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Help: my children are aliens

A couple of months ago, I collected my eldest son from school, as usual. Shouldering his gigantic school bag, we walked companionably along the corridor to collect his younger brother. “We had horse for lunch today”, he said brightly, in French. There was a moment’s pause as I tried to digest that snippet of information. “Mmmm. Cheval”. His face took on a dreamy cast. “It’s so tender. It’s my favourite meat. I LOVE horse”. He rhapsodised for several minutes in this vein. I was obsessed with horses as a child. A city kid, unable to convince my mother our back yard was big enough for a pony, I spent my pocket money on Horse & Pony magazine, hairnets and Polos ‘just in case’ there was an unexpected gymkhana in York city centre. “I love horse” too. Just, not like that. The gulf between his childhood and mine was clearer than ever. For the last 5 years, I have lived in Brussels with my two boys: T, 9 and L, 7. They attend a local Belgian school in a French speaking area; their friends are all French speakers. This month’s school menu doesn’t feature horse, the equines of Belgium can sleep safe in their stables for now, but it does include braised endive (less popular than horse) and something called “carbonnade de boeuf aux Sirop de Liège” (a kind of stew). We’re not in Tower Hamlets any more, Toto. When their French father and I first moved, we thought Brussels would be a good compromise. We had already lived in London

(where I felt personally responsible for NHS waiting times, ruinous childcare costs and the Circle Line) and in Paris (where I upbraided him, repeatedly, about the officious park keepers, the endless squabbles with our neighbours and the barbed comments I regularly received from passers-by about my post-partum wardrobe). Brussels, we reasoned, was neutral territory, a city where most people were outsiders, where speaking two languages was not merely commonplace, but a national obligation. Our kids would fit right in. In lots of ways, this has proved absolutely true. Brussels is, indeed, a city of migrants. When T’s class drew their family tree, only one child of 28 had solely Belgian nationals for parents and grandparents. When I think of my children’s friends, I realise they are all half something, half something else – Italian, Portuguese, Algerian, Swedish. I love and value that cultural diversity. But my own children? They may be “half English half French half Belgian” (as they say, with scant regard for basic maths), but to me, they often feel entirely foreign. The older they get, the more pronounced it is. When they learned to write, I was worse than useless; my “z”s were completely wrong, they said, painstakingly copying out something that looked for all the world to me like a pelican sitting on a washing line. When they play chase, the one who gets caught isn’t “it”, but “the cat”, which is plainly ridiculous, because when did cats ever display any aptitude for team games? Worse still, when I sent them to school with lime jelly cubes for a special treat one day, they returned, mortified, telling me that their friends had told them it was “Martian food”. Language, is of course, a big part of that. Bilingualism is a vast and complex topic I can’t hope to cover here, but on a personal level, I observe with alarm how far English has fallen from favour, the longer we live in Belgium. Put simply, my children’s mother’s tongue

is no longer their mother tongue. They speak French to each other, but also to me. I speak to them in English, they reply in French; I tell them to speak English, they refuse, in French. With my UK friends and family, they make an effort, but they don’t sound native: L’s sentence structure is right, but he sounds French, T’s accent is pure East London, but he’s stilted, and struggles for words. Recently it took him twenty minutes to remember the word “wheel”. He got there eventually, but it worried me. I feel responsible for their declining English. I am, have always been, the most devoted Francophile. I was desperate, from the first time I picked up French Elle in our school library, aged 14, to replace my culture with a new one that seemed, to my uncritical gaze, to be all about make up and sex and philosophy. The four weeks I spent, aged 16, with my French exchange student, Aurélie, just reinforced my determination. Aurélie was – of course – a model. On the French leg of our exchange, she took me on a photo shoot for a soft drink commercial; we rode horses on the beach and went clubbing. In return, my parents took us to a damp self-catering cottage in the Lake District for a week, where we played a lot of card games whilst Aurélie learned the word “cagoule” had a different meaning in English and rowed gloomily around the lake in the drizzle to enhance, she said, her “poitrine”. Back in York, I tried to make amends by taking her to the Clifton Moor multiplex cinema to see Boyz ‘n’ the Hood with my friends, who, like me, suddenly looked like spotty, childish losers under the cold scrutiny of Aurélie’s bored gaze. The die was cast: for me, French was the language of escape, of reinvention. I set about acquiring a French boyfriend as a matter of urgency and spent an embarrassingly large swathe of or my twenties poncing around pretending to be Parisian, all Breton tops, Serge Gainsbourg and copies of Libération.

So when my children first started to speak French in preference to English, I was delighted. I found their instinctive understanding of genders, the way they would effortlessly pronounce words that never emerge unmangled from my Anglo-Saxon throat deeply charming and made no effort to force them to speak English. Now, of course, the poules have come home to roost. They stare at me witheringly, when I get genders wrong (like lighthouse, my Achilles heel. It couldn’t be more phallic, why do I keep thinking it’s a girl?). When they do grammar homework, I discreetly check irregular verbs with an online conjugating tool, bookmarked on my laptop. Worse still, when I try and tell an English joke, it often falls flat, leaving me explaining, lamely “it’s a jeu de mots, a play on words”. It’s not just language that is bewildering when your children grow up away from your homeland though, it’s culture. The rituals of childhood can take on a whole new complexion in another country: on top of Horse-gate, we have struggled recently over whether Christmas presents are brought by a jolly fat man with a white beard, or by a tall, robed, Greek bishop, with a mitre and crook. The Belgian St Nicolas and his ineffably creepy blacked up sidekick, Père Fouettard (charmingly, ‘Father Whip’) are forbidding figures to those unaccustomed to the tradition. Either of them, legend has it, might take exception to your behaviour during the preceding year, and put you in a sack and kick you to Spain. Nevertheless, my children accept them unquestioningly. Lost teeth – are they collected by the tooth fairy, or the by a mouse? And are Easter eggs the work of a bunny or “the bells”, which supposedly fly back from Rome to scatter chocolate across Europe? “But how do the bells carry the chocolate?” I asked once, genuinely grasping to understand.

“They fly upside down, filled with chocolate” replied the children’s father, flatly, as if it were entirely obvious. “Ok.. But why are the bells in Rome? On a city break?” I persisted, unconvinced. “To see..” his certainty seemed to sag a little at this point. “Jesus? No, the Pope. Anyway, how does the rabbit carry chocolate with those tiny paws?” “It has a basket!” I protested, stung. I love Belgian traditions, love their weirdness for an outsider. I’d rather assimilate than live, like some expats I have met, an entirely British life, insulated from the influences of the country in which they live, buying Shreddies and lemon barley water from an “English shop” that looks like a Cotswolds Spar. I do wonder, though, if I should have fought harder for the traditions of my own childhood, because increasingly, my boys just want to do what their friends do. Now, perhaps too late, I am trying to redress the balance. I have always read aloud to them in English, but now I devote more time to trying to think what books would most amuse them, turn them on to the language they have all but abandoned. The way they pronounce Roald Dahl might make me weep, but they love the stories. If they want to watch The Simpsons, they have to watch in English, and I’m trying to arrange more trips back to the UK, where, desperate to please my father, they’ll test out their rusty skills. Because, I realise, I don’t want my children to miss out on the richness of spoken and written English, the cultural oddities of my homeland. I have come to accept my own Englishness, remembered what I love about the

language; the economy, the pungency, the humour of English. I want to convey that enthusiasm to my kids. Most of all, I want us to find the same things funny: I want them to understand jokes and puns, I want us to watch brilliant British comedy together. CBBC’s wonderful ‘Sorry I’ve Got No Head’ is a good start. But then again, maybe I’m deluding myself? I look at what I am describing: a lack of shared cultural references, a sense that my children are strangers, their increasing levels of embarrassment at my behaviour and pronouncements. That’s the same for any parent, isn’t it? All children become aliens sooner or later: you struggle against it, and ultimately lose. Perhaps it’s just that bit faster and more obvious for me. Even so, I won’t give up until they can tell me what you call a donkey with three legs*. (*A wonky, of course)

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