Friday, October 27, 2006

You’re too late…..

Moving back to England was like a reverse culture shock, even though it is my country and Jacques loved it before. Everything seemed more expensive than five years ago and I felt lost, bewildered and out-of touch with my peer group . Our budget was barely enough to rent a one-bedroomed studio in central London. I looked around the dreary suburbs around London where I’d lived after graduation, but couldn’t imagine living there with young kids. In 1995 (before the children were born) we had lived briefly in Gerrards Cross, a green enclave at the edge of Greater London. I remembered that schools were good around there and it was near to two airports, so focused on the nearby small towns, which had train connections to central London. I felt like a foreigner in my own country and estate agents found it odd we didn’t want to buy a house, as most English families do.

I looked for ‘good’ schools with places available, but the Education Office said they could not say if they had a place until I was living in their catchment area. Fair enough, but I needed to know if it was worth moving into the area. When I telephoned the school offices directly with the opening lines ‘We are a new family who has just moved into the area…’ I was rudely cut off with the information that I should have applied nine months ago and all classes were full now. It was too late now, and all they could do was squeeze Marc into some (probably awful) school that might not even be in my area…

In panic-mode I signed a lease on a basic three-bedroomed Seventies flat or apartment in Chorleywood. It was a green and pleasant village-town near to a station and shops, and had three ‘good’ schools. I telephoned the schools; one was over-booked already, the other was a church school (no chance as you must attend the attached church for two years and have a letter of recommendation from the church) and the third said “Let me see…’ After a few days the secretary rang back and said ‘You are so lucky, a family is emigrating to Australia and you can have their place.’ I visited the Headmaster immediately to explain our delayed application and we were in! Marc was officially admitted to the Nursery class of Chorleywood Primary School, starting just after the Easter holidays. The school had busy colourful classrooms and lots of happy children running around the grassy playground at playtime.

Next I concentrated on Nina. As a two-year-old she was too young for the Nursery class, which started just before the fourth birthday. The best option was a full-day Pre-school or private childcare. These options were no good either. The pre-schools would not accept her until she was 2 ½ (and they were only half-day anyway). The full-time childcare center and the local childminders were full, presumably pre-booked at birth. I wished that I was in France, where she would have had a full-time school place at age two-and-a half.

We moved our things to the new apartment with little enthusiasm. The flat was uninspiring and we felt out of place. I left the children with my parents for a few weeks while I started work. I soon realized the commute was nearly 2 hours a day and I would not be home before 6.30pm, even on a good day. An au-pair from France would have been ideal, but we had no spare room. Jacques’ mother came to help out with childcare temporarily. But after a month we had no choice and had to hire a nanny. Several potential nannies visited and said no straightaway. They were used to their own car, huge playrooms/gardens and lots of perks. So we were obliged to hire a first-time Nanny from Australia who didn’t know any better.

Kylie was to drop off/pick-up Marc at school and mind Nina all day. She came with her son, who was the same age as Nina. She cost the same salary as me. She refused to do any housework and would only prepare simple food for the kids. We tried it out for a few months, but it was not a success. So we stopped the Nanny and struggled through the summer with help of my sister-in-law, parents and Jacques parents looking after the kids.

Even though I liked working I missed the school drop-offs and pick-ups (when all the mothers got together to chat). I missed the Assemblies and Sports days. I hated the stress of being home on time and trying to compensate afterwards with kids before they went to bed. In September when Marc was due to start Reception – the first year of Primary school, I reduced my hours to three days a week and had a Caribbean woman, Lydia, look after the kids the other days. But by October I gave up working. It was not worth it. I enrolled for an evening PhD course in Linguistics at Birkbeck College and signed Nina up for the local pre-school four mornings a week.

I calculated that I would have 12 hours for working at home in the mornings and two afternoons when Lydia picked up the kids for my study classes at Birkbeck. In the evenings I could work for up to three hours when the kids were in bed too. The housework, coffee-mornings and watching television would have to be postponed but I could get my PhD papers done and write the book I had always wanted to, if I really tried…..

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Berlin Pause

It was much colder in Berlin than England, and there was even snow. The city was fascinating though and my German friend, Nina, lived nearby to us with her partner and son, David who was the same age as our little Nina. We spent cosy weekends with Nina and Roland and discovered the numerous well-used neighborhood parks together. In the weekdays, while Jacques worked, the children and I did touristy things like visiting the Television Tower or the Natural History Museum. We did a daily trip to the supermarket and on the way back usually stopped at a craft shop for supplies.

Since the children had no school I decided we should do something artistic. We used recycled materials and the apartment was soon full of toilet roll and cereal box creations with sticky sequins and tissue paper to decorate. Marc liked to watch television too, and didn’t seem surprised that they were all speaking German. Every day he religiously watched a science programme for kids and Disney cartoons. He never asked me what they were saying, perhaps he remembered German from his time in Zurich when he was just a toddler? Nina would walk away saying she didn’t like it.

One Sunday I took Marc to a puppet theatre. We enjoyed the one-hour show and laughed a lot but on the way out he said ‘Mummy, what was the story?’ ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ I replied. ‘Oh!’ he said ‘I thought I had heard that story before!’ As he sifted through his memories of English Snow Whites or French Blanche Neiges I wondered what he was thinking about this mix of languages.

On cold wintry days we looked for places to go that were warm and child-friendly, and the local library was both. Marc and Nina were delighted and we settled down on the cushions to read. But all the books were in German. Although I could do a passable translation of French to English I could not do the same in German. ‘Well’ I said ‘We’ll just have to guess the story.’ Being too young to read themselves they accepted this and we made up the story as we thought it should be. Months later we found the English translation of our favourite book ‘Swimmy’ and we were not far off the actual story….

In March the project was finishing and we had to move to London. I bought the weekly Guardian newspaper in Berlin and by chance saw a job advertised in a top London language school. The job, Director of Studies, was perfect for my qualifications and experience as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. At the end of our time in England I had taught English for a week and was itching to get back to full-time work after a 4-year break. I was bored at home and we both thought it would be useful to have my salary contribution in London. So I applied, just to see what would happen. I was immediately called for interview and before I could blink was offered the job, starting the first week of April. Two weeks before the job started I rushed back to London to look for a house for us to rent, a school for Marc and childcare for Nina…

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

La rentree and moving on

September came and the wonderful summer ended abruptly. Signs offered sales for la rentree and countrywide the back-to-school/work mood was felt strongly. Marc went back to school, along with his two cousins, Francois and Manon. The weekend antique markets stopped as did the theatres, concerts and eating out on the lawn. The house was suddenly cold and we couldn’t play outside so much. We urgently needed to get the sewage system sorted and the heating installed and started working on finishing Jean’s house before it got too cold. On weekends we went picking blackberries and mushrooms or roasted chestnuts on the open fire with the cousins.

I felt my weekdays needed some activities so I found a weekly playgroup called Croque-Lune for Nina in Melle, a nearby town. We started going regularly, and enjoyed the free children’s activities, singing French nursery rhymes and the soft play-area. But no-one talked to me at all. I worried that my French was the problem, but then by this point I could chat easily to French people. I eventually realized that the young French mothers had an extensive circle of friends, family and neighbours around them and had no need to talk to me. They didn’t speak English and simply avoided me. Their lives were busy and full with shopping cooking, picking up children and or part-time jobs. I tried to chat to one or two who lived near me, they were friendly but there was no chance of a ‘playdate’ or even an invitation for coffee. The same happened outside Marc’s primary school. This was better, since I saw my sister-in-law, Gaelle, every day and a couple of her friends would small-talk with me, but still I was having problems making new friends of my own.

Gaelle helped run the local branch of La Leche an association which promoted breast-feeding. I had breast-fed Marc and Nina for respectively nine and twelve months. Although I had stopped feeding Nina by now I was allowed to join as a temporary ‘honorary’ member. I loved the monthly group meetings and the women were keen to talk here, about babies and motherhood, subjects I could talk about too. I finally had a chance to step away from my close family and feel part of the wider community too. After a bad start with the English-living-in-France community intially I bonded well with June and a couple, Terrry and Joyce, who offered me cups of tea and compared notes on France. Both had huge conversions projects going but were more open to the locals and positive about their life there.

Marc was not a great talker but he managed. His teacher told me he was doing well. There was not much communication between school and home anyway, I collected Marc from outside the school gates, so unless there was a problem I had very little idea what he was doing. Nina meanwhile was learning to talk fast and as she approached 18 months of age her words came quickly. She mixed wildly, unlike Marc who had always taken care to separate the two languages. She would say things like ‘Give me lait!’ and ‘Me aime duck!’ Her grammar was mixed-up too; she said things like ‘I him like’, which was a reference to the French Je t’aime, where the pronoun preceded the verb. Nobody corrected her or bothered about her mixes. I would just repeat back the right words, as would Jacques in French.

Probably because she was our second child, and the fourth grandchild in France, we all assumed it would sort itself out. The fact that she was so chatty and communicative made you just understood what she wanted anyway! French was much more ‘real’ for her than it had been for Marc and she was very comfortable with both languages. French was all around, while in the house we mostly spoke English. I did have a few problems though, when the cousins came to play they would ask me to read. Most of our books were in English and I had to simultaneously translate, a task I am not so good at!

Jacques and I had to stop the gardening and house-clearing as Autumn arrived. By November the house we were living in was nearly finished and Jean had tenants coming in January. We realized that our sabbatical was coming to an end and Jacques would have to get a job in Paris or look for a job somewhere else. Surfing on the internet he saw many jobs advertised in the UK’s Financial Times, and began to apply. Very soon he was practically commuting to London as he traveled for numerous interviews with agencies and companies. He was trying to change his job focus from Project Manager to Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and had his work cut out proving to skeptical English interviewers that his French qualifications were sufficient, his English language excellent and that he was up to the challenge of a new job. We were quite open to live anywhere, and aimed for Asia at first. But as the options narrowed down and Christmas approached he still had no concrete job offer. One British company had expressed interest but had not got back to him.

Jacques decided to be closer to London and just before Christmas we moved all our belongings into storage in the house in Caunay. We went to live, temporarily, with my parents in Nottingham so Jacques could attend more interviews. It was a stressful time for us as we felt unsettled and were fast running out of savings. I missed France and the countryside life we had there and compared it unfavourably to the surburban life my parents had. However, it was good for the children to be with their English grandparents on a kind of extended Christmas holiday. At the end of January Jacques finally got a job as European CFO and was sent immediately to Berlin for two months to sort out the finances there. Since we had no school and no home yet I decided to join him with the children. Instead of the company paying for a good hotel for Jacques we were able to rent a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the center of Berlin for the same price. So off we flew to Berlin, traveling lightly and ready for some adventure again….

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A blessing, baptism and a birthday…..

Jacques’ 30th birthday was in August 2000, so it was a good time for a party. We decided it was the right time to christen Nina too. We thought this time we would do it in France, in the church in Caunay, the village where we have a house. We met with Henri, the local Catholic prêt for a preliminary meeting. Henri had been around for nearly thirty years; he had given Jacques and his siblings catechism lessons when they were at school, married Pierre and Philippe and knew the family well. We explained that we wanted a rather special ‘bilingual’ christening, if possible.

Henri had a few reservations about my non-catholic Church of England background though, and was concerned that we only had a civil marriage in Budapest. It was possible to bless our marriage at the same time as we baptized Nina, he told us. This seemed like a perfect chance to bring together our families, nearly four years after our official marriage. Henri agreed to open the tiny village church in Caunay on Saturday 12th August - the day of Jacques’ birthday. To my amusement he opened his Book of Saints Names to check if ‘Nina’ was in there. She was, thank goodness, and he read out her saintly character to us, perhaps hoping Nina would follow suit. After several other meetings we hand-picked the verses, prayers and music for the ceremony which included Ava Maria and one of our favourite opera pieces from the film ‘The Fifth Element'.

We stopped work on the Columbier house-clearing and worked on the nearby Logis. We planned to hold the party there after the christening, which was walking distance from the church. But we soon realized that a party venue without toilets, water or electricity might be rather tricky (for the guests certainly!). So we chose a local farm, which had a restaurant, serving farm-grown produce and we ordered a typical three-course lunch – pâté on fresh bread, braised lamb and potatoes and fresh haricot vert, goat’s cheese. The dessert was a traditional pièce montée, a confection of stuffed profiteroles held together with a strong sticky caramel to form a pyramid. It is usually served at weddings and seemed appropriate for this joint blessing/christening celebration. We planned an early evening cocktail at the Logis and after that a small disco with 70’s music at a hall in the village.

Finally we had to choose the godparents. We chose Mikeal, a French family friend who had known Jacques for many years, as her godfather and my sister, Jayne, as her godmother for a true French/English balance.

We had a great turnout - my parents, sister and my uncle, nearly all the French family plus a few friends from my side and several of Jacques university friends. In the church Henri did a superb job, managing to squeeze in all the French prayers and chants alongside a few English lines of welcome. Jayne, who studied French at university, read a poem in French, which impressed everyone. The blessing did not over-shadow the christening, but confirmed that we were a couple now married in front of God, which felt comforting. It was good to do it we both felt, after so much indecision and postponing. My parents looked happy and at ease in France, as Jacques family had in England in 1997, and I was touched at how they managed to chat and exchange news as if they were living in the next town. My parents were delighted to visit Odile and René’s house, which is at its best in high summer and enjoyed eating with the family and visiting all the houses the Hauwaert family owned around the area.

After the baptism we ate all afternoon, staying at the farm till after 4pm and then slowly moving on to the Logis for the evening cocktail. Jacques and I gave tours of the empty and derelict Logis, showing where the future rooms would be. This required great imaginative powers, and some were skeptical of us taking on such a project when you could build a new house in the surrounding field. As dusk came we lit candles, but were eventually obliged to leave the Logis for the brightness of the Village hall in Caunay. There we had the disco till the early hours of the next morning, with a lively mix of French and English seventies music…

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fêting the national day

In 2000 we arrived in France in springtime, my favourite time of year. The French family was glad to see us, my sister-in-law, Gaelle, was just about to give birth to her third child and a wedding was in preparation for Jacques’ brother, Pierre, for June. We moved our things into Jacques’ brothers house in a village near his parents house. Jean wanted us to finish the small things in the house that needed finishing. However the ‘small things’ that needed finishing (the tiling and attachment of the bath, heating system, sanding and polishing of wooden floors and window frames and under-garden waste-disposal system) were more daunting then we thought. But the novelty of actually having our own cosy house and garden compensated for the mess and debris the builders had left behind. Luckily we could bathe at Jacques’ parents house and the kids had shower-baths in the garden with the garden hose!

We drove around the countryside visting summer second-hand markets or brocantes and antique sales in local towns and villages. Summer outdoor theatres opened and the weekends were busy eating with family or friends who dropped in. A new cousin, Baptiste, was born at the end of May and Laure became an official aunt or tata few days later when she married Pierre. I prepared an English tea-party for my mother-in-law’s birthday in June. We felt very close to the family and delighted to be around.

Our village was naturally curious about us. Our neighbour, Madame Martin, the wife of the village goat farmer became our link to the community. My French at this stage was basic, limited to small talk and weather descriptions. One Saturday I impulsively bought two ducklings at the market, which we named Alison and Vanessa. We left them in the garden while we ate lunch. An hour later they were gone! Madame Martin generously helped search for them, and they turned up nearby on her land. She teased me about my farming skills and showed me what food they ate and where we should put them (in a caged area at the end of the garden because they would smell!) In the summer evenings I would stand outside and try to ‘chat’ about ducks or children (our only subjects in common) while she fed the goats or collected her washing from the hedge outside their farmhouse. Madame Martin had a fast rolling local dialect or patois and if another villager was there she would launch into a non-stop account of village comings and goings, which I could hardly follow. I hung out with her and other village members most evenings in the summer and by the end I could just about decipher the words and even more important the subject!

Marc was able to join the local school immediately in the nearest town, Sauzé-Vaussais. All five Hauwaert children had attended this primary school. In fact it was the same Directrice in charge who welcomed Jacques back with warmth, and surprise that he had married an English girl. Marc accepted the change of language easily, helped by the fact that he was placed in the same class as his cousin, Francois, who was nine months older. Francois helped guide Marc around the maternelle or pre-school part of the school. Days were long though, starting at 9am and finishing at 4.30pm, except for Wednesdays when there was no school. Meanwhile Jacques and I dropped off Nina with her grandparents most days and cleared out an old house we had just bought.

The house was in Caunay, a nearby village where Jacques had previously bought a run-down and abandoned 16th century logis or manor house in 1995. In 1999 we found another similar house, also in a bad state of neglect and bought it immediately. This house was called Columbier or Pigeon Loft and it was big enough to convert into two 3 or 4-bedroomed houses which we could rent out. Alongside Columbier was a small two-roomed house with a large barn that had belonged to Monsieur Prêt, who owned all the land and property. His parents had lived there and when they died he ran a small grocery shop, then a tailoring business from the house. A bachelor in his sixties, Monsieur Prêt finally sold the small house to us in 2000 and moved to a home for the elderly. His health was failing and the house had no water supply indoor or bathroom facilities.

We bought the house as it was, and opened the door to find all his stock, clothes, papers and some sixty years of rubbish still there. So our days were spent clearing out, sorting and doing trips to the local dump. As the house emptied we worked on the garden and the barn. The change of pace, the physical labour and the fresh air was good for both Jacques and me. My depression lifted and Jacques was relaxed and enjoying spending time with Marc and Nina. We took pleasure in the small things in life; sunflowers and maize growing near our house, a picnic by the river, a trip to the beach with Gaelle and the cousins and visiting the local markets to buy our food.

In summer we celebrated the fete nationale or Bastille Day on the 14th July. We joined Jacques parents in their village and I thought that I would be seeing a typical French cultural event. However, I heard several English voices, and as we grouped together to sit on the long tables with bench seats I realized one of the four tables was ‘English’. I hadn’t reckoned that so many English people lived in ‘my’ village. I was torn between going to say hello and pretending to be ‘French’, which I could get away with being seated next to my in-laws. Finally I walked over to chat to my fellow countrymen and was rebuffed by the English as ‘not one of them’. The English families had all moved to France for ‘a better life’, had bought local farmhouses at knockdown prices and were smugly cheering themselves for doing so. I didn’t have such a story to share and left them to it, drinking their wine and comparing their farmhouse conversions. I sat back on my bench and wondered which side of the fence I was on. I could hardly say I was French on such an historic day, but then I didn’t feel English either…..