My two pence on Frozen


WARNING: contains spoilers for the 2013 Disney movie Frozen.

Much virtual ink has been spilt already over Disney’s most recent animation ‘Frozen’, how beautiful it looks, its catchy songs, its lovely depiction of sisterly affection, its message and subtext, etc.

Having heard so much about it, I was half expecting it to be good but not as special as everyone was making it to be. I was the same with Toy Story 3: after being told so many times I was going to cry at the end, I totally didn’t. I would have cried had they all died in the fiery pit but the end? Touching, but not tear-jerking for me. I know, I am a hard-hearted woman.

For once though I reckon the hype was justified. I loved Frozen; it was wonderful from start to finish. My only (finicky) complaint is that I dislike Idina Menzel’s voice so whilst I enjoyed Let It Go as a song, I found Idina’s voice too harsh, especially on the lower/nearly spoken bits, which means I can’t listen to the song unless the movie is playing. It’s just not an enjoyable experience; whereas I could listen to the Tangled music all day – and I might have to, since Little Girl loves the songs and wants to listen and sing to them a lot.

The story touches on so many interesting ideas and as a parent, I was particularly struck by one thing in particular: Elsa and Anna’s parents’ were the absolute worst. Their response to Elsa’s powers: appalling. I understand their fear; I really do. But their decision to isolate the girls from the world after the accident pretty much gave both of their daughters the worst upbringing ever, and prepared them not one bit to deal with anything the world would throw their way. It’s not to say that both sisters didn’t have any agency in their fate but they were shaped by their confinement in such a way that they did not learn the tools one needs to make healthy decisions.

Despite the fact that the trolls very clearly stated that fear would be her worst enemy, Elsa was raised in a climate of fear. She was instructed to keep herself separate in order to protect others and only learnt to fear her powers; she was hidden away ‘until she would learn to control them’. When would that be exactly? How would this happen, unless some specific proactive action was taken by her parents to help her face her powers head-on?

Anna, on the other hand also suffered terribly from being kept away from the outside world. Her parents might have had good intentions but they left her completely unprepared for life and without the means to discern people’s intentions. As can be the case with naive sheltered girls, Anna thinks herself in love with the very first man she meets, and he turns out to be a very astute manipulator and abuser.  I’m not saying it happens every time, but if you don’t know any better, you are an easy prey for this kind of person. I was impressed at how the myth of ‘love at first sight’ was dealt with in this movie, considering Disney’s own past record. I also liked that it clearly showed that manipulators and abusers rarely look like villains, often they are the nice guys of our communities.

We all want to protect our children from harm. It is a most natural instinct. We see what we consider to be the world’s ‘bad influences’, and we have good intentions. Unfortunately, often we overemphasize the perceived threat the world poses and we seek to protect our children from it instead of preparing them to live in it.

I want my children to make good choices as they grow older. But I also want them to make informed ones, and sheltering them from bad influences will not stop them from encountering them. Certainly, fear should never be the motivator behind any decision I make as a parent.


French Literature Hurts My Head

The other day, my husband was wondering out loud if our four-months-old daughter would become an avid reader like her mother. I am responsible for the three-quarters of our bookshelves’ content at home and I always have a book on the go so I suppose he might be right about me. I have always loved reading. I love stories and I love words; I love being able to escape into another world. However being an avid reader has not led me to become a more discerning one by French standards.

Let’s start at the beginning. I knew how to read before I started primary school at age 6, and I was showed off by my teacher to other classes with the introduction ‘This is how to read properly’. I have no recollection of this, which is probably a good thing. I was a shy little thing in those days and it’s a wonder I wasn’t bullied at the time for being the teacher’s pet. In any case I have not stopped reading ever since those early days, and a lifelong love of books and reading is definitely a legacy I want to pass on to my daughter. I am planning to read to her and teach her, just like my mother did with me. Another reason I am keen to do this is to help her with grammar, punctuation and spelling; if there is something that winds me up, it is poor spelling in adults, and I believe this is partly due to a lack of exposure to books during the childhood years.

La Nuit Des Temps - by Barjavel

I found high school very dispiriting however when it came to introducing me to new reading material. I am not a fan of French literature and find it pompous, obscure, uninspiring and hopeless. At college, we were introduced to what felt like the most boring books I have ever come across and having to dissect and write essays on them did not endear them to me. One year we had to read a book by Emile Zola called l’Assommoir; I was ill and not sleeping well at the time and I remember the ending being so bleak that it made me cry. Maybe it’s a good book; it depicts the life of working class people and it is meant to be very realistic, which is fine but I do question the wisdom of giving it to hormonal and occasionally depressed teenagers. I found it so horrific that I nearly lost the will to live reading it.

France is proud of its literature and the masters of words it has produced, and is keen to force them down our throats through the school curriculum. I don’t know who decides what goes in and what stays out but they appear to go out of their way to find the most depressing books. It’s the relentlessness of the bleak subject matters, complicated sentences and obscure subtext passing for intellectualism of French novels that kills my spirit. When it doesn’t put French teens off reading altogether, it stops them ever wanting to read anything else by the authors that they have studied.

I don’t understand the kind of snobbery at work here but it is highly noticeable in book shops where there is a clear separation between ‘serious works’ and popular books such as, say, Harry Potter. For one thing, serious works have serious covers i.e. no picture, just a plain cover with embossed writing or whatever. Someone out there wants you to know you are about to read a serious book, one you can proudly show off to your intellectual friends. I personally think a book can be fun without selling out to the most common denominator. I am not going to argue that books like Harry Potter are a masterpiece writing-wise because they are not but they do not lack in heart and depth and there is a wealth of imagination to be enjoyed.

When I was a teenager, my favourite book was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It was funny and full of life, and basically a very cheerful read. It was a helpful reminder that not everything in the world is grim and tainted, because life at 14 was awkward, dark and oppressive for me, and I was in dire need of cheering up. It looks to me, and do correct me if I’m wrong, that the English-speaking world has a type of writing that does not exist in France, where misery is acknowledged but there is also hope and a happy ending is not a cop-out.

French authors and books I like

I cannot recommend this enough

Les Fables de La Fontaine, very clever stuff indeed

Pierre Gripari’s La Sorcière de la Rue Mouffetard et autres contes de la Rue Broca – a fantastic children’s book

Les Contes de Charles Perrault (classic fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, etc)

Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française

Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical retelling of her experience working in Japan in Stupeur et Tremblements is funny and chilling in equal measures.

Jean Racine, whose plays I prefer to Molière’s. Still it’s not Shakespeare.

Le Petit Prince d’Antoine St Exupéry is one of the few children’s book I can recommend

Victor Hugo gave us Notre Dame de Paris and Les Misérables – great stories

Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte-Cristo and The Three Musketeers

Most hated French authors, mostly because their stories are rubbish and everything is depressing and hopeless – a non-exhaustive list

Emile Zola – argh

André Malraux – hate hate hate

Gustave Flaubert – mon dieu but who cares

Fab and oh so accurate

A few non French-speaking authors and books I like (in which there is a lot of science fiction and fantasy)

Juliet Marillier, great re-workings of Celtic fairy tales

Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, possibly my favourite science-fiction/fantasy series

Madeleine L’Engle has a great way with words

J.R.R. Tolkien

C.S. Lewis

Anything by Bill Bryson (his History of Nearly Everything is fantastic and almost makes me wish I could go back to school to study biology again) and Stephen Clarke (of the Year in the Merde fame)

The 13 and a half lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers, completely crazy and possibly for kids apart from the fact that it is enormous.



You are welcome to try to change my mind, and to introduce me to new authors.

Kissing Tradition Goodbye

Someone asked me the other day if I missed the French tradition of kissing people on the cheek, ‘faire la bise’ in the local linguo, when I greet them. It took only a few seconds to think about it before I responded no. 

I have a confession to make. When I left France all these years ago, I had a not-quite-subconscious feeling of relief at the thought that I’d never have to kiss people ever again unless I actually wanted to. There you go, I said it, and I’m sure that with this statement I have managed to offend the three-quarters of the French population, who will now ask: ‘are you even French anymore?’

This ‘kissing people on the cheek’ palaver is after all a French tradition whose origin is lost in times immemorial. It is the cultural backbone of the country. To people abroad, it is what we do, although it isn’t just the French who do it, but also the Swiss, the Belgians, the Quebecois and even the Serbs; but alright, it is most associated with my countrymen, and with reason. You can’t go anywhere in the country without being confronted left, right and centre with people kissing each other on the cheek. And even the men kiss each other! Well, not that much actually, they tend to prefer the manlier handshake, but it does happen, certainly more than it does in England. And in the UK, public opinion on cheek kissing broadly diverges into two groups: the ‘eww gross’ side, and the ‘isn’t it nice that people are so much more comfortable displaying affection’ side. But in France, it is a way of life.

To the unlearned it is a misleadingly simple process. Grab the person by the shoulders and kiss the cheek nearest to your face at the time and it’s done.  Unfortunately it is not that simple. You need only do a simple search on Google to discover that you are standing at the tip of a very very large iceberg. There are forums and blogs on the internet on when to do it, who to do it to, how to do it right, the list goes on. As one such concerned individual put it in a forum,  “I’ve noticed some people manage to kiss each other without making a smacking noise but I’ve never been very good at this, what’s your advice for doing it without pulling a face?”. My favourite question however, is ‘how many kisses?’

To give a few examples, in most of France, the practice is to give 2 kisses, starting with the right cheek. But in the east and in Provence, the practice is to give 2 kisses, generally starting with the left cheek.  Then there’s Brest in Brittany, when it’s only one kiss; in the Massif Central, in the Drome, Gard and Hautes-Alpes, 3 kisses. And in Paris and the Loire Valley, it can be 2 or 4 kisses, generally starting from the right cheek. And this is just an overview. Who knows how the Serbs do it?

There is such a thing as kissing politics. On the playground, in the office, even at home, it is a social land mine, a potent force of nature capable of creating and breaking friendships in one minute flat. I’m trying to come up with an equivalent in the UK, and can’t think of anything with as much incendiary potential. Having been on the receiving end of the playground version, I know it gets tedious after a while. Imagine you are standing around with your friends at the start of school and a schoolmate joins your group, goes round everyone for the daily morning kisses, and makes a point of bypassing you altogether. Here’s to making your feelings known publicly without so much as a word said. OK, so maybe this is part of the reason why I’m not so keen on the practice anymore!

But it’s not all bad to live in a culture where it’s normal to kiss people on the cheek. It is friendly. You get to be in close contact with (good-looking) people you would otherwise never get anywhere near.  Often it is actually a blessing to have something to do when you meet people. When in doubt, say hello with a kiss! Better that than the uncomfortable shuffling that I occasionally do in the UK whilst I rack my brain wondering if my interlocutor will recoil if I awkwardly hand-wave / hug / shake hands with / bow / run away from them.

Still, I am quietly confident that I am not the only know who thinks it’s a bit weird to have to kiss total strangers at parties just because they’re there or risk appearing stand-offish.