Paris Days: Lunch is served and small fries' fare is serious stuff
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Saturday 08 February 1997
It was not school lunch as I remember it. In Macclesfield in the 1960s we were served Spam, mash and baked beans on to plastic plates from vast metal urns. The whole process, serving and eating, took under four minutes. The rest of lunchtime was for playing football. Each Friday, we had a special treat: fish fingers and chips. Choice? There was once a child who presumed to inquire; in the lower fourths; I think he was called Twist ...
At Charlie and Clare's school in Paris, the menus are posted elaborately at the front door for a week ahead. There are four courses; two to three choices in each course; and a smiling picture of the chef and his equipe. It might as well be a corner brasserie with a mention in the Michelin Guide.
Each Monday morning, I would glance jealously at the menus to see what was cooking: roti de porc, pommes purees; navarin d'agneau, haricots verts. Why does food taste better in French? A few days ago, to my delight, I discovered that parents were welcome to eat - occasionally - in the school canteen.
Having persuaded Charlie to invite me (he was doubtful that it was a good idea) I rolled up at what seemed like - and was - the middle of the morning. Lunchtime for the primary classes starts at 11.30am and finishes at 1.30pm.
The intention is to allow as many children as possible to go home. But with more and more mothers working, it is becoming increasingly normal, even in the well-heeled parts of Paris, for French children to eat at school.
Like Gulliver in a Lilliputian self-service diner, I queued up with Charlie and his six- and seven-year-old class-mates. There was a sparkling array of starters. I chose mushrooms in a delicate white sauce. Roast pork or lamb cutlets? Couscous or rice? The chef, spotting an adult, bounded forward to insist that I take a larger portion of lamb, freshly cooked. And would I like a glass of wine? Naturally, he said, straight-faced, as he poured a generous glass of Cotes du Rhone, the wine was forbidden to the children.
We sat with the boys. The girls remained primly aloof. French children have such sweetly poetic names: Laurent, Alexandre, Victor, Blaise, Gaetan. But, contrary to popular myth, they behave much like children anywhere, probably worse. In the presence of adults they fear, they are docile, almost catatonic. Once left alone, they are like terriers off the leash.
Blaise, for no particular reason, pours some water on to Gaetan's tray. Gaetan, taking exception, stands up and tilts his tray over Blaise's head. His salade de pomme de terres slides off and smashes on the floor.
I strike up a conversation with Laurent, aged seven-and-a-half. Does he like school lunch? "Bleeeeeeaaaagh". He would rather go home but he cannot because his mother works. It is too noisy here: he likes to eat in calm. Does he like le football, I ask, hoping for a conversation on Eric Cantona's loss of form. It's not "le football", buts in Charlie. It's le foot." He can't speak much French yet but the little he does know he pronounces in perfect Parisian: Le fooooot. In any event, Laurent does not like le fooooot. Does he learn English? Yes but it's bleeeeaaaaagh". And so on.
Madame Moon Boots is now prowling the tables, checking on behaviour, too late to save Gaetan's potato salad. "Eugenie, one does not eat standing up. Clement, it is normal to eat one's salad from one's plate." Madame Moon Boots is a severely beautiful teacher but also a kind of mistress of discipline. In the depths of the January freeze, she would kiss and chivvy the children each morning, dressed in mini-skirt and moon boots: hence the nickname we gave her.
Lunch is delicious but it is over in 15 minutes. Evidently, these children are not fully trained to be French yet. There is still one hour and 45 minutes of lunch-time to go. This is the part Charlie hates.
He has to stand around in the playground, being teased by the older children because he cannot speak their language. Why don't we join in the football, I suggest. Don't push your luck, dad, says Charlie. Besides, he doesn't like le fooooot either.
The teachers are locking all the doors to coop the children in the playground. We are trapped. No, say Laurent and Charlie. They wait for Monsieur Benoit, the fierce games teacher, to turn his back. Then they show me the secret way out through the toilettes. Charlie wants to go sight-seeing. Laurent grips me by the hand; he evidently wants to come too. I manage to scare him with threats of what M Benoit might do. He reluctantly goes back inside the wire.
Charlie and I take the Metro across Paris, stroll around Notre Dame cathedral and part of the left bank. And we still get him back to school just in time for afternoon lessons.
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