The unmistakable signs had been there for three weeks. Daylight was shrinking and mornings were cooler. Birds were helping themselves to the plump grapes hanging on that last row of grandpa’s vineyard. There were empty seats en terrace and parking around town was easier. And, at the supermarkets, promotional aisles of rosé wine and pastis had given way to piles of cahiers Clairefontaine and packs of Bic pens.
Yes, la rentrée was upon us. It felt a little odd to be at the farm with no plan to go back to school in September, as was always the case when I was growing up. My current life follows a different pace, far from the ring of school bells and the constraints of public transportation.
I felt a tinge of nostalgia as I observed kids and their parents shopping for supplies. I always loved school. A new school year meant that I would select fresh rouleaux de couvre-livres and, perhaps, a new tin of Caran d’Ache crayons de couleurs (the set of 48 was akin to the Holy Grail.) In Primary school, I lusted after a cartable à bretelles: backpacks were only used by mountaineers. In Junior High, I picked a Parker stylo plume: it was my trusty companion throughout my school years and my first job in Paris. It followed me to California. And came back to France!
A couple of years ago, I visited the Musée de l’Ecole in Carcassonne. Set up in a real (but now closed) primary school, it’s filled with all the “treasures” that could be found in French classrooms like the ones I frequented in the early 1960s: blackboards and white chalk, wooden desks with inkwells, colorful maps and quaint posters showing how plants propagate.
I sat at one of the desks and contemplated the ink pen that was resting inside the groove in front of me. I remembered my struggles with that instrument and how much I admired my friend Annie who could effortlessly write line after line in looped cursive. Her penmanship rivaled our teacher’s while mine shockingly resembled chicken scratch.
I picked up the pen –how light it was!– and carefully set it between my pouce and index, resting it slightly on the majeur. I dipped the pen into the inkpot and slowly wrote one violet line, hoping my hand would remember how to join all the letters in one continuous stroke. I blotted the sheet and took a long hard look at my scribble. I thought I heard a voice in my head: peut mieux faire…
La rentrée: back-to-school
En terrace: outdoors, at a café
Le cahier: notebook
Le rouleau de couvre-livres: roll of paper to cover (and protect) books loaned by the school
Le crayon de couleur: colored pencil
Le cartable à bretelles: lit. satchel with suspenders (a satchel with over-the-shoulder straps)
Le stylo plume: fountain pen
Le pouce: thumb
L’index (m): forefinger
Le majeur: middle finger
Peut mieux faire: can do better; room for improvement