It’s easy enough to have fun with France if you’ve a mind to: the food, the wine, the culture, the literature, the fashion, the architecture…one really is spoiled for choice.
The early history wasn’t much to brag about: the Gauls, the Francs, the Celts, the Visigoths, the Ostragoths, the Vandals and other tribes living in or around modern-day France were what the Romans called collectively and pejoratively “barbarians”, and they were right. They had a warrior culture from their hunter-gatherer era that wasn’t much civilized by settling down and farming. Between 390 BC and 52 BC, the Gauls and the Romans took turns conquering each other until Julius Cesar eventually won control over all of Gaul. The Gauls and the Romans mixed not only their bloodlines, but their languages and pre-Christian religions as well, and they all eventually converted to Christianity together.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the people whom the Romans had called “uncivilized” ended up bringing a fair amount of civilisation north in 1066 with the Norman invasion of England. This was a huge turning point for English speakers linguistically as our Germanic language was essentially slowly and permanently wed to the Latin-based French. Chaucer was one of the greatest writers in the Middle English period, but it is difficult to read his work in the original without a solid grasp of French vocabulary and pronunciation. Traces of this wedding can be seen today in that our Latin words tend to be reserved for more highbrow use. For example, “teacher” is of Germanic origin, while the more exalted (and slightly better paid) “professor” is clearly a French word. Food “on the hoof”, that is, the live animal, frequently has more prosaic Germanic names such as cow, sheep and swine, which somehow get to the table to become beef (boeuf), mutton (mouton) and pork (porc); the reason for this is that the lower-class English who raised the animals were frequently servants of the upper-class French who ate the meals.
The French, after their bloody revolution in 1789, which happened not long after the American war of independence, changed the world with their recognition of the rights of man (to which the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft responded, rather shockingly for the times, with “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”), and paved the way for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which we have today.
Yet, for all the horrors of the period, Queen Marie Antoinette nonetheless fired the imagination of couturiers and architects for generations with the stunning costumes she wore at the magnificent chateau Versailles; classist though she was, French art and culture wouldn’t have been the same without her.
The twentieth century brought two of the bloodiest wars in history and France had the misfortune to be geographically and politically right in the thick of the action. This period isn’t one we generally teach children at a very young age because of the extreme brutality and violence of the wars. However, the concept of patriotism, especially as it manifested then, can be summed up in the glorious scene in Casablanca when the Nazis in Rick’s bar in Morocco begin to sing loud and deliberately offensive songs in German; Rick orders the band to strike up the Marseillaise and the characters engage in a symbolic battle of song, won eventually by the frightened French protagonists (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HM-E2H1ChJM)
Language arts and reading
French tales such as “Notre Dame de Paris”, better known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella” are all great favorites in most homes, largely due to the influence of Walt Disney movies. You might also enjoy the film “Ever After”, which is a rather feminist retelling of Cendrillon (Cinderella) starring Drew Barrymore with Anjelica Houston as the delightfully nasty stepmother.
There is a Thea Sisters book called “Mystery in Paris” which offers a delightful tour of the modern-day city of lights as the characters chase down the thief of the fashion designer’s latest collection.
The French language is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce, but it’s always fun to learn a few words. Indeed, much of ballet, cooking, architecture, theatre, music and other artistic terminology is French. Look up terms like pirouette, bain-marie, art nouveau, foyer, and overture.
This is a simple card game which can be played with an ordinary deck. The math objective is to practice adding multiple numbers; the historical aim is to experience how it felt to be a serf or a peasant subject to unfair taxes according to Royal whim. The game is co-operative and all of the players imagine they are a peasant family. The aim is to see how much “money” you have left at the end of the game. The deck is shuffled and placed face down in the middle. Take turns drawing cards. If you draw a number card, add the number to your running total income. If, however, you draw a face card, you lose everything you have accumulated up until that point in the form of “taxes” to the royals. If you draw more than one face card in a row, you can dramatically act out how sorry you are that you are but a poor peasant with nothing to offer his/her royal highness. If you wish, you can have the King, Queen or Jack arbitrarily decide whether to put you in jail (hide under the table for the next round) by flipping a coin.
Download coloring pages of French fashion. Don’t limit the activity to mere coloring, however. Feel free to glue on beads, sequins, ribbons, whatever strikes your fancy. For example, decorate a t-shirt by sewing on beads and ribbons. More experienced seamstresses and tailors might enjoy helping their child make doll’s clothes.
It is possible to purchase two-and three-dimensional puzzles of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Paris Opera, chateau Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and other iconic buildings. There are ways to make DIY stained glass which you can find online, but for younger children, window markers will be just as much fun, as will colored cellophane cut out into interesting geometric shapes and taped onto the window.
The French art of the “chanson” as epitomized by Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré and others is a delightful musical genre to waltz around the room to and can even turn into quite the workout if you follow the rhythms properly.
Food is a delicious and important part of any culture. Consider this lesson a delightful excuse to indulge in baguettes and a variety of French cheeses. French parents allow their children to drink wine and coffee: you can allow your child to taste them if you wish.
It is not necessary to sample all of the cuisine of a country, especially on a budget. It is also impractical if you have a picky eater, as there is no point wasting food. Instead, pick one or two small snacks that you, at least will enjoy. Children should be encouraged to taste but not forced to finish new foods, therefore, tiny portions are in order.
The movie Ever After brought up some interesting discussions. The first was that the plot of the movie didn’t follow the version we were accustomed to, for example, that Cinderella’s name was actually Danielle. In the film, the sisters were Marguerite and Jacqueline, while in our book, they were Drusilla and Anastasia. For a child, details like these can be a sticking point. There were many other disputing points, which I had to explain were a result of the fact that fairy tales are generally oral traditions with many versions, unlike written books which usually have only one “official” version. This discussion has come up in other situations where, for instance, we have compared films to books and even to ballets, and the details were often different though the plot was overall recognizable.
Another issue that came up was the veracity of the tale. “Ever After” uses a plot device similar to “Titanic” in which the story is framed by an elderly woman appearing at the beginning and at the end who wants to set the record straight on what “really” happened. In this movie, the final line is that, though the prince and Cinderella lived happily ever after, “The point, gentlemen,” the old woman insists, “is that they lived”. In an era of easily published and rapidly disseminated information, it is essential to teach children to distinguish the true from the false, the fictional from the fact. This is not easy to teach anyone these days, let alone a child. One problem I discovered, for example, was that Child assumed that cartoons were all fictional while anything with real people was necessarily fact. Finding the same actor in two different movies was a surprise to her. Another problem came up when we read books of historical and scientific fiction. In the “Magic Tree House” series by Mary Pope Osborne, for example, Jack and Annie are fictional characters, but George Washington, whom they met in one of the books, did exist, though what he actually said to them was imagined by the author. The “Magic School Bus” series employs the same technique with science: bees do live in hives, but a school bus cannot shrink to fit inside. As adults, perhaps we assume that these things are obvious, but they are not and they are definitely worth discussing. To return to the movie, Danielle de Barbarac, whom her stepsister nastily nicknamed Cinderella, was not real, yet Leonardo DaVinci was, though obviously his participation in the plot is fictional. The painting of Cinderella shown in the movie is a real painting from 1508 called Head of a Woman, but of course Leonardo DaVinci was unlikely to have painted it with either Cinderella or Drew Barrymore in mind.
The card game was one I designed myself. I have found that many difficult concepts can be represented for children in a manner that is abstract enough that it gets at once to the essence of the question. In this case, the idea of an unjust taxation system is fairly simple to translate: the luck (or misfortune) of the draw determines how much money you will be left with. In this book, you will find many other such games dealing with issues including slavery, the holocaust and colonization.