Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that.

The prosaic truth is that I’ve been busy – but also that (and this will shock everyone except you) the more interesting stuff Piaf does, the more time I spend dealing with the fall-out from said interesting stuff, and the less time I have to write about it. 

The main interesting things she’s been doing recently are looking cute and screaming. 

The cuteness angle she covers by being naturally pretty (yes, I’m biased, but other people say it too, even people who I suspect don’t really like me that much), wearing the wide array of impossibly posh clothes we never seem to stop buying her, adjusting woolly hats at rakish angles, jumping, and saying things like, “come on, daddy!” when you least expect it. A doddle, in other words.

 The screaming has been much more of a learned behaviour and one senses that she has put some real work into it, but it is nonetheless a very polished performance. 

She is stubborn, you see. Neither maman nor I can work out where she gets it from. (“She does like her own way,” said her nursery school teacher this morning. “So do I,” I said.) 

This morning was all about the shoes.

 Since our return from Lille, Piaf has become something of a dab hand at footwear. Her new “Charlotte aux Fraises” slippers – no trouble. Her new pink wellies with the flowers and the Japanese girls – such a breeze she cannot even be bothered to use the handles provided. Her old gold Clarks with the light-up soles – almost an insult to her intelligence. 

However, the latter, as well as starting to pinch the tiniest bit, disgraced themselves in Lille by flooding when plunged into a puddle (hence the trip to the welly shop) and have now been replaced with a much more robust shoe, purple in colour, and with a tongue. 

As Piaf has no experience of shoes with tongues, and because I hate to see her fail when I could help her to succeed, I decided that I would help her to put them on.

 Error. 

She said “no”; I said “si.” She pulled; I hung on. She pulled harder; I gripped. She let go and started to cry; I stood my ground. 

End of Round 1. 

As she rolled on the floor like an Italian striker, I said what I usually say in these situations; “tu me diras quand tu seras prête, hein?” When she seemed calm, I asked her if she was, indeed, ready. She was; but, as soon as it became clear that I had not given up on my evil plan to prevent her from spending an hour struggling with a purple shoe, Round 2 began. 

The final round saw her so furious, tired and sad that she was the same colour as the shoes, beyond words, screaming like Noddy Holder with his hand in a vice, while I struggled not to lose it and start crying (in my defence, she had woken up much earlier than usual and we were a little bit worried that she might be ill, so by this stage I couldn’t be 100% sure that it really was a tantrum and not, say, black, searing and mysterious agony.) Incidentally, by this stage, both shoes were actually on; she was not only beyond words, but beyond facts.

A dummy broke the deadlock. With the dummy came calm, and with calm she allowed herself to be picked up and cuddled, and with the cuddle came the reminder that face-offs come and go, but we fundamentally adore each other. 

Still both subdued, we made our way to nursery. As I signed her in, I heard her in the other room. She was laughing out loud. So much for emotional damage.

I would do it again like a sot, of course, because I cannot stand the thought of the alternative – a child who cannot stand not to get her own way, but also a child who never really has fun or learns anything because everything is just so hard and discouraging when you face it completely alone.

The other thing that struck me was that our life – I mean, specifically mine and hers – is bounded, to an unusual degree, by language. So much of what we do is guided, modified, sometimes even wholly driven by questions, not of practicality, but of the development of spoken communication.

And yet there are still so many parts of her life where, for want of a better expression, language simply does not work, where what she wants, thinks, feels is literally inexplicable through words. Not just because we speak French – she still mixes languages with both of us, English is still dominant overall, and yet she did not even attempt to explain what she wanted in either language. She just screamed.

To push the idea maybe too far, my early feelings about using French with her – could it really do the job, could I fully express myself, would I cope in extremis? – are very much like her current feelings about language in general. She remains sceptical that it is up to scratch. 

Until I can convince her that I am right and she is wrong – about anything at all, let alone about this – the Slade impersonations will continue, I fear. 

Come on – feel the noise!

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I do not really believe in fate. 

Nevertheless, in future, I intend to steer clear of provocative questions such as, “what’s the worst that can happen?”

The weekend, you see, was an absolute nightmare. The big things fell into place – we caught the train with no problem, for example – but, as regards the medium and small things, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. 

Piaf was constantly demanding, sulky and prone to tantrums. Shopping was no fun. It was like my worst day ever of looking after her, multiplied by three, back to back, with no respite or support.

Oh yes. And we got locked out of our room on the first night and had to insist that the emergency locksmith be called out because all of Piaf’s stuff was in there. 

This is the shambles of an apartment-hotel we stayed in. I strongly recommend you never use them. True, the woman on duty was fantastic. But her initial response – and this was clearly policy – was to give us a different room and say that it would be sorted in the morning. For me on my own, that might have been acceptable if they threw in a discount. With a small, hungry, tired, nappy-rashed little girl, it was a non-starter. 

The best bit was to come the next morning, though. I had to drop the keys of the old (broken-locked) room at reception and let them know I was planning to stay in the (adequate-locked) replacement. “oh, yes,” the concierge said conversationally. “The locks are bad on that floor. They need replacing. Where are you now? On the ninth? Yes, that room’s a bit more spacious too, isn’t it?”

Now, if you are a hotelier or know a hotelier, I have a question for you. If you have two free rooms at the same tariff, and one of them has a dodgy lock and is smaller, why would you give that one to a paying customer instead of the bigger one with a working lock? 

Anyway, the whole trip was pretty much an ordeal, though there were some lovely moments – Lille has a fantastic zoo, for example, and a brilliant and busy children’s playground (which I found by asking strangers in the street if they knew of one – after all, why mention it in a guide book with a section called “Enfants”? Another shit purchase you would do well to avoid.

The trip was in some ways summed up by an event on the last day. Piaf was manageable largely because she is under the powerful spell exerted by ice cream. It is a miracle cure for all ailments and worries and we ate it each day, bonding over three scoops and two spoons. On the last day, I thought we might go to Meert, a “glacier” recommended by the same shit Petit Futé guidebook

Sure enough, the promise of ice cream lured her out of the playground, Pied Piper like. But now I had a promise to live up to, the ice cream parlour was quite a walk away, and time was actually looking quite tight if we weren’t to rush for the train. 

But when Papa promises, Papa delivers. We trekked to Meert. As soon as we went in, I saw it was far too posh for us – a bit like Oxford’s Randolph Hotel, if the Randolph let its staff have bad facial hair. 

Still, a promise is a promise. Beardy wisely seated us at a nice table at the back and gave us the menus. I read mine, Piaf threw hers on the floor. Time was really not on our side. 

Back came The Beard. I ordered a coffee. Where, I asked him, were the ice creams on the menu?

“Oh, we don’t sell ice cream. Not out of season.” 

“So, you are a glacier who does not sell glaces?” 

Apparently he was. 

We left, went just round the corner to somewhere very down to earth, got ice cream instantly and had more happy moments before going outside to watch a very organised gang of brass-playing buskers and then head for a packed Eurostar home. 

Did I enjoy our trip? No, not really. Would I do it again? Yes, although I don’t think I could actually organise it better than I did – I just think it was maybe a couple of months too early and that experience is the only thing that will make it easier next time.

Most pertinently, did it work? Did it have any effect on Piaf’s French?

In theory, it shouldn’t. Almost no one spoke to her except me; and, as her other main source of French was DVDs, it was not much different to being at home. 

And yet, all of a sudden, French words were appearing where previously there had been English words, and repetition was offered where previously there had been silence. I can only posit that, hearing me and everyone else speaking it non-stop, she started to believe that this was a real language rather than an elaborate game of her father’s, and to respect it accordingly. 

Monday morning saw us make a very fruitful first visit to Cadet Rousselle, but that can wait. I don’t want to over-excite you. 

In the mean time, here is the weekend treat I cruelly deprived you of.

It’s good to be back.

By the time you read this I will probably be underwater. Hopefully eating a croissant.

The tax that will take us to the train that will take us away under the sea and off to Lille is due in five and a half hours. If I didn’t have to book some last-minute travel insurance (lost E111- silly papa) I would not even be online.

I am, frankly, terrified. Having been travelling abroad alone for nearly 20 years, sometimes with a pathetic lack of planning, suddenly I am scared that I will not cope, that it will all go wrong somehow.

I am being stupid, I know – and it’s Lille, not Minsk. (Please, never go to Minsk ifyou can help it, even if you don’t have a child with you.) And I do speak the language (not that that improved Minsk.) What’s the worst that can happen?

I’ll let you know next time.

A day at home with what looked last night very much like ‘flu but now doesn’t. Piaf had it too but seemed better this morning – and, to be honest, I didn’t want to risk making her worse by keeping her with me. 

Lille is now all booked up and I have managed to come in on budget! Admittedly, it was the budget for a week and we’re actually going for three days, but it’s a learning experience, I suppose. The next stage is putting together the itinerary, complete with a Plan B for every single item on it, in case of bad weather/boredom/people being French and closing up with no notice on the flimsiest of pretexts (“but, monsieur, we are always closed on the third Friday of the month if the temperature is below 20 degrees – surely you knew?”) Plan A, however, includes a zoo, a playground, a puppet theatre and a toyshop, so, fingers crossed, it will meet with Piaf’s approval. 

Her French has made massive leaps all of a sudden. Not only is her vocabulary growing daily and not only is she pronouncing her words much more recognisably, but she is starting to show clear signs of choosing her words according to who she is speaking to. At the weekend, chez les grandparents, she and I were in the front room and she pointed to some wooden ducks. “Oiseaux!” she said to me (itself a word she has hardly used before.) Then her grandparents came through, as they had been separated from her for three minutes and were consequently jonesing for a fix. “Duck!” she said to them, pointing at the self same ornaments. 

Sometimes, the whole thing surprises me. “She’s speaking French!” I think to myself. “Where did she learn to do that? Oh, yes …” 

I have a very poor sense of direction. As a result, I will frequently get lost and have to ask the way from a stranger. However, because I have such a poor sense of direction, I will glaze over after the second “turn left at the lights” because what the stranger is saying is almost meaningless to me. I nod politely, drive off, and try to make sense of what I have just heard.

 When, in some cases, I come out where they tell me I will come out, I am invariably surprised. True enough, I was told it would be like this and I had no cause to doubt the stranger’s instructions – I was just sure it was all going wrong and, at times, nothing looked familiar. 

That is the feeling I have now. I followed the directions to the best of my ability, spent a lot of time convinced I had misheard or forgotten something key and, all of a sudden, “Ye Olde Red Lion” appears up ahead on the left and it looks like things might be about to turn out okay.

Like this? Try these. 

Je suis, tu suis, elle suit … 

J’explique, tu expliques, elle explique …

J’énumère, tu énumères, elle énumère …

Swinging Sixties à la française. Two cover versions that show why France is, was and always will be  the epitome of cool.

Lots of stuff to organise for Lille, which is now only a week away. Lots of things like – erm – where we’re going to stay … 

Like many naturally organisation-averse people, I am surprised afresh every time I do actually try to organise something at how time-consuming and hard it is. I mean, obviously, I suspect that – that’s why I’m organisation-averse – but I always assume that, because the majority of people take it in their stride, I am making too big a deal of it and actually it is really easy. 

But no, it really is long-winded and dull. 

I imagine the trick is to remain goal-focussed. Goal – tear-free, long weekend in Lille. Maybe including a trip to the zoo, lots of croissants, and buying a pair of red, pink or purple wellies (size 21 – I’ve looked it up. Perhaps I’m getting good at this organising lark after all.) 

Talking of organising, I acknowledged my limits in that direction only yesterday evening.

I had volunteered for some overtime at work. Nothing to do with my day-job, it involved going round the borough and knocking on, say, 500 doors to get stragglers to put themselves on the electoral register. Hard work, they said, but good money. Come along to a meeting. 

In my head, before I’d even got to that meeting, I’d spent the money – mostly on Piaf, of course. The meeting confirmed that the money was indeed good – even better than the sum I’d already spent in my head, in fact. 

But it also confirmed that the work was hard – and, more problematically, quite inflexible and time-pressured. I soon realised that I would be earning this money at the expense of time – evening cuddles, weekends out in our ancient but serviceable old man car – with maman and Piaf. 

By the end of the spiel my mind was made up. I approached the organiser and withdrew from the scheme.

I am the first to acknowledge that we are very lucky. That extra money would have been nice, but the honest, privileged truth is that we’re fine without. I certainly would not knock anyone else for taking up the chance I turned down. And, in my head, I am still wondering if, after all, I could have made it work out.

But, given that we don’t need it, here’s how I’m thinking deep down. It is highly unlikely, based on my own experience of life and the anecdotes of a thousand older, wiser parents, that Piaf will remember nothing of this stage of her life. Not a sausage. 

Nevertheless, if she does retain even the slightest subconscious trace of these early years, tucked away in a dark recess alongside apocryphal memories of stone baths and sunny days at the beach, I would rather that trace told of a father who tried to be around for her whenever he could, rather than a father who spent a fortune on Christmas one year but who never got to kiss her good night.

 Like this? Try these. 

Je fais du shopping, tu fais du shopping, elle fait du shopping …

Je câline, tu câlines, elle câline …

Je voyage, tu voyages, elle voyage …

I got a lot of my early support and guidance in this experiment from the parenting website Mumsnet and am still a regular on there. 

I was contributing to a thread on bilingualism there last night and remembered an incident from much earlier in the year, before I gave my whole life over to the service of this blog. Like last night’s blog, it revolves around a misunderstanding, so it’s mildly entertaining, and I thought it might be worth sharing on here too.

The thread I was responding to was basically asking if other parents spoke the majority language as a concession to their children’s friends and/or strangers in the park?

Absolutely not, I replied. (And it’s true, I don’t. What sort of message would that give to your child and to others? That your shared language is shameful, inconvenient, secret, “less than”? I’m speaking French, not shaking hands with a mason.) 

But I understand that mother’s question. After all, you don’t want to alienate other children either or, even worse, mark your own child out as odd or awkward.

To suggest a possible solution, and to illustrate how seriously I take this whole question, I related how, when we were still living in Peckham, we took a bus into Brixton one day. Piaf was okay on buses (just as well) unless and until she got bored.

On this occasion, my way of distracting her and keeping her calm was to read her a book. For this reason, even now, I never, ever take her anywhere without taking a book along too. 

As I was reading, I noticed the little girl in the pram wedged next to hers (busy bus) had started taking an interest too. What should I do? I had heard the girl’s father say a few words in English, so it was unlikely that she would follow the French; but if I read it in English, I would be letting me and Piaf down, and maybe confusing and upsetting into the bargain – which, obviously, was the antithesis of the goal of reading to her in the first place. 

What I ended up doing – there, on the 37 from Peckham to Brixton – was reading the page in French, then translating it into English for the other little girl. And I did this for the whole book. Both girls seemed to enjoy it, and neither one got upset or bored or started crying.

Then the other girl and her dad got off one stop before us, and I realised that they were Portuguese.

Like this? Try these. 

J’habille, tu habilles, elle habille … 

Je change, tu changes, elle change …

Je babille, tu babilles, elle babille … 

Je confesse, tu confesses, elle confesse …

The fact that Piaf understands French is no guarantee that she will act on that understanding. 

Tonight, bath time slipped a bit, so that it was already late when we started getting ready for bed. Piaf cleaned her teeth (and mine) and we got her pyjama bottoms on. 

She grabbed the top off me and started trying to put it on herself. Her face was a mask of joyous concentration. I could see that this could end up taking some time.

“Tu veux que papa t’aide?”

“Non.” 

“Piaf, c’est un maillot. Laisse-moi t’aider.” 

“Maillot.”

 “Oui, c’est ton maillot. Laisse-moi t’aider, ou nous n’aurons pas le temps de lire Charlie et Lola.” (I caved in and ordered it in French from Canada. Quel mug!) 

“Lola-book.” 

“Oui. Tu aimes Charlie et Lola, hein? Alors, laisse-moi t’aider.” 

“Non.”

 “D’accord, c’est comme tu veux, j’ai tout mon temps, moi.” 

Nevertheless, minutes went by and we were getting nowhere. Try as she might, she could not get this top on. Even I was starting to get impatient for milk and for Charlie et Lola

I made an executive decision. I held out my hand and swiftly – but not roughly – I took her legs out of the pyjama top, passed it smoothly over her head, sat her on my lap and started to read.

Like this? Try these.

Je suis fatigué, tu es fatigué, elle est fatiguée …

Je confonds, tu confonds, elle confond …

Ils sont vraiment, ils sont vraiment, ils sont vraiment phénoménaux lah-la-la-la-la-lah-lah, lah-la-la-la-la-lah! 

Feel my wrath, Sedan!

I am biased, of course, but I think Piaf is a very pretty little girl. It makes me feel a bit better about this that other people, even strangers, appear to share this opinion and go out of their way to tell me so. 

One such incident took place today. Piaf’s maman was away visiting friends overnight so Piaf and I have had 24 hours of unadulterated Frenchness together (well, I did watch Casualty, but that was after she had gone to bed so it didn’t count.) But Piaf cannot live by French alone. She requires play and stimulation too. I took her to the bookshop.

Our local bookshop is the sort that used to be widespread in my youth. Everyone loved them because they were independent and the staff and owners had genuine knowledge and love of books. However, they all went out of business in the 1990s because, while loving them because they were independent etc. etc, no one actually bought books there because Tesco was cheaper and Borders had a Starbucks built in. The one near us is one of the ones that have somehow survived. 

I took Piaf there, not because I planned to buy her a book – they only sell English books and I only buy her French books – but because they have a children’s play area, complete with a low table and chairs and plastic food and cutlery. Piaf loves it, and if she’s happy, I’m happy (especially when I’m looking after her alone.) But then, once she was ensconced at the table and busy giving pretend water to a doll, I felt a bit guilty. This is, after all, a retail business dependent on sales for survival. Perhaps I should buy a book? 

So I did. I cam across it quite by chance (serendipity?) but thought it looked just right. It is called The Secret Life Of France and appears to be based on a blog of the same name. Lucy Wadham, its author, sets about getting behind the myth of Frenchness to see how the country really works and why it is so different from Britain. Thirty pages in (I’m a quick reader) and I am enjoying it greatly. It is good to have something to test my own feelings against and also to assess what lay in store for me if things had been different and I had stayed (or, indeed, what we might expect if we moved there now.) If you are the sort of person who is happy to take a recommendation on the basis of 30 pages, then buy it. 

Anyway, while I was leafing through this book and Piaf was throwing things on the floor, a grandmother started speaking to us. Well, to Piaf, actually. Wasn’t she lovely? Wasn’t she clever? Wasn’t she playing nicely? Well, frankly, yes, yes, and yes – but, like I say, I’m biased, and what can you honestly say to that sort of rhetorical question? 

For the first time, I began to see the advantage to a miserable and gauche bugger like me of the whole French experiment. If I just smile and look embarrassed and speak English, I look like a cretin. If I smile and look embarrassed and speak French, I look mysterious and exotic and, most important of all, I have an excuse for not answering rhetorical-questions-from-grandmothers-that-aren’t-really-rhetorical-because-granny-clearly-expects-an-answer!

 Yet another of the many advantages of bilingualism …