Last Friday I was sneaking in a little rest after a busy morning unravelling la paperasserie (red tape), when I heard Tom’s feet resounding up the stairs. He burst through the bedroom door and pounced onto the bed, perching astride my knees to pin down my attention.
“Mum, Mum, MUM. So today, we had salad, with olives and egg and dressing…”
“I had rockmelon!” yelled his younger brother, sticking his baseball-capped head around the door frame.
“Shhhh I was telling!!” yells Tom. “So Mum Mum MUM. So you could choose, either salad or rockmelon. Then we had this sort of beef stew, with pasta, it was really good. Then there was raspberry tart, and we got to have TWO.” He pauses.“Lily!” He calls down to the lounge. “Did you get to have two raspberry tarts?”
Silence. Evidently his sister is too busy to engage in competitive cantine wars, so he switches his icy blues back to me. “Anyways, me and my friend, we ate all the filling out, then stuck them together like a pastry sandwich and ate that too! It was my idea.”
Brilliant. It seems we’re making an impression already. I had been hoping his classmates’ table manners would rub off on our ruffians, not the other way around. Still, there was a hopeful glimmer in those two little words: “my friend”.
This sort of report is typical of daily school life, as seen through the eyes of Tom. When there’s not a whole lot you can understand, your favourite aspects of the day are amplified, and for Tom that’s food, play and sport.
I didn’t have great expectations of the French school cantine experience. My recollections from lycée in the 90s weren’t that great, and friends in other parts of France have reported mixed experiences. But for our boys, and surprisingly even for their historically fussy sister, la cantine is so far proving the highlight of their day.
The menu is posted in advance on the department website, but so far I’ve resisted the urge to look ahead. I want the children to be surprised by what shows up on their tray and give it a go, rather than determining ahead of time that they won’t like it, and whinging for a sandwich instead.
The ‘surprise’ menu approach backfired a little on what became known as “double saucisse day”. Maybe I’ll actually have to meal plan, to avoid serving up a poor replica of their lunchtime dish. Not that the kids were complaining, but nutritionally we could have done better.
Alas, This was the best ‘back to school’ image I could wangle out of them. You’ll note the delight on their faces at embarking on this new stage of our adventure. But one and a half weeks down, I’m pleased to report so far so good!
They say travel brings you closer as a family and while this has been true for us, any advance in closeness has probably been balanced out by increased opportunities to squabble in the back seat. After ten weeks of elbow-grazing, I think the boys are just happy to have new kids to play with, even if they only understand the odd word.
On the occasion I’ve sauntered nonchalantly past the school playground, they both seem happily engaged with their little gangs. Louis has an English-speaking friend who he relies on for translation, while Tom seems to be picking up the playground lingo pretty well. Within the first day or two he had learned that “Touché” is tag and “Cache-cache” seems to be some sort of go-home-stay-home. Bull rush is called “Attrapé” although Tom was quick to point out that in France one does not tackle, given that the yard is paved with asphalt, not grass.
Class time is hard for all, though all the kids report that maths is at an easier level than they were studying at home, so they seem to follow along pretty well (and consequently we may have some catching up to do.) But as for Français, histoire, la lecture…. Well as Tom puts it “All my teacher says is ‘blah blah blah blah blah ET DONC blah blah ET DONC…’”.
“Really?” says Lily, coming up the stairs at last. “My teacher says ensuite. Why does she talk about the bathroom all the time?”
In France, school has very much an ‘arms’ length’ approach. For parents, there’s no popping your head into the classroom, lingering in the playground, or weekly assemblies to attend. You communicate with the teacher by writing messages in the little red cahier (notebook) that comes home every day.
You are therefore expected to farewell the children at the school gate and incredibly, from day 3, the boys have been happy with this. Not once have they protested heading off to school (so far). This may have something to do with a rumoured LEGO bribe reward at the end of the first month, but actually even that wouldn’t stop the moaning/tears/shouting/faking illness/outright refusal if they really didn’t want to go. Despite all their fears and trepidation, they now seem genuinely happy to head off to school.
Both boys report feeling sleepy in the afternoon and that’s not surprising. Functioning nine hours a day in a foreign language is exhausting. You have to concentrate super hard and when you are tired, and you’ve recently eaten a four-course lunch in place of your customary peanut butter sandwich… well it’s easy to zone out.
Did I say nine hours? Well yes, yes I did. This week (week 2), they’ve started catching the school bus, which picks the boys up after 8am. They have some play time before school, a two hour lunch break, and although the school day finishes at 3:45, the bus doesn’t leave for an hour so they get in the door around 5pm.
At first this seemed too long a day, so we were driving them to and from school. But with Lily operating on a different and varying schedule, we were soon doing multiple trips. And although it’s less than ten minutes to town, it does add up and we want them to be as independent as possible.
Before and after class there is supervised play both outside in the courtyard and in the Centre de Loisirs (CLAE), which is equipped with everything from foosball to a mini pool table, Playmobil, cars, puzzles, art supplies and books. Most of the kids seem to hang around after school, so the boys view this time as a playdate and are so far happy to hang out in the CLAE while they wait for the bus.
The long days are much appreciated by me in particular, as it turns out the first few school terms are between five and seven weeks long, with two weeks of holidays in between each block – compared with typical ten-week terms in New Zealand. I have yet to figure out how I’m going to manage this schedule with my work and writing, especially as we want to travel as much as possible. And of course, Wednesday is a half day, so I need to be free in the afternoons to play Mum taxi, drive them to sports practices or just hang out.
As for Lily, well it’s tougher of course. She came home on Day 1 quite bereft – it was harder than she’d expected, she wished she’d made more effort to learn French in advance and she’d missed lunch altogether because she was waiting for her class to be called and didn’t realise they just wander in at any time in the two-hour break. She was worried and this sent me into panic mode, searching for additional private tuition in French.
However from day 2 onwards, things have looked up. The school has taken her out of Spanish and some history classes, in favour of bespoke French tuition delivered by her English teacher and the boys can come across from the primary school and join in too. This is all provided by the school and although we are still working out what that looks like, I’m blown away by the support on offer.
She’s found a gang of girls to hang out with at lunch and feels the thrill of comprehension every time she ‘gets the joke’ or manages to understand what’s going on. She says that every day, someone new comes up to introduce themselves and whichever kid has the best English helps her to understand.
I’m impressed with her courage and how diligently she applies herself to her homework. Their grandmother’s old rule for when they were learning to read – ‘Does it look right, sound right and make sense?’ – has come back to the fore, so that when she slows down and pays attention she can often get the gist of the questions in the text books.
Apart from the other day when she was trying to get me to translate her physics homework… oh my….I think it’s fair to say if you’d be no help in English, you’re even less help in French.
A week and a half in, school goes amazingly smoothly so far. The teachers are kind, realistic in their expectations and don’t insist on perfect penmanship or screeds of homework (yet). The kids are all learning more French every day (even if the boys deny it), making little friendships and everyone is pretty happy to head off (or, um, in some cases, to see them head off) each morning.
Of course they miss their friends, (but not their lunchboxes), and while there will no doubt be bumps in the road ahead, for now we feel we’re off to a great start.
(To read part 1 of this series and read alllll about our trepidation before La Rentrée, click here.)