We caught the bus to Auchan (kind of like Wal-Mart for Europe) yesterday in order to buy school supplies for the kids. Lucy doesn't need much (slippers, a blanket, and a pillow for naptime, for example), but the other kids had very long lists. Apparently, this is something new. Public school used to be entirely free, with almost everything but the bookbag provided by the school. Thie lists, however, included everything from a fountain pen (with refill cartridges) to special drawing paper, and many interesting office supplies in between.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a sucker for office supplies, so I was pretty intrigued by the lists and thought I would know many of the things. Some were obvious (compas/compass, for example!) and others familiar (a box of tissues for the classroom to share). However, despite lots of previous purchases at papeteries in France, as well as a fair amount of time spent on Google Translate and with my dictionary, a number of items left me completely stumped.
Polly Platt, in French or Foe, offers a useful phrase, which basically translates as "Excuse me for bothering you, sir (or madam), but I have a problem...." She then suggests making a colorful story out of one's particular need, hoping to engage the interest and sympathy of the person to whom you are making an appeal. So far, it's worked every time I've needed to use it, and ultimately, I decided that the simplest way of figuring out what everything was would be to take Polly's idea to Auchan with me and, once there, to stop a friendly-looking mom in the aisle and ask her to take pity on me.
I debated between a few women, but one looked too harassed by her own list and another looked irritated by my children. I eventually decided on a mom who was speaking kindly to her son and grabbing workbooks to add to a pile, figuring she had her own list and her own children and didn't seem too irritated already. She smiled at my pleas of total American incomptence in the face of French school supplies, and did indeed take pity on me. As it turned out, she spoke a decent amount of English -- but had no idea what the English words for most of the items were, though she could point me to what they looked like -- and tell me that the list was excessive for public school, but that there was nothing to do about it except suffer through it. It turns out that many items are things that I've never seen in an American classroom, which might help explain why I didn't have any idea. (For example, a plastic notebook cover and a fountain pen eraser/rewriter.) She also had a boy Kate's age, and we sent Kate and the boy off together to look for the supplies that they both needed, and we did our best to get the other things on our lists. We debated the best compass to buy (cheap? mid-range? expensive?) and discussed whether or not her daughter (almost 3) was too young to be away from mom for preschool two mornings a week (her mom's verdict: probably).
When I got to the checkout and the checker told me the total (nearly 200 euros), I made a long face and she laughed and said, "Vive la rentrée!" Yes, indeed.
But I do now know a lot of words for school supplies and have a pink fountain pen.