As parents of a teenage daughter, we’ve long held this touching belief that French teenagers have a much more responsible attitude to alcohol than their contemporaries across the water. I’m here to tell you that it ain’t necessarily so.
I couldn’t quite understand my daughter’s misgivings about going to her friend’s 16th birthday party on Friday night. She had worked hard on her various half-term projects for most of her holidays, so surely she deserved a little fun. Invited to spend the night, I could drop her off on Friday evening and her mum could pick her up on the way back from work early on Saturday afternoon. The venue was the friend’s parent’s holiday gîte, so the ‘kids’ could party like it was 1999, free from the custodial influence of adults.
Neither my wife nor I worried a jot about the implications. After all, she’s been to a few overnighters with friends from school and there has never been a question of shenanigans. We’ve dropped her off with her sleeping bag and comestibles, secretly rather hoping that she and her pals might all let their hair down for once. Just a little. These French ‘yoot’: they seem such a responsible bunch, busy training for a premature adulthood.
Maybe the moral high ground occupied by parents has obscured from view my own youthful transgressions, but curiously I have never really stopped to make the link to my own experience of teenage parties. They seem so far back in the past now that they’re hardly relevant. But now that I remember, surely I should be more worried about my daughter more than I have been. Drink, drugs, underage sex, appalling behaviour, irresponsibility a-go-go. She’s got my genes. It doesn’t bare thinking about.
Back in Belfast at the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s, my sister and I used to be part of a crowd of middle-class party-animals. We’d gather at a predetermined spot of a Saturday night – admittedly in a suburb that was safer than most – and either head for a party that we knew about, or wander the tree-lined avenues in search of a party that we didn’t (yet) know about. Armed with bottles of Strongbow or Woodpecker cider and Dick Turpin or QC wine, and flagons of home-brewed ‘jungle juice’ that tasted suspiciously like paint-stripper, we’d turn up, tune in to whatever was going down and turn on to whatever illicit substances were available in whoever’s house had been foolishly abandoned by trusting parents for the evening.
I still blanche to think of one particular evening when my girlfriend’s parents returned prematurely to find all available floor space taken up by a writhing mass of hormonal humanity, either snogging at carpet-level or crashed out and propped up against a wall for support. I was upstairs when the lights went on, dressed in my girlfriend’s mother’s fur coat, either in the loo or the parents’ bedroom. All I can remember is opening a first-floor window, climbing onto the windowsill and hanging on by the gutter just above me as I swayed above the back garden below – until someone arrived and suggested that I might be better advised to climb back in and face the music. Anyone who knows the story of how Robert Wyatt of The Soft Machine ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life will recognise the folly of such a manoeuvre.
Every Saturday night, somehow we would have to make our way back home and slip into the family home and into our beds without drawing undue attention to ourselves. I can only imagine that the walk home was enough to sober us up sufficiently to avoid detection. Either that or my parents were as naïve and as trusting as I seem to have become in my time.
We, the parents, were at a party of our own last Friday evening. We left early because Debs had treated eight people that day and had to get up early the next morning for more. There was a text message from our daughter to ask if I could come and get her. What a shame, I thought. Obviously she hadn’t managed to let her hair down and wasn’t enjoying herself. So I dropped my tired wife off at home and drove off to pick up The Daughter.
As soon as I got there, I understood immediately why she wouldn’t have enjoyed herself. This party was different to others that she has spent happily among the company of school friends. There were… boys. If there’s anything worse on earth than teenage boys, it’s drunken teenage boys. I remember only too clearly how gauche and generally awful I must have been at a similar age in a similar condition. I caught one unsteady youth in my headlights, prowling around outside the house like a sexual predator.
Locked in an embrace with some spotty Francois (or whatever the French equivalent is of Herbert) was the birthday girl. She released herself at once to greet me in a voice that was too much louder than normal to suggest anything other than partial inebriation. Hard as she probably tried to disguise it, I could see the look of relief on Tilley’s face when she saw me. She followed me to the car. Both of us were sensibly in bed before midnight.
It all came out in the wash the next day, once my wife had got back from work. That’s the way it works in this household: our daughter tells her mother, usually – unless otherwise requested – on the implicit understanding that it will be edited if necessary and passed on to her father. Apparently it was a boozing party, with whisky and Malibu high up on the menu. The party dinner came to naught, because her friend’s mother forgot the cheese for the raclette and then the boys, who started throwing food as soon as they arrived, added beer and lead pencils to the water in which the potatoes were cooked.A whole scene going, in other words! But not the kind of scene favoured by my daughter. I have a rough idea why she’s so disdainful of teenage boys, but can’t imagine where she got to be so sensible about alcohol. I’m very relieved that she is and only hope that she manages to retain this equanimity once she becomes a student in the UK. Obviously French kids aren’t quite the sensible creatures I had previously imagined, but they’re positive angels in comparison to their British counterparts. Lord protect this thy child from the follies of her father…