Saturday, 28 August 2010

Our Move to France is Over!

I've suddenly realised that the summer is just about over, the kids are getting ready for La Rentrée, Bill is heading back to Liberia and ......

.....I haven't written this blog for more than 2 months.

I've been writing 'A Family Move to France' for nearly 2 years and I am more than happy to say we are now 'A Family Living in France'.

We have had moments of panic and uncertainty and of frustration and fatique but we have had even more moments of satisfaction, encouragement and fun and that great sense of achievement.



We set out to move our lives to France and I really feel we have achieved it.

Looking back, I kind of wrote this blog as a diary and also as a way of reassuring myself that things were progressing and that we were learning and discovering. And also that we were being supported by people who read this blog, friends we have made along the way and family and friends around the world.

Now our move is over, I think I can stop writing it. Either that or I need to change the title.

Actually we do have a new project on the horizon - Building a House in France.

We originally planned to self build when we first arrived here in Limoux but we ended up buying a house with a building plot instead. Well that building plot is begging us to put a small gîte or maison d'amis on it.

So.......keep your eyes peeled as the new blog is on its way.

A bientôt ~

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Let's Go Shopping

Bread"Let's go shopping!"…. (Remember the film 'White Chicks'?)

I love shopping whether it's for me or someone else but best of all, I like browsing. Ask someone to research the best X, then I'm the one to check it out.

Fruit & VegEveryone talks about the 'Market Experience' in France and I was really looking forward to that when we first arrived. And I wasn't disappointed.

Limoux square
There is a certain buzz you get wandering around the fresh produce market seeing the locals (who know what they're doing and where the best stuff is) haggling and bargaining but most of all just chatting and gossiping.

Market day is the day to catch up on the latest local who, what, where and when.

Then we have shop shopping which is somewhat different....

Limoux where we live is considered a small town of 10,000 people and so as you can imagine we need to have our fair share of butchers, bakers and wine makers (and maybe candlestick makers).

I was terrified of going to the local butcher at first as experience has taught me that knowing the vocab first really helps. Receiving lambs brains instead of lamb chops somehow puts you off your dinner.

Experience has also taught me that you don't do these things in a rush. Each customer takes 10 minutes to choose and buy their produce and 10 minutes to chat and gossip. Imagine there are 3 or 4 people ahead of you in the queue......

Clothes shopping is not much different. Chat, choose, chat. Being oh so British that is something that really takes getting used to.

I like to sneak into a shop and browse (on my own) and try on things (on my own). So when the shop assistant announces with a big flourish 'BONJOUR MADAME" as you enter, pops up over the rails with a "Can I help you?" and then is continually popping her heard around your cubicle curtain as you're half naked with a "Can I get you a bigger, wider...", it sort of makes you feel uncomfortably British.

Worse still is when you leave the shop without buying anything and the shop assistant says with an even louder boom, "AU REVOIR MADAME" and I feel so guilty that I didn't buy one of those very (very, very) expensive tops.

Maybe I'm just a cheap skate but I do find France expensive for many things especially things that aren't food related. One good thing thought is that it's forced me not to buy too much and it's also taught me that as a seller on eBay France you can do really well.

You'd be amazed at the 'Nearly new' item which looks 'Nearly ready for the bin' and how the price asked for is the price paid for as new. So what if it's second or third hand.

The other thing that takes getting used to is the loooong lunch break. There is no such thing as shopping in your lunch break as everyone is lying horizontal taking that ever so important siesta. That or they're eating a 3 course meal washed down with a nice glass of something red, white or rose.

So on that note, as I see it is nearly lunch time, perhaps I should join them or maybe I'll see what I've got lurking in the garage that I can flog on eBay.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The French BAC - what the kids think?

Patio snow cake Can you believe it, is the 9th March and we are snowed in here in the South of France.

What happened to the 300 days of sunshine per year that we are meant to have?

Here when it snows, school buses are considered hazardous and so the kids don't go to school. "Yippee" my kids are ecstatic. I less so as much as there are some pretty spectacular photos to be taken, I have a morbid fear of ice skating in our car and so consequently we become housebound.

KeolisSo it seems like there will be no school for at least the next 4 days (snow is 35cm deep) and on top of that there is a teacher's strike at the end of the week so the kids will be staying home then too.

Teachers strikes are the norm here and it seems quite normal for there to be at least a week of no school per year because the teachers are upset about something. I am sure there must be a better way of sorting out the grumbles but Sarkowsy doesn't seem to have worked it out yet.

We have 3 kids aged 14, 16 and 18 and all three are in the French school system here in France.

Douglas the youngest is at 'College'- secondary school from ages 11 to 16 roughly. Sam and Ellie are at Lycee - secondary school from ages 16 - 18.

Up until a year and a half ago we lived overseas in Africa and Asia and the kids started going to French schools from the age of 3. This means they speak pretty good French - shame about the parents :(

Rather than me write all about French school life I asked my kids to write what they thought and here is what they said.....

Sam (aged 18) at a Lycee in Carcassonne and studying for a science engineering BAC

Out of all the French schools I've been to (Africa, Vietnam, Thailand), the French school in France was the only one where I didn't know what to expect.

Having lived overseas my whole life it was easy to fit in at school as they knew how it felt to be emerged in a new world with no understanding of unofficial social laws or friends. Everyone was in the same boat as we all moved countries and schools every few years. Basically there was no effort needed to make a great bunch a friends.

Lycee Jules FilsWhen you go to your first day of your new school you always ask yourself "Will I make any friends?". I did. it was actually easy. I always thought that it would be difficult in France because arriving at this stage in school (for me I arrived in 2nd, which is 10th grade in England) everybody knows each other and they have been friends for ages and you'll be the "new guy". Actually I needn't have worried as they are actually quite welcoming, you just have to make the first step.

Now what is the BAC? It's short for the Baccalaureate but just remember that it's the 'French BAC' and not the 'International BAC'. This is the most important and last diploma you get a school. The diploma is cut into 2 phases. You've got the French part, which I'll be doing this year (1er/11th grade) and the rest next year (Terminal/12th grade).

Lycee Jules FilsNow for the school program itself.

It's much more general than England and you're not allowed to drop subjects. You have to continue with most subjects right until you get your BAC. However after 2nd you are allowed to drop a few subjects depending on what BAC you are taking.

After you get through 2nd the school asks you what orientation you want to choose, and trust me you want to do your research first.

Most people go for the general courses which are L(literature), ES(economics), S(science). Those are the main ones, but don't worry if none of them suits you as there are actually loads more than that (it depends to what school you go to).

I chose an SSI course which means that when I've finished I will have an SSI BAC.

What is SSI? It's a branch of the S BAC with a focus on engineering. It's great because I want to do engineering later on so why wait until university when I can specialize right now?

Be careful though, choosing a certain course may close some doors that you'll regret some day. I wouldn't specialize too much as it may be hard to find a job later on. That's why I stayed in S as I'll have more than just engineering jobs open to me.

The BAC is hard and it's rare that someone gets over 14/20 or 70%. But don't worry as most people if they've studied hard, will get 12/20. Once you've got your respective BAC (depending on what course you took) you're off to go!

Ellie aged 16 at a Lycee in Limoux. Studying for a STSS BAC (Science et Technology du Santé Social)

Bonjour,

Lycee Jacques Ruffie, LimouxThis year I have the French BAC. It really scares me because I don't really know what it's going to be like!

We have been doing a lot of work at school to prepare for it. Next week, I will have my mock French BAC, and then in June I will have the real thing! Everyone at school is getting a bit nervous now.

I have to say that we are lucky to have our French teacher because he teaches very well and he has prepared us well for our French BAC. But anyway, I think everything will go well… I hope.

Next year I will have my proper BAC (all the subjects, but no French). Normally you will be tested on your last year, but my course is a bit different, so my BAC will be on the 2 last years. That means I have even more to revise!

School is France is good, I enjoy it. I didn't know what to expect at the beginning because I had never been to school in Europe before, so it scared me a little bit. But there was no need to be scared as in the end, everyone was very nice and I have a great bunch of friends.

I won't say much about my teachers because that all depends on the school you go to. All though I don't know all the teachers, I feel like I do as all of my friends tell me what their teachers are like. And there are some teachers that all the students hate, but that's the same for all schools.

My school is okay, it's not the best school in the world but it's not the worst. What I do like is that when it snows, we don't have school because the Aude is not equipped for snowy weather. This year has been quite snowy so we have missed about a week of school I would say.

Also my school is near a bakery and a café and near the town square so when ever we have an hour of free time, we can go to one of those places.

Au revoir !!

Douglas aged 14 at College in Limoux

College Joseph Delteil, LimouxSecondary school here is quite good: there are lots of students so it's not hard to make friends.

I think that the education level is probably a bit lower than English schools but it's not too bad. The teachers are OK: some of them are really bad because they don't know how to teach but others are very good because they don't bore you to death, they make the class a bit fun but we still work.

They are very strict about attitude here so they've added a new punishment called "observation" which means you lose points in your average score for school work.

College Joseph Delteil, LimouxWhen a teacher gives you an observation, they can put a punishment with it if they want to: they can give you stuff to copy or they can give you extra exercises.

The scoring is different here too: instead of giving A's or B+'s, they give a mark out of 20 or 10. So you can get 16/20 or 7/10 for example. A few teachers would give you an observation if you got a mark under 10 or 5/20. Anyway, it's a great school.

So there you have it, our kids view on school here in France....

Next Time: Shopping....:)

Monday, 8 February 2010

Making a Living in Limoux

When we decided to move to France just over a year and a half ago, we didn't stress too much about how we were going to financially make do.

"Hey we'll manage.
Got a bit of savings to last a few months.
Live life to the full.
We're bound to find something.
Learn a bit of French first then find a job teaching English or cleaning gites or whatever.
Let's take each day as it comes and things will sort themselves out....."

Actually thankfully we didn't think like that but there are many who do.

We did in-fact have some vague monetary plans. Bill planned to be a consultant in his field of development work and I planned to work from home with my websites. We had a little nest egg of what we thought was sufficient for a year of 'no work' just in case things didn't go as planned.

Well our nest egg very quickly became a nest without eggs. We were caught in that trap of wanting to do up the house, do up the garden, enjoy the sunshine and our new lifestyle and sample all the local delights and delicacies. And not worry about work.

All very well, but all that costs money. And we have 3 kids and a dog.

Being a bit naive about real costs (having coming from Vietnam where everything was so cheap as most things seem to be made there), we didn't anticipate the real costs of our new lifestyle.

We bought a newish house. Great we thought little work to do.

Wrong.

The French tend to strip their house when they sell it. We never realized that 30 light fittings and lampshades would cost so much or that planting a small hedge would mean a small mortgage.

So to counteract misjudgement, Bill packed his bags and went to work in far off places and i dusted off my desk and chair and sat down to balance the books and write more website pages.

Being a consultant work is never sure. Bill either seems to have too much or hes' stressing about when the next job will be. However recently he has landed a 2 year contract in Liberia which means 2 months on and 2 months off. Not ideal but it's work.

As for me, well I started dabbling with the Internet a few years ago when we were living in Asia. I wanted a job that was mobile and which allowed me to be at home with the kids when i wanted to be. That led to me creating a couple of hobby websites which have been a godsend and which I just love doing.

I soon discovered that I could earn a living from them and they now earn me income though advertising and commissions from sales.

You can read more about it here: www.kids-partycabin.com

Oh and i started this blog - but that's for fun!

A few things we discovered:
  • France is not cheap. Many of our visitors from the UK feel it's much more expensive in France.
  • If you don't speak good French, your chances of finding a decent paying job are slim unless you have contacts or are in a big town/city.
  • Many French people work for family or friends. Learn French and make lots of friends and your chances might be higher.
  • Unemployment in France is higher than in the UK.
  • Teenagers finding jobs is like finding a needle in a haystack. Forget newspaper delivery boys, they don't exist. Picking grapes usually happens when the kids are back at school. If they are under 17 year old, they will be highly unlikely to be even considered.
  • Working for yourself is much more feasible. However.................you will pay a lot in social security payments and taxes. Much more than if you were employed. We are discovering that and feel shocked at how many cheques we write out each month to various social security departments.
Having said all that, many people arrive here and manage or get by.

At the end of the day you need to think about whether you'd be happy just managing and getting by. If not, then you may well need to find a job that makes life more comfortable.

I so admire a friend whom I met here, who spoke little French when she arrived but was determined to succeed. Within 6 months, she was speaking enough French to get by and had set up a market stall in Limoux selling coffee. Yes coffee to the French. No-one else in Limoux (population 10,000) sold fresh coffee. She had found a great niche.

Here's her website: Le Moulin Noir

Another retired English man whom I also met in the market sells imported curry sauces and spices. His best customers are some old French ladies.

And another English friend spent a couple of years learning French and is now a French teacher to the English and runs a B&B.

So where there's a will there's way.

Don't get anxious reading this if you are thinking of making the move here, but do get realistic and do get creative with your work ideas.

Also be prepared for the social security department to whip you hard earned profits out of your hands from time to time.

Well it's now back to work for me. I'm writing an eBook about kids party games...that's another income stream I hope.

Next Time: The French Bac. What do my kids think?!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Healthy in France

Merry Christmas 2009
In my last post I mentioned that I was going into hospital to have an operation. Well I've had it and I've come out smiling!

Strangely enough the French health care system and bureaucracy is the thing that has frustrated us the most and yet my hospital experience and after care have been superb.

Whizzing back to February...... I took a tumble whilst skiing in the Pyrenees.

Some say it was due to the fact that it was snowing heavily and I failed to wear proper goggles and failed to stop at the big wall of snow that loomed in front of me.

I'd say it was because the breaks on the skis didn't work properly.

Anyway it ended up with a visit to the accident doctor, the x-ray department, the MRI scanning department, the pharmacy, the physio and then the knee specialist. Long awaited Carte Vitale

All of this was done in the space of a few weeks with no waiting and in spite of me not having my 'Carte Vitale' - the magic green card which says you belong here in France and are entitled to health care.

All the health professionals have been hyper helpful and hyper efficient. The only negative thing is the hyper amount of medicines the French doctors like to prescribe. They even prescribe paracetamol and plasters. You do sometimes wonder whether they have a vested interest in the drug companies. Who knows!

It's interesting though how the health system works here in France as compared to the UK and I'm sure they could both learn from each other.

In France doctors (think GP) appointments are not needed, you just turn up - never at lunch time though. Pharmacies are all privately owned and there is very little that is available in the supermarket apart from condoms, plasters and homeopathic medicines. District nurse practices are also privately run and owned. There is no such thing as a health visitor.

If you want to have your health care paid for by the state, then you must have a Carte Vitale (or a letter with your temporary social security number on it) and you must have a prescription to see various health professionals. So you can't just make an appointment with the district nurse without first getting an 'Ordonnance' (prescription) from the doctor.

It sounds complicated but like most things, once you've done it once, it all falls into place.

I must say though that I consider our family to be ultra, ultra healthy. We lived in Africa and Asia for 16 years and maybe visited the doctor once a year if he/she was lucky.

Here in France though, my goodness we practically live in the doctor's waiting room.

It's not because we are necessarily sicker than before but because there is less available without prescription and the kids must have a doctor's certificate for every club sport they participate in.

Douglas does tennis as an example and he can't enter a tournament unless his certificate says he is fit to play tennis AND to play in tennis tournaments. He couldn't play badminton though with that certificate.

I'm not slating the French health care system at all but think there may be a wee bit of room for improvement.....

So going back to my hospital stay.

I shared a room with an older lady who was not pleased to see me. She wanted the room all to herself. However when she realized that I was very polite, easy going, didn't snore and hardly spoke (could hardly understand a word she said because of the accent), then she seemed happier.

The nurses were efficient, friendly and all seemed to enjoy their jobs and I was chuffed when they felt my french was good enough to always speak and explain things to me in French.

The hospital food however I must say was a bit hmmmmm. Now I'm not fussy but I did detect that the soup was always the day's before leftovers mashed up and I NEVER got offered wine. I was so looking forward to that.

My older room mate was also not so impressed and i would laugh listening to her phone conversations (of which there were many) in that ten percent of the call was about her and ninety percent was about the 'Menu du Jour'.

So with Christmas just around the corner, I hope our visits to the doctor are over for the year. Well they'd better be as our doctor is away over the festive period and if you visit a doctor who is not your designated doctor, then all sorts of complications arrive.

PS....Drum Roll Please!.A celebratory drink is in order as I've just this morning received a letter which marks the final stage of the Carte Vitale process. It's been a long, yes very long process.

I'm to send a photo and some id and then I'll get my card. Now that will be a great Christmas treat. It's taken one full year to get to this stage and it's certainly worth celebrating.
They put me through this torture EVERY year!
And I think I might get sick just so as I can use my card....now how sick is that!

So on that note, I wish you all (or those one or two that read this blog) a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS and a HEALTHY NEW YEAR.

Next Time: How Do We earn a Living?

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Good Life...But Is It Really?

We've been here just over a year now and the two questions people ask us when they meet us for the first time are:

"Why did you choose Limoux"? followed closely by

"Well you've been here a year now so you must feel settled. Don't you"?

The first question is easy to answer. The second not so. It's like a year is the magic number. 'Live here a year then you'll be fine'.

We arrived here at the end of August 2008 and so 14 months down the line everyone wants us to say "Yes we are totally settled". But then when we actually say "Well things aren't exactly as we imagined....."

You can see some people are disappointed when we say that and you can see the look of pity and 'Oh dear' seeping from their silent thoughts. Others are secretly happy that we feel like they did at this point in time and are relieved to know that maybe it is OK to feel unsettled after a year.

Don't get me wrong, in that, I don't feel unhappy, or that we made the wrong decision or that French life is not what I thought it would be. It's more that settling into a new place, let alone a new country where the language is rather alien is a long and sometimes frustrating process.

We've lived in 6 different countries throughout Africa and Asia in the past 17 years so I know how long it takes to get settled. Moving to France though was the hardest!

I think it's because for the first time we are living in a house we own, we therefore have more bills to sort out, decorating to do, the garden to plant and look after, organizations to join and we are sort of the odd ones out.

Before we were one expatriate family amongst many, and there were lots of new faces arriving together so we all looked out for one another. Here you are a bit on your own at times and when you have difficulty making yourself understood, then the settling in takes on a whole new perspective.

On the ultra positive side though, the kids are 100% settled at school, we own our house and just love pottering and DIY'ing, we have neighbours that stay put and we can throw away all those boxes and packing paper that I have stored for 17 years in preparation for our next move.

We've got a whole new menu at dinner time, the dog is bilingual, our neighbours offer us honey from their bees or fruit from their garden and we never have to go on a waiting list to see a doctor - except for the optician who never seems to have a free slot.

Through this blog, I have heard from many people who have moved to France or are thinking of moving. Many have sent me messages and others I have met for coffee in Limoux town square and I have really enjoyed telling people how we are getting on and settling in. I really don't mind telling things as they really are and I think it gives a real perspective to other thinking of making the move.

Uprooting and moving away from what is familiar and comfortable to you is a huge undertaking. It is exciting but challenging and at times frightening and frustrating. However if you can get over the humps and bumps, and it is something that you really want to do, then life will eventually become easy and fun.

I have learned it may take a year, maybe even 2 or more. But that is OK.

Time to stop rambling and to get in the garden and take the dog for a walk through the vineyard. Maybe meet a neighbour on the way and have a chat about the weather (which is 28C and blue skied and sunny today :)) and then cook moules marinieres for dinner......ah the good life!

Next Time: I'm having a knee op next month. Do they really give enemas as the cure all for everything and will I get wine with hospital dinners?

Saturday, 19 September 2009

La Rentree

Hey ho hey ho, it's back to school we go. Yes we have just experienced 'La Rentree'. We have experienced it before (many times) but La Rentree in France itself is different.

To you and me, La Rentree is the same as 'Back to School'. A very welcome day for parents and a day of excitement and nervousness for the kids.

However in France it seems like an opportunity for the shops and business's to tempt us shopping. As if the long summer holiday hadn't already cost us enough.

The amount of adverts and leaflets we have received saying 'It's La Rentree - why not buy a washing machine....invest in a new car....get 10% off your insurance' and so on.

What has that got to do with going back to school?

I suppose you may need a washing machine to wash piles of dirty school clothes and a car to get the kids there and back and then insurance for when your child accidently breaks a dinner plate.....there is obviously a logic in it somewhere.

Our 3 kids were pretty excited to go back - not that they would admit it.

School uniforms don't exist so Ellie meticulously planned her 'outfit' weeks beforehand. The boys just wore whatever was on the top of their clothes pile. That means they will probably wear the same 2 t-shirts and trousers all year. Wear one, Wash one. Saves us a lot of money!

They all go to different schools so getting them all out the door and onto various buses or scooters starts at 6am and finishes just before 8am. That's the least fun bit.

Then there are the school bags.

The kids are expected to carry their books for the day on their backs all day and that includes snack time, lunch time and every other time. Not such a problem.....except their bags regularly weight at least 8-10kg.

Lockers are provided in some schools but there are never enough. There are some girls though who somehow manage to carry just a handbag (much to Douglas's horror - he's 13) containing nothing but a pen and still manage to get through the lesson. We still haven't worked out what their secret is.

School days are long. For the younger ones it is usually 8am until 4.30pm but the day extends as you get older. Sam our eldest has lessons 8am - 6pm with an hour of travelling each way on top.

However there are no lessons Wednesday afternoon so that is the time to do 'activities' of which there are a huge choice here ranging from martial arts to music and dance to crafty things.

In order to participate in anything remotely active, you must have a medical certificate saying you are fit. What a palaver as parents are queuing up at the doctors or just asking the doctor over the phone to prepare them a certificate.

The boys are doing swimming this term and much to their horror we had to do a trip to the sports shop to get them some of those oh so tight and weeny swimming shorts. Then there is the swimming hat. They are not too happy.

So we are now 2 weeks into the new school year. The kids have new friends, our washing machine and car are being put to good use and so far nobody has broken a dinner plate.

Next Time......A year since our move. Was it the right decision?