Trois P’tits Chats

October 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 Paillasson
Paillasson son son
Somnambule Somnambule
Somnambule bulle bulle
Bulletin Bulletin
Bulletin tin tin
Tintamarre Tintamarre
Tintamarre mare mare
Marabout Marabout
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 Feufolait
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.



  1. Heh heh. My son is in CE2 this year. 🙂

    Thanks for printing out all the words to Trois Petits Chats. I always loved hearing the kids chant it; usually they did it in the car to pass the time.

  2. My 6 year old (CP, Grade 1) recites poetry every night. She’s terribly proud of herself if she remembers it all.

    I haven’t yet come across that nonsense thing from my kids yet. I hope I never do. Egad!

  3. Alison –
    The words vary depending on location and generation, but that’s how it was when I was a kid. As I recall, they all begin the same way, but they diverge at various points (I think older people never said “Ferme ta gueule”, for example).

  4. JChevais –
    Don’t worry, it’s not so bad. Kind of cute, even, although it does get stuck in your head something fierce. And once you start, you can’t stop until you reach the end.

  5. I think we memorized the same poems in my French class in high school that you did at age 8. And no, I can’t remember any of them either. But “maitre corbeau” brings back memories of cramming for exams wondering when exactly in my life I was going to need to talk about a crow with a cheese, in French no less.

  6. Sonja –
    Fair enough. But I can’t remember the last time I used calculus, either.

  7. ohmigod i love your blog ! I’m a French girl who lived in Asia but went to french school. And the way you describe France is so fresh and lively ! Even we French do not remember much of our poetry… My version of 3 ptits chats ended with “lettre d’amour .. mourre-a-trois” (what does that even mean??)

  8. Jordane –
    Thanks for stopping by! Your blog is very cute too.

  9. welcome do you live in england

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