In our chateau, Izzy dresses in her prettiest blue and white dress, white stockings, and black shoes. It is our first Saturday in Saint Araille, France, where we will live for the next ten months. For the past few weeks, she has been carrying a silver and jeweled plastic crown won at the Guilford County Fair in Vermont; today she sets in on her head and asks to be called by her French name, Isabelle.
Saturday afternoon is the weekly open session at the Mairie (mayor’s office), and we must present ourselves to formally request that they be allowed to attend school. James’ cowlick is plastered down. I’m wearing an ironed shirt and my bag is filled with dot-to-dot books and treats to reward good behavior. Susan’s briefcase is full of documents—passports with visas, birth certificates, school registration paperwork, immunization records, our civil union certificate from Vermont. We have all practiced: Bonjour, monsieur! Ça va? Oui merci. Et vous? This is where my part of the conversation will likely end.
Our host, Rosie, drives us to the village, no more than a five minutes’ walk down the lane from the chateau. Two men and a woman are hanging a banner across the road announcing next weekend’s town fête—a sort of homecoming dinner and village feast. The village itself is nothing more than the town hall and two or three other buildings made of yellowish stucco, shuttered windows and red tile roofs. One of the walls is plastered with advertisements. A girl of about twelve follows us into the parking lot, and peeks curiously around the edge of the building to get a view of our American family. We enter the town hall and wait in a dusky room with one curtained voting booth, a long formica table and plastic chairs, and walls lined with pictures of all the French presidents. I only recognize three of the stern-faced fellows. No women Presidents here yet either.
We are called into the mayor’s office. Rosie jokes with him and after a brief introduction, we all sit before the mayor’s desk, with the children in two plastic chairs to the side. They open their dot-to-dot books and take out pencils. Princess Isabelle’s crown keeps sliding into her eyes.
Rosie conducts her own business with the mayor first. He shuffles through the mound of papers on his desk and pulls out French cartes de séjours. French driver’s licenses are apparently quite difficult to obtain. They joke some more, something about Rosie’s driving. The mayor stamps the documents–Wham! Wham! Wham!—and Rosie stands. Bon. Merci. D’accord. She will drive home and we will walk back to the chateau when we are finished. Au revoir.
The mayor, a small dark man with high cheekbones and a sharp chin who looks remarkably like an American character actor I can’t quite place, now turns to us. Susan takes out her papers. I follow the conversation as best I can. Mr. Mayor reaches for his cigarettes, taps one out, and lights up. Isabelle tips up her crown, wrinkles her nose at the smoke, and scowls her disapproval..
Where are we from? Vermont. Our capital? Montpelier—French but not French. Susan pronounces it both as a French word and in the American way. He shrugs and says what I interpret to be, Those cloutish Americans. He says something about the redskins, apparently confusing our state with one in the wild west. He comments on the day’s news: Obama has been given the Nobel Prize. He establishes his credentials: Je suis socialiste, anarchist, y anti-religieux. Even I can understand that. He asks if we like our new President. Or are we for Bush? Non! Non! We protest, laughing. Of course not.
Papers are exchanged. Who is the mother? Susan doesn’t miss a beat. We both are their mothers, officiallement. He blinks, then says, Pas de probleme.
Madame Flavian, he shouts. Vous venez! (You will come!) There is the sound of heels, then a young woman appears from behind the curtain. He asks her questions. She answers, explaining to Susan the procedures for schooling. Izzy tips her crown up out of her eyes to observe. Madame Flavian takes our passports to the copy machine, Xeroxes them, and returns the passports to the mayor. He chooses an official rubber stamp from his collection — Wham! Wham! Wham! — and signs them with a flourish. He drags on his cigarette, the air now blue with smoke, and squints. Finally, he hands us some papers to fill out and sign: permission for our children to attend school in the nearby village, permission for bus transport, a request form for lunch in the school cantine, student handbook and list of school supplies, a document stating that we agree to the school rules. Bon. We are done.
Izzy tips her crown back up, and the mayor stops to smile at her. He asks a question about the princesse, and laughs, charmed. Izzy frowns. The mayor extends his hand to her and she takes it. He bows. We strangers have arrived.
About the author
On sabbatical from her faculty position at the University of Hartford, T (Teresa) Stores currently lives in southern France with her partner and children…Read the full bio
Issue 09 · May 2010
Table of contents
- From the editors
- Postcard Prose
- Travel Notes