Colette had impish eyes and leaned over to whisper something in my ear this morning at breakfast, “I had an idea about the cantine.”
The cantine is, arguably, the only negative aspect of her experience in France. The cantine is the school cafeteria. Highly structured, and run by an independent group from the school itself. When we first arrived last summer, the school director gave us a tour of the school. She gestured with pride to the library space, the common area that unites all the classrooms and pointed with a smile on her face to the recess courtyard and the closet full of trottinettes (scooters) for the children to use during recreation (recess). We walked away from the play area in the courtyard toward another separate building. Before we walked up the stairs to enter, she made it clear that this is technically not part of her school. She meant it symbolically, as if she wanted some absolution from the space. La cantine.
Then we attended the parents’ meeting Colette’s maîtresse hosted in September. She suggested that when possible, parents take their children home for lunch. In France, there is a formal 2-hour break for lunch. This is time when the children are cared for by the cantine workers and class assistants. The school does not assume responsibility for what happens from 12-2pm. At about 1:50pm in our town, there is a stream of children in the streets walking back to school from lunch at home or at mamie’s (grandma’s). Starting very young. A person who didn’t understand the concept might suppose a strange flock of orphans takes over the town everyday at lunchtime. Some days Colette comes home, other days she stays for lunch at the cantine.
Recently, we received an email from the director of the school and saw many postings around about a grève (strike) at the cantine: Grève, mardi 7 mars | En raison d’un mouvement de grève le mardi 07 mars 2017, nous vous informons que le service restauration scolaire ne sera pas assuré à l’école maternelle. Aucun pique-nique ne sera toléré dans l’école.
[Basically: the cantine workers are going on strike on March 7. There will be no school lunch that day - children must eat at home. No picnics in the courtyard allowed].
Ah, the French and their strikes. Such devotion. I’d love to know what was behind the strike exactly, but I imagine it had something to do with the tension surrounding that cantine.
At drop off Xavier or I will often pose the question to Maîtresse or the class assistant: “Est-ce qu'elle mange a la cantine, Colette ?” (Does Colette eat when she is at the cantine?). Alarming response: “C’est une catastrophe !” Tongue clucking. Sucking in air. Big eyes. The first time I got this response, I gasped and asked why. "Elle ne mange rien." She doesn’t eat. It is true, she is a picky eater. Add endives and chicken (she is still very sad about eating chicken) and her stubborn personality and, while I would not call it catastrophic, I would say it is a problem. Xavier insists that she needs to have the opportunity to go to the cantine and learn to eat a wide variety of things. He is right. I am not sure it is working. Regardless, the cantine is often the low point of Colette’s narrative about her school days.
After school recently:
Me: How was your day?
Colette: Good! Pablo did many bétises (made a lot of mischief). We played petit chat (little cat) in the courtyard.
Me: Sounds fun. How was lunch?
Colette: (sulking) Ugh. I don’t like the cantine. The water tastes like pee-pee.
Me: What did you eat?
Colette: Du pain et des carottes
Me: That’s it? Did you try anything else?
Colette: No. And Brigitte was yelling really loud at us.
Colette: Because we make noise. She rings the bell over and over and taps the tables with a jar or a tray to try to get us to be quiet.
Me: Hmmm. Can you try whispering to your neighbor?
Colette: Well, first, I cannot breathe when I whisper. Plus, we are fille, garçon, fille, garçon and I am always next to a noisy boy.
Me: What happens when everyone keeps talking and doesn’t quiet down?
Colette: Well, Brigitte and Antoinette keep a list. A white paper with les prénoms (first names).
Me: What for?
Colette: Well, if they write your name down enough times, you get sent to the dortoir (the little nap room/dormitory) during recreation
Me: Oh my! Is your name on the list?
Colette: (gravely) One time! (starts panicking)
Back to breakfast this morning:
Colette’s idea about the cantine (whispering, despite it being hard to breathe): “Sometimes when I sit in the cantine, I look up at the ceiling and I imagine myself climbing on the roof. I have a little knife and I cut a hole in roof. I can look down on all the children sitting in lines at the tables. I can see the cantine workers. I have a rope and I make a lasso. Then 5 lassos. I catch the cantine workers from above and then the other children help me to take them to the dortoir where they have to stay for the rest of the lunchtime. After that, we can all talk as loudly as we want to each other and tell stories and eat our food.”
Sacrée Colette. She drew this picture to help illustrate her idea. See her up there on the roof with her 5 lassos?