We visited the French school La Fille will go to in September last week. It was a nice school. The directrice was smiling and friendly and had long abundant hair; the sort of hair I imagine features largely in her pupils' drawings. She gave La Fille a scrapbook with pictures of the teachers and sketches by other children of the celebrations and festivals and lots of blank pages for her to fill in. As she spoke, La Fille burrowed her head in my summer skirt and hummed. I don't think the directrice or the Frenchman heard her, but I could feel the vibration of her agitation against my leg. She was doing the equivalent of putting her fingers in her ears and singing 'la la la la' very loudly. "Don't worry," said the directrice as I encouraged La Fille to turn around. "I'm sure she's listening." We had a tour of the school with La Fille still hanging off my skirt and the playground where she briefly flew solo, had one go on the plastic slide, then resumed her detailed study of the warp and weft of Mama's clothing.
I walked back home with a lump in my throat and I've been trying to swallow it since. In a few months she will let go and trot off on the long road to becoming an educated French citizen. Nothing wrong with that, but where will her English half find expression outside the home? Will my dragging us both back and forth over the Channel have made sure the language of Shakespeare is stamped indelibly on those young neurones? Can I even hope to keep half of her English or will it be eroded word by word by the relentless tide of French she will bathe in every day, until she becomes just 40 per cent, or 30 per cent or a quarter English? What difference does it make, we are all Europeans now? some would say. I would reply: "Don't you believe it. We may be Europeans but we are not the same." Then there's the inevitable separation. One of the French mothers at La Fille's nursery, whose son is going to the same school, said it is this she is dreading most about September. And she doesn't have the language and culture element to deal with. We have made a pact to have a coffee and a cry in a nearby café on the first morning.
The lump refuses to be swallowed because I know September is just the start of the slippery slope. These days La Fille's sister La Belle Belle-Fille, now a young woman, stiffens at her father's paternal hugs and I look at La Fille as if to say: one day you won't want me to pick you up an smother your silk-smooth tummy with kisses while you giggle and squirm. One day I won't be able to. But will you remember when you did and I could? And will you go: "Stop, Mama!" or will it be "Arret!"? Sometimes I feel like scooping up La Fille and running as fast as I can to a Eurostar.
The move to France was only supposed to be for a couple of years, not forever. Then I met The Frenchman. Then I had La Fille. Now there's no way back. But La Fille, to whom a horse is a cheval and a frog is just pond life is still half English. So before the Gallic nation claims her for its own, sprinkles her with garlic, sautés her and swallows her up whole we make regular escapes on the Eurostar. And we have discovered the grass is various shades of green either side of the Channel.