It’s an odd milestone that I’m actually quite proud of: Nine months after arriving in Paris, I have not once been reduced to tears in a public place.
Not by menacing bureaucrats at the local town hall, not by the unsmiling directrice who lectured me at our son’s school, not by the nasty salesgirl who mocked my French, not by the metro thief who stole my cell phone, and not by nasty commuters who offer unsolicited parenting advice on the train.
Not by anything. Until today.
Bright and early, I set out with the kids to drop them at the centre de loisirs, the neighborhood activity center housed in their school that offers programs during school vacations. After spending a great week in the country, one more week of school vacation lay ahead. With a back-log of work to do (not to mention laundry), I had planned for the kids to spend a happy day at the center.
Not so fast. Upon our arrival, I was blocked at the door by a grimacing employee waving the kids’ enrollment papers. She works at the school year-round and by now knows us on sight. “Regardez, regardez!” she said aggressively, thrusting the apparently faulty forms in my face. “Vous n’avez pas pre-inscrit!” (You didn’t enroll in advance!), she said. (I did. I did!)
The children would not be permitted to attend, she explained. I had not checked the appropriate box for the appropriate day. Merde.
I looked around the far-from-full playroom and met eyes with a friendly teacher. She shrugged her shoulders and pursed her lips as if to say, “Sorry, madame, but what I can do?” I pressed my case and apologized for my oversight, certain there was a way this could be worked out. Soon I was surrounded by barking functionnaires — state employees with lifetime job security — explaining that I had made a grave mistake. There could be no exceptions.
The rule was the rule. You have to follow the rules, madame! Why didn’t you follow the rules??
So, I did what any strong-willed, confident, successful parent would do. I started to cry.
This they were not expecting. And frankly, neither was I. Perhaps it was fatigue from more than a week of 24/7 quality time with the kids. Perhaps it was the fact that I’d spent much of the previous day picking lice and nits from Cole’s head. Perhaps it’s because it was Halloween and we had no real way to celebrate it.
The director of the program was called over. He levelled me with an icy look. I could try taking them to another center across town, he said. Perhaps they would accept Cole and Adele (who were getting a tad anxious) for the day. By that point I was angry and humiliated. So, I cried more.
I explained that I had a full work day ahead. My kids would be strangers at the other center — here their friends were already calling them over to play. I abandoned all pride and started to beg.
Normally in France, begging gets you nowhere. The French respond to strength and confidence, not begging and admissions of error. I’ve learned that it’s best to throw attitude and give as good as you get. They are loath to admit the error of their own ways (a by-product of their rigid school system) and seem baffled when confronted by this in others.
But by this point, I was desperate. After a few more minutes of pleading (and some unwanted attention from other parents), the director acquiesced and allowed them to stay. He made a great show of walking me through the enrollment process (which I understood perfectly well) and repeatedly told me this was “exceptionellement.“
I broke more cultural rules by thanking him profusely for his kindness and understanding. I had hoped that before leaving, I might eek a tiny smile out of him. No such luck.
So, I kissed the kids goodbye and watched them run happily off to join their pals. I reassured the director that I’d be back this afternoon at the appointed hour.
I just have to be sure not to run late.