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…

 

The things you wish you knew about Troisième – Applying for Options International, Européen and Anglophone.


Troisième is a year of choices, options and decisions. Today, the culmination of all these decisions took a unforseen twist.

For those that remember my last post on the subject of Troisième, they may remember that there are three basic choices for the Baccaleaureat General once one has decided whether to follow the Science, Literature or Ecomomic route. Broadly these are the OIB (Option International Baccalaureat in which the student will gain not only the bac in the leaning of their choice, but also A levels), the Option Anglophone or Européen (which follows essentially the same course with one subject studied in the English language and receives a ‘Mention Européen’ but no A levels) and the standard Baccalaureat.

In April we filled in our application form for consideration for the OIB. There are only two Lycées in Normandy which provide this option, Lycée Gustave Flaubert at Rouen, and Lycée Privée St Joseph at Le Havre. Each lycée has only 35 places and it is considered an elite course. The application was detailed and required a ‘Lettre de Motivation’ from each potential student – in English for the French applicants, and in French for the English applicants. Included with the application were the last three years of school reports and a personal report and declaration from the Directeur/ Directrice of the current Collège, as well as from the Professor Principal for the student’s class and also from the English teacher. There was also a score card (1-10) assessing the student’s ability in reading, writing, oral and comprehension.

A fortnight after the application was submitted, all the applicants were called to sit an entrance exam. This consisted of a written paper and an oral exam, thankfully for us in English, and which I imagine was the most daunting part of the process where the French students were concerned.

Before one starts to imagine that the oral was a ‘piece of cake’ for the English students, factor in conversing in English with a French examiner with a heavy French accent, and aged 15 answering these type of questions –

“If the price of oil rises in the Middle east, what will happen to comodities in Europe and why?”

The other terrifiying aspect of the whole process was the parental ability to misread the timetable and documentation and to forget to arrive at the exam hall with the student’s passport. No passport – no entry! Having lived on the edge of my nerves desperately trying to meet all the deadlines, I was hugely thankful when the process was over and the wait for results could begin.

However, there was never going to be just one option and just one application. With an initial starting point of 500 interested applicants, there needed to be a ‘fall back’ option.

In January we had interviews at two Lycées privées to register for the Options Anglophone and Européen. At both Lycées we were welcomed with open arms. Our daughter was a prime candidate for their  Anglophone and Européen courses, they said. In front of us they read the three years worth of ‘Bulletins’ (school reports), ticked all the appropriate boxes on the Inscription forms, handed us the registration form to be completed at home and gave us a deadline for its return along with it’s obligatory ‘reservation of place’ cheque for 150€. It was in the bag. If the OIB didn’t work out we had an excellent ‘fall-back’…

or so we thought!

Suddenly in early June, a letter arrived in my letter box from one of the Lycées requesting that we filled in an application for the ‘Option Anglophone’. Hadn’t we done that already, I mused to myself -but knowing that France likes its paperwork, I sent the form into Collège to be duly signed and completed by the Directrice, the Prof principal and the English teacher. My daughter sat down to write another ‘Lettre de Motivation’ and we rushed it to the Lycée with a day to spare before the deadline.

On the 22 June I received an identical letter from the other Lycée Privée requesting the exact same procedure for the Option Européen. The deadline was the 21 June. You see my problem! It had been lost in the post. It was friday evening and would have to wait for monday before I could ring the Lycée to explain what had happened, and the French are  strict on their deadlines.

On monday I returned from work to find a letter in my mailbox for the Option Anglophone. My Anglophone daughter had been refused a place for the Option Anglophone. It dawned on me that I had paid 150€ in the belief that I was reserving a place for an Option which in fact was not a certainty, and had only been offered the general bac instead, but not only that, thanks to the postal situation I had also paid 150€ reservation fee for the Européen option for which I had missed the deadline for application. And would she have got onto the option if she had applied in time anyway?

The good news is that we have heard verbally that our daughter is accepted for the OIB at Gustave Flaubert which is where she really wants to go. So all in all it’s a financial loss we had been prepared to take anyway, even if right at this moment we feel a little misled.

But I won’t rest easy until the confirmation letter is in my hand.

You might also like to read:

Troisième – Brevet Blanc
et Tiers Temps

Troisième –
Choosing Lycées

Troisième –
La Stage d’Observation

Troisième – and the Stage d’Observation.


We didn’t have an easy run up to the Stage d’Observation. It’s a compulsory part of the school education programme, and as such is awarded a grade by the school which goes towards the Brevet.

In December my daughter came home from collège clutching a wodge of important looking papers. The paperwork was fairly complex and a little daunting, but my daughter had a good idea of which employment sector she wanted to be in, and having already been published in Liberty Dimanche, Rouen’s sunday paper, I had a contact; and contacts are everything.  “What”  I thought “could possibly go wrong”.

Since my daughter wanted to be a journalist her first port of call was Paris Normandie, the main ‘Journal’ of the region. She suffered an instant knock-back and was very disappointed. We then approached our ‘contact’ at Liberty Dimanche, Paris Normandie’s sunday paper, but were disappointed to discover that the newspaper ‘giant’ of our region did not offer stage’s at all. Having graduated in a major recession back in 1992, and having written literally hundreds of applications to find my first job, I realised that a very proactive approach was called for.

We missed out on one major journalistic stage oportunity simply because we hadn’t cottoned onto the fact that it was going to be more difficult than we had anticipated, and because we hadn’t known that my daughter’s dream ‘stage’ at Paris Normandie didn’t exist. Darnetal, a sector of Rouen has it’s own local paper, but by the time we actually contacted them, all 10 places had been taken.

By the time we had firmly grasped the scope of our difficulty, we were bogged down in revision for the Brevet Blanc, and I took it upon myself to make initial enquiries by email to all papers, local magazines and publishers. I’m not sure that my intervention helped the situation. My written french grammar is a little ropey, and I probably wasn’t best qualified to enquire after stage possibilites in journalism!

After our 15th letter despondency had begun to set in,  email after email received a negative response, and we were definitely running out of options. Classmate after classmate turned up over the remaining weeks successfully organised, some having only applied to one place. Stages in law, in boulangerie, in radiology, in childcare; the variety was endless.

With only a fortnight to go, the fabulous staff at Collège St Do took pity. We had by now reached our Twentieth application. They corrected it with a fine tooth comb and took personal responsibility to deliver it to the only journal from whom we were still awaiting a reply – The Rouen Magazine at the Mairie  of Rouen. The Mairie for Rouen is a tough cookie. They rarely take stagières, and in the meantime my daughter had decided to alter course and consider a marketing stage; Fererro Rocher was at the top of her list!

The very next day, just when I was least expecting it, I received a call. I’m not good with phone calls, my speaking ability reduces by at least 50% along with my ability to understand. A delightful woman breezed down the phone that they would be delighted to accept my daughter for a stage. Would she please get in contact and rapidly rattled of her name and number. The poor woman must have thought she’d reached an imbecile as I struggled through the mine field of ‘quatre vingt seize’s and soixant onze’s, then, proceeding onto her name which of course just had to have both ‘I’s and ‘E’s, which sound like ‘E’s and ‘Ur’s. Having got to the end I was praying that I had correctly noted the phone number and puzzling that her name, once written, REALLY didn’t look like a proper name at all, and before I knew it she had gone – skiddadled – hopped it.

I had a momentary celebration that my daughter had a stage, which quickly turned to despair.  I had completely failed to get a company name. Was it Ferrero, was it the Mairie? And what on earth was my daughter going to say when she rang up to organise the final details – “Thank you for my Stage – but who are you?”

I had the great idea of going to the school secretary, I imagined that she would have the panache to ring the number, if indeed I had accurately noted it down, and extract the company name without raising suspicion. She tried in vain, reaching  an answer phone none the wiser. Finally, turning to me she declared, “Well Madame Axton, C’est merveilleuse that A has at last got a stage, just a shame we don’t know who it’s with” exactly at the moment that the school headmistress entered the room. ‘Que les anglaises’ (only the English) mumbled the Head, …..and myself, before I turned a charming shade of lobster.

It was my daughter, after several moments of justifiably berating me for my inadequacy, who had the brainwave of ringing the number and leaving a message for the woman to email me with the details. Lo and behold on the Monday morning up popped a message from the Rouen Mag at the Rouen Mairie in my inbox. My daughter had scooped the jackpot!

Two weeks later she walked into the ‘Rouen Mag’ offices to spend four days learning about journalism. Firstly she was taken to the printworks to see the latest publication come off the press, and by the end of the week she had had three articles published on their online site. What made me truly proud is that, unlike her mother, the final of the three articles was passed without a single grammatical correction necessary!

I think they should have got her to do the editorial of the front cover, don’t you – It looks like her mother did it!

Images thanks to Google

Troisième, Tiers Temps and the Brevet Blanc


I’ve had a bit of a break from writing for the last few weeks as my time has been taken up with the ‘to do’ list for troisième.

Back in December, I was approached by the prof principal for my daughter’s class. It turns out that for all those kids who have any disadvantages in the French school system, whether Dyslexia, or in our case being  ‘Anglophone’, there is help at hand. It is possible to apply for ‘Tiers Temps’. Now because I only received the infomation by phone, this got translated onto paper as ‘tearton’, and whilst grateful for the obvious dedication on the part of my daughter’s prof, I didn’t really get to grips with what form this ‘help’ might take.

I received a fiche from school with the request that it be filled in with as much evidence as possible regarding her difficulties and that the form be signed by her doctor. This was duly done, and the medecin generalist signed that she was Anglophone, but wasn’t really in the position to specify what actual aid she would need or be entitled to.

It was only later that I learned about the existence of the ‘Orthophonist/e’, and I suppose that anyone moving to France with children already suffering from difficulties such as Dyslexia would be wised up on this one. It could never be said to be the case for my 15 year old. An orthophonist/e is a specialist who pays special attention to a child’s ability to comprehend  and articulate spoken and written language and information. We were hugely fortunate to have the ability to approach one direct for an appointment without a reference from our generalist, who in fact hadn’t pointed us in that direction anyway, because whilst working ‘à l’etranger’ (abroad) my husband’s Mutuelle (health insurer) allowed it.

My daughter passed a good 40 minutes with the orthophonist after an initial meeting ‘en famille’. The Orthophoniste gave us the ‘low-down’ on the ‘Tiers Temps’. This is the addition of an extra third of time, relative to any individual exam taken, to allow children with difficulties to have a respectable opportunity to succeed in their exams. For those with writing difficulties, for example speed, a physical disability, or those with comprehension difficulties, for example children being examined in their second language’ , Tiers temps gives them the time and ability to overcome their own particular issues. The Orthophonist was careful to check that the awarding of ‘Tiers Temps’ was not going to be held as a long term record against the child’s future.

Several days later I received a report from the Orthophonist noting where the specific problems lay which I was able to print out and include in our application in the knowledge that putting a ‘cross’ in the box ‘handicapé’ would not be a lifelong marker on our child’s education record.

In February the Brevet Blanc, the GCSE mock equivalent was upon us, the difference being that the Brevet Blanc exams actually do contribute to the final Brevet mark. The subjects examined were Maths, French, History/Geo and Education Civique, all 3 hours but adjusted to 4. My daughter reported that there were about 30 students, approximately 1/5 of the year group, who had been allocated Tiers Temps for one reason or another. We had been able to request access to a French/English dictionary as a comprehension aid and my daughter reported that one or two items of the exams were modified from the mainstream exam, mainly in French where the dictée was completely different.

There are another set of Brevet Blanc exams in April, covering the same subjects before the final Brevet Exams are taken in June.  The Brevet Blanc exams are marked externally and the results issued within the month.

I was impressed by the ability to register for this ‘third extra time’ allocation. It certainly made a difference to us, if nothing else than for taking the pressure off my daughter, and giving her the ability to read each exam question more than twice, and to write down the answers knowing that she had understood the questions. It’s not everybody who can go into a formal exam situation after two and a half years in a foreign country and come out with 60% in each subject, with the exception of French Grammar. But as the Orthophonist said – that is exactly the point – French grammar will ‘come’ in time, but making a intelligent child feel a failure by not providing them with room to cope with a passing disability would be a very bad educational ‘call’.

What is also of great benefit to me is having an expert highlight the difficulties experienced by my child, and I do feel that this would be a very beneficial ‘test’ for all my anglophone children to take. A problem identified is a problem on its way to being resolved!

If only they could dispense ‘Tiers Temps’ for struggling mothers so that they actually could get various pieces of paperwork in on time – but that’s another story!

The 2012 Brevet Blanc Papers will be uploaded shortly.

You might also like to read this:

Choosing Lycées

Images supplied by google.

If they had told me about Troisième – Choosing Lycées!


If any one had told me that I would have to choose  ‘secondary’ school again whilst still attempting to heal the scars of the last time in the UK – I would never have driven through the channel tunnel. I would have taken the stationary M25, and flashing oil warning light as a sign that it was not meant to be.

Troisième, or year 10 is a year charged with pressure. There are major hurdles to overcome and it is not easy to maintain the calm chic dignity of the average French woman, when you’re a slightly crazed, manic englishwoman running around in circles in a state of partial comprehension.

Some time in September I attempted to pin down our school secretary to make an appointment with the head of  Collège, firmly believing that being slightly ahead of the game, I had a better chance of success if I had the process explained to me by a reliable source. The school secretary smiled sympathetically at me  stating “Mais Madame, C’est vraiment trop tôt”. However by now she is well used to me in a stew, and finally agreed when I announced that my husband was just off to Nigeria again and there was absolutely no way I was going to go through this alone! At very least he needed to know just how much organising I was going to be doing over the next few months so that I could be assured that he would sigh reassuringly and groan sympathetically over the phone at a later date. But vastly more importantly, when it comes to official tasks, two heads are definitely better than one when it comes to total comprehension!

That done, We were informed about the key things; All the marks (or notes) for tests and homework assignments in Troisième counted towards the final grade of the  GCSE equivalent, in France known as the Brevet; that if a student didn’t achieve an average of 10/20 in every subject they wouldn’t be entered for the Brevet at all, and that the final exams were taken in June.

Secondly that all Troisièmes are required by law to undergo a ‘Stage d’Observation’ , a sort of work experience lasting a week in February in their chosen field of career.

Thirdly, immediately after the Christmas holidays all the students of the Troisième sit the Brevet Blanc, the equivalent of mock GCSE’s, only the grades count towards the final Brevet in June. The key subjects tested are Maths, French, History and Geography and last but not least Education Civique.

And finally, and scarily that the time had come to select a suitable Lycée for continuing education on to the Baccalauriat, the French equivalent of the A’level.

I discovered that there was such a thing as a Bac Option Internationale Brittanique, A Bac Mention Européen, and a Normal Bac . These were then all subdivided into three varieties, the Bac L, the Bac S, and the Bac ES.  It was necessary to select the correct Bac, either Literature, Science or Economics and Sociology, then whether to take the standard Bac or the supplementary Bac. The supplementary Bac (IOB, Européen and Anglophone versions) included 3 additional hours of the English Language to that of the standard Bac, with one non linguistic subject (usually history or geography, and occasionally science) studied in the English Language. What it was necessary to understand was that all three Bacs, L, S and ES all follow exactly the same program of 8 core subjects, simply the weighting of hours and marks lean in the direction of the chosen specialism. Therefore, more weighting in the languages, history and arts subjects for Bac L, and more weighting in the science subjects and French for the Bac S, and so on. And did I mention that this was just the choice for the Bac Generale et Technologique!

Having studied all the Lycées in Rouen I Immediately put pen to paper to ask for further details and true to French style – four months on and absolutely not one school has replied! I was later told that whilst French state schools will definitely not reply, Catholic Private ones might possibly. Sometime! If I’m learning one thing from my french life, it  is that the french don’t respond to letters, well not unless they’re love letters anyway (though sadly I don’t have nearly enough experience of this to definitively pass judgement) – And considering the mess engineered by Valmont by his letters in “Dangerous Liaisons”, I’m not actually surprised that responding to letters in France is a big ‘no no’ – I should have known really, if a year of futile  letter writing to our letting agent is anything to go by  – still it was good practice for my written French!

If I haven’t made it clear enough yet how the telephone, the instrument with which I would gossip for hours and hours in the UK, has become an instrument of  semi-torture here on French turf, let me do it now! But taking my role as a sometimes ‘efficient and organised’ mother seriously, I proceeded to phone them all, receiving from one and all a standard reply, “Mais madame Axton, C’est bien trop tôt”. Now where have I heard that before!

I endeavored to re-ring the Lycées in December with vastly more positive results. This time I succeeded to secure interviews with all of our shortlist, and my daughter and I made our way to the first ones before Christmas.

How fantastic to find myself let off the hook, although sitting in the directeur’s office with her,  the Directeur only wanted to speak to my daughter, and other than interjecting the odd comment here and there, I was happy to take the back seat and listen to her answering all the questions with an accent vastly superior to my own, and to smile wryly when she corrected my vocabulary or conjugation  in front of the directeur! I think both he, with all her ‘bulletins’   (school reports) in front of him, and I both realised at the same moment  just how far she’d come since her arrival two and a half years earlier and how far she could go. With  moyen (average) of 14.5/20 it was unsurprising that he offered her a place right there and then. By the end of all three interviews she held three places in her hands. It could have all been so easy if she hadn’t set her sight on the highest target of all.

For biligual or  strong english students the most aspired to Baccalaureat course taught amongst the Lycées of Rouen is the Option International Brittanique. Only one  public (state) school, five minutes from the Rouen city centre offers this option. Students following this class follow essentially the advanced Baccalaureat with the supplementary English, but leave with the added benefit of 3 English A’levels as well as the Bac International. With 500 applicants last year for 37 places, the competition is tough with an additional entry exam to weed out those not strong enough in English to survive the course.

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel, well yes for my daughter anyway, since the entry exam is a test of  English. Lets not rest on our laurels, but this will be the first exam she has sat in her native language since moving to this country. For the first time since our arrival it seems that being English might actually be an advantage! Was it worth braving the french autoroute that very first time – well yes absolutely! Can I see the benefits of  taking up residence in this complicated land and learning the ropes as I go – Without a doubt!

To know that  my children than the opportunity to chose Mediterranean from Mountain, Thames from Tour Eiffel when choosing their futures and the knowledge that against all odds they can succeed? A reward indeed.

(Why the French actually learn to write, in particular with all those lessons dedicated to the beautiful cursif script that epitomises french orthography, whilst having such an antipathy to putting pen to paper by way of responding to correspondence is an entirely different question.)

I shall get to the bottom of it in time!

For information about the Brevet Blanc click here, and for the Stage d’Observation click here. (under construction)

17. Juillet – Fin d’année – end of a year


We have reached the end of our first year. It is a time to take stock of what we have experienced. It has gone extremely quickly and when I look back at the things we have gone through I am really impressed at my family’s approach and determination. Those early days were hugely difficult, especially for the children, yet they took every day as it came and faced each new one with courage and determination! If I had known the hoops we would jump through and the length of time it would take for the children to learn the language, would I do it again? Probably not! I feel their pain keenly! However when I watch Rory today with a friend round for the day, chatting in french, explaining the wii controls, and later mucking around at the swimming pool, I feel hugely proud of his achievement. He has opened up future prospects for himself in this competative world. For the others, they are only a few months away. We are getting closer and closer to ditching Amazon.fr english section books, and starting to read french novels. It can only get easier!

The horrible truth is that, from originally being the best french speaker (with the exception of Harry) I am sliding down the scale; Rory is better than me with a great accent and Anabel closing in on me – and demonstrating her ability only yesterday by correcting my translation of the optician on a recent visit. Soon they’ll have left me all behind!

My regrets for the year are that I didn’t have a better level of french at the outset, and that I didn’t make more effort to immerse myself by watching french tv instead of english; Whilst I can chat more than the kids, they can understand far more than me – the real result of total immersion in class (or in the office for Harry). However getting a job, no matter how inferior was definitely the right move for me as it forced me, not that I really needed forcing, out into society and into all sorts of unplanned conversations! My other regrets are not having been able to have the traditional “maison ancienne” and  vegetable patch; let alone the time to discover the markets and brocantes of the region.

We have benefitted hugely from being able to lunch en-famille, and the school/work/home proximity. But the children would have benefitted from lunching at school. Our biggest restriction has been finance. We underestimated the cost of living and it would have been impossible to have paid for school lunches daily for the children at 23 euros/day. Paying rent in France and the mortgage in the UK for 6 months nearly wiped us out.

The french community have been excellent, inclusive and welcoming, and also hugely supportive of our attitude to total immersion. We are a rarity here, and have met only two english speaking families in the year; The second family only in the last week. This has opened up oportunities for teaching English, which I will look at as next term starts.

The French attitude to life is more complex than most British would probably believe. The gaullic shrug is less prevelent than one might think, especially when you have just lit a bonfire in the garden on a saturday afternoon! It will not be long before a neighbour has called out the police to put you straight. Shops are closed on sundays, which takes some remembering after 10 years of buying milk on a sunday afternoon ready for the new week! Planning and preparation are essential; and after a year I am still not used to being unable to get “cash-back” at the supermarket till. However, as irritating as it can be at times, it is preferable to the “open all day” attitude of the British, and great personally not to be the “brakes” on my teenage daughters spending habits. There’s nothing better than to be able to point out that she will have to argue with the french politicians if she wants it any other way!

Missions for the coming year are to find an architectural job, start my own vegetable garden, improve my french and entertain more. If I can find an ancient, more centrally located house, closer to school and the chic quarter I will!

A bientot – à la prochaine année!

7. Septembre – Education


A French friend told me that Rouen has more distinct seasons than back home. September has been a fabulous month – clear blue skies and glorious heat. One of the biggest changes for us has been lunch-times. We get to see each other! Instead of Harry’s  four hour daily return commute to London – it’s 10 minutes to the office. Consequently lunch en-famille is possible!  No-one  believed us when we said we ate fresh baguettes from our local boulangerie (as often as not still warm from the oven), plus good old French cheeses bursting at their seams with ripeness, brie oozing at its middle, olives from the market stall (so many wonderful varieties to choose from) and fruit tarts with a shiny glaze or mille feuille to finish with. Why are the French so outrageously good at their cakes and tarts – each one an absolute work of art? They have such fabulous names too – Tarte Grande Mére, Diplomat etc

The kids are relieved to get away from school at mid-day! It’s hard to say goodbye in the morning seeing their anguish at what lies ahead and knowing that they understand nothing. Both the kids in collége have been given a Carnet de Correspondence, a very useful booklet to allow parents and teachers to communicate. The English schools could learn a thing or two! Each day Anabel demands that I write a note to her teachers explaining that she is English and doesn’t understand anything. Poor thing – I think they already know that! She is terrified to be caught without the right equipment or books and has a total fear that someone might ask her a question. They’re all in the same boat, no-one has a clue what is going on. They just turn up and write down what they can and hang in there till lunch. I am amazed that they haven’t thought to mutiny!

Nothing can wipe from my mind the first evening’s homework. Just as at the beginning of English senior school, the first night the teachers really piled on the homework – just so as to remove any idea of complacency. Complacent we were not! Harry, being still at work, was unaware of the frenzied attempt to complete the task before us. There was an absolute certainty that this homework would have to be completed since none of the kids had the vocabulary to explain to an irritated teacher why they hadn’t done it – though I could see that Anabel’s phrase of “Je suis Anglais” would be getting more practice! In no particular order I began to laboriously translate 4 children’s homework, entice them into completing it in English, retranslate it and encourage them to write it out in their own handwriting. There were not enough hours that night, and I began to laugh rather hysterically at the thought of Theo learning by rote the Poesie (poem) for the following morning whilst not comprehending a word that he was saying! Toeing the line is not his strong point! Needless to say, I was still at the table long after the children had gone to sleep, trying to get it finished.

There have been a great many tasks to complete to get us “up and running”. All the children need insurance to cover them whilst at school. We have had to sort out the school fees, and have been faced with innumerable letters home on every subject imaginable! The letters are often written in such flowery prose that at very least degree level French is advisable! “Veuillez croire, Chers parents, en mon sincère dévouement auprès de vos enfants . »writes Angus’ teacher at the end of a short note regarding an outing where they need to come armed with a euro. ( Would you believe, dear parents, in my sincere devotion towards your children)  However I am getting faster at flicking through my trusted French dictionary. Throw away concise dictionaries – they simply don’t contain enough words and get a really hefty tome of a book!

The trouble, of course, with having to ensure that your children have the requisite insurance is to be able to understand the small print of the insurance documents. Small print is hard enough in English! More worryingly still is when the window of the Acceuil (school reception) is thrown open for the very efficient secretary to call across the playground “Madame , S’il vous plait….” And you just know that your French is going to be REALLY put to the test. I really didn’t know if we had organised the insurance, there was a glimmer of possibility that she was inviting me to join the schools preferred insurance provider, and a definite comprehension that I really needed to reply by lunch-time. Which all in all promised the opportunity  for me to ring the household insurance policy holder that very same morning and to hope that he would answer me with a “yes” or “no”! It is really quite extraordinary how the French do not answer with a simple affirmative, just when you really need them to! No matter how well you word the question to land them with only an opportunity for “yes” or “no” answer, they invariable reply with a question, leaving you in an unspeakably agonising position of admitting that you have absolutely no idea what they have just said to you! It happens to me all the time.

This month I received a new cheque book in the post. It was very exciting, not least because it was completely different to an English one, and not completely clear how to fill it in. The school secretary however was very efficient in talking me through it! In the same post I received a letter from the bank with some instructions on in “bank-speak”. Aware that I was being asked to do something, I braved the telephone. Sadly I did not make it past the automated bank answering machine. I hung up, and made a couple more futile attempts before I finally reached a real person. I felt, understandably thrilled by this achievement until it came to explaining why I’d rung. However after some more very patient bank-speak I came to understand that I hadn’t needed to do anything. The letter was sent to me to tell me to contact them if I hadn’t received my cheque book, which of course I had, and therefore I had just wasted my entire morning on a job I hadn’t actually needed to do!

This month we have also visited the CAF, (Caisse Allocation Familiale). This is the hugely important department which sorts you out with a social security number, and armed with this vital piece of information, you can then receive Family Allowance contributions which are significantly better than in the UK, and proceed to the  CPAM (Caisse Primaire Assurance Maladie) and set yourself up with the health service and access a Carte Vitale for all reimbursement of medical costs. We arrived armed with endless copies of our birth certificates, passports, marriage certificates, proof of employment and so on. Having waited in line and filled in the documents we left and waited…. And waited….And waited… And are still waiting!