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.