It’s been a while.

What can I say? Things got busy and the old head took over – “well, I haven’t written anything today, so tomorrow I’ll have to write something REALLY good” – within a week you are committed to writing something that rivals Holy Scripture and it never actually gets done.

So I guess I’ll just start over and backfill as and when it becomes necessary.

The key novelty in our bilingual life is currently singing; or, more precisely, Piaf singing.

It started with “l’araignée Gipsy”; moved onto “dans la forêt lointaine”; and then, just recently, we have hit paydirt with “mon âne”.  She knows the words to these songs; she requests them; she even knows the gestures. When we sing “lundi matin” on the way to nursery (late as usual) I have to wheel the pushchair with one hand so I can walk alongside her, ready to “serrer la pince” at the appropriate moment.

Of course, as I am not French, most of these songs are as new to me as they are to her; I will see them in a book, or remember a reference to them in a novel I once read, and then have to learn them, music and words, from scratch, before I can then teach them to her.

Not knowing the tune is especially irksome. What I normally do is go onto and see if someone has posted anything from a children’s karaoke video or a 1980’s kids’ show and then play it practically on a loop while I sing along.

An unexpected find came about this way. I was looking into a song called “auprès de ma blonde”. Sure enough, Youtube had a useful kids’ pop video complete with lyrics and some animation that looked like it had been done with Clip Art.

But another link caught my eye – from the image attached, it appeared to be a grown woman singing this song. Her name was also a mystery – Olivia Chaney did not sound particularly francophone. Perhaps a Canadian? I clicked on it.

Watch it yourself now, if you are somewhere with sound. Ignore the fact that this is an old marching song that has since become a nursery rhyme. Ignore the fact that the scene is the Bishopsgate Institute and that Olivia is not French or even Canadian but very British indeed. Ignore the dowdy dress and tights. Ignore, even, the rolling eyes and involuntary tic-like smile that make her look, frankly, a bit possessed.

Listen, instead, to a woman singing about a husband taken as a prisoner of war by the Dutch and how she would give everything and anything to see him again and then tell me that this single rendition does not tell you everything there is to know about the human heart. Even if you hate folk music, tell me that any composer who omits the human voice from his or her work is not missing a trick.

I dare you.


A post I’ve wanted to make for some time is how I came to be doing this at all.

I mean, I know I wrote this, right back at the beginning, which explains the why of it – but the how of it is down to the people who put me in a position even to think that someone like me could sustain a non-native bilingual existence with my first-born for a matter of weeks, let alone the 21 months we have so far clocked up between us, one day at a time (as we say in the After School Club.) 

I have been lucky and had a lot of talented teachers in all disciplines in my life, most of which was (at least, prior to the After School Club watershed) spent in full-time education. But a few of them have given me confidence that I was able to take outside the classroom, confidence which saw me through the lessons of the many rubbish teachers I have also had, and, in a way – though the faults are all my own – helped create the Francophone monster that is Papa et Piaf. 

Here they are. 

Martin was probably the first, though he came on the scene at about the same time as Nadia (see below). The first teacher to make me realise that French was a language that people actually used, rather than a verbal trigonometry. He smoked immensely and, again, his failing made him seem more human. He was a caustic, cynical man in some ways and regularly referred to hapless students as “cretins”, which was one of the many things I liked about him – he didn’t pretend to like everyone just because they were children. This meant that, if ever he did show signs of liking you, you could actually believe it might be true. 

And he was, in other ways, tremendously kind. I remember going to see him once after the lesson because I thought I didn’t understand the perfect tense (yes, I really was that much of a loser.) I ended up actually crying (a loser AND a wimp – hands off, ladies, I’m practically married!) When he saw how distressed I was, Martin spent half his break talking me through it (remember, this man was probably a forty-a-day smoker who self-medicated on Gauloises and must have lived for his breaks. )

Several years later, he also enlivened A-level by actually telling us things we might want to know, and hinting at the dirty bits in Camus. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing French past GCSE.

Nadia arrived at our school when I was in what was then called the third year. She came to teach us Russian, taking over from a man who had learnt his Russian spying on Soviet air traffic. She was a real Russian; she was very short; she claimed to have a brown belt in karate; she was clearly mad. Nadia, again, made a language seem much more than lists of declensions (of which Russian has many). With her, we could imagine people actually living, loving, arguing, even doing karate in this then very rare language (perestroika didn’t really get underway until my GCSE year.) When I sat A level, Nadia coached me. When I applied to Oxford, Nadia gave me extra lessons, free of charge, which is basically what got me in. When I wanted to go to Russia, Nadia helped me sort it out, and gave me a few pointers on how to get extra hard currency through customs. When I thought that Chekhov was tosh, Nadia reassured me that I was not alone. And she also said one of the nicest things a teacher had ever said to me. We were flying to Moscow together. Somehow, we were talking about my family, particularly my mum. “Well, she’s done a good job,” said Nadia. It took me a second to realise what she meant and, when I did, I must have been pink with pride. A teacher thinking that I was not only a good student, but a good person? There was hope for me yet.

Mary was the one-woman welcoming committee when I arrived at Oxford. She had given me my place (when my first choice college had, foolishly, rejected me); she had patiently and politely answered some nonsense letter I had written to her before starting (about something nothing to do with her, like bedding or grants – I had so little idea about how Oxford worked that I just wrote to the only person whose address I had on paper, and it was hers, on my offer letter); and she welcomed me, along with my fellow first-year starters, into her North Oxford sitting room in October long, long ago. 

I was not, at that point, studying French. I was at college to do single honours Russian (the English faculty had decided it could struggle by without me.) I was amazed that I was at Oxford, and was liberated by having no idea what to expect. 

The intake that year seemed beyond good. A half-Russian man; a half-Polish woman; a frighteningly gifted man who had taught himself Hungarian for a laugh; and me. And this woman, Mary, was posher than anyone I knew – she had a ‘cello, for heaven’s sake! I almost gave up, there and then.

But Mary did not give up on me. Always quick with praise and measured with criticism; always acting as if my admission had been a considered choice and not a slip of the pen on some long, closely-printed list of names; always taking her students seriously, even when we spoke nonsense. After two terms, I had even started to believe her. 

Colin took me on when I decided that, though I still wanted to study Russian, the particular joys reserved for single honours students – extra linguistics, the Lay of Prince Igor and the Memoirs of Prince Avakkum, these latter two to be read in Old Church Slavonic – were not for me. He found a place for me in his already crowded French group.

As I made the group an odd number, he also agreed to see me individually for tutorials. As I began to develop interests, and as they began to align themselves with his, he would occasionally let me set my own essay title. He even gave me a 10-year-old bottle of home-made white wine, which turned out to be the best sherry I had ever tasted. This, I decided, was what Oxford was about. 

So much so that, after a couple of terms, in the last tutorial before the vacation (it was a hollow joke to call them “holidays”) I diffidently mentioned that I had been thinking of a future in academia. 


If, at that stage, he had turned around and started an awful, mocking impersonation of a deranged simpleton, it would not have surprised me. Of course I had been fooling myself. I was, perhaps not hopeless, but very much an also-ran, and clearly a pretentious one at that.

Instead, he said, quite quietly, “Yes, well. I was thinking of giving you a scholarship, but you don’t work hard enough.”

In a flash, several truths became apparent to me. I was not an idiot; I was not delusional; and, most important of all, the age-old myth fell apart. At school, I had been effortlessly successful. Then I had come to Oxford and had been effortlessly mediocre. I had assumed that my dear old mum was right, that the bar ha been raised and I could no longer clear it. Instead, it turned out, no-one here was effortlessly anything. The people who succeeded did so because they were very bright, but because they also worked exceptionally hard. I started taking their lead. The following term, I worked harder than ever before or since (as well as acting, rowing, and writing at a “jolly good sport” sort of level) and got my mini-scholarship (or “exhibition” as they call it). I went on to narrowly miss a First and come out of that with enough confidence intact to go on to do research at Edinburgh. Without Colin’s quiet honesty, I’d have ended up pretending to want to be a school-teacher and wondering why I hated my life (I did that anyway, years later – but at least I had a go at what I wanted to be.) 

Ian was the last one. Believed by his Edinburgh undergraduates to have it in for English loafers, he nevertheless took on an Oxford graduate, to all appearances a dilettante (it took me about a term to tell him I was working twenty hours a week and that that was why I was a bit behind on the reading) who came armed only with an undergraduate dissertation on Daniel Pennac, an author almost no one had then heard of, apparently word-processed by a five-year-old, and of which Oxford’s examiners could not decide whether it was a work of genius or the ravings of an imbecile. 

Ian gave me the benefit of the doubt and, when he realised I was broke, did all he could to enable me to make some sort of a go of my doctorate. He sent me to France twice; he found me teaching hours (my poor undergraduates, I am so sorry you were lumbered with me); he got me published; and he let me stay round his house once so I could return from Nice to do a conference paper. He also took me lunchtime drinking at the Southsider. Ian made me believe that, not only could I become an academic, but that I could live as an academic, perhaps for my whole life. The question of what the hell I was going to do with this bizarre commodity called life was finally, and to my immense relief, solved

Of course, I went on to piss all that up the proverbial wall, but that was no fault of his. And I did come out of it speaking really rather good French …

So, if any of the five of you end up reading this, thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.

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.

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.

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.


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!

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 …

It wasn’t meant to happen like this. I really thought I had it all planned. 

I thought that, when Piaf started having bad dreams, I would be able to say exactly what was needed to calm her down, perhaps even raise a smile, and get her back to bed feeling happy and safe and loved.

How was I to know that they would start before she was speaking properly? I thought I had another six months to hone my perfect papa routine. 

Half past five this morning. To make it worse, I had an unusual attack of conscience. Instead of going back to sleep (which I find shamefully easy) I encouraged maman to bring Piaf into our bed, just until she calmed down, just for long enough to prepare the milk she was literally crying out for. 

I think the conscience was sparked by the fact that, whatever Piaf said, this was clearly not just about milk. Something had scared her and she was unable to express it, meaning in turn that maman and I were unable to rationalise it for her. The milk was a symptom, not a cause.

Like I say, I really thought I had it all planned.

To make it worse, work has been very intense for both of us recently. Definitely in my own case I have been “burning the candle at both ends” (as my mother would say) and, indirectly, “chasing the pound note” (as my friends at the After School Club would say.) I really am not in a fit state to be waking up at 5.30 a.m. for my own nightmares, let alone someone else’s. 

And so, at 5.35 a.m., Piaf made her entrance. She was sleepy but not ready to sleep. Her vulnerability made her seem even smaller than usual. She smelt of Ovaltine. She sucked at the teat of her bottle like her father used to suck on cans of Stella Artois, that irrational hunger for a liquid that seems to belong more in a war film than in suburbia.

The twin magics of her parents’ closeness and a third of a pint of full-fat soon had her calm. A certain amount of crooning took place.

 I held her close, selfishly, before her maman got to her, and made the most of it, knowing that if she got too comfy she would decide it was playtime and wriggle away from both of us. 

“Calme-toi,” I cajoled. And she did.

“Fais-moi un câlin,” I whispered. And she did.

“Fais-moi un bisou,” I entreated. And she did. 

“Fais dodo,” I risked, ever aware that, however precious and lovely and rare this moment was, both maman and I were shattered and a chain reaction of alarms, like vindictive aural dominoes, would soon be doing their worst.

And, blow me, she did. For a few minutes there, nightmare forgotten, she let her guard down and allowed herself to drop off in the company of the two people who love her more than anything. 

At least, I think she did. I mean, I know I did. I assume she followed suit.

That’s the trouble with conscience. It never lasts. 

Like this? Try these. 

Je me détends, tu te détends, elle se détend … 

Je câline, tu câlines, elle câline … 

Je fredonne, tu fredonnes, elle fredonne …

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 …