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 …

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 …

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.