There is an annual torture suffered by parents of young children in France: the list of “fournitures scolaires” which each élève must possess when school resumes in September.
French primary schools provide nothing but walls, desks and (sometimes) a teacher. All the rest of the paraphernalia – pencils, textbooks, exercise books, ink, paper, glue – is provided by the parents. Pity the child who appears on the first day without his or her 96-page exercise book. One of the few advantages of having teenage children is that this bizarre ritual ends with college (middle school). I thought that the annual misery was behind me.
The other day I went with my 14-year-old daughter, Grace, to pick up her textbooks from a small bookshop and stationers. A wealthy-looking woman was at the counter with her daughters, aged about 7 and 11.
Ordinary mortals join the scrum in the supermarkets searching for the last pink exercise book cover. Not madame. She was buying her "fournitures scolaires" in the old-fashioned way: one at a time, over the counter, with detailed commentary by her children on the merits of each item.
The elderly shop-owner sensed an unusually large "facture". Instead of grabbing her list and telling her to come back tomorrow, he trotted down to his store room looking for each "cahier de travaux pratiques, grand format, grand carreaux, 96 pages, sans-spirale, 24 x 32".
Other customers gave up hope. We, mesmerised by the heroic selfishness of the grande dame and her daughters, waited in a very English silence for almost an hour.
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