6. Rentrée

The two weeks of holidays quickly passed. Much of the time was spent holding the school’s “List of Requirements” in front of my nose in the stationary department of the Carrefour supermarket. We had been sent a list for Anabel and Rory, the “Collége” students. The objects on the list were simply untranslatable. I could cope with the occasional “régle” and “stylo plume” from my O’level days. But the tampon effaceur, lutin 40 vues, classeur  and bloose did not appear in the dictionary. I took to hauling young French children by the scruff of the neck when standing within range and demanding to know, with a finger prodding the list (since my accent often wasn’t up to comprehension) what each item was. Little by little we edged towards two fully ticked-off lists.

The bloose took the most time – both Harry and I took it in turns to try to decipher what it could be, and even many French mothers seemed to be clueless. Eventually I learned it was a particular type of overall, and as comprehension dawned on the children, they unanimously agreed that they had seen all the other children wearing them on their visit in June. Why didn’t they say so before? At this point they also unanimously agreed they wanted different styles and colours. Anabel, of course the white science professor overall; Rory, the more traditional ones, with buttons slightly off-side and so on. Once put on, my children suddenly appeared French, a certain “je ne sais quoi” had come over them. If only we could take on the French language with so much aplomb!

No sooner had we completed the lists, than school began. As a student entering the first year of “Collége” , Rory had been allocated a “starter day”. Anxiety overwhelmed me! It had not occurred to me that any of the children would start earlier than the rest. The whole “raison d’etre” behind the choice of the school was that they would be together. In one fell swoop, the school had completely thwarted my plans. We arrived at the appointed hour, on a beautiful summer’s day to stand in the “cour” and listen to the Directrice announce her welcome and thoughts for the year ahead. Then name by name the children were called to stand up in lines in front of her for their class groups. There are times when having a surname commencing in “A” is a disadvantage. Not only did Rory become a focus for the attention of the crowd of pupils and parents of a 180 strong year group, but Rory is a name which is impossible for the French to pronounce! Uncomprehending, his name was called several times before he stepped forward, and then he was pulled and pushed and manipulated until he finally reached the required destination as alphabetical leader of one of the 6 classes.

I had attempted to translate the general tone of the Directrice’s speech to the kids before we parted company and left Rory in the clutches of his new school! We were to repeat the same process over hourly intervals the following day for the three other children. The end of Rory’s school day came. We were at the school gate early, anxiously peering for any sign of him. Finally, small and pale, he appeared out of the throng of other children, silent against the chatting masses, and my heart sank as I berated myself for what I had put him through.

The initiation of the three other children was equally traumatic. Anabel appeared tearful after on hours morning session and Theo vowed he wouldn’t go back after lunch! But with determination and encouragement they did all go back for the afternoon session, and for the following days after that. There were remarkably few tantrums or refusals considering the huge level of adaptation required. They all found an inner strength and courage to persevere in the face of an enormous challenge.

4. Preparation

The period before we moved to France was very intense, not only finishing the house but also preparing the children. I spent a great deal of time in a state of anxiety that we were undertaking an impossible task, and spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet researching other families who had attempted the same experience. Of course ideally I wanted to find someone who had undertaken such a move and who could tell me that it had been “a walk in the park”! I found that there was almost no information available on-line dealing with people relocating abroad with children. There are simply hundreds of “real life” experiences of couples relocating overseas and starting new businesses and renovating houses. Very few relate the experiences of their children. The main bias of this blog therefore is not only to relate our adventures but also give some valuable information regarding the struggles of children relocating with a new language to master.

 The primary decision to make was the choice of school. France has two different systems, the normal state school or “ecole publique” and the private sector or “Ecole privée” which is generally catholic. The advantage of the state sector is of course free education, and some state schools can be exceptionally good. I have heard stories that these schools can be substandard in the countryside, and in some inner-city areas. This I imagine is globally the same – and certainly the case in the UK. The disadvantage is that there are no published OFSTEAD reports and therefore without personal recommendation, and without a general understanding of the country as a whole it can be very difficult to judge the quality of education in any particular school.  The French pride themselves on equality, and as such I have also heard that within the state sector it can be very difficult to demand extra tuition for struggling children without giving those individuals a “perceived” advantage. However I have no experience of the state sector and at the time of our decision, had no experience of the private sector either, and was forced to make a really tough decision.

 We opted for the “Ecole Privée  Catholique” despite the fact we are neither catholic, nor wealthy! The reasons were essentially simple. Firstly it was highly recommended by French work colleagues of my husband for an excellent education, secondly it had the reputation of being “sympathetic”, “familiale”  and with some experience of other  non-French speaking pupils (though not British.). Thirdly, the private school system in France is completely different to that of the UK. Private schools in France still receive state subsidies, but charge a “top-up” figure for each child – In our case relating to approximately 100 euros per month per child for a nine-month period. In fact we discovered that with family “nombreuses”, a discount was also applied to each successive child, 10% for the second, 20% for the third and so on. This degree of independence allows the school to consider additional help to the individual pupil if necessary, and indeed we were able to employ our own bilingual tutor to give our children extra French lessons within the school building during the time-table.

 Once our decision was made, my husband visited the school again to complete the necessary paperwork and register them with a small deposit. He then made a further appointment for us both to visit the school for a tour, and for a detailed conversation with both head-mistresses of  Primaire, and of Collége regarding the characters and personalities of the children. Following that we made a third appointment for the children to spend a week during the summer term at the school to give them a feel for what was to come!

 We were hugely fortunate to have a native French woman (and friend) living in our village who had already begun to teach children French as a foreign language.  The local primary school was prepared to allow her to come into school during the lunch hour to give the three primary age boys some much-needed tuition. The boys, aged 6, 8 and 10, were in years 1, 3 and 5 respectively and had individual lessons. However, we concentrated our efforts on the oldest boy who we had just learned would skip an academic year and pass directly into the first year of collége due to his birth date sitting in October. The French run their school year/age intake from January to January, as opposed to September to September in the UK.  Our oldest daughter, aged 12 was already at a girls’ grammar school, a language specialist school, and was timetabled 4 hours of French per week. We boosted this French by an additional hourly lesson each Sunday for all four children, and another after school lesson as part of a group mid-week.  In retrospect we could have done with giving them more.

 One of the few blogs available on line that I did read was about the Dagg family who home-schooled at least one of their children for 6 months before their move. I hugely admire their decision! It is very difficult to be both parent and teacher at the same time, as I have found out since moving to France, however I believe it pushed their daughter (also aged 12 at the time) further ahead and, reading between the lines, she was more linguistically able to cope with the change than our daughter at the same age. Read their blog,  http://www.frenchentree.com/france-brittany-family-schools – “Preparing for school”.

We bought a series of workbooks, published by Hatier –“Tout Savoir” CP, CE2, 6ieme and 5ieme etc, and indeed also the books for the school year preceding the ones they were due to start. These books are immensely popular in France and can be bought in most large supermarkets in France, as well as bookshops and also on-line through Amazon. I started by translating in pencil all of the tasks – mainly in the subjects French and maths, so that the children would have something to do on their introductory week in French school. We have been using them ever since, and they are one of my most useful teaching tools now, along with “Living French” by T W Knight, which I used for myself and for the older children.

 In June 2009 we set off for France, having rented a gite as near to the school as possible, to experience the introductory week with their future class-mates. After a slightly “wobbly” beginning, the children were led to their classes, and the school had found, with the exception of our 6 year old Theo, a English-speaking child for each of ours to sit with. In Rory’s class was a fluent French speaking American girl, For Anabel, a bilingual French/American, and for Angus, the brother of the Rory’s companion. All of our children finished the day with a slightly daunted smile on their faces, but a smile nevertheless, and Rory came out demanding that we found woollen gloves (in June) as he was due to do fencing the following day in PE. Fantastically Anabel came out relieved that the her companion was extremely fun to be with, only to be dashed the next day on learning that the companion was herself relocating back to America at the end of the year. This crushing feeling of success, swiftly followed by failure was to be no stranger to us over the next 6 months!

2. Formule

There is nothing like loosing out on a dream to focus the mind. The following year was spent rationalising our desires and concentrating on the most important factors towards making a potential life in France a success. A good working ability to speak French and a source of finance were imperative( with four children life is not cheap).

 We sold our house a year later, and rather irrationally bought a wreck to renovate in Nottinghamshire, but being an Architect, and my husband also in construction management we were glad of a project to sink our teeth into whilst we solved the French employment issue. Shortly afterwards my husband was gainfully employed by a multinational French construction company with an office in London  ( but more importantly for us, with several offices in France) and so began the formative years, with a daily 4 hour commute to London and the promise of a transfer to France in the near future.

Harry began intensive French lessons structured by the company, systematically passing through Oxford and Cambridge Business French Exam levels 1, 2 and 3, whilst I was lucky enough to have a native French friend in the village to give me conversation lessons.