It strikes me suddenly that I have not given you any news of your favourite Ligue 2 side and mine, the Norman conquerors themselves, Stade Malherbe de Caen, for over a month!

So let’s put that right, right now.

14ème journée (Friday 6 November 2009)

SM Caen                     0-0                   Tours FC 

13ème journée (Friday 30 October 2009) 

Stade Brestois             2-0                   SM Caen

12ème journée (Tuesday 27 October 2009)

SM Caen                     4-2                   Vannes OC 

11ème journée (Friday 23 October 2009)

 SM Caen                     2-1                   Angers SCO 

10ème journée (Friday 16 October 2009) 

Clermont Foot             1-3                   SM Caen

Only one defeat all season to date – and that to the redoubtable salty sea-dogs of Brest! I couldn’t be prouder if I had actually heard of these teams.

Next match isn’t till next Friday when we take on a town that actually exists, namely Nîmes. This time, I’ll keep you posted. 

Parole de Caennais.

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Bouche bée.

A friend recently sent me this link about babies crying “in” a language. “Does Piaf scream in a French accent for you and an English accent for her mother?” she asked. The honest answer is that, when she was crying in the sense that this article means, I didn’t notice (probably because I hadn’t read the article) and now, as her crying is of the sort of Ground Zero tantrum variety I have described previously , I cannot make out either language and have forgotten how to interpret non-linguistic communication.

Another germane piece of media was the Horizon documentary the other night, Why Do We Talk? Superficially, of course, it had nothing to do with bilingualism – it was much more about the wonder of what you might call “anylingualism” – but it provided real insights into how language “happens”; why children take language learning in their stride when, if you think about it, it’s a seemingly impossible task when you’re starting from scratch; and how we, as humans, have an instinct such that, in the absence of language, we essentially make one out of the most promising material to hand. All in all, the programme performed that very neat trick of bringing together a load of discrete odds and ends you already knew in such a way that you forget you ever knew them and it all seems fresh, simply because you’d never synthesised it all and drawn the appropriate conclusions.

I’m all in favour of the TV doing my work for me. It gives me more time to shoehorn my daughter into a coat – “MY manteau” – against her will.

You’ve waited so patiently for a clip, I feel I owe you something really special.

This is one of Piaf’s favourite songs at bed time – indeed, she has recently added “matelot” to her active vocabulary, a word she certainly doesn’t hear elsewhere.

However, as I still have some sort of life, I settle for singing it, rather than building it out of Lego and filming it.

Ohé!

“Stop pushing me!” Like a miniature Rambo, my daughter has developed language to let potential aggressors know that she is not to be messed with. The only problem is that no one has even touched her.

She has several of these little gems, tailor-made to convince a stranger that the right and Christian thing to do is to call the police, Social Services and Pudsey Bear this very minute – another favourite is, “no, daddy!” Add this to the tantrums and you have what can sometimes feel like manipulation. 

But it is still an overwhelmingly positive experience being her dad. I am proud of her. i used to think that that was something you said when a child (or other mental inferior you wished to patronise) had done something good. But it’s not. Not in this case, anyway. It means, “I’m proud of her” in the way you might be “proud” of a new suit, or the stabiliser-free bike you’ve just been given for Christmas. It’s not conditional on something you’ve done or achieved – it’s something that’s yours, that just IS, and it’s so beautiful and awe-inspiring and all-round brilliant that all you want to do is show it off with a big stupid smile on your face. 

As it happens, though, I’m proud of the stuff she does, too. She is speaking proper French now – by which I mean, she is choosing (to talk to me and not to talk to her mother) recognisable French words and matching them consistently to appropriate objects or concepts. Which I think is pretty impressive, actually. She is even starting to string them together occasionally.

There are issues around pronunciation – initial French “r”s get dropped, so that a pink dress becomes a “obe ose” – but I’m fairly confident that there are a few French kids out there with the same issue, given that the French “r” is like Kenneth Williams to the English “r”‘s Sid James.

Likewise, she mixes up “bleu” and “vert” – but then she’s also mixing “blue” and “green” so that’s not so much a linguistic problem as a conceptual problem. Or maybe an eye problem – though she’s yet to express any interest in becoming a sniper or cartographer so it’s early days to be worrying about that …

So, Piaf, if one day you read this, “je suis fier de toi et l’ai toujours été.

“Now, please, can you say the word and get Esther Rantzen off my back?”

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!

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.