The children’s library on the rue Fessart is accessible only via a steep flight of stairs. Predictably there is no sign of a lift. The adult’s library is, I note, located in an identical room on the ground floor. Sighing, I free the Tadpole from her pushchair harness (which she insists on calling a “strap-on”). By the time I have got the pushchair folded, she is already half-way up the stairs and my heart is in my mouth as she turns to laugh at me, teetering precariously on the edge of a step. I race to catch her up, wishing that simple canine commands like “sit” or “stay” or “heel” would have some effect on my wilfully independent daughter. As it is, I say “stand still” and she hears “run for the hills!”
The children’s library is not vast, but there is a well-stocked and thoughtfully enclosed toddler’s section, furnished with chairs for little people and slightly grubby looking animal cushions strewn about the floor.
I approach the young man seated at the front desk, who has his nose in a book, and takes far too long to actually look up and say hello, without the merest hint of a smile. He has a something unsightly dangling from his left nostril, and his long hair, which looks as though he combed olive oil through it this morning, is gathered into a ragged pony tail.
I explain that I would like to enrol Tadpole in the library, and he sullenly hands me a form. How I hate myself for smiling back at him. Regardless of whether or not my naturalisation application is successful, I know that I will never manage the unsmiling, aloof attitude that most Parisians seem to affect in such situations. My inane grinning and eagerness to chat with complete strangers in shops will forever betray my foreignness and put me at a cultural disadvantage, however French I might manage to sound.
I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies: at least obtaining a library card for Tadpole does not require me to produce my birth certificate, backed with an apostille and accompanied by a certified translation. Or a copy of my criminal record. Tadpole’s ID card suffices, just as the lady had told me over the phone. (I had still brought utility bills and the livret de famille though, just in case. I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that anything involving the French administration could really be that simple.)
Library card in hand, I plonk myself down on a dusty ladybird cushion and set to examining the books in the ‘foreign’ section, while Tadpole rearranges the furniture energetically, seemingly having missed the point of why we are here and showing no interest whatsoever in the books which surround her. Of the 120 foreign tomes of which the municipal libraries’ internet site boasted, I note that three quarters are in Hanzi or Kanji or some other Asian language, with the covers on back to front. We live a stone’s throw from the Belleville Chinatown, and this library caters to its residents, so I suppose that was only to be expected.
As we are running a little late for our lunchtime rendez-vous with Negrito and his friends, I hastily choose a couple of Maisy books (in French: Mimi la souris) and a book about a busy spider, by the author of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’. If Mr Frog isn’t home for story time, I will read them in English, which will be useful for practising my off the cuff translation skills, if nothing else.
For the rest of the weekend I am disproportionately pleased with myself for having enrolled Tadpole in the library. I think it is because I have such fond memories of library visits as a child. My mother maintains that she taught me to read before my first sister was born (i.e. shortly before my third birthday) and from that moment on I was unstoppable. I started school a year early, and raced through the reading scheme at breakneck speed.
As there was no way my parents could have financed my fifteen-a-week habit, we came to frequent many libraries over the years. Once I had exhausted the possibilities of the children’s section in our village library, staffed by elderly ladies in cashmere twin sets and irreproachable nasal hygiene, I was allowed to borrow books from the adult section using my mothers library card, even though I was underage. I used my father’s card too. Then we graduated to a bigger library in York itself. At any one time, there would be no less than a dozen library books stacked up next to my bed.
One of the reasons my eyesight is now so poor is that from a very early age (four or five years old I reckon) I used to read in secret after lights out, straining to decipher the words in the orange glow of the streetlamp outside my bedroom window, or leaving my door ajar to catch a sliver of light from the bathroom. If I was under the spell of a favourite book, there was no question of stopping before I had reached the end.
I do hope Tadpole will grow up to be a bookworm too, and not a philistine like Mr Frog.