Tonton Michael

Photo: “Buzz l’Éclair” © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

This week, I’m in Doncourt-lès-Conflans, a village in the countryside of Lorraine, just west of Metz. Michel and I are babysitting our niece and nephew, Tiphaine and Romain. They’re the ones I referenced in this post about a child’s imagination … or was it about my rusty drawing skills? In any case, vacation is over for their parents, but school doesn’t start back for them until next week, so it’s Tonton Miko (that’s Michel) and Tonton Michael (that’s me) to the rescue!

Needless to say, with a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old to keep entertained all day, we have our hands full this week. From the time we get up in the morning to the time their folks come home from work, we’re pretty much “on” … drawing pictures, playing games, watching cartoons, making lunch, mediating little disputes between the two of them. As tiring as it can be, it’s also a rare opportunity for us to really bond with them. Because they live so far away, we don’t get to see them that often, certainly not as often as we see our two nieces who live in Paris. So, in addition to providing a brief respite from the noise of La Courneuve, this little excursion is also about building family for me.

During the train ride from Paris to Metz yesterday and again today, I was reflecting on how I must seem to my French nieces and nephew. I always obsess a little over my French skills when I’m with my French family, but I know that at least they understand my limitations because they understand that I’m an American. But I imagine that it’s a little different when it comes to the kids. At their age, they don’t quite get what it means to be a foreigner with a language barrier. I’ve been living in France now for over a year and I’ve even graduated from the superior level in my French courses, but I still don’t speak French fluently by any stretch of the imagination. While my oral comprehension has obviously improved, I still have difficulty when people speak quickly or don’t articulate or when I’m just tired. Of course, there’s also my “charming” American accent that will probably never go away. All of that surely makes me a real oddity for French children like Tiphaine and Romain.

Do they think I’m not very smart because I talk funny and don’t use the right words sometimes? Do they think I’m partially deaf because they have to repeat things over and over to me? Do they think I’m not very engaged because sometimes I can’t muster anything better than a blank stare in response to their questions? Maybe. Who knows? No matter what they think of my communication skills, when they think of me, it’s hopefully with affection as their American Tonton Michael—a little strange, but charming and lovable nonetheless.

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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