Dear reader, you will not believe what happened recently. So far, this story has been one of social mishap after social mishap, of exclusion and self-doubt and, above all, a gnawing worry about the fate of our children within the French school system.
I’ve woken in the middle of the night with the same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I last had on the eve of exams in my teenage years. During the day I’m accompanied by a continual, jittery, nervous exhaustion. I’m the gregarious sort and the daily exclusion from society, which has become my diet, sits badly with my psyche.
To date, each time I’ve tried to break out of my linguistic cage, ignominy has resulted. But not this month. This month, the Mums at the school gate actually approached me. They solicited my opinion, guided me through an alien process. It was as if the entire French nation, or at least the population of my village, had taken a charm course from American waiters. I kept waiting for them to ask for the tip.
Here’s what happened. It was a day like any other. Cathy left for work and I shoved as much food as possible down the kids. Toast, cereal and then, to finish off, a couple of pancakes each. Overkill and a sure path to obesity you might think, yet when there’s an outside chance of pig’s trotters for lunch, it pays to take precautions.
And so we flew out the door with minutes left before the school gates were due to shut. My insistence on that final carb boost of pancakes had put my day ahead in jeopardy.
Question: What’s worse than sending your kids to French school?
Answer: Looking after them yourself.
Clocks in Provence strike the hour twice. The first time is just a warning, to hurry up the forever tardy locals. The second time is the real deal.
The head teacher is known to be ruthless. No excuse is a plausible one in her eye. Neither a washing machine flood, a pet cat stuck up a tree, nor even an appeal to the gastronomic soul of France, a soufflé rising in the oven, could sway her delight in barring the door on the second strike of the hour.
But at 9.05 the door remained open. My children passed through without objection. A paper and a pain au chocolat were next on my agenda.
“Avez-vous voté?” asked one of the Mums who’d gathered in a huddle around the gates.
“Oui,” I answered, pretending to understand while weighing up whether to order a café or a café crème.
Before I could be corrected I headed off.
My phone rang several times during the day. Not recognising the number and being pathologically scared of unplanned French conversation, I forwarded to voice mail. There were messages, but there was also no chance of me understanding them. I continued with my freelance article for Home and Garden about the benefits of the judicious planting of late blooming plants. An elaborate phrase here and a quick dose of Wikipedia there was all it needed.
Then there was a knock at the door.
I was greeted by a delegation of Mothers all smiling sweetly. A round-faced plump one was pushed forward. She began tentatively in halting English.
“Hello, Dan, I ave beeeen phone you.”
“You ave not voted.”
At this point I was consumed by embarrassment. Was I so detached from French life that I hadn’t realised there was a general election going on? Hollande’s number was finally up. I hadn’t even known I had the right to vote. But it was a nice feeling to suddenly matter.
When we arrived at the school I was ushered into the head teacher’s office. In the corner was a curtained-off polling booth. Now was not the time to mention that in a tight constituency my Mother had once been driven to the voting station by a member of the Conservative party only to cast her vote for Labour.
“Who do you want me to vote for?” I asked.
The question seemed to flummox the Mothers. The curtain parted. I flexed my voting fingers.
“Hollande?” I asked.
Suddenly I was the funniest man alive. The surrounding Mums burst into laughter.
“It is the Eenglish sense of humour,” said the plump one by way of explanation. “We love it.”
“No, but who do you want me to vote for?” I asked exasperated. “Hollande or the other one?”
Again they laughed, shoving me into the polling booth, and closing the curtain behind me.
Only when I saw the ballot paper did I realise that the elections I had been brought to vote in, were for the Parent’s Teachers Association.