Friday, 29 May 2015

4 Books to Change the Culture

Saint John Paul II called our culture a culture of death, and unfortunate as it seems, I think he expressed exactly the mood of the Western World. It is not simply a case of specific legislation, I do think it is a mood. A gloominess in which we wallow. We like to see mankind through its lowest common denominator of greed, envy or lust, we deny free will, we reduce beings with immortal souls into puppets unable to resist temptation or genetics. 

The problem is clearest in fiction. For some reason, the only way for any fiction to be accepted as "realistic" is for it to be mired in just the same gloom, just the same bleakness with which we insist on surrounding ourselves. In fact, more so!

Look at Game of Thrones

Actually, don't do that, don't look at Game of Thrones. Or do it, bearing in mind it is certainly not the hyper realism it purports to be. Just because it shows evil and violence, it doesn't mean it is true. It is truncated realism. It is only the bad parts of humanity. The Fall without Redemption. Look at it, but read these four books as well.

1: Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis

 There is an excellent way to describe this book to music nerds. Basically, this is like a literary equivalent of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. When I watched the opera, I did feel the weight of the "awful quarters of an hour" Wagner is famous for, just as when I read Lewis, I did feel the urge to tell him to get to the point already. But just like Tristan und Isolde is suddenly redeemed by its last notes, filtering back to the previous five hours and infusing them with meaning and beauty, so the final pages of Till We Have Faces suddenly offer insights, parallels and beauty I was too cross to see beforehand.

It is a haunting book, where metaphors and images are weaved so skilfully together that the mastery escapes the reader until the very end, until the literal apotheosis.  Lewis believed that metaphors were the only way to get to the truth, and nowhere does he manage this quite so absolutely. To say things directly is to diminish them, to say them obliquely offers a glimpse of the Truth (I think I am paraphrasing someone here). And that is exactly what this book is. A glimpse of the Truth, much needed in our relativistic, cynical (Lewis would say saturnine) world. 

2: Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

This book is generally the most decried of Austen's novels. Critics in particular wonder at her sudden puritanism, especially in her condemnation of theatre. Yet it is the most delicate study of character, using all the meanings of the term.  

In Jane Austen's time, your character was a societal responsibility, the outside appraisal of your mental and moral qualities. Some of Austen's characters lose their characters, some uphold theirs against all odds, depending on the inward state of their true character, their actual moral qualities.
The perniciousness of theatre here comes from the possibility for the actors to put on a mask, a different character, which is not theirs, to do as they please without damaging their character in society. But if their outward character may be preserved, their inner morals cannot. And it is only a matter of time until the outward character follows suit once the inner moral is lost. What we do, no matter the guise under which we do it, impacts our selves. It matters dreadfully. And that is a lot more realistic than all the crowned villains of literature. Austen understood that. So did Rousseau in his Lettre A d'Alembert, another case where the accusation of puritanism levied at the author protected the readers from seeing the mirror which they were offered. A priceless lesson to learn for our troubled times.

3: The Betrothed, Alessandro Manzoni

Typically enough, if you look at the Wikipedia page for this book, they are very keen to tell you about the condemnation of Austrian rule in the novel, but they completely overlook its actual subject matter: redemption and salvation. In this book you can find all the intricacies and all the realism of power politics and how they impact the lives of the humble, but it is a complete story. The ugly interplay of power and religion is depicted, but so is the salvific aspect of religion. Now THAT is realistic.

Manzoni also has a true genius for creating characters that make us reflect on our own failings: the array of priests and religious he describes in particular is rich and subtle, far from the monochrome all-good/ all-evil you generally find in literature when describing the Catholic clergy. I also have a huge soft spot for Renzo, who is a rare breed of positive, yet not flawless, yet quite relatable and realistic character. Love Renzo. 

4: A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

Some years back, I remember noticing that my neighbour on the metro was reading this book. I deliberated breaking all my rules of keeping quiet and unnoticed on public transport to share how much I loved the book. But by the time I had made my mind up, it was my stop, unfortunately. Oh well. He was reading it in French anyway.

What this novel describes better than any other is families, the interactions, the bond they represent and their true ordered place in society (i.e, right in the centre). That is why Lata gives the fruit to the old monkey (sorry it's cryptic, I don't want to spoil the plot, come back after you've read it and it'll make sense). She's choosing family. And that is what modern Meenakshi fails to grasp when she orders the medal to be melted. One choice is ordered and truly made, the other is guided by impulse and sensuality, not a free choice. And yet, if one simply looks at a summary of the plot, it would seem Lata makes the oppressed choice whilst Meenakshi's is the free one. Which is why it is necessary to go through all 1500 pages. For that and for Rupa Mehra. Who is basically all the Meditarranean mamas in my life.

Of course, I could add quite a few more, but these are books that stay with you, and truly offer insights into life. They talk of human misery, of fallen-ness, of loss and hurt. But they don't need any gratuitous shock, blood and rape to do so, nor do they make it the whole story.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

In Praise of the Goûter : The Answer to all your Snacking Woes

So, Dwija wrote this post a few days ago, as an answer to another post. Now I feel it needs a post to answer it in its turn, in a beautiful chain of blogging chatter. (It's the ciiiiiiiircle of Liiiiiiiiife!)

What Dwija says is this: she chooses to offer snacks to children who come to her house, because it is a very important gesture of hospitality for her, even though she knows (now!) that some parents object to it.

Well, I've got a solution to the problem: don't give the kids snacks, give them a goûter.

We like it so much, we named a mountain after it.

You see, people don't generally snack much in France, and it is certainly not encouraged. My mother, for example, would offer me a glass of water if I said I was hungry between meal times when I was little. My grandmother is actually horrified people carry food around and have sandwiches on the go rather than sit-down lunches, so let's not even go into her opinion on snacking.

This attitude is due partly to the fact that it is considered unhealthy, but mostly because it is EXTREMELY important children should eat what is set in front of them for each meal. Picky eating is not considered quirky, but bad manners, and it is easier to overlook personal preferences if you've worked up a nice appetite before the meal is served. (Mealtimes in France are an international treasure, so there. Gotta respect that.)

But I see you are now worried that life as a French child is a vale of sorrow, where no fun food is ever offered, and kindly people like Dwija are condemned as destroyers of UNESCO Intangible Heritage. 

Not so, not so.

Because we have the goûter.

Patapon is very sad goûter is over.

The goûter is a special mini-meal children eat in the afternoon, generally immediately after school, which then enables them to wait happily until dinner is served (which is typically between 7-8 pm). During this special mini-meal of bliss, no-one expects to eat healthy food. In fact, chocolate (or even better, pain au chocolat) and treats  are the norm. All the snacky food is available. All the breakfast food is available. There is no rule of eating what is set in front of you, but a free-for-all of daily indulgence. It's fantastic.

All the treats

If my Mum didn't feel equal to making dinner, wanted an early night, or had nothing left to make a proper meal, she would proclaim "Goûter-Dîner" night, and the delight would spread through the house in an instant, as each sibling announced to the next that TONIGHT, we were having all the treats for DINNER!

I also remember the sense of panicked grief I felt when, age 17, as I was having my goûter at a friend's house, her father said: "You're really getting too old for goûter now, aren't you?" (No we weren't, Hervé. Still aren't. We just have it with tea now, and pretend it's not the same thing).

Having goût... erm, "afternoon tea" in Berlin

It was expected, that if I was going to a friend's house, of course they would give me my goûter. And it ticked all the boxes Dwija needed : it doesn't require cooking, so it isn't a problem for the host family to provide it, it is a sharing of food, which humans have always associated with deep fraternizing since time immemorial, plus it has the advantage of not encouraging snacking between meals, which just ruins people's appetites. 

So here you go world. If you learn just one thing from the French, make it the goûter.

You won't regret it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

How to Sleep Like a French Baby

These days, I mostly hear how lucky I am that Patapon is such a great sleeper. And yes, he does sleep between 11 and 12 hours every night, and slept at least 8 hour stretches from the age of about 2 months. So, basically, we struck parenting gold, right?

Well, I am not so sure. He is not that great a sleeper by French standards.

And I also remember the first two weeks of his life very vividly. Clutching the screaming infant who would. not. sleep. Ever. Calling in despair various people, who would all offer commiserations but little hope for the next few months.

Yes, I will have a think about that "sleeping" idea of yours, Mother, but I don't like the sound of it.

I was following all the advice I had been given by the midwife and health visitor: 

  • Patapon's Moses basket was next to my side of the bed (although it was mostly for tripping over, as he refused to stay in it). 
  • As soon as he made feeding noises or gestures ("clues") I would feed him, and not wait for him to get all worked up.
  • "You can't spoil a two-week old."
Patapon would only agree to sleep in someone's arms, so Simon and I took turn having cat-naps, but then, after about 5 minutes, Patapon would express a "clue" and Simon would have to wake me up. Jude would fall asleep almost as soon as I started feeding him, yet would wake up the second I gestured towards putting him down, even next to me on the bed. But DON'T FALL ASLEEP WITH THE BABY IN YOUR ARMS! was the advice.

All the fun, all the time.

Then my Mum came over, and took matters into her own hands. And it worked. 

So, I give you:

The French Method

Tested and approved by most of the the French babies I know, and most certainly by the 11 babies my grand-mother, mother and I have had between us so far.

(Catchy, hey!)

This is my baby Mum, approving.

Basically, there are two ideas:

1. Don't pick up the baby straight away.
2. Feed at regular intervals, not on demand.

There is also a general spirit of not over-thinking the decisions, not imagining dreadful implications or believing the scare-mongering. It is more: 

Right now, your child needs food and sleep: here is what I know works so you can actually provide these things, rather than a general "philosophy" you like and to which you cling with whitening knuckles as your sanity slowly oozes out of your sleep-deprived brain.
You love him, you feed him, he sleeps? He's fine. 

But here is the nitty-gritty of the method (please imagine that this is my Mum and my Grandmother talking to you, not me, they have a lot more credibility):

Don't pick up the baby straight away

The idea is to wait a few minutes when you hear your baby cry. But that means ACTUAL minutes, not I-swear-it's-been-ages hormonal minutes. (Not that I have been there or anything...)
This is to help your baby connect sleep-cycles without fully waking up, and therefore gradually sleep longer. If you check on him straight away, you will wake him up fully (or so I hear... erm... moving on...), whereas if you wait a bit he may just fall back to sleep, into the next cycle. If he is fully awake, you go pick him up after those five minutes and check what is wrong. 

Such sleeping.


- You need to start this straight away if possible, and before the baby is 3-4 months old anyway. After that, it's not going to work.

- I am not sure how well that works with co-sleeping as this practice is extremely uncommon in France and I personally didn't particularly want to try it. 

Patapon only slept in our bedroom for a couple of weeks, because we would wake each other up constantly. When my Mum arrived she declared the NHS advice officially failing and we started putting him down in his own room. (Worry not, our house is tiny, we could hear him very well still.) 

- In Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman gives this as the one and only thing you need to do for your baby to sleep through the night. It wasn't enough for me, I had to also follow Piece of Advice number 2. But this may be because of the whole sleeping-in-arms thing Patapon had going.

For us, we first had to make him accept to actually fall asleep in the Moses basket, so for the first two weeks, the Pause wasn't really an option for us. 

With this problem, my Mum was all for letting him cry until he accepted the fact that this was his bed, not our arms. I don't have a problem with that, and we would have done it if all else had failed. Instead, I ended up spending a lot of time trying to soothe him to sleep in his basket, which did eventually work (nursing him to sleep didn't). It took a couple of days, but once he'd done it a few times, he was fine sleeping there without needing cajoling most of the time.

Bonus: to this day, the songs I used to sing him then make him all drowsy!

Feed at regular intervals, not on demand

The other thing my mum insisted I do is stop looking for clues and start simply spacing out feeds by three hours. We would try and distract Patapon if he woke up or started fussing in-between (that meant a LOT of walking him around in the baby-carrier), but mostly held out. I did occasionally feed him earlier if I knew he had not fed very well the last time (falling asleep in the middle for example).

Before that J. was asking to be fed constantly, but only nursed for a couple of minutes at a time. With the interval method, he was hungrier when I did feed him, therefore he nursed much better and then could hold out much longer. 

It made a huge difference almost overnight. Simon and I had a three nights when we took turns to go and comfort Patapon when he woke up crying before the "interval" was over, and that was it. After that, he slept at least the required interval, and gradually more. At one month we moved him to four-hour intervals during the day, but he was already sleeping at least 4-hour stretches at night. 

According to my Mum, that's pretty standard (apparently, I started doing 6-hour stretches at three weeks when my Mum begged me to - my big brother and I are nearly Irish twins, she was exhausted) . 

This is my clever face

The only case of regression she had was my little brother, he was about 8-weeks old, and sleeping 8-hour stretches, when we all went on holidays to the south of France, and the heat made him thirsty. But he got used to it after a few days and stopped needing middle-of-the-night nursing again.

Much snooze


- My grand-mother says not to start doing this straight away, unlike the Pause, but to wait until the milk has come in.

- For those using NFP, the long stretches at night may cause early return of fertility, despite exclusive breastfeeding. It didn't for me, but I can't guarantee it!

- Some have suggested that spacing out like this will affect milk supply if you do it before the 12 week "established breastfeeding" mark. Breastfeeding is not as prevalent in France so I am not sure about that one in general terms, all I can say is that  it didn't at all prevent my grand-mother, my mother and I to exclusively breastfeed our babies for as long as we wanted.

- I have also heard people say that babies need to be fed more often than that because they only have tiny stomachs, to which I can say many things, including:
  • a tiny stomach, yes, but in proportion to a tiny body 
  • they also have a gut
  • it's actually good for the stomach to be empty every now and again
  • my grandmother and mother still managed to have absolutely enormous babies, so I don't think we were under-fed
Me, looking under-fed

Here you go. I hope this may be helpful for some people. Obviously, I don't claim expert scientific knowledge, nor do I think everybody MUST do the same thing as us. 

You do you, Internet. 

This is just what we did, following my mother's advice who had followed her mother's advice before, and it helped Jude sleep through the night pretty quickly, despite the fact that he traveled to Liverpool, London, Paris, Lyon, Paris again, the Atlantic coast of France, Paris once more, London again and then finally home, in the first month of his life.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Dear Britain: It's a bit more complicated than that. Love, The Surrender Monkeys.

So, these days it is pretty much agreed that political correctness has gone too far, that we can’t even say anything anymore, right?

Well, I’ve got good news for you people, you may not say anything about disabled people, Black people or Asians, but, hey, at least you can hate on the French!

Great, right?!

Couldn't find a cheese-eating one.

But, Isabelle, surely you are, maybe, I don’t know, a little bit too sensitive to it? Surely, it’s just banter, right?

Oh, probably.

Here’s banter:

We were in a bar a few years ago, when a group of people came to sit next to us (I don’t recall why, maybe the bar was packed).
One guy hears me talk to my friends and exclaims: “where are you from?” in a rather annoying and accusatory way. So I ignore him. Then a few minutes later, someone else asks me the same question (but, you know, nicely, and after having said hello or something) so I answer. The first guy immediately reacts:

Guy:_ I said you were French!
Me: _ No you didn’t. You asked me where I was from.
Guy: _ Stop being so f***ing French, or everybody’s gonna hate you.
So that was that.

What followed may have been:

a-   Hahaha, so witty! Such banter!
b-   I threw my drink in his face
c-   I left the bar

I leave it up to you to decide what would have been my most likely course of action.

Unfortunately, this happens quite a lot. And most of the time, it takes a pseudo-historical slant, as they explain to me how the French just didn’t fight the Second World War, because, Surrender Monkeys.

Now, I am a very meticulous fake historian, so let’s analyse that idea.

Are the French surrendering particularly often?

So, here are the last few wars fought by France (I’m excluding the colonial wars, mostly because they don’t have very much to do with surrendering).

WWII – surrendered

WWI – won (Before you start saying that it was only with America's help, may I point out that before the US joined, the French fought grueling battles for 3 years? That may demonstrate poor soldiering, but not excess surrendering.)

1871 – partly surrendered, although Paris chose the option to eat elephants instead (ask Kendra’s kids, it’s a great story)

1859 - won

1853-1856 - won (aah, the siege of Sevastopol, my - geeky - childhood)

1790-1815 – Conquered most of Europe. Was eventually limited to its own borders. Had to be thoroughly beaten twice before agreeing to the idea.

Let it be said that I do not approve of Europe-conquering. I am making a point.

1775-1783 – won (Froget us God / If we forget / The sacred sword/ Of Lafayette, right, America?)

I’ll stop. Out of these, most people calling me a Surrender Monkey only know the first two. A couple had known about Napoleon (the WORST Surrender Monkey there ever was. The guy was obsessed with it. Went to surrender all over Europe). The other wars have not yet been mentioned to me (but one lives in hope!). So basically, we are Surrender Monkeys, because we lost against Germany in WWII. But hey! So did most of Europe! Let’s all be Surrender Monkeys together! No?

All the monkeys


Just you, France.

So let's explore this further. Why just France?

Was France’s surrender in 1939 particularly remarkable/shameful?

See above. Most of Europe! But let’s be thorough.

So, France was allied with Britain. They decided to attack Norway first. It went badly. For both (especially the Brits with no skis, but I digress).

Then Germany attacked, with the Blitzkrieg tactic, which no army yet had managed to counter. They also bombed the French air force still on the ground. So that was that.

Basically: planes destroy the rear whilst tanks + infantry push on one point then turn back and attack the armies from the back. No back-up or retreat possible as the rear is already destroyed. The tanks push on immediately to undefended and unprepared locations.

As you can see, Britain might have had a slight advantage there, with all of that blue thing going on around it. Tanks don’t float brilliantly I hear.

Most of the French troops where en-circled in the East, then the rest, with the British, suffered the same fate in Dunkerque.

So, eventually, due to woeful tactical errors trying to counter the blitzkrieg (I’m happy to claim them all for the French High Command – let’s say Britain knew better but didn’t dare say anything because the French are such scary Surrender Monkeys) the French and British armies got cornered in Dunkerque.
Churchill managed to get enough boats to get the British out of there. Great! Miracle of Dunkerque!

Can anyone explain to me how that’s not buggering off, leaving your ally in the sh*t? (Pardon my French.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they did, and France was indeed conquered, so might as well not let two armies get captured, right? Right. But it does seem a bit rich to then turn round to your abandoned ally and say, “you Surrender Monkey!”

Here is the Miracle of Dunkerque seen from the French side: 11,000 dead (including my great-grandfather) the French army fights on desperately for a few days on its own, fails to stop the Germans, they enter Paris. Britain, from the safety of its island, refuses to release France from the agreement to not conclude a separate peace (so what if there’s no France left to fight from? WE shall never surrender! Silly Surrender Monkeys!)  France surrenders all the same (because there really is no France left to fight from). Germany then takes most of the French army (around two million men) and sends them as POWs in Germany. Most of them didn’t return until 1945.

Two weeks later, the British attacked the French navy at Mers-el-Kebir. Nope, no declaration of war happened. Yes, like for Pearl Harbour. So that was a war crime. You Surrender Monkeys!

Once again, I think the British mostly did what they had to, looking out for themselves. But they can hardly claim a moral high ground. Or say that surrendering was shameful.

This image (the man is watching the German army parade in Paris) may or may not make me cry. We'll never know.

Maybe what people really mean is that France sat out most of WWII?

Now, we are finally getting onto something the French ARE self-conscious about. You see, before I came to England, I didn’t for a second imagine people thought we were Surrender Monkeys because they abandoned us at Dunkerque. I was, however, ashamed of what we call L'Occupation. Mostly because of one concept, that of Collaboration.

Once the French were conquered, the Germans set up a dummy state in the southern part of France. And these people, along with most of the population, chose to make do with the Germans, and try to carry on. Collaboration with the occupying forces was encouraged. Fascist ideology advocated.

Many terrible things happened because of this, and I really wish my country had not chosen that path. But it did.

There were, however, some reasons behind it.

a-   It’s hard to fight an occupying army when every single act of resistance is punished by the murder of dozens of innocent people (that’s the hostages system, it was used throughout France). So yeah, 'Allo 'Allo lied to you Britain.

b-   Apart from the specific hostages just lifted from the street to be killed in response to acts of resistance, there were two million French prisoners in Germany. Most families had someone who was a POW. Funnily, they seemed to care what happened to them. So, yes, they sat tightly on their bottoms.

c-   Sitting through WWII under German occupation was not exactly a picnic : France had to pay Germany for its own occupation (and the price was fixed by the Germans, so basically, it was just institutionalised robbery on a national scale). This led to rationing so extreme that unless someone was resorting to the Black Market (which was punishable by death) they would have died of starvation anyway. And all of this was done on purpose by the occupying forces. Now, it wasn't as bad as, say, Poland, but still not a picnic.

d-   Some of France did fight. When the Allies attacked North Africa in 1942, the French troops there didn’t fight back. They joined them instead - if you think El Alamein was a great British victory, please look at the role played by the French troops at Bir Hakeim to make it possible - . Germany dissolved the southern dummy state and just occupied all of France directly as a result of this, because even the dummy state couldn’t be trusted, apparently. And indeed, what was left of the French navy consequently chose to scuttle itself to avoid falling into German hands.

e-   Coventry and the London Blitz were bad. But look up Brest. And Le Havre. And Saint-Nazaire. And Royan. And Lisieux. 


f-    Paris freed itself. It’s a great story. All my A-Level students know about Commandant Gallois on his bicycle.

Liberation of Paris

So here you go. And don’t worry Britain, I still love you. Unhealthy attachment to inaccurate representations of WWII and all.

Friday, 15 May 2015

{7QT} Confused Pet Owners and Post Questions


Jenny's Dog-Mom post made my blood boil. Mostly because of the comments. The whole "I'm-my-pet's-Mum" thing is at best a little creepy, at worst fundamentally de-values what a human being is (hint: not an animal). And it goes beyond a mere joke, believe me.


My husband's older sister died age 16, and I know my mother-in-law has had to face many comments from people comparing their grief for their animals to hers. She is one of the kindest persons I know, so she certainly handled it with charity.
I, however, do not feel full of charity (I know I should, and I know I am failing).


I am trying to figure out which posts to publish. I have plenty of ideas, but I don't want to simply indulge myself. So I am going to be brave and ask questions here, just in case someone is willing the weigh in on my dilemmas (being fully prepared for the proverbial crickets).


I have a rant-y post all ready about the whole "Surrender-Monkey" stereotype of the French and the history (or lack thereof) behind it. Should I post it? Would it be actually useful? 

It would have maps!


Jenny again (I love Jenny), asked about sleep training (brave lady), and I mentioned the French method in the comments. Would anyone care for me to elaborate on said method, or does my experience of ONE baby not seem like enough and therefore, should I come back in 4 or 5 babies thank-you-very-much?


Thumbs up or down to more posts about kids' books? I still have plenty to say, but that may not be good news to some.


Not strictly post-related, but on a scale of 1 to Absolute Futility, how futile is it to try and discipline a 10 months-old? Asking for a friend ;-)


Go to Kelly for more articulate posts.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

A Reversion Story, Part 1 : Growing Up Pick&Choose

Recently, some wonderful bloggers (Kendra and Molly) came up with a button so that people coming to visit our blogs and curious about the Faith may find information easily. Obviously, I added it (it's the pretty "Credo, I believe" button on the right), but it also made me think that it was probably about time I talked more about my faith here. I know that many people do not understand how we, reasonably intelligent and educated people, come to be Catholics, since the consensus is that it is an outdated, archaic Church which refuses to "catch up with the times".

I figured I better start explaining from the beginning. 

I grew up "Pick&Choose" Catholic. Where people follow the parts of the Church teachings they like, and simply ignore the uncomfortable rest, branding it as "due-to-change-soon/irrelevant". 

Pick and Mix!
I went through Baptism, First Holy Communion, Profession of Faith and Confirmation (more or less halfheartedly, but hey! Party! And presents!), and went to Church many Sundays for the first ten years of my life or so. Then we went less and less (I suspect that battling teenagers was one hurdle too many for my parents).

I always loved the stories. Especially the Old Testament ones, as presented in my Illustrated Children's Bible (which skipped all the difficult passages). I liked the lives of the saints as well, which were the only thing I read in my Grain de Soleil, a religious magazine aimed at pre-teens. So from the outside, I suppose it looked like I was a catechesis success story.

I wanted to add sarcastic comments on the cover, then realised it really wouldn't be helpful

knew all the stories. What more could you ask?

I didn't pay any attention to the actual teachings, and didn't let them have any influence on how I lived my life.

If you'd asked me at age 15, as I had just gone through my Confirmation, about the Eucharist, I would have confidently explained that it was a symbol. I probably would have gone on to say that the Church's refusal of condoms was spreading AIDS (that's all I knew about the teachings on contraception), how THEY were ridiculous not to let divorced people come to Church (no-one corrected me on that one either), and how the all-male priesthood made no sense. 

One young priest actually tried to debate with me on that last one, but I was not listening.

So, I was happily going about, knowing next to nothing about what the Church believed but condemning it all in bulk. 

As I was preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, I told my parents I did not want to do it, since  I didn't think I believed in God. I didn't think I ever had. They told me to go through it anyway, and I didn't push it, because party! And presents!

Then I demanded to stop going to Church.

For a very long time, that was it for me. I was left with a vague belief in Something Bigger, because a universe which spontaneously started itself made no sense, but I didn't let myself push the thought any further. 
I also kept a fondness for what the Church could have been and I mourned its demise. Always a historian at heart, I loved the old Church, when it held sway in the Culture. When people had to be moral or Society would condemn them. When what people did mattered to more than just themselves. When there were some Principles and Absolutes.
As a result, I never joined the ranks of the Church-Bashers, who think themselves controversial by howling with the wolves of the majority in ridiculing believers. For me it always felt like shooting at the already wounded, the easy prey (the French expression is "shooting at the ambulance").

I also still loved the pageantry

Of course, I can see MANY things that were wrong in the way I was taught. And I sometimes feel slightly resentful of the adults who failed me, one after the other.

Why was I never told of the Real Presence?
Why didn't I know what was actually happening at the Mass?
How was I to think that sins mattered when no-one I knew ever went to Confession?
Why were my silly, ill-informed, juvenile arguments never met with the answers the Church already provides?
Why did I go through the Sacraments, not knowing what they were?
How was I to think that God really was involved in our daily lives, if no-one ever prayed in front of me?

There are indeed, many lessons to be drawn here, on how we are failing in our catechesis of the young, and how the dumbing-down of the mysteries of our Faith is really a disservice to our children.

However, I do not want to accuse, because I already know who the real culprit is.


One cannot teach a headstrong girl who does not want to listen.

Of course, had I met with confident teachers at the very beginning, rather than a motley crew of my friends' mums who did not really know much themselves, I might have taken a different path. I might have taken matters into my own hands, as I had done with books and history. I might have listened to the teachings beyond the stories. Perhaps. But it was still mainly my own fault.

This state of affairs carried on, trapped in a vague agnosticism, whilst I longed for the moral values of earlier times and tried to lead a selfless life for no discernible reason. I also wished the Church had better advocates than the ones I saw ridiculed on a daily basis for believing in Its irrational teachings.

Then I turned 21 and moved to England.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Lost in Translation: Biscuits

The other day, I offered Simon this biscuit, telling him, "Do you want a Hobnob?"

Not a Hobnob
I will wait a while for my British readers to gasp in horror and feel waves of sympathy for Simon overcome them.
Because that's not a Hobnob.
That's a Rich Tea. And a whole world of expectations had been ruined.

(Is that a cookie to Americans? If so, then what is a biscuit? I got very confused when I was over there. In fact I probably have quite a few "Isabelle Failing at America" posts in me yet.)

For the smart Alecks telling me that it says so on the biscuit, I will add that I was not looking at said biscuit.

But the key here is, why is it important?

Well it is. Crucial even.

To paraphrase a much-loved character, one does not simply eat biscuits. There is a process, there is a hierarchy, there is an art.

The process is simple, one eats biscuits (note the plural here, one does not eat only one biscuit, unless one possesses treasures of self-restraint unheard-of in the British Isles), and one dunks biscuits. In tea. Obviously.

Dunking is the part where the art comes in, because dunking requires timing, dexterity and judgment. If you dip your biscuit too little, then it is barely wet, the flavour of the tea barely comes through and the inside remains too hard. Bad dunking. In fact, no dunking at all, that's dipping.
If you dunk your biscuit for too long, then you drown it, a chunk of it comes off and makes disagreeable lumpy leftovers at the bottom of your cup, ruining the end of your tea, whilst the rest is a soggy mess. If that is the case, you might as well hand in your umbrella and bowler hat, for you will never be British. Many things can be forgiven, but not bad dunking.

It is also very important to be aware of biscuit hierarchy, lest you are taken for a spoilsport hostess.
Biscuits are not created equal, and no matter what your tastes are, their classification is not up for debate (I know, because I really like Malted Milks and hate Jaffa Cakes, but I still have to be aware where they respectively stand in the order of things).

Malted Milk are bottom, Jaffa Cakes are top. (If anyone tries to discuss whether Jaffa Cakes are cakes or biscuits, I will say it once and for all I.DON'T.CARE. They're just horrible.)

So, here is what you must know, from least-liked to most-liked:

They taste perfectly nice, but you have to despise them. By law.

Apparently they are no good either (Why?)

I know, I know. They look exactly like Rich Teas. But for some reason these are not despised.

Chocolate anything is always higher in the ranks, no matter the biscuit. Or whether you like chocolate.

Hobnobs. It is true though, they are lovely.

Nom nom nom.

Shortbreads have a very high currency, but for no discernible reason.

Jaffa Cakes of doom. Blerg.

Here you go. Now you can see why it was such a horribly misleading thing to present a Rich Tea as a Hobnob. And now if you make the same mistake, it won't be my fault.

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