Monday, December 11, 2006

An angel arrives….and off we fly

Gabriel was born exactly to schedule – on the 19th of January around midnight. He was a big fat healthy baby and we all breathed a sigh of relief as now we could really start the planning for our new life in Malaysia. We chose the name ‘Gabriel’ because we both liked it, and it was a classic name from both countries. Although it was pronounced in English with the emphasis on the Gabriel, whereas the French pronounced it more like Gabriel. I also realized belatedly that when the French say Gabriel it is sounds like the English girls name Gabrielle…but too late. Trying to find a name that fitted in both French/English cultures, and matched with Marc/Nina/Hauwaert had driven us mad in the days before he was born!

Just after Gabriel was born Jacques started his new job in KL, while I held the fort in England, with the help of my mum and Jacques mother who came to stay with me. As always when you have a new baby the other siblings look suddenly so big and grown-up. Marc had just had his 6th birthday and Nina was not far off four, but they looked so huge in size and ability to do things compared to the new baby. They were helpful and sang, made funny faces and kept an eye on Gabriel while I cooked. Gabriel smiled when they sang the classic French lullaby ‘Faire Dodo’, and that became his favourite song.

We decided to send a few things ahead of us to Malaysia and store the rest in France. Toys, kitchen stuff and summer clothes were boxed up and sent off in a container. When the boxes left we really felt like we were leaving. We picked April 6th as the day we would fly to KL, which was just before the school Easter break. They would start school a few days after we arrived in KL, when their jet-lag had won off, but then would have a two-week Spring break in May to compensate. We planned a goodbye party with a Chinese theme for 25 children. We hired a sports hall with a bouncy castle. I handed out invites with a Chinese mask for them to decorate and we made a Lion for a dance. Jacques came back from KL with sweets and little party-bag gifts of KL T-shirts and a mini Chinese drum. The party was great, and all the kids had a good time, although its not often you throw a goodbye party in England, so some children were not sure whether to bring a gift or not. We said no gifts, just come along and have some fun. In class each child drew a picture of for Marc and we pasted them into a book.

Friends gathered round to say goodbye and I felt a heavy sadness at leaving the mothers from Marc’s class who had shared the excitement of the first day of school together and the mother of one of Nina’s friend who had had her fourth baby the same time as me. We had a last pizza together and they presented me with a beautiful photo album. I knew I would miss their school-gate chatter and celebrating our kid’s birthdays together. Would I find friends like that in KL I wondered?

The last few days were a blur. My sister and her boyfriend, along with my parents and Jacques parents all pitched in to pack up our house. The van left around lunchtime and we spent the afternoon at my sister’s house, stunned at what was happening. As we arrived at the airport for the 10pm flight the tears came and we all got emotional. The kids clung on to their grandparents and aunt and we had to practically pull them away to catch the check-in deadline. With Gabriel fast asleep and blissfully unaware in his sling we checked in our numerous bags, the baby car seat and the pushchair. Luckily with the Iraq war going on and the SARS virus just beginning to send panic around the world the flight was unusually empty and we had more space than usual.

We spent all night and all of the next day on that airplane….hours and hours punctuated by eating, several films, or a quick nap when Gabriel dozed. Finally we arrived around 5pm local time in the middle of a huge storm. The plane shuddered as it landed, and we gazed out amazed to see palm trees bending in the winds and lighting flashing overheard. We stepped off the plane to walk through the modern gleaming new airport, listening to all the chatter around us in Bahasa Malay, Hindu and Chinese…what a wonderful mixture. The air was steamy and warm and we quickly took off our London layers and climbed into our waiting taxi. ‘Welcome to Malaysia!’ the signs said, and as we approached the city we saw the shining lights of the Petronas Towers and knew we had arrived.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

KL school choices....

Jacques brightened up visibly by the idea of living and working in Asia again. It was a dream come true. He had lived for a short time in Singapore and had visited Malaysia and loved it. Jacques went off for a trip to visit and came back talking of tropical palm trees, bananas and mangos growing in the gardens, cheap and delicious Asian food and swimming pools in every condo. Kuala Lumpur, or KL as the locals call it, seemed a good place to live and the expats living there were positive too.

Jacques also visited a few schools in KL. The expat schools were all private and fees depended on their reputation. There were two British- curriculum schools, an American, Australian and an International one with an American syllabus and a French one. The French one interested us the most. The Lycée Français de Kuala Lumpur or LFKL had fees that were acceptable and they had places for both children. Pupils should ideally have one French parent, but it was not stipulated that they had to speak fluent French. Since Nina was still refusing to speak French and we thought it would give her more exposure to French. Marc spoke French already and he would not have to do much academic work till September because up to age six the emphasis is on play and non-academic skills. We knew that our kids would be lucky to ever get a place in the prestigious and wait-listed Lycée Français in London. Getting a place in one of the European bilingual schools I had read about while researching my book was a daydream too, since neither of us was in the diplomatic service. This was a rare chance to put our children into a French school, without going back to France.

But what would happen to their English if they went to a French school? We reasoned that Malaysians spoke English very well. Jacques reported that nearly all the films in the cinema were in English. Cable television had all the English-language channels and there were huge English-language bookshops and many activities for kids in English. It was the French language that was in danger. French would be under-used, without the proximity of France to England and visiting our cousins regularly. I felt sure I could keep their English going myself and the school would support the French. We did think about changing from OPOL to the Minority-Language-at-Home strategy, where I would speak French to Jacques and the kids. But that concerned me that I might alienate Nina, who could not yet communicate in French properly, and how could I talk to Jacques too? I would much rather adapt to a new school language then change our family strategy. It was a big risk to change the school language though, but we agreed on it and Jacques paid the deposit and enrolled them both in the Maternelle section, Marc in Grande and Nina in Petite section of the LFKL.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Marc had a wonderful teacher in Year Two, a young bright lively woman who could easily control the male-majority class of five and six-year-olds. Miss. Butler read chapters of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and other stories to the rapt kids each day. This would lead to Marc having a long-term love of Dahl’s writing and poems. His spelling and reading level improved and he was praised for his building and technical skills. Miss. Butler didn’t see Marc’s two languages as a problem and he thrived in her classroom.

Nina was settled in her pre-school too. Her teacher had a French mother and we chatted about France regularly. One of Nina’s friends had a French mother too, and praised us for keeping the French going because in her family the dominant language had been English, and the French sidelined. At the weekly playgroup I had a French friend, who was married to an Englishman, and we compared notes on our children. Finally I felt like the children and me could relax about being bilingual and stop worrying what people thought. We took pleasure in the small things in life…inviting friends over for tea, walks on the local common grassland, going to visit my parents and meeting up with my sister who lived nearby.

Life seemed rather too settled that autumn. There was no project on the horizon and even though Jacques kept looking at job vacancies he knew he needed a good two years experience first. But he still had an itch to be somewhere exciting again. Jacques was tired of the long commute into London and after getting the financial systems up and running in Europe he was looking for a challenge again. I was preparing for the new baby, which was predicted to arrive mid-January, but still would join him if an opportunity came up. We had decided not to buy a house and were still renting, which gave us the chance to be more flexible if something came up, and we were vaguely talking about moving in late 2003, after the baby was born, if something good came up….

At the end of October 2002 I went to Spain for a conference on Bilingualism. I called Jacques to wish him a happy wedding anniversary and he asked me what I thought about moving to Malaysia. The CFO of Asia was leaving and they needed a replacement fast. Jacques was an ideal choice, but would he move his two kids (in good schools) and wife (now 6 months pregnant) halfway around the world? Jacques needed my positive answer and support immediately. His senior was skeptical that his family would agree to such a major move. Unfortunately the other chap had had problems settling his family in Malaysia and was returning back home to Australia. We had to prove we would not do the same thing and would stay at least two years.

In that moment when a new job offer comes through you are spinning from sudden realization that what you wanted has just come true, alongside a strong feeling of regret that you have to leave the carefully crafted home and life you have right now. Stood in the public phonebox in Vigo I thought of the great school teachers, the groups of friends our children had, my family, my studies at Birkbeck University…. all pulling me to stay. While on the other hand the thrill of living in Kuala Lumpur tempted me too, with its warm tropical climate, the exciting cultural and linguistic mix of Muslim, Chinese and Indian people, a maid to help with the kids, a bigger house and holidays exploring Asia. By the time I arrived back in cold and miserable England I was thinking maybe yes…..

Monday, December 04, 2006

Tooth Fairy or Mouse?

After many days of fiddling and wobbling Marc’s tooth fell out at school. We were all excited for him. It was one of those wonderful child-development milestones, like the first step, word or smile. I told him that the Tooth Fairy would come and pick up his tooth from under his pillow at night, and in exchange leave him some money. The Tooth fairy has been around as long as I could remember and all children love the story. However Jacques came out with a story about a Souris or Mouse, which seemed to have the same magical powers as our fairy, but was not so pretty and ran in to grab the tooth, instead of flying like the fairy!

Marc was amused to find a letter in the post (from my parents) with a drawing of the fairy. But a few days later another letter arrived from the Mouse, who enclosed an euro along with a cute drawing of herself. Marc was mystified, was it the Fairy or the Mouse? Who collected the teeth anyway? Would he always get two different kinds of money and two letters? Regretting the fuss we had made over this tiny tooth we backtracked and decided the Tooth delivers in England only and the Mouse is only allowed to do her job in France, lest we have any competition or better rates in euros than pounds!

We had had this problem before at Easter too. In England children are given chocolate eggs before Easter from friends and family, whereas in France the Easter eggs are mysteriously ‘dropped’ by the cloches or church bells, which ring on Easter Sunday. Who should Marc believe? Was it the giant pink Easter Bunny he had seen at the school party, or the cloches that dropped eggs all over the gardens in France? Marc was now near to six years old and asking hundreds of tricky questions regarding God, how babies are made and so on... Since neither of us would ‘drop’ his or her cultural traditions for Easter we worked out a solution. Easter would be a combination of eggs before Easter and also an egg hunt in the garden, because I liked that bit! The kids gained in every day.

However this didn’t answer Marc’s questions of why we can’t actually see the Fairy/Mouse/Bunny/Santa or even God for that matter. ‘Children believe in them’ was all we could offer up to curious Marc. I felt sorry for my son, struggling with such huge world concepts and not even sure who was right – Mummy or Papa! At least we both agreed that Santa/Père Noel brings the Christmas presents……

Friday, December 01, 2006

Teaching Nora…

Summer holidays arrived soon after and we went to France for a few weeks. I was feeling quite tired and queasy now, because I was three months pregnant. I particularly wanted to see Gaelle, who was also pregnant with her fourth child and had the same due date as me. There would be a new person visiting staying with Jacques parents too. Jacques younger brother, Jean, had worked in Kosovo helping install water systems. He had fallen in love with a young Kosovan English translator, Nora. This summer Nora was coming to visit the family.

Nora was shy and rather stunned to meet the French family she had heard so much about. Like me she was reserved, unable to follow the fast-paced linguistic exchanges and uncomfortable with all the kissing and formalities at the dinner table. I felt for her immediately and we shared our impressions of France. Nora’s first language was Albanian, and she spoke excellent English, which was the language we used to talk to each other. To help her I gave her a brief run through of what was important (help clear the table, ask how mother-in-law makes certain dishes, leave them to sleep after lunch etc…) Even though my parent-in-laws both spoke good English, and my sister-in-law is an English teacher in school, the language in Pouilloux was strictly French. I had become so used to it I had forgotten what it was like in the beginning when I couldn’t understand much. Although I appreciated my ‘immersion’ in French and the dramatic improvement it had made to my colloquial French I felt odd talking French to Nora. Her French was so limited, and we couldn’t really talk. Nora had also been practically abandoned by Jean, who had gone back to his job in French Guyane after a brief holiday in France. Nora didn’t have a proper visa yet, and this was her first trip to France. She was supposed to join Jean in a few weeks but had no idea how to sort out the paperwork in a country where bureaucracy is a nightmare. Nora was culture-shocked, lost without her boyfriend and away from her close family. I wanted to get to know her better. I liked her a lot and decided that I would speak English to her anyway. This worked in private, when we were out for a walk or when the family took a siesta after lunch. But I was frowned at around the dinner table and comments were made strongly about how Nora must learn French and how I was impeding her progress.

The reasons Nora must learn French were:

a) Jean did not (and would not) speak Albanian. The romance had started in English but Jean wanted them to communicate in French if they were to have a long-term relationship.
b) Jean seemed serious and wanted to marry her, but she would have to prove her commitment to both him and his country by learning and speaking French or she would not get a French passport.
c) The family didn’t want me and Nora whispering in ‘our’ language together and possible plotting against the others or talking about them.

I guess I hadn’t appreciated the difference of having a husband who spoke my language too, and being European I didn’t have to worry about visas or passports either. Still I had never planned to go against the family, and I was hurt that I couldn’t talk more to Nora. I was sure that she needed someone to confide in and if I spoke French to her that would cut off the only link she had. But I understood their logic, even though I didn’t agree with the reasons, and left them to it. I was asked to keep out of Nora’s language training anyway due to my ‘English’ accent and bad pronunciation, and my mother-in-law took over, handing Nora a notebook and asking her to write down objects around her. ‘Le TORCHON!’ she would cry waving the tea-towel in her hand or ‘La FORCHETTE et le COUTEAU!” while she set the table. Jacques came to her rescue a few times, talking Nora through visa problems and giving Nora some cooking lessons in French, which helped her feel useful and prove that she could cook. I felt like she was being put through a series of tests to become ‘Jean’s wife’. Did I have the same tests? Probably better not to think about it….

I left Marc and Nina with their grandparents for two weeks while I returned to England to work on the OPOL book. Nora was an angel with my children, talking to them and helping to look after them. She was a lifeline for Nina, who was still not speaking French much. Nora was there to talk a few words of comforting English. When I flew back at the end of August to pick up the kids Nora was leaving the same day. She had finally got her visa to go to Guyane. As we dropped her off at the train station we hugged goodbye. Nora said thank-you for everything and that I had been like a sister to her, which I took as a great compliment. I wished her lots of luck with her French and hoped she would come back to France soon as my new sister-in-law……

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Queen & I

In England 2002 was the Golden Jubilee year of Queen Elizabeth II. At school there were lots of projects about the monarchy and free flags were handed out to all the children. Flags were everywhere, whcih is rare in England, on t-shirts, hanging from bedroom windows and tied to car radio masts. You couldn't help but feel English. For The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 communities had organized street parties and local fetes. I was ten then and remembered it well. This year we had a national holiday and so we went to my parents house in Nottingham. They live on a quiet surburban housing estate and the surrounding homes had planned a small street party. Each family had to bring their own food for a lunch, and we would share the cost of a bouncy castle and fireworks at dusk.

This is one time when one should feel patriotic but somehow I just couldn’t feel as enthusiastic about it as I had twenty-five years ago. Luckily Marc and Nina were excited and we dressed them up as an English Saint George Knight and English Princess, in white with English red crosses, for the day. Jacques, unlike me in France on his national holiday, was ambivalent and somewhat bored by the preparations. However he took on the lunch and made some interesting salads and a quiche for us to share and he bought some good wine too.

My dad was not so impressed by the salads and quiche and remarked that we should be eating something more ‘English’, making me snappy and angry on Jacques behalf. What did he want? Ham sandwiches and boiled eggs with a cup of tea? I said nothing because I too had cravings for English picnic food, but then Jacques had made such beautiful (and healthy) salads it would be mean to moan. And I felt Jacques contribution was important and I wanted him to feel part of the day too, not excluded. As the party started I still felt strangely distant and unable to really get into it. I felt like a foreigner too in my own country. The kids loved the day though and we did have an excellent weekend, but I couldn’t help feel that I would have been more enthusiastic if it had been in France….why was that? Had I abandoned my English heritage already? Didn’t my children need to know about important English national days as well? How do you balance two cultures?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Spotless Translation.

We decided to go to France for the Easter holidays, to see the family and also try to top up Nina’s French level. We planned to be there for their cousins Francois’ 6th birthday. Being a bilingual family means we don’t often attend family birthdays and the times when we can be there are very special. We were there for the special ones though, we went back for both grandmothers 60th birthdays and my father came down to us in London for his 65th birthday. We happened to be around once for grandpère and a few times for my mum, who has a summer birthday. So this was a real delight for us to be there.

The party was simple; Gaelle, Phillipe and their three children, Gaelle’s parents, her in-laws and us. Francois blew the six candles on his cake, that Odile had made, and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in French and he opened a few gifts. Four-year-old Manon was off-colour that day, looking feverish and sick. I asked what was wrong. Gaelle replied in French ‘ Elle a la varicelle.’ ‘Varicelle’? I wondered what it was. Hours of French at school had given me only a limited vocabulary and I had never really come across many medical terms apart from the basics like blood, fever, sickness etc. So Jacques translated it as ‘measles’. It looked right since she had red spots on her body and was hot. I never had measles as a child, but it certainly looked like the spotty childhood disease you read about in books. I knew that Gaelle had not done all the vaccinations for her children because she didn’t want them to have unnecessary medicines. No need to worry, I thought, Nina was vaccinated for measles as a baby.

A few weeks later, back in London, we celebrated another birthday – Nina’s 3rd. We were blessed to have a full house for her tea-party, my parents were visiting, along with Jacques’ mother and Jacques’ godmother, Claude. We sat down to a beautiful chocolate and strawberry cake, that Jacques had made for Nina. But Nina was in a bad mood, didn’t want to blow the candles or sing. She was hot and flushed and clung to my mother. When I lifted her dress to change her I saw spots on her tummy… spots. Next morning it was worse she was burning up and itching all over. I angrily told the doctor she had already had the measles vaccination, so how could she have got the measles? ‘But no,’ the doctor replied ‘She’s got chicken pox! Don’t you know the difference?’ Humiliated I left with a prescription for itching and called Jacques. ‘I thought you said Manon had measles! She had chicken pox!’ I said. ‘If I’d known it was chicken pox I would have been ready for her to come out in spots!’ Ah well…..the mistranslation was done and so poor Nina suffered like her cousin Manon, and two weeks later, on the dot, Marc came down with chicken pox too…and by the way measles is rougeole for any French/English families reading this!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Trying to fit in

In January 2002 it was Marc’s 5th birthday, and he wanted to invite all his friends. Jacques said that in France you would just invite a few kids round for a tea or gouter, but in England kids birthday parties are important events. Not wanting him to feel left out we hired a sports hall and invited all the class. They jumped on the bouncy castle, ran around madly and then wolfed down chicken nuggets and chips with ice cream in the cafe. The birthday cake was brought in, we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and Marc blew the candles out, but we did not eat the cake. The kids lined up for their ‘party bag’ gift, and a slice of the cake wrapped in a paper napkin to take home with them. Before they all left Jacques insisted that Marc open his gifts in front of his friends, something not always done at English parties. Marc did so with a genuine happiness to receive each present, and thanked each child properly. But I still had to send out personalized thank-you cards a few days later anyway as one does in England….

I was into a good work rhythm researching and writing my book on one-parent-one language families. I had the luxury of my evening classes on Linguistics and the Birkbeck Library in London to escape to (on the two days I had my babysitter) and the book was progressing nicely. Once or twice a month I would take a work-break and do some volunteering. Nina’s pre-school invited one mother to help out every day once a term. I liked this system, it seemed fair and the teachers were friendly and chatty. At the Wednesday church playgroup I attended with Nina I did my craft rota or helped tidy away the toys. In Marc’s school I did some reading practice, school trips and for big fundraisers, like summer fetes, I would man a stall or help do face-painting. But no matter how much I tried I was never really accepted in the various communities.

People would ask me where I had lived before and I would vaguely say ‘France..’, to which they would either be stunned into silence or chat about their parents/brother/cousin who bought a cheap property in France and did it up…Other mothers would ask me about my unusual surname. It seemed that there was a big difference to 1995 when having a French boyfriend was rather sexy and clever. But seven years on as a French/English family people wondered how could I be married to a Frenchman? On top of that we were renting a small flat, when most families in that area owned their houses. We had a tiny 10-year-old Peugeot 206, which looked like a toy compared to most mother’s family cars. My close friends and family were able to look beyond the material possessions, of course, but in general I often felt excluded or somehow not English any more. But then again I didn’t feel 100% English either, and often felt I was looking at my own country with the eyes of a foreigner. No wonder the other mothers didn’t know how to place me.

My saviour was Helen, who I met while researching the OPOL book. Helen was a mix of English and Norwegian parentage and married to a Frenchman. They had lived in London a few years and before that in Switzerland, like us. Our children were of a similar age and at last I was able to talk to someone who truly understood the reality of being married to a Frenchman, but living in England. Helen spoke excellent French and loved France and her family, which she often visited. Both our husbands liked working in England and enjoyed English comedies and cinema. Over lunch we would discuss the problems of choosing schools, helping your children to fit in and keeping languages strong and alive. When we got together the kids would speak mostly English together, but we would hear French mixed into sentences.

Helen and I were both struggling to keep the French alive in a very monolingual environment. Our children were too young to study French at school (which would have been for beginners anyway) so the French mainly came from Papa. But living and working in England had made English the dominant language. So dominant that when I calculated how much French my kids spoke these days it was only about 20%. My research on Language Shift, and the inevitable Language Death which follows if no action is taken alarmed me. At home books, television, videos, games were in the majority in English. And then one day, with amazement, I listened to Jacques asking Nina a question in French and she replied in English. He accepted it and they continued what they were doing as if nothing strange had happened…..

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

He might be hyper-active…

The Reception year at Chorleywood Primary School was a very masculine class – over 20 boys and a handful of girls. The girls settled down with worksheets and practiced writing while the boys tore around role-playing cowboys and dragon-killers. I discovered from other mothers that the Reception year was not the gentle lead-in to school it was supposed to be, but the first crucial year of school. In Year 2 (around age 7) the class would sit the British national SATS test, which would affect the rating of the school. To pass these tests in two years time the children needed to be ‘fluent’ readers, and progress was slow. I went in to help out with the reading every two weeks. Some kids could whiz through a book, while others could barely pick out a familiar sentence. But these kids were only four years old, and they looked so young in their brand-new gray and burgundy school uniforms.

Reports were sent out in the first term, and Jacques and I had our first ever parent-teacher meeting. We waited nervously outside the classroom, looking at some of Marc’s work and wondering what we were supposed to say. ‘I’ve done the baseline Reception tests and Marc is well below average with his language.’ Mrs. Lund said sadly. She went on to explain that Marc had problems with pronouncing ‘y’ and ‘sh’ and was very distracted in class. He couldn’t write his name ‘properly’ or do the writing worksheets. He might even be ‘hyper-active’ she added and was ‘socially immature’. We tried to explain that he had two languages at home, had come from at French pre-school and recently moved house. The teacher looked really worried, as if it hadn’t occurred to her that Jacques was French or that we might actually speak French at home. She suggested a Speech Therapist, and although she didn’t say ‘Drop the French!’ she was probably thinking it. Jacques said he would like a proper psychologist to test Marc for hyper-activity and Mrs. Lund promptly downgraded him to ‘active’, and assured us there was no need for that kind of intervention yet. We left feeling very unsettled about the meeting and what exactly was wrong with Marc. It seemed like he was not up to standard.

The British educational system favours the ‘average’ child. Bright kids are bored and held back in class. Slow kids who need extra help, and those with learning problems or dyslexia, are quickly diagnosed in Reception, but the parents must lobby for external tutoring or in-class assistance. But Marc didn’t have any real problems; he was simply not ready to settle into academic life, like several of his boy peers. The boys were into Lego, Mechano, making train sets and building castles with boxes. They communicated with actions not language. Writing, reading and copying letters did nothing for them. If he had stayed in the French system he would have been allowed to play more, because academic reading and writing starts at age six, in the CP class. But we had made our choice and we must stick with it. Most days Marc was happy to go to school and had several good friends. After-school he would go to play or invite his friends to our house. I became good friends too with the mothers of George, Louis, Ewan, Joshua and Sam and we had fun birthday parties and get-togethers.

We decided to stay in England for Christmas and invited my parents and my sister for Christmas Day. Over the last five years of being a family we had alternated Christmas in France and England. But I was frustrated by the French families lack of decorations, emphasis on the 24th rather the 25th and putting out slippers instead of socks for Santa. Jacques was also keen to do our own thing rather than expect the in-laws to do everything for us. My birthday is on the 25th December too, and I was feeling embarrassed that my mum, or Odile, were making a birthday cake for me, and I thought the kids could take over that part. This year the children were old enough to participate and it was time to create our ‘own’ Christmas. We decorated the house and tree early in December and indulged in all the carols, pantomimes and Santa-visits we could find. It felt great to be in England and I realized how much I loved December. But as the 25th approached Jacques refused to buy a turkey. Why not? I protested. He said the turkey was over-priced (true) and was so dry when it was cooked it didn’t impress him. After much heated discussion we settled on a turkey and cranberry sauce starter, followed by fish then a leg of lamb cooked by Jacques. I refused to drop the traditional English Christmas pudding with brandy sauce and brandy butter. It was wonderful to do our own Christmas though, on the day the children were truly amazed to find their gifts, which Santa had left a la française on top of their slippers… and later on in the day the children prepared my birthday cake and helped make an afternoon tea. My parents and sister didn't mention the lack of turkey and had a good time seeing Christmas through Marc and Nina's eyes, albeit with a slightly French flavour...

Friday, October 27, 2006

You’re too late…..

Moving back to England was like a reverse culture shock, even though it is my country and Jacques loved it before. Everything seemed more expensive than five years ago and I felt lost, bewildered and out-of touch with my peer group . Our budget was barely enough to rent a one-bedroomed studio in central London. I looked around the dreary suburbs around London where I’d lived after graduation, but couldn’t imagine living there with young kids. In 1995 (before the children were born) we had lived briefly in Gerrards Cross, a green enclave at the edge of Greater London. I remembered that schools were good around there and it was near to two airports, so focused on the nearby small towns, which had train connections to central London. I felt like a foreigner in my own country and estate agents found it odd we didn’t want to buy a house, as most English families do.

I looked for ‘good’ schools with places available, but the Education Office said they could not say if they had a place until I was living in their catchment area. Fair enough, but I needed to know if it was worth moving into the area. When I telephoned the school offices directly with the opening lines ‘We are a new family who has just moved into the area…’ I was rudely cut off with the information that I should have applied nine months ago and all classes were full now. It was too late now, and all they could do was squeeze Marc into some (probably awful) school that might not even be in my area…

In panic-mode I signed a lease on a basic three-bedroomed Seventies flat or apartment in Chorleywood. It was a green and pleasant village-town near to a station and shops, and had three ‘good’ schools. I telephoned the schools; one was over-booked already, the other was a church school (no chance as you must attend the attached church for two years and have a letter of recommendation from the church) and the third said “Let me see…’ After a few days the secretary rang back and said ‘You are so lucky, a family is emigrating to Australia and you can have their place.’ I visited the Headmaster immediately to explain our delayed application and we were in! Marc was officially admitted to the Nursery class of Chorleywood Primary School, starting just after the Easter holidays. The school had busy colourful classrooms and lots of happy children running around the grassy playground at playtime.

Next I concentrated on Nina. As a two-year-old she was too young for the Nursery class, which started just before the fourth birthday. The best option was a full-day Pre-school or private childcare. These options were no good either. The pre-schools would not accept her until she was 2 ½ (and they were only half-day anyway). The full-time childcare center and the local childminders were full, presumably pre-booked at birth. I wished that I was in France, where she would have had a full-time school place at age two-and-a half.

We moved our things to the new apartment with little enthusiasm. The flat was uninspiring and we felt out of place. I left the children with my parents for a few weeks while I started work. I soon realized the commute was nearly 2 hours a day and I would not be home before 6.30pm, even on a good day. An au-pair from France would have been ideal, but we had no spare room. Jacques’ mother came to help out with childcare temporarily. But after a month we had no choice and had to hire a nanny. Several potential nannies visited and said no straightaway. They were used to their own car, huge playrooms/gardens and lots of perks. So we were obliged to hire a first-time Nanny from Australia who didn’t know any better.

Kylie was to drop off/pick-up Marc at school and mind Nina all day. She came with her son, who was the same age as Nina. She cost the same salary as me. She refused to do any housework and would only prepare simple food for the kids. We tried it out for a few months, but it was not a success. So we stopped the Nanny and struggled through the summer with help of my sister-in-law, parents and Jacques parents looking after the kids.

Even though I liked working I missed the school drop-offs and pick-ups (when all the mothers got together to chat). I missed the Assemblies and Sports days. I hated the stress of being home on time and trying to compensate afterwards with kids before they went to bed. In September when Marc was due to start Reception – the first year of Primary school, I reduced my hours to three days a week and had a Caribbean woman, Lydia, look after the kids the other days. But by October I gave up working. It was not worth it. I enrolled for an evening PhD course in Linguistics at Birkbeck College and signed Nina up for the local pre-school four mornings a week.

I calculated that I would have 12 hours for working at home in the mornings and two afternoons when Lydia picked up the kids for my study classes at Birkbeck. In the evenings I could work for up to three hours when the kids were in bed too. The housework, coffee-mornings and watching television would have to be postponed but I could get my PhD papers done and write the book I had always wanted to, if I really tried…..

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Berlin Pause

It was much colder in Berlin than England, and there was even snow. The city was fascinating though and my German friend, Nina, lived nearby to us with her partner and son, David who was the same age as our little Nina. We spent cosy weekends with Nina and Roland and discovered the numerous well-used neighborhood parks together. In the weekdays, while Jacques worked, the children and I did touristy things like visiting the Television Tower or the Natural History Museum. We did a daily trip to the supermarket and on the way back usually stopped at a craft shop for supplies.

Since the children had no school I decided we should do something artistic. We used recycled materials and the apartment was soon full of toilet roll and cereal box creations with sticky sequins and tissue paper to decorate. Marc liked to watch television too, and didn’t seem surprised that they were all speaking German. Every day he religiously watched a science programme for kids and Disney cartoons. He never asked me what they were saying, perhaps he remembered German from his time in Zurich when he was just a toddler? Nina would walk away saying she didn’t like it.

One Sunday I took Marc to a puppet theatre. We enjoyed the one-hour show and laughed a lot but on the way out he said ‘Mummy, what was the story?’ ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ I replied. ‘Oh!’ he said ‘I thought I had heard that story before!’ As he sifted through his memories of English Snow Whites or French Blanche Neiges I wondered what he was thinking about this mix of languages.

On cold wintry days we looked for places to go that were warm and child-friendly, and the local library was both. Marc and Nina were delighted and we settled down on the cushions to read. But all the books were in German. Although I could do a passable translation of French to English I could not do the same in German. ‘Well’ I said ‘We’ll just have to guess the story.’ Being too young to read themselves they accepted this and we made up the story as we thought it should be. Months later we found the English translation of our favourite book ‘Swimmy’ and we were not far off the actual story….

In March the project was finishing and we had to move to London. I bought the weekly Guardian newspaper in Berlin and by chance saw a job advertised in a top London language school. The job, Director of Studies, was perfect for my qualifications and experience as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. At the end of our time in England I had taught English for a week and was itching to get back to full-time work after a 4-year break. I was bored at home and we both thought it would be useful to have my salary contribution in London. So I applied, just to see what would happen. I was immediately called for interview and before I could blink was offered the job, starting the first week of April. Two weeks before the job started I rushed back to London to look for a house for us to rent, a school for Marc and childcare for Nina…

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

La rentree and moving on

September came and the wonderful summer ended abruptly. Signs offered sales for la rentree and countrywide the back-to-school/work mood was felt strongly. Marc went back to school, along with his two cousins, Francois and Manon. The weekend antique markets stopped as did the theatres, concerts and eating out on the lawn. The house was suddenly cold and we couldn’t play outside so much. We urgently needed to get the sewage system sorted and the heating installed and started working on finishing Jean’s house before it got too cold. On weekends we went picking blackberries and mushrooms or roasted chestnuts on the open fire with the cousins.

I felt my weekdays needed some activities so I found a weekly playgroup called Croque-Lune for Nina in Melle, a nearby town. We started going regularly, and enjoyed the free children’s activities, singing French nursery rhymes and the soft play-area. But no-one talked to me at all. I worried that my French was the problem, but then by this point I could chat easily to French people. I eventually realized that the young French mothers had an extensive circle of friends, family and neighbours around them and had no need to talk to me. They didn’t speak English and simply avoided me. Their lives were busy and full with shopping cooking, picking up children and or part-time jobs. I tried to chat to one or two who lived near me, they were friendly but there was no chance of a ‘playdate’ or even an invitation for coffee. The same happened outside Marc’s primary school. This was better, since I saw my sister-in-law, Gaelle, every day and a couple of her friends would small-talk with me, but still I was having problems making new friends of my own.

Gaelle helped run the local branch of La Leche an association which promoted breast-feeding. I had breast-fed Marc and Nina for respectively nine and twelve months. Although I had stopped feeding Nina by now I was allowed to join as a temporary ‘honorary’ member. I loved the monthly group meetings and the women were keen to talk here, about babies and motherhood, subjects I could talk about too. I finally had a chance to step away from my close family and feel part of the wider community too. After a bad start with the English-living-in-France community intially I bonded well with June and a couple, Terrry and Joyce, who offered me cups of tea and compared notes on France. Both had huge conversions projects going but were more open to the locals and positive about their life there.

Marc was not a great talker but he managed. His teacher told me he was doing well. There was not much communication between school and home anyway, I collected Marc from outside the school gates, so unless there was a problem I had very little idea what he was doing. Nina meanwhile was learning to talk fast and as she approached 18 months of age her words came quickly. She mixed wildly, unlike Marc who had always taken care to separate the two languages. She would say things like ‘Give me lait!’ and ‘Me aime duck!’ Her grammar was mixed-up too; she said things like ‘I him like’, which was a reference to the French Je t’aime, where the pronoun preceded the verb. Nobody corrected her or bothered about her mixes. I would just repeat back the right words, as would Jacques in French.

Probably because she was our second child, and the fourth grandchild in France, we all assumed it would sort itself out. The fact that she was so chatty and communicative made you just understood what she wanted anyway! French was much more ‘real’ for her than it had been for Marc and she was very comfortable with both languages. French was all around, while in the house we mostly spoke English. I did have a few problems though, when the cousins came to play they would ask me to read. Most of our books were in English and I had to simultaneously translate, a task I am not so good at!

Jacques and I had to stop the gardening and house-clearing as Autumn arrived. By November the house we were living in was nearly finished and Jean had tenants coming in January. We realized that our sabbatical was coming to an end and Jacques would have to get a job in Paris or look for a job somewhere else. Surfing on the internet he saw many jobs advertised in the UK’s Financial Times, and began to apply. Very soon he was practically commuting to London as he traveled for numerous interviews with agencies and companies. He was trying to change his job focus from Project Manager to Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and had his work cut out proving to skeptical English interviewers that his French qualifications were sufficient, his English language excellent and that he was up to the challenge of a new job. We were quite open to live anywhere, and aimed for Asia at first. But as the options narrowed down and Christmas approached he still had no concrete job offer. One British company had expressed interest but had not got back to him.

Jacques decided to be closer to London and just before Christmas we moved all our belongings into storage in the house in Caunay. We went to live, temporarily, with my parents in Nottingham so Jacques could attend more interviews. It was a stressful time for us as we felt unsettled and were fast running out of savings. I missed France and the countryside life we had there and compared it unfavourably to the surburban life my parents had. However, it was good for the children to be with their English grandparents on a kind of extended Christmas holiday. At the end of January Jacques finally got a job as European CFO and was sent immediately to Berlin for two months to sort out the finances there. Since we had no school and no home yet I decided to join him with the children. Instead of the company paying for a good hotel for Jacques we were able to rent a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the center of Berlin for the same price. So off we flew to Berlin, traveling lightly and ready for some adventure again….

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A blessing, baptism and a birthday…..

Jacques’ 30th birthday was in August 2000, so it was a good time for a party. We decided it was the right time to christen Nina too. We thought this time we would do it in France, in the church in Caunay, the village where we have a house. We met with Henri, the local Catholic prêt for a preliminary meeting. Henri had been around for nearly thirty years; he had given Jacques and his siblings catechism lessons when they were at school, married Pierre and Philippe and knew the family well. We explained that we wanted a rather special ‘bilingual’ christening, if possible.

Henri had a few reservations about my non-catholic Church of England background though, and was concerned that we only had a civil marriage in Budapest. It was possible to bless our marriage at the same time as we baptized Nina, he told us. This seemed like a perfect chance to bring together our families, nearly four years after our official marriage. Henri agreed to open the tiny village church in Caunay on Saturday 12th August - the day of Jacques’ birthday. To my amusement he opened his Book of Saints Names to check if ‘Nina’ was in there. She was, thank goodness, and he read out her saintly character to us, perhaps hoping Nina would follow suit. After several other meetings we hand-picked the verses, prayers and music for the ceremony which included Ava Maria and one of our favourite opera pieces from the film ‘The Fifth Element'.

We stopped work on the Columbier house-clearing and worked on the nearby Logis. We planned to hold the party there after the christening, which was walking distance from the church. But we soon realized that a party venue without toilets, water or electricity might be rather tricky (for the guests certainly!). So we chose a local farm, which had a restaurant, serving farm-grown produce and we ordered a typical three-course lunch – pâté on fresh bread, braised lamb and potatoes and fresh haricot vert, goat’s cheese. The dessert was a traditional pièce montée, a confection of stuffed profiteroles held together with a strong sticky caramel to form a pyramid. It is usually served at weddings and seemed appropriate for this joint blessing/christening celebration. We planned an early evening cocktail at the Logis and after that a small disco with 70’s music at a hall in the village.

Finally we had to choose the godparents. We chose Mikeal, a French family friend who had known Jacques for many years, as her godfather and my sister, Jayne, as her godmother for a true French/English balance.

We had a great turnout - my parents, sister and my uncle, nearly all the French family plus a few friends from my side and several of Jacques university friends. In the church Henri did a superb job, managing to squeeze in all the French prayers and chants alongside a few English lines of welcome. Jayne, who studied French at university, read a poem in French, which impressed everyone. The blessing did not over-shadow the christening, but confirmed that we were a couple now married in front of God, which felt comforting. It was good to do it we both felt, after so much indecision and postponing. My parents looked happy and at ease in France, as Jacques family had in England in 1997, and I was touched at how they managed to chat and exchange news as if they were living in the next town. My parents were delighted to visit Odile and René’s house, which is at its best in high summer and enjoyed eating with the family and visiting all the houses the Hauwaert family owned around the area.

After the baptism we ate all afternoon, staying at the farm till after 4pm and then slowly moving on to the Logis for the evening cocktail. Jacques and I gave tours of the empty and derelict Logis, showing where the future rooms would be. This required great imaginative powers, and some were skeptical of us taking on such a project when you could build a new house in the surrounding field. As dusk came we lit candles, but were eventually obliged to leave the Logis for the brightness of the Village hall in Caunay. There we had the disco till the early hours of the next morning, with a lively mix of French and English seventies music…

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fêting the national day

In 2000 we arrived in France in springtime, my favourite time of year. The French family was glad to see us, my sister-in-law, Gaelle, was just about to give birth to her third child and a wedding was in preparation for Jacques’ brother, Pierre, for June. We moved our things into Jacques’ brothers house in a village near his parents house. Jean wanted us to finish the small things in the house that needed finishing. However the ‘small things’ that needed finishing (the tiling and attachment of the bath, heating system, sanding and polishing of wooden floors and window frames and under-garden waste-disposal system) were more daunting then we thought. But the novelty of actually having our own cosy house and garden compensated for the mess and debris the builders had left behind. Luckily we could bathe at Jacques’ parents house and the kids had shower-baths in the garden with the garden hose!

We drove around the countryside visting summer second-hand markets or brocantes and antique sales in local towns and villages. Summer outdoor theatres opened and the weekends were busy eating with family or friends who dropped in. A new cousin, Baptiste, was born at the end of May and Laure became an official aunt or tata few days later when she married Pierre. I prepared an English tea-party for my mother-in-law’s birthday in June. We felt very close to the family and delighted to be around.

Our village was naturally curious about us. Our neighbour, Madame Martin, the wife of the village goat farmer became our link to the community. My French at this stage was basic, limited to small talk and weather descriptions. One Saturday I impulsively bought two ducklings at the market, which we named Alison and Vanessa. We left them in the garden while we ate lunch. An hour later they were gone! Madame Martin generously helped search for them, and they turned up nearby on her land. She teased me about my farming skills and showed me what food they ate and where we should put them (in a caged area at the end of the garden because they would smell!) In the summer evenings I would stand outside and try to ‘chat’ about ducks or children (our only subjects in common) while she fed the goats or collected her washing from the hedge outside their farmhouse. Madame Martin had a fast rolling local dialect or patois and if another villager was there she would launch into a non-stop account of village comings and goings, which I could hardly follow. I hung out with her and other village members most evenings in the summer and by the end I could just about decipher the words and even more important the subject!

Marc was able to join the local school immediately in the nearest town, Sauzé-Vaussais. All five Hauwaert children had attended this primary school. In fact it was the same Directrice in charge who welcomed Jacques back with warmth, and surprise that he had married an English girl. Marc accepted the change of language easily, helped by the fact that he was placed in the same class as his cousin, Francois, who was nine months older. Francois helped guide Marc around the maternelle or pre-school part of the school. Days were long though, starting at 9am and finishing at 4.30pm, except for Wednesdays when there was no school. Meanwhile Jacques and I dropped off Nina with her grandparents most days and cleared out an old house we had just bought.

The house was in Caunay, a nearby village where Jacques had previously bought a run-down and abandoned 16th century logis or manor house in 1995. In 1999 we found another similar house, also in a bad state of neglect and bought it immediately. This house was called Columbier or Pigeon Loft and it was big enough to convert into two 3 or 4-bedroomed houses which we could rent out. Alongside Columbier was a small two-roomed house with a large barn that had belonged to Monsieur Prêt, who owned all the land and property. His parents had lived there and when they died he ran a small grocery shop, then a tailoring business from the house. A bachelor in his sixties, Monsieur Prêt finally sold the small house to us in 2000 and moved to a home for the elderly. His health was failing and the house had no water supply indoor or bathroom facilities.

We bought the house as it was, and opened the door to find all his stock, clothes, papers and some sixty years of rubbish still there. So our days were spent clearing out, sorting and doing trips to the local dump. As the house emptied we worked on the garden and the barn. The change of pace, the physical labour and the fresh air was good for both Jacques and me. My depression lifted and Jacques was relaxed and enjoying spending time with Marc and Nina. We took pleasure in the small things in life; sunflowers and maize growing near our house, a picnic by the river, a trip to the beach with Gaelle and the cousins and visiting the local markets to buy our food.

In summer we celebrated the fete nationale or Bastille Day on the 14th July. We joined Jacques parents in their village and I thought that I would be seeing a typical French cultural event. However, I heard several English voices, and as we grouped together to sit on the long tables with bench seats I realized one of the four tables was ‘English’. I hadn’t reckoned that so many English people lived in ‘my’ village. I was torn between going to say hello and pretending to be ‘French’, which I could get away with being seated next to my in-laws. Finally I walked over to chat to my fellow countrymen and was rebuffed by the English as ‘not one of them’. The English families had all moved to France for ‘a better life’, had bought local farmhouses at knockdown prices and were smugly cheering themselves for doing so. I didn’t have such a story to share and left them to it, drinking their wine and comparing their farmhouse conversions. I sat back on my bench and wondered which side of the fence I was on. I could hardly say I was French on such an historic day, but then I didn’t feel English either…..

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sabbactical in France

Just after Nina’s first birthday we decided to live in France. Jacques was traveling practically every week and was both mentally and physically exhausted. Both of us had almost lost track of which country he was in. I had found life empty after my best friend had gone to study in Denmark, taking with her Marc’s closest friend, Jonas. The local park seemed empty, the city parks lonely and my usual zest for life was fading fast. The playgroups that I still attended twice a week bored me stiff and I felt my daily communication was limited to mummy-small-talk and chatting to a two-year-old and a baby.

While spending Christmas in France we had visited several houses that were being renovated by Jacques and his three brothers. His younger brother, Jean, had bought a small two-bedroom house in a hamlet near Jacques’ parents. He intended to let it to a young family or couple. It was nearly finished and he said that we could borrow it until it was ready to rent out. There was no heating as such and the bathroom was only half-done and not yet tiled but at least there was a decent kitchen and a washing machine, and we would have a garden and space to play. In return we would help tile the bathroom, varnish the woodwork, paint it and smarten it up.

I was looking forward to being able to practice my French more, I had enjoyed chatting to Soraya and her family and I was sick of struggling with my basic German, which never seemed to improve. Although I had researched trilingual families for my dissertation and knew it could work, seeing Marc’s delayed talking had shaken me and I wished for a simpler linguistic combination of French/English. I was also keen to have Marc and Nina hear more French and to see life in France for themselves. As a bonus we had two cousins of similar age waiting for us and a third one was on the way. It seemed a ideal choice for short-term gap from expatriate life. We called it our ‘sabbatical’.

So Jacques resigned from his job and I said goodbye to the mummies from the park and playgroups. We hugged Soraya and her two daughters goodbye. Jacques father came from France with a hired van to transport all our furniture and off we went, waving goodbye as we drove past to the mountains, the brown cows, the cute villages and the country where Nina was born….

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Our trilingual babysitter

Until Nina was born I had managed to balance motherhood and keeping my brain active. I had completed a correspondence course Masters degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language while Marc was a baby and toddler. I submitted my dissertation two days before giving birth to Nina and received my degree eight months later at Sheffield University. I had not really thought what I would do afterwards except more studies or journalism, since it suited me and meant I could stay at home with the children. But when I tried to work on a PhD proposal or articles on bilingualism it was impossible.

Nina was a light sleeper and usually woke up grumpy. She had colic and was fussy, needed me to hold her in an upright position. She stayed up late, often to ten at night and I was at my wits end wondering what to do with her. Whereas Marc had quickly settled into a 2-hour daily afternoon nap and had a regular 7pm bedtime, Nina refused to miss out on the action. On top of that Marc stopped sleeping too in the afternoon, needing entertaining and taking out to play. In the mornings too I had usually worked efficiently for three hours while he played at home or at the child minders.Now working was out of the question and in the autumn I hovered near depression, suddenly finding motherhood overwhelming with two young children. Our charming Swiss chalet apartment on the second floor became a nightmare as I lugged the car-seat and baby up the flights of stairs or bags of shopping with Nina on my hip and Marc trailing behind.

I stopped Marc going to the Swiss childminder in the September because he didn’t want to communicate with her or the other children and seemed unhappy. People asked me what I doing for him educationally and I worried that he needed more stimulation, especially linguistically. But the French school was miles away and expensive. One Montessori school in Zurich was highly recommended but was also a commute away by train which seemed a lot for a two and a half-year-old. So I tried a busy nursery in the next town where they spoke some English but Marc cried and I felt guilty leaving him. In the end he stayed at home with me and Nina. I felt that since I couldn’t work anyway I may as well have both of them at home.

Seeing me tired and run-down Jacques suggested looking for a babysitter for the mornings. We put up an advert in the supermarket. ‘Babysitter wanted for 2 young children in Bassersdorf. Must speak some English.’ We had only one reply and it was a lady speaking very fast French. I thought it was a mistake and I passed her to Jacques, who organized a interview that same day. Madame Soraya was a robust lady from Algeria dressed all in black, who was a refugee in Zurich. Her husband had had some trouble and the only way out was to run. As refugees they were offered a house, a living allowance and social cover. But Soraya needed more cash, under the table, and this offered the perfect opportunity. We accepted straightaway and she started the next day.

I soon realized that she was way ahead of me linguistically; she spoke Arabic, Berber and French fluently and had studied at university. However her English was shaky and her Swiss German very low, in fact she relied on her primary-school daughters to translate and explain things to her. We communicated in French mostly. Like most Middle Eastern woman I had met she was warm, generous and kind-hearted. She was fantastic with the kids, chatting excitedly in French to them. I was relieved to have some support. In the beginning she came to our apartment while I went out, but later she preferred the children to go to her house while I stayed at home alone and worked. This was heaven!

Soraya fed us frequently, if anyone visited her home we were invited to join them for a buffet lunch or dinner, or share sweet honey cakes in the afternoon with a glass of tea. We would all squeeze into her tiny kitchen and she would stuff us till we could eat no more. Soraya lived near the park and if we walked past in the afternoon her daughters would run out and play big sisters, pushing Marc on the swings, cuddling Nina and generally being adorable. The Swiss mama’s kept their distance and gossiped between themselves but I didn’t care, she was worth ten of them anyway and at least we could talk to each other.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Is he talking yet?

Marc was a very physical child and loved playing in the park or with toy trains, airplanes and cars. But his verbal skills were visibly lower than all the children around him. People began to comment quietly among themselves, when we visited England, France or even locally with the other Swiss mothers. They rather cruelly compared Marc with his cousins or children the same age…..and I felt frustrated that he was being tested so early on. In all others ways he was perfect – motor skills, eating, sleeping, toilet-training, behaviour….except his speech.

Marc was going to a local Swiss child minder in the mornings and she reported that he said nothing whatsoever, he just gestured. Marc seemed to be able to get by with a few smiles or frowns or pointing his finger! At home or in public he was so well behaved I hardly ever shouted at him. But Marc approached his two-year-old birthday people began to ask directly the dreaded question ‘Is he talking yet?’

I was doing a correspondence course with Sheffield University for a Masters in English as a Second Language. One module was all about Linguistics and Bilingualism. From my reading I knew that bilingual children can and do speak two languages…..but trilinguals?
There was very little information on trilinguals and that worried me. Which language would come out first? Would he ever manage three languages?

Marc had English from me, which wasn’t very much since I didn’t make a huge effort to talk to him. When we were in Switzerland and France I unconsciously tended to stay quiet rather than bother people speaking English loudly. The French from Jacques was mainly at weekends and on holidays. Jacques always spoke English to me too. Then there was the Swiss German at the child minder and in the community. I guessed that Marc either wasn’t sure who spoke what or was maybe delaying his speech while he worked it all out or he had some sort of a speech problem.

A year after we arrived in Switzerland I was pregnant with our second child and both my mother and my mother-in-law came to stay to help out while Jacques was away. Their quality one-to-one time reading and walks around the village pointing out things worked wonders. Encouraged and praised Marc began to slowly name animals and talk about his toys and activities. I breathed a sigh of relief that he wasn’t dumb.

When Nina was born in April Marc was two years and three months old and his vocabulary was mainly limited to colours, things around him like park, bike, car, train and the names of close people around him. He then began to link two words together – black- car, blue- slide etc. But what really shot him into verbosity was our summer trip to England and France where everyone talked to him about his new sister and how did he feel? how did she behave? did she smile at him?…..and waited till he answered. I really think he just didn’t have enough language practice and since we all accepted his quietness he got away with it. By the time we came back to Zurich in September he was making three or four word short sentences……my blue car, me want milk, me like more sweeties…

I decided that I should speak more English to him even when we were with people who didn't speak or understand it. It was clear that Marc needed more input and vocabulary bulding. And we needed to take responsiblity for his languages and follow some kind of strategy rather than just waiting to see what happened. So I did some research and discovered the one parent-one language approach........

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Cairo had left us both physically and mentally tired and when a posting to Zurich came up we agreed quickly. We visited Geneva for an interview and it seemed clean, tidy, and most importantly had big streets ideal for pushing a pushchair. So in March 1998 we left Egypt for Switzerland.

Jacques had booked us in a hotel in a village called Bassersdorf near to the airport. His office was nearby. We had a car, for the first time in years, and I was very happy just to gaze out at the pine trees, the mountains in the distance and watch the simple life the Swiss had. The mothers walked their kids to school early, shopped, cooked, collected their kids from school, ate with the family, sent them back and then prepared evening dinner. They squeezed in an hour at the park if it was sunny, or a spot of bike riding or a walk. It was good clean healthy living and seemed so quiet after the hustle and bustle of Cairo. I found us a chalet-style apartment in Bassersdorf and there we settled.

As a regular in the local park with Marc, come rain or shine, I soon was on smiling terms with the other Swiss mothers. They would greet me with ‘Gruezi!’ which was Swiss German for ‘hello!’ I replied the same way. Our conversation was limited though to age and name of child, where we lived and a quick comment on the weather. Still at least they smiled I thought. I hoped for more. It never came. In the end I was happy with my Gruezi and sat quietly in the park, watching Marc dig sandcastle or swing.

I tried to mix with the English expats through the toddlers playgroups organized through the churches. St.Andrews church on Monday mornings was my regular haunt where I helped make coffee, do crafts and tidy up. Still apart from meeting one friend, Carol, an American, I felt excluded. The English would ask a few questions and move on.

Later in the year as autumn arrived an indoor playgroup started up in the village hall. I went along with some trepidation and met the Gruezi mothers as usual. Interestingly the Swiss mamas lined up the tables in the centre and sat drinking coffee and herbal tea while chatting and the kids played around the room. The English mothers put their kids in the centre of the room and sat watching them, also chatting, but in smaller groups. I wondered which was more sociable, and decided that the canteen-style Swiss one was better as we looked at each other rather than the kids! Unfortunately my German remained basic and I had very little idea what was being said, especially with the local dialect.

Luckily I met Stenna in the village, mother of Jonas who was the same age as Marc, soon after I arrived. She was Danish and married to a Swiss optician. She stood out from the crowd with fashionable clothes and attitude in the sleepy Swiss village. We made friends fast and spent many a day chatting in English late into the afternoon when all the Swiss had run home to prepare dinner….

First Noel

As Christmas approached I was feeling very homesick all of a sudden. Even a little party with mulled wine and mince pies in Cairo didn’t help. We had planned to spend Christmas with Jacques family in France, but just before I panicked and needed to see my parents. They were very understanding and took a day Eurostar train to Paris to spend a day with me and Marc before we caught a later train to Poitiers. I simply needed the grandparents to be there, to make it real, and to mark Marc’s first Christmas. This would be my first Christmas with the French family too.

Christmas Eve arrived and the whole French family sat down to a meal of oysters, fresh prawns, mussels and salmon. This was odd to me as in England we usually eat very little on Christmas Eve - we go out and drink or invite friends for a party. There was no tree as such or house decorations and at the last minute Odile cut down some pine-tree branches from the garden, stuffed them in a bucket and decorated them. My family dresses the tree and house at the beginning of December with great fuss and attention to detail and we have ‘family’ decorations that are special for me like the angel for the top of the tree. This tree did nothing for me. At midnight the adults and children put out their slippers in neat pairs under the tree. No stockings I asked? Non, c’est les pantoufles. Later we loaded the slippers with gifts.

Next day we opened our gifts watching Francois, nearly 2 years old, and Marc, a week short of a year, excitedly unwrapping their gifts. My gift was a crêpe (pancake) pan and some perfume from Jacques mother. Our lunch was a beef fondue with vegetables and salads and a chocolate log cake. I missed my turkey and gravy with all the trimmings. I longed for the cranberry sauce and roast potatoes my mum makes……I was dreadfully homesick then and much as I loved my French family I didn’t want to be there that day.

A few days after Christmas we left for the Alps. We had decided we needed a change of scenery after all the hot Cairo sunshine and had booked a ski holiday with my sister and her boyfriend. Poor Marc got a shock as we hit the slopes and he felt the cold for the first time since he was a small baby. Left in the Nursery he attached himself to one lady and refused to budge. He was soon evicted from the Nursery and so Jayne and I took turns looking after him. Marc hated the snow. But the fresh clean air did me good and I returned to Jacques parents house feeling better.

On our last day in France, the 3rd of January, Odile made a birthday cake for Marc and invited all the family. Sat round the table singing ‘Bon anniversaire….’I was happy to be there and happy for Marc to have such a loving family and I realized I would have to get over my obsession with my perfect English Christmas if my kids were going to be part of both cultures…..

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Speaking tongues in Cairo

When Marc was 6 months old we moved to live in Cairo. Although we were happy in Budapest curiosity and opportunity enticed us to see another culture. We visited the city before making a decision and both agreed it had a certain charm to it and we liked the Middle Eastern hospitality and warmth.

In Cairo we had a spacious apartment on a shady island called Zamalek, but my life was curtailed by the traffic. The cars simply did not stop or follow rules. To cross a road you launched off the road holding out a pleading hand or asked a security guard to help stop the traffic. With a young child in a pushchair this seemed suicidal. We lived near a well-known country club called the Gezira Club. Once I had crossed the road I could access their children’s playground for five shekels, which I did most days. In the playground there were waiters wandered around taking orders and my English friend, Sybella, and I would order hot sweet tea and cakes while we pushed our toddlers on the swings. That seemed very civilized to me, although I winced seeing the kids running around doing deliveries with bare feet on the streets as I walked home.

Every day I went to the ‘supermarket’ which was crammed full and tiny. But the cashier would add on extra money every time and I was forced to learn Arabic swearwords to insult them into giving me the right money back. I felt like a walking target. On the other hand for a few coins a boy would carry all my shopping back home and after haggling in the market we could get a good bargain for a carpet or a kilogramme of fruit.

Taxi were a particular nightmare, rarely speaking English and looking for easy money. The passenger had to practically guide them to the destination and I often felt like taking the wheel myself. Payment was debatable and usually we would get out and throw the coins or few pounds at the driver, since we knew the local fares. This was everyday practice and I was exhausted having to stock up on small change and ‘drive’ the taxi around.

I started learning Arabic at the British Council as a way to learn some directions and shop. Marc was looked after by a Philippino maid called Rose, who also cleaned for us three times a week. She was an angel and worked hard to keep the Saharan dust out of the house. She chatted to Marc in Tagalog and sang him Filipino songs while she worked. Marc briefly went to a nursery there where they fussed over him in Arabic too.

When he began to babble at around nine months I was sure his ‘words’ were English and likewise Jacques heard French sounds! As Marc approached his first year we were delighted to see him making his first steps and uttering first real words……mama, papa, teddy, spoon, more! As first-time parents we were awed by his progress and stunned that he could even speak….

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

God bless you!

Marc was fussed over in England and France by doting grandparents, aunts, uncles and my grandmother who had become a great-grandmother for the first time. New babies always encourage the family to guess where their noses, ears or smile comes from. With a baby from two countries no-one knows what to expect…..will he become more French or English? Will he have a big French nose? Or horsy English teeth? Looking at our toothless button-nosed blue-eyed baby it’s hard to say right now….

Certainly having a child brings you closer to your family and I felt we needed some kind of celebration to get everyone together. So we decided to baptize Marc in the summer.
My parents offered to arrange it and I went to visit the Reverend of our village church with trepidation as he had never met Jacques. Although I was a Church of England attendee I skimmed over Jacques’ Catholic background. We both had Christian upbringings anyway regardless of whether you follow the Queen or the Pope. The Reverend agreed over a cup of tea and biscuits…

For godparents it was a little tricky. We wanted a mix of French and English and so we chose Jacques’ older brother, Pierre as godfather then my mum said that in England a baby boy should have two godmothers… I asked a our friend Ella, who was at our wedding and Alison, a friend who I met in Poland. So Marc has three godparents in all, which my French family found very strange as they only have two. The reverend questioned whether Pierre would understand the religious text, but we assured him we would translate.

We chose traditional English food, a light finger-food buffet and an iced fruit cake was ordered. My mum sourced blue balloons with ‘marc’ printed on them. Dad booked a jazz band and invites were sent out. My mum chose a delightful cream romper suit with matching hat and bootees. My parents-in-law said they would come with Jacques brothers and sister too and a little surprise….

The guests arrived from France a day early with a big package…. Odile had brought three kilogrammes of blue and white sugared almonds or dragées and the special boxes that are a traditional gift for christenings. She got all the family working to box them up for the Sunday.

On the Sunday morning we all walked around the corner to the church where the kind Reverend welcomed my family in French and proceeded to add in the odd French phrase when he could. Marc was christened over the font and then we all went the lunch. When we cut the cake I realized there were two cakes and my mum offered one to Odile as a gift. Traditionally the cake is kept a while, which Odile did, proudly sharing it later with family in France. Afterwards several family and friends stayed for tea, praising my mum’s tea and cakes and my dad showed photos of us when we were young, hoping to find a family resemblance in Marc I think!

So Marc officially joined the Church of England….

Monday, May 01, 2006

Jean or Xavier? What’s in a name?

Two out of our three babies were induced. And for good reasons - so my mum would be there. My mum arrived on the 27th December and we waited a bit for gravity to do its bit but since nothing happened we picked 3rd January as the day. In hindsight I should have waited a week or so because poor Marc always misses his birthday party on the right day because all his friends are on school holiday and it’s too close to mine, which is Christmas Day, so we both feel short-changed by our mothers. But at the time the bump was heavy and I wanted my mum to be there. Luckily he wasn’t born a few days earlier or he would have ruined the obstrictians New Year party plans, and if he had been born on the 31st December he would been in a different class at French school, where they draw the line when the year turns. As it is he is one of the oldest in the class now.

His name was a rather tricky issue. We could not pick anything too French like Emmanuel, Fanny, Yves or Jean-Pierre, which would sound pretentious to the English. Or any name with an accent that the English would never use. It couldn't be too English either like Piers or Colin that would have reduced the French to tears of laughter. Many names are tongue-twisters like Xavier or Roman or Abigail. Some classic names change when translated, like William is Guillaume or Pierre becomes Peter, and John becomes Jean, which is a girl's name for me.... Of course the family had their own ideas, mostly based on the bet that I would give birth to a girl. Anna was popular on both sides as an international name as was Chloe but in the end we had a boy. We might have called her Matilda if it had been a girl, but it’s all speculation.

For our first-born we picked a good solid name, Marc, known in most European languages, but with a quirky French spelling. I thought he would be able to pronounce it everywhere and certainly write it easily. We had had so much discussion we didn’t dare to add on a middle name though. Life would be complicated enough without extra names we agreed. Marc was Hungarian for three weeks until I located the office where I could ‘convert’ him. After a quick trip to British Embassy where for a fee they updated my passport to include ‘child’ and he was officially British.

Marc was an easy baby; cute, slept well, ate well and enjoyed life. We soon found a routine, I worked on my writing in the morning when he slept or when he was rolling on the carpet with his toys. We would take an afternoon stroll along the Danube, stopping for a coffee in Café Gerard on the way. He would watch the world go by, I would buy some food at the market, read a newspaper or people-watch. Hungarians would stop and smile and call him ‘kichcy’ or ‘cute’. I learnt a few phrases in Hungarian to reply to curious strangers, yes, it’s a boy, yes, three months old, very easy, very nice baby, his name is Marc……

I tried a few English mother and baby groups but they were full of networking mothers. I wasn’t in the mood for competing on the latest equipment and baby trends. Marc slept in our bedroom, to the horror of most mums, and had no nursery as such (I can honestly say he didn’t need one). I borrowed most of the stuff – bassinet, baby clothes and pram - off my sister-in-law which he grew out of in a few months anyway. The only thing I bought was a pushchair. When he was three monthes old I took him to England to meet the family.....

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mr & Mrs or Madame & Monsieur....

The big day dawned and our party of guests prepared for a day which they had no idea what would happen. We hadn’t dared to ask for a rehearsal beforehand and we hadn’t even seen the room before. Jacques and I waited outside together with our best man, Matt and my best friend, Ella, and all walked down a kind of aisle, him on the left, me on the right. We met in the centre at an upholstered chaise-longue where we sat and waited. It was a lady doing the servic and she smiled. Our Hungarian friend, Anniko, translated the Hungarian for us into English and we said 'yes' in Hungarian at the right moments until she signaled to Jacques to put the ring on. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as it seemed such a familiar gesture to everyone in the room.

Then the French pushed us into the side of the room and filed past kissing us on both cheeks. My English family did the same although with some amusement. Outside my dad threw paper confetti, which mystified the French side. Should it not be rice they wondered? After a few photos in the park we went by taxi to the Marriott hotel for an afternoon tea of tea, cakes and pastries with champagne.

The evening dinner was at the top restaurant in Budapest - Gundels. We had not told anyone so they were surprised to see a private room with a Hungarian Gypsy group to play for us. We served Pineau de Charente cocktails, a drink from Jacques region in France. Then we ate. We were nervous when planning the menu, eager to please both sides of the family. The starter of a creamy soup was fine, followed by chicken with roasted vegetables. But the crunch came with the cheese. One big difference between French and English formal dining is that the French eat cheese after the main course and then end with dessert. The English choose to eat our cheese last, with a glass of port. Jacques always says the French would not want to kiss someone tasting of cheese so that’s why the sweet comes last!

After much heated discussion we went French-style for the cheese but I stuck out for the traditional two tiered English looking wedding cake that seemed essential. And we did the menu in both languages, although I have to admit that food mysteriously sounds better in French! Soupe aux legumes avec une crouton du Fromage aux Cheves is better than ‘Vegetable Soup with Melted Goat’s Cheese on Bread’, let’s face it!

My best memory is of my Dad and Jacques’ mother crooning together with the gypsy band, doing a karaoke versions of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie Est Belle’ and The Beatles ‘When I’m 64’.
So Mr and Mrs, or is that Madame and Monsieur, became married. And three months later became a family…..

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Banned by the embassies.

The British Embassy in Budapest charged me a small fortune to do my ‘bans’ which seemed silly as the likelihood of anyone popping in to see who was getting married that week and making a complaint that I was already married to him was unlikely. They joked behind my back ‘Funny one this one, English girl marrying French chap, ha ha!!!’ The French Embassy was much more serious and when they posted Jacques’ bans asked him to get his papers ready for signing the pre-nuptial agreement. French law states that you must sign either a general agreement of 50% split in the case of divorce or you can agree to a split of assets before you wed. The document covers provision for children too and shared properties and belongings. Most of my English friends found it shocking to even think about divorce, but since mixed-marriages have a high rate of divorce, it seemed prudent to at least consider it as a possibility.

We went to the local Hungarian registry office where we lived. Via a translator they said that they simply could not see why on earth an Englishwoman would want to marry a Frenchman in their office. They postponed and postponed. Meanwhile the Frenchwoman in charge was determined to stop Jacques making the biggest mistake of his life by marrying an English citizen. Her reason: ‘She doesn’t speak enough French.’ This was true as every time we met I was tongue-tied. Grilled by this sophisticated middle-aged coiffured and manicured lady I was shy and unable to answer her fast firing questions regarding assets, money to be split and what we would do in the case of divorce? But I wasn’t an imbecile and I knew what I was doing. Time dragged on and as my stomach swelled as we missed our planned summer wedding schedule. I would not fit in a white dress now I knew…

Eventually I went to moan to the British consulate and they used their diplomatic clout to convince the registry office to give permission. The registry office had only one slot free in 1996 (a cancellation perhaps?) - October 26th at 2pm. There was to be no discussion about the proposed date and we had to bring translated versions of all the relevent documents. Relieved it was at least a Saturday and before the baby was due we agreed quickly. All the documents had to be verified in Hungarian; our birth certificates, and proof of address, employment etc. Luckily I found the official English-Hungarian translators office in time and got the copies with the official red seal. So we were able to book the restaurant at last.

But the French embassy would not give up and days before we were due to marry stated that 'Your fiancée does not understand the document' - making it invalid. On the Friday before our wedding Jacques’ French family arrived a day early and they all accompanied us to the signing, piling onto the plush leather sofas of the Consul's office and showing their support for their non-French future daughter-in-law. We roped in a Hungarian-French translator who spoke some English and she sat between us simultaneously translating from the Consul's French into Hungarian and then back to English for me. After a few paragraphs the translator frowned and it was obvious she was not sure of the legal words in English. So Jacques offered to translate and she would agree to each sentence before we signed. It was not authorized but at least it worked and we could sign on the line, just in time...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Wedding cake tiers or pyramids?

I moved to Budapest in the summer, and we put getting married as top priority. We had decided diplomatically that a traditional ‘English’ or ‘French’ wedding would not suit us. We felt since we were both the first child marrying in both families one family would hijack the wedding and possibly exclude the other family. I wanted it to be the same for both families not one family feeling out of place in the other’s country. Budapest was our temporary home and had a romantic connection so it was the perfect choice.

Weddings are very culturally specific I realized as I began to plan. English weddings are fussy, all the ladies wearing hats, the chaps in morning-suits and top hats and cute bridemaids and pageboys dressed to match the bride. Often the main aim for guests is getting as drunk as you can at the free bar. The church service is usually traditional – the well-known lines about promising to have and to hold until you die or for better or worse.

Everyone sits where they are told by the church ushers – bride’s family on one side, groom on the other. Then the couple and family pose for hours for photos by the church or in a nearby beauty spot. There is a lunch or a dinner, which is usually pretty awful, with dodgy prawns and under-cooked chicken or solid slabs of beef with silver service soggy vegetables and fussy sauces. Everyone is seated properly with a top table for the couple, close family and bridesmaids and best man. The cake is white and in tiers with rather tacky models of bride and groom or lots of sugar flowers. Early on in the night the bride throws her bouquet to a lucky girl who will marry next, and the couple disappears for their honeymoon, leaving everyone with a disco for amusement or Scottish dancing till they drop drunk or with food poisoning.

In France it starts formally, before the ceremony the couple signs a pre-nuptual legal document in front of their guests to agree on the split of assets. French weddings are usually Catholic and have long masses which I never understand except the Halleluiah and Amen bits. Hats are frowned on, and I was once asked to take mine off in church as it was blocking the view. You can sit wherever you like in church and photos are done as a group shot and over quickly.

After the service there are long dinners with ten courses (if you include all those amuse bouches or glasses of sorbet in between). The food is very good and well cooked and beautifully presented on the plate. Even in a tent it looks good. Seating is less formal and the bride and groom often sit at a table like everyone else. For a cake they usually have a pyramid of stuffed profiteroles called a piece montee literally glued in place by rock-hard caramel. You are served two or three profiteroles per person. The party lasts until 3am or 5am and includes lots of dancing and waltzing with the bride and groom taking centre stage. Sometimes friends will perform a sketch or sing a song for the couple or play games to amuse or embarrass the couple. The couple stays all night and even hangs around on the Sunday too to offer more food and another day of eating and drinking with friends and family.

We decided to invite our families and a few friends to come to Budapest and put up both families in hotels for the weekend. We were just 25 in all, which was good for me as I hated big weddings. We decided to have some parts of each wedding culture. Religion – none as he is Catholic and I am Church of England and neither of us wanted to go to the other’s ones church. Food – Posh and French-inspired food and wine in a good restaurant. Lots of wine and music from Hungarian musicians. Hats were welcomed as was an English-style tiered cake and an English afternoon tea in between wedding service and dinner. And most importantly we would stay and look after our families the whole weekend and not run off and abandon them. Once the plans were made our first action was to register with both embassies for our bans....

Babies and springtime in Paris

In 1996 I found my life busy enough to even think about getting married and having babies, although I could have quite happily adopted some of the wonderful kids I taught. However, family came rather sooner than I had planned. I had stopped taking the Pill after a health scare linked to thrombosis, and after a routine check up in England was told I had something wrong with my cervix. I had to go back to Poland and find a gynecologist there. The woman rambled on and on and then gave me a prescripion in Polish. Misunderstanding my Polish doctor, and being too shy to ask my Polish colleagues to come and translate for me I did nothing. I assumed that there was a major problem and I could not get pregnant. This was the complete opposite of what she said.

So after returning from the April Easter holiday break in Budapest I felt rather odd and nauseous and after waiting a few weeks I decided to do something about it. In May Jacques and I had been invited to a wedding in France and we met at Roissy airport in Paris. I bought a test at the airport, with much embarrassment as the French woman couldn’t understand me when I mumbled ‘Enceinte?’ and finally with some gesturing sold me the blue stick test. We did the test in the hotel and it was positive straightaway.

Jacques seemed very happy and we went out for dinner in a daze, romantically deciding our first child would have the name of a street in Paris. We ate somewhere around Rue St.Denis, but in the end Dennis didn’t really seem such a good name after all! On the 1st of May he proposed as we wandered around the Jardins Publique holding the tradtional symbol of spring , a sprig of lily-of-the-valley or muguet and I, of course, said yes right away.

After the wedding we went to visit his family who seemed happy. To see if I would make the grade his mother passed me the newest member of the family. Francois was just six weeks old and the first child of Jacques brother, Phillippe and his girlfriend Gaelle. Holding this tiny doll of a baby was comforting that at least he seemed calm with me. As he looked up at me I sang the English lullaby ‘Rock a Bye Baby’ and told him how cute and handsome he was. Everyone around the kitchen table looked at me. Then Gaelle said in French with a shocked voice ‘But he doesn’t speak English!’ Not knowing whether to laugh or cry I passed him back. It occurred to me that I would have to either learn a few French lullabies and Basic French Baby Small-Talk or try to convince them that this wonderful future cousin of my baby inside me could be bilingual too… my baby would surely be….

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Eastern Europe - so near and yet so far

Our jobs were undemanding, he was home at around five pm every night and my jobs in a Chinese Art Gallery bookshop in London and teaching English to summer school kids were easy and finished early too. Our evenings were spent cooking, walking in the summer or talking. We talked a lot, now he could speak good English and English became our language of communication together.

Our jobs were merely stepping stones and when an expatriate job came up teaching English and Art in the British School in Warsaw I accepted it straightaway, knowing that Jacques had his eyes set on a job Eastern Europe too and we both loved a new challenge.

I moved to Warsaw in September of 1995 and Jacques found a job as a Consultant in a software company in Budapest in the beginning of 1996. I loved my job, teaching English in the morning to children who needed extra support and Art in the afternoons. The kids were easy, the classes were small and I was part of the British School community which was active and busy. We celebrated all the festivals and enjoyed doing shows and putting on shows and Open Days.

Warsaw was just opening up to the western world and it was an exciting time to be there. Tourists were pouring in to enjoy the cheap food and vodka and to see what Poland was like after so many years of communism. The Jewish ghetto was still there to see along with numerous graveyards and memorials to soldiers and wars. I was deeply touched by Auschwitz and the other camps. I particularly loved Krakow which was like a film set, untouched and wonderfully medieval with its huge open market square and café and shops surrounding it. We felt rich, even as teachers, and could enjoy buffet Sunday breakfasts in the top hotels and tickets to the opera and concerts. We drank Russian Champagne in the interval. This was something I couldn’t do in London and it was fun. The winters were long and proper and snowy. You wore hats, scarves and boots all the time and when you went to the theatre you took your delicate high heels in a shoe-bag and left your boots with your coat at the entrance.

I loved taking the trains to visit Jacques in Budapest in my holidays. Old fashioned clanking noisy trains that seemed like they were from another century, full of travelers crossing Eastern Europe on overnight trips. The Budapest train left at nine at night and arrived at dawn the next day. I usually booked a sleeper carriage and liked chatting with the other people. I only slept a few hours, because customs officials would bang on the door every three hours or so as we crossed the Poland-Czech and Czech-Hungary borders. Uniformed police woke you up banging on the doors and checking for valid passports. I would hang out of the window as we arrived at Keleti station, watching the world go by and we clanked into Budapest, savouring the start of a new day.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Two, three or four kisses? French etiquette....

The long-distance relationship was romantic but I felt like we needed some time together to see if we worked in real-life. So when my contract in Japan finished in November 1994 I headed back to England and Jacques. He had changed dramatically in four years, his long hair in a pony tail was now cut short and neat and he wore suits and ties. He had a degree and was very career minded. Seeing England through his eyes was fun and we had a great time driving around England in his brown Mini car. After the mental challenge of living and working in Japan I needed a simple life and that was what he had. A few months later I got a job in London and moved into his house there. We became a couple.

For our first Christmas together he decided to introduce me to his family in France. I arrived on the 27th, planning to spend two or three days with them before we went to Paris for a New Year’s Eve Party. Jacques met me in Poitiers at the station and we drove back. I was scared and rightly so. Jacques told me all his family was at home plus a few other friends. There would be his parents, Odile and Rene, his three brothers Pierre, Philippe and Jean and sister Lucie who made up his famille nombreus or ‘big family’.

When I arrived the door opened about eighteen people stood up simultaneously to greet me. I had to kiss them one by one two or sometimes three times. This was very daunting for an English girl who only kisses close family, which is more of a hug than the French side to side technique. I was dizzy and dazed by the end of it. Then they all sat around the huge kitchen table while his mother made some tisane or herbal tea. They all stared at me, as if expecting me to say something, which of course I could not! Jacques’ older brother, Pierre, started firing off questions on the lines of How many brothers and sisters do you have? Where does your family live? etc. They were not difficult questions but spoken fast and I was dumb-struck with fear of not understanding the question right or not having the right answer. So I blushed red and tried to drink my tea and eventually they gave up and chatted about me between themselves. It was humiliating.

I soon realized that I could speak French but only with one or maximum two people at a time, say if I was helping his mother to set the table or sat next to a family member at lunch, or saying a hello to a curious neighbour. But I couldn’t do big groups where I just froze linguistically, and I found the whole kissing thing very tricky. I was also expected to kiss the family goodnight and good-morning. But after a few days it seemed almost normal and prepared me for the Paris party where much kissing went on between total strangers and this time four kisses! When I protested at so many they laughed and said ‘In my region we kiss four times’ and kept on going! I had to remember to always take my glasses off on arriving and departing and watch the persons head, as if you both go the same way – disaster! I realised you should not bump noses or go too fast or too slow either. I told Jacques I could have done with some coaching before stepping into this social etiquette, but it was too late, I had met them now.