Volume 8
An Online Literary Magazine
December 16, 2013


Les Enfants Terribles


Nick O’Connell


The O'Connell Clan en vacances, taking in the relatively relaxed ambience of Collioure, France.


t’s a commonplace that the world is becoming smaller, that countries are collapsing into one big multicultural mélange, everyone drinking Coca Cola, eating at McDonalds, and using teeth-whitening products.


But the idea that we’re living in one big happy world is sheer fantasy, a concoction of commercial advertising companies. The vision of a new, borderless world order glosses over the stubbornness of national cultures, especially one as distinctive and durable as that of France.


Yes, the French are jogging now. Yes, they love to try out their English on you. Yes, you can see The Simpsons dubbed in French (a great and un-remarked cultural breakthrough), but in fundamental ways, they remain stubbornly Gallic.


I discovered this the hard way on a recent trip to the country. I’d visited before, but this was the first time my wife, Lisa, and I brought our children, Danny, 11, Nicky, 11, and Marie, 7. We were staying for a week in St. Emilion, a fairytale medieval hill town outside of Bordeaux. I’d been there many times before and brought in dozens of others as part of a travel writing class for The Writer’s Workshop. You’d think this steady stream of business and publicity would have insulated me from the wrath of the owners should some unpleasantness occur. Alas, it was not so.


While I was teaching, my wife took the kids to the pool. The children dove for coins, shrieked with delight, and did cannonballs into the water. Nicky upped the ante, skipping coins across the water. He threw one so hard it struck a tile and broke it into four parts, which sank to the bottom.


Lisa was buried in a book, unaware of the infraction. “They were behaving like ordinary American children,” she said. “They were having fun.” The hotel owners came out and berated Lisa about the broken tile and a long list of the children’s offenses, chief among them being loud and excessively exuberant.


“There is a right way and a wrong way to raise children,” said Madame, a well-coiffed woman wearing a designer dress and high heels.


“It was an accident,” Lisa replied. “We will pay for the tile.”


“The swimming pool is for swimming only,” Monsieur countered. “The children should not be so wild.”


“If the children don’t behave,” Madame said, “we may have to ask you to leave the hotel.” Since the tirade was mostly in French, Lisa didn’t catch all of the details, but the force of it astounded her. She felt like crying.


Later in the evening, I arrived back at the hotel as Lisa took the kids for a walk. “There’s been an incident,” she said, frowning. “I’ll tell you about it when I get back.”


At the desk, the receptionist presented a plastic bag of “evidence,” including the broken pool tile. When Lisa returned, I got her side of the story. Yes, the tile was broken, but it was unintentional. “I don’t feel welcome here,” she said.


I considered leaving the hotel, but I was right in the middle of teaching my class. “Look,” I said. “It’s too complicated to find another hotel. We need to stay here. We need to try to get through this. I’ll talk to the owner tomorrow.”


Lisa reluctantly agreed.


The next morning, I went down to the reception desk to talk with Monsieur, a shy, formal man in his mid-50s, with dark, close-cropped hair and an earnest, agreeable demeanor. I have known him for five years, our conversations mainly concerning the price of rooms.


“Bonjour, monsieur,” I said. “Je suis desolée.” I apologized for the children’s behavior and offered to pay for the broken tile.


“Monsieur O’Connell,” he said, “there is a big problem with the children.” He gestured wildly, indicating the enormity of the offense. “But the biggest problem is with your wife. It’s one thing for the children to misbehave. They are children. They don’t know. But it’s another thing if a parent does nothing about it.”


“I agree,” I said. “But my wife doesn’t know France well. She didn’t realize this behavior would be a problem. Children are raised differently in the U.S. There is a difference culturelle.”


Monsieur considered the phrase. He is not an unreasonable man. This phrase, difference culturelle, seemed to strike a chord with him.


“I have noticed that American parents are more permissive with their children,” he said. “Perhaps this is a difference between the cultures, between a culture that has more liberty and openness and one that is more strict.”


I nodded in agreement. “Exactement, monsieur.” I shook hands with him, appreciating his willingness to comprehend our point of view. “We will keep control of the children. They will only swim in the pool. No throwing of coins.”


“Merci, Monsieur O’Connell,” he said, shaking my hand. “Excusons nous,” he said, pointing to himself. “Excuse us.”


Crisis averted, I walked back to the room to tell the rest of the family. From now on, no skipping coins in the pool. No enfant terrible behavior. The children seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. We left St. Emilion without further incident. But our trip wasn’t over. How would we fare in places where I didn’t know the hotel owners? Would total strangers take us to task for the boisterous behavior of our children? I knew how to behave as an adult, but I didn’t know what was expected of children. There were no courses in French childrearing for foreigners. We would just have to wing it.



e drove south, stopping at Carcassonne, a walled, medieval city with moats, stone walls and slate-roofed turrets. I figured the kids would love it, but they were more interested in buying plastic turtles and eating ice cream than in the architecture.


However, the boys’ faces lit up when they saw a shop full of medieval weapons. There were swords, maces, chain mail, shields, spears. They spotted two large wooden swords. They had to buy them. I wavered. Who knew what international incidents they’d provoke? In the end, I caved. I wanted them to leave France with good memories. We barely managed to stuff the swords into our over-packed Renault.


Then we headed south to Collioure, a small port city surrounded by an ancient stone fort, groves of olive trees, and endless views of the wine dark Mediterranean. The kids could swim, explore the old fort, and skip rocks in the sea without worrying about being out of line. That was the idea.


We booked rooms in the Hôtel des Templiers, a former hangout of Matisse and Picasso, a rambling, four-story hotel right off the waterfront. The walls were hung with canvasses by artists who had stayed there over the years, exchanging works of art for the hotel bill. There were no Matisses or Picassos, but plenty of wonderful paintings.


The hotel reception was located in a bar on the ground floor, far from our fourth floor rooms overlooking the harbor. When the children ran down the halls, they didn’t seem to bother anyone, but we reprimanded them anyway, anxious to avoid repeating the experience back in St. Emilion.


We ate at tourist restaurants at first. We kept it simple; the kids ordered steak and fries or chicken. We ordered duck confit or salade niçoise draped with the tangy local sardines. They gobbled their dinner and went outside to play on the beach while we lingered over a bottle of chilled rosé.


I watched how the French children behaved at the restaurants. They ate with their parents, but they threw no tantrums. There was no pouting. No loud complaining. They were welcome as long as they behaved. If they did not, they were removed. There were no exceptions. There was less tolerance of misbehavior from kids than from dogs. Over the next few days, we began to get the hang of things. We stuck to the noisy, informal cafés, eating breakfast on the hotel’s terrace. Danny complained about having to eat croissants instead of corn flakes, but took it no further than that. He sensed the rules were different here.


The kids enjoyed themselves, savoring trips to the ice cream stand, swimming in the sea, exploring the tide pools, and diving down to see the schools of fish. Outside, they could yell and scream as much as they wanted; but inside the restaurants, they had to keep a lid on it.


The intense sun and relaxed attitude of southern France took hold; the tension in the hotel at St. Emilion was mostly forgotten. For our last night in Collioure, I booked a reservation at La Neptune, an elegant restaurant perched on a headland overlooking the harbor. I knew I was taking a chance, but I didn’t want to eat in a cheap café.


We arrived early, hoping to avoid the dinner rush. The waiter, a slim, dark-haired blade of man, moved with skill and deftness around the outdoor deck. He smiled warmly and guided us to our table. There were no other children in the place, even though the restaurant had a children’s menu. The other diners were older French couples.


He sat us at a table with a panoramic view of the harbor and the old fort. We ordered steak-frites (steak and fries) for the kids, along with Coca Cola, and crème glacée (ice cream) for dessert. Lisa and I looked at each other and hoped for the best. The waiter brought us a bottle of rosé in a glass bucket of ice. The evening sun caught the bottle, turning it into a lovely shade of crimson. I began to let down my guard, relaxing into the moment.


Marie drew pictures of cats on a piece of paper. Danny read a book about submarines. Nicky paged through a comic book.


The first course arrived without incident. For me, local sardines with oil streaked so that they looked like a Matisse still life. For Lisa, a cool gazpacho soup. For the kids, small tenderloin steaks and fries.


“Is this a snack?” Nicky asked sarcastically, but didn’t push it.


The children ate their dinners quickly, digging into the potatoes fried in duck fat, a feature of French cooking they’d come to crave.


Then the main course appeared-tuna steaks-with a bottle of Collioure red. The steaks were perfect, charred on the outside, red on the inside. The wine was rich and robust and slightly cool, just the way I like it. The kids left the table to play in the tide pools below. There was no yelling. No shrieks of disapproval.


Lisa and I reminisced about the trip, joking about the incident in St. Emilion from the distance of a week. When the sundaes arrived, we called the children back to the table. The children all said, “merci,” to the waiter. They quickly lost themselves in lapping up the ice cream. Lisa and I shared a café crème.


The older couples glanced wistfully at our table, perhaps remembering fondly their own years of raising children, the decades having erased the unpleasant aspects of the job.


As we got up to leave, an older French couple beamed at us and beckoned us over.


“Elle apprend le Français,” the husband said pointing to Marie: she’s learning French.


“Oui, monsieur,” I said, touching him on the shoulder with gratitude. We left the restaurant with lights shimmering on the harbor, the sun disappearing behind the Pyrenees, and the other couples talking and laughing over their dinners. As we walked back to our hotel, I reveled in the afterglow of it all: les enfants terribles no longer, our kids had finally become les enfants français.


Nicholas O’Connell, M.F.A, Ph.D., is the author of The Storms of Denali (University of Alaska Press, 2012), On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature (U.W. Press, 2003), At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (U.W. Press, 1998), Contemporary Ecofiction (Charles Scribner’s, 1996) and Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers (Mountaineers, 1993). He contributes to Newsweek, Gourmet, Saveur, Outside, GO, National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sierra, The Wine Spectator, Commonweal, Image, Rock + Ice and many other places. He is the publisher/editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review and the founder of the online and Seattle-based writing program,( http://www.thewritersworkshop.net)


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