Spring: when young men’s fancy turns to love, and the French go on strike. Yes it’s the season for the greve again. The children are excited, hoping that their teachers belong to the unions with the most demands.
Elliot stayed home from school on Thursday because his teacher was on strike, but the twins (in different classes) had school. This is how it goes. There are many teachers’ unions, and individuals join them rather than schools as a whole. You never know when your child will bring home a note announcing a day off. But since the teachers strike individually, usually only one or two out of three kids will have a striking teacher. Usually, each year one child will have a teacher who strikes noticeably more often than the others. The other children envy this child.
Spring is the season though—beginning now through about May, in France, airlines and trains and busses, teachers and nurses, will go on strike. Effects will trickle down here to this former French colony, where travelers will get stuck in Paris en route to Nouakchott, or the school’s nurse won’t be there the day your kid throws up in the corner of the sandy courtyard during recess. I don’t know why the longer days and burgeoning bulbs bring out these tendencies. The only thing I can come up with is that it’s an excuse to get a day off work to enjoy the season.
We lived in the French Alps for a year—an incredibly lovely year. We didn’t have a car so we walked about 6 miles a day, enjoying the changing seasons and the light on the mountains that surrounded our town. Walking so much freed us to enjoy all that France has to offer in the way of good food and drink without gaining too much weight. We found the French welcoming and generous, patient with our accents and limited vocabulary.
Elliot was 8 that year and the twins were 6, learning how to read and acquiring beautiful French accents, the better to mock our sorry attempts at the French ‘r’. For 2 weeks each that winter, their classes had swimming lessons during morning school. Elliot’s class had them first, in early December. We packed his swim trunks and a bonnet (warm cap) for afterwards, when he walked out into freezing air with wet hair. This was following school instructions: the French don’t trust you to come up with this on your own.
He looked forward to swim class for weeks and went off that morning in great excitement, but there was a huge difference in his comportment when we picked him up at noon for lunch. You could see the rain cloud, a la Eeyore, literally hanging over his head. He was depressed and, unusual for him, quiet about it over lunch.
We kept questioning him—“How was it? Did you have fun? What did you do?” He kept not answering, and this from a kid who usually won’t stop talking.
He was so depressed that we, loving and concerned parents, began to get really worried. Finally, in desperation, we asked that question that every parent dreads having to ask—did anyone touch you? Still, he shook his head.
Eventually we got it out of him. Oh the shame, the horror. In France, it transpired, it is the law that males wear Speedo-style swimwear in public schools. As West-Coast Americans, the males in our family all owned baggy swim trunks, or even in the case of the surfing father, board shorts. It had never in our wildest dreams occurred to us that any “free” country would pass an actual law about this—especially a country so relaxed in general on the concept of swimwear or not.
So they did make you wear your underwear? we asked Elliot. “No, they had an extra swimsuit for me,” he muttered, head still down. Did the other kids make fun of you? “No, they were all wearing the same kind of swimsuits.” All this drama for…what exactly? It took us hours to get our heart-rates back to normal, and days to recover from the morbid imaginings we’d come up with.
We had to buy him a new swimsuit and, since it was December, they were only available at the sporting goods store. 22 euros for Speedo brand—ouch. We were able to find fitted shorts, which eased his trauma. When it was Abel’s turn 2 weeks later, they told us Elliot’s were too big on him so we bought him the underwear-style. He didn’t mind—in fact he liked them. He’s a little exhibitionist at heart.
I asked every single French person that I knew the reason for this law. “It’s hygiene,” they told me. According to them, before this law was passed, French men would wear their swim trunks as shorts. They would eat meals, and wipe their hands on their pants, and then go into the pool where bits of lunch would float off into the water. So why not pass laws about manners? Don’t be silly. I asked why that was less hygienic than wearing Speedos as underwear, under your shorts-cum-napkin, but I never did get a good answer.
We have friends who are living in the same lovely Alpine town this year, studying French at the same school we went to. They recently sent us an email—they had tried to go swimming, and the man was turned away because he had swim trunks instead of Speedo-style. The answer for him? He bought a new swimsuit at a vending machine provided at the pool for just this kind of emergency. Hmmm… Are you thinking the real reason for this law is the same as I’m thinking?