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Embarrassing Mothers and Emotional Pastry-Eating: First Term at French School

12th February 2018

This piece about school-life in France ran recently in the Good Weekend magazine in Australia. We’re in term 3 now; and life looks quite different, but I’m afraid I’m still the creepy mum at the school gate.

On the third day of school in France, where we have moved for a year, my husband Keith and I are hiding behind a fence and watching our three children. They are sitting nervously on a bench while kids frolic around them, twittering in French, as incomprehensible as birds. My heart twists in my chest when I see a small girl with wildly curly pigtails approach six-year old Georgie.

They two little ones stare at each other. The will is there to play; but the method eludes them. I have a sudden brainwave.

‘George!’ I call, emerging from my hidey hole. Keith looks at me aghast (I have blown our cover forever) but George runs over, thrilled.

‘I have a game for you, honey! Say this to your friend! ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’ And then you point to your nose!’ I tell her through the fence. ‘And she will tell you what it is! It is your nose!’

I demonstrate. ‘It’s like ‘what is this?’ The nose! Qu’est-ce que c’est? The hair! Qu’est-ce que c’est? The tree!’

George looks confused. ‘It’s fun!’ I say enthusiastically. ‘It’s how to play with your little friend there! What’s her name?’

‘Violette’, I think,’ says George. We both turn to look at the little curly-haired girl.

‘Yoo-hoo!’ I call to her. She looks at me warily. ‘It’s OK!’ I shout brightly. ‘Come here! Violette! Violette!’

Keith is looking at me, horrified. He takes a step back.

‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’ I call out to her. ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est? The nose! The nose!’

I am beckoning frantically through the fence. Violette is shaking her head. It dawns on me, terribly, painfully slowly, that I look like a creep.

The bell rings, Georgette and her little friend run off and Keith and I begin the walk of shame home.

‘Sorry’, I say to him in a small voice. ‘I was just trying to -’

‘It’s fine’, he says. ‘I understand.’ We cannot quite make eye contact.

I’m no longer in Australia, I realise, at our beloved little beachside primary school where parents wander in and out of offices and classrooms, where I understood the rules, where I belonged.

The school schedule defines our days. The kids (aged ten, nine and six) start at 8.30, break for a two hour lunch from 12-2, and finish the afternoon session at 3.45. We make this walk, a half-hour round trip, through the cobblestoned streets of our medieval village where cats run underfoot and children call ‘cuckoo!’ (hello) from the windows above. It is a lot of walking, especially combined with the four flights of stairs in out tall narrow house, but I keep telling myself that I will have French buns of steel at the end of this year, despite all the emotional pastry-eating. (At this point we are at least 82% pain au chocolat.)

At some hazy future point, I hope my kids will stay at school for the sit-down, three-course lunch, but not yet. Word is that it will take up to four months for the babble of language surrounding them to coalesce into recognisable sentences, at which point they will have ‘functional’ French. From then on it will be a short jump to poo jokes. Right now, however, lunchtime is the only part of the day in which the children can talk.

But one month in, to my relief, the kids are rolling with the punches. They are making friends, even though none of the children at school speak English. They wander about holding hands with their special pals, play ‘lou toosh toosh’, the French version of tag, and ‘cave-cave’, hide and seek. They escape to read Harry Potter in the toilet when they need a break from the high-alert mode they must function in all day.

The schoolwork itself has a retro vibe. There is a focus on times-tables and penmanship; on conjugating verbs and memorising poetry. There are rules on exactly how to fill in the daily journal. (‘Count five squares in. Write date. Underline with ruler in red.’) After dinner we pull out the school books and the dictionary and puzzle out the homework together. Keith and I must sign the exercise books every night.

School-gate life is different too. Terrorism protocols mean that the gates to the school are locked and parents are not allowed in the grounds at all. And culturally, it’s a long way from home. There is not a takeaway coffee cup in sight, but smoking at the gates is commonplace. I am no longer in the land of turmeric lattes and wetsuits and sprouted bread; rather, there are baguettes and cigarettes, and - perhaps the most jarring culture shock of all - nobody, at any time, is dressed in active wear.

I am so proud of the children, but it’s not an easy transition. Their stress leaks out in different ways. They feel stupid and misunderstood. They are simultaneously bored and overstimulated. They need high-level Mumming and Dadding. But in a year, they will speak a second language, which will be a great gift to their adult selves, and the difficult and painful aspects of adjustment may also yield, I hope, hidden gifts of resilience and compassion.

This family adventure marks an end to a certain chapter of family life, as our biggest girl turns eleven – sometimes called the ‘old age of childhood’ - in a couple of months. Right now, we are a solid team, Mum and Dad still the suns around which our little planets circle, but life will not be this way forever. Adolescence, with all its charms and challenges, is just around the corner.

But not yet! This year the children still need us to be their soft place to fall. Soft at the front, that is. Should they fall on Mum from the back, they will be met with buttocks hard as rock. (#frenchbuns). In the meantime, I will try my best not to be the creepy lady at the school gate. I’ll probably fail.

Rachael Mogan McIntosh

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