January marked a milestone for us – six months that we have now spent in France. It seemed like a good amount of time to reflect on what we have learned and experienced so far, but to avoid going on and on I’ve decided to split this blog into three key areas where we get lots of questions, or have learned a lot – language, school and social, and food! Here’s part two – school and social
On a cold Monday in November, I waved Louis bravely off on the bus, his duffle bag packed with hiking boots, ski jacket, sleeping bag and copious changes of clothes, just in case. At seven years old, he was off on his very first school camp, two nights in the mountains with no parents and no English speakers.
Like all the children on the bus, he was bubbling with excitement, but I was filled with worry. How would he cope if something went wrong, or he was overtired or couldn’t sleep? It seemed like an enormous ask for a seven-year-old, but when I touched on my fears with la Maîtresse she simply shrugged. For most of these children this would be their second or even third camp.
Camp – and school – in France is a much more arms-length experience. You farewell your children at the gate or wave them off on the bus and trust that all will be well while you are gone. Leave it to the professionals.
It was strange not to know what Louis – and Tom in his turn a few days later – were doing all day at camp, but both boys came full of chat and the experience seemed to give them both a boost in social confidence and language skills.
They did moan that camp was much more structured (‘we had to do work Mum’) and less ‘fun’ than they were used to, which didn’t surprise me. Adjusting to the rigours of French school has been one of the most challenging aspects of French life. The days are long and there is a lot less freedom both inside and outside the classroom, which my boys find challenging. For example, they can’t just kick a ball in the playground, soccer is reserved for the gymnasium and only on certain days of the week. In the ordinary course, a ball would be their usual way to connect with strangers at the playground (no language necessary), so this rule has been hard for them to understand and accept.
From the outset, we made it clear that there was no pressure on them to achieve at school this year – we simply wanted them to work hard, learn French, make friends and have fun.
Our youngest struggled the most with the transition, so at the start of the second term we agreed with the school that we would home school him one day a week to work on his French. I use the term “home school” loosely, as the day mostly involves some kind of adventure, although we do work on his French homework and reading.
Because he’s in the junior class, he got to learn reading from the beginning and although going back to phonics annoyed him, his reading is coming along beautifully in both languages. Until recently we hadn’t put a lot of emphasis on his English reading, so it amazed me to see that he has jumped up quite a level there too, almost as if the French language learning had helped him progress in his mother tongue. I’m not sure that science supports that observation, so will just say that children’s brains are amazing.
The four day week (well three and a half days) has made a big difference to him at home and at school, but I’m hopeful next term he will go back to school full time.
While none of the kids love school, they go (mostly) willingly – the half day on Wednesdays, the excellent cantine and ski days for the boys in January and February definitely help entice them through the gates! They’re also lucky that the school terms are short – 8 weeks, 6 weeks, 5 weeks, 7 weeks and 10 weeks, with two week holidays in between and then a long summer break. Right now they are in the sweet spot with LOTS of winter holidays and I’m battling to get work projects done and catch up on a four month blog backlog, with a five-week term and a combined 3.5 day school week. Because you know, skiing.
As for collège, Lily is conversely enjoying more freedom than back home – to choose her outfit, wear a little make up to school, and leave early or go in late if classes are cancelled, which happens most weeks when a teacher is sick or otherwise engaged.
As would be the case anywhere, there’s lots of social learning going on as they transition into the teenage years, and she seems to be navigating this admirably. The language barrier has actually been an advantage here, as it has allowed her to detach and stay neutral amid some of the girl drama that seems to accompany tweens everywhere, and that has been a valuable life lesson.
She’s working hard and achieving well academically – unbelievably so, when I think about it – as her relentlessly high personal expectations have not dropped just because she’s working in a new language. Somehow she manages to muddle her way through the tests and her recent report rated her above the class average in most subjects except French.
As for the grown ups? Well the hardest part of moving to a new land or community is building your network and I knew from experience that this would take time. As a family we’ve lived in six communities across four countries and each time it has taken about nine months to build solid friendships (as opposed to friendships-of-circumstance).
As expected, even in a mostly French town like ours, the easiest relationships and a vital network comes with fellow Anglophones, for whose support, insider tips, wry humour and friendship I am grateful. Building solid relationships with French locals takes longer, especially in a village like this where families have lived here for generations – and generations of one family all live in the village.
It’s a case of slow but steady progress. Daily chats at the bread van, turning up to the village apple fest and Christmas party, chewing the fat with my elderly neighbour on the bench outside the gate even when I have 1000 things to do. Chatting to the parents at horse riding, rugby, snowboarding and ski club, arranging playdates, tagging along to birthday parties and volunteering to marshal at the school fun run, helping out on class hikes and supporting the PTA (but Secretary? I mean really.)
Slowly but surely all the investment of energy is paying off. As they say, good things take time – and time is passing way too fast!