It is a truth universally acknowledged that the most difficult part of living abroad is to understand how the healthcare system works in your new country. And if, like me, you happen to have a husband who is virtually never home, no family nearby and a sick kid during the night, things can escalate pretty quickly. Knowing how to navigate the system becomes even more critical. Easier said than done. It sometimes feels like banging your head on a wall. Been there, done it.
Believe me, it is very stressful, and it feels pretty lonely. To make matters even worse, as I grew up in France, I am used to the fantastic French healthcare system, and I took it for granted. In my home country, every time we have needed urgent medical attention (which maybe happened twice), the system was here for us, sending a doctor at my doorstep to deal with a sick baby, and delivering the required medication in the middle of the night. For free of course. I must admit that I thought it was completely normal, and I was expecting the same level of service in London. Silly French me.
If this year was any indication of where things are heading, then I am hungry for you, 2018. What a year! It has been a steep learning curve for me, but I feel like things are nicely taking shape. So what were the main takeaways for me?
Apparently, I am glamorous. I still don’t understand why. Especially now that I am a year older (but aren’t we all?)
Being French, people seems to believe that I have a natural sense of style. In fact, I don’t. I happen to be a Signalling Engineer turned lawyer (for the record it’s even worse than it sounds). But if it makes them happy, it can’t be that bad, right?…So what’s the secret? Well, listen carefully: the secret is that there is no secret. Naively, I thought that things would get easier as I got older. But no, I am still getting a lot more attention that I should/would like to. Yep, even at my ripe age (I feel 24 anyway).
In 2017 (just like the other years, really), I received inappropriate pictures on Twitter, a few love declarations, and was also asked for an ID when I bought some Nurofen at my local supermarket. Same old, same old, really. Some things will never change. Frankly, I have given up understanding them. Onwards and upwards and all that.
Before I start this post I feel like I need to come clean: I like Prince Harry, and I have bumped into him a couple of times at my local Waitrose (if you must know, he was wearing a hoodie and had a couple of bodyguards ). Last week (in case you have been hibernating), he announced that he was going to marry his girlfriend Meghan Markle. I am very pleased for them and I wish them luck. I am, however, appalled by the general coverage of their relationship.
Why? Well, for starters, the tabloids don’t miss a single opportunity to remind all of us that she is (in no particular order) divorced, American, of mixed heritage and an actress. They could have mentioned that she is a modern, talented, gorgeous woman and has worked for numerous charities but no, let’s face it: it’s all about bringing her down. In fact, I don’t think that it is even about her. It’s because they think that she is the ‘weak link’. Attacking her is a way to attack Prince Harry and the monarchy. How brave, right? Surely they could pick a better target. Come on, guys! If you want to attack the monarchy, why don’t you just attack the monarchy and criticise the Queen or maybe the British Government?
This pattern is indeed quite disturbing, but somehow keeps repeating itself: recently, it’s Malia Obama who faced a wave of abuse because she had been filmed smoking and (dear oh dear) kissing a boy while at uni. Seriously? Don’t we have anything better to report? Malia Obama is a private citizen and can do whatever she likes. Are there laws against smoking and kissing? Once again, it wasn’t about her, it was about discrediting her father’s legacy. How is she responsible for her father’s actions and decisions? I don’t understand. In the same vein, there were attacks against Barron Trump (a child!). How low did we fall? It just never stops: using whoever is perceived to be the ‘weak link’ is becoming the trademark of lazy reporting. Overtones of sexism and racism seem to be back in fashion. It’s clickbait writing. And don’t you dare reply, because you will be told to lighten up. After all, ‘it was just some light-hearted dig’. Don’t you get sarcasm? You simply can’t win against a certain London elite, as Prince Harry found out when their relationship was disclosed and he dared complain. Unbelievable! Doesn’t anyone remember that Prince Harry’s mother died while being chased by paparazzi?
I must admit something: I had completely overlooked a key player in my household: my boiler. Guilty as charged.
Let me explain: London is quite cold right now (did you hear the British understatement here?). In fact, I am freezing (that’s more like it). It’s this time of the year, I suppose. And it’s dark after 4pm. But I digress. This Saturday, I ran another Parkrun in West London. When I came back home, I quickly realised that we didn’t have any hot water. Zilch. Nada. To make matters even worse, the heating was, at best, patchy.
I tried to call my husband and then my father but couldn’t reach them: one was still sleeping somewhere on the other side of the world, while the other was repairing a fence in a remote part of his farm. Where are men when you need them? After some frantic googling about ‘what to do if boiler breaks down’, I ended up turning the boiler off and on again. Quite a few times. It didn’t help. So much for technical progress and all that. What to do? I booked an appointment with British Gas, but the earliest slot they had was four days later. Four days? How were we going to survive four days in arctic temperatures? The thing was, when they said that they would come within 48 hours, it didn’t include weekends obviously. Whatever happens, don’t you dare having a problem during the weekend in London. Lesson learned. Maybe that’s why they all have country houses over here? I wonder.
‘Mum, there is no hot water.’
‘I know, I know. What do you want me to do?’, I thought. I wished I had a magic wand to sort everything out but I didn’t.
‘Mum, I am cold’
‘ Don’t worry Darling, we still have Internet’, I replied. Not that it is of much use against the cold, but you know, I wanted to point out one of the positives of the situation. See, it could be worse and all that. Come to think of it, we also had electricity, food, and water. That’s just me: I am a glass half-full sort of person. Or maybe I have just become British. But it was still cold.
Stop the clocks and move aside: Nisha is in town. I wouldn’t know where to start If I were to properly introduce her. Nisha is a Bollywood celebrity, the inspiration behind the story ‘And Thereby Hangs A Tale (Caste Off)…’ by Jeffrey Archer, and so, so much more. She also happens to be a longtime friend of mine, and we spend yesterday together. As usual, I had a great time.
The thing is, I grew up surrounded by men. I studied science and was often the only girl of the classroom. I was in charge of delivering trains and upgrading signalling systems. As a result, I discovered female friendships later in life, and found out that they transcend nationalities, age and cultural backgrounds. As women, we often goes through the same phases of life, and are facing the same issues and judgements. As women, we usually understand each other better.
As some of you may know, I have recently been outed as the wife of an Executive of a global company. For the record, we have been living together for more than 21 years, we first met at uni, we used to travel together in cheap hotels around Bali, and we have two children together. I don’t understand why my marital status has all of a sudden become a matter of interest but hey, here we are. This makes me wonder: maybe it’s time for more general outspokenness on my side. After all, you might as well hear gossip from me rather than from the press. Straight from the horse’s mouth and all that…So here we are: I want to share with you the 33 things that I do even before the school run.
- 1. Phone call at around 3am. Really? Hubby is somewhere on the other side of the world and finally has a break during one of his many meetings. He’s calling me to catch up and discuss last night parents meeting. Can’t remember exactly what I tell him. Go back to sleep. Forget to tell him that the art teacher thinks I am a single mum. Need to keep my options open anyway.
- 2. Phone is vibrating again. Have received a flurry of emails regarding hubby’s next month travel arrangements. Put the phone on silent. Checked my Twitter, FB & blog just in case. All OK. Back to sleep.
- 3. Realise I have missed a WhatsApp message from elder daughter. Her friend has stayed over to work on geography project, too late to catch a bus back, etc. Mental note to self: prepare breakfast for one more teenager. As am awake I google hubby’s company name, his name and mine.
- 4. Annoyed to find out that I am called ‘gabby’ by a female journalist in national newspapers. Must come clean: have to look up what ‘gabby’ means. So much for the sisterhood and all that, right? Stalk the author of the piece on Twitter and magnify her picture. Nope, I don’t know her. Maybe she’s a bit bitter? Have got more followers than her on Twitter. Back to sleep.
- 5. Wake up. Am confused: was called ‘shy’ by an Australian gossip columnist just ten days ago. Me, shy? Really? Said journalist clearly can’t read women, especially French ones. Nagging question: what am I? Gabby or shy? Anyway, who cares? Must send a tweet to my followers to get their opinion.
- 6. Have a coffee. It’s 5am but am awake anyway. Might go for a run. Hubby usually runs at that time when he’s in London. Nah, it’s too dark. And cold. Empty the dishwasher. Set table. Put laundry in the machine. Whoever invented the colour catcher paper is genius.
- 7. Call from France. Mum has just read an article about hubby in the pile of newspapers she was going to throw away and wanted to let me know. Mum, it was more than two weeks ago. She said she hadn’t realised that his company was Brazilian. Because it’s a Brazilian name, right? She hangs up. Wait! What? Never mind.
- 8. Need coffee. Have coffee.
- 9. Get dressed. Usual yoga pants and T-shirt will do.
- 10. Check email. One of the tenants of my warehouses in France has run out of toilet paper. I immediately order a top up from Amazon. They might deliver it today. In bulk. Good. Crisis averted.
- 11. Check Twitter and press articles. There is a picture of me (where is it coming from?) and a comment: ‘Since when do resource industry executives have supermodel wives?’. That’s me! Chuffed to bits. Am ‘legendary’ ‘stylish’ and ‘glamorous’. Time to come clean: I am an Engineer. I used to be able to drive a train and project manage signalling systems. Might call model agency to offer my services. Might be the start of a new career.
- Continue Reading
There is something oddly reassuring about Sunday mornings in London. To cut a long story short, I should be able to sleep a bit longer on Sunday mornings. That said, I am so used to waking up at the crack of dawn that I usually don’t. Such is life I suppose. Mums will understand. It is as if I was programmed to prepare breakfast for the whole family. I can’t just press ‘delete’. It happens automatically. I usually count the number of pairs of shoes at the bottom of the stairs to assess how many friends my children have invited to stay over (Nowadays I feel a bit like a hotel manager). Sometimes I get it wrong, and suddenly the kitchen is full of grumpy teenagers who complain they have nothing to eat. ‘But Mum, I WhatsApped you 10 minutes ago to let you know X & Y had been staying over!’ But of course. What can I say? The service is very bad in this house. I might end up with a bad review on TripAdvisor but frankly, I don’t care.’Is there any more Orange juice?’ Well, not unless you’ve actually bought some, Darling.’
Sorry, but today I am going to rant a bit. After all, I am not French for nothing, right?
So here it is: I know I shouldn’t be scared, that life goes on, and so on, and so forth, but I can’t help it, I am scared. Worse: I feel like a sitting duck.
I walk or run all the time. I take the Tube, the bus and the train. My kids do too. I used to feel reasonably safe in London, but not any more. In fact, I feel like an easy target. I have read everywhere that terrorism remains a negligible risk, that I am more likely to be struck by lightning than to be the victim of a terrorist attack, and that we are probably just more aware of terrorism, which is why we feel the hurt and the pain more. But still, I am scared. Truth be told, the recent attacks in the UK and in France haven’t helped. As for what just happened in Las Vegas, I don’t think that I have fully processed it yet. It’s just too much.
Instead of explaining to me about probabilities and other rational arguments, hear this: on 7th of July 2005 I was on the tube. I was just coming back from maternity leave. I had to be evacuated. I was lucky: I wasn’t on the train that was bombed, but it was a close call. What do probabilities mean when you are in the middle of an attack? I’ll tell you at once: it means nothing. I just felt lucky to be alive and see my baby at the end of the day.
There is a darker side to London than meets the eye. What am I talking about? Well, here it is: the pattern of anti-female bias across my adoptive city is, in my view and despite many well-meaning speeches and initiatives, disturbingly insidious and still going strong.
Look: I’m baking! I am such a good girl, right?
Obviously, there is an unwritten rule forbidding any self-respecting female saying that we live in a sexist world because it makes you at best a difficult women, a feminist, or even worse, a feminazi. Enough is enough. The proportion of female senior executives remains ridiculously low, and the same can be said for management boards and for non-executives. As for excuses, well, I have heard them all before: ‘There is nothing stopping women from getting these jobs. Why do they complain all the time?’ Well, darling, first try juggling a household and childcare with a career involving responsibilities and long hours. Add into the equation, in my case, a husband who travels all the time. Maybe then you’ll understand what I am talking about. That said, you probably won’t, because apparently the right way to deal with these things is to brush them under the carpet. Dear oh dear, what are you on about? The wife/mother/girlfriend in the family is the glue that holds everything together, right? She is there to put up or shut up. Preferably shut up. Calm down, dear.
This expression, as I am sure you know, is borrowed from French. Literally, it means ‘Long live the difference!’. In truth, we French don’t use it that much (if at all). In fact, once again, I think of ‘Vive la difference’ as a British idiom, even if the words are French. What can I say? Life is incredibly complicated.
Let’s go back to the definition, shall we? ‘Vive la difference!’ is an expression of approval of difference, especially between the sexes. When I hear it reminds me to appreciate the uniqueness of everyone and everything. Of course variety is great!! Embrace it. Don’t be afraid of it.
Well, that’s the theory, right? The reality is, indeed, different (pun intended!). Why is is so hard to be different, even if it’s just a little bit? I really wonder. But let’s face it, it’s bloody hard.
For instance, what is it with this obsession with the French First lady, Brigitte Macron? I read yet another article on how her dress was matching her husband’s. Seriously? What can I say? Unlike in France, women in the UK seem to become invisible after a certain age. We French still value mature women, and have timeless icons such as Catherine Deneuve (73 years old), but the British have difficulties in accepting an older French lady. Maybe it is her sense of style? It is more likely her Frenchness, and, let’s face it, there isn’t much she can do about it. She is not going to apologise for who she is anyway. Can’t we just leave her alone?