I often feel like I'm guilty of being a stereotypical expat. I bulk buy baked beans in the UK and drive them over. I have a ginormous satellite dish lurking in my garden to pick up UK TV. We socialise mainly with other English expats and I still have worse French than the average French GCSE student. But as there's much dialogue in the UK at the moment about migration and integration, it's made me question how integrated I am.
I've blogged before here about my difficulty with the language. It is so hard to learn it, and I do overly rely on socialising with other Brits as it is easier. But I am trying. I don't go to places seeking out an english speaker. Instead I warn the person I'm speaking to that my French is bad, and I take my time and keep calm and usually I have enough language to get through. I answered a phone call recently, identified he was a delivery driver and managed to direct him through the village to our house. Something back in the UK I would have done easily, but here it becomes a huge accomplishment. In short I'm no longer scared to go to places or speak to people. It might not always be easy, but I can get by without dragging a fluent French speaker with me.
Whilst I do love a chat with my fellow expats, I do have French friends. My best one, the one I see every week does admittedly speak English, but usually we work it that she speaks French and I try to back, breaking into English when I can't find the vocabulary to express myself. I walk the dog with my kids in the village daily and I think I know all the permanent residents and most of those with holiday homes. I always speak to everyone, and I might not always know 100% what they're saying, but I think everyone appreciates my efforts. Everyone waves at us, and my son gets kisses and pats on the head on regularly.
My kids are probably the best example of our integration. My two year old goes to the local creche three times a week. We go to a French playgroup every other week, which is great for me meeting over mums and practising the lingo. We also belong to a toy library and play centre where we go and meet other kids and mums once a week too.
Then there's our shopping habits. Aside from our annual drive to the UK to pack the roof box with baked beans, cider and Marmite, we do shop locally. Local green grocers, supermarkets, markets and boulangeries. Not that we go out much with a toddler and baby in tow, but we do also support the local restaurants and cafés whenever we can.
So the question is, am I segregated and the answer is no. Yes, I may look like a stereotypical expat, but I'm aware I live in France. I use the local facilities, try and embrace the culture and lifestyle (croissants and red wine, oh the hardship) and I try to mingle with francophones as much as I can. Of course I could do better, and hopefully as my French improves so will my integration. But it seems I'm on the right track and I've surprised myself to realise it.
I don’t think there’s a woman on earth that isn’t apprehensive about giving birth to their first baby. I mean who wouldn’t freak out at the thought that a baby that could weigh the equivalent of 4 bags of sugar could come out of there? Yet for me, it wasn’t the pain, or the wondering what things would be like after that melon sized thing came out that scared the bejesus out of me, it was the fact that I was going to give birth in France without really speaking French.
Despite not being able to communicate, the whole lead up to the birth had gone pretty well. The French medical system, whilst baffling to me with all their stickers and bureaucracy, had run pretty smoothly. I’d had what seemed like endless blood tests, check-ups and scans to make sure everything was A-OK. The only place I’d slipped up on was when I asked my midwife at 8 months what pain relief options were available for me, and she looked at me in horror that I hadn’t had an appointment with the anaesthetist. I had to self-refer myself to one pretty sharpish as apparently without the appointment I’d be in labour au-natural and I don’t think either me or my husband’s hands would have survived that.
One rainy day in November, when it was pouring with torrential rain (of course it was), Baby Bell decided he wanted to make an appearance. Bang on time, on his due date. His English due date my add, as a French pregnancy is one week longer.... no idea, don’t ask me! We hurried off to the hospital when my contractions were 8 minutes apart and after a quick exam I was taken off to my private room where I was going to stay for the next week. Yes, that’s right folks, in France you have to stay in hospital for an entire week when you’ve given birth, whether it’s your first or your tenth baby. I was told to make myself comfortable and to come back to the delivery suite when it got too painful.
Now, being a tad wimpy it wasn’t long before that was the case. I soon declared I was in too much pain and the anaesthetist came along and administered me with an epidural. At the hospital I was at, the choices for pain relief were nothing or an epidural. The anaesthetist had advised me as it was my first to go for the drugs, and I’m not one to argue with a medical professional. The epidural worked wonders with my contractions as they seemed like mild rumbles where I had to confirm with my husband that I’d had one with him looking at the print out of my belly monitor. The next few hours passed in a bit of a haze. I may or may not have had a little doze, my husband certainly did. And the only thing that caused me discomfort was when my husband ate a whole bag of giant Malteasers sitting next to me and I was nil-by-mouth I couldn't have one. Something he has never been truly forgiven for.
I was lucky in that I had a very quick labour, much to the relief of my husband who wanted to get home by the evening to watch the football... yes, I am a wonderful (if not stupid) wife for letting him go to watch it. When the baby started to push, the midwife came along, my legs were put in stirrups and away we went. And despite all my fears about the language and my midwife knowing no English, we did pretty well. It was mildly disconcerting that the French word for push is poussez and sounds like pussy - so when the midwife was shouting that stood right next to my um, well down there, it did sometimes reduce my husband and I to some teenage sniggers.
Baby Bell popped out and I was really impressed with the rest of the medical care I received. Being in hospital for a whole week in a room by myself with my bad French was both terrifying and a godsend. The nurses and midwifes taught me all manner of things and without them I’d have been clueless. It was great having someone on the end of a call button that came really quickly - if only because they had no idea what I was trying to say on the intercom. I also loved getting all the food, the morning hot chocolate, afternoon cups of tea with madeleine and the mini bries that seemed to appear with most meals - ah brie how I’d missed it in pregnancy.
I’m pregnant again, with new baby due in October, and this time I’m dreading the birth in a normal way and not so scared about the language or the stay. My French has got much better and I know how nice and helpful the staff are. Plus I’m less clueless about all things baby. I’m slightly deluded into thinking that it will almost be like a holiday having a week off from the housework at home, and those afternoon madeleines, and the brie - and of course my little baby. Only another four months to go!
Recently, I was watching an episode of Come Dine With Me set in Alicante and I was screaming at my telebox as there were people living in Spain who didn’t speak Spanish. And then I thought pot, kettle, black. I live in France and I speak really bad french. Before you throw rocks at me, I’ve found it really difficult to learn, and I reckon if you were in my shoes you might too!
My husband and I started thinking seriously about a move to France about 18 months before we took the plunge. As a glutton for punishment, aka a lover of studying, I duly enrolled on a local college’s evening french class. I’d studied french for a year at school and could only remember some god-awful catchy song about birthdays, so I was a true beginner. The course started off well and by the end of it I’d managed to perfect a dodgy, but convincing french accent, and had learnt quite a bit. I flexed my french muscles on our house hunting holidays and I was convinced that within a year of living out here I’d be fluent.
Only when we did move out here I began to notice the problem with my french lessons. They were bang on for holiday french, but they were some what lacking in the practical live in France everyday words. If you wanted me to order you a three course meal with wine or maybe a citron pressé then I was your girl, if you wanted me to help you go to the Mairie’s office to get them to witness the signing of a deed for the french equivalent of your solicitor, I was not your girl. In fact, I pretty much had to take a crash course in bureaucratic french. In the first few months of renting in France we bought a house, set up bank accounts, registered a company, sorted out our insurance and got the all important Carde Vitale for healthcare. Over the next year I also had to cope with importing our car and registering it to France, giving birth in a french hospital and registering to pay French Tax. None of which was covered in my beginners french course.
Now, I’m not one for excuses.... but there are a few reasons why it’s so bloody hard to perfect my language skills. Number one on my list is my lovely little boy. He sucks up most of my time during the day and at night I’m so frazzled from looking after him that my brain is like the mush he eats. Unfortunately France isn’t a yummy mummy society and there aren’t loads of parent and toddler groups to go to, which means I go to one playgroup every other week and that’s my lot in terms of mum interactions and therefore opportunities to learn the language. Number two on the list is that I live in a teeny, tiny village. You barely see your neighbours, and when I walk through the village, I have a very limited ‘lovely weather’ type conversations. The other day I did have a conversation with our local farmer about his lost sheep, but I was lost by the end of it as to how he lost them... Number three, and perhaps our most guilty reason for not learning french quicker is the sheer number of expats. In our teeny, tiny village alone there are three other sets of English people. Two of them couples with young children and perfect for us to socialise with. Yes, it makes you lazy as instead of inviting round our french friends which is hard work and full of awkward silences, we get the Brits round. Ok, so you can throw rocks for that one.
Every year I say to myself, this is the year I’m going to learn French, but in truth, I’m now being realistic. I do think my French improves month on month, but I’ve got a huge way to go. I’m no longer impatient and I know it’s not going to come overnight, but I really wish it would!
* Also, random photo - but not really a topic that lends itself to a pic, so here's a recent one of me, my boy and my dog enjoying the spring sunshine and our recently planted grass.
My husband and I had been banging on about moving to France for ages. I don’t think anyone actually thought we’d go through with it, but after visiting our favourite region in the Pyrenees on numerous recces we finally took the plunge.
Before we bought our house, we decided to spend a few months doing a ‘try before you buy’ in a holiday gité. I envisaged my husband and I going on long dog walks in the rolling hills that surrounded the property, swimming in the onsite pool, eating my bodyweight in the stinkiest French cheese and sipping red wine on our terrace.
It started off going swimmingly, we found our dream property within a week a real fixer-upper that needed total renovation, and we’d filled our fridge with all of those French delicacies - pâté, goats cheese, roquefort, and Champagne. And then, I found out I was pregnant, very welcome news but it gave us a slap in the face with reality and we begun to wonder - what the hell were we doing?
The fridge had to be cleared, for me there was no booze, no paté, no cheese - as those lovely goat’s cheeses, blue cheeses and mould ripened ones were all on the banned list -bye bye brie. . . . Those lovely set menus that we’d previously enjoyed on all our house buying recces were out - as there was always something I couldn’t eat: pâté, goats cheese salads, meat that despite asking for très bien cuit would always come with more pink than brown and probably a bit of blood - all on the banned list. We became herectics buying imported cheddar and going to pizza restaurants instead.
I ended up with pretty bad morning sickness, and I spent a few months living on cheese rolls and Frosties. I had to do a crash course in the French medical system and every appointment or attempt of an appointment bought me to tears. People joke about the French bureaucracy, but it isn’t until you have to sit in a the administration area of the hospital trying to explain your situation with pigeon french, trying desperately to obtain the magic page of stickers that seem to make the medical system go round, that you realise how difficult it is to navigate it is.
The realisation hit that my husband and I suddenly had eight months to get our house into shape (and we still had to wait two months at least for the purchase to go through). Despite being ecstatic about the impending bundle of joy, I was really thinking we’d made a huge mistake trying to move to France. I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face when I told him after a month that I thought we should go back to the UK.
But, when the morning sickness eased, and our house went through, I started to become more up beat about things, enjoying the adventure once more. I got used to the bureaucratic trips to the hospital that saw me going round different departments, referring myself to gynaecologists and spending hours with patient administrators whilst I tried to get registered in the system. I didn’t even get down when my doctor banned me from eating sweet stuff - bye bye patisserie treats!
It was about that time that I signed with my literary agent and ‘Don’t Tell the Groom’ got picked up by Quercus. All of a sudden I was busier than ever. It was suddenly a good thing that it was the coldest spring/summer in twenty years in France as I didn’t have time to lounge by the pool. I didn’t even have time to worry about the lack of kitchen, or the working toilet in the house that we’d bought, or the fact that I was due to give birth in a hospital with a language that I could barely order a meal in. It was time to stop worrying and get on with it.
Looking back, it was probably a good thing that everything happened all at once. It focused us (and our builder) to get everything sorted in the house and to get us registered into the French medical system. Things that we probably would have procrastinated with if we’d have had the luxury of time. And by foregoing all those lovely French delicacies I put on little weight in my pregnancy (I had to look really hard to see that silver lining after the ban on cakes).
Those few months in the gité were not quite the relaxing few months I thought they’d be, and they were certainly unforgettable. My advice to anyone thinking of taking a plunge like us is just to do it - as my experience proves there’s never a good time!
My French Life
In 2013, my husband and I bought a house in a tiny village in the Pyrenees. Since then, we've gutted and renovated it, had a baby, I've had three books published and we've moved to France full-time. This is my blog about our French adventure!