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!

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!