petite anglaise

December 31, 2004

French exchange

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 4:22 pm

Hoz qbout q post totqlly unrelqted to Chris;t;qs?

That’s better. I’ve now managed to fool the keyboard into thinking it is French.

Sorting through a box of the few remaining things I keep at my parents’ house last night (teenage diaries, letters, photos), I happened to find a photo of my French penfriend, Florence. I met Florence for the first and last time fifteen years ago.

Everyone at school went on French exchanges. From the moment I started learning the language at the age of eleven at the girls’ grammar, the French exchange was all I could think about. Imagine being able to go to France and speak French with real French people (as opposed to doing listening comprehensions from Tricolore with headphones on in the language lab).

How my hopes were to be cruelly dashed. My mother, who could be described as something of a pessimist (a gross understatement), avoided the issue until the letter from school arrived asking parents if they would be allowing their children to participate in the upcoming French exchange. And finally came clean and said what she must have been thinking all along, whenever the subject was mentioned: I was not allowed to go. In her defence she recounted every horror story and urban legend she had ever heard about poor English girls expected to sleep in unheated, rat infested sheds/haylofts/attics and forced to eat live snails and puppy dogs’ tails (or something similar). I suspect these were embellished a little for extra dramatic effect.

I think what actually worried my parents the most was reciprocating: they were unwilling to welcome into the family home a complete (and rather foreign) stranger who might conceivably demand to eat raw cows for breakfast and or have novel ideas about what constituted personal hygiene. And might sport webbed feet/a tail. Or all of the above.

I was devastated. But no matter how much I cried and moaned that ‘everyone else was allowed to go except me’ and ‘it wasn’t fair’ , no matter how much I raged that my evil parents were ruining my chances of passing GCSE French and compromising my very future, they remained insensitive to my pleas and stood their ground. I watched my classmates leave, with the sinking feeling that I would no longer be top of the class when they returned and that the girls would all meet handsome French beaus and return fluent in both the French language and the art of kissing with tongues.

Needless to say GCSE French (Pour aller à la gare s’il vous plaît?) did not prove to be a difficult proposition even without participating in the French exchange. However once I was at Sixth Form College studying A-Level French, the thorny subject had to be broached once more. With the same results. And this time my teachers seemed to think students who did not participate would struggle to do well in the French oral exam.

Determined to find a way to get myself to France, because my one day trip to St Malo during a family holiday to Jersey was clearly woefully inadequate for French oral purposes, I managed to find a penfriend through a magazine. We corresponded. She seemed pleasant enough and her letters were actually quite amusing. Finally I hit the jackpot: she invited me to stay with her family near Lyon. I was seventeen at the time. My parents were still not at all keen on the idea, but I bought the plane ticket with my own hard earned Saturday job cash and there wasn’t an awful lot they could do to prevent me from going. Boarding a National Express coach in Leeds, I made my way slowly and tediously down to Heathrow (with only my cassette walkman for company) and flew from there to Lyon. Which if you are English, you may wish to spell with an extra ‘s’. (I, for one, have never understood the point of that ‘s’. It looks wrong.)

Staying with Florence was an eye-opener. She lived with her father, a widower, and several brothers, some married with children of their own, in a village called St Symporien sur Coise. She pretty much ran wild with her big gang of friends. We could drink, smoke and stay out as late as we liked. The welcoming committee she brought to the airport to meet my flight consisted of several of these friends, and I was rather taken aback when I realised the plan was to hitch to her village from Lyon with my rather large suitcase, as her father was at work. It was a very good thing my parents hadn’t known about that.

Then there was the issue of where to sleep. It transpired that Florence, who smoke a packet of Galloises a day, and I were to be sharing her double bed. She snored like a rhinoceros. Something she had omitted to tell me in her letters.

My only other memories of my stay with Florence and her family are of the food, which I recall being very simple but tastier than anything I had ever eaten at home, and of being chased down the street by a gang of boys who had removed all their clothes (after a few drinks in a local restaurant). Oh and seeing men peeing in village urinals without doors. And against walls. In full view of anyone who happened to be passing by. All in all it was a very positive experience, my irrational love of all things French undiminished.

When I returned to college my teacher was suitably impressed with my new found fluency in French, my extensive slang repertoire and my pronunciation of the word ‘oui’, which now resembled ‘ouais’.

As Florence showed no interest in coming over to England to visit (and probably couldn’t afford to), my parents were equally happy. We continued to exchange letters for a while, but then lost touch when I went to university. I think the last I heard she had dropped out of school and gone to work in the local sausage factory with her father.

Maybe I’ll try and look her up.

December 28, 2004

journey to the end of my patience

Filed under: Tadpole rearing — petiteanglaiseparis @ 6:56 pm

Tadpole screamed. A piercing, 200 decibel caterwaul only she knows how to produce. She roared. She howled. Arching her back with fists balled and legs kicking, she wailed some more. Tears coursed down her cheeks and she paused only long enough to wipe her nose on my clean jumper. (One of the two items I had managed to pack in the impossibly large bag for myself to wear.) The serenade continued undiminished for another twenty minutes before she became too weary to go on and finally relaxed in my arms, drifting off into a peaceful sleep. I was afraid to stop stroking her hair, despite the cramp in my badly positioned arm, for fear that this might cause her to rouse.

Peace at last. Although the sleeping Tadpole’s angelic expression wasn’t about to fool any of our fellow travellers who had just been treated to such a convincing demonstration of her vocal range.

As a parent you eventually learn to become immune to the stares of outraged fellow passengers. You no longer pay attention to the low murmurs of ‘parents today, they just don’t know how to control their children….’ and ‘I’d put her over my knee, that would teach her to throw tantrums…’ The accusatory stares do not penetrate beneath the toughened parental hide. I no longer even blush or feel even a twinge of embarrassment. Make no mistake: I’m not here to make friends, I just need to survive this trip.

Anyone who has had to deal with a toddler who has skipped her nap, who has flaming red cheeks as a couple of molars are pushing painfully through her gums, and whose routine has been generally turned upside down over the last couple of days will testify that sometimes there is absolutely nothing the poor parents can do. Where normally a book, a hug, a biscuit or a drink would suffice, or in more extreme situations bribery involving a piece of chocolate or being allowed to play with a forbidden object like a mobile phone or a watch, in this instance there is no solution but to play a waiting game. It’s a war of attrition.

Control is not a issue here. The Tadpole is a tired and wounded animal. She doesn’t really know or care where she is or what she wants.

If you happen to be catching a British Midland flight from Leeds to Paris next Sunday, I recommend you request a seat as far as possible from Tadpole, just in case we are all treated to a repeat performance.

Or invest in earplugs.

December 27, 2004

death by stapler

Filed under: french touch, missing blighty — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:42 pm

Christmas hasn’t happened for me yet.

It matters not how expensive the foie gras, nor how crisp and chilled the champagne. These things do not Christmas make. I am painfully aware of this fact after spending a profoundly unfestive weekend at the In Laws’ place.

The Frog is an only child, and this means that around the dinner table on Christmas Eve(ning), when Christmas dinner traditionally takes place in France, were Mr Frog, his parents and I. Tadpole was sleeping. No festive decorations adorned the table, and dinner was, quite frankly, nothing special. Either MIL is losing her touch, or I am not quite so easily impressed as in days gone by when Mr Frog and I first met. The foie gras lacked gros sel to sprinkle on top, the salmon looked rather forlorn without a marinade, or at the very least a wedge of lemon. Main course was a minuscule caille (guineau fowl) and there were no vegetables, only salad. I don’t think the EVILs are fond of the traditional French yule log dessert, bûche, so there was a rather bland ice cream version.

The FIL proudly uncorked his bottle of Pauillac Grand Cru Classé and proceeded to steer the conversation on a familiar tour of all the usual subjects: why Mr Frog and I need to find time to do some sport, why we need to buy a flat immediately, why we shouldn’t go on a wintersun holiday because skiing holidays are healthier, repeat to fade… Any controversial statement was backed up with ‘I saw it on the telly the other day’. Mention of television made me think wistfully of Eastenders’ double bills and other UK delights I would be missing.

Mr Frog manages to remain unruffled as his father tells us to how to live every aspect of our lives. I on the other hand, emboldened by a few glasses of claret, tend to get quite defensive and irritated. Pray tell how Mr Frog is supposed to find time to go a gym when he works 14 hour days and rarely sees Tadpole and I as it is? How can an armchair traveler who has never taken a plane and rarely left France tell me what to do with my precious holiday time? On the subject of buying an apartment, I do agree with him on the necessity to buy sometime soon, except I’d like an attractive flat in an old building, similar to the one we currently rent, and FIL would like to see us in a functional, characterless 70’s block of flats.

The meal was rounded off nicely with the exchanging of gifts. Mr Frog had virtually nothing to unwrap, as he had not yet made up his mind exactly which bag he wanted me to buy for him (a posh rucksack, not a French manbag, I hasten to add), nor which ski gloves he wanted his mum to buy (to keep his hands warm when traveling to work on his Vespa).

I, on the other hand, was spoiled rotten. I am now the proud owner of a waterproof poncho and an electric stapler.


Okay. I’ll admit that I have been saying to Mr Frog for quite some time that it is impossible to steer a pushchair and hold an umbrella at the same time, meaning that ferrying Tadpole to and from the childminder’s place in inclement weather can be rather a moistening experience. But there are some things which are just too practical and boring to be given as Christmas gifts. Surely? As for the electric stapler (pink, batteries not included), well, words fail me. The last thing I need on my desk at work is something to remind me that MIL is going a bit loopy as retirement beckons. Mr Frog has one too (blue) and is as perplexed about this choice of gift as I.

Perhaps it can be used as a weapon?

Dear Mum,

I may have criticised your Christmas dinners on occasion (I am referring specifically to my comment that it was ‘a glorified Sunday lunch’, whereas French Christmas dinner was more elegant and refined) but I now take it all back. I’d prefer your overcooked meat, roast potatoes and lashings of veggies any day. No matter how much bickering there might be between my sisters and I, no matter how tipsy dad will get, this weekend has brought home to me forcefully that you lot are what Christmas is all about for me.

Can’t wait to see you all tomorrow!


December 23, 2004


Filed under: Uncategorized — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:19 pm

Listening to the Tadpole chattering away this morning it occurred to me that she has developed a Yorkshire accent. Short ‘a’ sounds (bath, glasses), nice Yorkshire ‘u’ sounds (mummy) and little phrases (‘come ‘ere!’) that wouldn’t be out of place in The Last of the Summer Wine. I hadn’t realised I was unconsciously teaching my daughter Northern English.

As far as accents go, I’ve always been a bit of a linguistic chameleon. It’s not an affectation. I don’t deliberately adopt a plummy ‘Received Pronunciation’ (BBC English) voice to speak to VIP clients on the phone, or a very broad Leeds accent when I see my ‘bioparents’. I just can’t seem to help myself. Whether I intend to or not, I mimic the accent of the person I’m having a conversation with.

I have a very clear memory of answering the phone as a child to a caller from my father’s company head office in Dundee. In the space of a two minute conversation I became Scottish. I felt rather awkward and embarassed at the thought the lady might think I was mocking her accent. However, if you asked me to ‘do a Scottish accent’ right now, it would be abysmal.

Apparently this is a well-documented phenomenon called ‘unconscious mimicry’. Most people do this to some extent, and it has implications far beyond accent alone: one person will often adopt the same sentence structure, intonation and vocabulary as another. A form of linguistic empathy or solidarity. While all children are natural mimics, as this is how they learn, most adults lose this ability as they grow older, which is one of the reasons why it makes sense for children to learn foreign languages from an early age. Evidently some adults do retain a greater faculty for mimicry than others. Whether they like it or not.

The upside of this unconscious habit of mine is that my French accent is near perfect. It is probably a Parisian accent, if such a thing exists in this cosmopolitan city, although I’m generally poor at recognising regional French accents apart from the very obvious North/South vowel differences. I do frequently get mistaken for a native, which is something I never cease to feel childishly gleeful about.

The downside is that when speaking English with Mr Frog, I adopt a faint, but tragic French accent. It makes me cringe, but it is beyond my control. Not only do I mimic the Frog’s (very charming) English accent, but I also reproduce his grammatical errors. Now that’s what I call solidarity.

So I suppose I should be thankful that this is not how I’m naturally inclined to speak to the Tadpole, given that she is as near to a linguistic clean slate as you can get, and at a very impressionable age.

I can definitely live with her being bilingual in French and Yorkshire. And I have a sneaking feeling my family back home will be delighted.

Tomorrow I shall be hurtling towards the Jura in a TGV, away from computers, broadband internet connections and civilisation in general. I’ll be back in Gay Paree briefly on Monday to let off some steam about the EVIL’s and will continue blogging from the UK for the rest of that week.

Merry Christmas to each and every one of you!

And thank you to Versac for his oh so charming link to me yesterday.

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