Given that the official start of Spring is just a few days away, and my section of the country still has patches of snow on the sidewalks and faces less-than spring-like temperatures, I’ve found myself searching for memories that evoke the bright pops of flowers and warm sunshine of the season. One of those memories is Poisson d’Avril. This April 1st holiday, celebrated in France, is the French version of April Fool’s Day, with a twist that involves, fish, construction paper, and umbrellas.
Ironically, April Fool’s Day is actually the American version of Poisson d’Avril, because the holiday originated in France.
Poisson d’Avril, translated as April Fish, is enjoyed most by schoolchildren, as they traditionally create fish decorations of all kinds. I experienced this firsthand, as I was babysitting a 5-year-old at the time.
Babysitting to Learn
While I was working in France as an English teaching assistant, I began babysitting for French children to make extra money and expand my French vocabulary. It was an under the table gig that was in high demand, as many French parents were eager to have their children learn English, and often posted job ads for native English babysitters who would speak to their children in English.
The boy I babysat, Mathis, was an energetic, blonde-haired 5-year-old who lived and went to school in Paris. On a few afternoons a week, I’d pick him up from school and we’d spend a few hours at his home, playing games and practicing words in English, until his parents returned from work.
My favorite part of babysitting Mathis was his school. It was a unique opportunity to experience French education from the ground up, and a wonderful opportunity to practice my quick conversational French, as I had to navigate the end-of-the-day chaos in the school.
When the bell rang at 4:25, I would join all of the parents, babysitters, sisters, brothers, friends, and grandparents who flooded the front doors of the school in Paris’ 17th arrondissement, searching for their children. It was a frenzy of coats and bags and lines and shouts of “S’il vous plait” as I made my way up to Mathis’ classroom on the second floor of the school. I would often mix up the classrooms and find myself at the wrong door and in the wrong hallway, as all of the hallways had the same sea foam green walls, gold coat hooks and white classroom doors.
I’d recognize Mathis waiting with the other children by his blue coat, tousled hair and red and green backpack. We’d leave the school with a quick “au revoir” to La Gardienne, the security guard at the front door, and then Mathis would want to rush off to find the nearest patisserie. As with most French children, Mathis loved a pain au chocolat or a croissant after a long day at school.
Holiday of Fish
But when I arrived at Mathis’ school on Poisson d’Avril, the children burst out of the school doors wearing green, blue, and yellow fish-shaped hats trailing colorful streamers of crepe paper. They clasped signs and cards in their hands, and some even wore cardboard shirts.
The sidewalks outside of the school were littered with small, bright fish confetti. The children, with Mathis leading the way, were grabbing fistfuls of the confetti and tossing them straight up into the air, while commuters rushed by and didn’t event react. Mathis wanted to stay near the school for almost a half an hour to play with this confetti that was now covered in city street debris. Only after I offered a trip to the patisserie did he agree to leave.
Near Poisson d’Avril and the Easter holiday, the patisseries in Paris offer chocolate fish, bells, hens, and most notably umbrellas. Mathis chose the parapluie (umbrella), a miniature chocolate umbrella with a white handle and a colorful tinfoil wrapping.
After the patisserie, we would walk to the park, Mathis gripping my hand with one hand while holding his pastry in the other. The park was large and modern, with everything from skateboarding ramps to teeter-totters, and acres of grass and trees.
In most parks throughout Paris, the grass is closed from the months of November to April, and it is forbidden to walk on. The signs on the grass read, “la pelouse se repose,” literally translated into English as “the lawn is resting.” A charming way to remind people to keep off of the grass!
On April 1, when the lawn is no longer resting, people flock to the park lawns to enjoy the sun like a day on the beach.
Teenagers bring i-Pods and Frisbees, children bring soccer balls and dolls, and adults bring blankets, beach towels, books, cards, baguettes and cheese, and yes, even wine. After 3 p.m. on a sunny day, there is hardly a spot of grass open. It’s peaceful yet busy with chatter – perfectly balanced.
That Poisson d’Avril was no exception.