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.....