Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Planning our year in France

We have been back living in Australia for a few years. Whilst, in a practical sense, we feel less present than when we were living in France, we are still very much attached. Physically, we have our French village house, which is also our business as it is rented out for holiday lets; emotionally we have our friends, our photos and our memories. 

At various points around our current house we are reminded of our French story. Above my desk is a large canvas photo of the view up to the castle that we had from our balcony and an old postcard holder in our living room makes an excellent display for our French photos. Even curled, I still love stopping, flicking through a packet of images and reminiscing. 

Plus, we have our hopes and plans for the future.

An old postcard holder is an excellent way to display our thousands of photos from France
Strangely, I don't recall the exact moment that we decided to uproot us all and try living on the other side of the world, knowing no-one and only one and a half of us knowing the language (my son was only six...he's the half). But, I still remember quite distinctly the moment that we set our sights on living in Annecy.

Up until that day, we had done a lot of talking, hours of Internet searching and written many long lists of things to do and to decide. We knew by then that we wanted to be close to an international airport, not too isolated but not in a big city, be in an area where we could truly integrate with French speakers and preferably where skiing was an option.

It was mid-afternoon and we were on holidays in Adelaide. The fact that we were on holidays is probably significant as it meant that my husband and I were actually together at that time of day. He had packed a Lonely Planet Guide to France and was flicking through it. The book opened to Annecy and he started reading, he then looked up at me and asked if I knew of the town. Hmmm, did having a page of the Year 7 text book that I used to teach French, dedicated to the beautifully clean Annecy Lake, count?

Finding schools and accommodation seemed to be the most urgent tasks and we had several false starts before we came across a school in Annecy that had both a primary and secondary section, and was able to accept all three of our children. One thing organised and still so much to do. From one day to the next, I declared to a girlfriend that I had come to an important, perhaps surprising, decision - that I was pulling the plug on our year away. Packing up our house, organising our extraction from our entire Australian lives (think insurances, subscriptions, schools, work, clubs...), balancing our finances to be able to go for such a long time, being so far away and intimidated by doing everything in French, even the task of buying light enough suitcases to give us more flexibility with our flight weight allowance, was huge. If I then added to that the bureaucratic expectations of living in France, the difficulties I was having finding suitable accomodation, working out the best way to transfer money (the exchange rate was at a 10-year low) in addition to school runs, normal household chores, birthday parties, confirmations, health checks...it was just overwhelming.

The next afternoon I went and bought our airline tickets.

But, in reality, Annecy was a gamble. I had heard good things about it, that was all.

Last weekend, I wrote an introduction to a book that I was preparing.

C’est le plus bel endroit du monde.” (Winston Churchill)

Churchill was not the only one to think this way. We first stopped to explore the village of Talloires on the Annecy Lake a couple of weeks after our arrival in France. It was an overcast day and the lake’s blue shades, about which Mark Twain had written so beautifully, had been replaced by reflective hues of cloud grey. The mountains were slightly obscured and the streets were empty. A photo of me strolling along Rue André Theuriet that day turned out to be strangely portentous. There, in the background, long before thoughts of purchasing or living permanently in France had entered our heads, was our house; the one that we ended up buying many years later.

Our initial infatuation, over the years, turned into a constant love affair. Living there, we had experienced highs and lows, some predictable and some not-so, but it was the feeling that we got, the lurch in the pit of the stomach, the fleeting reflections that lingered, the sounds, fragrances and beauty that kept on floating by well after our return to Australia that convinced us that we, like Churchill, like Mark Twain, Cézanne, Gide, President Nixon and Napoleon 3, to name just a few, had found a special place in Talloires.

Then at the end of an hour you come to Annecy … which breaks the heart in your bosom, it is so beautiful.” (Mark Twain)

I am sure that we could have found other places in France that would have suited us just as well as Annecy. But, to feel so deeply we had to go and let go in the first place. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

One holiday ... 8 or 9 ski stations ?

It is rather presumptuous of me to be posting about skiing. Summer has only just been declared 'over' for another year and, even though the first flocons de neige have made their appearance on mountain summits, causing lake-level murmurings of joy and shivers of anticipation, it will still be a while before the majority of us get to boot up, jacket on and take off. *

In a blog long, long ago I wrote about skiing: my experiences as an adult novice, my clothing challenges and the up-and-down relationship that I have with the overall experience. I am a summer girl who has lived most of her life through mild winters and exceptionally hot summers. The cold takes some management. In this same article, I also wrote about my first trip to the snow with my, then very young, children. My overall recollection is that it was harrowing. The temperature was partly to blame, but the chair-lifts were the stuff of nightmares, very sore arm muscles and a guilty conscience for days thereafter, as I relived the possibility of my small offspring slipping out of my embrace and plunging into the void below.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read this morning in an article about the best ski stations in France that children in classes run by the ESF (Ecole du Ski Français) now wear magnetised vests. I don't know how wide-spread this practice is, but the safety aim is clear. The claim that they self-release at the top puts my active imagination back into over-drive.

Aside this little vestimentary addition, the article attempted to categorise the stations and came up with an impressive list: Best for beginners, best for intermediate, best for advanced, most reliable snow, most charm and romance, best for partying, best for families, best for snowboarders, best value and best for weekends. Naturally, all up for debate.

From home in Talloires, we can be on the slopes of La Clusaz within forty minutes. We know it well and would agree with its inclusion in many of the categories. Because of its proximity to an international airport, it made it onto the 'Best for weekends' list (Australian readers, sorry! Article aimed at European travellers). If you add in Manigod, Le Grand Bornand and St Jean de Sixt, a single Aravis lift pass gives you access to a respectable 220 km of slopes. More than enough to keep most of us busy for a weekend.

What if you like to ski and you have the luxury of time? La Clusaz is still an excellent possibility, but might I suggest that staying somewhere off the mountain might be an inspired idea? For one, you have the luxury of choice. Why not wake up each morning and choose a ski station depending on the best weather report? We have eight or nine that we would happily go to just for the day. Secondly, if there are members of your party who like skiing but do not want to ski every day, holidaying off the mountain gives them the possibility of many more non-snow-related activities (art galleries, museums, shopping, cinemas, walking tours...). Thirdly, even staying on the slopes will not guarantee that you won't have a decent hike to the lifts each morning. It is true that off the mountain you will have to commit to a drive each day, but for most of the season, we could drive nearly all the way to the lift office, park, dress and purchase our ticket within a few easy steps of the car.  Finally, consider the cost. I know for myself that if I stayed on the slopes, I would buy a use-at-all-time pass, which would have the added pressure of making me feel that I needed to ski constantly to make the most of it. Add to that, the very high cost of winter rental, restaurants and services on the slopes and you have another good reason to stay further afield.

I know that this will not be a good solution for everyone, but we have had several sets of guests stay with us throughout the winter months, some of whom had previously been convinced that there was no other way to holiday in the snow than to stay up high at a single station, but whom, by the end, even after discounting the attraction of our free accommodation, were more than happy with the options that a non-ski-resort stay offered.

*The use of all of these prepositions was for all my English-as-a-second-language French friends who have told me how much they love these pesky little add-on prepositions! (see below ... and for the full article click here)
  • Tickets are available from the box office.
  • Not enough data is available to scientists.
  • No figures are available for the number of goods sold.
  • There are plenty of jobs available in the area.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

it's all in a name

A few years ago, soon after the New Year, I received news that my girlfriend had given birth to her fourth child in Florence. We met in Melbourne, she is French, had her first child in America, second in France, third in Melbourne (named Victoria) and fourth in Florence. And no, it wasn’t a little baby Florence, it was a Nouvel An..toine...nice play on words, thanks to Antoine’s talented multi-lingual father.

It is all in a name. We named our daughter 'Molly', for no other reason than we liked the name. We followed this with May, after my maternal grandmother. Prior to her birth, my husband and I debated the fact that due to her surname also beginning with 'M', this would give her a triple M set of initials. We also reflected momentarily, when we scrutinised our choice for embarrassing pronunciations, innuendos and acronyms and realised that with both names meaning Mary in different countries, we were effectively naming her Mary, Mary... Still, this was not enough to put us off our original choices.

In France, having a second name is rare, although a double-barrelled first name is quite common (think Jean-Phillipe, Jean-Paul, Marie-Claire, Anne-Laure...). All of my children have a middle name and when I filled in forms for them in France, I usually went for broke and included them all. As a result, when she started at collège, Molly was down on all the class lists as Molly May. She was initially amused, then mildly taken-aback, but quickly adopted the two-name first name as a badge of honour. She has many of the same characteristics as my grandmother: adventurous, people-oriented, sporty and affable and is delighted that it pleases my mother, May’s daughter, enormously, to have her remembered.

Molly’s Principal contacted me in the first week of her starting at her new school to request permission for her to join a special English class for students of an English-speaking background. Really? I was flabbergasted that such an option would be considered, as my older daughter’s experience, admittedly in a different collège, had been initially to ask her not to waste her time attending English classes and in the following year picking fault with her…English. Of course, I responded affirmatively to the Principal, checking nonetheless what she would be doing in her couple of now-spare periods. She would be required to attend ‘étude’ also known as ‘permanence,’ which were supervised study classes.

I was happy with this option thinking that it might give her more time to grapple with her other subjects in her second language. A small group of ‘surveillants’ supervised these sessions. Most were young and they often did not stay for long at the school as they were filling in time earning a bit of money whilst they were studying or waiting to start studying. Molly, despite being garrulous and outgoing, enjoyed these silent sessions and had a favourite amongst the supervisors. He was a young guy, named Teddy, and in a not-too-subtle mocking of the utility of his own schoolboy English, he took to greeting her with a ‘Molly May, how are you today? Where is my umbrella?’ all said in a thick French accent and with a big smile. Something about that French charm, but we all found this quite irresistible.

My handwriting is not the best. It never has been good; after all I did not go through primary school in France where the emphasis on perfect formation of tiny linked letters begins in the first year of school. My ‘v’ and ‘u’ in particular get confused often but when joining a new skiing group, Molly’s name had been written ‘Mohly’ on the lists. Naturally enough, and probably quite appropriately, I was blamed, as I had filled out the enrolment forms. The positive outcome was that the confusion led to a conversation between my daughter and her instructor about the origin of the name, her background and nationality, so the ice was broken and a relationship established.

My older daughter brought a form down to the kitchen for me to sign. With three children, it was a fairly constant stream of paperasserie (paper work), so often I graced each document with a fairly cursory glance and a rapid signature. However, every signature had to be preceded with the words 'lu et approuvé' or at least the place in which you were doing the signing and the date. The date, I understood, but the place? Did it really matter if I said that I was in Paris or Sydney when putting pen to paper? In any case, on this occasion, I had barely got through three letters of our village name, when over my shoulder were flung the words, ‘could you please write neatly this time’ and then moving closer to watch me, ‘honestly didn’t you learn to write at school?’ And it wasn’t even Mary Mary (and you know how that rhyme continued) who was speaking.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Seven years ago today or Ode to a sister

Seven years ago today, we left Australia, headed for France. Nostalgic at the best of times, I have been counting down to this departure for days now. I know exactly what I was doing at this time of the afternoon (it is around 3pm as I'm writing), can see the dark clouds overhead and hear the rather violent rainstorm that rushed us through our good-byes at the girls' school gate, know exactly what jumper and jeans I was wearing, can sense the darkness of our late night departure for the airport, well up at the thought of the tears that we shed once there and feel the weight of the extreme tiredness that overcame me whilst waiting to board our aircraft. But, there is one image that is stronger than all the others.

I have to set the scene. Australians, you see, and Melburnians in particular, play football. Not soccer, football. I'm no expert, but let me paint a little picture for you. This sport, peculiar to Aussies, captivates a large percentage of the population every Saturday through the cooler months, draws large crowds at internationally recognised sporting venues (such as the Melbourne and Sydney Cricket Grounds) and is the stuff of dreams for many a young boy (we've still a long way to go before girls will have the same opportunities). Australian Rules Football is played with a ball more oval than round, any part of the body can touch the ball without penalty, players run with, mark, torpedo, pass and kick said ball, and aim to score by getting the ball through the posts at the end of a very large field holding 18 players per side. Of the four goal posts, two are big and two are little and if you get the ball through the two big in the middle of the four, you score six points, and if you put it through the big and a little, only one point ... but I digress.

Players are heroes and are indulgently revered by fans of the sport. This adoration extends to the release each season of player swap cards, purchased in packs, bought, filed and swapped, as necessary, in order to get a full complement of favourite players or team. Unfortunately for our children, my husband prefers cycling and rock-climbing and me, well, I am a girl and I play tennis and hockey, I swim and run and could not tell you which teams are winning and losing, what the player gossip is or how many games are left in the season at any given time.

Back then, Aussie Rules didn't feature much in our home conversations ... until my middle daughter, unrelated to any love of football, set herself a personal challenge, to be the one to acquire the most 'footy' cards in her class. I'm still not quite sure how she did this as she got no pocket money and we certainly weren't buying them for her. Her interest sparked my son's. He was a lot less successful, but completely influenceable, so became a keen supporter of his adored older cousin's team. As a result, his on-board bag (and remember, we had only one suitcase per person for our entire year away) contained an Essendon scarf, pencil case and pen that played the club song (of some interest to the airport security guards). It also contained his stash of footy cards, which that very day had been added to.

It is this image, of my just-turned-six son, with his red-and-black supporter scarf draped around his neck and nearly trailing to the ground, wearing his heavy airplane clothes (so that we could fit more in our hold luggage), leaving my sister's side and running up the footpath in front of her home to greet me, that springs to mind. Smiling and agitating his unopened packet of footy cards in my direction, her gift to him, the huge bandage on his head stood out white and bright in the gloomy afternoon light, and I winced as he stumbled and nearly fell. I looked behind him to my sister and through tears managed a barely audible 'thank-you'.

This was the sister who had put up the five of us pre-departure, had seen her house disappear under a pile of all of the things from our house that we did not know what to do with or did not have the time to take to storage, who had shopped for us, cooked for us, looked after our children as the need arose, listened as we went over and over our 'we're off to France' questions, searching for answers, planned our last special dinner together and then stopped us falling apart as this dinner turned into an unplanned dash to emergency after my son's head split open like a dropped watermelon when he collided with the sharp edge of her kitchen's wooden doorframe.

It is all so clear. Time hasn't blurred the memories, lessened the sentiments or made me want to be doing anything other than setting off again into the unknown with my young family by my side.

If you are interested in reading more of our story, please click here.

Monday, 5 September 2016

"Boy those French! They have a different word for everything." (Steve Martin)

Responding to my last post, where I mentioned my love of reading in French, Ellen (A tiny house in Normandy) suggested that I might take this a bit further for anyone keen to do the same thing. Back living in Sydney, now, and without the full breadth of the French libraries, bookstores, supermarkets and vide-greniers that I have previously had at my disposal, my own reading choices are not really choices at all. I don't discriminate and happily take whatever is rotated through our one French shelf at the local library, be it fiction or non-fiction: biography, reference book, children's story, mystery etc.

Let me preface this post by pointing out that I have been studying the French language since the age of 12 (so a while!). Initially, it was probably the academic nature of the subject that drew me in: the deciphering, code breaking and working out how to put parts together to make a whole. Perhaps, not surprisingly, I was also fascinated by Maths and Music, with similar challenges. From the very beginning, the sounds of the French language were interesting, sometimes difficult, immensely pleasing to try and reproduce, but I'm not sure that communication was what motivated me. After all, I had never left Australia and the world was not connected like it is today.

A year after reading my first "Bonjour! Ca va?" scripted text book dialogues, my sisters and I accompanied my parents to Scotland for my father's sabbatical year at Edinburgh University. Squashed four abreast in the back seat of the family car, we subsequently travelled the continent in our mid-year break, and things started to really change. I encountered languages, food and customs that were unfamiliar to me and, even though we did not visit France on that trip, when a new school year recommenced, my desire to be able to communicate in a different language had been well and truly ignited. My older sister tells me that I used to refuse to speak with her if she didn't try and speak French with me. I'm sure that she is exaggerating, but what a pain I must have been if she's right! (NDLR No need to agree!)

Naturally enough, the resources at my disposition back then were extremely limited. I didn't have podcasts, 24-hour news services, Youtube and song clips with convenient translations to refine my aural skills, French speakers were thin on the ground in suburban Adelaide and the terraced houses of Morningside, and written material was confined to the inked sheets that my French teachers printed off for us and dusty editions of Hugo, Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Camus... when I hit University later on.

Today, what a different world.

What has not changed, though, is that learning requires commitment, patience, hard work, practice and determination. If you think that you will just pick things up by being exposed to the language, everyday or on the odd occasion, you will probably be disappointed.

But, let's go back to reading:

  • Read everything that you can lay your hands on...bus tickets, concert programs, flyers, advertisements, invitations, bills, Facebook posts...
  • When you read these familiar documents you know roughly what should be where, but pay attention and look up anything (vocab, verb conjugation, tense) that is unfamiliar to you. Keep a notebook on you or use the Notes function on your phone to record new words that interest you or that you want to look up later.
  • Even as an adult, children's books are for you. Imagiers or Baby books with single words and pictures, hardcover books with one or two sentences and bright, simple pictures, familiar stories from your childhood (see Peter Pan and Le Club des Cinq (Famous Five) below). Read them aloud, read them often and if you have children, read them to your children.
  • When you are cooking, look up your recipes on the Internet or spoil yourself with a print edition (see Mon cours de cuisine below).
  • Subscribe to a French magazine for children. A brand new magazine is a treat to receive in the post every month or so. Select according to your level of language. Cultural affairs are much more accessible initially in this format than in a daily newspaper.
  • Just as it is for young learners, it is easier to persist with something that interests you (see below Insectes, L'Australie, Dinosaures)
  • After the heavily illustrated books, progress to children's novels and young adult fiction (see below Sheltie et le poney abandonné and Poisson d'Avril).
  • Familiar mysteries and crime stories (such as the John Le Carré novel below).
  • Best-sellers such as Harry Potter and Dan Brown's Da Vinci code
  • Historical fiction (such as Régine Deforges, an interesting French author whose erotica writing was ahead of her times, but who is equally as well known for her trilogy, which begins with La bicyclette bleue and starts in 1939 in WW2 France.)
  • For easy romances and quick reads take your time browsing and selecting from the Pocket Books  selection.
  • Try simpler classics such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince
  • Get a news feed from France Info to your phone, consult it without moderation and keep abreast of the news of the world at the same time as working on your French.
  • Consult the books and ebooks at Decitrefnac and make your choice.
  • Finally, read as often as you can and enjoy!



Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments box below.