La rentrée ~ Michelle Shappell Harris



Alors, pour celles qui le souhaitent, voici quelques pistes qui devraient vous permettre de bien préparer cette rentrée! “10 Conseils pour bien préparer La Rentrée !”

 So, for those who wish, here are some paths that should permit you to prepare well for this rentrée! “10 Tips to prepare well for La Rentree!


La rentrée. The return. This is the first week of September, when kids across France start school. The week when French cities, closed and shuttered in August while the French lounge and eat and drink in the countryside, hum back to office hours and school days, appointments and expectations, a week to be prepared for, to live up to. A week to accomplish.

This rentrée is special—six-year-old Anna’s first week of primary school here in the southeast corner of France. It will be her first week to sit in a solitary desk instead of a table, her first year of learning to read with a French primer, and most importantly for Anna, her last year to wear a smock. I have saved back Justin’s blue and white checked smock from three years ago, but the hem falls past Anna’s knees, engulfing her, so we buy a smaller one, and together we look forward to a smockless future.

Sunday evening, with our new black cat sprawled out on her lap, Anna says.  “Mommy, I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.”


 …préparez ensemble les cartables, évoquez avec eux la reprise de l’école, les retrouvailles avec les copains, toutes les bonnes choses qui les attendent cette année, pour qu’ils commencent à se mentaliser à cette nouvelle année. “10 Conseils pour bien préparer La Rentrée!”

 Together prepare the backpacks, talk with them about the beginning of school, reuniting with friends, all the good things that await them, so that they start to imagine this new year. “10 Tips to prepare well for La Rentrée!”



French school crossing guards are usually retired men and women who stop traffic and accompany children across the street with grim determination. Ours, in his orange vest and stop sign, calls out a hearty, “Bonjour!” asking about les vacances as I cross the street with Justin and Anna on Monday morning.

At school, we press through the crowd searching the class lists. Justin spots his name and with a quick, “Au revoir, Maman !” and runs off to join his fourth grade friends. I find Anna’s name with her best friend, Jasmine. I give her a quick hug, and Anna is on her way, hand in hand with Jasmine.

At 11:30 I am back, picking up the kids for lunch. School lunches cost over seven dollars, so the kids eat at home and return to school at 1:15. We stop at the boulangerie for a baguette and have ham and cheese sandwiches with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers for lunch. I am hungry for information about class and teachers, but the kids are noncommittal, like mini-teenagers.

My phone buzzes with a text from Scott, on the train returning from meetings in Paris. He will be back by evening, and we will begin to settle into the regular rhythms of the school year. Throughout the day, we check in with each other as his train makes its way south. I tell him how much we like our new cat, how affectionate she is with the kids, how I think she is classy.

La Gata arrived last Saturday in a beige and burgundy carrier in the back seat of a black convertible.  The young Spanish woman, about to leave the country without her cat, handed over the deluxe cat food, a black canvas kit with combs and brushes and lotion, and a European pet passport. She gave advice and wiped away tears as the cat stepped out of the carrier and began exploring our apartment. La Gata was clearly at ease in her new surroundings, purring when the kids picked her up. I was charmed by her shiny black coat and white belly that flapped back and forth as she walked.

After school, the crossing guard asks, “C’est bien passé, le premier jour?” as he bustles us across the street.

The kids smile and say, “Oui,” just because he is so cheerful. At home, Anna says it was boring and pulls a letter from her backpack explaining that the class will have two teachers this year. Her Maitresse is on a modified maternity leave and will work three days a week. I think this is less than ideal, but the alternative, the severe teacher down the hall, would have been disastrous for sensitive Anna. Justin pulls out papers for me to sign, nothing out of the ordinary. I say his teacher looks nice. He says she’s not.

Scott gets home, plops down his oversized grey camping backpack, and gives hugs before pulling out gifts, some chocolate for me, trinkets for the kids. They are nothing that we couldn’t get here, but they’re an offering from Paris. Anna grabs the cat from a bed and puts her on Scott’s lap. He pets her as the kids tell about her arrival and show off her grooming kit.

This evening, the first Monday night of the school year, there are seven of us for dinner. We have colleagues on their way in and out of town—it is both a goodbye and a welcome dinner.

We sit on the patio, sipping wine with chicken fajitas and my homemade salsa, Anna’s favorite. We linger and laugh over ice cream. Our patio furniture is all trash-picked, two white plastic tables and an assortment of plastic chairs. People in the city are always moving in and out, acquiring and leaving behind. We clean off chair grime, and I cover the tables with cheap tablecloths with swirling Provence patterns in bright yellows and reds.

“Mom! Look, the cat!”

La Gata has slipped out between a gap in the chain link fence. Black tail in the air, she sniffs the air and takes a cautious step, exploring this new territory. In the narrow strip of pavement between our building and a petanque club, where older men play the French version of bocce ball and often wave to us as we sit out on our patio, there are four parking spots, rented out to people who work in the quartier. Parking is at a premium in our city, and we’re usually glad that we’ve chosen not to have a car. The four parking spots are already vacated for the evening; access requires a magnetic key to get through the gate. The cat is probably fine.

“She’s going to get lost!” Losing a cat is fresh on the kids’ minds. Our previous cat, Arwen, disappeared this summer under the care of a house sitter while we visited family in the US.  As conversation and laughter spill around the table, the kids’ voices mount in concern that is not ungrounded, so I sigh and go inside and grab my keys from the counter and head out down the hallway, out the doors, and around the building. I scoop up the cat, glad she didn’t run from me; she knows me now. The kids are smiling, relieved. They have watched the rescue with fingers curled around the chain link fence. Inside the building, I shift the cat in my arms as I pause along the wall of mailboxes. At the glass door, I scan my yellow magnetic key and see the upstairs neighbor ladies waiting by the elevator with their black dog, a shaggy Newfoundland.

The door clicks. I open it. The dog turns and barks. The cat stiffens in my arms. La Gata is an apartment cat. She has likely never seen a dog. I react on instinct and grip her tightly.

My instinct is wrong.

Claws and teeth and strength lunge at my face, biting and scratching. She is fighting for her life, for escape.

I drop her.

I am shock and pain and blood pouring from my nose, hands covering and cupping to catch the blood and protect the newly waxed hallway floor.

Ça va?” the ladies call to me.

Oui, oui, ça va,” I lie, assuring them as I rush away down the hall. I am in pain, such pain, and terrified that I am now permanently scarred. Disfigured.

I was foolish to hold onto the cat instead of letting her go. I know better, have had cats all my life. What was I thinking?

But practical matters fight against concern for my face.

The kids can’t see this. They can’t see the blood. They don’t need a dose of adrenaline coursing through their small bodies on a school night, especially Anna, who has trouble getting to sleep anyway. Someone needs to clean up the blood in the hallway. And someone needs to find that wretched cat.

In the apartment, everyone is still out on the patio, cat forgotten; they didn’t hear the ruckus in the hallway. As I head to the bathroom. I keep my voice calm and low, “Scott could you come here?”

In the bathroom, I grab a bunch of toilet paper and hold it to my nose. In the mirror, I see a deep puncture wound and small scratch on the inside of the bridge of my nose, so close to my eye. A claw mark.  There are other puncture marks on my cheek, but they look minimal. The worst is on my septum, inside my nose, the first bite. It’s painful but won’t show. The only scratch is the small one by my eye.

I won’t need stitches. I won’t be permanently disfigured. In French the word figure is the word for face. I get to keep my face.

But blood is pouring from my nose, and it hurts, bad.

“Oh, Shelly,” Scott says, and I tell him what happened, tell him to get the cat, to be careful. Tell him that I need a small towel and ice—or a bag of peas.

Scott is a problem solver. He likes to know what to do, and I’ve given him a list. He springs into action, gives directions and explanations.

Someone gets me a bag of peas wrapped in a towel. I hold my nose and move to the couch, catching the blood in tissues that I hide in my fists before throwing away. I don’t want the kids to see this much blood. Justin is furious at the cat. Anna is wide-eyed and frightened with the sudden flurry of activity. I know she won’t sleep well. Our colleagues clear the table and do the dishes.

I explain to the kids that this wasn’t the cats’ fault. I explain how animals act on instinct and how I was the foolish one.

“I hate the cat,” Justin says.

I take ibuprofen as Scott Googles cat bites and scratches. Do I need a doctor? He reads that cat bites and scratches get infected easily, but we don’t have time for an emergency room trip—it’s a school night. The kids wouldn’t sleep while we were gone, and anyway, we live in France where doctors make house calls, even at night. A house call seems like a wiser solution. I don’t need stitches or x-rays, just some palliative care and antibiotics.

Scott locates a phone number for the system of city doctors on call through the night, the médecins de garde. I think a médecin de garde sounds noble, like a knight on guard, protecting the health of the city while its inhabitants slumber. Within the hour, Dr. Chau comes by. He surveys us, the conglomeration of people in the apartment, hears our accents, takes a look at me. The kids hover, listening in.

Ce n’est pas grave,” he says. It’s just a bloody nose and a few puncture marks, but he thinks I should have a tetanus and gamma globulin shot to be sure. I wonder if he thinks we are overreacting, calling a doctor to the house for a nosebleed, wonder if he’s suggesting the shots to placate an overwrought American.

He’s not sure which pharmacies are the pharmacies de garde tonight—they rotate. Fortunately, one of the two open in the city is only a twenty-minute walk, so Scott leaves to fill the prescription while I try to move the kids into their nighttime routine. Dr. Chau leaves too. He’ll return in an hour when we have the prescription filled.

An hour later I look away, as I always do, for the shot in my arm. I inch my pants down and lean over the couch for the one in my hip. Dr. Chau gives instructions for the soap and antibiotic cream and asks why I’m still holding the icy towel up to my face. I tell him that my nose hurts and that the ice numbs the pain. It’s been a couple hours now, and it’s still bleeding. Dr. Chau looks skeptical. I’m pretty sure that despite my show of calm, he thinks I’m a hypochondriac. After all, it’s just a couple of puncture marks and a small scratch.

He leaves. I write an e-mail, and we finally go to bed. Scott holds me as I cry softly, trying not to disturb our new colleague, Rachael, asleep on the sofa bed on the other side of the wall.


Faites-vous du bien, prenez RDV chez le coiffeur et offrez-vous une nouvelle tête! Prenez RDV chez votre institut favori pour un bon massage du corps et du visage (les deux, c’est possible).  “10 Conseils pour bien préparer La Rentrée!”

Do yourself good, make an appointment at the hairdresser and give yourself a new hairstyle! Make an appointment at your favorite parlor for a good body and facial massage (both, if possible). “10 Tips to prepare well for La Rentrée!”



The next morning, in the bathroom mirror, a stranger’s face stares back at me. I went to bed with a few puncture marks and a bloody nose. I’ve awoken to something swollen and black and blue. I can’t see much out of my black eye. The bridge of my nose is puffy, and I have a crooked fat lip. My face hurts.

I take an ibuprofen and drink a cup of tea. My lip is thick and clumsy, and it hurts to drink. I dribble. The kids eye me warily and give me a wide berth before Scott takes them to school. I stay inside, writing e-mails home while Scott makes another airport run.

In the first weeks of their arrival, our colleagues need to find housing, set up bank accounts, and get French telephones. They are college students and recent graduates volunteering to work in France for the academic year. We walk a fine line between guiding and protecting and pushing them out to be independent, to navigate the city on their own. We want them to keep an open mind, not judge what’s different, and take risks with the language, even if they’re laughed at or ignored. We are here to help them to adapt, to mentor and coach them, to work alongside them. This first week, La Rentrée is important for them too. Not a good week for me to be sidelined.


Pourquoi ne pas aussi programmer quelques petites surprises en famille la semaine de la rentrée pour remonter le moral de la tribu…Un petit resto improvisé en famille. Une dernière sortie au Parc aquatique si le soleil est encore au RDV…ou un dernier pique-nique en soirée au bord de la plage…”10 Conseils pour bien préparer La Rentrée !”

 Why not also schedule some little surprises as a family the week of la rentrée to raise the tribe’s mood…a little impromptu meal at a restaurant. A last trip to the water park if there is still sun…or a last evening picnic at the beach…”10 Tips to prepare well for La Rentrée!”



The next morning, Wednesday, I see a different face in the mirror, far worse than yesterday’s. I take pictures from several angles, trying to figure out how I must look to others. My black eye has turned another shade of blue. My upper lip is fat and crooked. The left side of the bridge of my nose is even more swollen, and my right cheek is red with inflammation. However, the claw mark by my eye does seem to be healing. The cat’s claws were blunt; her previous owner must have kept them filed with that deluxe grooming kit. I count this as a small mercy.

The kids don’t have school on Wednesday afternoons. After lunch, I want to get them out of the apartment to a park, but I’m not going out, and no one else is free to take them.

Scott is on the computer dealing with a problem with reimbursement from summer travel expenses. His brow is furrowed, his voice tense as he tells me about the most recent e-mail exchange. Our young colleagues are in and out for lunch, giving updates on their hunt for an apartment. Cristina, my friend from across the courtyard, comes by with her daughter Jasmine for a couple hours. She and I drink tea, and she offers to do whatever shopping I need in the coming days.  Anna and Jasmine giggle while they concoct potions in the pink and white play kitchen on the patio. Justin plays a Harry Potter game on his Playstation. Our apartment is Grand Central Station, a place of comings and goings, while I stay put, stationary.

Later, Justin and I are sitting on the couch when he looks over and tells me, “Mom, you need to go wipe your face.”

I go to the bathroom and run my tongue along the inside of my right cheek. Pus oozes out of the puncture marks, and my heart races. I keep stretching the skin with my tongue, draining the wound. I wash it with the soap and spread more anti-biotic cream around.

The team has dinner in shifts. Anna sits on the couch with my laptop, a light blanket covering her, like a tent. I draw her out to go over homework, the beginning page of her French primer, trying to get her to focus on sounding out words, but she is too distracted by my face. Scott takes over.

We try to get the kids to bed on time, but there’s too much going on, too many people in the house, too much noise and hubbub.

I finally sit down and write an email to Dr. Chau.


I am the lady (bitten and scratched by the cat) whom you treated Tuesday night. We have a small question. The small wounds on my cheek are infected and the cheek is swollen and hot.

Should I simply continue to wash with the soap and apply the cream or should I consider an antibiotic or something else. What do you think?


I am a master of French politesse. I will wait for his reply.


N’hésitez pas à poser un, deux ou plusieurs jours de conges… pendant la semaine de la rentrée. Vous en serez d’autant plus sereine et… votre sérénité sera contagieuse. Votre présence rassurera les enfants et le stress ne franchira pas le seuil de votre paillasson. “10 Conseils pour bien préparer La Rentrée!”

 Don’t hesitate to take one, two, or several vacation days during the week of la rentrée. You will be even more serene, and your serenity will be contagious. Your presence will reassure the children and stress will not cross the threshold of your doormat. “10 Tips to prepare well for La Rentrée!”



Thursday morning. I head across the hall to the bathroom mirror, my new daily ritual.  I am curious each morning, and today my face doesn’t disappoint. The swelling is worse.

Scott is in Anna’s room, rubbing her back, trying to wake her gently. I watch from the bathroom, just across the hall.

“Anna, it’s time to get ready for school,” he repeats, more insistently this time, “Time to wake up.” He strokes her black curls.

Anna doesn’t budge, just stirs enough to mumble, “I’m not going,” and pulls the sheet over her head.

Anna sleeps in a low loft bed with a ladder and slide. Bedtimes we take turns sitting with her as she tries to sleep. When her breathing slows, and I think she is asleep and tiptoe to leave the room, she often stirs and mumbles, “I can’t sleep.” I often calculate how many hours of slumber she will get if she drifts off at that moment, but I know that it’s not enough. My stress level rises, but I try to keep it out of my voice, “It’s ok, Anna, just relax.”

I’ve read books on sleeping, like Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. We have followed the advice, weaned her off our presence, but when there are transitions or fear or jet lag, we are back where we started, sitting with her as minutes and hours of an evening slip away.

It is morning. The clock is ticking. School starts soon, and Anna won’t budge.

I go into her room and stand beside her bed, “Anna, you need to get up.”

I know the effect my bruised and misshapen face will have.

She looks at me, then quickly away. I can almost feel the adrenalin course through her, jarring her awake.

“You look scary, Mom.” And she tells me to go.

It worked. I have frightened her awake.

Once the kids are at school for the day, the apartment is quiet and empty. Scott is out for a meeting with city pastors. Cristina comes across the courtyard and gets my list for market shopping—tomatoes, cilantro, onions, cucumbers, a couple baguettes, some fruit.

Rachael’s luggage is piled up in a corner. Philippa is staying with Sarah. Catherine arrives tomorrow night. They will gather here for lunch and regrouping. They’ve decided to look for an apartment to share. I work on straightening up and laundry, thinking through today’s tasks.

Hours later, Dr. Chau emails back, recommending an immediate trip to the emergency room. He’s right, of course. I put on sunglasses to at least hide the black eye, and we take the bus down to the nearest hospital. It’s just a fifteen-minute walk, but I figure fewer people will see me on the bus.

At the hospital, I sign in and Scott and I take our seats in the waiting room. I am the only patient and hospital staff and visitors glance at me as they walk in and out. I wonder if they think I’m a battered woman, if they assume Scott did this to me. I look over at Scott, and we exchange a look. He’s thinking the same thing. I adjust the sunglasses on my sore nose. Around the corner and out of sight of the check-in window, we wait over an hour before inquiring at the desk about the delay—I guess because we’re Americans and figure long wait times at emergency rooms are normal. Though the nurse doesn’t admit it, it’s clear that I’d been forgotten.

My name is called, and I go in alone. The doctor seems confused that a cat caused the damage to my face.  I don’t know if he believes me, if he suspects that the bearded man in the waiting room is the culprit, but I’m given two oral antibiotics and a stronger ointment. As we leave the hospital, I’m just excited that the visit costs under $75. I’m always happy about the affordability of French medical care.


Aussi, je me pose toujours la même question : “Qu’est-ce qui va pouvoir nous faciliter la vie ?” 10 Conseils pour bien préparer La Rentrée !”

Also, I always ask myself the same question: “What can make our life easier?” “10 Tips to prepare well for La Rentrée!”


Friday morning my eye is still black, my lips and nose swollen, but my cheek is no longer red with infection. Progress. But I’m not presentable and plan to hide out one more day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go to the market. Our last team member will arrive tonight and share the living room with Rachael until they find an apartment.

After lunch, Anna doesn’t want to go back to school. She wines, and I see the fatigue in her eyes. She hasn’t had nearly enough sleep, and the constant flow of people tires her, as it does me. As I help her with her smock and attach her sandals, her eyes well with tears. It’s a three-minute walk door to door, but we usually end up rushing out, barely making it. Scott grabs Anna’s backpack and plops her onto his shoulders as Justin runs on ahead to join his friends. The teacher in charge of the gate closes it precisely at 1:15. The secretary will open the blue side door for latecomers, but Scott doesn’t like the disapproving looks and will run the entire way to make sure Anna gets through the gate on time.

I’m heating up water in the kettle for a cup of tea as Scott comes back in the door, brow furrowed. Anna was mad about the afternoon snack we sent with her, and when Scott dropped her off, she started to cry in earnest.

I sigh. I hope her new teacher is patient. I hope Anna is able to settle herself down. The telephone buzzes.


“Madame Harris?”


It’s the secretary from school. “Il y a une difficulté avec Anna.”

My heart thumps. We need to go. Scott doesn’t think he can handle this on his own, and I know he’s right. He’s good at whisking the kids in and out, getting things done, but his tension rises with theirs. I’m the calming influence.

I haven’t been at the school since Monday morning, but there’s no way around it. I don’t see my sunglasses anywhere, and there’s no time to search. We walk together, quickly and silently. At the school gate, we’re buzzed in, and I wonder what the secretary thinks when she sees my face. She stays impassive.

We walk towards the first grade building, past the fence, past the white statue of Mary, over the expanse of cement, under the blue Mediterranean sky.  The cours is vast and empty, teachers and kids in their classrooms. Except for Anna, sobbing, on a bench, next to her maîtresse and an elderly nun, the stout and kind-looking one with short gray hair and blue eyes.

I apologize to Anna’s young blonde teacher for my face, explain briefly about the cat and how this week has been très difficile for Anna. La maîtresse is sympathetic and speaks gently, trying to coax Anna into calm, but our girl is inconsolable and will not take the teacher’s hand, will not leave the bench. La maîtresse finally goes inside to her waiting class. We’ll need to sort this out ourselves.

We reason with Anna, try to talk her down, “You can come home and rest soon. There are only three more hours left in the school day.”

We try being firm, “You have to go to school. You’re in CP2 now, first grade.” We encourage and cajole, but Anna is an immovable sobbing force.

We are at a loss.

Then the nun with the blue eyes who has been watching, silently, says, “You need to take her home. She is too upset to work this afternoon. Elle est fatiguée.”

I turn to the nun, taking in her short gray hair and wrinkled face, and I meet her eyes, clear and blue like our Mediterranean sky. In these past three years of walking in and out, dropping off and picking up, though we have never spoken, I have viewed her as a kindly presence here within the grey cement walls of the school complex. I think she likes the children.

In her words, “Elle est fatiguée,” I find peace and a healthy dose of common sense. Anna is tired. Of course she can’t pull herself together. She needs to rest. Of course she can’t learn anything this afternoon. Elle est fatiguée. Of course we need to take her home.

If only the blue-eyed nun had been with us all week. She might have said, “Just leave the cat. She’ll come back.” Or, “Get to the hospital: you don’t mess with an infection on your face.” Or, “Someone else needs to be preparing meals this week. Call some friends to help.” Or, “Your new team needs to find another place to stay this week. You know how important la rentrée is. You know that Anna needs calm and routine to help her sleep.” Maybe the nun would have fixed up a batch of chicken soup or a boeuf bourgignon and a glass of wine and sent me off to bed for a couple days.

Elle est fatiguée.

Scott goes to the classroom to get Anna’s backpack while I sit on the bench and hold Anna close. “It will be all right, sweetie,” I tell her. “We’ll go home and rest.”    Anna’s body is still heaving. She sniffles, wiping her nose on her sleeve, and slowly relaxes her body into mine, her sweaty head on my shoulder.

La maîtresse is already onto the afternoon lesson, pointing the kids to the words written in French script on the blackboard. She nods at Scott, gives an encouraging smile, but gets back to the board. This is first grade. There’s a lot to accomplish, no time for play.

Scott offers to carry Anna, but I say no. We walk home slowly, Scott holding the backpack as Anna clings to me, arms wrapped around my neck, legs wrapped around my waist, damp curls against my cheek.




All quotations from the blog, “Zen et Organisée, Pour des mamans en quête de sérénité.”  “Zen and Organized, For moms searching for serenity.”