Wednesday, September 2, 2009

La Portail (the School-yard Gate)

We had billed it to the girls as the first day of school, even though they would have no classes. Still on our slacker schedule, we got out of the house a full hour after we had intended. We thought that there might be lines, and knew we would need time to process our documents. The French are famous for their affection for just the right documents, and we had bravely faced down bureaucrats at the consulate in New York on multiple occasions in order just to get here. To shoehorn the girls into school might require an interview, perhaps even an exam... we had no idea which one(s) of us would have to take it. Bill brought along his Nondescript White Notebook of Death, the place where he keeps multiple copies of every important paper, but at the last minute we realized that we had no more copies of the girls' birth certificates. We had a category 2 freak out, (admittedly low on our scale, which in Spinal Tap fashion goes all the way to 11) then hoped that passports would suffice instead.

Both girls carefully picked our their clothes and combed their hair. Chagrined that we might be late, we sped over the back road to Aups, hoping that we would miraculously find a place to park, since it was Wednesday, Market Day in Aups. As we drove, we practiced asking and answering the question, "Comment t'appel tu?"

We had plans to meet up at 10:30 with Jessica, the woman who owns the house we will rent in Aups. We had thought that we would probably need an hour and a half to register the girls, so I thought we were cutting it close, leaving Sillans at 9:15. Jessica and her children had mailed us very sweet letters of welcome in the spring, and we were eager to get our kids to meet hers before school officially began. We hoped we would have enough time between registration and our coffee date, and worried that it might be hard to find her at the crowded café.

We've been noticing that nearby towns that were crowded a week ago are starting to thin out. There are fewer Audis and Mercedes in the parking lot at the Casino supermarket, more beat up Peugeots, and the people who are still left look a lot more like Euro-style country bumpkins than Parisians. I'm still not sure how we compute sartorially, with our British clothes (thank you,, our wide American smiles, and our Dutch-looking children.

When we drove into Aups, there were fewer than half the number of people than had been flooding the place the previous week. We drove up the hill and pulled into an open space directly across from the girls' school. The gate was open, so we walked in as the woman at the Mairie had told us to do, full of trepidation and clutching our notebook of essential documents like a familial security blanket.

The school was mostly yard and gym, and mostly open air as in California, with hardly any classrooms we could see. It was also completely deserted. A small Xeroxed sign marked Le Bureau, the office. Another sign next door was marked "Salle Des Enseigneurs" and had a clipart picture of a watercooler, presumably the international symbol for Teacher's Lounge. We knocked tentatively on the Bureau door. No answer. Same with the Teacher's Lounge.

(I would like my American teaching and administrative colleagues to ponder this. 9:30 AM the day before school, and the school building was entirely empty of adults. If there was a faculty meeting going on somewhere, if there was a head of lower school, full of anxiety and anticipation, giving a speech somewhere, or teachers itching to get their classrooms set up just right, it was certainly not here at the actual school.)

Of course, I assumed that we had missed registration; Bill must have been wrong and it began at 8:30, not 9:30. The girls ran around the yard a little bit, and we tried to quiz a music teacher who wandered in, but he knew nothing about procedure; I guess he was new too.

Since there was nothing to be done with our White Notebook, we gave up and wandered around the market. We bought our first bad fruit -- apparently even in Provence, some market stands stock only cardboard strawberries. The girls played in the playground while I studied the pictures Jessica had sent us of her kids so that we could find them at the café: Louise (8), Zach (6), and Cameron (almost 5.)

Just then, they came walking by, and we all shook hands and shared bisous. The kids gave Grace and Abigail drawings that they had made for them. We all walked together to the café, where Jessica's husband Gerard ordered his morning beer and the rest of us had coffee and Orangina. We all liked them right away. The children were adorable, and spoke a generous combination of slowly spoken French and the best English they had at their disposal. Jessica is British but grew up in Provençe. They live on a farm and raise donkeys, chickens, rabbits, ducks, and geese. We discussed the merits of electric fencing, a topic dear to my childhood memories. She showed us the yard of the house we will move into in mid-September once the visitors who pay summer rates have all left.

It was gorgeous, and I loved it, but more on that later in the month.

More importantly, we discovered that the house was a five minute walk from school, even closer than our house was to Poly. We have a few weeks ahead of driving the girls to school, but once we eventually get to Aups, we can roll out of bed at 8:00 AM and still not be late for classes.

As we walked back to our car, I had a new sense of well-being. The girls had really enjoyed being with Louise and Zach, who were adorable and sweet and just on either side of Abigail, agewise. Cameron had held my hand crossing the street. Jessica even invited us out to see their farmhouse and (get this!) to jump on their trampoline over the weekend. Our eventual house would have a beautiful little yard and be so very close to school.

Jessica even told us that school meets only four days per week: kids have off every single Wednesday. (!) Only the fact that we had missed registration rankled, but Jessica seemed to think it would be OK. We had handed in our documents at the Mairie, and we should just show up in the morning and hope for the best.

At 11:30, just before we left Aups, we decided to try the school once more. The Bureau office was open this time, and I could see many colored copy paper stacked on some open shelving. One teacher was in his classroom. The walls of his classroom were completely bare aside from a black and white poster showing proper script letter formation.

Incredibly, the man came out to speak with us, and knew exactly who we were. He shook my hand first, then Bill's, and called the girls by name. He leaned over and gave each baffled little girl two kisses, one on each cheek. He began speaking much faster than I could understand, but with real warmth in his eyes. Bill caught the whole speech, and filled me in later on the details.

It turned out, this was M. _____________, the school's headmaster. Sometime between 9:30 and 11:30 AM he had ridden in to school (he was still wearing a full bike kit) and was just beginning to set up his classroom, this day before school started. There was not another soul in the building.

He told us that along with being the headmaster, he also teaches full time and therefore could not answer any of our questions except on Mondays. We should bring the girls at 8:20, and leave them at the outside gate, which I think he said was called le portail. No parents were to come into the school. We would pick them up again at 11:30 AM, and have them back for afternoon classes at 13:20. I asked where, exactly, we picked them up, and he looked at me, baffled. Outside the portail, of course.

Someone must have given him the memo on American parents, because he hit all the crucial chords. Leave them at the gate. Do not meddle. Ask all your questions on Mondays and let the school do what it does best. While at the Mairie we had registered Abigail for 2nd grade, rather than 3rd grade, he asked if he could let the teachers decide instead where she would be best served. I told him I would prefer that, in fact, which he seemed to like.

And that was that. No exams. No documents. No faculty meetings. No school on Wednesdays. Nice headmaster. No hassle. Two hours every day home for lunch.

And no French? According to M. ____________, no big deal -- they have several kids each year who can't speak French, and they run special classes for them, but the classes become completely unnecessary by the spring.

I think I'm going to like it here.

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