Monday, October 31, 2011

Lost in Translation: A Mom in Paris

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.


At October 31, 2011 at 5:29 PM , Blogger Lynn said...

Oh, you poor thing! I read a quote recently that I'm reminded of now: "People cry not because they're weak. It's because they've been strong too long". But I wonder if a little part of you knew that desperate times call for desperate measures. I mean, in the end the crying worked, right?

And here's an idea for next Halloween: take the kids to WH Smith -- besides a reading, their marketing director (also a mom) has organized 20+ local merchants to do trick-or-treating for the kids.

At November 1, 2011 at 7:55 AM , Blogger vicki archer said...

The French bureaucracy...the form gets me every time...I loved your article at HIP Paris....xv

At November 1, 2011 at 10:42 AM , Blogger Paige said...

Hi Lynn - I love that quote! That feels exactly like what happened to me. And thank you for the tip about the WH Smith event. That will definitely go on our calendar for next year. In the meantime, I'm planning a big (week after) Halloween Party for the kids' school friends this coming Sunday. Twelve kids under age six in 100 sq meters - wish me luck!

At November 1, 2011 at 10:43 AM , Blogger Paige said...

Hello Vicky - Thank you for your kind words about my HIP piece. And yes, the French bureaucracy and their forms...I try to look at each encounter as a personal challenge. Most of the time, I succeed and it always feels like a triumph! All the best, Paige

At November 1, 2011 at 8:22 PM , Blogger Mark and Melissa said...

Wow, Paige! I do find here that (unlike Germany!), if you have a "problem," they are much more apt here to bend the rules than even in the US. That said, bureaucrats with incredible job security often have nothing else better to do than throw their own "power" around... I was turned away at the "Centre" down in Burgundy in July because I'd called to sign up (the usual procedure up til then) and they'd lost the message but since instilled a "written application" process (not dissimilar to what you were mentioning about "crossing" the boxes). However, this time, I asked ahead by about a month and when I went in on Monday EXPECTING to be filling in forms, she told me not to worry about it, it was all set. LOL! That all said, they are like Brooklyn waitresses here: they are all "tough" but then get "soft" (or at least many of them do) after they've gotten to know you for a bit of time...
Hang in there!

At December 1, 2011 at 2:00 PM , Blogger MasonLeskowitz said...

Hi Paige - I've been enjoying your blog. About 18 years ago I lived in Paris - (I was a student for one year and then an au pair for 2, but I did wear a bra!) Your blog really brings back memories . . . now I am a mom to two boys, 4 and 7, so all that about the chreche, the first day of first grade, and playing better in the country - when there are no dead lines and no place to be . . . honey, I hear you! And, originally from Southern California, we've recently relocated to Canada, leaving Trader Joes and the sunny weather behind, for snow and mega stores, I can so connect. Bon chance a vous et votre famille a Paris! I look forward to reading more!

At April 23, 2012 at 7:49 PM , Blogger Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

I have made many trips to Paris and feel comfortable with the culture (as I have seen it), but this story shows some major differences. So sorry that they made you cry, but the result justifies the means. It is amazing that creativity springs from such rule-following, but there are many artists, writers, etc. How did they get through a life of rules?



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