Six months later…

It’s 6 months to the day that we left our old home in the North of England for the far sunnier Sud de la France so here’s the progress report on our five main tasks:

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

House Buying Progress = 2/10

We were on 1/10 last month and my first inclination was to downgrade us to 1/10 but then I thought, no, none of that time has been wasted and the fact that we don’t yet have a house is less to do with our efforts and more to do with the madness of the housing market around here. We couldn’t have done more. We’ve put in a couple of offers, which have been rejected, and almost bought two parcels of land. One of those turned out to be a narrow escape from financial ruin (it was agricultural land without planning permission – not that the agent was letting on about that) and the other we were all set to go ahead with but, on further investigation, discovered problems with access would push us over our budget. So that was that. Phase 2 will take place from a rental property nearby. The search continues.

Settle Into Daily Life = 4/10

We’ve gone backwards on this front since the last update and that’s down  to the fact that we have really gone for the property/land search since the beginning of the year. It’s taken up an enormous amount of our time and energy and, by nature, it’s chaotic: you have to act when something comes up, which makes timetabling and having a routine difficult. DD has settled in the maternelle, so much of our day revolves around the drop off and pick up for her mornings there, but apart from that we’ve been here there and everywhere looking at houses. Phase 2 will involve moving DD’s school (unfortunate but necessary – otherwise we’ll spend all day in the car) and settling DS into a creche for the first time, which I’m nervous about.

Sort Out the Paperwork = 6/10

I’m not sure I’ve done much of this in the last few months – there are probably a few boring admin things to sort out, so this can stay at 6/10. Our mail redirection runs out today so I hope everything important is now coming to the right place. The big paperwork push will come next as we need to get ourselves registered to as the French equivalent of self-employed so that we can start paying social security, which means access to healthcare. I’m sure there will be a few forms needed for that!

Learn the French Language = 2/10

Okay, I’m still stalled on this one but I’ve upped it to 2/10 because my comprehension is much better than it was and since, in the last week, I’ve started trying to spend a few minutes a day brushing up on vocabulary there is a slight improvement. James is always beating me up about this though, which I think is a bit unfair since I am usually the one wrangling two children meaning I have zero headspace. Going forward, Must Try Harder.

Earn some money = 0/10

Nope, we’ve not earned a bean but now we’ve decided to rent this is back to the top of the priority list. And having an income will make any future land purchasing and house building decisions less traumatic. We need to get this sorted because not having an income day makes every purchase seems expensive because it erodes our savings. The rental place has a small courtyard we can grow a few veggies in, which will all help to reduce our costs, and there’s some land very nearby that a neighbour owns that we may be able to setup a more substantial patch on: nothing fancy, just a few rows of beans, tomatoes, etc. Workwise, once we have both littlies settled into creche and maternelle, James and I need to agree a timetable because currently I get no time at all to much other than read and send a few e-mails. That has to change if I’m to stand a chance of earning some money. I can’t be the one doing all the childcare and we also have to stop running around together on errands one of us can do. Time to get organised!!

On the upside, my planning notebook is full of scribbles and I’ve been busy with ideas. I’ve also made some useful contacts over the last six months. And, of course, our new place will have broadband so, given the time, I can catch up on some of the training webinars I’ve been bookmarking because they just haven’t been possible with our limited bandwidth Internet setup.

Conclusion?

The last three months have been tough. We’ve worked our backsides off trying to find a place – a house or some land – to settle down. For one reason or another it’s come to nothing. We’ve almost gone mad from the effort and the apparent futility of it all. But we have learned a heck of a let. It’s been a steep learning curve and now, if we can just relax, we’re in a great position going forward to make sure we get exactly what we’re looking for while also taking some time to try and enjoy our new French life. A move to a new location is just what we need, I think, as it will give us a different perspective and also a bit more room to breathe. I’m excited about the next three months!

Renting again

We’ve just returned from an exploratory trip (holiday, of sorts) from the Charente and Limousin areas where we discovered there were houses with the kinds of specs we were looking for for sale within our price range. Having stumbled upon a few potential properties a couple of weeks ago we decided it would be good to get out and also to make sure we weren’t missing out by restricting our search to the area local to our current home, so I booked some accommodation with AirBnb and arranged for a neighbour to cat sit, James informed DD’s school, and we were all ready for the off on Monday morning.

It was a very interesting trip. Apart from the horrendous weather we found the property search pretty interesting. Yes, we could, if we wanted buy a property there that does, on paper at least, match our requirements. We saw two great properties: both stone buildings, small so easy to heat, with good roofs and land of between 2 and 3,000 m2. What’s not to like? Well, it would seem that a house in a place that you don’t want to live is not a house to buy. It was quite confusing really, to be in a house that ticked all our boxes and not be enthused about it but the reality was that the whole area was just too darned flat for us both. The countryside rolled endlessly in every direction. Yes, it was raining, which probably didn’t help, but it was more than that. The roads just went on and on. I realised that at no point had I had the urge to get on my bike and explore. The opposite was true in fact. The thought of going out on a ride there made my heart sink! Too many long, not quite flat, never-ending, to the horizon and back roads. No hills! No hills anywhere nearby either. It was my idea of countryside hell.

After three of the five days there we decided we’d seen everything we wanted to and set off early so we could spread the return journey over two days to make it easier for the littlies. I found a nice apartment in Cahors on AirBnb and was able to book just 24 hours before we wanted to arrive – and now we had something to look forward to again. Good. We took a slow drive down, stopping on the way to visit the mum of a friend (who has a house for sale that we wanted to check out), having a leisurely lunch with her before continuing on to the town, opting to wiggle along on back roads rather than aiming straight for the autoroute. It was lovely. We drove through the Dordogne, passing Sarlat and Domme, almost going past the door of a gite we once stayed at, and on through the Lot. It was interesting to observe how the landscape changes made us feel. I was pretty happy as soon as there were hills and wiggly roads again, preferring the more dramatic Dordogne to the Lot, where the hills started flattening out again.

After a relaxing couple of nights in Cahors we continued south, this time pitstopping at IKEA in Toulouse. Living the dream. There we were able to compare and contrast the food offerings (in the IKEA Toulouse vs IKEA Manchester/Ashton stakes, France wins hands down!) and pick up a “euro-dryer”, as the one with the gite is broken, and a step for DD so that she can use the “big toilet” on her own. She’s growing up so fast!

Finally, at about 4pm, we made it back to our “home” – feeling quite upbeat about everything. While we didn’t find a house we both felt it had been a worthwhile trip in that it had focussed our minds on what we do want. We realised we badly need to get out of this claustrophobic little hamlet and this stupidly small house so our immediate focus will be on finding somewhere to rent long term so we can get settled and start to work on our businesses. We also agreed that, when it comes to finding a permanent home, we need to be in the hills and close to the mountains. In terms of buy vs. build we have seen so much rubbish we are going to push on and build, but take our time to get our plans together and to find the right piece of land with good access, good aspect, etc. We needed to get away to get the headspace to make those decisions, as something about being in this small place makes it really hard to think straight.

So now we have a plan. It’s a far cry from Plan A (move to France and buy a house, blah, blah, blah) but it is nonetheless a plan and one that is based on reality given the confines of our budget and the general state of properties we can afford around here.

First things first though, escape from this crazy-making little hameau.

To be continued…

House Hunting is Hell

Oh, it’s been a long week. Plan A was always to buy a small house with a large garden but when we arrived all the properties we saw were so terrible we decided to investigate building instead. Plan B. That all seemed straight forward – we’d buy land, live in a van onsite, etc. – until we had a close shave with a land purchase (constructible according to the agent but no CU, according to the local Mairie), which taught us just how naive we were and how easy it would be to make a colossal mistake so decided to rethink our plan. In the end we agreed that we don’t have the language skills to properly navigate the system and – given we’re also supposed to be parenting two small children – aren’t prepared to take on the risks associated with a build. We’ve found a kit house we would like to build, if we ever get to that stage, but we don’t have the time or the money for that now because we want time to focus on our family. Plan C then became that we would use roughly half our budget to buy a small village and a small plot of agricultural land closeby. That would allow us to get on with our lives and also keep an eye out for land to build on should something become available in the areas that we like. We learn French in the meantime, earn some money, the children go so school/creche – everyone’s happy.

Plan C felt like a huge weight off. It’s claustrophobic in this little house we’re renting; effectively one small room, since we battened down the hatches to survive this cold winter, and the idea of buying a house and just getting on with life made all of us happy. We whizzed through the various agents’ websites and found quite a good list, all in areas we liked, and saw six houses in the space of two weeks. No good, for reasons I’ll get to. Our French friends say wait, something will turn up, but we have to leave here at the end of April and then where do we go? A rental property we were told about won’t allow pets and that is the only house for rent that we’ve heard of that be in the catchment for DD’s school. Rents are high – as high as they were in Manchester – which is crazy considering no-one here seems to work, and the houses aren’t great (no insulation, etc.) and we didn’t come here to rent a crappy little house; what we all want is to feel settles somewhere.

Plan C then – which was more in line with the original plan when we came here. Spend more of our budget. Just get a house in this area so that DD can continue at the maternelle she’s so happy with; any house preferably with some outside space, that we can move into straight way without having to do any work on it and buy a small plot of agricultural land for vegetable growing; live our lives, get our feet under the table, start earning and saving some money. If this smacks of desperation it’s because we feel desperate right now.

Why the rush? Well, I guess it doesn’t feel like that to us. For us this has already been a 12-month journey, starting when I lost my job and we started decluttering and making plans to move. I had DS in March and then the packing began while the decluttering continued. We came here in September and all we’ve done since then is run around looking at houses, looking at land, having heated discussions about sun exposure, thermal efficiency, market value, etc., etc., etc. And yesterday DD started crying because Lion (a giant cuddly toy she’s fond of) is in a box upstairs, along with many of her other cuddly toys. When your three-year-old daughter sobs in your arms because she’s missing her cuddly lion, your heart just breaks and you’d do anything to put it right, including deciding to have bought a house by the end of next week. She’s right too. These two kids couldn’t care less where we live as long as it’s somewhere safe and warm that we can all be happy. Home is where the heart is, for sure, and no-one ever got happy spending all their days driving around endlessly looking at houses with imminent homelessness looming over their shoulders.

Every other day I’m in tears too. It’s emotionally exhausting – made worse by “advice” from French friends who tell us that whatever the price is is too much or the sun exposure isn’t good enough; how for that money we should expect x, y, z (insert: more land, more sun, more, more, more) and just wait, wait, and wait some more for the right thing to turn up. This is made worse again by French owners who are blatantly taking the piss, probably because we’re “Rich English” folk, which we’re really not. We’re assured that there isn’t one price for the English and another for the French but another agent said as much and I think he’s right. For example, we learned that a house we’d viewed earlier this morning day, on the market with an (English) agent for 99k euros, is being advertised locally (i.e., not through an agent) for 70k. And the owner had the nerve to say to the agent he’d consider an offer of 90k. How generous of him! We viewed four properties in total today – all overpriced. One seller had the audacity to say to James with an almost straight face that the “garden”, which is actually a parcel of agricultural land a good 10 or 15-minute walk from the property, could be sold with the property for 15k euros. Apparently she paid 8,000 euros for it 8 years ago and now she wants 15,000 for half of it. Half of it! I mean seriously. Since that conversation James has busy translating some new phrases into French, including: “You have to be kidding me” and “I’m insulted that you think I’m stupid enough to pay that much.”

The search continues. I just hope we find a house before we all have nervous breakdowns!

Gite mods: why you really need to think about winter if you’re buying a place to live here

When we agreed with the owners to take this place that we’d previously rented during holidays in June and September, both nice warm months, we were warned by our neighbour, Marie, who we know from those holidays, that it wasn’t very warm or well insulated and that winters here could be pretty hard. We shrugged off her concerns, naturally; we’re pretty resilient types, used to winter camping trips in the UK and also used to some pretty grim weather in our damp old house near Manchester. This is France, right, so how bad can it be? As it turns out, with a few creative modifications we’re perfectly comfortable and we’re also learning a heck of a lot that’s useful when we are looking a houses. So what have we done and why – and what does this teach us?

First up, the drafts. The building we’re in is a “renovated” barn along on old, narrow street. Luckily one side faces South, so on sunny days we benefit from the winter sun warming the wall and the roof, which means we don’t need to light the fire, even on cold days (as long as there’s sun, of course.) The downside is that whoever fixed the walls probably did it during warmer months and didn’t do a great job so when we light the fire in the evening and the air temperature inside rises inside, cold air comes pouring in through every available crack and crevice, of which there are many – some more severe than others. Our first hack involved stuffing cracks in the render with tissue paper, which is very rough and ready but works pretty well – and is great fun for DD too. Once it got colder, around mid November, we took down the thin summer curtains and replaced them with thicker, heavier ones, meaning that the room we sleep (which is the main room with the woodburner) keeps the heat better. Now, because some pretty cold weather is forecast in the next week or two, we’ve upped our game, so now the arch between the kitchen and our bed/main-room now looks like this:

Really, it’s not for everyone, is it!? That’s my 4.5 tog summer duvet right there on our wall and it’s doing a fine job of keeping the other room very cosy and snug indeed.

We’ve also had to hack the woodburner. This place only got a woodburner a few weeks into our extended stay. I think it was early October. The owners decided to put one in primarily to make winter rentals possible but, like all “good” landlords, they didn’t want to spend much money, so we have the pleasure of spending winter warmed by the Panadero Gothic 2, now out of stock but originally purchased from Mr. Bricolage for less than 200 euros. And what a billy bargain it has turned out to be. Not. I mean, seriously. The first or second fire we had caused the door to buckle, making it now impossible to fully choke down. Consequently the fire goes out usually some time between 4 and 5am every night because burns through the wood too quickly. As any wood stove aficionado knows, airflow management is the key to a successful burn. We figure we’re getting through about 25% more wood than we need to because it is burning so fast all the time. And of course there’s the waking up cold at 5am thing. James has managed to hack the stove, improving this slightly, by stuffing the gaps and cracks with foil. It’s not pretty but it works.

Then then are the handles. That’s the handle for the door and the knob that is used for the vent. You’d think it would be a good idea to equip a wood burning stove with handles made out of a heat resistant material but no, not the bottom of the range Panadero Gothic. This meant that they too suffered in the heat, breaking into pieces within the first week or two of usage. Brilliant. James fixed them with wood glue but now that’s given way too. Perhaps there was a label somewhere saying that this particular model is for decorative purposes only but it was in French so the owners missed it? That would make more sense of why anyone would buy this. It does look okay, I suppose. But at least with the hacks, which you can see in the picture over on my other post about the rainy day, it is functioning. Thank goodness for aluminium foil!

This whole experience is teaching us so much more than we thought we needed to know; we learn something new every day. So what are we learning from tin foil door handles and duvets for curtains and why am I writing about it here? Well, fundamentally, the big lesson for us or anyone moving to a hotter climate than they’re used and buying (or renting) a house to live in year round, is to think about winter and what that means in terms of heating and cost. That’s why James is being so meticulous about checking the sun exposure to every property we look at. Essentially it’s why we haven’t bought one yet, too! We are really glad we’re doing this now because we can see how it would be all too easy to turn up in France or elsewhere during the summer when the sun is high and the air is warm and to be swept off our feet by some land or a property only to find that we are saddled with somewhere cold and expensive to heat during the winter. As a pretty extreme example we were shown a gorgeous plot of land – on the side of a hill, lined with trees, totally private and secluded, away from the main village – that felt right. When James first saw it he was so excited because he loved it and he knew I would too. It ticked many of our boxes but, knowing how cold it can get, James went up there early one morning to check the time when the sun would hit the site – and it’s a good job he did, because it didn’t! He came home two hours later, freezing cold, relieved to be able to sit on our South facing balcony to warm up. It was exactly 10 degrees warmer here than there. Can you imagine!?He went back later to check with the fancy Sunseeker 3D app and that was the end of that because it turns out there’s no sun hitting that plot for more than 30-minutes each day in winter. Brrrrr. The sun is so important here in winter. As is having a warm, well-insulated house that is cheap to heat.

The money side is critically important unless you have money to burn, literally. As another example, we were put off renting a large villa-style house only a few miles from here after being told by the owners told to expect a 2,000 euro bill for heating during winter. Two thousand! The owners typically live there all year round and, get this, said they only heat the main room and one of the bedrooms – and still it costs two grand to heat during winter. And we’ve read stories online where that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Heating bills of 6- even 7-thousand euros are not unimaginable. In contrast, one stere of wood (equivalent to a cubic meter measured as a single scoop of the JCB), is costing us about 75 euros and we’ve had five and a half so far (one lasts just less a month) and we expect that will see us through to March now we’ve erected the duvet mod. We’d have spent less if this dumb stove could take 50cm pieces of wood (65 euros per stere instead of 75) but it can’t. That’s not bad though, is it. Plus we know how much we’re spending because we buy it then we burn it. The idea of being on mains gas or oil central heating, where you can just pop it on or turn it up if you feel cold to get hit by a bill later, is terrifying. If you just want to spend summers here, fine, you don’t need to be so discerning. But we do so we must; as much as it works, I’d rather not spend all my future winters huddled in one room with duvets for doors but I also don’t intend to spend what’s likely to be two-month’s wages on heating!

And buy a decent stove. Period.

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!

 

First week at the maternelle

We decided before we arrived that we would enroll DD into a maternelle as soon as we were settled, so it was always on the cards. Then, after reading various blogs from others who had relocated and put their children into the local maternelle or école without much of an issue (on the administrative side, at least) and realising that we might not be settled for some time, we decided just to go ahead and enrol her in the village maternelle when she turned three. Our main motivations being to get her into a French-speaking environment and to give ourselves time to get things done, much as we had in England when she went to nursery three mornings a week, and also for the sake of keeping her occupied, as she was happy at her nursery before, being sociable, happy and busy by nature and we were struggling, while also juggling other responsibilities, to find interesting things for her to do.

With her third birthday day approaching, we popped into the Mairie on the Thursday, taking with us the relevant paperwork (her passport, the red book detailing her vaccination record, her birth certificate and a bill with our address on), thinking we would arrange a visit for the following week and start her up there sometime soon after, so it was quite a surprise that the process was so slick and efficient that within an hour of setting foot in the Mairie’s office we were on our way up to the école to greet the Directeur and shortly after that were agreeing that she would start the very next Monday! It all happened so fast. So on Monday, DD started at the local maternelle.

It was a rude awakening. For the past couple of months we’ve been drifting around a bit really. Without proper Internet access our ability to work, to look for properties, etc. has all been limited, so life has taken on a very laid back pace and we’ve managed fine by waking up whenever and generally never leaving the house before 10am. A 7am alarm aiming to get everyone in the car for 8.30am was quite a shock to the system!

Day 1. We drove up and went in, with DD skipping along quite happily, excited about her first day at “school”. The playground was busy and quite loud and, when she saw the others choosing bikes and riding around, she watched from the sidelines for a while before collecting a tricycle and joining in. So far so good. Then the time came to go inside, so I went in with her, put her coat and bag onto a peg, then went to say goodbye. She’d found the play kitchen and was already absorbed to the extent that she  ignored me when I said I was going so I gave her a kiss on the head then slid out of the door. From our point of view, brilliant! No tears, no upset – just one excited and happy little girl going off to her new nursery for an hour.

Except it isn’t nursery – there is definitely less unstructured play and more time spent learning – and it is for a little more than an hour. She’s also in an environment where she’s the only English speaking child, which is a huge challenge in itself given she’s so verbal now. I am so immensely proud of how bravely she threw herself into it that first day.

Every other day that week wasn’t quite such plain sailing though. She cried every time. On Day 2 she persuaded James to stay with her, which is a huge parenting fail in terms of settling her in and setting her expectations, so on Day 3 Bad Cop Mummy took her, just me and her, leaving DS at home with James. There were tears. My heart broke leaving her there. But James and I had sat up the night before preparing what I would say to one of her teachers, asking them to watch out for her and reassure her, as she’d confided in us the night before that she was upset by one of the younger girls trying to climb all over her and playing with her hair. Fair enough, and not at all pleasant when the young girl doesn’t understand when you ask her to stop. I spoke to the Maitresse in the playground, who reassured me and picked DD up, distracting her while I slid out of the gate after quietly saying goodbye. When we picked her up later she’d been fine, trotting back into the house carrying a picture she’d drawn that day. There we no red rings around her eyes (a tell-tale sign of a traumatic morning!) and she was perfectly happy, just tired.

The drop off on day 4 wasn’t so good either, unfortunately. One of the younger boys fell of his bike while in the playground before the start of class, injuring himself quite badly, which meant that all the adults there, the teachers, were distracted and there wasn’t anyone in the playground to look out for her. DD wanted me to stay so how could I go when there was no-one to entrust her to? I put her bag on her peg then we sat outside together, her cuddled up close to me, while I pointed out a couple of other children that she might be familiar with – one from the hameau where we’re staying, although he’s older and usually at school so their paths haven’t crossed, and another who was a party we were invited to – thinking this would help her to relax by making the environment feel more familiar. We watched the other children and I chatted to her about this and that, then the Maitresse came out of her office and started to round the children up ready to go into class. It’s normal for the older children to take the hand of the little ones and lead them in, but DD didn’t want to go with the girl who came over to us and offered her her hand. I said it was time for her to go into the class and DD knew what was coming so she clung even more tightly to me. I caught the eye of the Maitresse, who came over to take her. It was so hard but I let the Maitresse take her and then left, hoping that once distracted and busy she would be okay. That meant another difficult goodbye and I cried on my way back to the car, dashing past a small group of parents who gave me sympathetic looks, and most of the way home. I’m reliably informed that she was fine once she got into class, which fits with the happy version that bounced through the door later that day.

So is it just the drop off that upsets her? I was  worried about her. I wondered, is she too young still? Is it too much for her, with the language still to learn? Would we have put her into preschool so early if we were still in the UK? Is it too regimented? Also, too late really, I realised we had committed her to school for what will likely be a very long time now. Maternelle isn’t nursery. Yes, you can choose for the little ones to go part-time, but it is essentially school, following a timetable with set holidays. No rocking up at 10am on Monday because you had a bad night with the baby or stayed up late chatting to an old friend. No long weekends away that are outside of school holidays* or term time adventures. All those things are normal when you have a child in nursery but this is school, albeit for very little ones. Was that really what we wanted? Was it the right thing for her and for us?

Then I remembered that I was only just 4 when I started actual primary school. Only a year older than DD is now and I was plunged straight into full school days and the start of “formal” education. I didn’t like it at first but I didn’t have a choice and once I got over that I loved school and learning. That isn’t what’s happening at the maternelle as she’s not going to be full time for a while yet – there’s no need for that until she’s nearer starting in the next class, until she’s six. Yes, it’s more structured learning than at nursery, but it’s still a gentler start than I think I received. And she’s bright. Really bright. Since Monday she’s been craving the French language. She wants to read her French books, listen to French on the radio, talk to our French friends and neighbours. And every day, after the initial upset, she’d come home proud of some achievement, whether doing a drawing, using the toilet, or reading a story. So I thought about it and decided that they previous day had been a glitch, most likely because there wasn’t anyone there to look out for her. I wasn’t happy about that and resolved that I would only be happy to leave her there if I felt she was being looked out for by a sympathetic adult.

And so it was that on Friday, the last day of the week, day 5, five mornings of early starts later, we were walking to the school gate when she told me that she didn’t want to go to school and she didn’t like the teacher. Cue heart sink. She clung to my leg, she wouldn’t even let me go into the school to put her bag on the peg. I felt terrible. I approached the Maitresse, whose English was about as good as my French, and tried to tell her that DD was nervous and asked if she could help. She understood and was sympathetic so tried to take DD from me. DD wasn’t having any of it but I knew DD would be okay once she got into class so I decided I just had to suck it up and go. The Maitresse took her from me and she screamed. I drove home feeling bad but somehow optimistic.

A short while later – which one the one hand felt like a lifetime but, on the other hand, wasn’t enough time to get anything done – we were off in the car to collect her. I worried what state she’d be in. Had I made the right decision, taking her on Friday and leaving her like that? To my relief I was greeted by a little girl who bounced into the car telling me that she’d had her picture taken (there was a photographer there for the day) and had been making paper chains for Christmas decorations. Basically, she’d been fine.

As next week approaches I’m already feeling better about it. It was her birthday yesterday and we had a lovely day together. Today we went to another little boys birthday party and she had fun playing with the other children. She’s been busy playing with her new toys and is her usually happy, lively and curious self. I’m sure there will be a few difficult mornings yet to come, but that’s to be expected; she’s been by our side everyday for the last two months and is well out of the routine of going to nursery. We’re at the maternelle now and there’s no going back!


Have you relocated and put your young child or children into the Maternelle? I’d love to hear how you all adjusted to it or, if you decided against it, why and what did you do instead?

 


* although I’m hoping this is this is at the discretion of the Maitresse until she starts primary school proper.

 

Living under a rock

Since we arrived in France we’ve been almost entirely without real, bonefide, always connected, not worrying about data limits 21st Century Internet (and hence, Wi-Fi) in the house. For a holiday, no big deal. For an adventure in a new country when you have a million things to sort out, friends and family to keep in touch with, bills and moving practicalities to put to bed, a zillion questions flying around in your head, and a whole new language to learn, it’s a real pain in the arse. Do you know how many times a day you reach for Google? No, because the odds are you just pick up your phone or lift the lid on your laptop and Google away. Not being able to Google anything is amounts to not getting things done on steroids. Do you want to know what days the markets are? Tough, you’ll have to wait until you pass a tourist office and ask there, if they’re open. Which estate agents have properties you want to look at it? No idea. You’ll just have to go into each town and wonder round aimlessly until you find one then go in and be at their mercy. Want to make a cheeky offer on an overpriced house? No-can-do because the agents will only show you houses within 10,000 euros of your stated budget so as not to do themselves out of oodles of commission. Ah, so you want to search LeBonCoin, to bypass the agents and buy direct? Hahaha, no chance. Oh, you also want to reassure the grandparents that their grandchildren will remember them? (Yes, we’d been gone barely two weeks and my mum actually said that to me.) Well, Skype is out of the question. Do you need to find a phone number, maybe a phone number for calling from outside the UK to notify a utility company that you’re not at your old address? Good luck with that one, buddy! You can dial 0800 numbers until you’re blue in the face. No-one can hear your screams. And don’t even get me started on YouTube. It’s impossible learn to do anything that an instructional video could teach you. Every now and again I’ve set my mobile to allow roaming data because I just can’t take any more but try learning a new fold for the cloth nappies (I know there’s a fold for a heavy wetter – boy – out there) based on some fairly shoddy step-by-step drawings and you will fail, trust me. So there you have it.

The only workaround we have is to piggyback on a neighbour’s setup. In theory this means we can take it in turns to wander up the road and sit on a step opposite said neighbours house to use their Wi-Fi. In practice this means James thinks of something he needs the internet for then trots off up the road leaving me pinned under the smalls. Since we got here at least one of them seems to be breastfeeding at all times. Lord knows what’s going on with DD but for a small child of almost three she spends more time on my boobs than the baby. The times that I’m pinned under both of them are when my new found inability to mindlessly surf the Internet – usually reading blogs of women the World over similarly pinned under at least two small children and trying despeartely to see the funny side – is most keenly felt. To make matters slightly worse, getting it sorted is almost entirely in the hands of the property manager, who seems to have trained at the chocolate teapot school of effectiveness. Let’s just say we’re not hopeful that any of this will be sorted any time soon. In the meantime, you can find me under a rock (disguised as a couple of small and hungry humans). Send a telegram or something.

Welcome to France! And now for a crash course in not getting things done.

One of the criticisms often bandied about the UK’s nearest neighbour is that it takes a long time to get anything done. By coincidence, one of DD’s favourite movies is the Muppets: Most Wanted, which parodies this stereotype brilliantly with a detective who downs tools for a long lunch and then goes on a 3-month holiday. Anyway, as if to welcome us in true French style and ensure we set our expectations low, we were treated to our first taste of this on our very first full day here.

Before we arrived we had arranged with the gite owner two prices: one for the place with and another for without Internet. Suspecting that we wouldn’t have fixed line Internet we’d done some research and found some fairly reliable and potentially inexpensive, at least comparable to £50 per month, mobile alternatives. However, a 4G LTE solution that would be temporary and fairly immediate to set up while also providing enough data for us to get our work done would have set us back of 100 euros a month, as a French bank account is usually needed for the more sensibly priced solutions, with month-by-month plans targeted more at tourists, so having a fixed line installed and running bog standard ADSL or, ideally, VDSL Internet was definitely preferrable. So we were pleased when the gite owner e-mailed me in the week we were moving out here to say that Internet was going in on the day we were arriving, which would mean fully operational Wi-Fi. Yay! Yes, it was going to cost us a little more but it was definitely the low-hassle option. So that was the Internet issues dealt with.

Next up was heating. We’d taken this particular gite over the winter on the basis of it having a wood burner installed, as we didn’t fancy spending the winter here without one. The owner assured us they were putting one in, so we were happy enough that at least we’d be warm; we’d manage without Netflix but heat was not something we were going to compromise on given the proximity to the mountains. So imagine our delight when we turned up to no Internet and – yes, you’ve guessed it – no woodburner!

But it was all fine and under control, apparently. Debbie, the property manager, explained that the telecoms engineer would be arriving at 2pm on the day we were expecting to collect our cats to finish the installing the phone line. At roughly 3.30pm the telecoms guy turned up. By 5pm the cable was installed but no Internet – actually the line wasn’t working at all; for that to happen Orange needed to do something and then someone else, maybe him again, would come in to finish the job. At some point int he future. Obviously he gave no indication of when either of those things could or will happen but gave a very definite shrug of the shoulders.

And the woodburner? Well, they ordered it over a month ago and it was due to arrive “on Friday”. The big question seemed to be, which Friday!? No-one seemed to know. It seemed that at some point, most likely on a Friday, the woodburner would arrive. In the mean time we should expect a guy to come round to cap off the chimney to prevent the forecast rain dripping into the living room. True to form, said guy never showed up, so we spent the first week, when it rained and then some, with buckets and a plastic sheet adorning the floor under the gaping hole that was the chimney for said missing stove. Then there was the question of whether the woodburner arriving at the shop would translate into the woodburner being installed. We suspected not but we were proved wrong and, yes, by virtue of having been here just over a month, we are lucky enough that the woodburner has now been installed and bar a few technical hitches (like the self-assemble handle just falling off) we have heat, which is nice on the cooler evenings.

The phone line on the other hand? Well, that is a tale that rumbles on with no end in sight. If you’re reading this (or any posts I’ve made since we arrived) the chances are I posted them while sitting on this step outside a neighbour’s house, thanks to the generous “loan” of his Wi-Fi password, but people are generous here, so it’s worth the wait and also gives us something to talk about every time they leave the house and find one of us sitting outside – and I can think of worse places to sit. Welcome to France!

What’s in these boxes anyway?

Here’s the final installment of our move: day 5, when the boxes arrived from the UK. We’ve been here a month now – actually, exactly one month tomorrow! We’ve not found a new permanent home yet but we are making new friends, loving the sunshine, and settling into a new way of life. More on that another day. So far, so good.

*****

Have we put our watches forward or not? On Day 5, the last day to be dominated by moving-related activities, that was the million dollar question. With Matthew James delivering our stuff sometime between 8am and 9am and “a lot to do before then” (James’s words) we were in for another early start; 6.45am, as it turned out all our clocks were already on French time. I thought it was unusually dark for 7.45am. Oh well, what’s another hour of sleep anyway?

At around 8.50am we got a call. The lorry had arrived – great – but we had gone over the space we were quoted, 10 cubic metres instead of 7, so had to make an extra payment before they would deliver our stuff. Fine, I guess. When all your worldly goods are within a mile of your home and that’s the only way to get them back, what can you do?! It wasn’t so easy to sort out though. The gite still had no Internet, so we couldn’t look the number up online to give their office a call. The paperwork they’d given us on collection only gave their web address and e-mail, no phone number, so we were in a bit of a fix. Bullet Journal to the rescue, as I’d noted the phone number down when calling a couple of months earlier, so was able to find the contact number and call to get it all figured out. But then, how to send the payment without access to online banking? I needed to check my account balances, maybe move some money between accounts, and then set up the new payment, but before that I needed a phone number for the bank that I could call from outside the UK, and how on earth was I supposed to find that without going online!? Luckily my phone had some credit so I cautiously enabled data roaming. The banking app worked a treat and the call us button dialled without issue, despite being an 0300 numer. Phew. A few security checks later, it was all sorted. After a quick call to Matthew James to confirm, the lorry was on the way up to us and James was on his way to the meeting point with the Passat, which we were using as a shuttle vehicle between the lorry and the gite.

As with the collection, the guys that turned up were incredibly helpful, polite and professional, even if some of the boxes had been a little trashed in transit. It didn’t take long for everything to be unpacked and stored away in the upstairs room. Marvellous! Bringing everything into this small space, it really does seem that we have alot of stuff but when I think of the amount of stuff we didn’t bring, it is pretty much essentials or too-expensive-to-replace items only. Still, we had some rearranging to do before we could get our beds set up and straighten our living space out a bit and we decided that was for another day as we needed to go out and pick up some supplies. We were still living off the cash we’d withdrawn on the Friday, due to the card cancelling fiasco, so needed to be cautious about spending, which meant simple meals and quiet days knocking around the gite. After so much activity over the last few days and months that was just what we needed though, so after the shops we headed back for a late lunch and a lazy afternoon. Time to bond and regroup.

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