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The Parisian Stereotype and the Culture Chasm


Space for the Butterflies - the Parisian Stereotype and the Culture Chasm

We knew not to expect any facilities for the children in shops or cafes in Paris; no high chairs, no smaller child’s portions, baby changing is a shelf in one cubicle of the ladies if you’re lucky and I’d heard of the “seen and not heard” expectation for children. But I think I thought it was as much a stereotype as the idea that the English only eat roast beef; a bit of a joke, and last accurate in the 1950’s.

And for many of the people we met in Paris it seemed to be.

But as I mentioned in my Postcard from Paris, as soon as we tried to do more than simply wander the streets, we came smack bang up against the stereotype.

It started in the basement of the Musee d’Orangeries. Elma, up in H’s arms so that she didn’t run about or disturb people, dropped a shoe, and wailed to tell us it was gone.  We got it back and were calming her down and heading for the exit when one of the Musee staff came rushing up to us shouting in French and English that we had to take her out, she was ruining the paintings, and on and on and on.  It was unpleasant for us, and poor Elma was really scared, someone was attacking her beloved Daddy and she did not like it one bit.  The irony that in shouting at us, and having us stop, turn and face, he made more noise, possibly further ruining the paintings (I’m still going “what!!?” over that one), was apparently lost on this man.  We explained that yes she’d been upset and we were already on our way out but this apparently wasn’t good enough and when H finally in deep frustration asked (in French) whether it was forbidden for French children to cry, we got a final barrage that I couldn’t translate before he ran away. As in actually ran away into the next room.  The cultural divide has never seemed so much of a chasm.

We put it down to bad luck and I was determined not to let it spoil the day so we headed on to the Musee d’Orsay but while they didn’t shout and run at us it was more of the same.  They didn’t like the fact that Elma was walking, winced and hurried over to stand in front of her if she got within a metre of the cable that you need to stand behind (so still a good couple of metres from the actual paintings) even when she was holding my hand.  They didn’t like Pip being in a sling on my front but couldn’t do much about it and when the girls were tired they said we couldn’t carry them.  Their conversation was shushed and we were given ‘the look’ when Pip started making happy chatty noises.  None of this was by other visitors to the Musee, several of whom smiled at Pip and were rewarded with beaming grins and chatty noises (and frowns from the Musee staff), and a few of whom had small children and were getting similar treatment.

The museums might be free for children in Paris but it turns out they’d really rather you didn’t bring them.

I’m not writing a post just to say “oh the French people were mean to me!” While I will never ever understand their attitude, they’re perfectly entitled to it and there’s part of me that’s reading this back and thinking that perhaps I ought not to write it,

But I am writing and I will publish, mostly for the me that sat in the cafe of BHV, slumped over the table, tired, hot, on the point of tears, worried and feeling very very judged. What if our children are awful, what if they’re so incredibly badly behaved and we never realised, what if I am the super special snowflake mummy who thinks the world revolves around her children after all?

I know I’m opening myself up to a floodgate of comments from super mummies who took their seventeen toddlers to all the Musees in Paris and not only did they have no problems, but the Musee staff gently applauded them as she left for having such awesome children and in fact if I’d done a better job of parenting I would have been fine. But I also know it’s not just me or my family.

Because while H went for cake, I turned to Google, and with huge relief found this article from Bee Rowlatt writing in the Telegraph back in 2012 about a trip to Paris with her toddler.  Everything she described, I recognised.

I’m not trying to start a crusade to make Parisian museums nicer to children.  I think it’s really shortsighted that they don’t encourage the next generation to love and enjoy art in the same way that so many British galleries and museums do, but it’s their loss.  If they want to change their culture it will only ever come from within, not because some English people think that for all their geographical closeness, the culture might as well be on another planet.

No this is simply for anyone reading this in a department store cafe, or in the corner of a park in Paris, trying not to feeling hurt, judged and found wanting, and desperately googling “did I ruin my children”. Firstly, your children are awesome, secondly, you are a great parent. With a number of charming and lovely exceptions, the Parisians just don’t seem to like children very much, which is a tragedy for them (I don’t know what they do with their children but we didn’t see a single Parisian child the whole time we were there) and to quote Bee “I’m sure it’s a lovely museum. Maybe one day I’ll find out.”