he hour is nigh: the first of September is the very day when school kids return to class this year in France. It’s called la rentrée scolaire or the re-entry to school after summer vacation, which is referred to as les grandes vacances, the big holidays. The first words everyone asks one another is how was your vacation? How (comment) was (était) your vacation (la vacance)? Oh dear, non.
SPEAKING OF SUMMER VACATION
Les vacances, elles se sont bien passées? Your vacations? (Even though you had only one, they are in the plural.) And what’s more they are feminine in gender and plural so that is why the pronoun is plural feminine (elles). Why do you need a pronoun at all? Ah, this is above my pay grade. Now the verb. For some reason it is reflexive, where a pronoun refers back to itself. That means, for example, in the phrase I call myself a genius, the word myself refers back to me. That’s the “se.” The vacations are referring to themselves. So basically you say, your vacations, did they pass themselves well? As if you had little to do with it. This was my first tongue twister as I got little Elodie ready for school.
We arrived at the prettiest school, perched on a hill, and even though we were in a near suburb of Paris, we could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. We were off to kindergarten. Now, in France, kindergarten lasts three years: first, petite section maternelle for the three-year olds, then moyenne, for the four-year olds, and finally grande section maternelle for the five-year olds. In English they are called the little, the middle and the big maternal sections. One friend who taught philosophy in the last year of high school told us that maternelle was the best that the French academic system had to offer. Elodie began in la moyenne section.
Now all parents receive letters before school begins, telling you what items your children must bring, called fourniture scolaire, school furniture, sort of. And these letters! They are not a list. Oh, no! They reference the mandat or the official order to do something newly established by the Ministre d’éducation, the education Minister. One such mandat had to do with something that looked for all the world like a motor, buried under many French clauses. So, I thought, great. They are going to show the kids how a motor works. My daughter returned home from school explaining that she needed black shoes with elastic for gym class, to practice her gross and fine motor skills. How do you like that? I said.
This was not the end of our issues with shoes. Oh, how pretty, said I, looking at a shoe with a beautiful cloth pattern. Off the child goes to school. “Mom,” she said, upon returning home. “Somebody asked me why I came to school wearing slippers?” There was no good answer.
Once, so the story goes, an American received one of these lists of fourniture scolaire, upon which was written the word l’ardoise. She looked it up in the dictionary and found that it meant, “roof tile.” Sounds hands-on something, right? Well, no. She sent it along in her child’s backpack. It was not a roof tile that the student needed, but rather an erasable blackboard.
HAVE A LAUGH
Florence Foresti is a stand-up comic in France. And occasionally the comics release DVDs of a particular show they put together. Florence Foresti has a hilarious skit about going to pick her child up from school. Everybody, mostly women, get dressed up, put on make-up, and while it is true they are picking up their children, they are also there to be seen. Remember that “there” is in front of the gate to the school, which opens just after the final bell rings and the kids pour out to the waiting arms of their parents.
Florence has all the mannerisms in her skit of the bourgeoise French lady. She flips her hair, she laughs that artificial laugh and she gets it pitch perfect like Sarah Cooper does in her videos. Now one of my daughter’s friends, later in life, in high school, so loved Florence Foresti that I decided to give her the video for her birthday. I only had one hesitation. The title of the performance was Motherfucker in English, honoring, as it turns out Madonna. Now, I cannot imagine how Motherfucker fit this little bougie presentation. When we told the story of my qualms, everybody laughed. At me. Here’s something with English subtitles. She reminds me of Charlie Chaplin here, the way she uses her body. (7 min.)
One thing I was never sure about was called la classe verte. The green class. Now what this means is that the kids go off on an adventure for a week. What’s not to like? Elodie had graduated to la grande section. Well, imagine you are 5 years old, you don’t speak the language fluently, you don’t know many people, and you’re adjusting to life in France, and then, whoosh! 24 / 7 with these people. So I expressed my reservations to Elodie’s kindergarten teacher and he suggested that I join in and teach a class in English. That was an excellent bargain, I thought. Well, I came down with a medical emergency the day before my big début. The doctor gave me medicine to keep me afloat, and off we went to the middle of France to a scholastic center. I had the kids sit backwards in their chairs, facing the seat. With a pencil in each hand for an oar, they began to row in place. Row, row, row your boat.
Here’s the French version:
Rame, rame, sur ton bateau, / Avance doucement sur l’eau.
Soyez heureux et joyeux , la vie / Est un merveilleux.
Row, row on your boat, / Advance gently through the water.
Be happy and joyful, life / Is a miracle.
The last two lines are, as I’m sure you remember,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, / Life is but a dream.
So I did my own translation and I invited the students to tell me all the things they could do gently, and what does is mean if, philosophically speaking, life n’est qu’un reve. If life is but a dream. We waxed philosophical, and talked about how sometimes things don’t work out but that’s okay, like in a dream. And how the arts are like dreams and how wonderful they are.
Afterwards, a child pulled on my skirt. I looked down and he looked up. “This is the best class I have ever had,” he said. A small sample perhaps, at his age, but a great compliment.
As you know I always like to feature a book, and since we’re talking about children, this is one of my favorites. It’s called, “If You Find a Cloud.” In French it’s Si Tu Trouves Un Nuage by Michael Escoffier and illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo. How much we want to love the cloud and take it home, but we cannot hold the cloud. Is that what Beckett is trying to tell us when the tramps talk about moving along but then don’t go? Whatever we are seeking eludes us, but not completely. The cloud in the book remains there to help us find our path in the forest. What kind of a childhood did they have, those tramps, anyway?