One Year On

Yesterday marked 12 months since we left the UK and started our adventure on the continent. We weren’t sure where we’d be a year from now – whether we’d be back in the UK or staying put in France, but here we are.

On the day we arrived, driving from the north to the south of the country, it was 37 degrees and perfect clear blue sky. Today the blue sky is back, for the most part, but the temperature, at 17 degrees C is more reminiscent of the Manchester weather we gladly left behind.

I should really be marking this anniversary with a recap post, looking back to reflect on what we have learned and accomplished in those last 12 months but we’re having one of Those weeks. You know, the ones where things happen and it seems it impossible to get anything done. This week we’re dealing with overdue health checks for me (just routine stuff but nonetheless a challenge in a non-native language), an injured cat (our gentle-giant was bitten badly in the throat by a long-term resident male who spends his days beating up the other cats in the village), an extra day with DD off school as the teachers are all striking today (Macron is threatening to cut the funding to village schools, which will force many of them to close), and a broken car (who knew that moving firewood could do so much damage!). I’ve also been busy back and forward to the creche as we try to settle DS in after our pretty futile attempt before the holiday. So the recap post will have to wait along with a bunch of other things on my to-do list (like getting my business website and CV set up!)

What we have managed to do today is some fabulous painting. Both DD and DS had a great time and I used photos of their paintings to make birthday cards for my nephew and brother-in-law, who both have birthdays next week. That’s one thing ticked off my list – success! Right now I have enough breathing space to rattle this out while DD and DS sleep (jackpot!!) and James it out with the car at the garage. I have the kettle on. Time to relax and soak up the silence.

 

A picture of a kid's painting table

My Little Artists’ Workspace

A child's painting

One of DS’s Creations (c) 2017 ūüôā

A child's painting

One of DD’s Creations (c) 2017 ūüôā

 

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It’s the Grand Vacances!

Our first summer in France and also, because DD is at the maternelle rather than at nursery, our first year without any childcare all summer meaning we have a full 8 weeks to occupy DD. Eight whole weeks? Yikes! It’s exciting yes, but daunting too. I doubt I’d be nearly so daunted if we were still at our old place near Manchester. There was sooooo much to do there. We were close to so many places running child-friendly activities – whether they were small business, community run projects – and of course I also had all my friends around me, many of whom had children of a similar age and would also be swashing around at a loose end for the entirety of the summer holiday.

There’s plenty to do here you could say and you’d be right but we’re on a tight budget now and many of the places to visit – ¬†castles, animal parks, and the like – are aimed at tourists and are expensive – which makes them out of reach except for maybe one or two days of the holiday. There’s plenty to do outdoors here, yes: the usual, walking, cycling, etc. plus water sports, etc. But my children are 3.5 and 1.5 years old. They can’t do the same things. They don’t have any sense when it comes to being in the sun. They can’t swim. Or ride bikes. They prefer to run in opposite directions, especially where water’s involved. They play together, just, but not for long. More often than not there’s screaming, given that the DD is at an age where she’s starting to create things that are meaningful, develop stories, be interested in projects, while the younger one is now totally mobile and is happiest when taking things apart and chucking them either down the stairs or over his shoulder. You can see how these two interests aren’t mutually compatible.

And there’s no backup. The grandparents are staying firmly put in the UK this summer. We don’t have any visitors, as we hadn’t moved into a proper rental house when people were starting to make summer holiday plans. So no friends are visiting, which is a shame. I was thinking to go back to the UK for a week (or more) but it’s high season so prices are high and after last time (I went on my own with the two smalls) the idea of it made me want to lie down! which means I’ve decided to put that off until later in the year.

What, then, is the plan? I need one, so I asked my friends on Facebook for tips on surviving the summer and got a few good suggestions including:

  • divide the day into three segments – morning, lunch, afternoon – and have an activity for each
  • make sure you get out the house every day (amen to that one!)
  • plan activities like messy play, crafts, etc.

And a few not so helpful ones, like:

  • Enjoy them, they’re only young for a short time.

Yeah, yeah. Something to remember when DS has just destroyed the train track that DD has spent the last 20 minutes constructing and they’re locked into a scream-in-your-face battle. Practical advice this is not!

Feeling at a loss I made a timetable and printed it out Рthinking I could work with that three blocks every day thing.  It looked like this. When I started splitting the columns into three it became a tangled mess of boxes Рall empty. I was starting to panic just looking at it.

2017 Summer Holiday Calendar

The blank and rather daunting calendar page

I tried to allocate activities to days with the day-into-thirds rule in mind but kept coming back to the fact that planning anything with a one-year-old and a three-year-old is as good as impossible, especially weeks in advance. The idea of having a timetable was itself stressing me out. The whole idea of having a holiday is to relax and not be rushing around or overcommitting to things. Plus it’s impossible to buy anything you actually need in France, so that ruled out pretty much any activity that needed supplies. Pinterest-inspired mummy I am not!¬†So the calendar had to go.

Still on the search and a bit anxious about the long weeks ahead I took another friend’s advice and did some mummying homework (which also gave me the opportunity to reunite with Kindle), quickly reading¬†these two books:

Both those reads helped to put me at ease. With those principles in mind I could handle it, for sure!

This all means that as far as holiday planning goes, the plan is to play it by ear depending on how well we’ve all slept, what sort of mood we’re all in (not always sleep dependent!) and the weather, of course.

My loose “schedule” – which is really just a bunch of things we might want to do – looks like this.

holiday planning page

My Holiday Planning Bullet Journal Page

New ideas are popping up all the time so it’s already grown since I took this pic. And the calendar is being used as a log of things we actually did so we can look back at the end of the holiday and think, “Wow! Look all the fun things we did!”

Holidays, here we come!!


Note: This post contains affiliate links. These are to books I’ve read that I recommend. I hope you don’t mind me including them.¬†

Busy, busy

There’s so much going on right now I have no time to blog about it! What with the classic Easter cold, taking us all down one by one, and a visit from my parents I’m only just starting to catch up on all things computer-based. I’ve got a bunch of part-written or planned and not started blog posts so plenty to keep me busy when I do find the time to sit down and write/think for any amount of time. For now though,¬†here’s a list of some of the things that I’ve been doing since I last posted:

  • Herding goats
  • Planting up more of the garden
  • Sewing
  • Finessing the worm bin setup
  • Picking cherries
  • Thinking of things to do with a gazillion fresh cherries!
  • Horse riding with DD
  • Swimming
  • Settling DD into her first full days at the maternelle
  • Settling DS into the cr√©che
  • Setting myself up as an auto-entrepreneur
  • Land and house viewings

That’s pretty much all the fun/interesting stuff, which doesn’t look like a lot but when crammed in amongst everything else it feels like a lifetime’s worth of achievements!

So, more blog posts to follow – but for now, bed. Zzzzzz.

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 Рessential 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!

 

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-Pr√©fecture 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 Imp√īts 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!!

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!