Have you ever struggled to breastfeed a baby while playing football with your toddler… on holiday?
Do you know how many renditions of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” it takes for you to pull the car to the side of the road and weep?
Or have you wondered, like me, whether it’s actually worth leaving the kitchen before your sproglets reach voting age?
I think we’ve all been there, or at least we’ve left the house intending to get there but have given up half way.
How to Fit a Car Seat on a Camel is a compilation of many such tales, one of which is from me.
It’s rather long for a blog post, so here is an excerpt from my Car Seat contribution.
The Language of Romance
I’ve always regretted both my parents being English speakers.
How easy it would have been to grow up bilingual if one of them had had the foresight to marry a foreigner.
How many career opportunities it would have opened up to be fluent in one or more extra languages.
I could be working in Brussels right now, simultaneously translating all those important banana shaped edicts for the European Union.
It’s too late for me to achieve true multi-lingual status, but not for my children. Unfortunately I too have opted for a plain old English speaking father for them, and the powers that be in the UK education system have only just decided it’d be a good idea to teach foreign languages to pupils from the age of seven rather than eleven. By the time they start drilling French verbs into the unwilling little brains of British primary school children in 2010, our two will be eleven and nine, far too old to reach fluency this side of emigration.
We need to take linguistic action now, before they reach the “it’s too embarrassing to talk funny” stage. So we decide on a visit to France for the summer. Perhaps if we like it there we can go the whole hog; sell up, move abroad, live like kings on a pauper’s wage, and cram a few more European languages into their ethnocentric heads before their learning capacity diminishes with age.
Just how unimpressed they would be with the idea we couldn’t have guessed, until we set off across the English Channel to Brittany.
We did it on the cheap, using a ferry company we’d never heard of, which obviously balances its books by charging peanuts and providing endless rows of thinly padded, plastic seats instead of proper cabins.
The children enjoyed bedding down in sleeping bags between the rows, but we spend an excruciating night on camping mats in a dingy lounge with twenty or so other people all suffering the same six hours of misery, one of whom had the worst case of sleep apnoea I’d ever heard.
He sloped off early in the morning, leaving the rest of us to muse on the high decibel snoring we’d endured, without respite, all night. We decided, too late for the return journey alas, that cutting back on ferry fares was not worth a night of hell and a subsequent day with our minds wreathed in the fog of sleep deprivation.
The small Breton village we chose scored a big hit with the children. Maybe it was the extra week they had off school – we’d snuck them out early to take advantage of the cheaper term-time ferry fares – or maybe it was the rented house with its enormous garden featuring trees and grass, as opposed to our back yard at home, which boasts paving stones and potted plants and is just big enough for a game of Swingball.
Whatever the reason for their exhilaration, it gave us hope that in just a few days both kids would be conversing with local villagers and playing the French equivalent of tag between the apple trees.
We started our language familiarity campaign by taking them to the playground in the nearest town, Dol de Bretagne, which was filled with happy, laughing youngsters in immaculate matching gear unsullied by mud or ketchup. Still, kids don’t notice things like that, we thought, they’ll soon be playing together despite the pristine cleanliness of the indigenous population.
But every time a friendly French child approached, speaking, horror of horrors, French, our two ran to us in confusion. Five year old Hannah was appalled, despite two expensive terms of after school Club Français:
“Mummy, he spoke French to me and even when I spoke to him in English he carried on talking to me in French. I hate him.”
A bit of local sightseeing didn’t appease their disgust in this unfathomable language. We visited the fairytale Combourg Castle, childhood home of Chateaubriand, a man who, as well as having a steak designed for him, seems to have spent a little bit of time in every town in Brittany, perhaps foreseeing how he could help the tourism industry for centuries to come.
As we trailed round after the guide, consulting the garbled written English translation and trying to whisper it into our children’s suddenly deaf ears, seven-year old Ben complained loudly,
“This is boring. Why is she speaking French all the time? Where are the dungeons?”
It must be said that compared to the multi-lingual, child-friendly audio guides provided by that glorious British institution, the National Trust, Combourg’s lacklustre guide was a rather basic attempt to interpret the history of this lovely chateau.
The children perked up when they saw the cat though. Not a living, breathing moggy that wound itself around their legs in ingratiating feline fashion, but a skeletal, screeching mummified cat which had been walled up alive, thousands of years before, to ward off evil spirits.
It was discovered during renovations and put on display in a glass case, redolent of the dusty museums of my childhood. It confirmed how different attitudes to historic interpretation are in France, and I worried that animal-loving Hannah would be forever traumatised by the mangy apparition. But she was fascinated and edged ever closer to the thing, not quite believing it was dead.
The one French expression the children did master on holiday, despite themselves and with a perfect French accent, was Vide Grenier. Its literal meaning, according to Babel Fish, is Vacuum the Attic, but in Blighty we know it better as the car boot sale, and we came across them everywhere; on the beach, in ancient village squares and, a special treat, a specifically child-orientated sale in Cancale, just twenty miles from our house.
Ben and Hannah added exponentially to their cache of cheap plastic junk, while their Dad became familiar with Brittany’s agricultural tools from the last couple of centuries. It seems the Bretons have had enough of them, so they offload them onto gullible Brits during the holiday season. Mike is now waxing lyrical to anyone who’ll listen about a rusty old chisel type thing that he’s been using to gouge crumbly plaster from our walls.
Despite the minor irritation to our children that the people in France persisted in speaking French, we enjoyed the holiday so much that we started considering a move to Brittany. We huddled outside estate agents’ windows and almost tiptoed into one of their offices, but I saw sense at the last minute and dragged Mike away to the nearest café.
“We could buy a derelict farmhouse and renovate it,” he said, breathless at what you can buy for the price of our Victorian terraced house, “the children would become bi-lingual, we could grow our own veg…”
Then Ben looked up from the steaming hot chocolate he was spooning into his mouth and said,
“I will only move to France if Louis and Silas come with me and if everyone in France speaks English.”