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A year of cobblestones

18th October 2019

For the last year, my husband Keith and I have tramped a half-kilometre cobblestoned loop through a little medieval village in Southern France, taking our three Australian children to primary school.

Four times a day (there’s a midday pick-up for a 2-hour lunch break) we make our way along Rue Taillade, a street first occupied in Roman times. We pass the brocante (an antique/junk shop run by Algerian ex-burlesque dancer Liliana), the boulangerie (superlative almond croissants, except when the baker is drunk) and the drug house (all action, all the time). We pass the window marked 1598, built not long after the siege of 1573, when locals resisted their Catholic attackers with boiling oil.

We pass the markings that show the 2002 water levels when the River Vidourle flooded as high as the second story of the terraces, and locals rowed boats along the streets and threw cigarettes into the apartment windows of stranded residents. We pass the gypsies, the fishmongers, the fancy boutiques and the guy who brings his boa constrictor out for an occasional sun-bath.

‘Bonjour’ we say to the locals, who we come to know so well. When we meet again, on our next pass along the cobblestones, we say ‘rebonjour’, or ‘salut’, or - my favourite, the sweet slang ‘coucou’. At the school gate there is a frenzy of triple-cheek kissing, which I never, ever get completely right. (Once I accidentally kiss another Mum tenderly on the nose, an incident less embarrassing than the time I’m told that the phrase I use constantly ‘I’m so excited!’ actually means ‘I’m so aroused!’ I imagine a text going around. Beware the horny Australian lady. She’s into noses.

The first couple of months are intense, as we go down with a string of viruses, brought on by new foods and microbes and stress. We are simultaneously overstimulated and bored; exhausted and exhilarated, but after a while, the emotional whiplash subsides and we settle into a rhythm. Days are defined by the school run. Brocante, boulangerie, drug house. Bonjour, salut, coucou.

The children we meet are are charming, sweet, lovable rogues. But this economically depressed and culturally diverse town is, at times, a violent place and this is reflected in the politics of the school yard.

Behind the gates, no parents are allowed, and it can all get a bit Lord of The Flies. When a child cries, the others sing the first line of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound Of Silence’ while drawing an imaginary tear on their cheeks. ’Állo dakness my ol’ frennn…’ Acoustic folk sarcasm. It burns.

At school, there are constant interpersonal dramas with tearful recriminations, shouts of ‘Pas amie!’ and letters of accusation and apology. In the sixth-grade classroom, the children process the week every Friday through a system of written reports about each other, couched as either ‘je critique’ - I criticise, ‘je propos’- I suggest, or ‘je felicit’ - I congratulate. Children have the right of reply only when they are holding the ‘speaking stick’. It is both democracy and soap opera in action.

Our children process their stress in different ways. The six-year-old takes to pretending she is a puppy who can only speak dog language, while the nine-year-old flat-out refuses to learn French and takes to watching YouTube tutorials on Ancient Greek, just to make his point. The eleven year old is forced to take a crash course in cultural acclimation. The boys first bombard her with love letters and gifts and then, when romance is not on the cards, tease and ridicule her. The children rise to the challenge, but there are some very hard days in this wonderful, exhausting adventure.

We all face our own blithering inadequacy this year. But we also share incredible connections with new friends and deposit a huge number of experiences in the family memory bank. I may not have picked up much ‘French-girl’ poise (one day I hurt myself falling off the detachable toilet seat) but I do feel changed. I hope that this year has seeded some notions of compassion and social justice in the children, fostered their resilience and given a profound jolt to their imagination. If nothing else, they can swear in French to a degree that would make a sailor clutch their pearls, a skill that will surely come in handy some day.

Keith and I racked up endless kilometers on those cobblestones, and now, suddenly - stick a fork in us! We’re done. This magical twelve borrowed months from the normal run of life is over. What a privilege it has been. Goodbye brocante, boulangerie, drug house. Goodbye, Roman road. Goodbye, temporary fairytale. Goodbye, cobblestones. Our feet may never be the same. Our hearts, too.

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