A slow journey to France



Our journey

First school year in France

The end of the school year is always a big event for both children and parents.  For us the end of this school year is like reaching the end of a marathon.  By the time our daughter starts her Summer holidays she will have survived and flourished during her first year of French school.  She will be speaking French and correcting us (Mum you’re so embarrassing when you try to speak French is becoming a frequent refrain!) and we will have moved again from our rented apartment in Toulouse to our new home and business in the countryside.

What have we learned from our first experience of French school?  Firstly, none of us would have got this far without the amazing teachers and directrice of Ecole Benezet in Toulouse.  They have all been so supportive of our daughter and her fellow classmates in the ‘helping class’.  We will never be able to thank them enough for all of their efforts with both her and us.  They have encouraged the children from even the most challenged backgrounds to find their place at school.  We were told at our first parents evening that our children in the helping class ‘enrich’ the school with their different languages and cultures.  An attitude which stands out in the context of the ‘them and us’ view of immigration and difference which is so prevalent across our world at the moment.  I cannot explain how reassured I felt by those words; that our daughter was not seen as a burden to the school but an asset.  They obviously didn’t anticipate her giggles when they speak English with her!   We, in turn, have tried to support her as much as possible and have participated whenever we could in school events, undertaking training in how to be a parent assistant in the school swimming classes and baking many, many biscuits for fundraising events.

There has been another theme throughout the year which we have only recently understood, dance.  When we first arrived and met the teacher of the helping class she explained to us that there would be a dance show at the end of the year in which all of the children in her class would participate.  As a keen dance fan I was delighted but a bit perplexed as I hadn’t read anything about dance being a part of French school life.  Throughout the year since then our daughter has come home and when asked about her day explained that she was dancing in the hall or had met the choreographer for the dance show.  Neither of us made much of this as we assumed the dance show was a school event and the choreographer was one of the teachers we didn’t know.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  It slowly dawned on us that there was more to this when our daughter explained that the choreographer was the nephew of one of the teachers in the school and was a professional dancer in New York.  Another time we learned that he had danced with the Merce Cunningham Company.  The calibre of the dance event became more and more apparent.  Once we learned that the performance would be held in the Jacobins, a thirteenth century monastery and church complex in the heart of the city which now opened its doors for artistic festivals we realised that this was bigger than the usual school show in the gym.  We were given a rehearsal timetable for the dance show which involved spending nearly two weeks rehearsing at the school and the Jacobins.  The children took packed lunches on some days in order to be able to stay all day for dress rehearsals.  We arranged for Granny and Grandpa to come over to see the big event and to babysit for us so that we could attend on both evenings. 

The show was absolutely wonderful, the pride we felt as we saw our shy daughter stride out confidently as part of the first group of dancers onto the performance space was immeasurable.  Every child had their part and worked together to produce a fluid piece of modern dance inspired by the works of Merce Cunningham.  The effort made by everyone involved to produce a piece of dance that required such a high level of concentration by the children was so impressive.  The cheers and applause at the end of the performance and the delighted but bashful smiles of the children were a joy to see.  At the end of the second performance we met the choreographer, Dylan Crossman, who fortunately speaks fluent English.  I was quite starstruck but managed to say how much we appreciated the opportunity for our daughter to learn about dance and how impressed I was that he and his uncle were working with the most challenged children in the school, for some of whom the experience of being applauded and congratulated was probably unknown until then.  My thanks were probably over the top but as a true star performer he took it in his stride.  I had remembered to thank the teachers as well but my vocabulary doesn’t extend much further than fantastique and incroyable.  By the end of the evening I had thanked nearly everyone present including other parents for producing such amazing children!

Our experience so far has only been of one school but I can say that that particular school has been the best that we could have hoped for.   Now on to the next one …

Our journey

A slow French Christmas

Christmas in France

We are now in the depths of January, and yes it does get really cold here in Toulouse. It is a time to reflect on our first Christmas in France, not a French Christmas but our Christmas in France. We hope we had the best of both… and have begun to create some new family traditions.
Guess what? The reindeer still know where we live, they still like carrots and they still left their trail of magic sparkles. It was decided that Papa Noel did not need any whisky, not sure I agree with that!

Like the rest of our life in France, there was a lot of ‘the same but different’. The build up was more low key, even at school. There was not quite the same continual ramping up of excitement to a fever pitch although the children were all tired at the end of term.

Our perception of low key, may be due to not getting out and about as much as we might have done because of the Gilet Jaune protests. These provided a strange counterpoint to the Christmas build up. Our conversations with the locals demonstrated a growing frustration at the violence and disruption despite some sympathy for some of the stated aims of the protestors. There was a strong feeling that those most affected were not those at whom the protests were aimed. Many small business and artisans were losing money through lost custom. For those at the main Marche de Noel, Christmas sales could be a significant part of their income. It is always the little people that get hit the hardest, even when people are trying to defend the little people!

It did feel like a lot of the anger was similar to the frustration that was behind the reasons that many people voted to leave in the Brexit referendum. We will see where it goes….

The decorations in shops and the quartiers across the city were also more understated than many in the UK but with added French style. Even the TV adverts did not seem quite as relentless, maybe that impression is due to my French still being very much a work in progress!

In France, as in other parts of Europe, the celebrations are on Christmas Eve, with a big family gathering to eat and exchange of presents. The focus seems to be on families enjoying time and food together, which really fits with us and our SLOW principles and ambitions for our business and our lives.

There is lots of seafood and particularly huitres (oysters). These, like many foods in France are taken very seriously with different ratings and prices. They are displayed live, not to all people’s tastes but with a drop of champagne can be amazing!

We became aware that presents really are exchanged on Christmas Eve when we heard the sound ‘weeeeeee!’ in the park opposite our apartment as someone tried out their new bike at about 11.00 pm !!!

Christmas eve seafood fest

Christmas Day felt very much like the day after the night before… It was very quiet

We had a busy morning, checking that ‘he had been’ and a range of skateboards, roller blades and some very nice crémant from Samaur with bacon sandwich’s. Yes, we have found a butcher who makes good bacon, a little different but definitely good.

After this we all needed some fresh air and an opportunity to try out all the new ways to break something. We were practically the only ones in the park, and certainly the only ones with reindeer antlers and other Christmas head gear! Les Anglais!… more crémant needed, the rosé from Bordeaux was particularly festive!

Slow sustainable symmetrical

More people had emerged by the time we had lunch, a lovely goose with all the trimmings, followed by a very significant cheese board with desserts. Yes, we did them together, please don’t tell anyone! No Christmas pudding this year but it is on our ‘to do’ list to make one for next year and do it properly with everybody stirring and a silver thrupenny bit ( or similar).

The 26th December is a normal working day here which made Christmas a shorter ‘event’. But this fits with our growing understanding of some of the cultural differences. The build up and Christmas itself showed a different approach to life. There is no direct French translation for ‘am excited’. I don’t think that French people don’t get excited but that there is a greater appreciation of living in the moment, not focusing on what is going to happen and building things up, but just savouring the now. It is more ‘etre’ than ‘avoir’!

We still managed to make it last and had a wonderful few days doing not much but savouring the moment, the food, the wine ( and the odd whisky!)

New Year in Toulouse was also different, the market and food shops were more busy than at Christmas. Again it appeared it was all about spending time with friends and family and enjoying food, lots of food. We didn’t see any fireworks and we couldn’t find a French Jules Holland on the TV. That maybe one tradition which doesn’t travel well.

The finale is 6th of January with 12th Night, which is another special night here. And yes, there are more food traditions, the Galette des Roi. This is a
frangepan puff pastry with a crown and a special gift inside , bringing good luck to the person who finds it in their slice ( or nearly a new tooth as I found out!). More traditions around what to drink with it, with cidre and champagne being the done thing. We were invited to a neighbour for a do, the first we had been to a French soirée! Hopefully more to come as it was the night I was flying back to the UK for work…ho hom!

We have also made progress with the property search but more on that to come …