“Mon serviette,” the trilingual three-year-old demands from his high-chair.
“Ma serviette,” Grand-meré corrects.
“Mon serviette,” the boy insists.
“Non, ma serviette. C’est feminine.”
Later on, the grand-daughters are practicing their spelling.
How do you learn a language?
Not how do you memorise vocabulary, or correctly conjugate verbs, but how do you open your mouth and persuade a sound to come out? What’s more, how do you make this sound loud enough and clear enough that someone sitting at the other side of the dinner table knows you’re speaking to them?
This is a skill that the children have and I struggle with. Everyone at the table is in the process of learning. The children are learning both English and French, the grandparents are improving their English with the help of my frequent but gentle corrections and I’m…
… I guess I’m learning to overcome that debilitating panic that numbs my memory. I’m lost every time I want to ask for something or reply to someone in French. It doesn’t so much matter that I’m stuck in the present tense, nor that I have atrocious pronunciation. I just have to start.
How do you feel about speaking a foreign language?
An Autumn evening in rural France.
Which took a turn for the surreal when I found myself standing beside a huge stack of old roof tiles with three French men who were discussing which ones they loved the most.
Unsurprisingly, Grand-peré owns a surplus of tiles, to go with his surplus of rooves.
Every now and again, a Frenchman would declare ‘C’est tres joli’ (in English: oh my, isn’t this tile so delightfully pretty). I never discovered the ideal shape and so ignored this factor. I simply stacked the non-broken tiles, and threw the cracked ones in the bucket of the digger. They made a satisfactory noise as they shattered.
The other component of ‘prettiness’ was the colour of the tiles. Here there was rather a lot of disagreement. One man liked the ones with more yellow, another preferred the ones with more pink. Nobody was a huge fan of the very orange tiles. They looked much too modern – although being modern they had fine shape because they probably weren’t made on some Frenchman’s thigh.
Yes, roof tiles are thigh imprints. Who’d have guessed that.
Once we’d put 500 tiles in the van, we went in for dinner. The visitors felt 500 was enough. They would come back for the rest later. Grand-peré had a surplus of roof tiles.
As she was stirring the soup, I explained to Grand-meré what had been happening outside. She smiled when I told her about my struggle to translate such an outpouring of affection for a roof tile. Her opinion was that what a man looks for in a tile is very subjective. There’s no point worrying about it.
Grand-meré has a surplus of wise advice.
The Zobar mountains and St Michael’s
When I was walking, especially when I was exerting myself by climbing a hill, breathing became a more pronounced force that was easier to concentrate on than my moderate breathing. Each breath was almost vocal; it almost touched the invisible. As I walked, eventually I became my breathing, and things like worrying, wallowing in anger, and feeling ill will toward others simply fell away.
John Francis, The Ragged Edge of Silence
I’m often amazed at how I can get it into my head that I’m going to walk somewhere. Whoever’s with me will whinge and complain. But they’ll follow regardless. Perhaps, at first, I’ll feel bad, but by the end I’ll be glad to have dragged them out.
On the Greek island of Kos, I persuaded DeepThought that we ought to get up early, watch the end of June sunrise, and take a walk to the nearby monastery. This was all because the previous day I’d overheard a waitress saying it was unwalkable.
In the hills above the village in which I lived last spring, just north of Barcelona, I convinced a young American man that the rocks that I was scrambling down were a path. All because I’d seen a glimpse of some sort of tower. He seemed less convinced when I fell over and splattered the mountain with my blood, but once I’d disappeared further along he plucked up the courage to follow. He reminded me of this last night when he messaged me for a catch up: I told him I was going on a walking holiday and he asked what a walking holiday was.
In Slovakia, the object of my attention was a small chapel which went by the Slovakian equivalent of St. Michael’s. The afternoon was warm, and my companion was my little sister. Midget has been dragged more places by me than most, yet, somehow, she still agreed that walking up into the forests on the Zobar mountains was doable.
Once we’d been walking sometime she began voicing doubts. Such doubts I always ignore.
But eventually we arrived. Preparations had begun for a bonfire. Children ran around playing games. Fathers, uncles and older brothers, chased them around, while the women gossiped and sunned their legs.
We skipped the mountain on the return journey. Instead we walked through the village, which at half two in the afternoon was quiet and sleepy. The houses were small in stature, but all were detached with gardens. I was enraptured by their stunning displays of vegetables and flowers.
Where have your wanderings taken you?
[Rapunzel informs me that Americans don’t walk, they hike.]
The uncertainty surrounding foreign train journeys inspires me to pray.
There’s always a moment, when I’m standing on the edge of a platform, tickets clutched in my hand, doubting that the train I think is arriving is the same train that is identified on my ticket. I’m not religious, but prayer, or meditation, is a more helpful exercise than panic. Plus, when travelling with Midget I can’t afford to appear vexed. She’s trusting me to have everything completely in control.
In Naples (2016), with DeepThought, I forgot to pray, double check or cross reference. So things went wrong, and then wrong again. But, apart from with the Circumvesuviana, I’ve been incredibly lucky.
The train station in Bratislava had wi-fi, which I used combined with the departure board to make a reasonable platform guess. However, the ticket was one slip of paper for both of us, inviting more doubt that remained until it was wordlessly accepted by the inspector. It included a QR (Quick Response) code which struck me as fancy for a train line where you had to leap from the train into the gravel.
We passed through stunning fields of dying sunflowers. The decaying of happiness. And arrived at Surany, where all but one of the many train lines appeared abandoned to weeds and oxygen. The station’s veranda and single clock reminded me of a western.
Nitra, a destination chosen for its larger size and pronounceable name. We could hardly miss our train for it was the only train. Compared to the clanking train from Bratislava to Surany, with its Hogwarts style carriage compartments, it was a modern build with steps down to the gravel. Yet, on our arrival we realised that the train station resembled something more like the one in our village than one belonging to a city.
Still, the city of Nitra enchanted.
Not with impressive architecture. Nor with any fancy food – although my pasta bake with pizza dough crust was something special. Instead it struck me as a place you’d want to raise children. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. By peeling ourselves away from the tourism of Bratislava, we had stepped out of the English-speaking world. As now we weren’t being sold an idea of Slovakia, we were in Slovakia.
I felt it proved that something was missing from home. The overwhelming feeling of Nitra was one of family. Everywhere we went there were adults and children together, and a startling absence of screen staring. Midget agreed, and our conversations kept returning to this sensation of community that we couldn’t quite describe. A short walk from where we rented a room was a large park. Here, adults and children cycled and swept along on their rollerblades. Little cafés stood within a mass of playgrounds. There were deer, goats, a sheep, a cow and a donkey. Children took pony rides and built castles in the sandpits. The adults chatted and laughed.
A tiny child parked his pedal-less bike in the bike rack beside the café where we were sitting drinking kofola. He just got on with it, without any doubt that his bike and the other bikes all belonged together.
The kids don’t have to love you.
They do, typically, become very much attached, but you can’t force it. There’s a certain sense of discipline that’s required. You’re not their best friend, you’re the responsible adult. An overdose of flattery isn’t going to help, nor is allowing them more sweets, TV time or access to a tablet.
Sometimes they are adorable, wanting cuddles and happy to quietly play a game. Then some very short time later, they can be causing a commotion by sticking their tongue out at you when they thought their parents weren’t watching. Tears ensue. You wonder what you did to deserve such a change in character. Where did the nice kid go?
The truth is, you’re a temporary wall between the child and their parents. When things are going good, this is a wall that gives the child a bit of private freedom from their omnipotent gods. When things are not so good, they are going to play bulldozer or try scrambling over the top of you.
Parents love you of course, while they’re enjoying their moment of space. Peace and quiet is a luxury. But when they panic that they no longer have complete control, they act all sorts of unpredictable. Those I’ve lived with have generally been very good at demonstrating their gratitude, but I’ve known numerous au pairs whose families constantly have au pairs, and so feel taken for granted.
The kids, when they love you, see you as theirs, a precious playmate. But when they hate you, you’re a second-rate commander. You’re an adult, but unlike teachers and parents you’ve failed to be omnipotent. Younger kids follow the stance of the older kids. Saying no to their requests can fire you from best friend to evil overlord in an irrational second. You have to not take it personally. These are kids, they lack empathy or perspective. They don’t know if their words and actions will hurt you, but they’re curious. So, guess what, they’re going to do all they can to ignite a reaction. And then, if successful, perhaps they’ll laugh.
But some days, they’ll curl up on the sofa and ask what you’re reading. And they’ll listen as you talk of philosophy in a language they don’t understand. Some days, they’ll take the drawings you do to school, and you’ll realise that their teacher knows your name, as do their friends and their friends’ parents. This sweet child who refused to put their shoes on has told everyone they know about you. Occasionally, when the school gates open, they’ll scream your name and run, leaping at you with a hug disproportionate to their size.
And then, one day, in a final act of betrayal that somehow feels crueller than any middle of the street tantrum a five-year-old could throw, you’ll pack your bags and leave.