Last week we went skiing, as everyone who is anyone round here seems to do. Despite the fact that I spent a significant proportion of my week weeping at the top of steep slopes (to the considerable amusement of my offspring, who had recently hurtled down them) the experience was rather wonderful. At the end of the week, my instructor looked at me ruefully and commented that I had “found my feet” (he was a kind, optimistic sort of person). By contrast, both of our children were furnished with the obligatory medals that accompany breakneck speed and were heaped with praise.
When you are 8 and 5, medals are extremely important and are to be worn on all occasions for at least a fortnight after their arrival. Most adults are aware of this and, as soon as they catch sight of the faux-gold badge, comment admiringly. This is lovely. It has not, however, escaped my attention that, almost without exception, these kindly French adults have said something along the lines of tiens, c’est un flocon, n’est pas ?
A flocon (snowflake), for all those who have hitherto blundered through life in ignorance, is one step up from an ourson and one step down from a première étoile. Technically speaking, a flocon is a child who can make several turns in a row in a snowplough, returning their skis to the parallel position after each turn (amongst other talents). My point is not, however, the extent to which such a child could give Eddie the Eagle a jolly good pasting, but the fact that a flocon badge is instantly recognisable to any French person worth their fleur de sel. You are wearing a medal; it looks a bit like a snowflake: tiens, you are a flocon.
Now, here’s the rub: neither of my children are flocons. This is because we made the utterly incomprehensible decision to enrol them in a ski school that was not the École du Ski Français (ESF to its friends). Thus although both of their badges resemble snowflakes, neither of them is actually a snowflake: one of them is in fact a super mousey and the other is a white mountain rider.
I don’t suppose that the level of skiing attained by my offspring makes much difference to you. Indeed, you may barely have retained your air of polite interest as I built up to this announcement of my children’s prodigious talent on the slopes. To my daughters’ audience of kindly French adults, however, the revelation that the apparent flocon was not, in fact, a flocon, came as something of a shock. If these children are, in fact, graduates of some insane system where flocons do not exist, well, sacré bleu, how on earth is any sane, Cartesian person supposed to know where they stand in relation to oursons or troisième étoiles, or even rank face-planters like me? It is, frankly, astonishing that the world has continued to spin on its axis in the context of this n’importe quoi imported by the bizarre Brits to the snow-capped peaks of the French Alps.
To a French person, ski school is self-evidently ESF, just as dinner is self-evidently snails followed by beef. If you want your children to ski, why stigmatise them with mice or other such unknown quantities, when the entire world accepts the system of snowflakes and little bears? For every activity there is the appropriate qualification. When you leave school, you aim to have a BAC, and everyone understands precisely where the score out of 20 that you receive pegs you on the scale of everyone else in the world. When you look for a job, you need do no more than state the number of years that you spent studying post-BAC: everyone knows what a BAC + 5 says about you, after all.
Before I arrived here, I had no idea how flexible I had previously been when it came to my assessment of other people. “So, you messed up your GCSEs, so what,” I’d say (idiotically, as it turns out): “you are clearly an intelligent and motivated person: what is to say that you can’t childmind my kids? So you only have your Grade II piano – you seem to be playing concertos on many of the world’s most famous stages: presumably your playing extends somewhere beyond Grade III? … Doesn’t it?…”
Not in France it doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter how talented you are, or what your skills may be: if you do not have the correct piece of paper attesting to your achievements, well, frankly, nobody is quite sure why you bother getting out of bed each morning. This is a world where it is impossible to become a florist, or a leg-waxer, or even a mower of lawns, without being first diplômé d’État; where people with incredible literary degrees can do nothing except become teachers (of mere literature, obviously); and where one cannot begin to learn the recorder without at least two years of mind-numbing solfège under your belt first.
There is, in short, no point in trying to cram a square peg into a round hole, or trying to pass a mouse off as a snowflake.
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