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!

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.