Vrai Cauchemar – October to January

Three months have passed since I have been able to put pen to paper, and I am not going to try to fill the gap. As a family we have faced our biggest life challenge to date, and whilst many families will have faced worse, living in a foriegn land without family in times of crisis can be tough.

In October we faced the onslught of the financial crisis along with the rest of the world, but for us it threatened not just our income and job, but also our stability and ability to stay in France. Little did we realise as we faced the challenge in the employment sector just how much more of our lives were going to be thrown into dissarray, but it covered ill health and a necessity to move all in the same small window of time.

In short, My husband’s company requested he join their international team for a hopefully temporary measure whilst the “English/French” workload picked up again, and he was asked to go to Nigeria on an expat basis; the medicals necessary to his departure shockingly revealed a hitherto unknown skin condition, requiring three consecutive surgeries; whilst the local office in Rouen inadvertantly cancelled the lease on our house, since they had originally taken it out on our behalf, erroneously believing the entire family was leaving for Nigeria. Consequently December saw us approaching homelessness; incapable of resuming work; and in and out of the operating theatre.

The point of takiing on a challenge to live in a new country is to embrace whatever is flung in one’s path, and overcome it stronger and wiser; as I recount the events that have followed, I hope that others considering a move abroad can be heartened that with enough drive one can make it through even the worst of times.

19 My husband drives a lemon!

With the rentrée the family falls back into its traditional roles. After ten weeks absence we are all slightly apprehensive about being back in the school playground. Last year, as novices, we had ignorance on our side: this year we know the drill, but are rusty after the summer break. Nevertheless, I always find an opportunity to make some faux-pas, and this week has been no exception!

Faux pas number one is to arrive at school a day early! Last year classes  CP and CE2 were given the opportunity to turn up the eve before school started to look at the class lists and meet the teacher. Having briefly scanned the messages from school I note that there is another such event the evening before school starts. Despite their groans, I shuffle the “primaire” children into the car and we drive to town. It is of course a mistake, but I don’t know it yet. It dawns on me as I approach Angus’ class and there are no other parents other than me! Of course my children have moved up a year and I no longer have children in those classes but I had assumed it was for all primaire!  In the event, Angus and I meet his new teacher who is delightful, and it is a good private opportunity to talk to her about her new english charge! It may be easy for the French, but I find that the pronunctiation of CE1 exceptionally difficult – (say errr un), and CM1 not much better (say emm un). By the end of last year I could rattle off CE2 (say err der) with all the finesse of a true french woman and I’m hoping for the same progress this year.

The following day we stand amongst the hundreds of other mothers, fathers and pupils and wait for the class lists to be called. It is fortunate to be a lovely sunny day as we congregate around the steps to the main entrance in the courtyard, and class by class the children are called and led away to their classrooms. Last year the anxiety was that our children would be tearful as they left us in this very public arena and that there would be some interesting looking kids in their classes. This year we hold our breath hoping that Phillipe, Auguste and Nicolas have been put together with Theo, and that Adrian, Victor and Caesar have made it in with Angus. The tension amongst the parents is palpable and there are sighs and grins and general hand-shaking amongst parents when the classes are eventually formed – oh and some sobbing children who have been separated from their friends.  Now comes my opportunity for faux pas number two! When questioned over Angus’s class teacher, I have to hold up my hand that I am lousy at remembering names, and French names in particular, until another mother comes to my aid. It is Madame Barba. “Oh well” I say, (having not seen it written)” it will be easy to remember that one, I shall just think of Babar the elephant”. The conversation lurches to a halt and the  group of mothers look at me  slightly aghast, obviously ‘not done’ then to refer to your child’s maitresse as a large grey wrinkly animal with big ears – thank heavens she is refined, chic and petite!

The children safely installed, it is time for me to head to the depot! The previous night, in an attempt to mend the jammed sunroof on my car, my car door got left open, and when I attempt to start it the following morning the battery is flat! Consequently I head out in Harry’s car, a brand new Citroen courteous of his employer. I am a little anxious about its loading capacity and so I head for the depot office to talk to the manager, a jovial guy  who enjoys ribbing me about the english performance in whatever international match has taken place over the weekend! Its all the more amusing to him as he knows I only have a limited number of adjectives and expletives to argue my corner with. Imagine his delight therefore, when I ask him to check the loading capacity for the new car, as today I am driving my husband’s “lemon”! As soon as I spot the glint in his eye, I know instantly that I have mispronounced Citroen for Citron. He makes a show of peering out of the window to check it out whilst I shrug nonchalently murmering that it’s the yellow one in the corner!

I am aware that far from being the best  french speaker amongst myself and the kids, I am now sliding down the scale. Rory now looks anguished if I am speaking near him, and that he thinks my accent hopelessly British. I am holding onto one of my cycling friends comments that I have a cute English accent, but |I know that I have to do something about it and so attempt to improve fast by a total immersion into french tv and radio whenever i’m in the house.

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!