Book of the Day: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.
Two weeks ago I accompanied my Chou on his first ever school trip. It was a grand occasion – eighteen small children and nineteen adults (sixteen volunteers and three conscripts) heading off to pastures new attached to a farm so far away as to require the additional excitement of a short coach trip. This was to be the highlight of the school year; the children had been preparing for weeks beforehand. It was then only to be expected that, on our arrival, pandemonium reigned, temporarily unchecked, as eighteen happy toddlers ran, squealing, in eighteen different directions. It was going to be an exhausting day.
The sortie comprised three parts: the first, a delightful romp around the farm in little groups, stroking any animal foolish enough not to run away, enjoying the fascinations of touchy-feely bags and magnetic boards, playing with grains, grinding flour, drinking fresh milk and generally having a great deal of fun. The unlimited exercise and eye-wateringly fresh air encouraged parents to hope that an afternoon nap might be forthcoming, which, I find, raises the spirits enormously. (I was wrong, but ignorance, however temporary, is bliss.) We inspected all that the farm had to offer: a herd of cows; a flock of sheep; a litter of piglets; a cage of rabbits; a field of horse (singular); a brood of chicks; and a ‘chancery’ of Ada Claires (my son’s name for every white chicken that we encounter – both real and plastic – in homage to our own Sussex ‘Coo’, who was named after Charles Dickens’s beautiful ward of court in Bleak House). In turn the farm inspected the mob of infants that had descended on them. It was a mutually satisfying arrangement.
I had been anxious that my faulty French conjugaisons and my strange English accent might make communication difficult, but I believe we managed to understand each other tolerably well. I ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo’-ed, they ‘Cocorico‘-ed. I ‘oinked’, they ‘grogne‘-ed. I ‘moo’-ed, they ‘meugle‘-ed. I even felt brave enough to talk to the volunteers.
Had the second part, the visite, been as enjoyable, had our guide been less zealous in her quest to impart wisdom to the easily distracted and more resigned when the pressure became too great, had she even allowed us to finish the romp, I should probably not have stooped to such petty vengeance as I have since wreaked: regaling captive listeners (my husband and my mother) with accounts of her absurdities. Although this has lessened the pain of our ordeal considerably, still I cannot help remembering the profound words of ‘Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet, who reminds us of the inclusive nature of mockery:
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
If I am to mock as I intend, I ought, as a conscientious citizen, to surrender to my readers certain amusing anecdotes of my own. So, in a gesture of sporting good will (and before I abuse the good lady a third time), the following facts are placed before you, my ‘neighbours’, to laugh at in your turn:
- My Chou and I descended from our lofty, quasi-mountainous and cloud-covered home in matching yellow rain macs (umbrella safely stowed away in a backpack) only to discover that the sun had tricked us, and that we were destined to endure blistering heat, and a stickier, tricklier form of personal dampness, from which neither mackintosh nor umbrella could shield us;
- My Chou, being peculiarly attached to layers (no doubt inherited from my permanently cold mother, who started life in Nigeria and has never quite adapted to the cooler British climes, despite having moved to the UK at the ripe old age of seven months old), protested violently at being made to shed his outer skin, much to the relief of the other parents, who could take pride in the fact that their darlings hadn’t succumbed to the first crise of the day and thereby started the irreversible decline into eventual anarchy;
- I had had the unhappy task of prising a reluctant Chou out of his chosen seat on the coach. The children climbed in first and were told by the maîtresse to sit where they liked. When my turn came to board I found my son behind the wheel, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers.
By the time we reached our destination I was understandably in need of light relief myself. What I encountered, however, was a woman who had expected to find a flock of docile lambs and had been dismayed to find instead a pack of excitable, fleece-covered wolves.
A poor beginning was made when this worthy fermière forbade the toddlers from using the farm’s two available toilets until after she had finished reciting her lengthy introductory soliloquy, which remained unheeded by everyone since, naturally, eighteen tiny bladders had suddenly united in protest. The lectures continued as we endured our official tour of the farm, accompanied by an increasingly violent tinkling of her little bell when eighteen little bottoms found it difficult to sit without shuffling, eighteen little mouths wanted to whoop or worse, according to the direction of their over-excited little brains, and thirty-six little hands struggled not to fiddle with the hay. Our guide was clearly unused to such tiny children and seemed genuinely affronted by the fact that the children had no interest in paying attention.
At the beginning of our tour my son had noticed an intriguing contraption hanging from the ceiling of an enormous barn – a death-trap from which to distract unreasonable toddlers at all costs. Of course our host, having no understanding of tots, inevitably climbed up a sagging ladder and hopped into the cab of the griffe à foin, proceeding to zoom around for several minutes. Of course the tots, having no understanding of danger, were bitterly and volubly disappointed when they discovered that they would not be getting a turn. After this catastrophe the patience of the still-protesting class was further tested by an immediate demand for absolute silence whilst our misguided guide attempted a milking demonstration. Even movement was glared at. My spirits raised slightly when the disgruntled cow, who wished to be neither milked nor demonstrated, gave voice to the feelings of the entire group, and kicked her.
The end of the tour included a surprise quiz when the class was tested on what they had learned that day. The guide became almost hostile when they failed to tell her which three things are eaten by cows. I paid attention – cows like l’herbe, le foin and les céréales – but I will be thirty in a fortnight. My son is two and a half and still has trouble remembering what happened five minutes ago. Happily her anger was short-lived as, having double-booked our lunch slot (the final part of the trip) with that of another school party, she regained her composure and herded us down a lane to a grassy roundabout frequented by working tractors, far from civilisation and simmering in the heat. She probably cackled as she left.
We returned home tired and grumpy, but as time passes I find myself, like Lizzy Bennet in conversation with her father, “excessively diverted”.
Mots du jour:
sortie scolaire – school trip conjugaisons – conjugations visite – guided tour crise – tantrum maîtresse – school mistress/teacher fermière – farmer (female) griffe à foin –mechanical claw for grabbing hay l’herbe – grass le foin – hay les céréales – cereals