Thursday 15 September 2016

it's all in a name

A few years ago, soon after the New Year, I received news that my girlfriend had given birth to her fourth child in Florence. We met in Melbourne, she is French, had her first child in America, second in France, third in Melbourne (named Victoria) and fourth in Florence. And no, it wasn’t a little baby Florence, it was a Nouvel An..toine...nice play on words, thanks to Antoine’s talented multi-lingual father.

It is all in a name. We named our daughter 'Molly', for no other reason than we liked the name. We followed this with May, after my maternal grandmother. Prior to her birth, my husband and I debated the fact that due to her surname also beginning with 'M', this would give her a triple M set of initials. We also reflected momentarily, when we scrutinised our choice for embarrassing pronunciations, innuendos and acronyms and realised that with both names meaning Mary in different countries, we were effectively naming her Mary, Mary... Still, this was not enough to put us off our original choices.

In France, having a second name is rare, although a double-barrelled first name is quite common (think Jean-Phillipe, Jean-Paul, Marie-Claire, Anne-Laure...). All of my children have a middle name and when I filled in forms for them in France, I usually went for broke and included them all. As a result, when she started at collège, Molly was down on all the class lists as Molly May. She was initially amused, then mildly taken-aback, but quickly adopted the two-name first name as a badge of honour. She has many of the same characteristics as my grandmother: adventurous, people-oriented, sporty and affable and is delighted that it pleases my mother, May’s daughter, enormously, to have her remembered.

Molly’s Principal contacted me in the first week of her starting at her new school to request permission for her to join a special English class for students of an English-speaking background. Really? I was flabbergasted that such an option would be considered, as my older daughter’s experience, admittedly in a different collège, had been initially to ask her not to waste her time attending English classes and in the following year picking fault with her…English. Of course, I responded affirmatively to the Principal, checking nonetheless what she would be doing in her couple of now-spare periods. She would be required to attend ‘étude’ also known as ‘permanence,’ which were supervised study classes.

I was happy with this option thinking that it might give her more time to grapple with her other subjects in her second language. A small group of ‘surveillants’ supervised these sessions. Most were young and they often did not stay for long at the school as they were filling in time earning a bit of money whilst they were studying or waiting to start studying. Molly, despite being garrulous and outgoing, enjoyed these silent sessions and had a favourite amongst the supervisors. He was a young guy, named Teddy, and in a not-too-subtle mocking of the utility of his own schoolboy English, he took to greeting her with a ‘Molly May, how are you today? Where is my umbrella?’ all said in a thick French accent and with a big smile. Something about that French charm, but we all found this quite irresistible.

My handwriting is not the best. It never has been good; after all I did not go through primary school in France where the emphasis on perfect formation of tiny linked letters begins in the first year of school. My ‘v’ and ‘u’ in particular get confused often but when joining a new skiing group, Molly’s name had been written ‘Mohly’ on the lists. Naturally enough, and probably quite appropriately, I was blamed, as I had filled out the enrolment forms. The positive outcome was that the confusion led to a conversation between my daughter and her instructor about the origin of the name, her background and nationality, so the ice was broken and a relationship established.

My older daughter brought a form down to the kitchen for me to sign. With three children, it was a fairly constant stream of paperasserie (paper work), so often I graced each document with a fairly cursory glance and a rapid signature. However, every signature had to be preceded with the words 'lu et approuvé' or at least the place in which you were doing the signing and the date. The date, I understood, but the place? Did it really matter if I said that I was in Paris or Sydney when putting pen to paper? In any case, on this occasion, I had barely got through three letters of our village name, when over my shoulder were flung the words, ‘could you please write neatly this time’ and then moving closer to watch me, ‘honestly didn’t you learn to write at school?’ And it wasn’t even Mary Mary (and you know how that rhyme continued) who was speaking.


  1. What a lovely story! And such cuties!
    My kid managed to get 21 out of 20 in English. I expected nothing less! There's no special class for English speakers here. However, I spoke with the teacher and in addition to the assignments (which took under 5 minutes), she got to read "The Hunger Games."
    People tell me my signature is odd--I do an American John Hancock style that's completely legible. The French work hard to design a signature that's more of a personal logo. Their stamp. You can't tell what it says, but it's unique.

  2. Thank-you! It was all these little, almost inconsequential, differences that made our French life what it was, memorable, enriching and life-changing.

  3. I have an Australian friend who has lived in France for 40 years. Her children have a French father and grew up truly bilingual. But her daughter failed her English exam for the Bac. She says 'c'est la honte de ma vie !' but she refused to use the absurd outdated formal English that the class insisted on. She speaks and writes perfectly in English in a normal modern way.

    Btw, I have heard somewhere recently that there is a move to end the need to sign cheques with the place, and just put the date. No word on any move to stop using cheques altogether, mind you, 'but you are in France Madame...' :-)

  4. Hi Susan, sometimes the pull to be true to yourself is just too strong. In this case, unfortunately so for your friend's daughter. As a French language teacher myself, the confidence with which the non-native English teachers corrected my own English-speaking offspring intrigued me.

    As for the cheques, I had to think hard every time I wrote one out, as the order for the name and amount is upside down respective to Australian cheques, plus there was no dotted line for the signature so I forgot to sign several times early on. Removing the need to indicate the place would make a lot of sense to me!

  5. Molly May is a great name and she suits it! I accidentally named my daughter after a hockey player - Marcelle Dion. Fortunately she doesn't mind.

    1. Hi Darlene. Her grandmother's name suits her beautifully and she is definitely a Miss Molly May. Love your hockey player story!

  6. That's the face of a loved child. Congratulations!

  7. "In France, having a second name is rare". I am not sure about this. I am French and it seems pretty normal to me. Some people even have 3 o 4 names :)

  8. Thanks for your comment. This was my experience, but I guess it is a bit risky to generalise!