Blog Archive

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Children what do you want to be when you grow up? Bread or Le Pain, UKIP’s latest embarrassment, Memories, The Average German, McDonald’s and Baby Royale.

For a number of years I have had a strong intuition that if you asked children ‘Who would you like to be when you grow up’ the answers would not be Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Clement Attlee, Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Soeur Emmanuelle and Xavier Niel.  A recent survey (June 2013, 1,645 interviews with school children aged 8 to 12) has unfortunately confirmed this.   The most popular job choice for boys was footballer followed by police officer.  For girls it was teacher followed by hairdresser.  Well that to be honest was better than I expected. But when asked about their heroes, over half the boys said they would most like to be like David Beckham and over a third of the girls said Rihanna.  Predictable but depressing.  I blame their parents and the media.  Forty one percent of the children said their hero was a member of their family with Mum and Dad topping the list.  I guess that only goes to confirm my previous point!   What do we need to do to get our children admiring and wishing to emulate our best business people, politicians and others who have brought much good to our world and changed things for the better?

My recent holiday in France has prompted me to write about bread.  The role it plays in French life is so much larger and more important than the way it is regarded in the UK.  In the UK bread is used primarily to make sandwiches; we have breads of all types and origins, but meals are frequently eaten without bread assuming you are not having sandwiches.  The breads generally available are of high quality and variety, a million years away from the ‘Mother’s Pride’ sliced white of my childhood.  But at the end of the day bread in the UK is just another food option.  In France however, bread or le pain is served with every meal and is the subject of regular and intense discussion. I remember an early visit of mine to France when a major crisis was developing as the regular Boulangerie was closed for summer holidays and the quality of the alternatives were not considered up to scratch.  Families will discuss for hours the merits of the various Boulanger’s bread and the different types of baguette that each produces.  The ‘regular’ baguette price used to be defined by law (average price today for a regular baguette is around €0.85) but in recent years as labour and raw material prices have risen I suspect the quality of the baguette has declined as sellers have tried to maintain low prices (and this may in part explain the reduction in sales in recent years).  But pay over a euro for luxury baguette, flute, ficelle, or one of the other varieties and you will get a fabulous loaf.  The other thing that has always shocked me is the potential disaster that an insufficient supply of bread at a French meal can cause.  This can range from despatching someone quickly to the Boulangerie just before lunch or dinner (assuming the right one is open) to get another baguette and thus avert the disaster just in the nick of time, or worse, declining to invite someone to lunch for the only reason that there may not be enough bread to go round.  Recently a last minute lunch invite was made but could not be extended to the invitee’s partner as there would be insufficient bread.   I once naively suggested that a supply could be kept in the freezer for such occasions but I don’t think I was taken seriously.  Probably just as well for me.   I expect there are other countries where similar basic food stuffs are treated with such respect.

The summer madness has been exemplified by UKIP’s latest outburst.  Their MEP Mr Bloom, was asked by the party to apologise for remarks he made about our overseas aid budget which he believes should be cut completely.  He referred to money that the British taxpayer sends to ‘Bongo Bongo land’ which he believes is wasted.  In 2010, Mr Bloom was ejected from the European Parliament for directing a Nazi slogan at a German colleague.  In 2011, he said small firms would have to be ‘stark staring mad’ to hire young women because of the risk of them taking maternity leave.  Of course if this is how their MEP behaves, I hate to think how many of their unelected candidates seeking authority at the next election must behave.  These outbursts are useful as they remind the saner parts of the electorate just how right wing these clowns really are.

I recently read two brilliant books by the French author David Foenkinos.  There were a couple of really fascinating themes.  One was about memories and it really got me thinking.  Not sure about what as I have forgotten.  Joking.   Many of those things that really annoy us in our everyday lives will become memories that we long for when we are old.  With people living longer and longer this theme will become more intense.  What frustrates you the most?  Getting stuck in motorway traffic, city centre jams, late trains, broken down metros/buses, rude restaurant staff, terrible food, out of stock items, hurting yourself at sport; or stuck in a plane as I am now waiting hours for a take-off slot because of fog at Heathrow.  I expect we can all list many more and we have our personal ‘favourites’.  Yet when you are 93 years old and you are lucky enough to still possess all your mental faculties, you are unlikely to still be taking the tube, driving around town, enjoying regular restaurant meals and so on.  However, you will still have memories of having done these things all of your life and it is quite likely that those frustrations will now seem like a dream world.  If only I could take out my car and get stuck in some traffic again!  Oh to be stuck in the take-off queue at Heathrow!  The second theme is something that has fascinated me for a long time; being able to be with another person without saying anything.  Our society seems to demand that we talk to another person in our presence.  Silence is embarrassing.  Sometimes we just talk any old rubbish in order to avoid that uncomfortable silence.  It seems we have to be very close to someone or have a special relationship in order to be with them and not speak.  Some people are better at it that others but we should just be able to enjoy each other’s’ company without feeling the need to talk incessantly.  Of course in some cases I am wrong and we just have so much to say to each other that there is no opportunity to pause!  Next time you are with someone and there is a pause in conversation, see how long you can make it last before it gets uncomfortable.

I have just been to a modern architect designed restaurant that was surrounded by pink, red and white oleanders, lavender, all sorts of pretty bushes and flowers and then fields all the way to the horizon where you can see trees, woods.  And a beautiful car park (is that an oxymoron?).  The restaurant has glass walls all the way round so very bright natural light floods in, and has free wifi with no login required (you are online in 5 seconds rather than usual palaver – most times I can’t be bothered or CBA as my son would say).  We walked in, placed our order on one of the self-service machines and paid using a credit card.  About 5 minutes or so later, the meal which cost €13 for two was brought to our table by a member of staff.  I had a burger with a fresh salad and a bottle of water.  You may be surprised to hear that this restaurant is McDonald’s in Revel in the south of France. I’m lovin it!  I would certainly eat there more often if other McDonald’s were of this standard.  Congratulations to McDonald’s and the local franchisee.

McDonald's in Revel, France

Just what makes the Germans so successful? They don’t only beat us at football: they work fewer hours but are more productive, and while Britain faces cutbacks and rising debt the German economy is still growing. Even David Cameron says we should be more like them.  So the BBC recently sent two journalists (Justin and Bee) with their two children to ‘live’ in an average German city (the manufacturing city of Nuremberg) and lead an average German life.  ‘Average’ is determined by market-research and data from a credible institute.  The average German lady is called Sabine and her husband is called (can’t remember). Like most Germans, they spend their stay living in rented accommodation and, without a mortgage, set out to save 10% of their monthly income compared to the average British family’s 1%.  Justin takes up making pencils in a Mittelstand – one of the many small or medium-sized manufacturing companies which employ almost two thirds of the German workforce. The company is called Faber Castell and I happened to see their stand in Galeries Lafayette recently – what an amazing selection of pencils.  I never thought I could get excited about a pencil!  Although initially impressed with the annual salary and benefits package, he finds out that in real terms, German wages haven’t risen in 20 years.  Meanwhile, Bee discovers that the average German mother with children under three stays at home, compared with just a third of British mothers.  She experiments with childcare options, which she discovers are considerably more affordable than in the UK, and meets other mothers to discover why so many opt to stay at home.  ‘Average‘ highlights are that he gets up at 6.23am every morning and eats a kilogram of pork a week, while she was supposed to spend an incredible four hours a day on housework.  I was impressed by the work ethic at the factory which to be honest was also a bit intimidating.  He was chastised for using his mobile at work.  At work you work. Period.  At a dinner party the German neighbours were critical of the British who have a reputation for talking to each other at work about holidays or what they saw on TV when they should be working.  But whatever you make of this, the German story is a great success and quite frankly Europe would be in the Krappenhaus without them: Germany exports more than all its neighbours; it’s the third largest exporter in the world, but they still manage to have shorter average working days. They also have less household debt.  Europeans, we need more of this please.

I can’t really finish this month’s Blog without referring to the event of the century, the birth of Prince George, the new royal baby. It says something about human nature that 200 countries across the world had reporters outside St Mary’s Paddington waiting for the first sight of the new prince. A journalist present from a local American newspaper said that they didn’t cover any foreign news but that this was an exception so they had a team sent over! If you could monetise the coverage we could probably use the proceeds to pay off a good chunk of the National Debt! Marks and Spencer launched a sparkling wine on the day of the birth called Baby Royale. It contains William Pear juice amongst other things. This is such a mega event that many news channels have paused covering Syria and Egypt and other important stuff. Clearly a good time for the government to bury bad news. Royal Babies clearly sell and are what the public want to hear about. Is this all part of the celebrity culture we live in today? Does it even matter? Well as role models go I suppose we could do a lot worse than William and Kate. I wonder what their ranking is in the schoolchildren’s list of heroes?

“Celebrate the end of your holiday and enjoy the return to work; this way you can maintain a positive balance and look forward to next time; remember if your holiday went on much longer it wouldn’t be special anymore”

Adam Sidbury August 31st 2013

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