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...