I have done it again. Having learnt nothing from the tiger mask incident, I have agreed to lead an activity at French playgroup without having any idea at all what I am going to do. All I do know is that it will ideally be connected to autumn but cannot involve sticking leaves onto tree pictures as we have already had a couple of variants on that theme.

Playgroup so far (two weeks, though it started the week before that when la famille Papa-Piaf was en vacances) has been generally positive. The children (especially Piaf) are all quite timid, at least at the beginning of the session – they have just had a whole summer away from each other and perhaps find an hour and a half of communal Frenchness quite emotionally exhausting. 

Then, of course, six weeks is a long time developmentally at this age; everyone is suddenly able to “do” a lot more than they could at their last meeting, and there have clearly been subtle shifts in the power structure as a result. And of course, at the beginning of these things the attendance will always be a bit in flux as the stragglers come back, new families try it out, and families who had tried it and weren’t sure it was for them get revitalised and try it again. Honestly, we could get a soap opera out of this if we could only decide what language to do it in. 

Which still leaves me with the question of what to prepare. My main two sources of ideas are this site in French and this site in English. They are both run by wonderful people who believe in you. They believe that you are a wonderfully skilled and nurturing parent. Crucially, they believe that you have the time and energy to make a pumpkin seed necklace with a small child “helping” you or that you can arouse genuine interest and excitement in the same small child with the prospect of making a book about grapes .

But I, as you will by now perhaps realise, am unworthy of this faith, because I am a coward. Academically, I am one of nature’s truth-seekers, but, when it comes to handicrafts, then, if it is hard, prone to failure, or even just lengthy (more than 30 minutes), I don’t want to know. Don’t take my word for it – ask my woodwork teacher. 

I think I may end up doing the leafy lion . Okay, I know I said at the beginning of this piece that I would avoid leaves – but “feuille” is one of Piaf’s best French words (i.e. she uses the French and does not appear to know the English yet – Papa: un, Maman: zéro). And, yes, I know I got my fingers burnt with the tiger mask – but, again, Piaf (and, I guess, pretty much every small child) likes big cats and especially likes roaring, so that’s another box ticked. And I’ve learnt my lesson. After all, I’m not likely to leave it till the last minute and then stay up till 3 a.m. drawing outlines of a lion’s face and washing dog’s piss off leaves, am I? 

Am I? 

Like this? Try these.

Je rugis, tu rugis, elle rugit … 

Je m’intègre, tu t’ intègres, elle s’ intègre … 

Je me lève, tu te lèves, elle se lève …

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I’m back. Thanks for staying around. Past the 2,000 hit mark (in total, not daily – not resigning from work just yet) and, as you will doubtless know, we got a 0-0 draw out of Guingamp, so the omens are good. 

It’s been an eventful week, which is normally the point of holidays, and seems to be positively unavoidable on holidays involving small children, so no complaints there. I dare say I’ll be talking about it for a while, as the alternative would be to sit up till 3am typing every single “highlight” into one entry.

What can I tell you right now to repay your faith in me? Well, Monkey World was good, but lacked the sparkle I had imbued it with in my mind’s eye; Piaf, in what could easily be a Biblical metaphor but isn’t, got to stroke both sheep and goats; I received a cordial welcome in one of the several Bournemouth meetings of the After School Club; I learnt that Honda Civics do not have a fuel light; and I was starting to despair about the whole French experiment, before a couple of small incidents gave me a sudden injection of hope.

I realise that I often talk about these doubts and it may seem that I am playing for sympathy, trying to build up a narrative where really there is none. I think that’s largely a timing thing if I’m honest (though I have never been one of nature’s shiny-eyed optimists). Not only is it the summer, but it is the summer of the second year. I do not think it will ever be this tough again. 

As the only constant Francophone in Piaf’s life, I have the responsibility of providing a correct, but also a varied, linguistic model for her. But – and this is what I observe to be fact, not a theory, a model or a metaphor – language in use goes stale and deteriorates if there is no exterior input from time to time. I think this is true of one’s native language too – I think the most obvious conceit of novels about the man stranded on the desert island is that his language stays fresh and inventive, instead of withering to a “point and click” functionality – but, particularly in a foreign language, without at least one other speaker, I am finding the system is starting to seize up. My mind starts to play tricks on me. That noun that’s on my lips – is it masculine or feminine? That verb – what’s its past participle? That adjective – before or after the noun, and with what nuance of meaning? Not to mention style, register and the fine details of pronunciation. 

Hence the significance of summer. For nearly two months, I have been away from Saturday morning playgroup, my main source of French conversation with fluent speakers. Then, for a whole week at the end of that summer, I have been away from almost all French influence at all (save a couple of children’s DVDs and a few novels I didn’t find the time to read.) I have, to be honest, struggled.

The significance of this summer over any other is that last summer I was still in complete control communicatively and in future summers, if things work out, Piaf herself will increasingly provide me with feedback – I will be able to “hear” what’s right and wrong in another person’s voice and, just as important, get the motivation to speak and make sense in the first place. At the moment, Piaf is a very demanding listener and a minimal speaker – I can sense that she wants a dozen new words a day but, because she is not giving them back to me, I cannot modify them or build on them.

 Enough with the misery already. On to the positive shoots. The first one was tiny – she described her head as “tête”. Of course, she already understood that “la tête” means “head” – but, on this occasion, she seemed to be using it instead of the English, as a concession to me. The implication is that she is becoming ready and willing to play the game this has all been building up to – the game (and it always is a game to some degree, even for native speakers, in the sense that it is a choice rather than a necessity) called OPOL, or “one parent, one language”. Whether she will play well, consistently or even competently is something we will find out in good time, but she gives these occasional, brief clues that she is willing to give it a shot, and that will do to be going on with. 

The other ray of sunshine was her sudden and spontaneous production of the phrase, “oh, là, là!” It is for you to judge, on the basis of your imagination, how cute a toddler saying “oh, là, là!” is, but for me, the answer is “very.” Beyond that, it also shows that she is capable of acquiring and recycling “chunks” of language, which is a core competence in the successful language learner. Again, it promises nothing, but bodes well – maybe, just maybe, I am doing something right.

 Incidentally, you may be wondering why I focussed on the “chunking” aspect rather than the (potentially more exciting) understanding of idiom. The answer is that I shied away from describing this as “idiomatic language” because she has yet to grasp metaphor. You see, once she’d said “oh, là, là!” of her own free will, I tried to elicit it again, to make sure it was not just a coincidence. She came out with it over and over, no problem. But when, instead of “oh, là, là!” I tried to get her to produce the near-synonym, “oh, la vache!” she took it literally and responded “meuh!” 

It is for you to judge, on the basis of your imagination, how cute a toddler mooing in response to “oh, la vache!” is, but for me, the answer is “even more than earlier.”

It wouldn’t be a holiday without phoning your grandparents.

Piaf likes phones, especially mobiles. She likes pressing the buttons. She loves changing the settings. She adores transferring foodstuffs from her evening meal to the screen. And occasionally, very occasionally, she deigns to talk to the person at the other end.

 To be fair, it must be an odd experience. There’s me, instructing her in one language to talk to an invisible voice in another language outside any tangible context.

 And yet she knows what the phone is for. When there is no one on the line, she will often press the handset experimentally to one ear and venture the international telephone greeting, “‘allo?” She is happy to use the speaker of her baby monitor as an ersatz walkie talkie (or, as she will one day know to call it in French, “le talkie walkie”.) Perhaps most surprising of all, she even understands that her Fisher Price pull-along phone is in fact meant to be a phone, even though it looks nothing like any working phone she has ever seen; babies are powerful and persuasive evidence for the existence of Platonic ideals.

Back to the phone conversation. After talking to my mother (“mamie”, as opposed to maman‘s mother, who is “grand’maman” – if you’re English and confused, be glad you’re not my daughter) I ask if she would like to speak to Piaf. I may as well ask George Best if he fancies a pint. I make sure I have said all I need to say, and pass the phone to my child.

“Piaf? C’est mamie à l’appareil. Tu veux lui parler?”

She says neither yes nor no but simply takes the handset from me in what will turn out to be a grip of iron and with unerring instinct sets about trying to connect to the internet. She puts it to her ear, ascertains someone is there, listens attentively for a few moments, and then cunningly alters the arrangement of icons in the main menu. When it is quite certain that my mother has given up and hung up (or been cut off – it is never entirely clear) she looks at the screen, ventures her trademark “‘allo?” and hands it back to me. 

Oh well. At least we tried.

We are off on holiday today – Dorset, to be precise.

I say precise – in fact, so poor is my geography and so Piafcentric my life, that all I know is we’re not far from Monkey World.

I will try to get online a couple of times over the week, but, if I don’t, please don’t give up on me – I’ll be back, and I really feel the best is yet to come.

A plus, Marius.

The time has come to start thinking about going to France again.

One of the decisions I made from the start was that I would get Piaf to a “real” French-speaking environment for a minimum of a week each year. Last year we satisfied that with a family holiday to Arcachon, near Bordeaux, chosen because we could get there without flying with a four-month-old; this year, we’ve been to Turkey and the week I was going to take Piaf on an ultra-cheap trip, just me and her and a no-star hotel, to Paris or Normandy, has somehow metamorphosed into a week’s self-catering à trois in Dorset and visiting Monkey World. Need I add that her maman has taken a hand in this?

But perhaps it’s for the best. After all, is she really ready to spend a whole week away from her mother – and is her mother really ready to spend a whole week away from her? Do I have the skills yet to entertain her on my own resources for seven whole days – especially if France has no Monkey World? So Plan B is to do two long weekends (just me and her and a no-star hotel, blah blah), one probably to Lille, one to Marseille.

I have only ever been to Lille once, in what is technically known as “blackout”, so to say I don’t remember it well is an understatement. I do know I was intending to go to Boulogne and that I bought a beer in Lille station, but the rest … I’ve heard it’s charming, though, and much more memorable when one is sober. It’s also on the Eurostar route, so quick and cheap both get ticks.

I’ve only been to Marseille once, too. I was sober then – it was a few months before Piaf was born. I was alone, for reasons I may go into later (you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you.) I wanted to buy Piaf a gift, I remember, but I didn’t know she was Piaf then – we didn’t know her sex until she got here – so French baby clothes were out, and the only suitable thing I could find was a long-eared, white toy rabbit from Petit Bateau, with the words “mon doudou” on his chest. (He now goes by the name of “Laurent le Lapin” or “Bruce the Bunny” depending on who is speaking.)

Apart from that, I remember it being colder than I expected (it was November, mind) and it was also the first time I met my friend’s daughter, who was then a little bit older than Piaf is now. The thought of seeing her and Piaf play together, and hanging out with her dad for a few days, is a key factor in Marseille’s attraction.

And that’s about as far as I’ve got, really. I’m not a great organiser. Any advice welcome – flying (as in, cheap flying) is now an option. And I thought I should set the scene now, so I can blog about it more easily as it all unfolds (or doesn’t.)

And if you know any good slides or sandpits in Lille, don’t keep it to yourself.