Last week I popped into the village to run a few errands. Well, it should have been a pop, but in the event it was more of a crawl. My own children still at school, I had forgotten that many French private schools are allergique to the concept of any schooling in the month of juillet, and thus had broken up for the summer a few days earlier. Consequently the local commerces were rather busier than I had anticipated, and our delightful local librarie was completely clogged up with jeunes enfants, who were taking even longer than usual to purchase armfuls of BDs and the odd handspinner because they were accompanied not by frazzled mothers but by doting grandparents. Indeed, it seemed that I was the only shopper between the ages of 21 and 60 that day.
I was similarly taken aback when, a few days later, I collected a good friend from Part-Dieu station in the centre of town. It was 1pm on a weekday and, whilst I had not expected a deserted concourse at that time, I was not prepared for the seething mass of humanity that I encountered. Twice I tried to battle my way towards the arrivals board, and twice I was mown down by a crocodile of jeunes and enfants wearing yellow caps.Was this a school trip? No: closer inspection revealed that they were accompanied by adults wearing T-shirts bearing the legend JUNIOR & Cie. This turns out to be the arm of the SNCF that deals with travel for unaccompanied minors. As I warily threaded my way through the noisy hoardes, I counted as many as six more such groups.
The start of French school holidays, you see, signals the cranking up of that ever-popular national childcare provider, at all other times of year known as la famille. Every conversation I have had with French friends about summer holiday plans has gone something like this:
Friend: What are you doing pendant les vacances?
Moi: We’re going away for three whole weeks for the first time ever [awaits gasp of astonishment and admiration].
Friend [after said gasp has failed to materialise]: Oui, mais qu’est-ce que tu fais pour le reste ?
Moi: [Launches into tedious explanation in dubious French of our patchwork of work and childcare arrangements.] Et toi ?
Friend: Ah well, Clothilde et Gaston will go to zer grandmuzzer’s ‘ouse for one week, and zen to ze ocean wiz ‘er for anozzer week, zen zey will go to ze ozzer grandmuzzer’s ‘ouse while Jean-Chrisophe et moi go to ‘ave a romantic break. Zen we ‘ave ze family ‘oliday, zen zer cousine will come to our ‘ouse and look after zem while we go to work.
Despite a growing number of reports that British grandparents are increasingly shouldering the burden of caring for their grandchildren, I would struggle to identify a single British friend who routinely relied upon their own parents to look after their children for anything longer than a couple of days at a time during school holidays. In my own family such an idea would be outlandish, not because my parents don’t love the kids, nor because they would be unwilling or incapable of caring for them for any length of time, but, well, because we’re all terrified by the prospect of committing that unspeakable crime of taking each other for granted. My parents are, after all, retired, and what is tending to my offspring other than work? I don’t want to do it, so why should they…? I don’t wish to suggest that my family is in any way unusual in this respect: culturally, using one’s parents as a form of unpaid extended holiday childcare is just not quite cricket.
The other barrier is, of course, transport. “By the time I have got the kids to Norfolk and traveled back, a whole day has passed,” says one UK friend, “if you count the reverse journey, that’s two days out of my meagre holiday allowance, so I might as well find a solution closer to home”.
This is, of course, where JUNIOR & Cie comes in. Whereas most of my UK friends would be appalled at the very notion of their child travelling further than a few metres down the street without them, this is something that French kids do all the time. With two months of holiday in summer to fill, it is perhaps no wonder that an entire industry designed to transport unaccompanied children to destinations throughout France, and indeed across the globe, has sprung up.
And so it came to pass that, after three years of enviously eyeing the carefree lives of our French friends, last March we decided that enough was enough. Being blessed with at least part of a family that had Gallic blood pumping through its veins, we finally plucked up the courage to enquire whether Eadred‘s father and his wife would kindly take the children for us over Easter weekend. Mais oui, came the enthusiastic response, and so, with some trepidation, we booked two seats for unaccompanied minors on an Air France flight to Toulouse.
Before the grand flight took place, I worried and flapped. I needn’t have bothered. Our children’s departure turned out to be part of a mass transit of the under-16s: some being smothered by parental affection as they departed, and others being received into grandparental arms as they arrived. At the kids’ gate in Lyon airport there were literally hundreds of children wearing pochettes round their necks, including six others on the flight to Toulouse alone. The stay itself was a big hit, too. The girls came back bursting with tales of adventures, and of how much more exciting it was to see papy et mamie without us.
Et les grandparents ? I almost didn’t want to know how they had found it in case they were exhausted, or felt that we had taken them for granted. Mais pourquoi ? they asked, genuinely astonished. Ce n’est pas du travaille. C’est la famille.