Here’s the full text of all Dan Brigg’s Provence blogs about his Life at the French School Gates:
Preface – how I became a house dad in Frogland
How to begin, Cathy and I go back such a long way. We met under a tractor at university. When I say met, I mean first kissed. We were at Bristol. In the summer there were all these balls out in the countryside.
We were totally incompatible:
Cathy a physicist, me English and history (not clever enough for single honours);
Cathy workaholic, me smokeaholic;
Cathy almost teetotal, me well, the less said the better;
Fate decided that we were meant to be. A mate gave my name and grabbed my taxi, so there I was stranded and almost immediately in love with Cathy. I could tell from the first moment that she was the Ying to my Yang, the girl I needed to straighten me out.
We left university and moved in together. For a while our careers’ prospered in different directions. Cathy became a research scientist, me, well thanks to a celebrity interview I conducted on a post-grad journalism course with a naked newsreader which got picked up by a Lad’s mag, I fell into tits, arse and fast cars journalism.
A decade of hedoism followed and then suddenly society fell out of love with the ‘phooaaahh, cop a load of that’ magazines.
I was jobless and left alone with our two young toddlers. Free-lance stuff followed, but I was weeping into my keyboard when I found myself one morning bashing out 10 great butter nut squash recipes for good-housekeeping magazine.
Cathy meanwhile was, thank god, getting ever more senior, and ever more well-paid. Our life worked for us. We lived in a little cottage outside Cambridge. I looked after the kids and pretended to be a journalist while they were at school.
I’d watch a bit of racing, a bit of cricket in the summer, I even curiously discovered a house proud side to my character I never knew existed. Each evening I’d plump up the cushions to make the place nice for Cathy’s return. Usually I’d have something in the oven – Jamie, god bless him, has made cooking a male virtue.
We were happy. 15 years after we met, I still loved Cathy, she, I think, loved me, and our lives had fallen into their little compartments, which if not conventional suited us both.
Then one day she came home and explained that she had been offered a secondment to a nuclear research facility overseas.
‘Not Russia?’ I said.
‘No, not Russia’ she answered.
I broke into James Brown, so sure was I of our destination ‘Living in America, I feel good’. America was my kind of place. Movies, big buckets of popcorn, super-sized food, a sloth culture, I’d be right at home. In fact I couldn’t wait.
‘When shall I pack?’
‘Dan’ said Cathy ‘it’s in France.’
The next morning I made a list:
Good things about France:
Le Moulin Rouge (the real one not the Kylie film)
Monaco Grand Prix
The girl in the Renault Clio add
Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe
Bad things about France
Girls don’t shave under their arms
They eat horse meat (through choice not supermarket deception)
They eat frogs, rabbits, and loads of offal.
They can’t speak English
They don’t play cricket
I don’t speak a word of the language
There are no curry houses.
The bad clearly outweighed the good, but Cathy earned the money, and so it’s was off to frogland.
Provence blog week 1:
Put it this way the first month has not been easy for any of us. Well, apart from Cathy, she’s been busy splitting an atom, which is a cinch compared with what I’ve had to put up with.
So there we are at the school gates on the first morning.
‘Smile they don’t bite’ I told my two boys.
But in reality it was worse than a savaging. Those boring eyes seem to tear into us, our red hair, our freckles and our lily-white skin. I felt I could hear their voices in my head. Something like Voldermort does with Harry Potter. ‘Go back home you are not welcome here.’
I’d have introduced us all if I spoke a word of the lingo, but all I bothered to learn back at school was how to order a beer. Which incidentally I mastered in 10 different languages, in case I boarded the wrong plane or train.
Pick up time is the worst. In the morning I can just dump and run, but in the evening, I wait all alone. Norman no mates. The English man who seems to have had his tongue cut out. Perhaps if Cathy were there with me it would be alright. The village school is a nice enough place. I sit on one, out of a semi-circle of ten or so, old rectangular stones. The stones are from a local quarry and are disintegrating with age. Each one is just about big enough for two people to use as an impromptu bench. As I wait eroded fragments of rock poke uncomfortably into my bum.
The guilt has been terrible. We plucked them from their nice little prep in Sussex and dumped them here in frog land. The tears are just transient. The tantrums will surely pass. I must remember the fastest way to develop a child’s brain is for them to learn a second language. Cathy says they are the lucky ones, but she’s not been there in the evening when they fly, wailing like banshees, out of the gates.
They’re starving as well. And who can blame them. Here’s a run-down of a typical lunchtime menu:
Monday: Moules mariniere
Tuesday: Thumper (I mean rabbit)
Wednesday: Financiere (cheap meat off cuts – gristle I think we would call it in English)
Thurday: Pizza (oh relief)
Friday: Aioli – (boiled cod, vegetables, and garlic sauce)
And what’s with all the kissing. No-wonder nothing gets done in this country. It’s like a snogathone every evening. There are maybe forty parents waiting to pick up, and each time a new one arrives, she has to go around the lot of them, and kiss them on both cheeks. It takes about 10 minutes to complete the rounds.
Anyway after a couple of weeks I decided to join the party. Big mistake!
I guess I picked her at random, big nose, big bum, blonde hair, always smiling. Got two kids in the same class as ours, and she seemed to be trying to make eye contact. I lunged in with confidence. A little too much like a teenager at a nightclub.
Here’s what happened – rather than offering her cheek she recoiled in horror. One step backwards was all it needed and I’m kissing thin air. My lips were searching for purchase, puckered and ready for social lift-off, instead carried forward by an unstoppable momentum, my face ended up in her cleavage.
It was still summer hot, so she was not wearing much and before I knew it, I was kissing the flesh next to her nipple. In England this would be called gross indecency and it is an arrestable offence. I tasted salt. I can still taste it now. It was her sweat. Instinctively my tongue did a circuit of my lips.
Only the fact that she fainted saved me.
Also she turned out to be in the early stages of pregnancy.
This was fortunate.
I know what you’re thinking – how can her pregnancy be a fortunate thing? Surely it makes the whole thing, viewed from the wrong perspective, as some of the Mums inevitably have, even more grotesque.
Here’s the thing, everybody put the swoon down to the heat and her condition. I even ended up looking like a bit of a hero, catching her as she fell.
When she came round, she couldn’t remember the bungled kiss. She even thanked me.
When they exited, the children sensed my unease. They quietly got into the car. Not a scream. Perhaps they are now used to French school life.
Oh God, things just got a lot worse…..a lot, lot worse. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go to school pick up again.
And to think the week started so well. Cathy convinced me that I needed to be positive about my new life in France. And so, ever the faithful, dutiful, husband, while she was off searching for new micro-matter particles, I started French lessons.
KFT (Kindly French Teacher) and I come from different places in life. She’s all self-improvement, energy and get up and go. I’m a more relaxed do-we-really-need-to-do-this type of guy. Quite what she’s doing in Provence I’ll never know. She’d make a fine lawyer in London. Instead she’s my unrelenting task-mistress.
Despite KFT’s zest, I can confirm that without doubt learning a language is one of the most boring things in the world. I thought I left the passive tense behind in Latin lessons at school. But no, according to KFT I should be using the passive in 6 months. She said this with a beaming smile, as if the delights of the tenses are something I should be salivating over like a fine steak.
We started with simpler things. KFT wanted to check up on my pronunciation. She selected Manon de Sources by Pagnol, the quintessential Provencal text.
Quite soon our house sounded like a maternity ward, as we got stuck on an ‘ou’ word. In French ‘Ou ca?’ – ‘Where is that’ and the ‘ou’ in say ‘cou’, the word for neck sound very different. Pronouncing the wrong ‘ou’ at the wrong time can have important consequences as I was about to discover. Hence KFT’s determination that I get it right.
‘Oooooouuuuuu…..Ooooouuuuuuu…..Oooooouuuuuu’ KFT grunted
‘Oooouuuu….Ooouuu’ I grunted.
KFT’s face was screwed up in pain like a pregnant woman giving birth. I was sure a child was going to drop out any minute.
‘Ouuuu’ I mimicked like a good birthing partner.
In case you were wonderinh about the plot, here’s what I’ve grasped. Manon’s Dad is an office worker in Aubagne. He inherits some land in the countryside and sets about, like a French Robinson Crusoe, bending the harsh natural world to his will. The Machiavellian locals have other ideas and block the water sources on his land…Not that all this matters:
‘Ou, Ou, Ouuu, Ouuuuu,’ I grunted.
‘No,’ said KFT ‘Oooouuuu’ screwing up her face in apparent pain.
I started giggling, convinced it wasn’t really that important…how wrong could I be?
That night I slept in a bad position, as a result my neck was all crooked and out of joint. The following morning when I greeted pregnant Mother, the one who I saved from fainting, at the gates to the school, I felt obliged to explain why my neck was at a strange angle. I didn’t want her to get the impression that I was trying to catch another glimpse of her cleavage.
‘I did something bad in bed to my neck’ I said by way of explanation…in French this is ‘J’ai fait quelque chose méchant dans le lit a mon cou’ or something like that…see I’m making progress!
It was only as I walked away, having dropped my kids off at school, that my words replayed themselves to me.
Now a ‘cou’ is a neck and a ‘cul’ is something else altogether. The difference in sound to the non-French ear is microscopic. The ‘l’ in cul is practically silent and to distinguish the two words the ‘ou’ of neck must be pronounced like you are giving birth, not gently like an English ‘u’.
Here is what the pregnant blonde mother would have heard me saying:
‘I did something naughty in bed to my asshole.’
No wonder she left quickly.
Thank god they are back at school. 9 weeks in near 40 degree heat with two small children was more like a prison sentence than a holiday. Of course there were tears on the first morning back but frankly I needed my freedom and they needed some good old fashioned French discipline.
I was all prepared for a re-birth at the school gates. I would present a new confident me, an ex-pat comfortable in his own skin. Keen to learn French and not afraid to make mistakes. I would embrace those who were open to outsiders and not waste a thought on others. This new resolution lasted all off 2 minutes before I was completely thrown off balance.
Here’s how it went wrong. Back in August Cathy was working all day every day while I endured endless mosquito-bite-induced tantrums. Red haired children and hot climates go together as well as Iron-Bru and mead brandy (don’t ask why, but I did once try this mix.) By the end of the month I’d had enough.
‘Take the evening off’ said Cathy ‘ruffling my hair, go to the pub’
So there I was in the village watching the Rugby World Cup warm-up game England vs France. The bar had put a TV outside in the street. The evening was warm and the beer was flowing. The bar’s satellite connection was on the blink and there were loud cheers and boos as the picture flipped on and off. A procession of cars wound through the narrow streets hooting their horns, celebrating a marriage. There was a carnival atmosphere.
A woman squeezed through the crowd to stand next to me. She was wearing an off-white party frock, short and frilly around the knees, revealing around the bust. Her hair was cut in a neat bob, her hair dyed blonde, and her eyes almond brown. She sipped on beer from a bottle and watched the game.
Because I’d had a few beers, and had been encouraged by my French teacher to keep interacting with the locals, I struck up a conversation.
‘How was the wedding?’ it seemed obvious to me that she was part of the party. Where I come from one doesn’t dress in a posh frock to watch rugby.
‘What wedding?’ she replied.
And in that moment I was lost. It was in my eyes, and in the slight quaver in my voice, as I pointed at the passing cars, ‘that wedding’. She knew that I fancied her.
Now this is a slightly embarrassing admission for a happily married man. I’m not supposed to fancy other women. I found the possibility disconcerting. But as I stood watching the rugby my eyes kept twitching back to hers. Once or twice she caught me looking and demurely lowered her eyes. I flushed and eventually she drifted away into the crowd. No harm was done. I drank a few more beers and gradually the image of the coquettish, beer-drinking, rugby-loving French woman drifted from my mind. By the end of the evening I’d forgotten her entirely, as I cheered the English come-back. On the way back home I caught sight of her dress shimmying around a distant corner. And that was that, or so I thought.
Then on the first morning back, having pitched my children through the gates, I turned around and came face to face with those eyes again. I was too embarrassed, terrified even, to speak. How bad had that night back in August been? Did I flirt? Was it worse than flirting, lechery even? My reputation at the gates was already bad. I’d hoped that the summer and short memories might give me a fresh start, but now?
She stepped away without a word. My eyes followed her. She caught them and dropped her eyes again. And that was when I realised how terrible it was. I, a married man, had a crush on one of the other school Mums. My skin prickled, my eyes kept on darting across to where she now stood chatting to the other parents.
‘Oh God, no’ I thought. She’s going to be here every morning and every night. She’ll tell everyone about my wandering eyes. And I’ll stand here dumber than ever.
When I got back home I pulled apart the drinks cabinet searching, on the off chance, for some mead brandy and iron-bru. Last time I drunk this concoction my memory of the last week was wiped out. If I got the dose right, I might even manage a month. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.
Now I am not a great believer in the stars. Like religion astrology is a load of mumbo jumbo. But I can see how people are sucked-in. Events can snowball in such a disastrous way that it’s hard not to look to the heavens for misaligned constellations.
Or in my case events can avalanche…
So the new term started with me accidently flirting with a ‘hot’ Mum. No harm was done. The fuss faded after a few days and we all got on with life. For me this involved volunteering to supervise the children during their swimming sessions later in the year. In order to do this I had to pass a simple life-saving course/swimming test.
I drove to the municipal pool of the neighbouring village, changed, and stood by the side of the pool waiting. Summer was still clinging on to our corner of France, and the idea of a dip was relatively appealing. There was one other father from school. He said a friendly hello and another Mother, smiled politely at me. I’d heard that every year it was difficult to get volunteers and the swimming sessions for the children were constantly under threat. Volunteering was a great way for me to show willing and make new friends.
The course instructor arrived, an elderly man, around 60, who, judging by his banana-hammock briefs and reflector shades, still thought of himself as a bit of a heart throb.
He gave an introduction to the course. My French must be getting better because I grasped most of it: ‘200 metre swimming test, rescue a drowning person and then administer mouth to mouth. We’d be out by lunch. Just waiting for the last person until we start, ah here she is…’
Blond hair, almond eyes, all too skimpy bikini which made me swallow with fear and avert my eyes, it was the ‘hot’ Mum.
‘Marie Lou, do you know Dan,’ the other two parents made the introduction.
Marie Lou inclined her head to signal that our paths had crossed. I blushed and looked at my feet, which given the amount of flesh on display was the only safe place for my eyes. The 200 metre swim passed without incident, next it was time for life saving.
Marie Lou would pretend to drown. It was my task to dive in, swim to the other end of the pool, clasp Marie Lou around the neck and then swim on my back with her on my chest to the safety of the shallow end. I was then to pull her from the water, perform mouth to mouth and pump her chest to get the water from her lungs.
As an un-married man I might have had fantasies about just such a rescue scenario. Instead as a married man my breath began to come in short anxious heaves, while at the same time I noticed just how the fabric of Marie Lou’s bikini road between her buttocks and how it scarcely supported her breasts.
‘Oh Cathy, I’ll never look at another woman again,’ I whispered under my breath feeling physically sick with temptation and fear.
The following five minutes were as bad as I had imagined. While rescuing Marie Lou my hand slipped from a position of safety at the base of her neck, to her breast, my other hand instinctively came around to help, so that I was swimming with both hands clasped upon both of her breasts. I could feel the goose-bumps on the curve of her skin. One stroke, two strokes, and still my hands remained frozen in place. It had been embarrassingly long. To remove them would have signaled that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Best to brazen it out I thought. Pretend this was my natural stroke.
When we got to the side I was sure she was going to hit me. Instead without a glance at me she lay down and allowed me to breathe life into her supposed failing lungs. I can only imagine safeguarding the children’s swimming lessons were more important than her dignity. Our lips met somewhat mechanically. I trembled as I blew the air into her lungs. I knew what was coming next. Ten repeated pumps of her breast.
As I flexed my hands, and looked down at the pliant French beauty beneath me, I couldn’t believe how much I desperately, desperately, wanted to be somewhere else. At which point Mars entered Venus. This is not a metaphor but a reference to the stars and the changing of my luck.
The village clock struck midday.
‘Well, I think we’ve all got the idea,’ said our banana hammock coach, ‘you all pass with distinction’
I’m not sure whether he was jealous or hungry or both. I do know I could not have been more relieved.
Cathy is cross with me. She says I don’t live in the real world. Instead I have created a delusional version of France and the French in my head. According to Cathy it’s a France full of available women, who despite my protestations are forever coming on to me.
She says the subliminal underpinning of this blog is a repressed desire to have an affair.
She suspects that I am feeling trapped after all our time together and that being deposited – against my will – in France has triggered some sort of ‘Loaded’ inspired relapse to millennial laddism in me.
In this state of mind I might mistakenly perceive sexual undertones in every day behaviour. The school gates, stated Cathy, are not the boiling hotbed of repressed sexual energy that I have been describing, this is just a fantasy of mine, they are in fact just a set of gates, where a collection of perfectly normal parents gather.
I told Cathy she was wrong.
‘National stereotypes’ I argued ‘always have some grounding in reality. Throughout history the English have suffered from an inferiority complex about the supposed sexual prowess of their Gallic cousins.
Take Napoleon, he took a night off nooky before Waterloo – pas ce soir Josephine, and lost the battle the following day.’
‘So what’ said Cathy.
‘It shows that back then the English believed France’s Emperor was at it every night, hammering away at the bed posts. For an Englishman to have a night, month, life time without sex was normal, for a Frenchman to pause for just one night, meant something was up.’
‘Shut-up with the History’ said Cathy ‘you only got a 2:2’
I refused to end the argument. ‘We still think the French get more and better sex than us. And they do.
Just look at our PM and their President – John Major had Edwina Curry, the awe-inspiringly dull Holland by contrast poked beautiful actress Julie Gayet.’
I was building up some steam by now.
‘Plus look at the number of lingerie shops in this country. Even small villages support boutiques selling lacy little numbers. Behind closed shutters the French are at it every night.
So I finished my little speech and told Cathy that it was not me that was sexually obsessed, ‘oh contraire, it’s all the fault of the French.’
To prove me wrong Cathy made time in her schedule to come and do a school pick-up. We arrived deliberately early, and sat to one side watching the other Mothers.
‘See any lacy bra straps?’ prompted Cathy.
I shook my head.
‘Any short skirts?’
‘No just jeans’
‘Now we are going to cross over and you are going to introduce me to your ‘hot mum’ , you talk, I’ll watch’
‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea’
And so off we went, hand in hand to confront our two different versions of Frenchness. I should have known I’d be on the losing side, science always trumps the imagination in today’s world.
I gave Marie-Lou a kiss on either cheek and presented ‘Cathy’. We made small talk about how it was good to get the swimming training session out of the way early in the year, because the weather had now turned colder. Cathy and Marie-Lou started talking about how it would soon be time for the first fire.
And that was that. Not a misplaced glance, not an embarrassing pregnant pause. I managed to get through the whole conversation without blushing. The children came catapulting out the school gates. End of story.
That evening Cathy conceded that it was empirically impossible to prove whether or not the French spent more time thinking about sex than the English, but in her view and based upon her careful observations it was me who had the one track mind. I began to feel bad. All that stuff I’d written about Marie Lou and our life saving classes, pumping her breasts and all that. Perhaps Cathy was right, arriving in France has been such an emotional jolt I’ve reverted to ‘Loaded’ man.
The next day, determined to re-find my meta-modern Jamie Oliver inspired all capable persona, I decided to buy Cathy some flowers. Normally I would have bought a bouquet, but I’d just noticed that outside all the florists and garden centres, large deliveries of potted pretty multi-coloured flowers had begun to arrive. It was obviously a seasonal thing, a way to jolly up a house as winter approached. I bought a large display and left it on the dining room table to greet Cathy on her return home from work.
‘Get those things out of here’ she screeched on opening the door’
‘Darling they are to say sorry’
‘Get them out. Now.’
Later that evening Cathy explained.
Lapsed Church of England Christians like myself couldn’t be expected to understand, only hell-fire fearing Catholics like her could grasp the horror of such blooms. These flowers were coming into stock for All Saints Day on the 01 November.
And so what I’d actually bought her to apologise for my oafishness was a pot of flowers for the dead.
Dear reader you will not believe what happened this week. So far this story has been one of social mishap after social mishap, of exclusion and self-doubt and above all, a gnawing worry about the fate of our children within the French school system.
I’ve woken in the middle of the night with the same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I last had on the eve of exams in my teenage years. During the day I’m accompanied by a continual, jittery, nervous exhaustion. I’m the gregarious sort and the daily exclusion from society which has become my diet sits badly with my psyche.
To date each time I’ve tried to break out of my linguistic cage ignominy has resulted. But not this week. This week the Mum’s at the school gate actually approached me. They solicited my opinion, guided me through an alien process. It was as if the entire French nation, or at least the population of my village had taken a charm course from American waiters. I kept waiting for them to ask for the tip.
Here’s what happened. It was a day like any other. Cathy left for work and I shoved as much food as possible down the kids. Toast, cereal and then to finish off a couple of pancakes each. Overkill and a sure path to obesity you might think, yet when there’s an outside chance of pig’s trotters for lunch, it pays to take precautions.
And so we flew out the door with minutes left before the school gates were due to shut. My insistence on that final carb boost of pancakes had put my day ahead in jeopardy.
Question: What’s worse than sending your kids to French school?
Answer: Looking after them yourself.
Clocks in Provence strike the hour twice. The first time is just a warning, to hurry up the forever tardy locals. The second time is the real deal.
The headteacher is known to be ruthless. No excuse is a plausible one in her eye. Neither a washing machine flood, a pet cat stuck up a tree, or even an appeal to the gastromomic soul of France, soufflé rising in the oven, could sway her delight in barring the door on the second strike of the hour.
But at 9.05 the door remained open. My children passed through without objection. A paper and a pain au chocolat were next on my agenda.
‘Avez vous voter?’ asked one of the Mums who’d gathered in a huddle around the gates.
‘Oui’ I answered, pretending to understand while weighing up whether to order a café or a café crème.
Before I could be corrected I headed off.
My phone rang several times during the day. Not recognising the number and being pathologically scared of un-planned French conversation, I forwarded to voicemail. There were messages, but there was also no chance of me understanding them. I continued with my freelance article for Home and Garden about the benefits of the judicious planting of late blooming plants. An elaborate phrase here and a quick dose of Wikipedia there was all it needed.
Then there was a knock at the door.
I was greeted by a delegation of Mothers all smiling sweetly. A round faced plump one was pushed forward. She began tentatively in halting English.
‘Hello, Dan, I ave beeeen phone you.’
‘You ave not voted.’
At this point I was consumed by embarrassment. Was I so detached from French life that I hadn’t realised there was a general election going on. Hollande’s number was finally up. I hadn’t even known I had the right to vote. But it was a nice feeling to suddenly matter.
When we arrived at the school I was ushered into the head teachers’ office where in the corner was a curtained off polling booth. Now was not the time to mention that in a tight constituency my Mother had once been driven to the voting station by a member of the Conservative party only to cast her vote for Labour.
‘Who do you want me to vote for?’ I asked.
The question seemed to flummox the Mothers. The curtain parted. I flexed my voting fingers.
Suddenly I was the funniest man alive. The surrounding Mums burst into laughter.
‘It’s is the Eenglish sense of humour’ said the plump one by way of explanation ‘we love it’
‘No, but who do you want me to vote for?’ I asked exasperated ‘Hollande or the other one?’
Again they laughed, shoving me into the polling booth, and closing the curtain behind me.
Only when I saw the ballot paper did I realise that the elections I had been brought to vote in, were for the Parent’s Teachers Association.
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