December 14: A small thing I’m proud of

Elie the chef with his 'cochon au lait'. It disappeared in one lunchtime.

I’ve just spent an hour searching online for a clip of Alvin and the Chipmunks singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas. It was a lot easier to find Mickey Mouse singing Jingle Bells, which I did last night. This afternoon it’s the last session before Christmas for ‘Anglais des petits avec Suellen’, and I promised the children I’d teach them a couple of carols. I don’t usually resort to the computer at their little centre, but today I’m giving myself a break. English language teaching materials are very expensive, even if I could find them here in Nice, and I’ve been hand-making flash cards, board games and bingo sets till my fingers ache. Joel shakes his head sadly when he sees me at it. He has already calculated that at my paltry hourly rate, the value of preparation time, printer ink, glue and bits of cardboard means I’d have to stick with ‘Anglais des petits avec Suellen’ for the next 10 years to break even.

A giant Christmas bauble - so big you can walk in and out. All of Nice is harmonised with pretty red and white lights

However, at the risk of sounding extraordinarily corny, I’ve already had payback. Last week three months’ worth of nouns suddenly took off on their own. The kids are always incredibly eager to talk to me. Their hands shoot up when I ask something, which makes me feel like an imposter. My training was all about getting people to communicate with each other, and adults understand that immediately. During an evening course I taught in London, a young Polish guy made a beeline for a busty Italian girl during language practice. He was pretty anxious to use his new understanding of the present continuous for future plans and said, ‘I’m having party to Saturday’. The present continuous must have clicked for her, too. She said, ‘I’m washing the hair.’

My ‘petits’ didn’t seem to have seen the point of English with such clarity until last week. Teaching English is just a pastime for me, still a novelty, and I try to stick with what I’ve been taught. I don’t know anything about working with six- and seven-year-olds. They seem to love collecting words individually, but not putting them together. I ploughed on, repeatedly sticking the words in question and negative forms (when we play Bingo, for example, I always say Flower! I don’t have flower. Do you have flower? Lina doesn’t have flower. Dylan has flower!). Dylan is adorable, but challengingly precise. He insisted that the flash card picture of ‘ham’ was actually jambon rouleau, or rolled ham. But when I kept on with the ‘Do you like ham?’ ‘I don’t like ham.’ ‘Lina likes ham’, he must have been listening. He suddenly turned to me almost so excited he couldn’t talk, but then he came out with ‘Do you like skateboard?’ I had to say yes. He jumped out of his seat to grab me, with ‘Do you like PlayStation?’ Then, ‘Do you like Wii?’ I felt the way Helen Keller’s teacher must have felt in that movie when Helen Keller figures out that the letters signed in her palm mean ‘water’. The other kids got it quickly too when they saw him. They then started asking each other, completely independent of me, what they liked and didn’t like, in English. They didn’t even seem to notice they weren’t speaking French. I sat back and watched in a sort of amazement. I helped them do that!

Isy, Ralph and I went to the Friday market in Ventimiglia, Italy, looking for bargain cashmere sweaters. Here's Ralph trying one on - he bought it.

Joel and I are driving back to London on Saturday – we’ll be cat-sitting over Christmas for Lori and Sunil’s three-legged cat, Catty. We’ve just had visitors, Isabella and Ralph, and they bought a load of wine here which we’ll pile into the car and rattle off with. It’s like ballast – we’ll empty it out at their house over Christmas and pick up some of the things we miss from ours. Though to be honest, the more time we spend without our things, the less we need them. Ted is going to stay with Joel’s mum, probably hiding under the bed. She’ll be sure to try and tempt him out. When we get back, perhaps he’ll be able to say, in French, Do you like foie gras?

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About Suellen Grealy

In 2011, a series of coincidences led my husband Joel, our cat Ted and me away from London, where we lived quite happily for 30 years, to Nice, where Joel grew up. While he and his sister ran their restaurant, I wrote a novel. Family being family, Joel and his sister no longer work together. Writing being writing, the novel lingers on... Meanwhile, we've found ways of living a completely different life from the one we had in London, including running our own restaurant together, 7 Villermont. The only constants are our Ted, our now-battered Peugeot, and each other. Everything else is a complete surprise
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