Trois P’tits ChatsOctober 20, 2006 at 3:35 pm | Posted in backstory, books | 9 Comments
Living in France now for the first time in many years has made me a bit nostalgic for my childhood here.
When I was eight years old, my parents enrolled me in CE2 (the French equivalent of third grade) at our local elementary school, just south of Paris. It was here that I learned exactly how different French education is from the American version: at the hippy-dippy elementary school I had attended in upstate New York, the average school day consisted of sitting in circles, sharing our feelings, and maybe filling out the occasional math worksheet. French school, on the other hand, had apparently changed very little from the days remembered by François Truffaut.
I swear to God, not only were we still using those ancient wooden desks, complete with holes for your ink pot, but the kids actually dressed like that. And when the teacher asked a question, instead of raising our hands and shouting out the answer, we all wrote our responses with chalk on slates, then held them up in the air for la Maîtresse to approve.* And for homework, we memorized poetry. When was the last time anyone in America was told to memorize a poem, let alone an eight year old?
Especially in the first few month, when my grasp of French was still shaky, I struggled hard with those poems. I hardly understood the strange, often archaic language, but I knew we would have to recite the verses in front of the class, and I was terrified of humiliating myself.
After all the effort I put in, I consoled myself with the thought that these poems had been etched on my soul forever — Even at eighty years old, I imagined, as I lay on my death bed, I would turn to my grand children with a wan smile and calmly recite Le Loup et La Cigogne.
And now? I’ve been searching my brain for the past three days, and I have discovered that, of the forty odd poems I memorized, all that remains is one, stupid couplet: Maitre Corbeau sur an arbre perche/Tenez dans son bec un fromage. That’s it! Everything else is gone, no matter how hard I stretch.
Everything? Well no, not quite everything. Although the state-sponsored poetry is long forgotten, a different kind of verse remains lodged in my brain, for better or for worse: Trois p’tits chats, trois p’tits chats, trois p’tis chats chats chats/Chapeau de paille, chapeau de paille, chapeau de paille paille paille…
Anyone who grew up in France, or has raised children here, is groaning right now, but for everyone else: Trois Petits Chats is a well-known school yard chant, usually accompanying a hand-clapping game (a la Miss Suzy and her Tugboat), composed mostly of nonsense terms and unconnected phrases. And for some reason, even though all the magnificent works of La Fontaine have slipped out my mind’s back door, this meaningless gobbledygook will apparently be with me forever.
Trois ptits chats trois ptits chats
Trois ptits chats chats chats
Chapeau de paille chapeau de paille
Chapeau de paille paille paille
Paillasson son son
Somnambule bulle bulle
Bulletin tin tin
Tintamarre mare mare
Marabout bout bout
Bout de ficelle Bout de ficelle
Bout de ficelle selle selle
Selle de cheval Selle de cheval
Selle de cheval cheval cheval
Cheval de course Cheval de course
Cheval de course course course
Course à pied Course à pied
Course à pied pied pied
Pied à terre Pied à terre
Pied à terre terre terre
Terre de feu Terre de feu
Terre de feu feu feu
Feufolait lait lait
Lait de vache Lait de vache
Lait de vache vache vache
Vache de ferme Vache de ferme
Vache de ferme ferme ferme
Ferme ta gueule Ferme ta gueule
Ferme ta gueule gueule gueule
Gueule de loup Gueule de loup
Gueule de loup loup loup
Loup des bois Loup des bois
Loup des bois bois bois
Boite aux lettres Boite aux lettres
Boite aux lettre lettre lettre
lettre de Troie lettre de Troie
lettre de Troie troie troie
Trois ptits chats ….
*I know all the Americans are now assuming I must have gone to school during World War I, but seriously, this was not that long ago. Mid-Eighties.
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