I haven’t written about our life in France for so long and the New Year seems such an appropriate time to do so. On the 20th December we had our first year anniversary living in our french home, but it also happened to be the day my husband arrived in France with his elderly folks – so no time for reflection then, just a noticing. One year in our lovely home.
Over the year the children have started their new school and made friends. Our eldest daughter has begun to be embarrassed by her ‘English side’ in public, If we are outside the home she has started speaking to me loudly in French. On the first occasion she did this she whispered to me ‘mummy, they don’t know we’re English.’ I’d been responding in French, but this time I said in English ‘You might get away with sounding French sweetheart, but I think they know I’m English.’
Her accent is very good and I, well, I’m understood. In fact, rather embarrassingly, another incident happened when we were at the zoo. There were lots of french children there and, trying to signal to them that she was ‘one of them’, she kept talking to us in her adopted language. At first my husband was much amused by this, however as his French is patchy at best he became a little irritated. I pointed out that she was trying to make friends and his irritation diminished, apparentl he realised this wasn’t a bizarre language test she’d cooked up especially for him.
As we where there I noticed a boy speaking to his mother in English and then to the other children in French too. I pointed him out to our eldest and as we drew near to the same enclosure as him he spoke to her in French, but with an English accent. She looked at him for a long time, evidently not impressed and not wanting to be associated with him, so she walked away not saying anything back! I was mortified. Her need to integrate was evidently strong!
Our youngest daughter has had a very different experience. When she was born she was very ill for a while and had to be fed via a tube for some time. As a result her facial muscles didn’t form as well and she was delayed in her eating, which in turn has affected her speech.
In addition to that we’ve had to move within France and she’s changed schools too. These significant changes have always been followed by a pause in the use of the language she did have. So in spite of her evidently understanding both languages her vocabulary is small and unclear – though now improving quickly thank the Lord.
She’s a little dot, a lot smaller than her years, and as a result she is treated almost as a little dolly and very popular in our little village school. Wherever we go everyone calls her by name. For her there are no issues of identity and, although she understands that there is a difference in the language being spoken, her learning of the languages has been a lot more organic. She’s a child that is truly bilingual, rather than a child who has learnt a second language.
Following our move into the village the World Cup started in the summer. I bought the girls little football inspired hair bands and they had them on when the first French match was transmitted on a hug screen in the village square. There was a bouncy castle for the kiddos, a barbecue and a bar, and everyone sat out under the market canopy.
Chatting to neighbours I was really grateful for how warmly we were being welcomed. Someone pointed out the girls headware and I said I’d bought them so they’d feel more of a part of the festivities, and she pointed out very cheerfully how the colours were fitting for both nations.
As the tournament went on and France went through to the quarter finals cars circled the village, sounding their horns. It was exciting! Then England, so long the also ran, went through to the quarters. Then both teams the semi finals. I started to worry – what if England ended playing France in the final! What if, even worse, they won!!! I could imagine a jovially competitive atmosphere before the match and a mood change as the outcome played out. Oh no!
I can tell you as a none football fan I’ve never been so invested in a match, but as someone who wanted England NOT to win. I was so relived when they reached their pinnacle at the semi finals.
When we went to England during the summer everyone wanted to know what it was like being in France when they won. Even our little village the celebration was palpable. There had been no fireworks on Bastille Day and evidently they were kept back just in case, because on the night itself they exploded in the sky. Horns blared, music, dancing. For us though it was like being at the pane of glass looking in rather than being a part of it all.
This is something I’m gradually learning here. I’m not french and unlike my eldest I’ll never pass. I believed, absolutely, that I’d integrate fully. But gradually over time there are little signs that show me that Englishness is in my very bones, a way of being that’s been accrued over a zillion little social cues, mores and understanding of history. As I learn about France and I appreciate our differences I find myself that it has to be very much a conscious grafting on process.
It’s not just about the language either; which is better, but still a challenge. Yet that’s an indicator in itself that France is changing me. I find myself expressing things in my thoughts in English, but with a french construction – as if I’d translated a french sentence directly. I catch myself doing it often now.
The french our warm, but reserved. Gradually now we’re being invited to places and our friendships are deepening. Over the course of the year I hope to put down deeper roots.
One of these occasions were the girls birthday parties. Both girls had one this year and as a result there is more of a connection with the mothers at the school gates – but here the language and time restraint still make it difficult to connect.
So still on the edges, but feeling more of a part of people’s lives in the community and hoping that this year we can make those connections stronger. One of the ways I’m already moving towards that goal is by going to the village school to sing in English. After the autumn vacation I started going to sing Christmas songs with the children; the twelve days of Christmas with the older children and the little Christmas pudding and Christmas cracker song.
In my eldest daughter’s class they got up to seven swans a swimming and did really well. At first she wasn’t impressed by her mummy coming in showing off her Englishness – how embarrassing – but as the others clearly like it she eventually settled down.
On the final day of school my husband and I were invited to the Christmas party to watch the children. We thought it was all the parents and were surprised find ourselves the only ones outside the school. Of course the inevitable happened; ‘Are you sure we’re meant to be here, there are no other parents?’
We were, but it was just us. We seemed to be the primary audience for all their efforts and had to give feedback on their attempts. They were amazing!
At the end of the day I brought the staff little gifts of mince pies and Christmas puddings which one of the staff was evidently thrilled by, as I saw her showing them to another. I’ve said next year, if wanted, I’d come in in November to make Christmas cakes with the children and that seems to have gone down well. I’ll tell you all about it when it happens.
I hope you all had a bonnes fêtes and wish you a joyeux année.