Sunday, 8 July 2007

Walking for beginners!

I was very bad in a past life. I have not, in all honestly ,improved much in this one either really, and as punishment I am forced to do many things by fate in atonement…like accompanying 60 school children for a forest walk, in the rain, and only being allowed to speak French as I had to on Thursday . It could have been far worse of course, it could have been 60 English Kids on a day trip to Alton Towers in any weather, so perhaps I haven’t been as bad as I like to think…must try harder!

I write this in the sure knowledge that when I try to leap up from my ancient metal swivel chair here, I will find my legs have seized up and that I am unable to straighten my knees, giving me the rather unattractive gait of an obese and drunken sailor on shore leave. You see although I am impressively qualified in the teaching bit of school and I can organize, evaluate and plan so hard your eyes will pop and your toes curl in amazement , my English teacher training did not prepare me for, that Olympian event of the French education system , the school walk. Here I think it only fair to point out, to save other expat mothers from future pain; the term walk is only used in its broadest sense.

I have a battered old Citroen Ax, it is car, Malcolm Campbell’s had a sunbeam called blue bird. Both cars, the difference is, in 1924 he broke the land speed record in his; I am lucky if I can get to the village and back in mine. It is a matter of speed and endurance and that is the difference between a French School walk and an English one, the French school walk is the Malcolm Campbell version.

We were due to go by coach to a vast forest some 20 minutes away but mud put pay to that so when Eldest and I arrived for duty we were told sadly that our day had been cancelled. Quelle Damage!! I had just enough time to let the idea of a day in front of the computer and a good cup of strong French café make itself comfortable in my imagination , when it was announced that all was saved and we would all walk to St Roc instead, now where is that I asked, only two of the teachers knew and they were very vague about directions but since we had the 5 and 6 year olds it wouldn’t be far. I have been on village walks with school kids in England before, I know the ropes.

So, off we set, weather a trifle grey and cool for July but no rain and the going was dry through the village. It was a local social history, on foot, stop to look at the Lavoire and hear about how the everyone’s granny (except ours)washed their dirty laundry in public, stop at the window and talk to the old man who is leaning out dead heading his geraniums and hear all about how he was the old shoemaker and when everyone’s Mummy( except ours) was little he made and mended all the shoes, we passed everyone’s house (except ours, we live on the other side of the village, right in the middle of nowhere, strange Anglais that we are) and pointed out where everyone’s aunties lived and who was who’s cousin, (except ours ).

We saw where the deer and badgers came to drink at night in the path by the stream, we saw where the foxes hid to catch the rabbits, we saw the tiny slate house that some mad Anglais has brought, (did we know them? NO? How odd!) At the same time we ate our slice of fresh bread and hunk of chocolate to keep us going and we ate it on the hoof. No time to stop places to go things to see.

We arrived at the Biscuiterie for an impromptu goutêau of hot biscuits straight from the oven. Show me somewhere else where a teacher could happily turn up at a biscuit factory unannounced and expect to be given a fresh batch of biscuits for 60 children and I will eat my melon (a melon is a bowler hat) Ah but here, of course, it is France and Maitresse is married to the head Patissier and her sister is married to the owner and everyone’s mother has worked here as a student at some time or other in their youth and everyone knows everyone so why not? So 16 small little French children and my small little Foreigner,, who is now after 3 years just as French as the rest of them, sit down on the door step and they eat hot buttery galletttes with jam in them until the bigger children arrive for their share and we all set off again, leaving 21 slightly bigger French children and my other slighter bigger foreigner, who is now every bit as French as his little brother, to lick their fingers and tuck in whilst they wait for the big classes to arrive for their share.

On we trot up the hill, and trot is the word here, at the sort of pace reserved for rushing to catch a bus whilst still attempting some remnant of decorum and they do it without a moan or a pause for breath.

We look at the birds , we name the crops we name the breeds of cows and identify the agricultural machinery, we do not pick this plant as it is poisonous we do not stop to tie are laces as they were all well tied before we left and we do not need to stop to pee. We are a well oiled walking machine with 29 pairs of striding legs and two pairs of English ones, mine and Eldest, manfully keeping up the rear. Ca Va? Oui! Of course nothing better than a route march across country to build up an appetite for lunch. No wonder the Bretons are so short, they have had a lifetime of their legs being worn down by speed walking!

We head downhill, and they all run and roar with delight. What is this called asks Maitresse, never missing a stride, a mountain someone replies, oh no says Maitresse not a mountain it is only a little colleen. Oh believe me Maitresse when you are 5 0r 6 hills seem as big as mountains when you gaze upon them, and feel like them too if you are an out of condition English teacher like me too I have discovered. Oh mince (pronounce mass, which means good gracious with attitude) here we go again up the other side. Lots of little French legs running and mine lumbering after them wishing I had been built for speed.

Past Ancient chapel de St Roc, now derelict, history of said saint and chapel given at speed as we pass, past fontaine in the woods, past pine trees past wild flowers past ancient stone walls hidden in undergrowth. Come to Roman foot bridge, vast slabs of smooth and slippy granite slabs lain flat on large granite rocks to act as pillars, over deep and fast running river that should be almost dry at this time of year but is not. One by one we cross the bridge, Eldest at the front to catch them if they slip, maitresse in the middle to hurry them along and me bringing up the rear, Just in case any one falls in.

Trot trot trip trap along muddy path slim and slippery by the side of the gushing rushing river and then into the clearing where we stop and holler like red Indians at the middle class who are following close behind.

Soon the clearing, under its thick green canopy of ancient oaks is full of rushing jumping whooping children climbing trees, swinging on branches, play sword fighting and being Ninjas running up and down the steep hill to the vast granite rocks at the top, and a small huddle of teachers on the waters edge acting as a safety net to trap any who descend the hill to fast and can not stop in time before reaching the river, whilst at the same time having a pause for a cigarette…teachers not children…I am thinking of taking up smoking. It is obviously good for the lungs, after all none of them are out of breath and they all smoke!

Across the river and through the trees we see a car arrive and stop,It is Momseiur le Directore who has brought lunch, he arrives and clapping his hands recuperates his class from amongst the bustling throng of children and off they go back and forth across the slippery bridge like worker ants transporting the vast cardboard boxes filled with ham ,pate and cheese baguettes, a hundred or so apples, individually wrapped cheeses, crisps and bottles of water. Each class assembles together in their group and line up to get their share, small ones first adults last, no pushing no shoving every one trots off and there is plenty for all, they ask where the bins are.. How thoughtless of nature not to provide them, but they empty a cardboard box into its mate and use that. Visions of hordes of small wild English school parties despoiling the countryside with their abandoned crisp packets spring to memory.

On the river we can see the rain is falling thick and vast but here under our acid green umbrella of leaves we are dry. I am being bitten by mosquitoes. I scratch and comment on the fact to Maitress, she says come with me, I have just the thing and we disappear behind a giant oak were I find all the other teachers happily drinking Kir, thoughtfully provided by Monseuir Le Directore for us. Good lord I think to myself Ofsted would shoot the lot of them! Even Eldest was given a
glass, oh lawks! Think what the Daily Mail would say!

Ah well looking at watches, Gendarmes and Madame Le Mayor arriving in two hours to present Middle’s class with their permis for passing their test on how to conduct oneself on a public pavement (gosh thank goodness they had all passed otherwise today might well have been riddled with health and safety issues!). So off we all set, Monsieur Le Directore takes all the remainders of our lunchtime repas in his car and no a sign of our brief sojourn is left behind, except for the apple cores that an afternoon snack for the woodland creatures.

The walk home was accomplished at the same breakneck pace. We left last, following in the wake of the bigger children, but arrived back at school only slightly later than them, what with having to make several pee stops on route, boys on one side of the lane, girls on the other, no peeking thank you, and stopping to listen to the explanation of the new recycling system with its smart wooden bins, the big ponds outside the village which are in fact sewage plant and clean all the village waste water(except ours of course), the old railway tracks now converted to public footpaths and to wave at Sophie’s grand mere who makes crepes on Friday night, big communal sigh as it is not a Friday.

Back at school I realize that no one has done a head count all day but we still didn’t lose a soul. There was no need to worry, it really is not a school at all but one big French family, where no one is going to get left behind. There is a big pot of strong French café at school waiting for us but Eldest and I sneak away to catch up on things at home, things like a long nap, after all we have walked for about 4 hours at a cracking speed and we are justifiable a trifle worn out.

The children of course carry along with their day and when we return to pick up ours at the end of the afternoon they bounce out like happy bunnies, no one would guess they had walked so far and so fast.

Me and Eldest? Well we could quite happily sleep for a week!

And to prove my stories are, as ever true, here is the photograph of the slippery granite bridge which the Romans built and over which , so many lifetimes later, we all tripped trapped over on a wet drippy Thursday and no one not a soul , fell in.


snailbeachshepherdess said...

Well what a start to a Sunday...laugh...I have chortled loudly...that'll larn yer! Being someone who has been involved in far too many school walks over the years I know where you are coming from! BUT....what I really need to know ...did the Kir stop the mossies or did you just stop noticing them?

The Country Craft Angel said...

I bet you slept too!!

SOmetimes my illness is a blessing in that I am not able to walk far!...

Great blog

warm wishes

ChrisH said...

Tap! Tap! Tap! Helloooo? C'est moi! I am stuck on the other side of the glass, crying in the wilderness and waiting to be let in. Headmistress might unlock the gate if I am good enough!

Anonymous said...

What little darlings to have all arrived back at school, everything intact and no one missing. I think we may need to hire you to take our little darlings on their next school trip. A lovely blog.
Crystal xx

FunkyMunky said...

Beautifully written - or should I say painted! As I read, I really felt as if I was there with you when you trekked through the french forest with your little army of followers! Wonderful picture too!

Having been lucky enough to visit the wonderful country that is Singapore a few years ago, and watched in amazement as the crowds dispersed from the streets having watched the world cup final on large screens specially erected, and every one of them picked up their empty bottles, wrappers and various other items of litter and took them dutifully to the bin, I had to wonder if it is only in Britain where we have no regard for cleanliness in our streets. I'm now wondering that again having read your blog!!

Pondside said...

Ah - the dreaded school walk, or hike as we would call it! No lovely head master to bring lunch, but a pack on the back of each child and no one knowing whose mother would have packed a substantial, healthy lunch and whose would have packed a bag of chips and a coke. Everyone would have to pee constantly and two or three little girls would have been sent on the hike wearing flip flops. French mothers must be so much more dependable!!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Well, I'm exhausted after that. Think I'll go have a liedown. Think you should too.

muddyboots said...

the school trip. exhausting. are french children better behaved than their english counterparts?

bodran... said...

LOvely blog you left me quite breathless..xx

posiepatchwork said...

Oh what fun you must have had. What a delightful story. Here in Australia, it's school holidays, & right up the top in the tropics, we get 4 weeks, as it's the glorious Dry Season, when you know it won't rain for 6 months, & every day is beautiful, warm 30C & breezy. Check out the tales of my 4 children, no forrest walks (which we could call bush walks, & slipping over would be the least dangerous thing, we have the snakes, spiders & even crocodiles lurking in our local parks, yes, really) but we've been to Disneyland & our favourite crocodile farm. A looooooong way from France, well actually our neighbours are French & the next house up are from the British Army. Yes, all living here in Darwin. Happy trails, love Posie

Fennie said...

Just dropped into this, almost by accident. Wonderful description, wonderful writing as always.

Have never done what you describe - just the reverse - the worst possible trip imaginable - escorting a party of British teenagers to France to our twin town (I volunteered can you believe?)Their teachers had all dropped out (I now know why!) Goodness - such woeful behaviour - and having to try to placate sad and amazed French parents with whom they were staying - made me quite ashamed to be from these parts. Drunkeness, drugs, sulks, moods, refusing to eat, absenting themselves without leave, we had it all. Only when I had the wizard wheeze of making the older children responsible for the younger was some semblance of order restored. Never ever again.

kathleen said...

What a lovely photo! I can imagine all those little French legs trotting around this area. Here in Lima, Peru, there are no forests to walk through - I live about 8 hours from the jungle - but I enjoy reading your story of your own little journey. I'll look forward to more!

dani said...

such a wonderful posting.. i guess that is occupation hazard.. well, kids are always kids.. they will try to smart and creative...

MILLY said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, but it was lovely to hear from you. School trips, could write a book , don't miss that at all.Wish I could find more time to sew patchworks as I love them, been putting my time and energy into the drawings. My exhibition is now open ,I feel really proud to have achieved it.
Milly x

annakarenin said...

Great elephant blog, it brought to mind a visit to a zoo in Scotland where they had a statue of an elephant with the sign we don't have these here as we can't provide them with the right habitat and it would be cruel. Strange that they felt putting tigers in a smallish enclosure right next door to deer etc wasn't cruel. Don't think I would like to locked up in front of a giant sized chocolate cake.

Would have loved the walk as I love walking and can go for miles without tiring unless it involves shops then I tire straight away too boring. Mind you must be nice to have a picnic arrive complete with tipple.

mountainear said...

I did enjoy that - and your previous elephant blog.

They obviously do walks differently in France - I've done my share in this country : we've marched along Hadrians Wall, over Fells, through historic city centres. Counting. Always counting. Count them onto the bus. Count them off the bus. Sadly never a Kir in sight.

Must say litter was never a problem and we were always v.v. good and brought ours home too.

@themill said...

Wonderful, so many reasons why I love France. Although baggy bottomed second son went to l'ecole d'legion d'honeur (not sure on the spelling, sure that's not right but you know what I mean) and he was appalled at how bad mannered they all were!

Withy Brook said...

Just visited. That was a marvellous and evocative blog. I was there with you - and being bitten by the mozies!

Exmoorjane said...

FANTASTIC!! If indeed exhausting. Your bridge looks very much like Tarr Steps near us on Exmoor. The devil was supposed to have lied down to rest on our bridge - maybe he'd been on your walk!!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful, I am exhausted after that excursion. Only just discovered this side of you...brilliant!