#75: Have a conversation in another language

Hooray, I have had dozens of conversations in French over the weekend, and very satisfying it has been too, though it does rather remind me how much I have forgotten and what a shame it is to have let my once passable language skills deteriorate to such an extent. My tenses are in tatters and my vocab reduced to a tenth of its former scale. But still, I can converse, and some people, if they are minded to be kind, appear to understand.

My children were rather disorientated at first, to find Mummy babbling indecipherably. The French children, unpossessed as they were of any tact, admitted to equal bafflement. My French-speaking but fundamentally Welsh hostess was a godsend, as she could fathom what I was trying to say even while I butchered the French language beyond recognition.

Thus we managed to discuss English and French customs and routines, talk of my former worklife, share anecdotes of children’s misdemeanours, make plans for the day, and convey the children’s preferences in terms of cuisine. (Do not underestimate the challenges of this last one, it is complicated enough in one’s native tongue.) As our final night drew to a close and we turned to the pros and cons of Scottish independence I confess I gave up and reverted to English. But for 2 and 1/2 days, mostly French was spoken. So that was very pleasing.

And of course the best bit was seeing the kids make their own attempts. Eva is very proud of her ‘merci pour le petit dejeuner’ (indeed she applies it in almost any context). Everyone has mastered the basics: bonjour, merci, oui, non, au revoir, and jus de pomme. They have all been willing to try and name things in French, and I even overheard the beginnings of a very halting conversation between Eva and our 7 year old French host, about how old they both were. So I am delighted we came, 5 is not too young for a French exchange after all, despite our misgivings.

An excellent weekend’s work.

#74: Spend the night with a random Frenchman

This sounds more controversial than it was. It was actually a very charming Frenchman, plus his wife and family, in the context of a whole-family French exchange.

But still, it was no small matter, to take all the kids to a town we had never heard of, to stay with a family as yet unknown to us, and expect them to get on with it, with barely 10 words of French between them.

The first night, they managed to stay up until 10pm, mainly playing with the other English kids, but also some French. No one argued when it was eventually time to go to bed, and the grown ups stayed up to converse with our hosts, the wheels of sociability oiled most amicably with lashings of fine French wine. All was right with the world despite our fearsome journey. The hosts were nice. We could communicate. (In fact they were more than nice, they were utterly charming, hospitable, generous in the extreme…they literally couldn’t have done more to make our stay comfortable and enjoyable and everything we wanted it to be.)

And so, the next morning, I was somewhat concerned to find all my children so overwhelmed with shyness that they didn’t want to get up. In all their nearly 6 years of life I have never known breakfast to be delayed beyond 8am. Yet here they were, hiding under the duvet, saying they didn’t want any. This was bad.

But the sound of a television filtered through their gloom, and like mosquitos to a light source, they began to inch towards it. The elder boy Thomas had been inspired to put on an English cartoon, and no one could resist for very long.

A little later, an array of chocolate-based cereals were presented, along with a basket brimming with pain au chocolats, and the combination, along with the jus de pomme, proved irresistible. A far more contented trio arose from the table a half hour later.

We had a thoroughly pleasant couple of days, joining in with their family life, barbeque-ing in the garden, watching a kids football match; riding a random trio of ponies; playing games in the park; eating all manner of treats, cooking our own crepes…

By Sunday night, all our 5 kids were outside in the garden until darkness fell, building dens, climbing trees, chasing each other, shouting and laughing… International divide well and truly bridged.

By Monday, there were tears on leaving, homemade cards exchanged, avowing their love for one another, and plaintive requests to either stay forever, or bring the boys home with us. An astonishing turn of events! And a quite brilliant outcome, to a curious enterprise. Tremendous.

#73: Master a circus skill (breathing fire!)

My attempts with the unicycle have been broadly unsuccessful. I cannot even sit on it long enough to try and pedal. So I have reluctantly had to give up on that aspiration.

But instead I looked at other circus skills, that I might have more aptitude for. And once again the legendary Hectic came up trumps. He just happened, he said, to have a firebreathing kit in the shed, and could teach me to do that in a few moments, should I wish. ‘Is there much danger with it?’ I asked, in a carefully casual tone. ‘Well I suppose you could burn your face off. But most people don’t’.

That seemed enough of a health and safety assessment. We sank a few pints, ate a ton of Baked Alaska, and got the kit out.

The process is curious. First we practiced spraying water through pursed lips to create a fine mist. That was the essential technique. ‘Don’t spit. Spray.’ Then the fire was lit, on the end of a truncheon. I rinsed my mouth round with milk, as instructed. Then took a sip of paraffin, wiped my mouth, and sprayed it in the direction of the flame, held an arms’ length away.

The first attempt was unimpressive. But then I had another go. You need to watch the video right to the end! It was remarkable! I am delighted! There was a sharp intake of breath as all spectators thought I must have lost my hair, at the very least! But surprisingly it was fine, and much less dramatic for me in the middle of it, than for those watching it.

Do not try this at home children. But I am extraordinarily pleased with it! (and it is much easier than a unicycle!)

#72: Make a Baked Alaska (for guests)

This dish has been my nemesis ever since my early teens when I tried to make one for a surprise dinner and it melted all over the oven. (Consisting, as it does, of a load of icecream covered in meringue and then baked). So that is how it got on the list.

We went for dinner at a friend’s house (the legendary Hectic, whose patio I assisted in laying not long ago); and I offered to bring a pudding. I had to bring it in several parts, as the Baked Alaska cannot be assembled nor baked until the last minute.

Anticipation was high as I assembled cake base, chocolate icecream, and covered it all in meringue looking like an enormous delectable snowball… into the oven it went – an anxious 4 minutes, and then: Triumph! It survived! (Ignore the odd head coming out of my armpit; that is not relevant to the culinary achievement)
me, hectic and baked alaska
Applause abounded, and we ate a generous chunk each. That got through half of it, and left everyone slightly bilious. (This dish is not light on sugar.) Then we realised it couldn’t easily be saved or re-served, and it was down to the five of us to do it justice. We struggled through a second slice each. Compliments slowed a little. Hectic managed to eat a full quarter of the thing singlehandedly, but the rest of us were beaten. It did sit rather heavily.

Soon afterwards there was considerable competition for the toilet facilities of Ampney Crucis. But let us not dwell on that. The dessert will be remembered (by me at least) as an unmitigated triumph. Hurrah.

#71: Go on an organised coach trip

There are few modes of travel that fill me with more horror, than this. Trapped on a coach, possibly feeling slightly gip, with no control over any aspect of the journey, and 3 smallish children to keep entertained. The potential for trauma abounds.

But we had signed up for the French twinning trip, and everyone was going by coach. It seemed churlish not to join, and also would have meant a long drive for both of us, to end up in the same place. We weighed it all up, and booked on the coach.

The day dawned and we hustled the kids out of bed, arriving at the bus at 04.50am. And would you believe it, all the ruddy seats appeared to be taken. Apart from 2. And we are 5.

There was whispered consternation among the organisers – had they, perhaps, miscounted? I began to fear I would be travelling for 12 hours with a wriggling 5 year old in my lap. But no. Eventually a couple of people reluctantly revealed that the seats next to them were, actually, unoccupied. There were after all, upon very close inspection, 5 seats. Just not together. I would like to report at this point a multitude of kindly souls spotting our plight and offering up their seats…but alas that would not be an accurate report. I tried to persuade my sleepy 4 year old that it might be fun to sit on the backseat with the teenagers. She was not convinced. Nor was I!

In the end, we settled for a 2 and a 3 at the front and back of the bus respectively. It did not make for straightforward sharing of toys or picnics. But at least we were all seated.

The first leg of the journey was smooth and we arrived in Portsmouth at 06.40. We were not due to sail until 9.00. There was some muted questioning of the need to arise at 4am.

Then the ferry was calm and uneventful. The children were introduced to the joys of top trumps, and did an extensive amount of colouring. It is a point of principle and self torture that we travel without ever plugging them in to an electronic device. (Rosie recently reported that she had a friend, with a real television IN HER CAR!!! ‘In Real Life Mummy, she has!’ Dammit.)

In the end, we reached our destination at 19.00 hours French time, after a pretty thorough exploration of French service stations. Happily the French were ready for us, and eased our trauma with many a carafe of wine. Journey survived. On with the French adventure!