Friday, March 30, 2007

Bali and the tsunami

The year ended with a Christmas trip to Bali. It was quieter than it should have been after the terrible terrorist bombings. Hotels stood empty and the beach was full of women trying to sell massages or sarongs. We had a fantastic Christmas day in our resort, with Santa surfing in on the waves and delivering gifts for all the children. On Christmas Day, which is also my birthday, there was a show that our children performed in and Marc stood up and asked if he could sing happy birthday to me, and everyone sang along, as I blushed bright red on the stage!

The next morning we heard on the BBC news that there had been an earthquake and saw first reports from Sri Lanka. After we returned from a snorkeling trip later on we realized the enormity of the situation as reporters spoke of a tsunami hitting the north of Indonesia, Phuket, where we had been just a year ago, and some parts of Malaysia. We imagined what our families must be thinking and quickly called to reassure them. Prayers were said and clothes and money collected for the refugees. We spent New Year in the small town of Ubud, the atmosphere was solemn and the tourists walked quietly as if not to upset the locals. It felt like something had unleashed the god's fury and the Balinese loaded their shrines with fruit and incencse to appease the angry spirits.

Three days later we were sat on the beach and Jacques' cell phone rang. It was the French embassy in KL. They wanted to know if we were all ok. Jacques asked if they were calling all the French expats. ‘Oh no!’ The lady replied, ‘You have been reported missing by your neighbours…’ Then the line went dead. We flew back in to find all our neighbours waiting for us. One had been sure we had gone to Phuket, like we did last year, and no-one could really say for sure if it was Phuket or Bali, in the middle of Christmas shopping they had not really had time to ask specific questions. The Algerian diplomat had phoned the French embassy on our behalf. We were very touched by their kindness, but saddened to hear that a new family in the condo from South America had cancelled their last-minute trip to Langkawi and flew into Phuket the day it happened. Luckily they were on the fourth floor and survived although seeing the carnage on the beach shocked their nine-year-old daughter terribly.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A book, a talk and a visitor

My book was published in May 2004 and I had a talk booked at the international mothers group, ibu, for the beginning of November in a local bookshop. My father was visiting and brought over some extra copies of the book. It was on a Tuesday, a busy day for coffee mornings and activities, so I was expecting a small crowd, but more and more women arrived and in the end there were about twenty. I was nervous and it was hard to distil a book into a thirty-minute lecture. I explained the seven strategies and the types of child bilingualism. It sounded rather boring and more like a university talk and the all looked rather sleepy, so I concluded earlier than planned and asked if anyone had any questions.

That opened a floodgate of queries, comments and discussion. It was a wonderfully mixed crowd, some Malaysians women married to foreigners, and several expat English, Dutch, German, French and Australians curious to know more, or who wished to bring up their children bilingually after seeing the success Malaysians have had. We discussed schooling, parenting and how to have more input in the weaker language. At the end I sold four books and promised to start a monthly group in the new year, so we could meet regularly and discuss more. It seemed they wanted to talk and share advice and experiences. After Dad and I went to celebrate with lunch at a local Japanese restaurant in Sri Hartamas.

Grandpa stayed two weeks in KL with us. He was bitten badly by mosquitos but apart from that loved Malaysia. He adventurously tried reflexology, rode on an elephant at the sanctuary, climbed over a hundred steps to visit the Hindu Batu caves temple and sampled all the cultural foods he could. The kids loved having him around and after school would rush to tell him about their day. One evening I found him reading through Marc’s French homework with him, I was touched because it must have been rather disorientating to see the children studying in French rather than English, and although he might not have understood everything he was making an effort and that’s what matters in the end.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Love and war at school

School restarted in September and Nina got lucky though with a newly arrived teacher, Delphine. Nina was now in the top class of maternelle, or Grand section, and absolutely loved school. Within a few weeks she had fallen in love with a new boy in the class, Dorian. He was trilingual and had a Spanish-speaking mother, Gina, who was married to a French man and Dorian had attended English school before starting at the French school. When Delphine put on a class show displaying folk dances and Nina and Dorian danced together like Ginger and Fred.

Dorian became a frequent companion on trips to the park or museums, gallantly buying Nina an orange juice in the café one time and bringing her a pink silk scarf from a trip to Paris. Unfortunately Dorian played more with Marc when he came to our house, and the two boys would sneak off together to ride bikes or play in the pool, leaving sulky Nina all on her own. One weekend he invited himself for a sleepover, and Marc and Nina fought to have him in their rooms. In the end he bunked with Marc. But after a few months Dorian declared his undying love for two other pretty girls in the class. When asked which one he would marry he announced that he would marry all three, like some of Muslims do in certain parts of Malaysia. Nina was horrified and refused to share him, and dropped him like a hot stone.

Marc was in CM1, with the same teacher who taught Nina when we first arrived in 2003. I had not got on with Madame Chapeau then and it didn’t seem like this would be a good year for Marc either. I met the teacher in the playground one day after school just after the year had started. I bonjoured her, as one does and she replied ‘Hello’. I asked in French ‘Is everything OK with Marc’ and she replied ‘He is mixing up his English with his French’. The conversation continued with me speaking French and her replying in English, as though she didn’t understand my French. I was furious.

A few weeks later Marc had a punition, or a punishment, and had to write ‘Je n’ai pas droit de parler en anglais en classe’ (I am not allowed to speak English in class) fifty times, because he had spoken English to his friend, Adam, in class. Marc told me she often punished children who chatted in English in class. It was a problem because about half the class was bilingual and although they could speak French they chose not too, which annoyed Madame Chapeau even more. At the class talk for parents I found her aggressive and often rude to parents, but she was friendly with several influential parents and teachers and I knew if I complained to higher powers it would get me nowhere. But I disliked her nevertheless…

On top of this Marc’s English marks plummeted and I had to talk to the English teacher, a French woman. She explained how she had two levels: ‘just arrived in KL beginners’ and ‘bilinguals, those who have a foreign parent or have lived here a long time’. She preferred teaching the beginners. I got the distinct impression she was sick of all the annoying bored bilinguals who could talk the hind legs off a donkey but had terrible grammar. She said Marc spent his hour making paper aeroplanes or scribbling messy stories that she couldn’t read. I tried to talk to Marc, who didn’t care at all about his English grades, and said that English lessons were ‘nul’ or worth nothing anyway….

Monday, March 26, 2007

Aimee goes to France

Jacques decided not to go to France for the summer holiday, but I desperately wanted to see the family and Jacques mother had booked two weeks holiday with Marc, Nina and three cousins. I didn’t want to leave our maid, Aimee, alone for six weeks with nothing to do, and Jacques thought she could help his parents, prepare the meals and accompany Jacques' mother on the holiday. It would be helpful to have a traveling partner especially with a lively 18-month old toddler. I thought Aimee might enjoy seeing France and I promised to take her up the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I had to do all the paperwork at the French embassy, where I bumped into two school mothers who were also taking their maids back to France. They assured me it always went well and their maids were happy to travel. Finally after much packing and gift buying we boarded a night flight for Paris via Dubai.

We finally arrived in Paris around lunchtime. Usually we took the direct flight and could catch an early morning train from the airport, but we had to take a bus into the centre to Gare Montparnasse. Our bags weighed a ton, the kids were grumpy, Aimee was jet-lagged and disorientated and I felt like I had four children. We were so slow that we nearly missed the train and ended up sat in the corridor on our bags, because our reserved seats were the other end of the train and you could not pass through. Aimee must have wondered what on earth was France like. When we arrived at Poitiers, looking disheveled and giggling with over-tiredness I was truly wondering if I had done the right thing. But when we arrived at the house in Pouillox everyone was waiting for us. In the sunny courtyard Jacques’ mother had prepared trays of cool drinks, tiny jam and lemon tarts and savoury snacks. It was heaven. The cousins re-established their friendship instantly and Gabriel was admired and cooed over and Aimee met everyone.

Aimee adapted very well to France and although she didn’t speak French she always managed to second guess what was needed. Aimee did not like the cold mornings though and didn’t own any warm clothes. Odile dug out a bag of secondhand clothes and we managed to kit Aimee out. Coming from a large family Aimee told me she liked having so many people around. She made her speciality fried rice and spring rolls, and fussed over the cousins, plaiting their hair and playing with them.

Only one time did she feel out of place. At the end of the holiday we went camping with Gaelle and the cousins at the beach. Aimee had never slept in a tent and was curious why all these rich people were sleeping outdoors when they could have gone in a nice hotel, or barbecuing sausages and washing their dishes under the tap when they could have gone to a restaurant? The beaches were crowded that year, so Gaelle and I decided to go to the plage naturist or nudist beach, where it was easy to find a space and the kids could run around without their swimsuits.

Aimee was horrified and shocked to see nude men and topless women, and looking at it from her eyes I was too, especially after coming from Malaysia where nudism is not at all tolerated, and Muslim female bathers wear suits that cover everything but their feet and hands. I told Aimee that I wouldn’t strip off, it was really for the kids to have more space. But Aimee sat fully clothed and uncomfortable under the parasol until we left. After that we either went to the usual busy beach or left her behind in the campsite.

At the end I took the kids and Aimee to Paris for a few days. We did all the tourist things and went to Disneyland for the day. She said it was much better than she imagined. It was her birthday as we flew back to Malaysia via Dubai, and the kids joked that she had her birthday in three continents; Europe, Middle East and Asia. Odile and I had given her some euros to spend in duty-free at the airport, and she came back with a huge bottle of Estee Lauder perfume, which she said would remind her of France.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Four Years theory

We had a few goodbye parties to attend in June, our condo Chinese-American neighbour, Min and her family, were posted to Vietnam after seven years in KL, and Nina’s French/English friend, Isolde, was transferring to the British school to join her older sister. Nina’s teacher, Therese, was going back to France. At a goodbye potluck dinner organized by Nina’s class rep for the teacher the mothers chatted about leaving and how much longer they had to go. It sounded like a prison sentence… ‘I’ve got two, maybe three years, if we’re lucky…’, ‘This is our first year and I hope we get sent back next year...’ ‘We’ve been here six years and it’s too long, I hate KL now…’ or the new arrival: ‘I could stay here forever I love it!’ Therese had lived in KL for five years and was dreading the return to a tiny apartment in Paris. She was adored by parents and children and was tearful when accepting her goodbye gift of a painting by a local artist and said she would never have such a great class or life again. She was probably right.

Parents finally came to the conclusion that four years was the idea posting; one or two years were too short to really settle or find friends, but once you had done five years it was truly painful to leave or you became bitter and stopped enjoying Asia and all its chaos. The mothers agreed that we all got so used to our maids, not having to work, the lively social life and the year round sunshine that after a while it seemed impossible to go back to where you came from. It was even worse if your children were born in the country and had lived most of their childhood there, since it was all they had ever known. Parents felt terribly guilty moving their children around the world, although many had no choice and when the husband was called up off they went. Some of the English families I had met had been living abroad for years and never intended to go back if they could help it. However the French often seemed to do a short two-year posting then back to France for a while, then out again somewhere else.

We had never spent more than two years in one place anyway, which would probably explain why we were never really attached to any country. Four years sounded just right to me, enough time to get to know lots of people, feel at home in the city, to know just where to get a certain fabric or ingredient and enough time to learn something new.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Livret Scholaire

The school year ended and final reports were sent out. This was Marc and Nina’s first major one, and I hadn’t realized it would be undecipherable. After spending an hour trying to decode the document I ask my French-speaking Algerian neighbour, Soraya, for help. She points out the important lines, and assures me that all is well if Marc is going up to the next class. The Livert Scolaire or school book is organized in cycles, Cycle 1 is the maternelle or pre-school classes – petit, moyen and grand, going up to the year when the child is six. Cycle 2 is the following three years - CP/CE1 and CE2, taking the child up to age nine.

Marc and Nina’s report are graded : A reports compétence acquise, B denotes compétence en cours normal d’acquisition, C is compétence à renforcer and D signals compétence non encore acquise. An A means you got it, B shows that the competence in the subject is developing normally, a C asks that the understanding is reinforced and a D is not yet understood. Marc has an even sprinkle of A, B and C’s. Thankfully there are no D’s. Maths seems to be his best subject. French his worst and the comments state that his English is ‘interfering’ with his reading and writing. Nina has mainly ‘acquired’ what she should have and scores high on oral languages, except for some issues with sound recognition and articulation. Marc is not paying attention in his English classes (boredom maybe?) while Nina is an chatty and active participant.

The seven-page document lists every possible testable item on the curriculum from sport, singing to class attitude and autonomy. Some items I simply did not understand, like these examples from the French language section: ‘sait utiliser le classement de BCD.’, ‘distingue dans la phrase simple le GNS du GV.’ Grammar figures highly, there are several paragraphs about verbs, conjugation and vocabulary. There are some areas that I find particular French; the ability to speak ‘correctly’, to logically organize thoughts, and to write perfectly, that is, within the lines, respecting the margin, spaces and connecting letters. This would be asking too much of an English child of the same age, who is just beginning to do joined-up writing...never mind speaking correctly.

I read through the book amazed at the things Marc and Nina should have learnt. In panic I turn to the last page and see the phrase ‘passage a CE1’ and ‘passage a GS’ .Yes! Marc and Nina have made it to the next class! But there is also the sobering thought that the work will get harder and Marc certainly will have keep up with the class…. and somewhere along the line I am going to have do a crash course in French grammar or how can I ever help him?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Je suis anglais……

We arrived at the Club Med resort in Cherating at the end of the holiday. I loved the east coast of Malaysia, with it’s painted wooden houses on stilts, open-air batik workshops and traditional villages spread out along the perfect coastline. Club Med had excellent all-day childcare for Marc and Nina, who did activities like the trapeze, archery or bungee-jumping and played team games, while we swam, did our own sports activites or just chilled out in the bar. The staff and guests were friendly in a genuine way. It was popular with expats from KL who could drive there. As fate would have it, Nina’s two best friends from school, Isolde and Alya, were there, along with Marc’s friend Danton. We also bumped into Christine from the Mercredi club along with her three children, two of whom were the same age as ours. It was sociable and we ate together at large tables for lunch and dinner. I managed to complete two dares, one from Ghania to climb the wall and the other from Mahes to do the bungee jump. I did them both and although my heart was racing it felt good.

Every night there was a show, preceded by short welcome to new guests and a run-down of weekly activities. The Club Meds in Asia had clients from several countries and needed to be multilingual. Alongside the Chef de Village (who was in this case a French-speaker) was an English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese speaker from the staff. The five simultaneous translations were fast-paced and as far as I know correct (I could only verify the French-English one). The language group in the audience would look attentive when their speaker came on and then chat rudely through all the others. The Japanese lady ended all her sentences with a bow and said ‘Hai!’ to which the Japanese responded ‘Hai!’ like kids at school acknowledging their teachers instructions. The Chinese one always started with ‘Ni Hao’ or ‘Meoww’ as Nina mimicked it. After a few times we found ourselves mesmerized by this multilcutural mélange and the kids starting saying ‘Hai!’ in all the right places…

On the last evening the children from the Mini-Club did a ‘talent show’. The multilingual Algerian GO in charge introduced the kids one by one, trying to use the right language. She had heard Marc speaking French to Danton and chose French. She asked: ‘Marc, tu vien de quelle pays?’ (Where are you from?) Marc replied ‘Je suis anglais’ (I am English), with a perfect French accent, to our amazement. Why didn’t he say he was French and English? Why say he was English in French? Did he mean to say it in English but having been asked the question in French felt it was polite to answer in French? Could a seven-year-old know what he was saying? We puzzled over it, watching bemused parents say ‘What? Is he French or English?’

Then Marc, looking all angelic and sweet, said he would sing the classic French song ‘Au Claire de la Lune’, but he sang the naughty version, to the same tune, that his cousins had taught him:

‘Au claire de la lune,
j’ai pète dans l’eau,
ça faisait les bulles,
c’était rigolo,
ma grand-mère arrivait avec des grand ciseaux,
elle me coupe les fesse en quatre mille morceaux…’

Which is roughly translated as ‘In the light of the moon, I farted in the water, it made bubbles, that was funny, my grandmother arrived with the scissors and cut my bottom into four thousand pieces…’ and he was smartly sent off stage by the GO to giggles from all the French-speakers.

Marc’s Malaysian/French friend, Danton, was next and when asked the same question in French he said that he was from Switzerland. I wondered why he had said Swiss when his father was French? It turned out that Danton was born in Switzerland. We all laughed, joking that next time Marc would probably say in French that he was Hungarian…but it brought home an issue to both families. Where are our children from? The country where they were born? Where they have a house? Where they have lived the longest? Or where they currently reside? Now that’s a tricky question…

Sunday, March 18, 2007

South and East of KL

For the spring break we went to Singapore and Cherating Beach. We drove to the border town of Johar Bahru and left the car in a parking lot because cars were taxed by the day in Singapore, and took a taxi to the city. We had brought along our maid,Aimee, first as a babysitter, so Jacques and I could go out at night in Singapore with colleagues from Jacques office and secondly so she could see Singapore. She had never been anywhere except Malaysia. I wanted her to feel she got more out of her employment than just washing dishes and changing Gabriel’s nappies. Aimee was very nervous at the border, convinced they would throw her out, although she was legally allowed in, but it all went smoothly.

Aimee was a good travel companion, always patient with the kids, easy to have around and she genuinely seemed to enjoy our day-trips to the science museum, an indoor ski-slope and to Sentosa Island. Singapore bugged me though, it seemed over-populated and culturally over-rated to me. The famous shopping on Orchard Road was nothing compared to Megamall or One Utama in KL and I couldn't find any bargains. The ubiqutuous public signs that banned spitting, eating chewing gum, peeing in lifts and not eating on trains fascinated Marc who wanted explanations. I disliked the proper-English speaking and driving taxi drivers who moaned about the British tourists. I missed the spontaneity of KL taxis, the not knowing which language or music you would hear or what the driver would talk about. People tutted as we dashed through traffic rather than waiting for the red-lights. I realized how much I loved Malaysian life and how at home we felt there. Jacques looked for the Singapore he had loved ten years ago as a young student working on an intern project there, and couldn’t find it. It seemed to be full of Brit expats and tourists en route to Australia wanting a safe Asian experience. We did enjoy a British-style comedy night and taking Marc and Nina to the night zoo. We all loved eating breakfasts of black coffee with condensed milk and French toast in the local canteen near our hotel.

Aimee became quite chatty as we drove back up the east coast of Malaysia, the rural villages reminded her of home she said. One night we stayed in a cheap hotel by a black muddy beach. The kids rolled like piglets in it and were filthy. Back at the room we had no hot water, only a tap, and a small basin to ladle water onto our bodies. Aimee efficiently cleaned the kids in this way, saying that’s how they did it back in the Philippines. Later we sat on cushions under an outdoor thatched canopy eating ice-cream and she told us how her mother died when she was five and how she was brought up by her eldest sister. In her twenties her husband had died and now her only son, John, lived with her paralysed sister, who appreciated his help around the house. She had spent only two or three years with him before starting work as a maid overseas. I asked her when his birthday was, She said June. ‘What day?’ I asked, as one always asks other mothers. ‘I don’t remember’ she replied looking sad, ‘I am never there, but I always send a gift’. Nina asked what she would send for his birthday, and she replied ‘a pair of sports shoes’, but she must ask her sister first for his size, he was a growing teenager now. I felt terribly sorry for her and her family life and wondered how she could care for our children and still smile with all that heartache.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Happy Anniversaire!

We celebrated our first year in Malaysia at the beginning of April. It was stormy every afternoon and torrential rain poured down as we tried to drive to Megamall to eat in our favourite fish restaurant there. Along Jalan Bangsar cars with no visibility (or working windscreen wipers) crashed and slipped on the wet road. Motorcyclists sheltered under the narrow bridge, risking life and limb to avoid being soaked in water from passing cars. April, it turned out was often stormy and it was the rainy or monsoon season. I missed the fresh spring air of Europe, Easter eggs and daffodils and I had to occupy myself organsing Nina’s 5th birthday party.

Nina, like Marc at age five, had never really had a real birthday party. Unlike Marc she had Ideas and Plans. She had been plotting since January and had decided we would host a Fancy-Dress party with everyone we knew. Feeling guilty for having done hardly anything for her fourth birthday I mistakenly agreed. I was thinking of a simple pool party with condo families and a few friends from school. Nina was thinking of a catwalk fashion show with music and had already invited half her class.

In the end the weather was the real dampener and the pool party idea was out the window. The guest list was over thirty, never mind all the extra brothers and sisters, maids and drop-in guests would might come along too. So we strictly sorted the guests into two groups. We decided to invite all the mainly English-speaking condo families to our apartment on the real day of her birthday, a Monday, for a dress-up tea-party. I guessed that not many would turn-up on a Monday school night anyway. We also hired the ibu house, where we held our French language Mercredi group. For that day we would invite about twenty French-speaking friends and classmates. They all said they would come too - either Nina was a really popular girl, or it was a dead time for other parties. I booked a last-minute clown in case it was stormy and the kids ran riot inside the small house.

Nina and I ran around in mild panic, buying Indian knick-knacks from Little India to fill over 50 party-bags, party-hats and balloons. We ordered two giant 2kg chocolate cakes from Secret Recipe, one for Monday with the inscription in pink icing saying Happy Birthday, Nina! and one for Wednesday with Bonne Anniversaire Nina! The girl rang later from the shop to ask if I had made a spelling mistake…should it not be Happy Anniversary, Nina? She was rather bemused about our bilingual cake-order but promised it would be correct.

I was wrong about the Monday afternoon party; nearly 20 children came with their mothers, maids and even a few cousins who were over for the day. The rain was heavy and the mothers and kids were happy to get out of their apartments. Thank god we had enough cake. Nina was dressed as Snow White and our maid, Aimee, ran up a pink Princess Throne for her to sit on. Around twenty dressed-up kids played together and we did a catwalk fashion show to the tune of Abba’s song 'Nina Ballerina'. It was a huge success. Two days later we did the same, Nina welcomed her French guests sweetly and they watched the clown show, gobbled all the cake and had a great time too. The sun shone on the Wednesday and the children were delighted. “Next year a small party with four friends!” I said to Nina as we tidied away all the mess. ‘But it was just perfect!’ she said dreamily and I had to agree with her…

Monday, March 12, 2007

Meeting Malaysian mothers

Within the French school I began to be aware of a certain group of mothers, who although they had a strong link to France and it's culture were often on the fringes of French society. They were embassy families from French-speaking countries in Africa, like Senegal, or the French-speaking Middle-Eastern countries, like Tunisia, while some were Malaysians married to Frenchmen. These mothers got together regularly for coffee, lunches, Tupperware and jewelry parties. They were friendly to me, always saying hello in the mornings or at school shows and inviting me to their get-togethers. These ladies often moaned about the French and their concerns of racism and exclusion within the school. I agreed they had a point, but being Caucasian and ‘white’ I had my feet in both camps. French-English political or cultural differences are very different from the sensitive French-Algerian issue or the French colonial past. So I kept my distance from the group in general. They were a very glamorous set of ladies, beautifully dressed and made-up, wearing perfectly tailored clothes and matching accessories, but to be honest I didn’t feel very comfortable with them and their ‘ladies-who-lunch’ lifestyle.

At school Marc had two good friends, Adam and Danton. I liked them a lot. When they came to my house they were extremely polite and always ate their food without asking for ketchup or coke. They didn’t whine or act spoilt like so many of the French expat kids did. The boys played wonderfully together, building lego, trains and making imaginary worlds. Both boys were bilingual, even trilingual, having fluent-English speaking Malaysian bilingual mothers and French fathers. Both boys came from families of three children, Adam being the oldest child and Danton in the middle. Marc’s friends lived miles away in the suburbs of KL though and I was terrified of driving there and always got lost. The streets were numbered and I could never find the right Jalan 6/13 or 9/20 and would end up doing several illegal U-turns before arriving, shaking with fear. Since after-school play was not possible, we usually invited the boys for weekend sleepovers or got together in the holidays as a family.

Danton’s parents worked with refugees within the United Nations organization and Adam’s parents worked at the University in sciences. The French fathers had lived in Malaysia for a long time and were integrated in the community. Adam’s mother, Mazida, was a Muslim, although she did not wear the veil and traditional dress of Malaysian women she was serious about her religion. Danton’s mother, Mahes, was of Indian origin and had lived as an expat in several countries before returning to Malaysia.

Mazida and Mahes were not like the other ‘not-French’mothers at school, they were remarkably down-to-earth and too busy working and getting on with life for moaning. We would chat about education, Malaysian versus British, British versus French, and how we could help our children. We worried if we had made the right decision choosing the French school, and we found the homework and school structure bewildering and challenging. We would sometimes ring up each other to check on spellings or strange requests in the French communication book.

Going to Adam’s or Danton’s home was always a pleasure, it was a real cosy family home, a permanent base full of family memorabilia. It was such a pleasure to sit at the kitchen table or in the living room and sip tea and eat Malaysian food. Marc loved spicy food and we would often join Danton and his family for a local Indian breakfast of curry and roti (flatbread) on a weekend in a café near their house in Petaling Jaya. With Adam we would visit at teatime and eat sweet Malaysian cakes and pastries while the men would discuss French literature and politics and the kids ran around playing happily.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Le club de mercredi

Expat schools have new children arriving all the time, as parents take up new posts in Asia. Nina’s class began with twelve children in September, but by the end of January 2004 it had doubled. Nina found some new friends, French twins, Marie and Julie, and a Malaysian/German girl called Nadia. Several of the French mothers had younger siblings and suddenly I wasn’t the only mother who was lost and I could actually give advice about childcare, parks and places to visit with a baby or toddler.

Several of the French mothers had joined my weekly international mothers and babies group, 'ibu', which I recommended. At the ibu house I recently had met two French expat women who were involved in ibu. Odile was married to an English chap, with two children similar in age to Nina and Gabriel, worked part-time in the office. Julie was married to an Indian, had a four-year-old daughter, and sold decorative Balinese items at fairs. We met at the ballet-school where our daughters practiced on Mondays. Talking together we thought there would be enough French-speakers to form our own playgroup. We hired the ibu house for Wednesday afternoons, a time when the French school is closed, following French tradition of no-school on Wednesdays. We advertised in the ibu magazine and at the French pre-school.

The first meeting was very busy. Odile, Julie and I received about twelve mamans and their children. We put on French music and served a French style snack or gouter of baguette with nutella chocolate spread and asked everyone to introduce themselves and say what they wanted to get out of the group. Most just wanted to speak and hear more French, especially for their English-dominant children. Over the first month the group stabilized to about eight regulars. There were four mixed-marriages - me, Odile, Julie and Corinne, who was French and married to a Scot. Christine, Blandine, Cecile and Sylvie were French expats with young children. We also welcomed Fara, a Malaysian who was friends with Odile and Julie, and didn’t speak French but wanted her four-year-old daughter to speak it. Over fifteen children, ranging from baby to nine-year-old, played very well together and the mamas were free to sip ice-tea and chat about good places to visit, eat and take the children.

I felt very priviledged to be accepted at such a group. My French was improving dramatically as we shared stories of homesickness, sleepless nights, strange tropical illnesses and great holidays. The conversation was not demanding and I could easily partipate.

We met at the ibu house until the summer, when issues of membership fees and paying for the rental/snacks surfaced, and three organizers were tired of tidying up all the mess and toys afterwards. So we began to meet in a local park or play-area, at our houses, by the condo pool or in the garden and the hostess provide the gouter. It was a successful group and kept going for over a year with regular monthly lunches sans enfants, attending our children’s birthday parties and social events together too. Over the year Cecile, Julie and Blandine all had babies and we were conscious to be there to support them without their families. However in spring 2005, Blandine and Slyvie left KL for new postings, Julie opened a shop, Fara was too busy with other activities and the group disintegrated and became more occasional lunches or three or four of us meeting at a pool with the children.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Birthday Etiquette

I had booked a birthday package for Marc at the Petronas science museum located in the Twin Towers in KL. He could invite 20 friends, have a private tour of the museum, a fast-food lunch and a science-magic show and a cake at the end. Party bags with a science theme could be packed by the shop staff. It seemed like the perfect party and cost less than just renting the sports-hall we’d had for Marc’s 5th birthday in England. But we had problems with the invitees. I sent a brief invite out before Christmas, with a RSVP before the school closed. No-one replied and I thought the families were simply busy with Christmas preparations. By the time we went back to school in January I was panicking. I had invited all twelve children in Marc’s CP class plus another ten from the condo. I worried that it would be just our family eating twenty portions of fried chicken and ice-cream.

As I sat down to call each parent for a definitive RSVP three days before the party I was terrified. How do you ask someone nicely in French if they are coming or not? I didn't know many of the parents socially and hate telephoning in French anyway. I tried to sound not too desperate for party-friends, but to tell them that I needed to give the museum a party list that was already late. To my surprise the parents were not at all apolgetic that they had forgotten to contact me. They said things like: ‘Sorry, he’s playing football, and we don’t want to miss the practice’, ‘Oh we have too many parties in January, sorry she can’t come’ or ‘Sunday morning, KLCC?…we’ll see how we feel…maybe yes, maybe no.’ I was disappointed and crushed. The condo kids finally confirmed after a few more urgent calls. I finally called the party-organiser to say I could not get exact numbers but he said it was normal in Malaysia not to commit and that they would probably come last-minute. In the end nearly all the kids did turn up and luckily I had pre-packed 20+ party-bags. We had a great time.

In England we make a great effort to invite children in advance (so they can cancel sports and other activities in time), we always RSVP even if it is to say no thanks…and we would never just pop in on the day like that. But this is Malaysia and class parties were nearly every week and very much open-ended. Some parents would select parties for their children or restrict their children from parties in shopping malls or indoor play-areas, saying they could only attend house parties. So my concern about Marc not being popular and parents being rude was more to do with the expat culture than his rating in the class.

A few weeks later at the end of January we had Gabriel’s joint birthday barbecue party by the condo swimming pool. This was a much less stressful event, although more people came than we expected, and wolfed down the barbecue lunch and birthday cake with great speed. There was no need for kids entertainment, they all swam, played and ran around till a storm came at 3pm and sent us all running for shelter.

Nina’s godfather was visiting us on Gabriel’s birthday, which was very special for us. We were deeply grateful that our condo neighbours and new friends stood in as honorary aunts, uncles and cousins. However I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that no other family had been there for Nina’s 4th, Marc’s 7th and Gabriel’s 1st birthday. On all three birthdays we had waited till 4pm to call the grandparents and my sister, opened the cards and gifts sent by post and printed out photos later, but it’s not the same as having family there in person. So when my sister announced that she was pregnant with her first child (due in September) I wondered how we could reconcile faraway expat life with the simple business of sharing a birthday cake with our family members.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Christmas in the tropics

As Christmas approached we got a new maid. We needed someone full-time, and a live-in maid was cheaper than a part-time one. We had a spare room and I was having problems ushering out all the children in the morning and wanted someone to look after Gabriel while I did activities and school-runs with the other two. Jacques found an agency and chose one that looked cheerful. Imelda was in her late-thirties, but looked like a teenager (as Marc remarked to her one day). She was from the Phillipines, which I liked because my maid in Egypt had been sweet-natured and kind, and she was the youngest of twelve, which meant she was used to family life. Her CV said that she could speak English, could cook and had experience with babies. In the end Imelda (or Aimee as she called herself) came a few weeks early and we were rather unprepared and just about to leave for Thailand.

Christmas in the tropics is so different, even though there are the decorations and parties it is hard to believe it is that time of year. Without the chilly autumn air and dark evenings we still felt like we were in summer, although the calendar said December. We decided not to go back to Europe for Christmas, my sister was getting married in February and we would go back then. We bought a tiny plastic Christmas tree from Carrefour and some tacky house decorations, I had left all ours in storage in France and we had nothing. The condo had a potluck party and Jerome, dressed as a rather sweaty Santa, handed out gifts to all the delighted children. My only moment of sadness was when an English guest at the party brought in a fully dressed turkey with roast potatoes and cranberry sauce, and I felt suddenly homesick when I tasted it.

This Christmas was our first without either family and we decided we should go away. It could have been lonely, but we were occupied driving by car up north to Thailand and then finding our way to the island resort, Phuket. The atmosphere was so good there we really had fun. On Christmas Day Santa arrived with gifts for the children, riding on an elephant. There were parades and shows each night. The children still believed in Santa and were amazed to find gifts by their hotel beds. ‘How did he know?’ they asked each other. Later when we phoned home and reported there were more big things at home (bicycles) and they agreed it was totally normal for Santa to have left something back at the condo.

My English condo friend Vikki offered to look after Aimee while we were away. There were many horror stories of maids running off with the security guards, stealing the wife’s jewelry and even leaving children alone in the house. We left with some trepidation, but when we came back all was well and the house was spotless. Aimee settled in quickly. She had lived in KL for nine years, so knew her way around. She was a widow and was working to support her twelve-year-old son who lived with her sister.

We were back in KL in time for New Year and awaiting a visit from Nina’s godfather and his girlfriend in January. We could also start planning Marc’s 7th and Gabriel’s 1st birthdays. Marc wanted a science museum party. Gabriel happened to be born a day after Vikki’s son, McCaulay, who would be two on the 18th. We decided to do a joint barbecue party by the pool for the little boys.