Making Sense of it All – It’s All in the Translation!


When we arrived in France seven years ago we threw our four children into french school. They were aged between six and twelve at the time. Normal, you might say – well not really, as they didn’t have a word of french between them. When I picked up my daughter on the first day after a couple of hours she was looking decidedly stressed, if not a little close to tears. In an attempt to soften the blow we gave them all mobile phones, thinking that they might be able to text us for translations of the more tricky words..

…well that might be all of them!

But those phones were confiscated by the well-meaning staff in order to force them to integrate. And amazingly, integrate they did. One by one the language got under their skin and by about a year they were fabulous french speakers.

Being fabulous french speakers, and being fluent and bilingual are not the same things. There are still days, seven years on where words do not come, coloquial meanings are a little ambiguous or words simply do not exist in the alternative language.

Incredibly my children haven’t really complained about the process although there are certainly days when they have felt tested, and in those moments they have muttered inwardly, and outwardly,

“why”?

And I in those moments have boyed them up in motherly fashion saying,

“because one day, and you never know when, this will all make sense, this will become an advantage and suddenly a door will open for you”,

and I always hoped it would!

And then suddenly, just when it was least expected, an opportunity came. An email popped in my inbox from the organisers of “Terres de Paroles” with a tentative question,

“can you interpret”.

Only days earlier my sister-in-law and I had been messaging about a canadian author, a friend that she knew from her home town of Waterloo who was touring Northern France for her book tour. Carrie Snyder, author of “Girl-runner’, or more poetically known in France, “Invisible sous la lumière”(Invisible in the light) was in Rouen. At the last moment the organisers of the event had found themselves without a translator. I volunteered my daughter, now 19 for the opportunity.WP_20160407_002[1]

Translating is always easier from the foreign language to your native one, but this event required translating in both directions which involves remodulating, interpreting and rephrasing the dialogue on the spur of the moment in front of an audience avidly waiting for the ‘raison d’être’, the inspiration, the motivation and the explanations  that the author wants to share about their book.

And as much as I was intrigued by the book, the characters, the setting and the plot, I was also thinking,

“This is why,…. this is why you have braved what we inflicted on you all those years ago”

..for my daughter seemingly effortlessly translated the long dialogues and questions from the french presenter to Carrie, and took to the microphone to return to french the canadian author’s responses for us. IMG_5653

Carrie signed for us a copy of her book, which we are excited to read. The french title seeming so much more succinct to us, a finger on the nerve fibre of the book, the raising of the achievements of a sportswoman, hitherto hidden in plain light of day under the discriminations of the era she lived and performed in, into the conciousness of today.

IMG_5650So to Carrie’s four children, a month without their mother in Canada, I say thanks for lending your mother to us, and for allowing this experience to show our four children just what a skill they possess; and to Carrie, thank you for coming to Rouen and sharing your book with us,

..and to everyone else, read this book -it promises to be good,

“Girl Runner” by Carrie Snyder,

or

“Invisible sous la Lumière” – for us, we are, after all in France!

girl runner

16. Juin – Fin de Trémestre, End of Term


We have made it to the end of the first school year! I can’t quite believe it as it seems to have passed in a flash. I wonder what we all have made of it ?

Rory has made it first to the goal of fluency, and I would like to stress to all readers that I am completely convinced that this milestone has been achieved thanks to three factors. The first and most important is confidence. Rory has from the outset been gregarious and enthusiastic, and never more noticeably than in the first weeks of term when his class-mates would shake him by the hand before launching themselves into a game of table-tennis before the start of classes. The second asset is musicality. In England he started playing the cornet at the age of 8, and had attained grade 3, and come third in the Lincoln music festival before we left. There is no doubting the ease which his ear has tuned into the language.  His best French friend is in the Rouen Conservatoire , and I have been astounded at her ability to understand me in full speed English and her ability to reply to a question directed at my own kids. The third asset is determination, and Rory has it in spades. In fact he is a perfectionist by personality (often displayed by his frequent corrections of my accent) and now, as we approach the end of our first calendar, my french friends tell me that he has no trace of an English accent. So, in short, it can be done!

However, conversely my other children are of a very different nature. What has struck me most about this year in France is that I have discovered who my children are with a clarity not available to me in the UK. In England life is a muddy stream, early consistent friendships, habitual hobbies and clubs give us all an underlying confidence and security. It is only when those are suddenly removed that one is given a glimpse of a person’s true relationship with life. I suddenly found that stripped of existing friends, two of my children were extremely timid. In fact I was astounded, having found them positively verbose in their opinions back home. Anabel is fairly musical, but not into any particular instrument, and had the disadvantage of age and timidity against her. Not only that but girls talk rather than play at that age. Consequently she found it extremely hard to begin with, and still does to an extent today. Not only are girls self-concious, but also need to look cool. Therefore it was excessively challenging for her to open her mouth and face stumbling through a conversation. I know myself how mortifying it is to construct a sentence which ultimately no-one understands. At the end of the first year she is still quite a way from fluency of speech, but her ability to read and understand is excellent, and her accent is fabulous.

Theo, as the youngest has also stunned me by being timid. He spent the entire year refusing to speak, and declared that he wasn’t going to play with French kids. We had told him that he would be the first to fluency. We had been told he would achieve it within 3 months. Do not believe a word of it. English and French are hugely different, and French has all the complexities of gender agreements. The children who generally achieved fluency that quickly tended to be Spanish or Italian, where the construction of the language shared many more similarities. In fact, he was very angry that he didn’t achieve fluency so quickly, and there was a marked downward turn at Christmas when the novelty wore off and the target wasn’t met. With Both Anabel and Theo, I felt hugely guilty at their struggles, and it wasn’t until May, when we invited Carole’s son for lunch during school, that I suddenly realised that they were speaking French in the back of the car, and that Theo was asking question after question. He is not fluent yet, but I don’t think it will be long into the next school year that he will be. Some children simply don’t utter a word until they have unravelled the language in their heads, and then go on to amaze you by speaking full blown french after months of silence.

Angus is a different kettle of fish from the others. He is a dreamer and generally gentle and easy going. He was the first to develop a couple of good solid friendships, which have strengthened through the year. How they communicated in the early days I have no idea, but lego figures seemed to help and a good deal of pointing! I still don’t know how far off fluency he is. I think we still have a way to go. Of all the kids, whist being hugely mathematical and top of the class in mental arithmatic, he has always found literacy challenging, and writing more so. He converses and is understood, but frequently doesn’t use complete sentences. Only time will tell.

I can’t give you a difinitive view of the school except to say that it is highly regarded, and they seem to have learnt plenty and enjoyed themselves as much as kids do at school. Anabel’s class had a rowdy set of boys in it who were seen as quite disrutive by the teachers, but Anabel’s view was that they were really funny and definitely increased her enjoyment during class. There were some teachers she detested, and some classes which were excrutiatingly boring – but isn’t that always the way! If the school lacked anything it was in the field of art and design and particularly for primaire.

I had always been told that sport was lacking in French schools, but whilst St Dominique lacked outdoor facilities on campus, being a city centre school, it bussed the pupils to the city stadium for athletics, basketball, rugby and baseball: to the ice-rink and to the swimming-pool; and taught fencing and badminton on campus. All sports were taken on a 6 week rota, and Anabel, not known for her fondness of sport actually admitted that she enjoyed it here rather than in the UK.

The final aspect of French school worthy of note is communication. I am used to hopeless communication from English schools. But in France each student has a Carnet de correspondence which enables parents and teachers to send messages and book appointments. It also holds a record of late marks, black marks and detentions. It has to be with the student at all times and the measures taken if a student forgets or looses theirs are bst not mentioned.

Having valiently slowed down the number of black marks against themselves from the begining of the year,( where they were doled out for missing school books and equipment or for arriving in class too late, despite having no comprehension of what the teacher had requested the previous lesson), we arrived at the last week of term with both Anabel and Rory nine points apiece. The tenth point would result in detention, and so I made great efforts to ensure that they arrived at school on time, including driving home twice one morning when we realised that we had forgotten a PE kit. Nevertheless, the tuesday before the end of term both arrived home with their tenth point. Rory’s was logged immediately and was expected ib detention the following day. This was highly inconvenient as it was held on a wednesday afternoon at exactly the same time as a party for Theo on the other side of town. I hastily wrote a message to the teacher in the Carnet de Correspondence, and the following day we set off for the party.When we arrived home there was a message on the answer machine, which I had to listen to three times before I got the gist of the message. Essentially, missing detention, note or otherwise was a hugely bad decision. Rory’s detention was doubled and rescheduled for the first week of the holidays.

Anabel meanwhile failed to get her black marks logged, her teacher being a little less efficient. Consequently she kept her head down for the final three days of term, and encouraged by her class-mates, got away with it. It was therefore only Rory who was driven into school the first wednesday of the holidays, for a oenerous french grammar lesson followed by cleaning out of the school cupboards! When I related the story to one of my french friend she looked rather shocked at my audacity for writing the note in the first place – which had apparently been viewed by the head of the senior school, because the French view is that you cancel your holiday for detention, or raise from your death bed to get your children there. There is simply no excuse great enough to excuse you!

The final note on the subject of this blog is regarding school reports. They are quite simply brilliant – in terms of the number received, not necessarily the content! We received a shorter, subject by subject report every half-term, complete with a record of all marks for tests and homework; and also the highest, lowest and average marks for each subject for the entire class. At the end of each term we received a fuller more detailed report, which also included a precis of the classes behaviour for the term.

The most important difference between French and English school is the act of “Redoubling”. If the staff don’t feel that a student has achieved satisfactorily over the school year they are made to redouble, ie take the year again. It is not an idle threat. It really does happen. In about March an orange slip of paper comes home with options for the following year. This may present parent with the ability to register their kids on a bilingual course, or preferences for changing schools or passing to the next scchool year. We opted to give Rory Latin, in addition to German which he has now studied for a year. We opted to give Anabel Spanish. Rory’s form came back with an agreement that Rory should move up to Cinquieme and do Latin and German. Anabel’s form came back with a questionmark over the necessity to redouble. We made a concerted effort to oversee her homework and really keep on top of the maths, and on the third pass over of the orange form she too was approved for quatrieme. Theo and Angus also passed their school years which I think is a huge success and a credit to their hard work. Roll on next academic year!

12. Fevrier – Le mois des diners – The month of dinner parties


With the snow gone and spring on the horizon, the French mamans were more inclined to linger in the playground at school drop-off and lunch-time. And so it was that our first invitation to dinner appeared. Over the autumn term I had got to know a charming Spanish woman, completely bilingual, and married to a local notaire. She also had four children, whose ages were remarkably similar to those of my own. She and her husband had made a point of introducing their children to many languages and had a similar outlook to my own. Her children were already bilingual, French/Spanish and the two had spent a year at an English boarding school and were  fluent in English too.

The dinner party was to be held at their house in Rouen, close to the school in a chic area of town. Once the initial euphoria of having made it into the French social circle had worn off, I suddenly realised I had no idea as to the etiquette or dress code of the French dinner party! I am not completely clueless about dressing for dinner, but now it came to the crunch dressing for the playground is nothing compared to dressing for dinner when you haven’t actually met the husband, and his wife is always impeccably dressed, but hidden under a winter overcoat! I decided on simple and classic with a slightly more “avant guarde” necklace and heels!

I wasn’t sure about the whole gift idea, but had no-one to ask without looking “gauche”, I knew with certainty that a bunch of chrysanthemums would place the kiss of death on the assembled company, so I opted for some excellent handmade chocolates from our boulangerie, a rather fine Chablis, and my husband threw in a wild-card African red just to challenge to the dinner crowd! I might add that having grown up in Africa, his choice of  bottle was not an uneducated one!

The next dilemma was to arrive at the right time, and we were not entirely sure what the right time would be. I had read that the French are invariably late – sometimes as much as a couple of hours, and that this is entirely fashionable and expected.  Our babysitter arrived early, and being French, but completely bilingual we posed the question to her. Her response was that one arrived generally at the time on the invitation, give or take ten minutes. Hence we set off in good time, arrived far too early and parked around the corner to kill some time.

Whilst sitting in the car, we noticed a police car pull in next to us, cut its lights and four armed officers step out. Scurrying stealthily to the street corner, the officers were joined by some more, and we were intrigued to see two further cars appear, lights already cut, and a group of officers start to congregate on the darkened street corner. The corner they had chosen was the boundary to a particularly beautiful, classic French town house in a sadly neglected state of repair, which was rumoured to be inhabited by immigrants. One by one the officers heaved themselves over the wall and disappeared into the garden. The plot was thickening , and we were watching enthralled when suddenly we remembered we were meant to be going out to dinner! We were now late! Hastily we left the car and made our way to the home of our friends, knowing that to give the true explanation to our lateness would give the game away, that in fact that we had been early and been forced to kill time in the car! There are times when a lack of fluency in a language can be the ideal way to fudge an issue – and we will never know exactly why all those policemen climbed over that wall. We did know that the owners were trying to sell it, and probably needed to clear it of illegal immegrants once and for all, but equally likely was a drugs link – only time will tell.

As is often the case with French town-houses, the exterior belies the true interior. Suffering the wear and tear of the passing traffic, the dusty brick exterior gave way to an interior full of beautiful furniture and furnishings. Original tiled floors, marble fireplaces and huge shuttered windows gave onto a terraced garden. Our hosts, an amiable and effervescent couple had invited us to join a group of ten, and we, the English amongst them, had arrived last! Although I spend all my day speaking French, it is always in short bursts of half an hour to an hour at a time. This was to be my first experience of sustained French conversation, and with the exception of one couple and our hosts, the others were strangers!

Unlike the British, who usually start with a glass of wine, or a gin and tonic, the French commence with an aperitif, and the tray was laden with bottles of Whiskey, Port and a huge variety of bottles I have never come across.  We ealised that the guests were waiting for our arrival before being offered a drink and instantly felt guilty for our tardiness. Negotiating the aperitif tray was my first hurdle, closely followed by a quick question from the host whilst I was concentrating closely on a conversation on the other side of the room. I missed the question entirely, looking quizzically around to my host and a translation from Harry at my side (something I have never done before as I am usually on my own). The disappointment was almost audible as my host became aware that I might be utterly incapable of speaking French, and his relief was tangible as I launched into my reply to the now awaiting crowd. The moment was saved and the general hubbub in the room recommenced!

Dinner went smoothly, being a Friday no meat was served, but fish. A consommé to begin with, followed by a layered bombe of rice, fish and spinach. The third course was salad, followed by cheese, and finally a delicious desert of gooseberry compote.

The conversation around the table was quick and witty, much of the nuance lost to me, but I was able to keep up and respond when needed. We were quick to notice that the wines at the table were exceptionally high quality. In this country where wines can be bought at bargain prices, there are those who are true connaisseurs.  Having started to relax, and with  at thmy husband at the  far end of the table, my host proceeded to pull the rug from under my feet with a question on my views of Sarkozy. Having managed to completely miss the mood of the assembled company  regarding their politics, I decided this was absolutely the kind of time when I would make a huge “faux-pas” , and managed, with what I thought to be an inordinate amount of linguistic skill to reply “a la Francaise”, with a question of my own – therefore completely avoiding his question and forcing my host to reply to his own!

As we retired for coffee to the fireside the conversation turned to the art of the French language and the ability, or lack of, for the average Frenchman to master the hardest of tenses – the subjunctive. My head was fast becoming befuddled and exhausted and as midnight approached, my husband threw in a perfect example of the subjunctive as we made our bid for the door and to relieve our babysitter. Interestingly, as we rose to leave, so too did the entire party, and we have noticed that at all ensuing dinner parties, this is the French form of behaviour. A charming end to a charming meal!

Our second invitation followed swiftly on the heels of our first. A rather striking ,tall woman approached me and introduced herself. Having never really talked to her before, although she was generally part of the crowd of mamans I chatted with, I was intrigued by this invitation, but completely unable to give my husband any information about it. It occurred to me that this dinner party was also to be held on a Friday and that fish was going to be on the menu. We had been fortunate at the last dinner party to avoid the prawn issue, as my husband is allergic to them. However this time I decided that I had better warn our hostess. Making phone calls is probably the most difficult part of French life for me at present, and after some very strong personal resistance to the idea, I finally picked up the phone and relayed the allergy issue to our hostess. And a good thing I did!  She went on to reinvent her menu!

I decided this time to experiment with our gift-giving. In the local florist I had spotted some wonderful distressed boxes planted up with hyacinths and bought some, as well as a rather more expensive bottle of wine. The clothes issue had been successful, and hoping that there would be a different crowd of people I donned a variation on the same theme. This time we turned up on time, and were neither first nor last, and duly complemented ourselves on our ability to unravel the French social dining code!

Interestingly, the gifts were rather hastily received and whistled away, and I noted that the following guests arrived empty-handed. Were Hyacinths close to Chrysanthemums in their connotations or were gifts unnecessary, or potentially embarrassing to the hostess? The host pressed upon me a small glass of “eau de vie” which the women of the group then advised me not to drink and the conversation commenced! This time my husband was fortunate that all the men spoke pretty reasonable English, most of them travelling far afield with their work. Not so the women, but they were a lively crowd, all of whom had careers of one sort or another.

The meal was a gregarious affair with much banter and good humour, and less formal than the last, but equally enjoyable. It commenced with a marinaded raw salmon, followed by a crab mousse and sautéed vegetables, a cheese course and a delicious pecan patisserie for desert. After languishing over coffee, the assembled crowd rose to leave at the same time, in time to meet the hostesses older daughters returning from a night in Rouen! As we ambled through the chill air back to the car, we pondered on the ability to entertain in  our rented house, the layout being such that the children’s bedrooms were only a stone’s throw from the dining table, and decided that our entertaining would have to take another form!

I took the plunge with an “afternoon tea” English style. Having invited ten or so mamans from the school playground, I spent an afternoon baking scones and a chocolate roulade ready for my guests. Having whipped the cream, lit the fire and warmed the teapot, I was ready for the first to arrive. Truthfully I was more than a little nervous about their arrival and hoped that there would be more than two to arrive first. I am still not keen on prolonged one to one conversation, and still not confident that people would arrive on time.

The first to arrive was the Spanish maman, and probably she was as anxious as me, but the “now-deceased” guinea pigs gave a good initial topic of conversation, even if she was a little bemused by my declaration that they had all been eaten by wolves. I realised a lot later that I had mistranslated the word for foxes, and had inadvertently added a new more deadly dimension to the forest outside my door! The other mamans arrived shortly after, and after a bit of confusion when I instructed them to “aidez-vous” to the scones (which they thought meant they might need some sort of rescue package during or after eating them) they educated me to the word “servez-vous” and proceeded to tuck in! The speed to which the scones were demolished put an end to the myth that French women don’t eat. However it was interesting that they didn’t touch the chocolate roulade. My learned friend from England reckons they can eat roulade all over France and that it isn’t nearly as interesting as the humble scone. The afternoon passed with genial good humour and demands for scone baking lessons and recipes. Who says that the English can’t cook!!!

Shortly afterwards we received our third dinner invitation. By now I reckoned we were in the know when it came to gift giving and dress code! This time I had come across some great little biscuits (if such a name can be given to them) called Pappilles. They are a smaller version of the French macaroon, but without the filling and slightly drier. They come in an assortment of parfums, to accompany tea, or coffee, or scented with vanilla, passion fruit or red fruits. We chose a good wine and set of for the opposite side of Rouen for the evening.

The French have a particularly un-amusing habit of numbering houses, which vary from three, four or five with the same number, to missing out a couple of hundred. For example our house number is 1455, and our neighbour is 1565. I have since learnt that it depends upon the meterage of the frontage of the house to the road. If an old house has sold off part of its plot for new development, the new houses will all have the same house number, despite the fact that the next neighbour is numbered several hundreds higher, and therefore with plenty of free numbers available to choose from!

As we drove along the road looking for the address we kept passing from the 300’s to the 100’s, until we realised that there was only one house between those numbers, and we hazarded a guess that it might be pretty large! It was in fact wonderful: a truly classic Maison de Maitre standing in outstanding grounds with curling steps up to the front door.

We passed another wonderful evening in great company. My comprehension of the conversation was satisfying and the conversation was a lively banter over the differences of the French and English ways of life!

The challenge is on now to prove that the English can cook more than just the humble scone – it is time to show how good, good English food can be!

11. Janvier – La guerre du portable – battle of the mobile


The snow is still lying around us. The kids went out and built an excellent igloo, large enough for an adult and four children, and we carried steaming cups of hot chocolate out to them to drink inside it! Even as the rest of the snow starts to melt, the igloo stands defiant!

I’ve never been very keen on January, I think many people feel the same! After the fun of Christmas it’s a long haul up to the summer. I felt concerned for the children after having seen all their friends in the UK for a couple of days, and the ease with which they were able to chat to them it was going to be difficult to kick off the January term in France. I wondered if it had been a good idea to go back to the UK so soon after leaving, but there had been building work done on our UK house which we had needed to check, and a water leak in the roof which had ended up in puddles on the kitchen floor. Ultimately the damage was too minimal to cause concern, the pipes were drained properly this time and the house shut up once again.

There were groans generally about the return to school, but not unmanageable. With the novelty factor now truly worn off it was interesting to see how they would tackle the new term! I would classify January as the battle of the mobile phone! The two older children had been given simple mobile phones once they had passed their 11+ exams in the UK. Whilst in te UK and once at senior school we had considered it to be essential for them to be  able to contact us easily as the senior schools were so far from home. We argued that in France, unable to speak the language, a phone might get them out of difficulties, and topped them up once a month. However, in reality most of the talk-time was being used on texts to English friends. Gradually they began texting French friends much to the apparent horror of the French parents as English to French texting is expensive, and their credit was being speedily used up. Demands for a French mobile started slowly and increased momentum throughout the month, until it reached a crescendo towards February. Trying to be clever we went out and bought French sim cards to put in the English handsets. All was well for twelve hours, until inexplicably Anabel discovered her 30 euro credit had dropped to zero. Topped up again, it was wiped out in the space of an hour or two. Neither Orange UK nor FR could explain what was going on, but it seemed that the French sim card had started sending automatically generated texts to the old English sim card that she had put into a redundant handset. Unable to retrieve the credit, we were forced to admit defeat and take out two entirely new contracts with French mobile and new handsets. A pricey conclusion to a long battle for economy, but now armed with unlimited texts, the kids were into a new world of French text-speak and another leap forward in French friendship making.

I have been conscious that the three month mark since we arrived in France has been passed. We had been told that the youngest children would be starting to talk. A Spanish woman that I had met said that the first month was spent listening, the second month, understanding, and the third month, talking! I was watching Theo in particular, being the youngest, but there was no apparent sign of understanding, let alone talking. He had had several invitations to lunch, or to play which initially he’d been keen to go to. Gradually I noticed that he was, if anything, withdrawing. Used to him being headstrong and wilful at home, I realised that in truth he was a very timid little boy, barely speaking to me in more than a whisper at pick-up time. Try as I might to get him to say “Au- revoir” to Veronique, his teacher at the end of the school day, he refused! Despite this, the French children seemed to adore him, despite being constantly rebuffed.

I am delighted to say that Angus has developed a friendship with a lovely boy in his class, whose mother is also a delight. Maybe this is the start of a breakthrough. There is no sign of conversation but Lego figures seem to be an aid to playing in the playground, along side marbles. I am struck more and more that the French seem to be 10 years behind us. The playground games seem to be those of my child-hood which I find strangely reassuring and comforting. I love the way the French teachers of the primary children are so warm and motherly. The teachers (so far all women) think nothing of kissing the children hello and goodbye and seem to have such a bond with them. It is fantastic to be so removed from the  American (and now British) culture of fear of abuse. It is fresh, simple and nurturing!

College for the older two is a different matter. The Children “Vous” their teachers, each one a specialist in his own subject, and call them by their family name where the primary children “Tu” and call them by their first name. Amongst themselves the girls kiss both boys and girls as a greeting, and the boys kiss the girls and shake hands for the boys. It’s great for our boys to learn to shake hands, a greeting that has all disappeared for English children.

My Collége children are also struggling along with language though I am detecting a breakthrough with Rory. The hours of homework are also easing. Frequently they are completing it themselves without aid, and their increase in comprehension is obvious. Rory is now au fait with the passé simple tense, one of which I have never learnt and has extraordinarily managed to achieve a 17/20 for a French dictée. We still have some real “down” moments when something goes awry, a forgotten book that delivers the wrath of an irate teacher, a misunderstood direction which ends up with some-one ending up late for class, or worst still a change in schedule misunderstood. I am not sure I will ever be used to the quantity of cancelled classes in Collége, a teacher sick, or relegated for a school trip, and never a temporary replacement! On the up-side, we have had a few children home for lunch, though the silence on the trip in the car is somewhat excruciating, being used to the general hubbub in the UK. Once home though, with some basic attempts at conversation from me we have a good time and the kids mess around on the Wii with the instructions in French for their guests, and they return to school smiling – relief?!

The subject of finance inevitably rears it’s ugly head during January. It is time to replace “Les Pages Jaunes”. The general job description had fitted in well with my desire to be accessible to the children for all their needs – which are understandably great at the moment and so I pick up the telephone for a second time and make the call to another distribution outfit. This time it is for weekly distribution of a variety of brochures ranging from the local Mairie to Carrefour supermarché. I am not sure about this as it impinges on my principles and I am not sure I will be well received by the general public. Again, a few teething problems writing down the address, but I make it to the presentation, understand a huge level of what is said and find myself registered “toute suite”! Amusingly my car creates problems on the automated computer registration form, which crashes each time we attempt to enter the car model and loading ability, but with a bit of tweaking we have a level of success and I am ready to go!

I make a decision that if I am met with any level of derision or abuse I will quit as quickly as I registered. And so I make my first round ready prepared by some kind soul. I am amazed by the level of acceptance by the people I meet. Many ask for their copies or come out to collect them from me to save me the walk down to their letter boxes. I am frequently stopped for conversation and it doesn’t take long for them to realise that I am not French. They seem to be generally amused that a British person might be doing such a job and I assume that most French people believe that the British are all moving out to France, buying up old houses to renovate, and making property unaffordable to the average Frenchman. It appears that the French do not expect the English to be working, fully paid up members of the French social security and tax system. Memorably, I was stopped for at least ten minutes by one old retiree, wondering what the English thought about immigrants – I felt I wasn’t very well placed to respond but muttered something generally about Rome and Romans!

We finally discover that the reason we have not heard from the social security office is because our marriage certificate, a non standard, elongated format, has had the last box of information clipped from its photocopy. We whisk in the original and allow them to photocopy it themselves, and to our delight receive our brand new social security numbers, and Cartes Vitales by return of post. Within a further fortnight we also receive a very welcome back-dated cheque for child benefit, a generous payment twice the value of that of Britain. We have now become fully fledged members of the French system!

10. Décembre – Noel en neige – Christmas in the snow


I have just begun to light the fire on a regular basis. We have a great hybrid open fire/woodburning stove with a nifty slide up front so that we can watch the flames dance throughout the evening and shut it up at night to slow burn throughout the night ready for stoking in the morning! It wasn’t until the middle of the month that we finally turned on the central heating. It is hugely satisfying to have lasted so long without it, and indeed to have enjoyed the left-over wood from the last tenant. At last, mid-december it was necessary to order more wood. We ordered three steres – the unit for a metre cubed of wood and had it delivered later that week by a local guy who was able to tell us where our wood had come from – many pieces being from the pollarding of the city centre trees. It was good to know the wood was from a sustainable source and not only that but it smelt delicious and burned well! We took to foraging in the forest across the road for kindling, piling it onto our trolley and stacking it daily into the basket next to the fire to dry.

And then the snow began to fall! As we reached the penultimate week of term the roads iced over and our pathway became a death trap. I am used to the British system of gritting the roads. Here in France the system seems a little more haphazard. Our road was not gritted, despite being generally a well-used route into the city. The ploughs cleared one lane of the ring-road, and the route into the city centre and school appeared to be un-gritted! The French also have a dubious system of building basement garages on steep slopes below the bulk of the house and ours was no exception. Hence, on that first fall of snow, the whole exercise of getting the car out and making the school run was almost an impossible dream! Harry made the run, his car being further up the slope of the drive than mine, and I had only to hope that there was a brief thaw in order to pick them up again for lunch. The thaw came and at 4pm I once more set off to collect the children. Parking up, the half an hour wait was enough for the wind chill to refreeze the wet and slushy roads. Rouen is a city on a series of hills, essentially a series ravines carved out by the tributaries of the Seine. By 5pm havoc ensued, cars, including my own were simply not able to get out of parking spaces nor negotiate the tricky sloping bends and road junctions. Some cars were seen sliding sideways around cambered junctions, whilst others simply failed to stop at “Give Way” signs at a sloping junction, careering into passing cars on the main road!

Having resorted to ringing Harry at the office to help rescue the car from its icy position, we spent 10 minutes finally manoeuvring  it to the centre of the road. Being an automatic, and not  known for handling icy conditions well, it was agreed that we would have to reverse the length of this narrow one way street rather than negotiate the sharp inclined junction at the top. It was at this point that a black Renault pulled up behind us hooting loudly for us to pull over to let him pass. These are early days for my language skills, and the word “reverse” was not amongst them. The burly Frenchman was not going to give way to an obviously illiterate foreigner and eventually forced us back into the kerb, only – and to my delight- to be beaten back himself by the steep slippery inclined junction. We managed to achieve the centre of the road again and reverse our way back, barely containing our smiles as we watched him do likewise whilst all the time avoiding eye contact!

The snow lasted a month and is probably the longest duration of snow that I have encountered. The roads were generally cleared and  the children generally managed to get to school, but as the bad weather continued we wondered if we would be able to leave France for our brief trip back to the UK at Christmas.

One of the delights of the French build up to Christmas is the lack of decorations from October. Autumn remained autumn, and Christmas became Christmas mid-way through December. The department responsible for Christmas lights sent out its “technicians” during the rush hour to install the lights on the traffic lights at the main intersection, complete with “cherry-picker” to bring the traffic to a complete standstill and a multitude of mini Christmas trees were installed in various paved areas around the city garnished with a series of ostentatious fabric garlands and oversized bows in various shades of silver!

What a great Christmas – This has been the first Christmas without all the family, and as such I wasn’t sure how it would be. The snow gave on a magical quality, the tree stood in a corner looking fabulous after a few mishaps in buying the wrong sort of Christmas lights from the supermarket thanks to my missing vocabulary. Starting with a fish laden chowder, thanks to our excellent fish market, followed by a plump turkey, and finished with Christmas Pudding, thanks to our local Comptoire Irlandaise. I had every intention of making my own Christmas pudding, buying packs of sultanas and mixed peel, but I came unstuck on the suet. The French haven’t heard of suet which translates as Rognon de graisse du boeuf. Eventually I found a small butcher who knew what I wanted but only had Rognon de boeuf. I wasn’t convinced that it would work, and neither was he. So I thanked my luck when I walked into the Comptoire and discovered not only Christmas puddings, but also Golden Syrup, Marmite, and Rowntrees Jelly. Of course all were at fabulously expensive prices, and next time I shall get suet sent out from England, but we bought two puddings and two jars of mincemeat. Angus’s teacher cooked up one of the puddings for his class to try towards the end of term, which went down with mixed results, and I had a baking day and made loads of mince pies, which were taken into Harry’s work and the kids school as a little taste of England!

Peaceful and good-humoured, Christmas day continued with a fabulous snowy walk in the forest across the road, and finished with mulled wine in front of the fire and a fabulous new board game we’d bought the kids called Taxifoli – a race to drive clients round Paris with specific missions in mind – and all in French!

The weather cleared sufficiently for our brief spell in the UK. We opened up our house again, stoked up the fires and brewed up another vat of Mulled Wine for all our old friends. A fabulous round up to a busy four months in France!

9. Novembre – Publicité – Publicity


It didn’t take long to realise that I would have to find a job.  The speed with which money was leaving our account was truly frightening, yet we seemed to have little to show for it. As I once had done  in the UK, comparing the cost of a Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose grocery shop, I did a dummy online Sainsbury’s shop and compared it with my most recent bill from Carrefour Supermarket, using my receipt to find as close to “like for like” items. The results were scary! With the exchange rates at parity there was a 30% increase in the cost of grocery shopping in France. Even with the exchange rates at the 2005 values, French bills were substantially higher. The same applied in other areas, clothes, shoes and particularly electronic equipment.

Each week my mail box down at the gate is loaded up with brochures and flyers advertising the bargains available at my local Carrefour and Lidl and numerous others. I often browse through them hoping for a bargain deal, though often resort to saving the paper for lighting my fire in the evening (its glossy pages do not burn well!) However, tucked amongst them is the local “Top Annonces”, a nugget of a little paper with houses to rent or buy and the Job Vacancy page! Normally there are few jobs, an opening for a qualified butcher, an estate agent (I am not yet up to the sales patter) and numerous “hostesses” for city centre clubs!

But suddenly, one day lurking amongst the rest in a bright yellow box was an advert for “Pages Jaunes”. I perked up, for this was none other than the French version of Yellow pages ready for its annual distribution, and looking for unlikely candidates prepared to brave all weathers to get them distributed. And I was the unlikeliest candidate of them all! An English Architect!

The first step of course was to apply! For most French this would be a “walk in the park” but for me it entailed making a phone call, the one aspect of living in France that filled me with dread! It took me about three days to decide to actually ring to apply, partially because I knew I would succeed in making a relative fool of myself, and secondly because it was a job that I wouldn’t have considered in the UK. But needs must and I had plenty of time on my hands and I had nothing to loose. The phone call of course was as I predicted.  The receptionist had a strong regional accent, and despite the fact I had rehearsed my speech, I was thrown when she requested my postcode first, since French numbers are notoriously difficult once into the thousands.

My postcode typically was one of the wonderful hybrid numbers, 76230, the seventies being marginally easier than the eighties and definitely easier than the nineties, but whilst already written hundreds of times, had not been practiced by me aloud. A big pause therefore before I launched myself into it! Immediately afterwards she asked for my coordinées. I was a little disturbed by this, not knowing the map reference to my property, but guessing that a simple address might be adequate, I launched ahead, only to be stopped swiftly, as a telephone number was all she required. Since French phone numbers are always given in doubles, I was forced to gather myself again before proceeding. It is quite interesting how in the UK phone numbers are given using single digits and noone gives it another thought, but if you try to do the same thing in France, you feel utterly stupid. Breathing a sigh of relief, and believing the worst was over I was completely off guard when she announced I would need to go for an interview and proceeded to give me an address. I was to turn up to “Pole Emploi” she said in her regional accent. I caught the “Pole” but missed the emploi, and asked her to spell it, and there found myself tangled in a web of “E”s sounding like ur’s and “I”s sounding like “E”s, and embarrassed after two repetitions penned some letters down and hoped the street name might later throw some light on the destination!  My appointment was in the afternoon, I knew that because she used the 24 hour clock, something that we never do in the UK, and the French always do. It is something to master later on as for me it entails a double translation, and my brain simply won’t work fast enough!

Thanks to Google Maps I located my destination and found the office at the appointed time. I entered and introduced myself and went to wait in the waiting room. Within a few minutes the waiting room was “plein du monde” – full of the world, and shortly afterwards some thirty of us were ushered into a conference room.

Monsieur “Pages Jaune” proceeded into his presentation, and approximately 60 percent of it went over my head. I reckoned on working it out as I went along! This was to seriously back-fire later! Reams of forms were handed out and we sat in silence penning our way through them until  I reached an obvious problem – The form requested my  French car insurance details and Social security number. There was nothing for it but to ask a question. I considered my options, I could launch my question into the deathly silence of this conference room or sidle defeated towards the door. I considered I might be stopped as I sidled and would have to own to my foriegnness, which up till now had gone un-noticed, and having got this far I might as well continue. As luck would have it, the female assistant, wandering the room was slowly approaching my seat. I waited, biding my time and stopped her to ask if my questions. Pleased with myself, I waited for her reply, only to mortified when she turned to the rest of the room and Monsieur “Page Jaune” in the far corner, declaring “this lady has a question!” There was nothing for it  – my Britishness was “out” –

“ I have a British registered car and British insurance” I said “and  have so far been totally unsuccessful in gaining my social security number despite my best efforts-  is it going to be a problem?”

“You don’t live in Britain too, do you?” he replied laughing and on my reply to the negative he assured me the job was mine if I wanted it! He wrote down on a piece of paper the address of the storage depot, complete with a little hastily drawn map and the start time, and crossed a box with regard to the social security and sent me on my way wishing me “Bonne chance”, one of my favourite little French phrases to date – and so applicable and necessary to me!

I was silently delighted with my first major success in France – I had joined the working population – it was a major coup!

I can honestly say that the job itself was fun to do. I arrived at the depot to have my car loaded to the gunwhales with directories. The weather was superb and sunny, and I had four weeks to deliver as much as I could to maximise my income! I explored, as much as worked, my own district on foot, discovering what lay behind normally closed gates. Tiny cottages, manoirs and chateaux, reclamation yards, restaurants and garden centres. I discovered the lot and had interesting and quick conversations with people as I passed. But the joke was on me when one lady, irritated that I had not simply left the directory in her mail box, demanded why I hadn’t been given a master key! And so I had, the key I’d been carrying around with me for the last 700 distributions, which I had mistakenly confused for a master key to a block of flats, was none other than the master-key to all the mail boxes in France, and thus doubling my efficiency!

Meanwhile the kids reached their first milestone – their first half-term and a major excuse for celebration and relaxation. So far so good – all alive and well and enjoying the Indian summer with trips to the local pool, and our first trip out westwards to Trouville and Deauville, the popular sandy beach resorts with their 1920’s Casino architecture.

With weather like this, one can hardly believe we are only a month away from christmas!

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!