Wrapping up the summer!

The sky is still a clear blue with little puffy clouds scudding across it; The stripey awning over the kitchen window is protecting the kitchen from overheating. Half of me can’t believe we are at the dawn of a new school year, but the fact that it’s dark by 9pm is unequivocal. Looking at the piles upon piles of ‘fournitures’ (stationary for the uninitiated) on the floor, and for any non french resident who hasn’t gone through the rentrée process of buying up an entire supermarketful of exercise books (cahiers), coupie double and copie simple (filepaper), lutins (file of plastic sleeves) and classeurs (files), there is no dispute; The new term is nearly upon us.

It’s true: I bought the shop!

Until this year I had spent a considerable amount of time worrying about the madness of carting four non francophone children across the channel and expecting them to ‘just get on with it’. But this year I really feel I can sit back and enjoy the peace that will reign in this house when they all depart on monday morning bags in hand. And ‘Yes’ we have had to endure the ‘my bag’s no longer cool’  issue too!

All this anticipated peace of mind is grace to my daughter, now 15, who arrived 3 years ago without a word of French, and who has gone from strength to strength! Let me tell you a secret, to all those considering such a move –

It can be done!

I’ll take you back to May – the beginning of the summer, when stress and anxiety were our middle names. Having arrived at school drop-off where my daughter was sitting her final Brevet Blanc with ‘Tiers Temps’ (extra time), I was precipitated into the office of the Directrice of our Collège to be told that the Academie Française had changed their mind. There was to be no more ‘Tiers Temps’. Not being fluent in French for a French exam was not considered a handicap! Having sat every exam to date with an extra hour, my daughter was to sit ‘the real thing’ in the standard allotted time after all. You can imagine the ensuing panic!

For the following weeks there was wistful hoping on her part that she might pass; a great deal of pushy mother syndrome (24 hours of revision a day is not enough); a little adolescent rebellion and a few ‘being caught out on Facebook’ issues; And when the exam days dawned we had tripled checked her ID was in her bag and yes, we arrived for the exam a good hour early!

Need I have worried? Well actually ‘No’. Two weeks after the final exam, and out of a possible list of scores – ‘Aquis’, ‘Mention’, ‘Mention Bien’ and ‘Mention Très Bien’, she scooped a ‘Mention Bien’, and received her acceptance to the OIB at her chosen Lycée.

Unlike those poor UK students who have to sit through their entire summer holidays wondering how they did and if they were ‘In’ to their higher education, we set off on holiday, happy, reassured and relaxed…

Which is a bit how we are starting out our new school year.

But this year it’s more than that… after a steep uphill struggle, now we feel that we’ve carved a niche, we’ve concreted our first foundation and we are starting to build…


Eureka Eureka, Je l’ai Trouvé!

The last time I used AutoCad was 11 years ago!

There’s alot of change in 11 years!

What irony that my on first day back into the working world I was handed a paperprint and asked to transfer the housing plan onto the computer.  The imagery was just a little too symbolic of archaic meets future for my liking. A kind of personal modernisation programme!

The last time I was in an architects office, the work-surfaces were covered with paper plans, sprawled in every direction, the scale-rule more often than not lost underneath hundreds of layers, the drafting pens blobbing or blocked as they started to run out of ink, and razor blades lurking on the ‘parallel motion’ in readiness to correct errors. Yesterday, there was not a paper print to be seen, (well except for my one), the worktables gleamed impeccably white, not a speck of ‘out of placeness’ , the computers state of the art and each job file uniformly blue neatly placed on tidy white shelves. Worse of all – everybody knew what they were doing!

My internal laughter was a little hysterical.

Now I am not a dunce when it comes to computers, and in my day I trained the young technicians to use AutoCad, but 11 years brings with it change. A considerable amount it would seem! So when I sat down and realised that the mouse was some state of the art invention, with more knobs, dials and buttons than a pilot’s cabin, and that I couldn’t even find the return – I knew I’d had it. (Ok so it wasn’t quite as bad as the one above, but you get the idea!) When my friendly fellow architect came over to show me how to access the drawing menu, it wasn’t the screen I was watching, but her hand – but at least now I have found the return button. I’ll ask her about the drawing files on Monday!


As I said, I wasn’t bad at AutoCad, but one thing you need to know about the french keyboard is that to obtain a number one has to use the ‘caps lock’, and to use the comma, one has to turn it off again. Surely, surely the French architects don’t spend their time ‘offing’ and ‘onning’ the caps lock to type in one simple line command? Anyway, drawing that first line was the clincher – and the computer wasn’t having any of my commands.. it just kind of sat there motionless and then left me with a stream of HTML just as an embarrassing record of my failure to communicate with the modern age. I thought about turning the screen away to avoid observation. Enough is enough I thought to myself, and frankly in a bit of a internal temper hit return having only added the X coordinate..no comma..no caps lock…. and can you believe it, I had my first line!


– I found the little ruler icon, and checked the line attributes for accuracy. It seemed to be a breakthrough!

By this point I considered myself almost flying. All that’s left for me now is to remember the icon’s (did I mention that they are annotated in French), the shortcuts, the layers and …   …and then of course we have the 3D which didn’t even exist in the old days!

what’s the french for ‘offset’ again?

Watch out Monday computer!

Salutations et les microbes – how to greet the french !

Today, I decided there was nothing for it but to present my dilemma to the French. My dilemma – what are the rules for greeting the French?

I have an English friend who lives approximately 30 kilometers from Rouen in a small village on the way to Dieppe. We had at length discussed the differences between the country school and the city school, but what bemused us were the differences between the formality of greeting friends and  acquaintances  between the two places. For Ruth, to ‘faire les bises’ ( kissing cheeks) was compulsory and to avoid doing so was frowned upon and frequently perceived as insulting, rude and almost calamitous to a budding friendship. I, on the other hand, as city dweller was not so lucky to have these rules so clearly defined, and several times I have been on the verge of making a ‘faux pas’.

Our arrival was marked by the onset of Swine Flue, which led our Directrice, as part of her Rentrée welcome speech, to ask the assembled crowd of parents to refrain from kissing in order to avoid passing on microbes. Our particular enclave of parents have a spectacular fear of microbes, and luckily our arrival with our floundering french enabled us to avoid divulging the embarrassing fact that several cases of swine flue had been confimed at our previous UK primary school.

However two years on, Swine Flue has become one of those epidemics with no substance, but still our school refrains from kissing, with the exception of the kids. So what are the rules exactly?

On meeting in the morning the french college students ‘faire les bises’ – girl to girl, and girl to boy, and the boys shake hands. The french college students and primary children ‘faire les bises’ with familiar adults on meeting in the playground, on the street, or on visiting a friend’s house. Noticeably, being slightly inhibited myself by not knowing the rules, the college and primary children make the first move to kiss me. This demonstrates that at grass roots it is expected, learnt behaviour taught by parents. So what has happened along the way to make the whole process so confusing at an adult level?

My husband, on arrival at the office, would greet each member of his thirty strong work team every morning, with a hand-shake to the men, and by ‘faisant les bises’ with all the women, irrespective of status and hierarchy. It was also imperative to remember who in the team he had already greeted that morning, so as not to re-greet someone in error in the ‘coffee-making area’ , meeting room or lift later on.

The reason for my dilemma is as follows; with not less than12 abundant window boxes, it was necessary to find some-one to do a spot of watering when we were away on our four week tour of europe this summer. It occurred to me that the other family that had moved into our building had some likely looking college kids who might appreciate a bit of pocket money, so one afternoon I dropped a note through their letterbox to suggest the idea. It was warmly received, and later that evening the parents arrived at our door to see what needed to be done. In the end they stayed for a bottle of wine, and by the end of the evening we had got to know a little more about them. We handed over the keys and parted for our holiday!

On return from our holiday, our neighbour came up to visit for a debrief, and Harry and I shook hands and ‘fait les bises’ respectively.

Some weeks later, not having crossed paths for some time, I came out of the lift to find our neighbour waiting at the rez de chaussé, and proffered a cheek to ‘faire les bises’ and he likewise, but at the sametime felt slightly awkward. The next meeting was in the car park where we greeted from afar, and the following day we crossed paths in the street. This time I had no idea whether to be forward and once more proffer a cheek,  whether to shake hands or to say a cheery hello. All day I cringed inwardly that I had been too forward when getting out of the lift, and that I had not had the courage to continue to ‘faire les bises’ on the successive meetings; After all, it isn’t often that British women feel comfortable kissing relatively strange men in deserted entrance halls! Now had our neighbour been a gregarious outward going sort of guy, I’m sure that all things would be fairly well defined; but he is one of those deep silent enigmatic kind of frenchmen; and with my husband a million miles away in Africa, I was really not wanting to give the wrong impression!

So therefore, I decided I needed to put the question of greetings to the ‘playground mums’. So here is the word from those in the know:  ‘Faire les bises’ with people you know in the playground and your community if you haven’t seen them for a while – the begining of term, after a holiday, and if you invite them to your house. Give them a smile and a  friendly ‘coucou’ in the playground and the street thereafter. Of course there are many people who are exceptions to the rule and they have to be defined individually. Generally in the professional office as a woman, one will ‘faire les bises’ with everyone. If one has a more menial employment situation – take the lead from the boss, and continue that way thereafter.(so long as it is above board!) Kiss all visiting primary aged children when they arrive at your home; and kiss all college age student friends of your own children, or college aged children of your friends at the home and in the street.

And why this difference between the city and the country? – The microbes of course. The Swine Flue may have disappeared but there are plenty more lurking and ready to pounce, and the city mamans do not like microbes. Snotty noses mean trips to the doctors for antibiotics, and days off work! Country mums seem have a more earthy approach to germ warefare!

What of my neighbours, I still haven’t worked it out, I think a cheery hello will suffice most of the time and  a handshake after an absence. I don’t think I have made a goof. It will all work out in time!!

Fête-ing french-style

time for cake

May and June have been months full of pleasure. The children have racked up vast numbers of invitations, and given out their own; whilst as the summer term draws to a close, the school Kermesse is imminent.

I don’t think a weekend or wednesday has passed without a party, and I have been so genuinely pleased by the parties on offer. Somewhere along the line, children’s parties have been elevated into high cost/high glitz extravaganza’s with an ever exhorbitant menu, entertainment and the requisite party bags. Parents, having forked out for excesses of presents face ruin having paid the bill for the party. The french, fortunately have a different view!

Our first invitation of the year came from a boy living in the countryside on the outskirts of Rouen. Fortunate to have a large garden, the invitees were turfed out into the fresh-air, to roam and run wild in the undergrowth, kick about a football with their friends,  with the primary source of long-suffering entertainment being the birthday-boy’s dad; whilst his mother brought a large home-made cake out onto the garden table and some big jugs of drinks to refresh them when they started to flag. There was no “end-time” for the party, and as the parents started to return to collect their, by now, filthy children, chairs were drawn up and a glasses of wine handed out. I got up to leave once I started receiving texts from the mother, whose child I was bringing home, questioning whether I was lost. Inevitably, that evening my children slept well.

Since then, the parties have followed a recurring theme – less is more. One mother took 15 boys to the nearby forest and let them loose. Dens made of sticks and branches were constructed, the boys got covered in debris in the process, and stopped play for a seriously large slice of cake, and returned home an hour after they were expected!

My son decided he wanted nothing better than to share his party with his best friend and their closest friends. His mother had the garden, and I made the cake. We hid “sweetie parcels” in the trees for a treasure hunt – and at the end the water pistols (with a seriously large trajectory) came into action. Another set of tired, dirty but happy boys!

Its really refreshing to fight the flow of excess, with good old “back to basics” hospitality. Is it the same France over, I don’t know but I certainly hope so.

two boys, two cakes - one great age!

This weekend we have the Kermesse – but thats another story!

sweetie carrots

Famille nombreuse and the SNCF

Nearly two years into my life in France, I am somewhat unsuprised to find myself fighting another corner. This time , having sucessfully beaten Lyonaise des Eaux, I have taken on a formidable opponent – the SNCF, the french rail company.

It all started with a dream – that of pleasant weekends rolling through french countryside on the way to the beach, or perhaps Paris, or maybe even to a vinyard in the Loire. I had an idea it would be nice to leave the car behind, and I had become aware that a nugget of a card existed for families with three or more children – and a 40% discount for families with four!


The SNCF have a handy website:https://secure.voyages-sncf.com/…famillesnombreuses/…/etape1e which gives you much of the information you need to know including the documentation required and the fee to pay. Covering for all eventualities I sent more than enough photos, copies of birth and marriage certificates, copies of passports,copies of social security details, last years tax statement and a cheque for 19 euros.  I niaively believed the cards, applied for in January would arrive in time for the february half-term!

February came and went, and at the beginning of March I received a letter to say that my application was unacceptable as the birth and marriage certificates were “non traduit” (not translated from english). I was somewhat suprised since the social security office had issued us our Carte Vitale – state paid medical treatment cards, on less information than the SNCF had demanded, and they certainly hadn’t required a translation. I spent a day translating the certificates, re-photocopied all the documants and sent them off again. Interesting to note that in the UK anyone can get a family rail card with no ID whatsoever, and at the local railway station!

In April, having now missed the Vacances de Paques (easter holidays) I received another letter stating that my certificates were now “non conformé”. I was slightly astonished to understand that my certificates were meant to conform to the French style “Livret de famille”. I’m not sure quite how to achieve that, (other than to divorce, remarry (a frenchman) and have another set of children) so I duly picked up the phone and finally managed to pin down a SNCF operative!

Having gone through the paperwork over the phone, she declared that our birthcertificates did not state the filiation of the children – i.e the parent -child connection; More astonishing still since I had actually gone as far as  purchasing the “full UK birth certificates” which state “father” , “mother” and even occupations of both! Eventually she agreed that she couldn’t see a problem with them once she had understood that the UK birth certificates are all the same style and that we don’t have a “livret de famille”. She agreed that the translation should be OK, once I explained to her that if I went to the cost of hiring a professional translator, I was obviously wealthy enough not to need a rail discount in the first place; and finally she suggested that the best idea was to photocopy everything all over again on A3 (so as not to clip the edges of any certificates) and send the whole lot back into SNCF again!

I imagine that my dossier is one of the fattest and most detailed to land on the desk of the SNCF’s famille nombreuse operator. To date I have not heard anything, and in three weeks it will be the summer holidays! Is this a record, am I being penalised for being foreign, should I go to the court of human rights?

I’ll let you know!

June 25 – It ‘s 4 months and 15 days since I made my application, and today our Famille Nombreuses arrived. It had only taken one further phone call to establish that the office was happy with everything sent to them. I’ve been told that these cards are way more than just a rail-card and i’m looking forward to trying them out. Watch my blog for what we manage to get up to with them!