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……