Thursday was the day of a giant greve, or strike. Apparently in France, all was shut down. Here in this former French colony, life wasn’t nearly so exciting. Donn and I happened to be downtown and we saw a group of people chanting, singing and waving signs in front of some ministry whose signs were all in Arabic, so I don’t know which it was. Also, over half of the kids’ teachers were absent. Ilsa actually had no school, but the poor thing spent 2 hours there this afternoon (and the library was closed) because the teachers didn’t see fit to post their absence ahead of time.

I have had a week filled with French, a week in which I was told, “You speak French very well!” by an actual French person, and a week in which a different French person asked if I even spoke the language a little bit. So Donn and I have decided to ameliorate our francais a little bit. (Aside: ameliorate is too an English word. Go check.) Was this prompted by my performance at the kids’ parent-teacher conferences, also this week? I’m not sayin’. As an English teacher, I can go days where I don’t use my French all that much, and as a result, my French has gotten a bit rusty over the years since we lived there. And, to be honest, it was never what you’d call parfait or super to start with. I never got to the point where people were surprised to discover I was an etranger.

We headed downtown to the Institut Francais. We actually visited this august institution a couple of weeks ago, but were too early to sign up for the next session. My heart sank as we walked in. The place was crowded, in the way that places don’t get crowded in cultures that understand the concept of standing in line.

But we’re old pros at this now. While I must admit I’m still not very good at cutting other people, I am pleased to say that I am continuing to improve in the area of not being cut. We took a deep breath and plunged right into the crowd, pushing our way with relative ease up to a woman with an official-looking badge and a clipboard, who said we were supposed to be on the OTHER side of the no-possible-glimpse-of-the-floor crowded room.

Once we had gained the other side, we took a number, like the instructions said to. The lighted sign said 943 and the number we took said 15, which worried us a bit. “That CAN’T be right,” I said to Donn. We asked a man standing nearby, who said, “Oh you don’t need to wait at all–talk to the receptionist there!” Unable to believe our good luck, but certainly not going to question it, we hopped over a small barrier and spoke to the woman behind the desk, who sent us off to take a placement exam. Great!

We went up two flights of stairs and found a charming place of empty classrooms. All the signs of recent occupation were there, except for a professor to administer our tests. We considered plunging back into the melee, but who would we ask? We wandered round for a while till the tapping of heels announced the arrival of our professor, and then took our test.

This took place between my conferences for Elliot on Monday, and my conferences for the twins on Tuesday. This is how the conferences were set up. Each child brought home a piece of paper with a graph on it which divided the period from 4:30 to 9:05 into 5 minute slots. At the bottom, in teeny tiny letters, were the names of all your child’s teachers and potential teachers. You were supposed to underline the names of the teachers you wanted to see. Then, your child would show the piece of paper to those teachers, who would write their name in one of the slots. You were allotted five minutes with each teacher, which they felt was enough time to cover the basics. They urged us not to go over, as that would throw off the entire evening of appointments. You can imagine how well that went.

By some minor miracle, I didn’t end up overbooked. I expected the twins, with their usual flair for making my life complicated, would manage to schedule me at the same times with their respective teachers, but they didn’t.  I did, however, end up with long spaces, an hour and 40 minutes between appointments. Fortunately I ran into some of my friends, who also had a long time between conferences. There were a couple of mishaps, such as when I went home for dinner during a two hour break and came back for a meeting with Elliot’s French teacher. My appointment was 7:40; I arrived at 7:38 by my cell phone, but she’d already left. Fortunately she saw me and came back, showing me her phone, which said 7:45. It’s amazing that the kids are never late.

At the beginning of the evening, 4:30, Abel’s French teacher told me I spoke excellent French. By the end of the evening, his science teacher asked if I spoke French. This is why I need a class; to even things out a little bit.

My French has always been better than Donn’s because I took it in university, where in spite of myself, a tiny bit managed to seep into my brain. His Arabic is better than mine, so it works out. When we were in Mauritania, I dealt with the kids’ teachers, he dealt with the policeman. A nice division of labour, I felt.

But it really disconcerted the Institut Francais. “You’re not at the same level,” they keep telling us, different people—the cashier, the woman typing up our student ID cards, the woman doing scheduling. “You’re higher,” they say in amazement. The teacher who gave me the placement exam asked if we were the same level, and when I said no, assumed Donn would have the higher level. I’m level 4 and he’s level 2, and they nearly moved me down to 3, just so we could be closer. It’s interesting to me, how it seems to bother them. It doesn’t bother us.

Classes start tomorrow. Tomorrow is also another moving day. On y va! Here we go!

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