France 2, bewildered Brits 0

One of the hardest things about living in a new country is that you just don’t know how much you don’t know.

Take today for instance. Helena has joined the school choir and has signed up to do eight concerts before Christmas. “What a lovely way to meet some new people and visit some new places,” I naively thought.

The first concert was this evening, so cue much dashing around after school to be ready to leave at 6pm to arrive in plenty of time.

The first new person I met was inside Helena’s school. Not deterred by finding the gate locked, we persevered, as a room called Salle Rheinberg, listed on the programme given to parents with no other location must clearly be a room in the school. The girls agreed. “I think it’s by the canteen” Izzy said. “It’s where I have choir practice,” Helena confirmed.

When we found the room, I turned around to discover they had deserted me and left me to face the lone woman at the far end of the huge room on my own. “Ah no, madame,” she said, when I told her what we were looking for. “That’s behind the town hall.”

“In this village?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, quite emphatically.

I think perhaps she was just trying to get rid of me, because when we arrived at the town hall, the second new person I met, another lone woman inside it, had never heard of the event we were looking for.

A search around the back showed everything in total darkness. By now we were 15 minutes late and a quick trip to Google Maps showed that Salle Rheinberg is actually behind the town hall in Montreuil, a good ten minute drive away and with multiple parking issues.

So no new places and two new people later, we gave up and we’ve come home.

Oh, and curtains in France are, apparently, not sold in pairs. Alright France, you win this round, but tomorrow is another day.

School lessons learned: 1 Open all hours

It’s been a year now since we began our French adventure and since we dropped the girls off and waved goodbye as they ventured in for their first day in a new school with a new system and new friends in a new language.

So it seems like a good time to reflect. There were some things we were prepared for and some we weren’t. We knew that there were three different zones in France so that, while the school year starts and finishes on the same day, other holidays are staggered. We also knew that half-terms here are two weeks long.

What we didn’t know was that, the late May half-term doesn’t exist in France and, while the calender says the kids break up at the end of the first week in July, they begin to drift off in mid to late June.

This is true of the younger ones at collège (like middle school) who, once they’ve received their average for the year (after the conseil de classe, where teachers and elected pupils discuss their grades), are no longer obliged, or even really expected, to go to school.

It’s true of the older ones who take their Brevet exams at the very beginning of July (unless of course a heat wave means they are postponed like this year’s were) and can leave to study at home.

Having said that, the school is open come what may, so even when school buses were cancelled due to snow, we could have taken our kids in if, for instance, we had to get to work whatever the weather.

That’s unless it’s a public holiday, and there are some not celebrated in Britain, like Bastille Day (14th July), All Saints’ Day (1st November) and Armistice Day (11th November). If these fall in the week there’s no school that day.

We knew that school hours are long. The girls started at 8.30am and finished at 5pm every day except Wednesday, when they could stay for lunch and finish at 2pm or leave at 12.30.

We didn’t know that, within that, there would be days on their two week timetable when one of them started at 10.30am or finished at 4pm, or that they would learn to love what they’ve dubbed the ‘absent professors’ board, which lists the teachers who aren’t in school that day (due to training, school trips or illness etc).

A quick study of this board could often result in a trip to the loo to send a furtive text asking to be picked up early. Mobile phones are banned in middle schools, so open communication is tricky.

So school here involves long days, sometimes and long holidays, sometimes. And that’s just one of the differences. We all had so much more to learn!

Parent School

I’ll be honest, there have been occasions when I’ve felt more grown-up than when I’ve been sitting with a big badge, which reads ‘ecole des parents’ around my neck trying desperately to find the letter ‘m’ on an unfamiliar keyboard.

I wasn’t expecting to be sitting in a classroom again with someone having to explain to me how to use a computer. But then this move to France has seen us doing lots of things we didn’t expect to. (Submitting paperwork three times for everything official, trying to work out how to say ‘pipe’ and ‘queue’ in French without offending anyone and solemnly promising to clean my dog’s teeth every day spring instantly to mind.)

But there was orange juice and cake, so I was staying positive as I dutifully added the @ symbol to my document as instructed. (Yes, I was indeed a swot at school.) I have learned that many things are different when it comes to school computers in France, including that number keys don’t give you numbers – you need other number keys for those – and that adding accents is complicated.

So as I was struggling through creating a simple document, trying desperately to remember the French words we’d just been given for ‘save’ and ‘insert image’ and what each ‘alt’ combination did, it really didn’t help to hear my husband snigger next to me.

He elbowed me in the ribs and gestured to his screen, which sported a large, curvy ‘w’ he’d managed to insert, completely ignoring the teacher’s instructions.

“Boobies,” he whispered

Now I’m pretty sure that’s a word I haven’t really heard since I was at school myself.

Paddy was clearly connecting with his inner 12-year-old and honestly, I don’t think that’s ever very far away for most male members of our species. In fact I noticed our American friend also had a 12-year-old-style grin on his face while I was rolling my eyes and trying to remember how to add a % sign to my document.

But I’m destined to sit in a classroom, beside my apparently juvenile husband, for many months to come yet. I’m hoping if I’m good I may even get a gold star (or perhaps a language certificate) from the very lovely, very patient teacher, who I’m guessing has taught 12 year old boys before.

An open and shut case

Starting a business in France, to go with our established British one, less than six months after moving here felt like a small victory. Opening a bank account to go along with it a short month later was a triumph.

Clients were duly invoiced in Euros and we headed off on holiday without a banking-related care in the world.

It was a bit of a surprise therefore to return home to two copies of the same letter, in the same envelope, explaining that this account had been closed. Sure that there must be some mistake, we headed to the bank today brim full of confidence that this simple misunderstanding would soon be cleared up.

Oh how wrong we were. After telling a computer screen in the swanky, newly refurbished branch who we were and why we were there, we installed ourselves in the space as instructed. Before long a bank clerk appeared. Yes indeed, she confirmed, the account had been closed. No indeed, she didn’t understand it either. She was sure we would understand that it was not her who had set up our account so we would need to speak to the woman who had. The fact that she had a screen in front of her with all the relevant details, and that we had all the paperwork relating to the account with us did not change anything. We needed to speak to her colleague. There was literally nothing she could do herself.

The phone at her brand new desk in the brand new branch wasn’t working, so she disappeared off to make the call.

Sadly, her colleague wasn’t available, I should explain this was Friday afternoon, but she assured us she would leave her a message to contact us as soon as possible.

So the account we opened less than three months ago has been closed. We have issued invoices that can’t be paid and can’t issue more until we have resolved this utterly bizarre situation that is not of our making. A qualified member of staff in the branch of the bank at which we opened the account can do no more than leave a message with her colleague and wish us a very polite good weekend.

Mostly I love the way France works: the emphasis is on quality of life and family and it rarely feels as though you’re subjected to the hard sell approach of capitalism and consumerism.

There are times, however, when it’s entirely mystifying. This would definitely be one of those times.

Fill your boot.

“Get down Twiggy.”

It’s 8am UK time and we’ve been up for four hours and travelling for most of that. The freshly-washed dog, who doesn’t do crates or small spaces, is supposed to be in the boot, in her freshly-washed bed, alongside the shoes, coats, swimming bags and general detritus required for a family holiday at the British seaside. And a spare car battery, obviously.

The dog, however, won’t be moved. We’ve just reached the motorway so stopping isn’t easy, but a medium sized black and tan dog doesn’t improve rear visibility, so we stop at the next services.

I’m not surprised she wouldn’t climb back in the boot. What we’d taken for one of her infamous and nauseating farts is far, far worse.

An unfortunate series of events has led us to this point. It probably began when the dog discovered she could reach the cats’ food a few days ago. I caught her slinking out of the utility room licking her lips at around 2am and found evidence that she’d had her head in their food bag. The bag was duly sealed, but I think she’d got a taste for it as last night she upended their bowl for another midnight feast.

Getting up and leaving in a hurry this morning involved clearing up the three large piles of dog mess that resulted and meant time only for a quick and ‘unproductive’ walk. We were sure we’d have time to stop before we got on the Eurotunnel, but delays at passport control meant we were ushered straight on. The dog whined throughout the crossing, but there’s not really anywhere to stop when you disembark.

So here we were, in a service station car park, surveying the devastation. I’m glad I washed her bed yesterday, although it’s escaped quite lightly (if any trace of excrement can be considered light.) A dog towel is a write-off and goes straight in the bin. She’s caught the swimming bag dead on with considerable collateral damage to the car battery.

Twenty disgusting, smelly minutes later and our stuff is as dog-poo free as we can make it under the circumstances. (My family think I have a phobia of dog poo. In my view if you don’t there’s something very wrong with you.)

We all troop into the soulless service station, taking it in turns obviously because of the dog, to wash our hands. We all also get funneled into Macdonald’s on the way out but eventually escape, burger-free, and finally we’re under way again.

So if you want a cute, fast, black and tan dog with bad teeth (a whole different story) she’s yours. Honestly, she’s no trouble at all.

I’ll book a table

Third time lucky, I thought as we headed towards a ‘soup kitchen’ we love in Montreuil.

We were celebrating the fact that Izzy, after only eight short months, had finally finished her exams. She needn’t have taken them this year. She could have waited until next, but she’s one very determined 15-year-old.

We were also celebrating the fact that both girls passed different levels of their French language exams. It’s an important milestone in their journey towards becoming bilingual.

The first restaurant I tried, walking distance, in our village, isn’t open owing to ‘congés annuelle’. Fair enough, everyone needs a holiday.

The second one, walking distance, bit of a hike though, but a new one we’ve been meaning to try was also closed.

No problem, I thought, the soup kitchen’s lovely and we can take the dog.

After standing for over an hour, inexplicably, in a queue to register for lycée for paperwork that finally took five minutes, we were hungry.

But no, the soup kitchen too was closed.

So we ended up in an Italian restaurant, which happily was still serving food at 2pm even though everyone knows that isn’t lunchtime in France. You can’t beat a pizza.

Newcastle’s a big place

“You haven’t signed any of these.” The woman we’d just met at the social security office thrust the forms back across the table at us and glowered. Admittedly our meeting was just before lunch, but her attitude, and her reluctance to slow down from warp speed to intelligible French was starting to annoy me.

“Do you have copies of your birth certificates and passports?”

“Yes, they’re all here.” I passed them over and didn’t mention that, having spent ages preparing for this meeting and filling in a million forms (but not signing and dating them as you have to state where you’ve done so and I didn’t want to get that bit wrong) I only remembered I had to take copies ten minutes before we needed to leave whilst dressed in painting gear, covered in paint and in desperate need of a shower. I’d managed to get clean and presentable, copy the forms and we’d even arrived early.

We were in the local CPAM permanence, a baffling term that applies to the room in which the kids spend their free lessons at school and outposts of official bodies, like this one that deals with obtaining a carte vitale and therefore healthcare.

Having arrived at the office and taken a seat in the corridor outside, we were wondering aloud if we’d have to wait long, as we were the only ones there. A voice emanated from within. The speed of delivery, and the closed door in the way, meant we didn’t immediately realise it was aimed at us. Then we heard someone shout instructions. “If you’ve got an appointment come straight in,” or words to that effect.

I still knocked, but it had not been the kind of voice you disobeyed, so here we were. Trying to get a carte vitale and not much fancying our chances.

“Do you think it will be the same woman as last time?” Paddy had asked on the drive over.

There was a last time because we’d started this process once, obtained a social security number and completely failed to return the required paperwork in the required timeframe. Work, new schools for the kids, work, DIY, family visits and work had all taken priority, so here we were again.

The woman we saw last time was lovely. She spoke slowly and clearly, made sure we understood everything and even ventured a little English. We weren’t expecting the latter at all, but official bodies in the UK can be terrifying even when you speak English, so this was a minefield even without the language barrier.

The woman I’d spoken to on the phone to arrange this meeting was also great. Again, she was patient, explained what we needed to do, what forms to complete and what documents to take with us.

“Have you got form F1106 from Newcastle?” the scary lady asked. It was the second time she’d asked, but the first time I’d understood.

I pointed to the letter I had, on which I’d made notes. “I was told to download these forms and fill them in,” I replied. They included form F1106.

Scary lady looked at me as though I were the stupidest person she’d met, but she didn’t slow down.

“You should have been given form F1106 before you left Britain,”she said. “It’s from Newcastle and we can’t process your claim without it.”

When I continued to look bewildered she told me again the form came from Newcastle.

At this point, I’ll admit, I lost my cool. “You’re going to have to be a bit more specific,” I think I said. What I mean to say and the way in which I then mangle the French language are two different things. “Newcastle’s a big place and I have no idea at all where this form you’re taking about is supposed to come from.”

She glared at me and looked again through the mountain of paperwork we’d provided, while Paddy I signed the forms I’d filled out, which may or may not have included F1106.

“Do you have a RIB?” she barked. Paddy found our bank details and handed them over.

“And do you have copies of these documents?” She waved the proof of address at us. We didn’t and I felt the weight of failure descend.

“Do we need to come back with those?” I asked.

“I’ll copy them,” she said. “It’ll take four to six weeks.”

She left the room and I turned to Paddy. “What does she mean?” I was even more confused. “How can it take that long to copy documents?” I also said some unflattering things about scary lady, but I won’t record them here.

“I think she’s processing the claim,” said Paddy, who has more experience with French officialdom than me.

Scary lady returned, handed back our documents and told us again that we’d need to wait between four and six weeks.

“So that’s everything?” I asked, “It’s all done?”

“It’s all done,” she said, with no more mention of F1106.

Whether we receive our health cards or not remains to be seen. I’m half expecting to be told to go to Newcastle instead.