An expensive lesson to learn

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Unfortunately for him, every French pupil’s teachers meet in a Conseil de Classe at the end of the school year to decide whether their results are good enough to allow them to proceed unhindered into the next year up, and his year had been so bone-idle indifferent that they’d ordered him to wave his promoted classmates goodbye and stay down to do it all again.

But he and his parents were contesting the decision, hence my own summons from Dinan to sit at the Commission d’Appel. The boy was intelligent and articulate and pleaded guilty as charged but if we’d just let him move up, he’d work his socks off next year, promise. Yes, right, and it wasn’t his fault that all the other kids and their parents before him had said exactly the same thing.

Actually, I rather suspected that he must be almost delirious with boredom at school and badly needed to move on towards the less academic, more vocational courses that he was clearly far more interested in. But after deliberating, the commission voted 5-4 that he didn’t deserve to go up and I can only wish him and his teachers bon courage! Lord knows they’ll need it. Eighty per cent of these repeat years turn out to be humiliating failures, anyway, and expensive ones at that, which is why the government is slowly phasing them out despite considerable resistance within the teaching profession.

Talking of expense, I stopped off on the way home to get some petrol and winced as the price on the pump flickered up to 65 euros or about £45. That’s 1.47 euros a litre and yet my brother in San Francisco

e-mailed me last week complaining bitterly that his gas had just hit $4 a gallon, which is only 70 eurocents a litre, for goodness sake!

As the price of un baril de pétrole continues to rocket, words like fioul and gazole and their multiple spellings are now occupying a correspondingly larger part of our daily lives. Actually, fioul originally came from the English fuel, initially as fuel-oil in 1921, and then just plain fuel before being Gallicised in the 1970s by order of the government in a Canute-like attempt to save the blushing damsel of French from violation by the brash and unseemly English, or from any other quarter for that matter. Nor are they the only linguistic conservatives.

Even today, the Académie Française, the nation’s Paristocratic intellectual elite, is fiercely opposing government moves to give at least constitutional recognition to France’s dozen or so regional languages for the first time ever, proud old languages like Breton, Basque and Corsican.

Actually, ‘fuel’ comes from the ancient French fouaille, anyway, a word first recorded in 1571 and itself derived from the 13th century feu or fire, and meaning any combustible used for heating. Gasoil, another Anglicism, officially became gazole in 1973 but the French still use either for the stuff they put in their diesel engines, a golden liquid that now costs them the eyes in their head, as they say, or even the skin off your derrière, as the popular classes prefer to put it.

Oddly enough, the problems posed by these soaring prices are particularly acute on the car-less, Sark-like Ile de Sein, which is five blustery miles out into the Atlantic off Brittany’s westernmost tip. It’s one of the few islands that still has no power cable from the continent and all their electricity is produced by a diesel-driven generator that burns a ton a day.

The 180 year-round inhabitants on the treeless 140-acre rock also get their water from rainwater cisterns and France’s only desalination plant, and their kids can expect a clip round the ear if they’re caught pulling the flush after ‘un pipi’.

Sein’s average ‘altitude’ is only six feet above sea level, its highest point only 20, and temps passé, the island was swamped several times.

As recently as 1868, the inhabitants were forced to seek refuge on their roofs and in the church bell tower, and the priest had already given everyone the absolution when the seas finally receded.

Then dikes were built to keep the ocean out but on 10 March this year, the island took another ferocious pounding that left many of the sea defences in a pitiful state and even washed away a field. The grocer’s shop was flooded and all his neighbour’s doors and windows exploded.

The mayor said that for the first time in his life he could see fear in people eyes and this on an island that’s seen its fair share of storms down the years and was also awarded the Croix de Lorraine by General de Gaulle for its bravery in the war.

And who’s going to pay for all the urgently needed repairs? Not the islanders anyway because, as an island, they don’t have any money, no budget, no nothing. Yes, conditions there can be so harsh that they haven’t had to pay any local taxes since Napoleonic times.

They don’t even have a land registry and if you want to buy or sell or develop a property, you have to consult the living memory of the island’s oldest inhabitants to know whose rights are whose. And many of the houses have now been bought for summer cottages by rich continentals, anyway, forcing prices sky-high and less affluent locals away.

A bit further to the north, five nautical miles off Le Conquet, a hundred or so hardy Bretons also used to scratch a living on the even smaller Ile de Quéménès. But life was too hard even for them and the island had long since been abandoned to the gulls when it was bought by the Conservatoire du Littoral, the coastline conservation trust, in 2003.

The trust advertised for a resourceful couple to manage the island in an environmentally sensitive manner and in 2007 David and Soizic Cuisnier were given the rent-free nine-year lease. They took out a £20,000 bank loan and today their freshly renovated farmhouse boasts solar panels and a windmill, and electric light in all the rooms and hot and cold running water, too.

Nor are they totally Robinson Crusoed either, returning to the continent every ten days to buy in vital supplies and sailing to the nearby Ile de Molène, another speck in the big wide blue, three times a week to get their mail and catch up on the local news over an aperitif on the port.

This April just gone, their three chambres d’hôte or guest rooms welcomed their first paying visitors, who willingly handed over 180 euros for a one-night weekend and three meals for two people. June was fully booked, July probably is too by now, and the island’s permanent population is also set to rise by 50% because Soizic – fine Breton name that – is expecting.

So what exactly is there to do on Quéménès? Well, some people go for walks, or read, or simply rest. Others fish, or paint, or even just do nothing at all. If that sounds like a pretty fair description of bliss to you, I know it does to me, you can find out more at

Actually, it’s about time Mme Masstairmann and I, teachers both, started thinking about what to do with our holidays, too. Mind you, there’s no rush really because we broke up at the end of June and we’re off now until September. Yup! Dealing with the likes of that hyperventilating Year Niner day in, day out, can make the job a touch trying at times but there are compensations.


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