School shopping photo with Title text

Surviving Back-to-School Chaos in Paris

Our 'Rentrée' Scores 95 Percent; Good for a B+

Paris:- Thursday, 4. September 1997:- If you have kids and you live in France, immediately after returning from vacation you are plunged into the total terror and insane horror of the 'rentrée' - the big 'return.'

This event drives most parents bonkers. It is total stress and it is so wrenching that the kids get a week off after only eight weeks of school; this year at Toussaint, which starts on Friday, 24. October. To recover, parents get nothing.

Last year, the rentrée gave me the triple horrors. I remember it too well and this year I approached the feared day with some anxiety because I felt the four weeks in Spain had only been sufficient to come down from the previous 48 weeks, but not enough to get really laid-back.

On Monday the small one got started with a minimum of fuss, mainly because his mother took him in while I waited in the car with the big one - who starts next Monday.

If I had gone in with the little one, I would have been able to see the fear and anguish of the parents and the total stupification of the tiny ones as they had their first confrontation with the French school system. Only sadists would willingly experience this; and it was only slightly less bad on Tuesday when I delivered number two myself.

Of course I had no idea where to take him - but did I freak out? Ah no.

While the remainder of the previous day's chaos was swirling around me, I coolly got the directions from the hysterical head-mistress - or rather one of her sane minions - because she's never forgiven me the buy-books cram for the time last year I threw the little one over the fence into the school because we were a little late arriving one morning.

At least 2,500 square metres in the hypermarché, so the exercise books are jammed into one small aisle.

It's all the same to me if she thinks I'm a barbarian because I think she's a bit over her head and I am not the only one to do so. Say her name and parents roll their eyes. Not us barbarians though - she's a cream-puff.

By Tuesday morning I have accidently managed to leave an indelible impression in the mind of the little one's new mistress but if I make a little PR-effort I'm sure we'll become great chums before... well, maybe before Christmas or Easter.

Anyhow, today I have two lists of things to get: a short one for the little one and a complicated and long one for the big kid.

This big one burns up shoes like racing slicks - and going barefoot to school is not well-regarded in France. I do not know why I have never done this list-thing before - probably because Madame likes shopping, even this kind. What I have read in the papers does not make me think this is going to be one of my favorite days.

I figure a mall is a good place to start and I have a choice of three. Lunchtime is a good time too, I hope, without conviction. Mall shoppers tend to forget habitual urges like eating lunch; but when we arrive at the sports place, it is empty and we get the shoes surprisingly quickly.

On top of it, we get a year's guarantee on the shoes. They must be crazy! I count on getting two or three free new pairs out of this. We get some big socks too and classroom slippers for the little one. The big one says he can wear his cheapo Spanish beach skimmers instead and for the first time I see they haven't fallen apart. How can this be?

Over at the main mall we get a parking place within two kilometres of the entry. We also get a working shopping cart and when we get in there, at first it seems uncrowded.

Of the class books to get, we find only one. The list gives the titles and the publisher's name and substitutes are not permitted. The hypermarché info girl says they don't have what is not on the shelves.

We get the pencils, the felt-pens, the ruler and the miscellaneous junk before we hit the copybook aisle. Here is chaos at last!

We need exercise books with lines, without lines, with horizontal and vertical lines, and in three sizes, plus sleeves in designated colors. We need two weights of water-color paper; heavier than any I ever used. Some of the copy-books are over-size - that is, larger than standard European sizes - and they are on a top shelf.

I pull out one and five others tumble to the floor. At 140 pages each, they are heavy. As I put four back, a lady beside me takes one and ten fall on her and the floor. As I bend down to help her pick them up, I get hit by a shopping cart. The books are too which exercise book? big to fit back on the shelves and now a small crowd is trying to put fallen books back - which results in even more falling on us.

By now this aisle is jammed mostly with shopping carts. If you skip something on the list and have to go back, you have to fight through the wheeled wire monsters. It is warm and tempers are heating up.

Every different exercise book has a different purpose - I think.

Later, when we are 95 percent finished there are so many people brawling for school supplies, that we skip through the nearly empty checkout like champion hurdlers and get out of the place without memorable incidents.

The '95 percent finished' is a reference to the things we didn't get on account of not knowing what they are - the continuation of the missing book search follows:

Afterword - Friday, 5. September:

No matter how big a suburban mall is, they have only a fraction of the items which can be found in the shopping mall that is downtown Paris. With this in mind, the big kid and I have headed here today.

Not having done the school-list before, I have no idea where to start. The billboards in the métro are no help - they advertise only clothing.

I figure a big department store will do the trick, but the first we try tells us they no longer stock school books because there are too many of them. Book stores are suggested.

In the Quartier Latin, around the boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain, there are many book shops, catering to the university community. On the way there we pass the quai des Orfévres because I want to see if any press photographers are lurking about, waiting for their comrades to be released by the police. We see none.

On the left bank, right by the pont Saint-Michel, there is the Gilbert Jeune shop. It seems to be a 'Tati' sort of place, with their shops scattered on the quai and other ones on the boulevard. We go to the closest, on the quai. I see that the scaffolding has been removed from the front of Notre-Dame, just across the river.

Inside it looks like a wholesale warehouse. Young ladies are waiting for us. They tell us to go downstairs. A young lady down there tells us to stand in the first line, and we are about sixth. It is crowded and cramped, with just about enough room for waiting, paying, turning around and getting out.

At the counter we hand over the list and four minutes later the books are stuffed into a yellow bag and we are shunted to the cash and given a ticket, which we take two steps to the young lady who runs the plastic card gizmo; and it takes 30 seconds for the transaction to go through.

We do not browse shelves, we make no impulse buys, we are not told to come back in three days for something currently out-of-stock - no! - we have a slick in-and-out in under ten minutes. All within sight of gleaming Notre-Dame, not Notre Dame and Gilbert Jeune shop far from where the chickens are sold on the other side of the Ile de la Cité.

For this success, I spring for a double lunch at McDo's - French for McDonald's - and we actually get a good window seat on the boulevard Saint-Germain.

The surprise - what we're looking for is within sight of 'Kilometre Zéro.'

Normally you can't even get in this particular outlet of this famous link in the food chain; but after having their stuff I remember that I've always been secretly relieved in the past to find this place too full to get into.

To celebrate our shopping success we cross the boulevard and blow some francs by impulse-buying a computer-game; the same one Manfred sent from Munich a couple of years ago because he couldn't figure it out. I couldn't help him then and I still can't.

After the weekend, we can look forward to part two of the rentrée, with 95 percent confidence. Besides learning more French and English, the big one can start his Spanish studies with a cheery "¡Hola Bonita!" he picked up during the summer.

I'm sure it means something nice, but does anybody know what a 'porte-vues' may be? Whatever it is, it is the missing five percent.


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