Pays Civilisés

I told this story at the Moth last night. The theme was Jokers, and it was hosted by the lovely, hilarious Lauren Weedman. I didn’t win, but I got little fragments of adulation from the audience after I was done, including shouts of “10! 10! 10!” Sadly, the judges disagreed and gave me a 9.4 (my total was 28.7 out of a possible 30).

In 1970 I was in what you might call the tenth grade, but we called 3ème, because I went to a Lycée Français.  This is a network of international schools based on the French model. The idea, back in the 1930s, was that diplomats, for whom French was the international language, could be posted anywhere in the world – Rio to San Francisco to Beirut – and they’d have a school system where their kids would have some continuity. The same textbooks and curriculum; even the same notebooks.

It wasn’t only diplomats’ kids, of course. In my Lycée, in New York, we had UN kids and consulate kids, but there were also the kids of French business people, and expats – just regular French people living in New York. Waiters, milkmen, whatever. And, of course, snobs.

My bona fides were my mother who was French Canadian, and my father who was a German refugee. They wanted a school that combined the French language and the German practice of humiliating and terrifying children.

My best friends were Philippe and Eric. Philippe’s dad was a French translator at the UN, and Eric’s mom was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Paris.

Philippe was the arbiter of who was cool and who wasn’t. He was cute, athletic, easy around girls, and a good student but not too good.

Eric had developed a habit that, when something embarrassing happened to you, like you didn’t stop the ball from going in the goal, or you started talking to a girl and she turned away, or you raised your hand in class and the teacher slapped you down, he would say “snaaaaag!” Which, of course, made it much, much worse. Philippe loved this, and being a sporty kid who had to keep score, he would keep a record of your snags. If he liked, he could use a multiplier, so you didn’t just get a snag, you’d get a decasnag, a hectasnag, a kilosnag. When we learned the prefix mega-, things got really ugly.

I was particularly snag-prone because I was a sensitive kid who cried easily, I was bad at sports, and I was also strangely pompous. I wanted everyone to know how smart I was.

I accumulated 1.5 gigasnags.

There was one kid who had more than me, Tarek Kassem. He was the son of the Egyptian ambassador to the UN, so a rich kid. He was the first to have a calculator – the rich kid’s way to cheat. When Tarek came to the New York Lycee that year, he said his name was “Tony” – he was just trying to fit in. Of course, he was mercilessly punished. When it was discovered that his name was “Tarek,” he got a megasnag, just to start out with. That was his baseline.

Toward the end of a history class, I had raised my hand and was opining that Europeans were becoming Americanized. McDonalds had just opened up in Munich, and I said it wasn’t the fault of the McDonalds, but of the Europeans who went there – they were giving up their culture. Tarek raised his hand and said, “in Africa, we remain true to our culture. We will never become Americanized!”

I said, “Oh, well, I was talking about civilized countries.” [Je parlais des pays civilisés.] It was a dick thing to say, but the room exploded, the teacher laughed, and… the bell rang. That day, all my snags got transferred, in a bloc, to Tarek. He ended up with 4 gigasnags, and I had a clean slate.

That was the meanest thing I had ever done in school, and it was my best day.