Our oldest child is learning the piano. In the UK this means that, in common with millions of other children, she has an extra-curricular activity. Here in France, despite the fact that she is currently thumping out little ditties about ghosts, she is a pianiste. By dint of having attended a French school for a year whilst living in an anglophone household, she also has the good fortune to be bilingual. In London this would have made her the object of some sharp-elbowed envy. Here in France, only last week I heard her being described rather portentously as a linguiste. She is also très littéraire because she once scaled the incredible heights of learning to read at the usual age for learning to read in England. And, whilst I’m in this boastful mood, I should point out that she is also a danseuse and a nageuse. In other words, whilst in England she is virtually indistinguishable from all middle-class children her age, here in France she has a number of outstanding and defining talents.
I am giving our daughter as an example but, since moving to France, I have discovered that she is a mere offshoot of an enormously talented family tree. Our youngest daughter is also a linguiste and a nageuse of some renown, and I am informed that, at the tender age of four, just because she goes to school like all English children of her age, she is très scolaire. She is shortly to become a skieuse (see picture). My husband is beginning to make a reputation as a personne douée pour les langues (well, he gets mistaken for a Belgian when speaking French, which is progress), and has been for some time highly esteemed as an ingénieur (how lovely to be given such a title without ever having gone anywhere near an engineering qualification). Presumably all hell will break loose once he finally cracks open the lycra drawer and reveals his identity as a cycliste. Not wishing to hide my own light under a bushel, I shall modestly point out that my amateur ‘cello playing has here transformed me into a violoncelliste. I am also très littéraire; have made inroads in my mission to become an auteur; and am currently doing nothing with my burgeoning career as a chanteuse. In London we all had hobbies: in short we dabbled. In Lyon everything suddenly looks more serious.
Whilst we might enjoy basking in our own self-importance from time to time, our recent meteoric promotions do have their drawbacks. When we were fresh off the plane, we naïvely cast around for a piano teacher for our daughter who could take over from the previous incumbent of that role. We did all the things that urban people accustomed to giving their children lessons in Tai Chi from the age of one week would do in such a situation: we searched the internet and we asked about. We were swiftly rewarded with the information that there was a conservatoire de musique in the very village where we had decided to live. Hooray. We found the contact details for the directrice of this establishment and e-mailed her (tongue protruding from mouth whilst concentrating on our best polite French). Job done…
… or not. Dabbling in anything, from Tai Chi to piano to cookery to eating cheese, is not a French pastime. No: one starts at the beginning and one follows the parcours and hop, ten years later, one is an expert in one’s field. It is presumably for this reason that children in France are not permitted to touch a musical instrument until they have spent at least a year doing solfège (music theory for a nation of people obsessed with Do, a deer, a female deer…). Had our daughter done her basic solfège we were asked. No, we replied. Well then, it would be quite impossible for her to begin the piano (even though she had already begun it some time ago) until she had done her solfège like everyone else in the nation. We pleaded. We even attended a very lengthy and excruciating concert in which we listened to other people’s children scratching away on the open strings of a charming selection of untuned violins. Given these concessions and the fact that our daughter had already had some lessons, could an exception be made in her case? Well, frankly, non, because it was impossible for anyone to learn a musical instrument without having first done some mind-numbing, intensely off-putting music theory. Embarking on anything outside school hours is somewhat daunting for young people here: there can be none of this thumping around in a tutu in an elephantine manner whilst proud parents make nauseating films that they will later post on Facebook. If you want to do something, you do it properly. That will involve homework. It will not often involve fun.
We are used to this now. We have our ways of circumventing the regulations when it suits us (we found a non-native piano teacher, for example) but we play along like everyone else for the rest of the time. That way we can collect an increasing number of important-sounding titles and gongs which we can cunningly insert into our CVs if we ever return to the UK. Who knows where that could lead? We might find that we can resign our day jobs in order to top the bill at the Albert Hall with all our hitherto untapped talent.