curls. In her skin-tight black satin dress I struggled to picture her on a street curb ladling out soup; the elderly tramps must have assumed that they were being greeted at the pearly gates by one of God’s angels.

Not that Gabrielle is all that angelic mind you: she’s a kick-ass banker who just happens to have a heart of gold. We hit it off instantly and within hours of meeting I had been invited to her place in Cannes for a dinner party. Safe to say that after several glasses of vin rouge and two large slices of French apple pie my day ended in hazy happiness. As I chatted with Balendin, the beautiful, brooding artists’ model sat next to me, I temporarily abandoned my plans for a football mission and decided that my true life-path was not as martyr but as muse.

Obviously, should I return to my former career as a nude model then my chances of being accepted into the Sisterhood might be damaged irrevocably. Then again, times are tough right now; perhaps the Lord will be forgiving. And who knows, the idea of a nudie nun having a kick about with a bunch of homeless junkies may hold, even for Him, a certain je ne sais quoi.