Ian Moore: The secret to successful back-to-school shopping in France

Ian Moore: The secret to successful back-to-school shopping in France

Ticking off the long list of things children need for the new school year requires a deft and somewhat ruthless approach. Our favourite comedian shares his tried-and-tested tactics for a successful stationery run

In an increasingly difficult world, it’s the small victories that can lift you up. In the list of ‘things I can crow about’ though you’d be forgiven for thinking that buying stationery for the new school year is a pretty weak boast. But, as with everything in France there’s a ‘system’ to buying stuff for school and it is, in a word, brutal.

At the end of each school year, children of collège age are given a list of things they will need to buy for the next school year. It’s a long list too including notebooks, schoolbooks, paper, pens, protractors, the basics really, but also text books, reading books etc as well. Obviously it’s the same in the UK, parents provide the pens and the mathematical stuff, but here you have to sort out the right kind of paper too – small squared, large squared, never lined – plus subject-dividers, folders, glue and even a sponge. A sponge?! Nope, me neither.

Now obviously, nobody in their right mind does anything about this list right away, that isn’t the French way and anyway, you couldn’t even if you tried. The supermarkets remove most school things from the shelves the minute the grandes vacances arrive as if a reminder would put too much of a dampener on the coming two months of freedom. But, around the second week of August and literally overnight, the lilos, sandals and water pistols disappear and out come the compasses, calculators and Tipp-Ex. It’s a sign that la rentrée is nearly upon us, it’s also a time for parents to stiffen their sinews, take a deep breath and let battle commence.


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The first time we went on the ‘Stationery Run’ we had no idea of what we were letting ourselves in for. Nobody had warned us. But as we approached the ‘Back to School’ section of the supermarket it looked like we’d stumbled on a combination of prison riot and locust crop destruction. We stood there open-mouthed, which was the worst thing you could do. Like driving on the pérephérique in Paris, if you show fear you’re in trouble. There’s no room for the half-hearted here.

This will be my eighth ‘Stationery Run’, with four more to come thanks to my youngest, and over the years you develop a modus operandi, a way of coping with the mean streets of school supplies. And they are mean too. Obviously, everyone is after the own-brand paper, not the expensive stuff, but as this runs low people stoop to nicking stuff out of your trolley! I’ve seen people turn their back on a fully-laden basket only to turn back around and find the thing completely empty. It’s happened to me, though I’m a grizzled veteran now, with nervous tic and flashbacks to boot, and not the naïve rookie I was.

Always hunt in packs, that’s the key. Stand your ground and don’t be afraid to use your elbows. It may be a cross between the Pamplona bull run and an old-time Wild West bar brawl but let the others do the blinking first. I remember one audacious move where I’d spotted the last ‘own brand’, large square, four hole, A4 Pad but so had a rival who was a touch closer. My eldest saw what was happening too and just nudged our trolley enough to tap the ankle of our ‘enemy’. Down he went and we claimed our prize.

In a world where all level of competition is being removed from education, because you know, that’s really preparing kids for the real world, it’s events like this which give the school year the start and pecking order it badly needs. My children and I have happy memories of our ‘battles’ together and it’s a source of great pride knowing that now, because of our efforts as a family, my kids have the cheapest stationery available and not the really expensive stuff like some other losers.

Ian Moore is a comedian, writer, chutney-maker, mod and B&B owner who lives with his family in the Loire Valley. He also writes a regular column in Living France magazine


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