September 30, 2016
School. The greatest cultural force in a country. It has been less than a month and I observe my girls imbibing their new culture each day they go to school.
The first week: Colette repeating French sentences without understanding the words: "Le lundi est tout gris”
The second week: Using French words in her English sentences. Grimace, parcours, gilet
The third week: full sentences “Je veux celle la, Papa” “Je suis dans la groupe des papillons"
Colette sounds like an American making a real effort to speak French at this point. Overplaying the ruh in the ‘r’ in her throat. It is very sweet.
She was invited to another birthday party last weekend. Xavier dropped her off, not giving any context on Colette’s current cultural position. He is easily read by strangers: 100% French. Apparently, Colette observed much of the party and then occasionally said a thing or two (sounding two years younger than she is: “Aime le train! Aime le train!"). The parents were slightly confused when Xavier picked her up. It was clear they thought she was slow. Xavier, good old Xavier, simply said merci and brought Colette home. He cracks me up. I asked why he didn’t clarify and he said that they must be slow if they didn’t understand Colette was just learning French.
Romy’s take is often more musical - French songs - phonetic, incorrect, but the sounds are all there. Zero accent when she pronounces French words. I went to pick her up the other day and she was outside with all the other children. She was hovering over something, cradling it in her hands. The kids were gathered around. She hadn’t seen me yet and I called out to her. She looked up and grinned a wide grin, “Escargot!!!” she shouted again and again. The instructors informed me she had been holding it all afternoon - coaxing it to come out of its shell - not letting anyone else touch it. So funny. She has a good friend, ‘Carla’ at school. ‘Carla’ said with a sweet French accent from little Romy.
We’ve already run into a bit of tension with Colette’s maîtresse, a very typically French teacher with posture that reflects her general approach in her classroom. She held a meeting for parents a few weeks ago. She began the meeting by taking a deep breath (almost theatrical, but not at all her style otherwise), sitting straight up and placing her two hands on the table in front of her ceremoniously - fingers taut and and in straight lines like pencils.
Then a statement about the children: “There are some children in the class who are still very “bébé” - others are clearly ready for the work of school. You know where your child stands.” She quickly proceeded to the subject of fire and earthquake drills. Then to the cantine, which she complained is completely overcrowded, hot and loud, and could we please pick up our children and feed them lunch at home from time to time? Next was “la collation" at 10:00am - snack - which is comprised of only fruits and applesauce (without any sugar added).
And then the sacred subject of writing: "I insist on a certain method of writing, of holding the tool. If the children form poor habits now, it becomes a nightmare. They lose the ability to be fluid in their cursive. Writing is a moment of calm. It is a moment where the children must be correctly installed. Take a deep breath first and have proper posture. I insist on these things.” She was the perfect visual illustration of her point.
Xavier asked a few questions throughout, which la maîtresse found rather disruptive. At some point, Xavier queried whether or not there would be field trips. She punctuated her remarks about the subject with a reproach: “And I will be choosing the parents who accompany the class on these excursions, Mr. Colette.”
Throughout I was so amused by the serious tone. I admired her professionalism and her devotion to her work. The classroom is perfectly organized, well-equipped. Her groups and programs (she outlined the cadence of the day - everything in 20 minute intervals) meticulously constructed. All in all - a very good environment for a personality like Colette’s. To that point, Colette is adapting and doing very well at this point.
Colette did make a request recently - “Can you ask the teacher if I can hold my pencil the way I want to hold it?” I cringed a bit and asked her to give it a try the teacher’s way. The second time she brought it up, Xavier and I agreed we should talk to the teacher.
Xavier went to school a bit early one morning and asked if he could have a word with la maîtrsse. He asked politely if she might allow Colette to hold her pencil they way she finds most comfortable. Direct affront. Absolutely not and her method comes straight from specific recommendations given by the French National Education System. Would Xavier accept an amateur walking into his professional domain giving advice? Of course not. Please respect her domaine.
He put up some resistance - pointed out that in the past left-handed children were forced to write with their right hand. “But Colette is not left-handed,” she responded - literal like her posture. She basically hung up the phone, in person - informed Xavier that she had a classroom to attend to, turned around and walked away from their conversation.
I was nervous to drop Colette off at school the next morning. Madame maîtresse’s posture grew even stiffer when she saw me coming (I am already somewhat awkward. I always remember my bonjour before anything else, but some parents give the teacher bisous and I will never know with whom I should share this ritual - it feels intimate, not at all impersonal).
I said bonjour and brought up the subject directly, saying I knew she and Xavier had spoken on Friday. Rigid puff of air from her. I told her I wanted to emphasize the many things in the classroom that we admire - I named 5 things specifically. I told her that Colette’s difficult transition is going very well, largely due to her efforts and accommodations. I thanked her. She softened. She even said that my words had touched her heart (unexpected). Thinking we had made some progress, I turned to Colette to say goodbye and send her off.
The maîtresse continued, “After all, it isn’t an American who will explain to me how I should run my classroom!”
I smiled and held my breath a minute. I turned back to her, “Indeed not. This is your domain.”
Took a deep breath and tried to walk away with very straight posture.
September 25, 2016
Stephen and I headed out one day last week to explore the Calanques between Cassis and Marseille. It is a stretch of land between those two coastal cities that is protected - a national park, actually. The calanques are inlets in the Mediterranean coastline with high limestone cliffs on both sides. The water beneath is turquoise. The trees - phosphorescent green.
We started in Cassis and hiked through the Calanque de Port Miou (just outside of Cassis), the Calanque de Port Pin to the Calanque d'en Vau. We started around noon and were back in Cassis about 4pm, with a nice rest/swim on the beach near Calanque d'en Vau in the middle. We also scrambled up a pretty steep and poorly marked trail on our way back (climbing at certain points, afraid we'd have to turn around and certain the way down would be much trickier than climbing up the rock faces). It was a wild trek and was just right. I had been craving that kind of excursion for a long time. The terrain is unreal - such beauty. The water was frigid, but fitting with the rest of the experience. I loved spending time there in between those cliffs with my brother - having a good heart-to-heart. It made the notion of living this far away from him more bearable.
September 20, 2016
One of our favorite drives in Provence takes us on a path through Ménerbes, Lacoste, Bonnieux, Lourmarin. These towns are nestled in the mountains of the Lubéron and seem to be time-locked in some other age. Especially lovely this time of year when the tourist season isn't quite so high and the days are still warm and the air is crisp. We took Stephen and John when they were visiting this past week and basked in the Lubéron sunshine and little girl capers.
Marguerite taking special care of Colette, who had smashed her hand in the car door.
September 16, 2016
Life is sweet so far. A simple reduction, but very true. Focused on small moments of breathing in cloud formations and hanging laundry to dry outside. Girls running in the gravel and through our field of dandelions (blowing wishes). I just sort of feel like I keep waking up in a very good dream.
Plus Marguerite comes every other weekend. Such a dream for us all!
School has been challenging. I was bracing for it (obviously). I've mentally devoted the month of September to adjusting. It is going to take at least that long. Colette won't eat at the cantine (lunchroom) and has decided that she definitely wants to move back to NYC.
Morning before school:
Colette: "I don't want to go back to school. I don't like the bathrooms. They are really small walls and I don't know how to flush. I'm not going. In this school we just do numbers and do parcours and the cantine which takes a really long time and drawing and then to the bathroom - with toilets I don't even know how to flush. I miss my other school."
Me: "What did you like about your other school?"
Colette: "I liked the games and stories and toilets I knew how to flush."
(So, Xavier took her to school and pushed through the classroom of children to walk Colette to the bathrooms to check it out and practice flushing together. The details you don't think will matter that much!)
I will say Romy has been much more flexible. She goes with the flow. I was a bit worried recently when picking her up from the garderie however. When we pick her up we get a report of the day. They have a written account of what each child eats, how long they sleep, anything irregular. This particular afternoon, one of the women who works there wore a stern expression and I worried Romy had hit someone or maybe even something worse.
"She did not enjoy the cauliflower."
Internally I exhaled relief. Externally I winced and shrugged my shoulders a bit. "I am sure she will like it the next time."
She replied, "I hope so."
SO much respect for this culture where the 18 children with whom Romy plays, ages 0-3 years old, sit around a table for a snack and no one begins to eat the apple slices until each child has her put on her bib and has passed the plate around. We are in a tiny town in Provence. French culture is so deep rooted.
Colette was invited to a birthday party right out of the gate. I received the invitation and then a text with directions. It went something like: "Chemin du Moulard, house with the blue door - next to a field of sunflowers." Only here. Only in Provence is that a real address. Our house does not have a number either.
Xavier has already undertaken some major renovations. The kitchen. Totally transformed. He replaced two strange sinks with a nice big old basin. Required a circular saw and an inordinate amount of dust. The second time around (because the hole originally cut was 1 cm too small - beat him up. He is incredibly resilient - just kept going despite the amount of dust he inhaled) we created a cocoon for the dust. In the end, the sink is amazing.
I think I will never tire of exploring neighboring villages - churches, squares, markets, facades.
Choosing paint colors and letting the house come together bit by bit.
September 1, 2016
Big big day here for us. First real day of French school. In my projections of our life in France, this day gave me very cold feet. And alas, Xavier and I drove away from the schools looking at each other wearing big smiles. Colette was A++ and Romy a superstar too (she had a bit of preparatory advantage).
Yesterday, I took Colette into Aix-en-Provence for a date. We roamed around, ate lunch, bought a backpack and watched a movie, Comme des Bêtes (The Secret Life of Pets). Colette shouted in the theater: "That's New York!" We ate popcorn and laughed a lot.
It was sweet to spend time together in the streets of Aix, stop at the market and sit and talk over lunch. I told her that she has a superpower that I (and all grownups) have lost. Magic words. One of her biggest fears about school is that she won't be able to say what she means - or anything at all. She understands French - Xavier has always spoken to her in French, but expressing herself in French is unknown territory. I told her that this magical power allows her brain to just be there - in the classroom - with the others and suddenly after a week or two weeks, the French words she means will just start flowing out of her mouth. Her eyes lit up. I told her that soon her français will feel just like when she speaks English. She hesitated and said, "but I don't want to lose my English magic words." I promised we would always use them together - that way they will stick.
A good breakfast and a quick picture and we were off. Both girls with their backpacks, doudous safely held inside. Colette was confident and a bit over excited. Romy was delighted to go see Colette's school, wearing her backpack proudly.
The names in Colette's class! A change from Harlem for sure: Aurélien, Mathéo, Clémence, Lilou, Lola, Gabin, Anselm. Very sweet. We walked in - gave her Maîtresse, Isabelle, a big bonjour/bisou and started to observe. Colette walked over to where a girl was sitting and playing at a table and sat next to her. She didn't come back to find us. We had to go over and ask her for a kiss at some point. She said, "I will see you later, at the end of the school day" matter-of-factly. Sacrée Colette. All of my fears for naught.