Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The French enclave

After nearly two years in our condo our Chinese-Malaysian landlord asked to re-sign our contract. We called to confirm this in February and to request two more years. ‘No problem’ he said, but then just after Chinese New Year he called back to say that his brother needed to move into our apartment and we must be out by the end of March. Some family issue had obviously come up. There was nothing we could do and we reluctantly began searching. We checked out a few apartments in our condo but they were tiny, dark or overlooked train tracks. I visited several apartments in nearby Bangsar, where Gabriel went to school but found nothing better than what we had.

In the end we plumped for the condo next door, called Sri Kenny. We would not change our daily travel plans or local shopping and most importantly I could see my condo friends easily. Mahin, Soraya, Liz and Vikki had become important friends in my life and I would miss their daily chats, food gifts and get-togethers if we lived far away. We signed for a five-bedroom first floor apartment with a spacious balcony and view of palms and tropical trees. Jacques did not like it at all, he said it was bad feng shui (the Chinese art of organising your room for good energy or 'chi'). Under the apartment was an open garage area, and Jacques said it was bad luck to sleep over an empty space. But apart from putting Marc in the Master bedroom (thus giving him the bad luck!) we were stuck with the layout.

Sri Kenny was what expats called a French enclave. There were about fifteen families living there, and I knew most of them from school. Most of the husbands worked for the same company and they socialized together. The French wives were often on their first expat post and couldn’t, or didn’t want to, speak English. I was eager to chat with them in French. I had a French friend, Anne, living in the condo, with three boys similar in age to our kids, and so we would plan to meet by the pool after school. They were friendly in the beginning but I knew straight away I would never be fully accepted. Without Anne I was gently excluded, they would chat about their lunches, poker games and shopping trips without even thinking of inviting me. Anne had decided to put her oldest child, Benjamin in an English-language international school, and this fact bothered the French, who couldn’t imagine anything else but the Lycee Française. Equally they found me strange too, for putting my ‘English’ kids in a French school and were curious as to how we managed. Anne was part of the French group, and liked certain families, but like me, as a group she felt uncomfortable.

The French had their own life and schedule and sat on the left side of the pool, with the English-speakers on the right. All the French kids took the school bus (I was the only one who drove as several didn’t have cars or disliked driving on the right), and they went for coffee after drop-off together. Later at 3pm they waited for the school bus and paired off. The kids did their homework and assembled by the pool at 4pm for a swim and gouter or snack. They stayed till 6pm, since they ate late. Meanwhile the Anglophone community, the Brits, Australians and others who spoke English went down to the pool at 3pm or earlier, and stayed till 5pm when they went back to eat an early dinner. Anne and I would often dash from left to right, keeping up two separate conversations!

Nevertheless we were counted at part of the French enclave and listed on their private email circle. In most condos families got together for Sunday barbecues, and we were priviledged to be invited to such a gathering in May, strictly in French. Families gathered with beautiful salades, fruit tarts, homemade pizza, quiches and fresh baguettes from Deli France to accompany cheese and wine. It was fun though and the kids had a great time running around, but when I looked across the pool I saw some English families having their own party, with a guy grilling charred steaks on a barbecue and ladling out the alcoholic punch and beers to loudly laughing invitees. I had the distinct impression they were competing! As the French noticed them a few said maybe we should invite some of them next time? A worried look came over several faces, but with a wish to improve their English for free they decided that next time they would invite them too…

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