At the end of term, our younger daughter plonked herself at our kitchen table, rested her chin on her hands, and emitted a stagey sigh. I was busy clattering pans and had presumably failed to react with sufficient concern, so she dismantled her pose before casually reassembling it and sighing with more force. Realising that I was required to play along, I asked her what was wrong. Oh maman, je ne sais pas quoi faire, she said, despairingly: j’ai vraiment trop d’amoureux.
The children are habitually very picky about their choice of language. They speak French to French people and English to English people, and if ever I attempt to speak French to them—usually out of politeness to a French person listening in—I will be met with protests and eye rolling. Our younger daughter will, however, sometimes express herself in French at home when she is talking about a matter of which she has no experience in English (playground politics, for example), or is describing a sensation which, to her, has no English cultural equivalent.
Faced with my sighing six-year-old, I could only surmise, therefore, that the feeling of being overburdened with suitors was irreducibly Gallic in nature. It is true that the same daughters who now clock up six or seven amoureux apiece struggled to find a single one back in the UK.
Coming as I do from the English playground, the idea of being in love at the tender age of four seems rather quaint to me. In the UK schools we frequented, girls and boys started off as friends, but fairly quickly divided themselves into gender-based herds, instantly recognisable by their tribal colours of pink and blue. The idea of remaining friends with a member of the opposite sex became more and more unlikely as the children progressed up the school: by Year One the mere suggestion of girls and boys playing together already elicited groans and titters. The notion of them being “in love” would, no doubt, have caused utter pandemonium.
The French playground presents a very different kind of environment. Lolly pink has not yet become a requirement for girls, so, despite the lack of uniform, from a distance, it is hard to separate out the genders. The point is really, though, that the genders do not separate themselves out. Both our daughters invite boys back home to play as frequently as they do girls, and, although girls tend to steer clear of fist fights at break time, there is no idea that boys climb trees and exchange Pokemon cards whilst girls skip with a rope and have secrets.
I have sometimes wondered whether the harmony with which girls and boys co-exist in French culture is due, in part, to French notions of chivalry. From a very tender age, all the boys our daughters have befriended seem to have been taught an etiquette which can probably be summed up as “ladies first”. Our eldest took to having doors held open for her like a duck to water (though she was less keen on being embrassée-d).
When I have expressed surprise at the number of amoureux clocked up by my offspring, I have been informed by the mothers concerned that it is due to their cheveux or their jolies yeux, or the fact that they are très fines. I accepted these explanations uncritically until it occurred to me to wonder what on earth a seven-year-old boy was doing admiring someone’s hair. The English boys we know could not care less about how a person is coiffed. Where on earth do these jeunes gallants, then, pick up the notion that the colour of one’s eyes counts for something?
The answer probably lies in the attitude of their parents. I have long admired the queue of the same middle-aged men at the flower stall every Saturday morning, all of them buying enormous bouquets for their wives, not because it is a special day, but just parce que. Observing these men it’s easy to understand why Valentine’s Day has taken off in the UK (when else would you get bought flowers?) but has not even got a toehold in France (why limit your overblown romantic gestures to a single day of the year?).
I admire somewhat less the corollary of all this door-holding and flower-buying. There is, in France, more of an assumption that the woman will spend a considerable amount of time chez le coiffeur (nice) and at the kitchen sink (less nice) in return for the floral attentions of her man friend. I always have a sneaking suspicion that doors are held open for me only because they are just as likely to be closed in my face in certain male-dominated domains. I am, however, a woman who agreed to get married during the course of a telephone conversation, so who am I to judge…?
Should you wish to have flowers purchased for you and doors held open, Eurostar is currently featuring Lyon as one of its romantic European destinations. You can read all about it on the Eurostar website, where the sharp-eyed amongst you may spot a small contribution that I have made on the subject. Now that it is possible to travel between London and Lyon without changing train, even the unromantic amongst you might be tempted to hazard a visit.
I have linked up to #PoCoLo.