Thursday, 18 October 2007

Smiles apart

There are quite a few French children in our nearest playground in London. Consequently there are quite a few French mothers. You can tell them from the English mothers, Scottish nannies, Polish au pairs and Russian grandmothers because while the others are trailing around after their offspring or charges, the French maman tend to keep their distance. They are usually sitting on the benches or – when it is dry enough – the grass as far away as possible from any children and looking in the opposite direction. They are nearly all stick thin and elegantly dressed (OK so I'm jealous), smoke and have a tendency to toss their heads like overbred racehorses. They are nearly always in earnest conversation with another French mother or on their mobile phone. Often, because they are busy nattering and looking in the opposite direction, they do not notice when their child nosedives from the climbing frame with a “Maman. Regard, Maman”, or when same child is lying on the ground underneath the climbing frame from which he or she has just plummeted, and is not moving. Only if another concerned mother approaches the child to check if they are breathing and not paralysed, will the elegant French maman finally notice and stop nattering. Invariably, she will then stand up and glare the sort of glare that could start another Hundred Years’ War. I wonder if they are the same at home.

This is not gratuitous French-bashing; take a look at a playground near you where there is a Gallic presence and tell me this is not true. There are exceptions but on the whole I have found French mums in Paris and in London to be unfriendly. There, I have said it. In their defence I suspect it is yet another Anglo-Gallic cultural difference and nothing personal. Nor does it apply to French mums in the French countryside who, in my experience, will talk to anyone. When I first moved to Paris, a French acquaintance explained that, "unlike you Anglo-Saxons", the French do not smile at strangers. This was pure hypocrisy on our part, she declared, since there was no reason for us to smile. French people, she added, smile when someone deserves a smile. You have to earn it; as a result it is genuine. So that explained it; the French were not glaring, it was just they were not smiling. Since then this acquaintance has become a friend, and a mother. She is not stick thin, does not smoke and we both like a good natter, so I asked her why other French mothers come across as so unfriendly. She said she had never really noticed. Wishing to remain friends, I dropped the subject, but it is something that still perplexes me.

Like many playground-frequenting parents, I have tended to no few little people who have eaten dirt after going head first down the slide faster than they expected. I have stopped babies scoffing the sandpit and prevented toddlers from running into the path of swings and having their heads stoved in. Last week I stood guard over a disgusting, excrement covered bench in the playground to stop anyone treading or sitting in the mess and, at the same time, phoned the local park’s authority to ask someone to come immediately and clean it up. The two English, one Welsh, and two Eastern European women I headed off from the merde thanked me. The French mother I warned looked at me as if I was personally responsible for it and turned on her elegant heels without a word. I was not expecting a medal, but a smile would have been nice. I think I earned it.