This morning it wasn’t just a suitcase sitting silently by the door, It was also my very disappointed nine year old.

It was 7am, and having blasted about town jacketless in the ‘almost-sunshine’ over the weekend buying the last remaining items for ‘Classe de Mer’, we were not prepared for this morning’s revelation.  A suprise ‘chute de temperature’ at 6am had brought with it snow that had been entirely absent at 5am.


So it was that some 40 mothers were consoling their children that they would not be parting for the seaside at 8am that morning nor missing school for a week. They have every reason to be disappointed. We live but 2 hours from the wonderful sandy beaches that played such an enormous role in the D-day landings. The coach had been hired to take them to Bayeaux and the famous tapestry of William I of Normandy conquering Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, before depositing them at Asnelles sur Mer at a smart hostel.

This coastal region about Bayeaux rich in history. Arromanches, a small market town on the beach hosts an excellent War museum,

 and a short walk along the cliff path passes the 360° cinema,( showing both beautiful, yet harrowing footage of the area before, during and after the war) before arriving at the headland viewing area.

If this is not enough, the Bény sur Mer Canadian cemetery is only a ten minute drive away along with Omaha Beach and its spectacular rugged scenary and glorious sand. It is difficult to imagine the events that took place in  June 1944 when the sun is shining, kites flying and ‘Char-a-Voile’ are skidding across the sands. Nevertheless reflect one must!

Just as in 1944, buckets and spades lay discarded, only our children were listless and resigned where the children of yesterday would have been fearful. For once they were cursing the snow and looking at it with misery.

‘Chute’ I thought, ‘what bad luck’,

And the sky turned white again and the blizzard continued.

march 2013 001

Troisième – and the Stage d’Observation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images thanks to Google

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!

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, – “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!