Famille nombreuse and the SNCF

Nearly two years into my life in France, I am somewhat unsuprised to find myself fighting another corner. This time , having sucessfully beaten Lyonaise des Eaux, I have taken on a formidable opponent – the SNCF, the french rail company.

It all started with a dream – that of pleasant weekends rolling through french countryside on the way to the beach, or perhaps Paris, or maybe even to a vinyard in the Loire. I had an idea it would be nice to leave the car behind, and I had become aware that a nugget of a card existed for families with three or more children – and a 40% discount for families with four!


The SNCF have a handy website:https://secure.voyages-sncf.com/…famillesnombreuses/…/etape1e which gives you much of the information you need to know including the documentation required and the fee to pay. Covering for all eventualities I sent more than enough photos, copies of birth and marriage certificates, copies of passports,copies of social security details, last years tax statement and a cheque for 19 euros.  I niaively believed the cards, applied for in January would arrive in time for the february half-term!

February came and went, and at the beginning of March I received a letter to say that my application was unacceptable as the birth and marriage certificates were “non traduit” (not translated from english). I was somewhat suprised since the social security office had issued us our Carte Vitale – state paid medical treatment cards, on less information than the SNCF had demanded, and they certainly hadn’t required a translation. I spent a day translating the certificates, re-photocopied all the documants and sent them off again. Interesting to note that in the UK anyone can get a family rail card with no ID whatsoever, and at the local railway station!

In April, having now missed the Vacances de Paques (easter holidays) I received another letter stating that my certificates were now “non conformé”. I was slightly astonished to understand that my certificates were meant to conform to the French style “Livret de famille”. I’m not sure quite how to achieve that, (other than to divorce, remarry (a frenchman) and have another set of children) so I duly picked up the phone and finally managed to pin down a SNCF operative!

Having gone through the paperwork over the phone, she declared that our birthcertificates did not state the filiation of the children – i.e the parent -child connection; More astonishing still since I had actually gone as far as  purchasing the “full UK birth certificates” which state “father” , “mother” and even occupations of both! Eventually she agreed that she couldn’t see a problem with them once she had understood that the UK birth certificates are all the same style and that we don’t have a “livret de famille”. She agreed that the translation should be OK, once I explained to her that if I went to the cost of hiring a professional translator, I was obviously wealthy enough not to need a rail discount in the first place; and finally she suggested that the best idea was to photocopy everything all over again on A3 (so as not to clip the edges of any certificates) and send the whole lot back into SNCF again!

I imagine that my dossier is one of the fattest and most detailed to land on the desk of the SNCF’s famille nombreuse operator. To date I have not heard anything, and in three weeks it will be the summer holidays! Is this a record, am I being penalised for being foreign, should I go to the court of human rights?

I’ll let you know!

June 25 – It ‘s 4 months and 15 days since I made my application, and today our Famille Nombreuses arrived. It had only taken one further phone call to establish that the office was happy with everything sent to them. I’ve been told that these cards are way more than just a rail-card and i’m looking forward to trying them out. Watch my blog for what we manage to get up to with them!

13. Mars – Hopital á la Francaise – French Hospitals

A few weeks ago: three to be precise, Theo whacked his hand against the wall during a tennis game on the wii. He received a huge bruise for his trouble, and initially it swelled up and we had lots of tears. However he seemed to be able to bend the finger in question so after a cold compress I gave it little more thought until he came out of school one lunchtime complaining that it still hurt.

 I decided that the French medical system was a question for the mamans, and turned to a group of them to ask what they would suggest! It might be a little hasty to say that the French are a little more neurotic about illness than the English, but since they had spotted the bruise some weeks ago, they felt that I should quickly be brought up to speed and advised a hasty trip to the  x-ray department at the local Clinique de Cédres. Arrive immediately after lunch, they advised, when there would be no queue; and I duly did.

 Negotiating my arrival was complicated enough, having finally found a parking place I made it to the Accueil (welcome desk) and basically explained my son’s condition, only to be redirected to the secretary’s office. It was necessary to check in, and to give my details, address, phone number and so on and receive some paperwork before being passed back to the Accueil. Having waited a further minute or so we were asked to make our way to the x-ray department on the next floor.

 We had been issued our all-important “Carte Vitale”, the French medical/social security card, and so at the X-ray Accueil we duly checked-in and handed it over. Our details were once more taken, but not having our own private medical insurance, we were asked to pay 8 Euros on the spot, 30% of the total x-ray bill. We were seated mere minutes before being called in for the x-ray, and were back at the main Accueil within ten. After a further 5 minutes we were called in to the doctors office where it was explained to me that Theo had broken his finger and that it was necessary to put it in a splint for two weeks. There are times when vocabulary needs to be learnt very quickly, and this was one of them. I quickly realised that I didn’t know the words for bone, growth, or splint, and that “fracture” in French means “a bill” and not a break! Fortunately the doctor, who spoke no French was able to get a translation of the paper work, though I was mortified to see that Theo had been considered “neglected”. I was asked to bring him back in two weeks, since it had already been three weeks since the break. On leaving I was presented with my “fracture” – a bill for 22 euros, which I was expected to pay immediately and claim back the 70% from the Department of Health. Despite being under the roof of the same hospital and using the Carte Vitale, the different departments had different systems for payment with no obvious reasoning for the differences. What impressed me hugely was that our total hospital turn-around had been in under 45 minutes. In England, the minimum waiting time before x-ray never seems less than 3 hours, and often more!

 We duly returned two weeks later, confident of the removal of the splint, only to go through an identical process, paying identical amounts of money, but unfortunately receiving the news that no healing had taken place to the finger. Having got bone, growth and fracture firmly installed into my vocabulary, I was now missing growth-plate and calcification! Another splint was fitted, and Theo was banned from all sport; with a further instruction to come back in two weeks.

 Two weeks passed again and we followed the same process, a small amount of healing had taken place, but there was a likelihood that the finger might not grow straight or in size as he himself grew due to the position of the break. This time we were instructed to visit a specialist in a fortnight’s time.

 Having now paid out a fairly large sum for the broken finger, I judged that it was time to take out private medical insurance since I was aware that the Accueil staff were always slightly astonished that we didn’t have any. I had also in the meantime met another English couple who within weeks of moving to France, and within weeks of each other suffered a nearly fatal case of blood poisoning, and then pregnancy complications. Despite being practically at death’s door, they were required to pay the ambulance driver by cheque on arrival at the hospital (since ambulances are private) and the costs for intensive care and dialysis without private medical insurance, which ran into the thousands. I considered that with four children, the odds on a serious illness leading to bankruptcy were not worth taking the risk!

 The visit to the Specialist was a jovial one, with the finger now mended, if slightly crooked, and with every chance of normal growth. A pleasant conversation regarding the weather followed since the need for further advice was minimal, and I paid 60 euros for the pleasure!

 Theo, needless to say, was delighted with the result of the consultation since the very next day his class was booked on a residential “classe poney” to a equestrian centre 20 km from Rouen. His teacher had refused to take responsibility for him, and I had had to sign a variety of papers taking full responsibility for him in the case of an accident. Finally, in my hand I held a specialist’s certification that he was medically sound to ride a horse and he was “good to go”!

 The Carte Vitale was, I am glad to say, true to its promise, and within a couple of weeks 70% of all the costs paid within the hospital were safely back into my bank account.

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!

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!