In general, attempting to speak in French to the French elicits a positive response. There may be a disconcerting pause as the harsh English accent is deciphered, but this is nearly always followed by a warm smile and an effort to continue the conversation. I say in general because there are of course two exceptions, Parisian waiters and children.
My relationship with Parisian waiters has always been based on contempt. Theirs for me rather than mine for them, although recently the graph of who-dislikes-who-more is flattening out. Here’s a scene from any of my visits to the capital.
“Un demi, s’il vous plaît?” I order.
“Large or small beer?” replies the waiter, demonstrating in English that he thinks I have no comprehension of what I have just ordered.
“Un demi,” I repeat.
“Large or small?” he challenges.
“Small,” I give up.
Still, on any given day I’d rather take on a Parisian waiter than a bunch of kids. Here’s why.
Recently the teachers at our school took the morning off for essential training. The parents were left with the choice of closing the school or staffing it themselves for the half-day. None of them had apparently read Lord of the Flies, so volunteers were called for. The head of the PTA, Marie Lou, batted her eyes at me and I was co-opted.
A program of activities was organised in the courtyard of the school, with different parents responsible for different activities – softball, cycling, table tennis, children’s boules and a budget blowing Bouncy Castle. Recognising that it might be difficult for me to explain the rules of any particular activity, Marie Lou sensibly allocated me a floating role. I was to take messages between the parents, and help out in the case of any child feeling unwell.
So I sat on a wall for most of the morning, drinking coffee and kidding myself into thinking that I was helping. At the very least I was showing face and at the same time could keep my eyes on my two boys, Chris and Joe. The hours passed; occasionally a panting, puce child would sit on the wall next to me. I’d hand them some water, and we’d both pray that they didn’t vomit. Thankfully, there was a God that morning, if a very capricious one.
As you can imagine, after a busy few hours of supervision the parents were keen for their lunch. Marie Lou explained the children were to eat in 20-minute slots according to their age. Ever the generous soul, and still not quite used to eating on the stroke of midday, I volunteered to supervise those left outside. The theory was that the kids now understood the rules of each activity and were free to use the equipment themselves. Marie Lou warned that the only thing that might get out of hand was the Bouncy Castle, a beast of an inflatable that none the less needed to be limited to no more than 15 children at any one time.
So I put on my best nightclub bouncer face and stood arms crossed, intimidatingly preventing entry. Somehow though, kids managed to slip past me, and the crowd wanting to join the party on the inflatable grew and grew. Soon, all the children in the courtyard were careering off the inflatable walls, and launching into rugby tackles. Upwards of 50 kids were totally out of control.
Enough was enough.
“Toute le monde,” I shouted, “il faut sortir!”
Nothing, I shouted again, louder at the top of my voice: “Il faut sortir!”
“Il faut quoi?” said one of the more disruptive little cherubs.
“Sortir,” I shouted back.
“Ecoute,” said the cherub, gathering his gang, “il faut sauter.”
And so the refrain began, “Il faut sauter, il faut sauter!”, and 60 children bounced higher and higher, turning somersaults, with each and every-one of them one mistimed leap from the emergency room.
“Il faut sortir, il faut sortir!” I bellowed.
“Il faut sauter, il faut sauter!” they chimed back.
My humiliation was complete. The rest of the team of helper parents filtered out from lunch with coffees in hand to watch the spectacle of me being taunted by 60 children yo-yoing skywards.
“Sortir!” I shouted.
“Sauter!” they laughed.
At which point Marie Lou pulled the plug, and with a piercing whistle the inflatable castle deflated.