I try to do too much. 

Every day this weekend, I have spent a minimum of an hour and a half driving, and a fair proportion of that time I was in heavy traffic, lost, or both, which obviously heightened this experience. As a result, I am going back to work tomorrow with no sense of having had a rest.

 Some of it’s been fun, though – the night away was good; going to introduce my mother to her own computer last night was nice and meant I got to drop in on the After School Club I used to attend when I first realised what I was; and then, this morning, I got a text from Piaf’s maman to say that she was sick and could I come home early? 

Cue a seventy-mile drive alternating high speeds with getting stuck behind caravans, lorries and, at one point, a Highways Agency vehicle which everyone was mistaking for a police car and thus refusing to overtake it. Barely out of the car, I was in sole charge of Piaf as maman traipsed sickly off to bed.

 Once I was over the self-pity and indignation at my partner’s lack of visible joy and gratitude (about five minutes – I’m getting better) I realised what a good deal I was getting out of it – only yesterday, wasn’t I moaning about having missed Piaf at the weekend proper and about how the Outlaws had tricked her into learning English? Here was my chance to make up for it.

 An hour of Duplo, Trotro and toy cars segued into another hour in Caffe Nero, eating pannetone (her) and croissants dunked in coffee à la française (me), reading picture books aloud (me) and bashing a multicoloured abacus (her), all through the medium of our shared language – then a quick trip to Sainsbury’s for full-fat milk and individual miniature boxes of raisins, and home for a nap (her, sadly, rather than me, but hey ho.) 

For several years now, I have been saying in meetings of After School Club that my worst day now is unrecognisably better than my best day then. Piaf, and the bond we have as the result of speaking another language to her, has only made that truer still.


One-nil! Aux chiottes, Arles-Avignon!

Just back from weekend away – away from home and also away from Piaf. Very relaxing and considerable novelty value to being allowed to choose when we woke up. Bought a couple of novels in Blackwells, refamiliarised myself with the town of my undergraduate follies, ate well, and treated to the spectacle of an absolute phallus saying to the hotel receptionist, “I don’t care how much it costs, I want to be able to park in front of the hotel overnight” – as if it was some sort of indecent proposal set-up instead of fixed-fee car-parking! To make it even better, there weren’t any spaces, and he had to park in town like the rest of us peasants! Superb.

But, of course, we missed Piaf and I wasfurther disheartened to find that, not surprisingly, her loving, attentive grandparents had deviously stuffed her full of English in my absence. She’s at a stage where she’s soaking up new words and concepts, so their efforts were doubly effective. For the first time in a while, I felt the faintest bit disheartened about the whole language experiment.

Still, onwards and upwards, avanti popoli, etc – and, on the plus side, we have her back again for bilingual kissing and cuddling purposes.

Can’t go wrong.

A mixed bag today, and brief with it, because we are off to the out-laws’ house shortly. Maman and I are to spend Saturday night away in a hotel somewhere, while Piaf is relentlessly spoilt by her grandparents (grand’maman and grandpapa, not mamie – more on that another time.)

Leaving nursery today (in a rush – see above) I was accosted by one of the French mums who also happens to be a leader at the Saturday playgroup I have mentioned before . Was I free next weekend, she enquired? Either day would do.

It transpires that I have been accepted into the inner sanctum – I am, it appears, on the informal steering group! My ideas on session organisation, songs to sing, games to play and even dates to meet are to be welcomed by and discussed with the other Chosen Ones. Piaf and I are, it seems, blending in nicely.

The football is about to kick off, I know, so I won’t keep you. But, as it is Friday, and as the weekend promises to be hectic, I couldn’t leave you unentertained. Here’s a rare treat for you.

En route et bon weekend.

Help me out if you will.

The more Piaf repeats words that she hears, the more aware I become that I will need to stop swearing. 

Now, bear in mind that I swear a lot. It’s not because I have a limited vocabulary, or because I struggle to express myself, or because I lack decorum or confidence. It’s because I like it.

Secondly, remember that swearing in French, while not something I find difficult or limiting, is not my first instinct in those very moments of heightened pain, shock, surprise or anger when I most like swearing.

So to go from swearing in English, to swearing in French, to using those “pretend” swearwords especially invented for use in front of and by children – the Gallic analogues of “fudge”, “sugar” and (for the Baptists among you) “Jeepers Creepers” – is quite a tall order. 

Especially given that I don’t actually know what those analogues are.

 Well, having said that, I once had a private student (18 years old, I sugar you not) who would exclaim “mince!” instead of “merde!” when he made a mistake. There’s polite, and there’s embarrassing. Still, I know that one.

I also know that “flute!” is often used in these contexts, but I’m never sure what it’s replacing. 

So, if you can help, I’d love to hear a few more. In the mean time, I’ve made up a few of my own to be going on with.

I thought, for example, that “Pétain!” was practically a swearword in itself so I might as well use that one while I’m waiting. “Canard” also seems fit for purpose, especially as Piaf is really into ducks at the moment. (I remember fondly, too, a conversation with a French friend about whether people from Caen were Caennards …) “Mince” I have, so no worries there – and, of course, the verb “ficher” covers a multitude of sins (though can you say, “va te faire ficher”? I think not.) 

That basically leaves me with “cul” and its derivates (“enculer”, “trouduc”, “enculé(e)(s)”, “va te le mettre au cul”) to replace (I was going to say “plug” but didn’t want to excite you with a double entendre.) If you’ve got any ideas, please log them in the comments.

You poor duck.

A late posting today – the knock-on effect of being up till all hours last night trying to coax my mother into the 20th century (the 21st will have to wait its turn) by teaching her, over the phone, how to use the internet. This exercise was every bit as successful and fruitful as you can imagine, though it did culminate in getting her to reach this page around one in the morning and see her son and her only grandchild on the computer, i.e. practically on TV.

This meant I was even more than half asleep when maman (i.e. Piaf’s mother, not mine, natch) told me the momentous news this morning, almost without realising it. 

Piaf has started answering “wh-” questions. 

Now that I’ve written that down, I understand it doesn’t really look like momentous news. But it does have much more than purely linguistic interest.

Previously, she seemed only to understand (and certainly to be able to respond to) questions that could be answered “yes” or “no” (she uses the English words whichever language the question is couched in.) Questions like “qu’est-ce que tu as fait aujourd’hui?” were wasted. Even questions which give a clear choice – “tu veux que je te lise ce livre-ci ou ce livre-là?” elicited a “yeah” which, while not an incorrect answer as such, was as confusing as it was practically useless. 

Some time this week, without me really noticing it, she dealt with that particular problem by acquiring the word “dat”. But now, her mother tells me, Piaf can go one better and the question, “who did you see today?” elicits names.

This opens up whole worlds of potential conversation that were hitherto closed to us. Even if she limits herself to one-word answers for some time to come, it is much easier to generate follow-up questions to, for example, a child’s name (“tu as joué avec lui? A quoi avez-vous joué ensemble? Où avez-vous fait ça? Vous vous êtes bien amusés?”) than to “no(n)!” Every day, my daughter becomes more of a social animal (“animo”).

 The other sign that this is taking place is that, alongside her growing vocabulary of nouns, she has acquired “please” and “thank you”.

Or, rather, “blee” and “murtee”. 

Bilingual, and sweet beyond words.

Just a quick reminder to set your recorders for 20h30 (local time) on Friday when we wrestle with FC Arles Avignon in a veritable clash of the Titans! (Presumably Arles has combined with Avignon in a bid to rustle up a combined total of 11 able-bodied men under 65.)

If ever you glance at the comments attached to this blog you will notice that I have recently been corrected by a real live Frenchman on the word for an ice lolly.

Further, this Frenchman is someone whose opinion I respect and have often sought on linguistic matters. Clearly, I am wrong. 

Nevertheless, there are reasons why I am wrong.

My choice of vocabulary with Piaf is surrounded by tensions probably not felt by native speakers, and almost certainly not felt by native speakers in the homeland.

The first tension, as I have intimated previously, is that a lot of words I simply don’t know – and, in this category, the words I need to bring up a child are over-represented. If you had asked me, a little over 18 months ago, to use French to discuss narrative structures in the crime novel, it would have been my pleasure. If you had asked me to talk about the constituent parts of a baby’s bottle, I would have fallen at the first hurdle.

All of these gaps have been plugged, tant bien que mal, by my trusty Collins Robert dictionary. Alas, as is so often the case when the adjective “trusty” crops up, the adjective “old” belongs right alongside it. This, after all, is the dictionary that got me through ‘A’ level literally half a lifetime ago. To say that the world has moved on is an understatement.

This is where I found the word “esquimau” for an ice lolly – but my friend informs me that the word on the street in 1989 is no longer the word on the street in 2009. (It probably wasn’t in 1992, when I took the ‘A’ level, either, but fortunately ice lollies were deemed too frivolous for advanced level candidates in those days.) 

A related problem – rarer, but real – is when the native French speakers I know in Britain don’t know the word either, because the concept did not exist when they left France or just because they didn’t care about baby-related things at the time. No one has yet been able to be definitive, for example, about the French for the children’s toy based on an Aboriginal instrument and called a “rain maker”; or how, exactly, one should translate “rice cakes”. (Anyone? Anyone?) 

But the most treacherous issue – the one I nearly fell for – is that of loan words.

When The Plan began, I wasn’t blind. I realised that both the problems outlined above would affect me. Not to worry, I thought – if in doubt, it’s often perfectly acceptable to use the English with a French accent. Look at “le jogging”; look at “le shopping”; “le fair-play”, for goodness’s sake! You can’t go wrong.

I was encouraged in this belief by a lot of Canadian popular culture, especially some of the rock music (which often plays on the dual linguistic heritage of the country) and the daytime sitcom Rumeurs .

Then I came across writers who said that this was A Very Bad Idea. If bilingual children get used to this (they say) then, whenever they don’t know a word in their weaker language, they will invent their own “loan word” from their stronger one.

This threw me back at the mercy of the dictionary and led to some exceptionally poor choices. Piaf, like most babies, initially spent a lot of her time in what are often called sleep suits. The word I chose, with the help of the Collins Robert, to translate this? “Barboteuse” – the picture needs no further comment, I believe. Manu (trusty, but not quite old) suggested “pyjama” and I have now decided that, should we have a brother or sister for Piaf, he or she shall wear “une grenouillière“.

Later on, Piaf started wearing hooded tops from Gap. I decided that the best word for this would be “un capuchon”. Now, “un capuchon” does mean a hooded top – if you are Cadfael. Here’s one I googled earlier (it also means a rather more integral hood, but we shan’t dwell on that now.) Once again, Manu rode to the rescue, this time with “un sweat à capuche”.

My rule now is simple but, so far, effective. If I have any doubt about a word, I ask; in the mean time, I talk around it as best I can; and I only use an English loan word when that is the first and only realistic choice (yes to “le football”, no to “le shopping”.)

And I promise never to dress my children in barboteuses or capuchons.

All of a sudden, it seems, Piaf has discovered a sense of humour.

One minute, breaking wind was a simple, automatic bodily function; now, it is a source of mirth.

Peek-a-boo is now a two-sided game, rather than a response-only activity. By extension, so is deception – saying “gone” (with upturned palms and outstretched arms) when a quick check reveals the milk is nowhere near finished or the doll is hidden under a blanket.

Swinging her through the air like a plane, or pretending to drop her, now elicits, not just a contented smile, but outright laughter. Tickling, especially by stealth, has her in fits. 

It is clear that the vast majority of her humour is still very physical. She bears out, in a very immediate and literal way, Bergson’s idea that what makes us laugh is “le mécanique plaqué sur le vivant” (or, for those who can be bothered to read the book to the end, the inverse). Occasionally, the funny sound of a word, the more so if repeated, will extract a chuckle (“hippopotame” is a firm favourite)-  but, in general, it is things she can see, or even better things she can experience, that get a laugh.

Nor does she “get” the jokes in her DVDs – she loves watching them, but apparently sees no humour in the situations. This is probably because they are intended for slightly older children, an inherent problem of buying these things “blind” via internet and getting them to last, so that she “grows” into them like an oversized sweater.

In this respect, what has surprised me is that, unlike most behaviours (most obviously and pertinently, language development) which start out receptive and only slowly become productive, Piaf’s sense of humour is much more active than passive. She does, as stated above, find rough-and tumble, tickling etc vastly amusing – but these are things she cannot do for herself. Where she can do something funny, it is a self-evident truth that she is the best at it and thereby the funniest girl in the world.

Which, though obviously transient, must be a great feeling while it lasts.

Back from ASC (see here and here if you don’t get it and then try to keep up in future) refreshed and ready to type. One of the things I always get out of ASC these days (i.e. since Piaf was born) is how lucky I am to have her and how impossible the whole of my current relationship with her would have been in the Bad Old Days. But I digress.

A lot of this weekend has been slide-based. Yesterday, we drove down to Brighton for a “naming ceremony” which turned out not to be a ceremony at all but a picnic in the park for 30-somethings and their offspring.

No sooner had we arrived, with seconds to spare for the ceremony which then turned out not to be taking place, than Piaf spotted the playground and made a beeline for it. Her single-mindedness is a character trait that she inherited from me on the occasions when it is a positive thing and from her mother on the occasions when it is a negative thing.

Four visits we made to that playground in as many hours. On one of the ones that I supervised I was surprised and a little perturbed to hear another mother talking to her daughter in French. Goodness, I thought – what if she heard me and knows I’m not a native (I didn’t even stop to think that she might not be a native either)? And what if I got the gender of “hublot” wrong? She’ll think I’m weird! 

Or, more likely, she won’t give a toss. They remind me of this sort of thing at ASC, I really should get there more often.

They had horses on springs in Brighton, too – which Piaf loved – and sand, which she was less sure about. She has only walked on sand once before and I think it must be a setback, as if, after having put in all that effort comparatively recently, you’ve suddenly, inexplicably, lost the walking “knack”.

Today, we have been to two local slides – the one behind our house first thing, then to the one in the big park this afternoon. The child is genuinely obsessed with the things. Up and down, up and down – we have to lure her away with the other objects in the playground (it doesn’t help she is going through an anti-swing phase.)

 In the big park, she also loved the mural of the fox and the owl and the birds (not in the slightest put off that an older boy had just pissed up it) and then stole her mother’s ice lolly on the way home. A splendid day, made all the better that, after so many months of angst and uncertainty, she is showing definite signs of being gauchère like her papa! I am aware that some people (including maman) think left-handedness is not particularly an advantage in life. Sadly, they are wrong, because it is. The thought of Piaf joining the ranks of the Elect fills me with joy.

 And, now I think more carefully about yesterday, it was indeed with her left hand that she pointed excitedly at the bloody enormous slide – so enormous that it finishes in a pit to make it longer – and terrified me.

 Perhaps her obsession with the small slide is something I can live with after all.

I will be blogging more thoroughly later tonight, I hope, when Piaf is in bed and I get back from the After School Club (hereafter, increasingly, ASC – we all know what it means …)

In the mean time, two questions.

First one to the French speakers among you – what word do you use for an ice lolly? I have always (well, since the need has arisen) called it “un esquimau” but, having checked in my dictionary (spurred on to correctness by maman) I see that this is only approximate and that it can mean a choc ice. Feedback, please.

The other question is for all parents and is related – how is it that a child who, in many ways, is too young and too impatient to be considered properly dextrous, can hold and manipulate an adult-sized ice lolly and eat the whole thing with no help at all?

Answers on a postcard (or in a comment) please – more later …