Monday, October 04, 2010

Sloppy speech

Ask anyone in an OPOL family if they only speak their own language to their kids and they’ll assure you ‘Yes, absolutely and the kids only reply in one language too!’, but add in a quiet observer and you’ll find it’s a different story. When we have guests visiting, who are not bilingual in French and English, their confused faces reveal how much we mix languages, often unconsciously. We all have a tendency to ‘drop’ in the odd word from the other language as and when it suits us, or we have a word that is easier to say! My sister and her family came to stay from England recently and proved this point in the following dialogues (taken from video footage):
Me: ‘Hurry up and get your bombe for horse riding, Nina!’ (Cousin looks horrified that we are taking along a bomb with us to horse riding session, bombe being French for horse-riding hat)
Gabriel: ‘I want a glace!’ (Aunt passes him a glass of water, which he refuses with angry face because he wanted an ice-cream, which is a glace in French)
Me: ‘So, Marc is going to collège in September…’ (Aunt who looks confused because for her college is at age 16 and Marc is only 13, but in France secondary school is called collège)
Nina: ‘We get the car here and the chauffeur takes us to school every day.’ (Uncle wonders how we have a personal chauffeur when he thought the kids took school bus, turns out that the school bus in French is a car.)

Your recipe or mine?

It was the smell of chips with salt and vinegar that did it. A van parked in the car park of our small French town was selling the traditional British meal of fish and chips to tourists and curious locals. I was transported back to Friday nights at my parents or my grandparent’s houses, going to the chip shop to buy greasy chips wrapped in newspaper, battered orange fish and a pot of mushy fluorescent green peas. Without thinking we ordered our dinner. Forget the healthy tuna salad I’d planned. Back home the kids wolfed the fish and chips down and told stories about how they always get free chips while waiting in the queue with Grandpa in Nottingham and remembered the tasty fish and chips that we ate on holiday in the Isle of Skye last year.
Living in France I love the local food and we generally eat French food, but there are days, like the fish and chip day, when a wave of homesickness for English food takes over and I’ll fry a big English Sunday morning breakfast, bake scones or make crumbles with custard. The kids are curious and go along with it, even if they do sometimes make comments together on how could Mummy possibly like strange things like Branston pickle, baked beans or Marmite. The kids are now old enough to cook and love to get messy in the kitchen. While I bake scones with Nina we chat about how my grandmother would make wonderful afternoon teas. I think how much language and cooking are linked, and the importance and passing on a heritage through food and cooking for others.
However, it’s not so simple in the OPOL family. I have my memories of food and cooking with my English mother and grandmother and Jacques has his memories of home cooking in his French kitchen. But what happens when we both try to pass on our traditions with the same food item? Take potatoes, for example, a staple of both our childhood dinners. For Jacques it is purée, a smooth blend of potatoes with generous doses of cream, egg yolk and grated nutmeg stirred in, while for me it is mashed which is more lumpy and made with less butter and milk. Both are good in their own way. Or apple pie, for me, chunks of stewed apple enclosed in buttery pastry top and bottom, for him, fine slices of apple arranged in a circle on just one thin layer of sweet pastry. Which one do the kids prefer? It’s hard for them to choose without upsetting one parent.
Compromises have to be made too, or we mix the two cultures. As we prepare for a big family dinner or birthday meal there is a natural tendency to mix culinary tastes, like, a French salad to start, with goats cheese, then steak, cooked rare, with roasted parsnips and English gravy, followed by a plate of French cheese and then an apple and blackberry crumble with custard for dessert. Does the OPOL family become a new mélange of food heritage by default? Are we creating a new type of fusion food? As I clear the empty plates away, I wonder what food memories our children have when they are older and what kind of food they will cook in their own kitchens…