Our first Christmas in France

While we’re in no way religious, Christmas has always been a special holiday for me. I think it goes back to my University years, when I looked forward to coming home, meeting up with old school friends who had gone our separate ways and also, of course, reconnecting with family. Since settling down the draw back to “home” dimished, as we took it in turns to spend time with each other’s family, or friends, or just to have a quiet time together. Now, with two children in tow and DD of an age where Christmas is meaningful, it feels even more like the right time to just hang out at home together rather than getting sucked in to the existing Christmas traditions our parents initiated. What do I mean by that? Well, a downside of Christmas for me was always the way it happened the same way every year, at my parent’s house at least, and always centred around food and TV. You could call it gluttony but that’s in part due to the fact that my Mum always stocks up her three fridges (yes, she has three – albeit one that is only switched on over Christmas) as though we’re home for 3  weeks from Uni rather than just passing through over 2 or 3 days. It always felt like we just got together to eat and watch TV and since James and I aren’t really TV watchers there was never anything appealing about the Eastenders/Casualty/Coronation Street/*[insert name of other regular TV show] Christmas special, or any TV, really. We would sit around eating and pretending to laugh along while the fans in the room tried to fill us in on what had happened since we last watched any of the shows. The only thing worse than soaps is someone trying to bring you up to speed on everything that’s happened since you last watched the programme in question, particularly when you last watched it the best part of 20 years ago!

Then there’s the consumerism of it all. My parents go into overdrive when it comes to presents and I know, looking back, that I was pretty greedy and ungrateful. I have memories of ripping paper off with heady abandon, going for quantity over quality, with Christmas presents done and dusted by 7am after some heavy-duty trading with my sister over this and that. We had so many presents – a huge sack plus a stocking; it was too much. Since DD arrived, we’ve tried hard to keep her away from shops in general, supermarkets in particular (in the UK, anyway) and have restricted screen time to movies on DVD, so she’s rarely exposed to advertising, which helps alot and means when asked what she would like she is usually pretty individual in her choices. You won’t find Peppa Pig here, thank goodness!

And so it was we had our first Christmas in France. What a contrast to “home”! Honestly, while there are lights in the towns and decorated trees around, the place is so un-Christmassy it almost passed us by. We did the last of the Christmas shopping (all the food and presents for the littlies) on the 23rd, didn’t do much at all on the 24th other than enjoy a walk have lunch in the sunshine on the terrace – unthinkable in the UK at this time of year! – and had a very mellow and relaxing day on the day itself.

It was interesting to spend Christmas with DD this year as it’s the first year she’s had any idea about Father Christmas. In the run up we listened to her Christmas CD of stories and songs, a gift from my parents two years ago, at least 5 times each day, so you could say she was very much in the mood! On the night itself she couldn’t sleep, wanting to watch him making his way around the world courtesy of Norad, and when she finally did I wondered what time she’d wake, as I still remember waking excitedly at about 5am then ripping all my present open. At it was she slept until a reasonable 8am and her first thought was not about presents. If anything it was me willing her to see the pile or presents we’d sneaked in the night before. I was impressed by her restraint but also a little worried. I felt like grabbing her by the shoulders and yelling, “It’s Christmas!! Where are your presents!?!?!” DS, bless him, lay there snorning his little face off for at least another hour after DD woke up but was eventually woken by his sister’s excited squeals. Not long after James was persuaded to emerge from his duvet and as soon as the fire was lit and the first cup of coffee had been sipped, present opening began.

With fairly strict limits in place for Christmas purchases* we had that part of Christmas over by 9.10am. Then it was time to Facetime my parents., who were just having their breakfast, getting ready to travel down to my sister’s for Christmas lunch there. Next, breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast with more coffee for us (we drank our bottle of fizz the previous night and were feeling a little the worse for wear!), clearing up, and we were heading into 11am. Then it was time for DS’s nap – now overdue by an hour – so James played with DD while I ordered just-in-time Amazon vouchers for my nephews. By the time DS woke up it was getting on for lunch time. I remember thinking how nice it was that we weren’t rushing around anywhere, expected here or there or even expecting anyone round, just huddled in our little home with the fire burning, with no pressure, no excess.

Lunch was similarly low-key. I can’t even remember what we had. Fish finger sandwiches, perhaps? We had some ice-cream for pudding – a Christmas treat shared early in the day to ensure DD could run it all off by bedtime – then it was nap time again. But DD was so excited there was no way she could nap so we got ourselves organised and, since the sun had come out, headed out for a walk.

By the time we got back it was starting to cool down outside so we stoked up the fire and curled up with DD’s new DVD to kill the time until dinner. There was no way I was going to go to the bother of making a full on Christmas dinner for two small children who couldn’t have cared less and James, who had requested beans on toast (er, no) so we had homemade chicken kievs – one of my favourite meals – timed nicely to coincide with the end of the movie, then showers for the littlies and bed. DD hadn’t napped so she was in bed at a sensible time for a change leaving us to reflect on our first Christmas as a foursome. I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of traditions we’ll end up creating for ourselves, ones that our children will come to expect as they grow older. Going for a walk is something James and I have always done when it’s just been the two of us for Christmas, and I like eating a simple, fuss-free meal later in the day. Maybe that’ll be our thing? It was also nice too huddle round the fire, watching a film together, as well letting both littlies have time and space just to enjoy their new toys. Who knows what we’ll do next year – or where we’ll be but this Christmas was just right for us right now.

Merry Christmas, everyone! xx

* For DD and now DS we have a “something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read” policy plus a small stocking and a single gift from Santa each, as much to keep our spending in check as keep DD’s expectations in check.

A bad case of Brexit blues

I’ve got a bad case of the blues today. Why? Well, this whole property search seems to be all highs and lows and sometimes it’s hard to maintain any optimism. Then something new comes up, something we like, somewhere we can envisage making our home, and that is usually the point where we find a spanner in the works. Yesterday James went out with a friend who showed us a plot that had been for sale and the number to call to enquire about it. He came back excited saying I had to see it so we went down there after lunch, taking DD and DS with us, and had a look around. What did I think? Er, perfect! I loved it. Next steps then: call the owner to ask whether it’s still for sale, check with the Mairie that it’s building land, and job’s a goodun. On the one hand I’m thinking there’s no way this is going to happen, worst case it’s already been sold, so try not to get too excited, but another part of me is thinking, reliable source, should be okay, and I’m already planting up a veggie patch and putting up a swing for the kids. I need to put down some roots, to settle. So we call the owner up today and ask about it and boom, dream over – just like that. No, sorry, not for sale, not now, not in the future. End of. Sob.

Then I catch up with some news this morning and read this on the Guardian website:

EU citizens should collect proof of living in UK, says Helena Kennedy

“EU nationals living in Britain should make a file of documents that prove they have lived in the country since before the June referendum, according to the chair of a House of Lords committee.

Helena Kennedy QC suggested collecting together bills, rental or home ownership documents, employment paperwork, or evidence of appointments for those who do not have jobs.

“Make a file now with proof of your presence [and] supporting letters from people who’ve known you, you have taught you or who you have had business dealings with,” said Lady Kennedy in an interview with the Guardian.

The peer chairs a Lords EU subcommittee that has just completed an investigation into the “acquired rights” of Europeans in the UK and Britons living in continental Europe. She warned of deep anxiety among EU citizens in the UK but also British nationals living on the continent.

After hearing from a series of experts, ambassadors from across Europe and Britons living overseas, the group will on Wednesday call for a unilateral undertaking to immediately guarantee to safeguard the rights of all EU nationals in the UK.”

And now I’m afraid that the future we dream of building is not worth anything anyway. We came after the referendum and, on more than one occasion, I’ve read article suggesting that those arriving before that fateful day can expect different treatment than those arriving after. I fear that our time here will all be for nothing on the day Article 50 is ratified. I fear that we will lose our home (assuming we have one by then), that we will be uprooted, that – if we haven’t had time to set up a business – we will be denied this right. I feel so overwhelmed.

Reading these articles in the news, it all seems so abstract: it’s all talk of trade treaties, economic impacts, geopolitical consequences. And while that might be what our politicians are worried about, it’s really not about that at all because this is all just about people and the lives it affects. People didn’t vote to leave the EU because they are happy with their lives: they voted for change because they lost hope in a future based on business as usual. They didn’t vote to change this or that trade treaty: they voted for a better life than they face today. It does all come down to economics in the end but not at the level our politicians are concerned about because, one thing that is certain, is that the best deal for business is not necessarily the best deal for people unless something is done to address the inequalities that caused this to whole mess in the first place. Without change on that level, at a much deeper level than anyone is talking about right now, the rich will still get richer, while the poor get poorer and many millions who are just about holding it together, in credit up to their eyeballs, are pushed into poverty. Leave voters bought lies peddled by the media, owned by the powerful elites they think their vote is sticking it to, who told them that dangerous immigrants are taking the money for schools, hospitals, and the rest of it, and that’s the reason why their communities are failing. Of course there’s no mention of inequality because capitalists – the rich elites controlling the media, for example, – don’t make the kind of money they think they deserve from a political system that puts distributing wealth and the happiness of all people at it’s heart, when that’s exactly what’s needed to make things better for the majority of the population – and not just in the UK. It’s so sad and frustrating.

James is trying to reassure me: “We’re protected by the Vienna Convention,” he says.” Of course they won’t thrown us out,” he says. Maybe, maybe not, I say. I guess we’ll find out. There’s a campaign, Fair Deal for Expats, which I need to look into. Maybe there are other groups too. It would help if there were an MP we could turn to but it seems you lose your right to representation in parliament the minute you leave. I do plan to write to my old MP just to see what happens. I’ll report back when I get a reply.

In the meantime all we can do is wait and carry on as though everything will be fine because the alternative is to put life on hold, to have no hope. I don’t usually stay miserable for long once I’ve managed to get it out of my system. A bike ride is on the cards and long overdue. I need to get out there and turn the pedals, pushing on up some hills and freewheeling down. Whatever happens Theresa May and her minions can’t take this beautiful December weather away from me – not until 2019 anyway.

 

Our first three months in France

As of today we’ve been here three whole months. Wow, the time has flown. I was so relieved just to be leaving at last after a really quite difficult three months leading up to the actual move (DS was only two months old when James started cracking the “we need to pack up the house!!!” whip) and was looking forward to a few weeks to chill out and recover, but that didn’t really happen either. I was hoping James would calm down a bit once we actually got here but actually it took him a good while to wind down and adjust to a slower and more functional pace. He’s getting there.

When we set off that day from the UK we had quite a to-do list so what have we been doing in that time? We still have a lot to do and a lot of what we thought we’d accomplish has fallen by the wayside while we try to get settled. Here’s a bit of a progress report on the five main tasks:

  • House buying
  • Settling into daily life
  • Sorting out the paperwork
  • Learning the French language
  • Earning some money

House Buying Progress = 1/10

Hmm, well, this one has morphed into potentially buy land and build and,since we are leaving this place at the end of March, looking for a new place to rent. Not having proper Internet connectivity really put a spanner in the works on this front, plus we were shown some proper s**t holes so our first foray into the world of property purchasing flattened our enthusiasm somewhat. I think we’ve seen about ten houses and about the same number of plots of land. As far as houses go we’ve seen a lot of hairline fractures, bad roofs, asbestos, and damp. Pretty shocking, actually, and all in and around properties that look pretty reasonable in the online pictures. The camera never lies my eye! I feel like we’re getting on top of this now though, with searches set up on the main sites, some good contacts in local estate agents who know what we want, and now we’re putting down some roots we’re more likely to get any hot of the press info from within the community, which is the best way to find anything out round here.

Settle Into Daily Life = 7/10

Okay, this is a biggy and how much we can really do without a permanent home is hard to say, but on many fronts, despite not being anything you could call “settled” we are settling into life around here. So why 6/10?

Well, we have French phone numbers – essential items for keeping in touch with agents and, thanks to free calls back to the UK, essential for keeping in touch with family and friends back on Blighty.

We also have the Internet and while it took the best part of the first three months to get it sorted out, it does still count as an achievement.

On the personal front, DD is now on her fourth week at the maternelle and is settling in nicely. We’ve already made friends and are, if anything, in a bit of a social whirl with lots of activities in our weekly timetable. We’ve discovered a fab place called Ludotheque, which offers play sessions throughout the week but is also a toy library. A toy library! Brilliant. Plus we’ve been to: the regular library; to movie night at a neighbours (where he shows the local kids a class French film, usually animation); to forest school; and to a wedding and a birthday party. When I get more time DD, DS, and I will have play dates coming out of my ears. We’ve also had “curry night”, which we all agree will be a regular features when our friends Matt and An come back in April, and I’ve encouraged Brigitte to start a regular sling meet type event as it was something both she and I wanted to do; she had the contacts and the language skills (being native) and I provided enthusiasm and encouragement that she needed to make it happen, which is great teamwork!

In fact, socially I could probably give us a 10/10. James did make a comment the other day (when we were on our way to meet someone I’ve recently befriended) about us not having time to socialise, but much of my time is spent with both littlies while he works on the computer and one thing the last few years have taught me is that life is better for mummies and their babies when they are with other mummies and other babies: it really does take a village and we – the women at least – are not meant to sit at home alone to stew in our own juice. So the socialising won’t be going away anytime soon. It’s all networking, right!?

Sort Out the Paperwork = 6/10

I’ve made some good progress on this front but I’ll admit to being a bit slack at picking up all the odds and ends. After cancelling all the major direct debits associated with our old address, which took the best part of a 8 weeks due to the Internet issues, I’ve not done much else and am relying on Royal Mail’s redirect service to deliver prompts in the mail from companies and accounts that I need to amend. That’s something to refocus on in the next few weeks, although with Christmas coming up it will more likely be a job for 2017.

A major leap on the paperwork front was sorting out the Assurance Scholaire, registering the car to obtain our Certificate d’Immatriculation, and getting the car insured. Oh, and let’s not also forget opening a French bank account. Despite the reputation for bureaucracy here, we found all of those things to be fairly straight forward and not too dissimilar to similar activities in the UK. The trick is to have all the paperwork handy in the first place and have enough French language under your belt to muddle you way through discussions with officials. All credit goes to James on that front. I think we’d have struggled if his French was as bad as mine. I’ll take the credit for gathering all the required documentation because if there’s one thing I’m not troubled by it’s paperwork!

Learn the French Language = 1/10

I feel like this is an epic fail on my part but I’m partly blaming lack of Internet connectivity, as well as DD’s new found inability to go to bed/sleep before 9pm. When we first arrived I did manage to get a few minutes every evening to work on my French, which meant I was learning little by little and had the confidence to try and speak every day. Since I fell out of that routine my brain seems to have dried up and I am finding it impossible to recall almost any French words or phrases in a timely manner, which is just embarrassing. If it weren’t for James we’d be struggling.

Perhaps I’m being hard on myself? When we arrived I had very basic “holiday French”, which just about extended to ordering a cup of coffee then asking for the bill. I know many more nouns than I did before and a good handful of verbs. I can listen to the radio and pick out words, sometimes even understand the adverts, and often help James by listening when he is talking to someone, catching things that he doesn’t, so my understanding of the language has definitely improved. So maybe 2/10. Either way, there’s plenty more to do in this area if I’m ever going to be properly at home here.

Earn some money = 0/10

Hahaha, as if, with everything else that’s going on, I’ve had chance to do anything on this front. But that’s okay because DS is still only 8 months old so technically I’m still on maternity leave (in my head I have 12 months off). Yes, there will come a point where I need to knuckle down and make some money again but I’m giving myself permission to do nothing for another few months at least. Having to make this happen at some point is always in the back of my mind so I am thinking along those lines but I rarely seem to have enough time to join those thoughts together, let alone enough time to put anything into action. That time will come. I suppose I have at least got the web domains ready to get and a blank blog set up on one of them – oh, and I have a special note book for my work-related ideas. Does that count?

Conclusion?

Three months in and I think we’ve done pretty well. We definitely all feel at home here but there is still much to do. Was it worth it? Hell, yes! I still come back to the view that we’re better off burning through our savings here than in the UK. Would I rather be renting somewhere here or there? Let’s just say it was t-shirt weather yesterday – in December! Yes way. We’re staying whether we find somewhere to buy or end up having to rent a place. And besides, this whole trip is educational for us all. DD is already speaking in broken French, the odd word here and there, and can understand much of what is said to her. DS won’t know any different so will probably end up with English as his second language, assuming we stay here into his school years. I know I’ll catch them up eventually because I just can’t stand being unable to have a proper chat with people and am reassured that, as James remarked the other day, that already it doesn’t feel foreign here, you know like when you go on holiday and you don’t understand enough about the place to feel properly at home there, reading billboards and the like? Well, all that is becoming familiar and I like it!

 

Meet and Greet: 12/10/16

It’s my first time joining in a Meet and Greet weekend and my first every reblog! Thankfully WordPress has some great instructions so, if it’s your first time too, give it a whirl. It’s so simple! Bonne weekend!

Dream Big, Dream Often

dreambigwallpaper-pinkombre

It’s the Meet and Greet weekend everyone!!

Ok so here are the rules:

  1. Leave a link to your page or post in the comments of this post.
  2. Reblog this post. It helps you, it helps me, it helps everyone!
  3. Edit your reblog post and add tags.
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See ya on Monday!!

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A Spanner in the Works?

This was supposed to be a post about how easy we were finding the whole process of registering the car with French plates. First we collected the necessary paperwork, then we went to the Sous-Préfecture in Limoux, which is basically an administrative office similar to a town council office back in England, where we were given a list of documents and told to go to the Service des Impôts des Particuliers de Limoux (SIP), a short walk away, leaving not more than 20 minutes later with the paperwork we needed to take to the main Prefecture in Carcassone. All set, it seemed. Could it really be so easy? The next day, today, we picked DD up from the Maternelle and headed up to the main Prefecture in Carcassone to submit the forms and pay the fee, curious about how we would get on but optimistic that everything was in order. Then this happened:

Which roughly translates as: The carte gris desk is closed this afternoon, so you can’t get one unless you are paying by cheque. Marvellous. Since we don’t (currently) have a cheque book with our bank account that was pretty much that. We laughed. It was all going so well!

But it wasn’t all bad. It was our first time visiting Carcassone so we walked around for a while and stumbled upon the large ice rink and modest Christmas market. DD enjoyed watching the ice skaters and was very happy to be given a sweet treat as we walked past Santa, as sweets are usually banned.

After a short walk around we decided to try our luck back at the Prefecture and trying to take advantage of our immigrant status by playing dumb about the notice in the hope that at least we’d get the paperwork done. As it turned out the guy on the desk was more than helpful and, after explaining that we couldn’t pay today, checking and making copies of our documents so returning on a future date would be a relatively quick and easy process. So we’re going up tomorrow.

Whether we end up registering the vehicle or not remains to be seen as we are not at all sure how much it will cost, and that will be the determiner. We’ve gone ahead with this on the basis of our friends registering their car for about 500 euros, but that was a few years ago and now there’s an eco-tax payable on first registration of a vehicle. We can’t work out whether that means first registration in France or first registration wherever that happened to be. According to an online calculator that could mean the difference between 400 and 1,400 euros! If the cost is too high we just won’t do it and are back to selling up and buying a secondhand car here. It’s so confusing!!

And we’re back in the game, sort of.

We have Internet connectivity, yay! It’s been a real trial and almost three months since we arrived but heck, who’s counting, right? Yes, today we returned to the 21st Century and found ourselves properly connected to the Internet. Okay, that’s overstating it slightly as the version of the Internet we have is via the mobile network using the Orange Airbox, which works really well but has the distinct disadvantages of a) being metred — we have 30 GB a month in real money or 30 Go en français  — and b) costing a bomb  — 54 euros a month, which is a bit of piss take when you consider that you can get fixed line fibre, unmetered, with TV, sport, and a bunch of other feature we’ve come to expect for roughly half that. But we’re online, so who cares. Well, yes, I suppose I am a little bit bitter because having a metred connection is a pain . For example, no more Netflix or Spotify, which means I am now tinged with regret over decluttering our DVD and CD collections. I know it’s the south of France but it is still winter which does mean some long, cold nights ahead. We’re short of time, admittedly, so we’re unlikely to launch into a full season binge of anything but I do miss a little bit of TV after a busy day. The one DVD we currently have to hand is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cracking film with a very rousing sound track (I cried alot when I watched this during my pregnancy) and DD loves it. We’re currently learning all the words to all the songs (Bryan Adams!) and having a thoroughly good time singing along but you know, just some times I fancy something a little grittier; 24, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black. Or Doctor Who. I’d really like to snuggle down with a hot chocolate after battling the three-year-old into bed (tonight it took only 2 hours) and watch something with lots of swearing in it. On the upside, by the time we do get properly back online there will be plenty to catch up on!

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