When we decided to move to France, one of our first considerations was where to send the kids to school. Paris, like most big cities, has a mind-boggling number of choices. International bilingual? (Too expensive) Private Catholic? (Too Catholic). American Montessori? (Too American). Public French school? (Perhaps...too French?)
In the end, we opted for total immersion in our neighborhood maternelle, the French equivalent of preschool + K. Reticent at first, I was persuaded by Greg's argument that this would be the best way for us to really integrate -- to make fiends who lived nearby (rather than spread all over the city), and for the kids to learn French, as quickly as possible.
And best of all? French preschool is 100% FREE.
This would mean extra money for our travel budget and more opportunity to do what we came here for: teach the kids about other cultures and introduce them to the world beyond our shores. It meant no more paying $800 per month for our three-year-old to attend morning preschool. No more monthly kindergarten fee (even at the local public school). No, this would be free. It was hard to imagine.
Because we live in the tony 7th arrondissement, we felt confident that the school would be "good," if a bit rigid, as is the French way. What we've found has been a cultural education in itself, surprising, at times maddening and enlightening all at once.
La Menu de la Semaine
At our first enrollment meeting, seated across the paper strewn desk of the school's motorcycle-riding director, a top concern became immediately clear.
Would both Cole and Adele participate in la cantine? (the state-sponsored lunch service). And if so, how many days per week?
Yes, we said, they would eat at school everyday, thinking it would be a great way for the kids to learn about the essence of French culture: its food.
"Ah, bon!" he said with a toss of his head, flipping the wind-blown hair from his eyes. "Would they like to start tomorrow?"
Tomorrow? Not two weeks or a month from now after we produce reams of paper on every aspect of the kids' young lives, sign innumerable documents and have everything notarized? Twice?
No, they could start immediately, it would seem, with nary an inquiry about their previous schooling, language skills or aptitudes. The classes would be full, he said, nearly 30 students in each. Mais bon, ca va allez.
And so our French school adventure began. Cole entered what's called grand section, for kids born in 2005; Adele, the petite section, for 2007 birthdays. Simple enough -- no arbitrary "cut-off date" for parents to circumvent; no waiting for the age of 2.9 to start pre-school. Kids go to school, parents go to work. But more on that later.
Day one was a big success. I arrived at the designated pick-up hour (4:30pm!?) to find Cole and Adele smiling broadly and surrounded by their French comrades. "Il est mon ami!" declared one of Cole's classmates, his little arm stretched across Cole's shoulders. Adele ran toward me hand-in-hand with a new pal, another Adele, in whom she had found a kindred spirit.
Among their peers, Cole and Adele's American-ness made them something of a curiosity, especially Cole who had no trouble initiating play that rendered verbal communication superfluous. Chasing, growling and wrestling required little more than a grin and before long, he was greeted each morning by excited shrieks of, "Cole! Attrapes-nous!" (Catch us!)
It was the lunch service ("la cantine") that surprised and delighted Greg and me most with weekly menus rivaling those of many Michelin-approved restaurants. A sample daily menu, including four courses, might include:
Salade de pomme de terre/tomates
Escalope de poulet à la crème
Duo carottes / salsifis
Yaourt aromatisé Poire
Pain / fromage Jus de pomme
At least one day per week would be strictly bio (organic). And no menu would be complete without the daily "suggestion du soir," the recommended dinner selection to prepare at home to appropriately complement that day's dejeuner. Groups of kids sat at small round tables, place settings complete with porcelain plates, bowls and glasses. They spent no less than 45 minutes a day a table. This was going to be interesting.
The French style of teaching is indeed rigid and their disciplinary style would have most American parents filing suit. I've observed little arms being tugged and heard teachers yell commands like they're training a litter of puppies. A commonly heard phrase, "Tu n'as pas le droit de faire ca!" (literally, you don't have the right to do that), applies to many an activity, from snacking on the playground to loitering in the entry hall. On the playground, the teachers (like French parents) mostly hang back and intercede only to deliver admonishments or yank a misbehaving child over to an obliging bench.
But thus far, Cole and Adele have reported no incidents to merit concern and have begun to acquire the language skills that they'll need to thrive. Cole asks regularly about the meaning of various phrases, often revealing more about his day than he perhaps intends.
"Mommy, what does, 'On ne fait pas ca!' mean?" (Translation: "We don't do that..")
"And how about, 'Ca c'est le deuxieme fois!'" (Translation: "That's the second time!")
Simple skills and phrases are coming quickly now, like "ca c'est a moi," (that's mine) and Cole's personal favorite, "A L'ATTAQUE!" (Attack!) which he yells while brandishing a styrofoam sword, careening down the halls of our apartment.
Our poor neighbors; the Americans have arrived.
The kids' classes have taken several sorties scholaires (field trips) that have been impressive and enriching: The Pompidou Center; Musee Bourdelle (including a visit to the on-site atelier where the kids created their own sculptures); and a nearby school for the deaf where students were introduced to learning for special needs. Parents are asked to make nominal monetary contributions for these outings but nothing is required.
Bon. So far, so good for the Frost kids in Paris, whose French lessons have only just begun.