A Day in the Woods

Yesterday, except for the bit where I lost my bank card and DS screamed the whole time that I was on the phone to the bank, I think we had the perfect day. The sun shone, we met some friends, we played in the woods. All Day Long.

Some friends are organising regular get togethers, just a day every week when like-minds meet up in a local park. The kids can play in the woods, the stream or on the swings, we can chat as well as join in with the little ones, we build a fire and cook together. Yesterday P kept the two eldest girls busy by mixing ash from the fire with water to make a black paste. They painted every bare inch of themselves, spread a lot of it on their clothes and faces, and had a great time. The younger ones tended to muddle around, exploring cautiously either with a parent in hand orbiting us close by. The sun shone, we found a leech in the stream (not a snake, sadly, but not an earthworm, much to P’s relief!), contributed sticks to the shelter that S has started to construct, and had fun defending their space which, according to DD, was a wild panthers’ den for most of the time.

Five hours of play later we were on our way home with smiles on our faces, the smell of woodsmoke in our clothes and two very tired children. Days like this are why we’re here, why we uprooted our family and moved to this back-end-of-nowhere part of France hoping to find a house or piece of land to call home and also find a way to live day-to-day, as financially free as possible. We’re not getting so far with the house/land but we do have a place that feels like home and the money side of things is work in progress. Yes, there are definitely challenges: the language being the main one. It’s too quiet for some with a slow pace of life but we’re getting the hang of it and we really feel the difference during the times we’re back in the UK; too busy, too many people, not enough mental or physical space. Days spent mucking about in the woods are normal here. There may come a time when we all need more than that but for now it’s perfect and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

The only downer is that we were all so busy enjoying ourselves, there aren’t any pics to share. Next time. Because I really think every blog post needs a picture, here’s one from walk we did the other day: DD and James walked and talked while DS and me followed along behind saying, “choo choo!” Happy days.

And adult and child walking in a disused railway tunnel followed by a small child in a green helmet on a balance bike

Walking through an old railway tunnel on the Lavelanet-Mirepoix Voie Vert

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Real Life Bullet Journal: Monthly Planner

Ah, the bullet journal. This discovery has truly changed my life because it enables me to be organised at the same time as being wildly disorganised! I’ve tried to convert those around me to the system but to no avail so it’s a lonely endeavour. My only gripe with it is that there’s something of a cult for beautifying them, for primping them, for showcasing creativity and your commitment to self-reflection and self-improvement. Is that because it’s attracted a lot of scrapbookers? I have no idea. But for me it’s not all that. I don’t have time and I’m not sure I have the interest. If I find myself with more time I will be sure to do something more interesting (to me) with it than primping my bullet journal! It sometimes feels a bit competitive and I think much of the prettiness may put people off from using what is in fact a simple but brilliant way of reorganising your thoughts, ideas, and tasks into one place. It doesn’t need to be beautiful to be practical! Just search Google for “bullet journal” or search for it in Pinterest or Instagram you’ll see what I mean. All those BJ posts; so beautiful, so thoughtful, so colourful! And then there’s mine; practical, functional, and not pretty at all. But actually, that’s how I like it. I figured I can’t be the only one using it this way so I thought I’d be part of the counter-revolution in normalising bullet journal. This is BJ for pragmatists rather than dreamers, for nerds rather than creatives. That is not my current phase of life. When I first drafted this post (it’s taken me over a week to get if finished so it was started before Christmas) I had a to-do list of about 50 things and bullet journal got me through. I’d still be staring at the wall feeling overwhelmed by it all if I had to worry about the looks of the thing!

So here’s my first proper BJ share: my (current) favourite monthly planning layout. When I first started with BJ I used the “classic” vertical list, like the one on the main bullet journal page, but it wasn’t working for me. I like to be able to quickly see what day it is an I like a more visual layout and a more traditional calendar-style layout makes more sense to me. I’m almost at the end of a notebook and I’ve been using this approach the entire time. I like the at a glance organisation into weeks. No colour coding, no fancy key, no pre-formatted lists for tasks.

This is it. Warts and all.

BulletJournalDec2017

Because I’m busy trying to learn French I’m writing days of the week and most other headings in French. It didn’t take long for me to get the hang of the months and days of the week – and numbers up to 31 – by doing this. Now it’s second nature to use French for the labels and headings.

In a few days I’m starting a new book as there are only a few pages left in this one. Happily that will coincide with the start of the new year. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried to! Starting afresh gives me a chance to think about what worked and what didn’t in the old book, like the key, the index, list pages, etc. I am also thinking about any templates I can create to save time moving from book to book in future. I have a few favourite pages that I return to again and again that will need to be carried over and I’ll write a post about that once it’s done, but I think most of it can be archived or copied onto a digital list for future maintenance (I use Wunderlist.) Plus I’ll be setting up my year-ahead planner and other reference pages.

So that’s me and my bullet journal. I hope you like it and that by sharing my shabby scribbles you’re inspired to use the system as a tool and get organised. If you’re living a busy life short on time you really don’t need to about whether it looks pretty or not, if that’s not your thing. And if you are one of those people who does manage one of this Instagram worthy notebooks, I salute you! I’m sure in days gone by (pre-kids, maybe) I’d have put more time into mine. I love looking at the beautiful sketches, the calligraphy, the carefully crafted layout – but this system is too good to be all about looks. At the end of the day it’s a tool, a method, of organising every aspect of your life. The beauty of it, I think, is that there is something for everyone. Make it look pretty, if you want to, but remember – looks really aren’t everything!

A Quiet Christmas in France

It’s Christmas! It’s the first year that DD has really grasped the concept and for the last two weeks she’s talked of little else than Père Noël (Father Christmas) – when will he come, how does he get in, will she hear or see him, etc. It’s wonderful.

This time last year we were crammed into a tiny gite that was barely habitable during the winter. In hindsight we were stupid to stay there at all. DD had only started at the school a few weeks before so although we went along to the Fête de Noël (a band and a buvette) and the party for the children (lots of cake and an incredibly tedious story teller!) our language skills weren’t all that and it was difficult to know what was going on. We didn’t really have the internet and we weren’t feeling all that Christmassy. Plus the weather was better.

This year we’re much more settled into daily life – and with worse weather it somehow feels more like Christmas. Maybe that’s how it will always be for the Brit abroad at this time of year. Christmas just doesn’t happen here like in the UK, not out here in the sticks anyway. Yes, there’s a Christmas aisle at the supermarche, but it’s nothing like the barrage of festivity that you get in the UK. If you go to a Christmas market of course, Christmas is on, obviously, but otherwise, apart from the appearance of the Christmas markets, the brass bands that play there, there’s not much to know it was Christmas. It’s quite nice. I get the impression that Christmas here is much less about shopping and more about spending time with family and friends. I may be wrong, but I’m not feeling any of that sense of pressure to spend, to shop, to provide, that I used to get in England. And because we generally have less to do anyway we’ve been able to make time (and in doing so, save money) making presents and cards when maybe in the UK we’d have just bought them without thinking so much. I made mince pies for the teachers and then, because I couldn’t find a way to package them (or anything to package them in that didn’t cost a bomb) we made some pretty gift boxes using some fabulous card and the instructions on this other blog. They came our really well! Likewise, cards. A charity pack of five cards was going to cost 8 euros, so we made those too.

Handmade Gift Boxes


As far as lunch goes, we’re staying at home, cooking a chicken big enough to feed the four of us, going out for a walk while it cooks, then curling up by the fire to watch a film. Simple. And no Christmas TV, which is the scourge of Christmases at my parent’s house! James took DD to the park while DS slept and I managed to get everything wrapped and ready. That worked really well, much better than leaving it to the last minute then sitting up until 1am, trying to stealth wrap, because DD won’t go to sleep – which is what happened last year. We’re ready!

So that’s the practicalities.

For the children I’m trying to keep presents to a minimum, following the rhyme:

Something you need, Something to read,
Something to wear, Something to share.

This is a bit of a get out when it comes to Christmas as it means we are mostly buying things that would be bought and provided anyway. When I first heard this rhyme, it was:

Something you want, something to wear,
Something to read, something you need.

But then what would Santa bring? So I’ve outsourced the Something You Want to Santa, who they’ve been told brings only one present. That works fine. I like the idea of them having a shared present. I like that they’re not expecting Santa to fill the house to the rooftop with everything they want (DD has quite a list!) Otherwise we buy something they want and then Santa brings something else on top. That’s just too many presents in terms of both expense and clutter. 

Then there’s a stocking each, of which the contents looks like this:

  • A handful of nuts and a mandarin (satsuma)
  • A few chocolate coins
  • A Schleich animal
  • A tube of bubbles
  • Some socks and gloves
  • A new lunch box (for DD) and a harmonica (for DS)

I had planned to put a tub of Playdoh or something crafty in each one too but I ran out of time. I think they have enough stuff anyway so am happy that I didn’t manage to get more.

They also get new pyjamas. I would have given them those this evening, by way of encouraging them into bed, but DS had been running a temperature for the last two nights so sending him to bed in super-fluffy winter jammies was not the best idea! Luckily DD didn’t need any encouraging. They can have them tomorrow instead.

On the festivities front, DD has been learning some French Christmas songs at school so we’ve been listening to them on Spotify so she can teach us and so we can learn a few more. Our favourite album (of the weekend, at least) is French Christmas Carols (The Best Christmas Songs) by the French Young Singers.

Our top three songs, which coincidentally are the ones DD has been learning at school to perform at last Sunday’s Fête de Noël last Sunday afternoon – are:

It’s really fun trying to sing along and to learn the lyrics of these new songs. Even if the tune is familiar because the language moves differently, they’re not so easy to sing!

It’s interesting just how different the songs are despite having identical tunes. For example, vive le vent, which is sung to the tune of Jingle Bells (learn the lyrics here), is all about the wind and the weather – no bells or reindeer anywhere! I suppose the other way around the French will be surprised to know that we don’t have sing about the wind in our version 🙂 Most of the traditional English carols and Christmas songs have French equivalents – so there are many to learn. As far as that one goes, I rather like the French version: it’s romantic than. I like the idea of generations connected by memories carried on the winter wind.

And with that thought it’s time for bed. Night night. And Joyeux Noël !

Year Ahead Blogging Plan

This past few months I’ve struggled to make time to keep up with the blog but that’s not for lack of thinking about it. I am constantly distracted, thinking of things to write about and frustrated that I never find the time. As such I always feel “behind” – even though this is a personal project and I’m not accountable to anyone. I also feel like there’s quite a lot of drift and a lack of focus because I write about anything at any time. With that in mind  I’ve decided that a plan would make it easier for me to stay on top of things and also give the blog some much-needed focus. Given my current mission is to improve my French, I’m going to plan to write one post a month focussed on a specific subject that is useful to me right now, thinking about the main areas that I need to work on. That way the blog becomes a tool that enhances my language learning rather than another thing on my to-do list. So here’s the plan:

JANUARY
Illnesses and body parts. This is so necessary because since early December there have been many bugs going around. I need to be able to confidently talk about and understand any conversations at creche or school that relate to DD or DS’s health. That’s why this is top of my list.

FEBRUARY
This is usually a dark and dreary month, even in France (at least it was last year) so I’ll try to brighten my days by thinking about trips and outings for the rest of the year, so the focus for this month will be making plans.

MARCH
Winter in the mountains. This is my favourite time of year to go snowboarding but this year, if finances permit, I’d like to try a few skiing lessons. We also want to ensure the two littles can make the most of the snow while there’s good access to the mountains as the warming sun means the roads will be clear on sunny days. DD loves sledging and it will be DS’s first year, so there’s lots of fun to be had.

APRIL
I always get an urge to start spring cleaning so I may put some vocab together about that. More likely though I’ll talk about all activity that is taking place in the natural world as the flowers start to grow, the trees come into leaf, and we do some work on our vegetable patch, whether that ends up being on our own land or on a small plot we may ask rent from a neighbour.

MAY
French holidays and festivals. It’s not just the UK with bumper public holidays in May; France has more than its’ fair share too. This month I’ll take a look at the various public holidays here in France and try to find out more about their origins and any traditions surrounding them.

JUNE
This is the month of the summer solstice, so I’ll take a look at traditional celebrations that take place in France as well as language related to the moon cycles and any pagan influences in the language.

JULY
It’s the holidays! In July the schools finish and the long holiday, les grandes vacances, starts. Time to drift around, swim in the lakes, spend a day or two at the beach or go camping. (That’s is our kind of holiday, anyway.) And there’s the Tour de France, of course.

AUGUST
It’s hot, hot, hot – and likely to be busy. I’m English so naturally I’ll want to talk about the weather.

SEPTEMBER
La rentrée! It’s the end of the holidays and parents across France breathe a sigh of relief as the 8-week summer holiday comes to an end. This month will be all about going back to or starting school in France.

OCTOBER
This is always a bit of non-month for me but this month there’s a big mountain bike event in the nearby town. I’ve wanted to take part for the last two year so hopefully this year I will get my act together. This month will be all about bike chatter.

NOVEMBER
In the UK it’s bonfire night, but that doesn’t happen in France (no Guy Fawkes, no bonfire night!) so instead of writing about James’s favourite time of year I’ll focus on the other big event in my life this month; birthdays (DD will be five!)

DECEMBER
It’s Christmas, so of course that has to be the theme this month.

In between times I may also try to write other posts about my experiences navigating the different cultural and administrative landscape – as well as any updates on our land-buying/house-building plans (if the status of any of that changes) – but otherwise the focus will be on these 12 themes and language learning. That’s my number one to-do for 2018.

Upping the Anti with an iTalki vDate

Do you get me?? No, until about three weeks ago that would have made no sense to me either, so I’ll explain.

iTalki is online site that enables language learners to find internet-based language teachers, subscribe to one-on-one or group lessons, and also link up with other language learners to arrange learning exchanges where you spend, say, an hour talking together via Skype or equivalent, splitting the time between your two languages. It was something I found out about via the Fluent Forever quick start guide, which James passed onto me so I could get started again. I’m too impatient to go through the entire course book from beginning to end – I just want to know what to do and the quick start guide did this perfectly.

All this is because since going Facebook-free (which is going well, by the way) my resolve to get back into the French language has strengthened and I’m trying to use my time as well as I can: populating my Anki flashcards, revising said flashcards, listening to podcasts and, of course, using the language as often as I can (I know, I’m in France, but actually so many people speak or at least understand English that it’s necessary to politely decline their offer that you speak English otherwise I might spend years here and not see any improvement in my French.) And that’s all good but something was niggling me. I was toying with the idea of going to the conversation class, organised by the local MJC, once a week, but still I’m struggling with committing to regular time away from childcare and with no school or creche on Wednesdays I often have my hands full and like to have the option to do join in nice things and meet up with friends with children the same age so committing to it would be difficult right now. I really want someone to talk to just about that language, to help me with my learning and answer the questions I have. I considered putting a notice up at the local ludothèque to find someone else out there with a small child who would like to improve their English in exchange for helping me with my French, then our two small children could potter around while the children play. I also considered approaching a friend who I know doesn’t work in case she would be up for meeting me once a week in exchange for a small donation, but we don’t really have the money to commit to that right now, so it’s a no-no. And then I found iTalki.

So guess what I did? I found someone there who wants to set up a language exchange – 1/2 hour in French, 1/2 hour in English – so we can both improve. And my first meeting with her is tomorrow. I’m nervous as hell! I should also be preparing for it rather than writing this post, so in just a few words I’ll wrap up and go get on with it.

I’m nervous because, from what I’ve read, her level of English is way better than my level of French. I’m really still a novice. Also, she teaches French (via iTalki) so may start talking and decide that I really need lessons, that I’m not really good enough for any sort of conversation. Those are my two main concerns, I guess.

With that in mind I’m off to get ready. We’ve agreed (since this is all a bit “blind date”) to spend our first session introducing ourselves. I’m okay with that. Hopefully she will be kind with the questions. Likewise I will try to be.

I’ll report back afterwards. Wish me luck!

Facebook addiction, moi?

Maybe, maybe not. Whatever. Lately, there have been quite a lot of articles, such as this one on LinkedIn, warning of impending mental health doom as a consequence of social media. It’s not all good, apparently. Naturally I read many of said articles, since they were being spoon fed to me and Liked by many of my friends – how could I resist! The thing was they resonated with me. I was thinking only the other day how distracted I was feeling, wondering how I was ever going to get anything done when I could so easily waste an entire morning filling out a form, with one 10-minute job on the computer and turning into the best part of an hour, still with nothing accomplished, and social media was high on my radar as the source of this growing frustration. The final deciding factor, the push I needed, was a few days of  emotional turmoil during which James was pretty clear about having lost all patience with my attachment to my status updates and all the groups I was busily interacting with. Apparently it’s been going on for a while, I’ve not been present, I’m always on my phone (blah, blah, blah, right?) and he’s sick of it. I went off the deep end at the suggestion (of course I did, I’m an addict!!) but after staying up late in a strop but also having a good think about it, I decided he was right (darn) and I definitely needed to take a break from it, if not give it up completely.

Social media, eh? How can something that was supposed to be so good be so bad!?? It wasn’t meant to be this way. It was supposed to be about keeping in touch with friends, staying connected to people we care about, but – after a heated discussion forced me to think more deeply about it – I realised most of the time I was spending on there I was “talking” to people I didn’t know and would probably never meet. And that was the problem. My concern with “quitting” was that I would be missing out – that my entire social calendar was organised via Facebook and life would fall apart, I’d cast myself into social oblivion by turning my virtual back on my virtual world of social connections. To some extent that was true for a while way back when, since my mountain bike club was mostly Facebook-based, as were Team Glow (another cycling club – spot the pattern, folks), NW MTB Ladies (er, same same). Those groups were my lifeblood before having kids and I think it was true to say then that, yes, everything was organised on Facebook. But things have changed alot since then.

For one I am no longer go riding with those folks. Obviously now I’m in another country, which makes it particularly tricky, but before we moved I’d switched nights out on my bike for never-ending newborn nursing sessions, a new “hobby” which brought with it new interest groups on Facebook and an overbearing need to stay connected to my pre-child friends via their ever-dwindling Facebook updates; a desperate need to feel like I was still in the loop, still connected to those old ways, old friends, favourite pastimes that I just couldn’t do any more because now I was a mummy tasked with keeping a small and desperately needy human alive. What a shock to the system that was! To soften the blow of the huge identity crisis this brought with it, social media enabled me to still “hang” with my old buddies, virtually, at least. I needed to be there, active in the groups and so on, so that even though I was at home with my lovely, sleep-proof baby,  my friends and all the people from my old pre-baby life wouldn’t have the chance to forget me!

Then, when DS arrived, having by then given up all hope of ever rejoining my old social cycling networks and having reconciled my present as being quite different, for the time-being at least, to my past and therefore being barely a distant memory in the lifecycles of the cycling clubs I used to participate in, I found myself tandem nursing – a strange and not altogether common experience – so I sought out new child-rearing-related groups to hang out in, most recently the Wild Schooling group (which I love!) and a Breastfeeding Older Babies and Beyond, which I can credit with helping me to stay sane (just) on the many nights when nursing both a newborn and a demanding toddler (now preschooler) were on the verge of being waaay too much.

As life settled down around in our new home far from our old home, I started to become a more active member of these various online communities and contribute to discussions. Why not!? I was now a veteran breastfeeder. I actually had advice for new mothers – I wanted them to succeed! If I could add a comment that would make a difference how could I not!? And this is where the problem started because, with over 2,000 subscribers worldwide, this was quite an active group. Add into the mix the oh-so-inspiring Wild Schooling group – 20,000 subscribers worldwide! – and that’s a lot of posts, updates, questions, discussions to distract an ordinary and slightly bored and disconnected woman who is four years into nursing with no end in sight. Oh, and did I mention living in a foreign country having left all my friends behind!? And this is how I felt it crept up on me. It’s really hard to concentrate, to focus, while nursing two small wriggly and sometimes also slightly fighty small beings. It’s not like I can concentrate on anything work-related or do anything that involves one or both hands, so I can’t program Anki with new words or grammar; I can’t even revise my Anki cards because for that I have to be able to speak and to play audio, which might risk waking one or both of my non-sleeping perpetually breastfeeding children. Which also rules out Duolingo. And anything else that involves audio: so no podcasts, movies, videos. I can’t speak to anyone, obviously (noise!), so no phone calls. Speaking to an actual person generates noise as does speaking to an app. Which reduces me to reading. So I’ve been reading, reading, reading: interesting threads on Facebook groups mostly, along with blogs, and news articles (links from my Facebook feed or the the Guardian, because I like the format of the app as much as anything else.) I’m also pretty good at tapping out posts one-handed, which is why I think Facebook (and maybe other forms of social media) are places that many women, especially mothers to small children, go to hang out. We easily find a tribe there because the world-over there are slightly bored women nursing children, lying still and quiet in the dark, with one free hand hovering over a smart phone, reading about the woes and wonderments of other women the world-over, and so it goes on.

That’s part of my story. I don’t deny there are benefits. It has definitely served a purpose but now the scope has started to creep to the extent that my virtual life, chatting with virtual friends about real-life problems (theirs and occasionally mine), was getting in the way of my real life simply because I had the best part of 22,000 “friends” – so that’s a lot of chatter! I learned some new stuff but a lot of the time it was not stuff I actually needed to know.

As for my real friends, well they’re hardly ever on Facebook these days (probably because they too are buried up to their necks in comments and conversations in other Facebook interest groups!) so the old days where it was all photo of a cat or kid doing something cute were long gone. Since that was my main justification for staying on it, I was basically unable to justify to myself the time I was spending there when I asked myself the question, how much time to do I spend engaged with my actual real-life friends?

So what am I missing? In short, nothing at all. I’m still logging in for 10 minutes here and there to check the items I have listed on various selling pages, as I do need to keep clearing out and those are quite active, but I’ve put some blocking software on my PC to prevent me going over time. (It’s called StayFocusd and it seems to work well.) I’ve deleted it off my phone and the iPad, so I can’t be tempted to just check in now and again and I’m deliberately not carrying my phone around like I used to. Thinking about it now it’s actually pretty strange that I carried my phone literally everywhere with me. Sneaking off to the loo to check Facebook isn’t addictive behaviour, right!?

Since taking the Facebook-free plunge I’ve been making much better use of my time, for sure. Within the first 24 hours I felt like I could think straight again, make plans, have ideas. In short I was already less distracted within the same day of turning it off! James came back from the school drop off and as well as getting DS and myself dressed I’d also done the washing up. Hurray! (He cooks, I clear up, if you’re wondering about division of labour.) This week I’ve managed to get a tonne of things done – little admin jobs that I’d probably have been too busy checking Facebook or replying to someone having trouble with their three-year-old nursing to sleep to focus on for long enough to actually finish.

(“Will my three-year-old ever stop nursing to sleep!???” Short answer: no, it will feel like probably never until they stop. They do stop, right!?)

I’ve also thrown myself back into my language learning, starting to build my Anki deck again, revising the list of neglected cards from my original deck, and also listening to podcasts, trying to read a bit online, and signing up for a new community called iTalki to try and build some interaction (beyond actually being in France and having to try and talk to my neighbours!) into my learning experience. I’ve also felt more present generally. Absolutely there are benefits to this Facebook-free lark.

That’s not to say it was – is – all bad.  I really, really enjoyed the #naturehackchallenge I’d signed up for and was so inspired by many of the ideas in the Wild Schooling group. I do think there’s value to engaging in things like that. And then there are the selling groups, which are pretty handy and also tend to be busy. There are some really useful groups out there, able to offer advice and support on anything from bike maintenance and sewing pattern advice to multiple miscarriage and domestic abuse (not my problems but I’ve read some pretty incredible posts that have quite literally changed lives!) In that sense it’s a bloody revelation. In moderation though. And when it’s driven by need rather than a compulsion – and I think that’s where I’d got to with it.

So that’s me. Facebook free for over a week and enjoying the newly focussed, status free me. Luckily I’ve never “done” Twitter, so that just leaves me and my blog, which I plan to update as regularly as I can. So far it feels a bit like when I stopped smoking: basically, I have time on my hands again and the main aim, for the first few days at least, is to stay well away from the biscuit tin!

Language Learning and Energy Drain

Moving to a new country is exciting, yes, but it’s also incredibly tiring to live somewhere where you don’t (yet) speak the language. You need time to learn, obviously – and I’ve been short on that – which means every encounter has to be planned and prepared for. This makes so many of the little things we do day-to-day extremely tiring and time consuming, things we totally take for granted when we’re a native or fluent non-native speaker. Things like going to the bank, the post office, the school. The shop, even. Even if you’ve been in this situation before you still have to rehearse, to check yourself, to brush up a bit, to ensure you correct any mistakes or answer any unanswered questions left over from the last visit.

And then there are entirely new situations where you need to learn new vocabulary. Like my recent trip to the docs for my slightly overdue smear test. In a second language that I’m currently a bit hopeless at it was pretty interesting inasmuch as I spent the whole appointment more embarrassed about my terrible French than the act of having the smear test. (It’s called a le frottis vaginal, if you’re interested, and is just as undignified with a French doctor as an English one.) It was a little overdue because there’s only so much I can do admin-wise and it took me ages to get round to booking a doctor’s appointment. On the one hand I didn’t have the confidence to do it over the phone but then I never seemed to have the time to pop in and do it face-to-face. In the end I braved a phone call just to get it done – and it went just fine, thankfully! But that in itself is an example of the extra mental load of being a language learner living in a foreign country. You can’t just pick up the phone and sort shit out!

And then there’s the headspace all this takes up. I realised the other day as I was driving to school to collect DD that possibly one of the reasons I feel so tired some days is because of the extra mental load this whole language learning process requires. On that particular day I was driving to the school but first had to pop to the bank to pick up a cheque book and pay some cash in. Ordinarily I’d just be driving the car, minding my own business, watching the road, maybe singing along to something on the radio, doing a mental check about whether I’d picked up my wallet or my phone, but this particular day I was running a conversation in my head along the lines of…

“What’s the verb for collect? Okay, er, so I want to collect my cheque book. Cheque book is probably un livre de cheque. Yes, that will work. So maybe, “Je besoin de colliere ma livre de cheque.” Is that right?? Is it ma or mon livre. Maybe I should say “Est-ce vous-avez ma livre de cheque?” Is that better. Have they got our new address? I should probably check that too. I’ll have to check it on my phone when I stop. So I’ll say…”

And on and on and on the conversation went in my head.

I got to the bank, went in, said something that may or not have been correct but was the best I could do, picked up my cheque book (so whatever I said worked), checked the address on the account then got back in the car – feeling very pleased with myself indeed. But it doesn’t end there, you see, because now there’s a new conversation to be had: the post-discussion analysis which goes along the lines of…

Did I say that right? What did they say? Did I understand that right? Next time I should say X instead of Y. Or would Z work better? What was that verb they used? So the past is.. Oh, I can’t remember. I’ll have to remember to look that up.” 

And so on. It’s exhausting! On the upside, the fact that I am actually having these conversations in my head – and using my terrible French out loud in the real world whenever I have to get the chance – is evidence that I’m making progress, but I can already see how greatly life will be improved once I have a good handle on many of the everyday interactions that we normally take for granted.

It’s given me a new perspective on the lot of an immigrant and I really feel for them. When talking about immigration the lack of language is something that people often whinge about but now I totally get how people who move to a country manage not to learn the language, especially when the natives tend to be hostile to immigrants and not particularly helpful. Because it will always be easier to hang around with other first-language native speakers. Of course it will. To put yourself into situations where you are struggling is not all that pleasant. There’s the mental toll before and after and the high-probability that you will humiliate yourself in between. But that’s how we learn. Kids don’t learn to walk or talk by imprisoning themselves in their comfort zones. They learn because it’s really frustrating to be stuck on the floor in one place staring across the room at your favourite toy, or having someone feed you apple when what you really want is carrot and a drink. So I take my inspiration from my kids. Both of them. Both of them are busy learning French and they don’t even know they’re doing it. DD is at maternelle and DS is at creche. Neither of these places have English speakers so they really are immersed in the truest sense of the word. DD has embraced it so well that she now says, proudly, “I’m French, not English.” She watches all her movies in French and  I’m pleased to say that the last time I watched Happy Feet with her I found myself listening to the audio more than reading the subtitles. So I can take all the extra hours it takes to figure out how to ask for my cheque book or book an appointment with the doctor over the phone. To learn the language is one of the reasons we came here, after all!

I first mentioned this in another post a couple of months back but as with everything there hardly seems to be time and most days it feels as though we’ve been busy-busy but accomplished very little. Perhaps energy drain is part of that equation? I won’t know I’ve cracked it until the first time that I manage to march into the bank or the doctors or wait at the school gate without all the mental chatter before, during and after. I have a feeling it will feel like being on holiday – mentally, at least. Until then I’ll just have to keep working at it.


The featured image used for this post is “help” by Patrick.
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