J’explique, tu expliques, elle explique …

August 1, 2009

I am Papa because I am her Papa (though she calls me Daddy.) Not “Papa” in a Von Trapp way; “Papa” in a Joe Dassin way. I am 35 and, when I am not with her, am by nature a miserable bastard.

She is Piaf because her middle name is Edith and because, when she was born, she put me in mind (as I suppose most newborns would) of a sparrow, fragile and alert and curious all at the same time; the famous Piaf got her stage name on a similar basis, “piaf” being Parisian slang for “sparrow”. Piaf is nearly 18 months old and is naturally incredibly cheerful, especially when there are shoes to be played with.

 Oh. And we are bilingual. Since about a week after her birth (more about that week later) I have spoken to her exclusively in French; her mother has spoken to her exclusively in English.

 So far, so South Ken. Here in London, after all, there is no shortage of Francophone families. The French-speaking community (which is also, by and large, the French community – I assume the Swiss, Walloons and Québécois to be independently-minded fellows for the most part) clusters around the Embassy and the Lycée in South Kensington; straggles thickly through Clapham (where the French answer to Notting Hill was set); and finally peters out in the eastern fastnesses of Norwood. Meanwhile, in deepest South-East London, another, entirely separate Francophone community abuts the first, this one of dark-skinned Africans who speak French for colonial reasons. To be a French-speaking parent in London is not a rare thing.

 Our situation is a little different, however, in that I am not French. Nor am I half-French; nor Swiss, Walloon or Québécois, nor even Ivorian or Congolese. I did not grow up in France ; nor was I schooled there; nor am I even an alumnus of said lycée. And the same is true of every single member of my family. Until secondary school I did not speak one word of the language which is now my exclusive means of communication with my only child.

 How this all came to pass – our “back story,” if you like – is probably something I should dole out as we go along, rather than try to explain it all in one go. Suffice it to say for now that we are not the first, nor even the only ones at present, but we are rare enough to make me want to explain myself, even to strangers.

 I suppose I should start with WHY. I’m tempted to blurt out “I don’t know” but that’s hardly likely to keep you reading and it isn’t quite true. I know why I think I made this decision, and how I explain it to myself and others – but sometimes it seems such an odd, fraught and, frankly, difficult thing to do that my own reasons don’t convince me. Still, for what it’s worth, here they are.

 In my old life, as I now describe my early 20s (for reasons that will become clear if you stick around) I was supposed to become a university lecturer in French. To that end, I started a thesis; taught a bit at British and French universities, though never on anything like a permanent contract; lived in France for two years; and read a lot of French novels about crime. In that time, I acquired a good knowledge of French, France and the French. I worked, played and slept with French people; I shopped in French shops, lived in French houses, ate and drank (mainly drank) in French cafés. I started to feel like I was French on some days, and on other days to wish I was. It wasn’t that being English was bad. I just felt being French would be better.

 This obviously marked the culmination of many years of studying French language and literature. At my peak, although fear of ridicule prevented me from saying it too loud, I felt I was the best non-native speaker of French I knew (apart from impossible wizards like my supervisor.)

 And yet there were still times when I found myself groping for the gender of a word; or calculating rather than knowing whether to address a friend of a friend as “tu” or “vous”. I was good, certainly – but I was performing dog good.

 If only things had been different, I thought. If only I spoke French like I spoke English. If only I could really blend unnoticed into this wonderful world, so different from England, and so especially different from my England.

 When Piaf was born, it seemed that this might be a pretty cool gift to give her. I was intently aware of how much work even performing dog good had taken me. Imagine acquiring all that without even knowing you were acquiring it!

 And imagine, most of all, being special. Imagine being, not just a French-English bilingual, but a French-English bilingual with no French in you, a linguistic realisation of the expression, “look, no hands!”

 Yes, there was other stuff too – the promise of improved intelligence and creativity, the social usefulness, the broadening of opportunities, the potential to study in an enviably secular education system – but these came later, to support and justify a decision that was already as good as made.

 I must have been insane.


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