Expat Story: My time in France
Mastering French grammar, finding the perfect balance for her son’s education, loving the ebb and flow of the seasons; Jane Riddell shares the ups and downs on her life in Grenoble.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour.
We did, and here we are in Grenoble, my partner, Peter, our son, Jamie and me, in the humidity of August, nesting, cranking up our French in preparation for navigation through bureaucracy and customs.
Our house on the hill is dark, relieving some of the sweltering heat of a valley town. The wind rushes through the fir trees in our garden and we can see Mont Blanc on a clear day. The evening thunderstorms are exhilarating.
It’s so new…
There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.
A theme woven through the fabric of our three years in France is the amount of learning required. From small things like adjusting to the interminable business lunch breaks, to bigger challenges such as understanding the banking system and finding a GP who speaks enough English to be helpful before our French improves.
The ongoing problem of educating our son
Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.
The French education system embraces mugging up and regurgitating information. Jamie, aged 11, starts in the local school. His classmates are friendly and helpful but the promised language assistance is unsystematic.
Despite being intelligent, Jamie can’t surface. Counting to 100 and answering questions such as, ‘Ça va?’ albeit worthy beginnings, are no match for a French teacher in full flow. Especially one who insists on treating him like everyone else though he so obviously isn’t.
Three months and considerable debates and collège meetings later, Peter and I descholarise him and begin home-schooling, a learning experience for us all. Jamie enjoys being taught in English again and is profuse in his appreciation, though emotionally he struggles to think of us as teachers and not parents. We need to show affection during school as well as patience.
The poor soundproofing in our house affects my writing when I’m privy to every algebraic explanation taking place on the floor below. I rent a room in a complementary health centre two days per week.
Peter builds a school room in the garden. We continue to share the teaching, which includes Jamie and me tackling French together, competitive, fun and effective. I’m now classmate as well as teacher and parent. To our relief, his mandatory assessment with the Inspectorate goes well.
A problem looms in the form of losing the discipline of mainstream schooling. We have lost it. With us all based at home, seamlessly we’re sinking into a mid-Atlantic time zone, with our afternoon mornings. Our solution is to enrol Jamie in the Montessori school part-time for the following autumn. Although we question how much he’s learning, we’re happy it provides social interaction and allows him some immersion in the French language. We continue beavering away with him on English and Maths.
By his second year, we have serious concerns about the directeur. He’s unprofessional and incompetent. We remove Jamie and enrol him in the American school, whose existence we’ve recently discovered. Once again, he is taught in English, and receives a soupçon of home teaching.
The rigours of the French language
No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits.
I’m complacent about revising French before we leave Scotland. How hard can it be? All too soon I have an answer. My existing French is a waterlogged raft on the river of communication, as the complexities of the language unfold.
Insurmountable aspects are precision and idiom. Searching for the correct verb in an outsized dictionary doesn’t guarantee a good sentence. That matters. Involved in teaching the language to our son, I’m now indisputably a grammar nerd.
I participate in two English//French language exchange groups but whenever I ask a French participant to explain a grammatical point, she debates with others, inevitably resulting in a shamefaced admission that they don’t know. Most encouraging.
Jamie, however, is now supremely confident in his ability to correct, and get us up to speed with French slang. In for a centime, in for a euro, I write a guide to English and French grammar, courtesy of websites and textbooks.
It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
Soon after our arrival we buy two gerbils, a source of delight and fun, and for Jamie, a welcome comfort and distraction from collège.
We purchase two more, thus signalling their demise. The new ones die six days later, so we buy another, then two more, etc. They all perish eventually, their vulnerablity being a susceptibility to parasites.
On several occasions we wake to Jamie announcing one of the gerbils is ill, necessitating hours of resuscitation. Etched in my memory is the night when he urges me to sit up with a sick creature and I frequently glance out into the darkness for signs of daybreak and peer into the cage, wondering if I should disturb the straw to check the gerbil is warm and alive, or to leave it in peace and hope it is both. When the last one dies, Jamie and Peter in attendance, I cry bucketfuls, both for myself and for our son.
Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.
What is it about mountains? Their spiritual connection with my subconscious? Whatever the meaning in my turbulent depths, I’ve always wanted to live near mountains and now we are.
The ever-changing light is glorious, in particular that wonderful haziness first thing and in the evenings. Words haemorrhage onto my laptop.
It’s peaceful: gliding trams, unfamiliar conversation surrounding us like distant winds. Seasons ebb and flow, there’s always a frisson: autumnal colours, spring flowers, thunderstorms, snowy mountains and that blue sky. The scenery provokes a fluttering, a jerky intake of breath.
During our last year, the changing weathers, light and colours are especially poignant. There’s an urgency to my photographic endeavours on our protracted weekend drives. A feverish attempt to capture light on a river, a harvested field. A constant inner clamour, towards the end manifested by sudden bouts of emotion, ‘I can’t leave this.’
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.
It’s obvious that some aspects of French cuisine will counteract my desire to regain a former slimness. The culprits are chocolate cakes, seductively-packaged to legitimise the over-indulgence. And the pommes dauphinois, too, contribute to my downfall.
Reluctant to learn immediately from mistakes, we continue to turn up at shops as they’re closing for lunch, our power supply is disconnected because of communication problems with EDF. The list continues… We remember the safe harbour, the welcoming lights of familiarity.
Open House, an English-speaking cultural association, becomes another strand to my life here. It’s not full of expats complaining about France and the French. Twenty-five percent of its members are French. Lovely people. During my last year I produce the bi-monthly newsletter, appreciative of the chance to contribute to the organisation.
I love the outdoor life: dinner in the garden, the opportunities for sport. I hate the fact post arrives care of the man of the house, and the advertising industry’s obsession with portraying women as sexy.
The culture of wishing everyone a ‘bonne journée, bon weekend,’ takes some adapting to. Then there’s the obligatory kissing, two kisses in Grenoble (four further south), something to factor in time wise when arriving and leaving a gathering. Yet there can be few sweeter behaviours than a child proffering a cheek for a kiss.
Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. ‘Pooh!’ he whispered. ‘Yes, Piglet?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw. ‘I just wanted to be sure of you.’
Moving to another country exerts pressure on a couple, obvious but difficult to appreciate until you’re immersed in it. Peter and I experienced challenges to our relationship but we were lucky. As for Jamie, he coped well with three schools.
A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
We made mistakes, we encountered bad luck. We might not have got to grips with the banking system but we learned how to apply for permission to build a garden shed, where to go for gerbil autopsies, managed to move home twice. We survived haircuts in French, surgery to torn ligaments, regular conversations with non-English speaking neighbours.
In Scotland once more, I hold onto the memories, to the hope of returning one day, even to grappling once more with the precision and idiom of the French language.
Jane Riddell / Expatica
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Photo credit: FrenchHope
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