Sunday, 28 January 2007

Bear with me...

...while I consider making this VIB (Very Important Blog) open to invited readers only. LOL!

Hang on, what was it Groucho Marx said about clubs again?

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

A bunch of gripes

I’m still working on the guide to Provence I started updating back in November (see Being rude in an email is... being rude). No, it doesn’t take several months to do that job: I got delayed.

Anyway, after writing to all those tourist offices and plundering the brochures they sent me for information, I have to phone millions of people – from hotels to museums to night-clubs to candied fruit factories... It’s not rocket science, as they say, but it’s time-consuming, tiring for the voice, and sometimes trying as well.

There are the hotel/B&B owners who let their tiny kids answer the phone to potential customers. I’m not one of them but I might be and, in an indirect way, I represent them. Does a tiny child know how much the hotel charges for a double room in the summer? No, they don’t, and therefore should not pick up the receiver when the phone rings. When I hear a little voice go, ‘Hullo!’, followed by a giggle, my heart sinks. My calls are not refunded by my employers and I know that I’m now going to have to persuade the tiny child to go and fetch their mummy or daddy so the ADULTS can have a meaningful conversation – hours later! I always feel like removing those places from the guide. I don’t, of course, but it’s very tempting.

Then there are the museum officials who don’t know where the museum they’re working in is situated. ‘Could you confirm your address, please: is this correct.....?’ ‘Erm... hey, Nicole, what’s the address here?’ I sometimes say, ‘How did you get there this morning?’

And then there are the museum officials – sometimes they’re the same ones – who don’t know what their opening hours are. ‘Hey, Claudette, when are we open?’ I have to resist asking, ‘How did you know what time to get to work this morning?’

Not to mention the restaurateurs who don’t know how much their menus cost.

And no one in France knows the difference between a website and an email address!

Ah, the joys of dealing with strangers on the phone!


Wednesday, 17 January 2007

I've been tagged

I do sometimes say 'yes' to things and Red-Queen of She'll be feverish after so much thinking is responsible for what follows. All complaints should be addressed to her.

4 jobs I've had:
Translator/archivist in the Department of Neurophysiology at the Faculty of Science in Nice
My first real job, while I was still at college; I spent a wonderful two years there; I’m still friends with my bosses, 35 years later.
Technical Interpreter with the RSC and the National Theatre
On several tours to French-speaking countries. Lighting technicians are wonderful people – well, most of them.
Dispensary assistant at Penhaligon’s
Not as glamorous as you might think; in fact, not glamorous at all.
Production editor at Mills & Boon/Harlequin
Go on, laugh!

4 movies I'd watch over and over:
The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, or Marat/Sade
That film, directed by Peter Brook, changed the course of my life – literally. At the time of its release, people joked, ‘I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve read the title!’ LOL!
The Remains of the Day
The whole film is unbearably moving, but I love one scene more than any other: the one where Anthony Hopkins is reading a book, which he refuses to let Emma Thompson see, and she very slowly prises it out of his hands. Ah!
Schindler’s List
Because, again, it’s unbearably moving, and also life-affirming, and Liam Neeson is superb in it.
The Bridges of Madison County
I gather it’s a rotten book, but if you haven’t seen Meryl Streep in this you don’t know what really great acting is: her body language is incredible. And the end is unbearably moving (is it me or is this getting repetitive? LOL!)
Are you sure I can’t mention Pretty Woman or The Draughtsman’s Contract or The Rocky Horror Picture Show? What about Dolores Claiborne and Casque d’Or? No? Oh, all right, then.

4 places I've lived, apart from where I live now:
Notting Hill Gate
I know it’s in London, but I haven’t lived anywhere else.

4 TV shows I love:
Law and Order: Criminal Intent
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
Law and
Order, er, the ordinary one…
Oh, ok, start again:
Law and Order: Criminal Intent
Because I have a crush on Goren (we’re not intimate enough for me to call him Bobby. Bobby? He’s not a Bobby!) and I want to twist my body the way he does.
CSI: the real thing
Because I have a crush on Grissom. Being French, I can do his moue better than anyone else.
CSI: Miami
Because I have a crush on Horatio and I too want to talk to people while standing sideways.
CSI: New York
Because I have a crush on Stella’s hair. I’ve tried to have a crush on Mac but I can’t. Gary Sinise? No can do.
Oh, what about The West Wing, and Imagine and The South Bank Show (two wonderful arts programmes)? Sorry, can’t mention them.

4 places I've been on holiday:
Two days
New York
Four and a half days
Three weeks (in two separate batches, as it were).
Probably three or four months – over a period of 15 years .

4 websites I visit daily:
Yahoo! France – Actualit├ęs
The only bit of French I get to read these days.
I meet my mates there for a chat.
My friends’ blogs
Lots of them. Bloglines periodically pops up and goes: 376 pages to read!
The Telegraph online
Stupid paper (blech!) but great fashion and beauty section.

4 favorite foods:
Preferably with hazelnut (I have a passion for gianduja).
Raw with a tiny drop of lemon juice (can’t have vinegar or shallots these days).
Self-explanatory: they are wonderful.
Saucisson sec
I haven’t had any for twelve years and will never again be able to eat it.

4 places I'd rather be right now:
That’s easy

4 books I enjoy re-reading:
The Conference of the Birds (The Story of Peter Brook in Africa) by John Heilpern
Peter Brook has had a huge influence on my life (see Marat/Sade) and this is such an inspiring book.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
It’s about loss and love and survival, and the writing is out of this world.
Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson
It makes me scream with laughter. So true.
Howard’s End by E.M. Forster
My favourite of all his novels. So true too.
And then, of course, there’s French literature… Colette, Maupassant, Marguerite Yourcenar…

4 CDs that never leave my rotation:
Leonard Cohen (anything by)
Joan Baez (anything by)

Singing Brecht.
Esther Ofarim (anything by)
I haven’t listened to any of the above for a while: must finish converting all my old LPs/cassettes to mp3 files – time-consuming is not the word.

It’s only taken me four hours to write this. Who has four hours to spare? Who shall I tag?

Oh, botheration: all the people I was thinking of have already been tagged by other people, so I’m afraid the whole thing stops here or, if you want to take part, please do. Let us know in the Comments and we'll all go and read what you wrote.

Addendum: Apparently, today, Monday 22 January is officially the most depressing day of the year. Sheila Hancock was asked on Front Row what she did to cheer herself up on a miserable Monday; she said she watched The Producers, and she mentioned the ‘blue blanket’ scene, in which Zero Mostel tries to prise Gene Wilder's security blanket out of his hands and the latter gets absolutely hysterical. It occurred to me that this was the comic equivalent of that scene in The Remains of the Day. It is also my favourite scene in The Producers. I must have a thing about people prising things out of other people's hands.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Busy busy busy

Too busy to get annoyed?

Not quite.

I have no problem saying ‘no’ to things. Anything. I don’t want it; I say ‘no’ to it. It works, usually. Usually, but not always...

Say you go to Specsavers for an eye exam. Well, your last glasses came from there and they keep saying on the telly, ‘You should have gone to Specsavers!’, so why should you go anywhere else, really? You get a wonderful, diligent, thorough ophthalmologist (recommended by your partner, actually) and you come out of the room happy and ready to order new lenses. What happens next, do you think?

A very authoritative sales assistant, whom I took to be the manageress of the place, led me to a wall covered with designer spectacle frames costing an arm and a leg. I was stunned for a moment: it had not even occurred to me that I might be expected to buy new frames. Why should I? The ones I have are great. I bought them in Paris, a few years ago: they are modern, very light, inconspicuous, and they suit me (as much as any glasses can). It’s new lenses I wanted. So, for the first time that evening, I asked how much it would cost for me to use my own. The smile on the woman’s face just faded away. You can understand her dismay: this person who, a minute ago, looked like she might buy two lots of frames and lenses (I was given a prescription for reading glasses too and meant to order them later), now seemed unwilling to. She said they would have to charge me for the privilege and mumbled something about a 25 per cent discount on new frames, but I wasn’t interested. I asked again... and again... and again... and again...

Finally noticing my reticence (LOL!), she led me to another wall – the ‘cheap’ one, full of non-designer frames, just costing an arm. She handed me a couple of those (more or less the same as mine), which I tried on briefly while repeating my question, ‘How much would it cost for me to use my own frames, please?’ We stood there in silence for a few long minutes. I was getting more and more stressed by the situation. I didn’t quite know how to get out of it since she refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. Finally, a man who had been standing a few paces from us and who had been witnessing the scene produced a quote – for new frames plus lenses. The amount made me laugh out loud. That’s when she finally got the message.

I came out shaking with anger and frustration. But it wasn’t the end of my ordeal.

Later that evening, I realized I should have asked for ultra-light lenses, like the ones I already had and was used to. So eager had that woman been to sell me new frames she hadn’t told me about all the lens options. I called Specsavers the next day, thinking they couldn’t possibly have made the lenses yet, but I was told it was too late: they had been ordered and nothing could be done. That was the last straw: I lost my cool and shouted down the phone at the woman and also, later, at the manager (who turned out to be the guy with the quote). He explained that in view of my prescription and since the lense would be quite thin he wouldn’t have recommended ultra-light lenses anyway.

It reassured for a little while, but the whole thing was still bothering me: for the next few years, every time I put on my glasses, I would be reminded of the way I’d felt standing there, not being able to get through to that overbearing sales assistant. I couldn’t take it so I returned to the shop the next morning – with my partner for support – and demanded to be given (for an extra £30, of course) the lenses I wanted. I was dressed up and wearing my ‘frightening’ lipstick, but I didn’t expect them to cave in and agree so readily. The manager chucked the wrong lenses (they hadn’t lied about their having been ordered already) in the bin and requested new ultra-light ones.

In the meantime, the woman had become all meek and mild. Could it be she’d got a bollocking for making a customer so mad? I hope so. She never denied not taking me through the different options, but she said she hadn’t mentioned ultra-light lenses because they were more expensive and, since I’d said I didn’t want to buy new frames, she’d thought, you know, I wouldn’t want to spend more money on lenses either. (Yeah, right!) I explained that for me glasses weren’t a fashion accessory that had to be changed each season and about waste and about wanting to spend money only on things that mattered and lenses being what mattered, etc. etc. She and the manager seemed to understand – at last.

The other day, when I went to collect my – nice and light – glasses (‘Yes, they fit very well, thank you. No, they don’t pinch, thanks. I’ve been wearing these frames for the past six years.’), the woman was all over me. She asked me several times if everything was all right. I wish she hadn’t. Ugh! I came out of the shop shaking again. From having to interact with someone I found unbearable; someone who’d given me so much aggro and stress; someone I’d never wanted to talk to again in my life.

With a bit of luck, I won’t have to.


Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Guest Slapper of the Month XII

Robin of Now Smell This is without a doubt the unsung hero* of the perfume-blog world. I don’t share all of her tastes in perfume, but I always enjoy reading her thoughts, and respect her opinion because it’s never fanciful or perverse. If I were an influential magazine editor or book publisher I would snap her up in a jiffy. Of course, that would probably mean she’d be too busy to carry on delighting us with news, reviews and all manner of insights on a daily basis. I used to flit about all over the Internet in an attempt to keep myself informed; her wonderfully clear and user-friendly blog is now my first port of call. If you haven’t discovered it yet, you have a treat in store.

Printemps Beauty Floor, Paris. Pic courtesy of LMcQ

Previous guest-slappers have tackled such weighty issues as access to health care, littering and excessive violence in video games, and I considered following in that vein by taking on some meaningful topic like World Peace or the No Child Left Behind Act. But the holidays have left me more than usually drained of any ability to think Big Thoughts, so I am going to stick with my usual frivolity and give a resounding slap to every snooty salesperson I’ve encountered in the past year while engaged in my habitual frivolous pastime: shopping for perfume.

I shop for perfume a lot. I am not a good customer, since I rarely buy anything – I just do my part to drain the testers, and I try to cadge free samples. So I sympathize with the salespeople who have come to recognize me at my local mall, and sigh when they see me coming. They know I am a waste of time, and this slap isn’t for them.

But pray tell, what exactly is it about standing behind a glass counter all day selling perfume that seems to engender such a massive feeling of superiority over your fellow man? When I was much, much younger than I am now, I rather thought that the saleswomen (they used to be all women) in the beauty area had the right to be snooty. After all, they led Glamorous Lives and possessed all sorts of arcane knowledge, such as how to do a smoky eye without looking like a raccoon and how to choose the right lip liner to blend with your lipstick. Now that I am older, it is increasingly obvious that selling perfume or eyeshadow in a department store isn’t really the glamorous job I imagined it to be when I was 13, and that in fact, many of them do look like raccoons, and that the percentage of women behind beauty counters with teased hair is alarmingly higher than it is in the population at large.

But I digress. To get back to my point, many salespeople are just downright unpleasant. They stand behind the counter chatting to other salespeople instead of offering assistance. Sometimes, they are even chatting openly, and snidely, about other customers. Ouch! If you interrupt politely to ask a question, they look at you like you might be something the cat dragged in (and I find this is especially true if you aren’t wearing lipstick and carrying the latest bag from Prada). Or they offer assistance, and when you make it clear you don’t need any, they hover over you and keep offering to spray your arm with the latest Britney Spears fragrance. But most of all, they just act superior. They seem to assume that everyone they encounter is clueless about how to choose a perfume, and they seem to take a special joy in making sure that the process of shopping for one is anything but fun.

If they do engage you in conversation and you appear at all knowledgeable, they look at you suspiciously and ask if you work for a perfume company. More than once, I’ve been basically accused of being some sort of industry spy simply because I was aware of upcoming fragrance releases that were supposedly “top secret”. Perhaps there are industry spies in the perfume field – I wouldn’t know – but if there are, I can only assume that they have better methods of keeping an eye on the competition than scoping out the perfume counter at suburban Macys.

Obviously, not all salespeople are snooty, and they aren’t always snooty at the places where you’d think they would be. Paradoxically, I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences at the swank flagship Saks Fifth Avenue store in New York, and generally unpleasant experiences at Saks stores in suburban malls. At Macys, a mid-tier chain where you might expect to find a less uppity attitude than you would at a high end store like Neiman Marcus, they are almost uniformly supercilious and extraordinarily stingy about samples; at my local Neiman Marcus, they are unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Both of the Nordstrom stores I shop at regularly are great. Sephora, where they will make you a sample of any fragrance in stock, is one of my favorite stores: the salespeople aren’t at all knowledgeable, but they are friendly and kind. Now if only they would make a Sephora store for grownups without the loud music and the masses of giggling pre-teen customers blocking the aisles, but that is a subject for another slap…

* Someone must have heard me: her blog is currently mentioned in the January issue of Lucky magazine. Congratulations, R!

Monday, 1 January 2007

Happy New Year!