Thursday, 20 September 2018

Like a version

Pyjama-clad with coffee brewing -  this morning's view

There was no alternative but to go shopping yet again. We could almost see the grins on our Australian friends' faces, as they would email slyly from a safe distance on the other side of the world, 'what are you and hubby doing all day?’ They would have been disappointed to hear the truth. For a long time our days were most unromantically consumed with shopping, waiting in queues to try and solve our telephone or Internet or transport or banking problems and ferrying the children to and from school four times a day. In particular we were struggling with getting a ‘justificatif de domicile’. This was something that confirmed that we had a fixed address and we needed it in order to open a bank account and get a RIB (relevé d’identité bancaire or chit with our bank account details). We needed the RIB to give to the car insurance company and we needed the car insurance before we could collect the second-hand car that we had far too quickly paid a large deposit on. It was a frustrating circular conundrum.

That first perfect French morning tea in the park-like gardens of our little wooden home had been replaced by treks out to the nearest McDonald’s hamburger store. Neither my husband or I were lovers of the food but they had free Wi-Fi. We would order coffee, which was surprisingly drinkable and affordable, and work hard through our list of things to do. Sometimes if we didn’t have a lot of things to research we would just sit in the car park outside the store for a few minutes and hook into the network from there. Of course it felt wrong. We had gone to France for the family-run village cafés with atmosphere-inducing French background music and where the menus would reflect the seasonal produce; not fast food, bright lighting and English pop songs.

On one such visit a sweet-sounding song came onto the radio blaring through the loudspeaker. It was soothing and I was a bit pent up with coping with our new life so I stopped what I was doing and leaned back momentarily on my bench to let the words flow over me. “La, di dah di dah, fuck you, la di dah di dah”. My head jerked up and I looked at my husband. “Did she really just sing what I think she sang?” I asked. How appropriate. Lily Allen was singing for us and sweetly saying what we felt like yelling out loud every time we were told that what we desperately needed to do was not possible. I felt quite elated. Somebody out there understood what we were going through and I found myself humming her tune frequently. I am not good at remembering words to songs, but in this case I only needed to know two. (excerpt from 'But you are in France, Madame')

This morning, my view was different; literally and figuratively. Standing in my pyjamas, listening to the cockatoos and kookaburras (and the golf course lawn mower), I was on familiar, comfortable territory; making my own coffee and choosing my own music. But, something was the same. Lily Allen was back in contact.

Friday mornings on Triple J radio is a bit of a weekly personal highlight (please don't judge). The morning crew of Ben and Liam invite musicians to chat on air before performing one of their own songs plus a cover. Cleverly named 'Like a version', I have never heard a bad segment. Lily's radio time with the hosts this morning was no different. She performed a rather melancholic, stripped-back track, 'Family Man' from her newest album and an equally soft and evocative version of 'Deep End' by an unknown-to-me artist, Lykke Li.

Her voice took me back to France. I could see myself bunkered down in a little McDonald's booth with my husband, felt the pressure of not knowing how things should be done, recalled the precariousness of staggering forward trying not to alarm our children with my lack of control, the solitude of knowing no-one and the complete uncertainty of whether we had done the right thing in heading to France.



I know what happened next. And, this is what gave this morning's melancholy a beauty. You see, difficult does not only make for bad memories.

I will leave you today with a newspaper extract. Here you will read that a self-published, Amazon-only distributed book has made it onto the long-list for the Renaudot Prize, a highly valued French literary prize - and the reaction of one bookseller.

She is highly indignant and, taking the opportunity to generalise, makes it clear that from her perspective, Amazon is a menace. As for me, I'd rather that bookstores just said 'yes' to my book without having to loan them my third born. I know, too, that readers love a bargain, so much so that even .99c is sometimes too high - which for those who have laboured in the production (authors) is hard to swallow. Not all groups can be pleased simultaneously, and as this is a competition, it makes sense to simply judge the book by its story...and whilst we are addressing the subject, maybe even acknowledge that Indie authors aren't by definition pariahs of the literary world.

Kindle copies of 'But you are in France, Madame' available here
Kindle deal for US readers running all week. Many thanks for your interest and support.











Thursday, 13 September 2018

Great. You're famous. Now, let's go.

"Great. You're famous. Now let's go."

No, not me, but overhead yesterday.


My husband and I were on our way to Canberra where I was to speak at the Alliance Française. As usual, an event like this took a fair bit of behind-the-scenes preparation, not the least of which was packing for our 15-year-old son who was to stay overnight at a mate's place. Should I have let him pack for himself? Most definitely, but...clean socks - meh, two school shirts? (oh, one for today and one for tomorrow), name on trumpet (but I won't lose it...mmm). Loveable, loving and loved, by me, capable of indulgently tolerating the not-so-niceties of his teenage years. Other Mums - let's just say, I was taking precautions.

But, back to my eavesdropping en route...We had stopped for lunch and an obligatory browse up and down the main street of the country town. I read a blog recently, written by a French visitor to Australia, where the main streets of non-big-city destinations were described as flat, colourless, lacking interest and rather run-down. With the exception of the shop outside of which I was window licking*, she may have a point. This shop was bright, attractive and filled with gorgeous fashion creations of decades past. And, apparently, these had belonged to my female pavement companion.

"Look. In the window. My dresses!"
"Great. You're famous. Now, let's go," replied her male friend.

I love moments like these. They make me laugh, they make me reflect and I love bringing them up in conversation as they invariably lead to shared stories.

My author talks are like this too. They are not always big affairs; after all, I'm an incognito in the literary world, but those who come, do so to listen to our story and share their own. I meet travellers, mothers and fathers who are contemplating their next move, students who are garnering the courage to study overseas in a foreign language, readers, teachers, language lovers and, as was the case, with last night's event organiser, Elodie, French students, here in Australia, to explore the world down-under.

Let's shop. Paris, not said country town.
Despite our exchanges being warm, light-hearted and friendly, Elodie and I spoke in French, politely using the 'vous' form. It struck me that even after all these years of living and speaking French, this cultural difference still sets me apart. I wanted constantly to use the 'tu' form. Despite my comparatively advanced senior years, I didn't feel any hierarchical need for distance, my instinct was for a rapprochement and I felt a degree of discomfort with my inability to quickly broker the gap between stranger and acquaintance.

I've just returned from a meeting of a different kind. There, I wasn't expecting a reception in French. I got it, though, and it was diffident, officious and remarkable coming from the first point of contact in the organisation. It put me on the back foot, and reminded me yet again, despite how much I know about France and French living, how much I will probably never quite get it. One might say, "But you are in France in Australia, Madame"...

A big thank-you to the Alliance Française de Canberra for your welcome last night, especially to Elodie for helping pave the way for our event. It was lovely to meet you all.

*faire du lèche-vitrines - window-shopping (but literally to do some window licking)
**For Kindle copies of But you are in France, Madame, click here **


Thursday, 6 September 2018

Aix marks the spot - Part Two


In previous blogs, I have introduced you to other Australian families who, like us, have been so drawn to France that they have up-ended their 'normal' and headed there to live. What is interesting is that each of us has a very different story. Of course, there are similarities (from the simple - markets, fresh food, administrative hurdles... to the complex - profound emotions) but our stories - what we have each done, what we hoped to get from our experiences, how long we stayed and where we stayed - have varied quite significantly.

In Part One of Aix marks the spot, we met Sydneysiders Meredith, her husband and their two children as they readied themselves for departure followed by their early experiences in Aix-en-Provence.



Today, in Part Two of 'Aix marks the spot', Meredith relates a funny story, which I enjoyed so much that I thought it was deserving of a Friday blog of its own. 

One of the most amusing things about living in France at that time was the fact that my husband bore an uncanny resemblance, in both age and appearance, to a ‘très connu’ (well known) French policitian, fondly known as DSK.  Dominique Strauss Kahn seemed to acquire more and more notoriety throughout our stay due to  his involvement in several financial and sexual scandals. 

Highly intelligent, charming and sophisticated, DSK was the Head of the International Monetary Fund and was tipped to become the next President of France until a lurid sex scandal turned him into a total pariah.  Even his wife of 20 years threw him out.  His career and political aspirations came to a rather spectacular end on 14 May 2011 when, in high international drama, his Air France plane was stopped on the runway, he was escorted off by the US authorities and arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a New York chambermaid. Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper dubbed him ‘le grand séducteur’ (the Great Seducer).

So, whilst DSK had a monopoly over the world stage and the front cover of all the local french newspapers, for sexual assault and general bad behaviour including orgies and pimping, Colin and I thought nothing about attending the local Set Club for a summer cocktail party.  I was quietly sipping my rosé, chatting with some friends I played tennis with, when friends of their friends started showing up.  I noticed they were laughing and pointing at my husband who was about 15 metres away:

Oh mon dieu… Regarde là-bas!  C’est DSK!”.
(Oh my god.  Look over there.  It’s DSK)

I chimed in :
"En fait, c’est mon mari”. 
(Actually, that’s my husband).

When I walked over to share this with Colin he declared loudly in their general direction:
“Ce n'était pas ma faute. J’ai demandé le service en chambre, c'est tout”.
(It wasn’t my fault, I asked for room service. That’s all”….)


To find out what Meredith is doing these days, head to the following sites. https://www.onthetee.com.au/provenceandluberon/

For Kindle copies of 'But you are in France, Madame', click here

Monday, 27 August 2018

Earn more money...by learning a second language


It's human nature. A good headline grabs our attention.

Take the following...

Why did Personality X have to leave her high-paying job on  (insert name of show)? 

Me pretending to be scandal-pursued Personality X

Oooh...Scandal? Intrigue? No, just foolishness on my part to have been conned into clicking on the article, as it was an ad, pure and simple, for a new product that Personality X was selling.


Is this what I've done to you today? No doubt my blog stats will give me a partial answer. Perhaps this is what we need to do to our secondary students to improve the startlingly low (and declining) numbers studying a second language in Australia? I'm willing to give it a go, but I suspect that they are way too savvy - and also, given that the anniversary of the death of Francoise Dolto has just passed and debate has once again sprung up about the 'enfant roi' in our recent parenting strategies, they may not be at all inclined to take what they may consider as an unnecessary, hard road ahead ..."I only need English. The whole world speaks English", I hear them say.

Hold on a minute. Give me a chance to convince you. Consider the new improved language-learning you* who can

  • tune out noise more easily
  • see things with a different perspective
  • make sharper judgement calls
  • have a better memory
  • focus better in a crowd
  • have improved mental well-being
  • be a better problem solver
  • have superior listening skills
  • multitask masterfully

AND,

... wait for it...you can EARN MORE MONEY.

Plus, my dear teenagers, these benefits are for life - they don't just evaporate as quickly as the proud glow of making it through your final school exams; they may actually provide you with resistance to the onset of Alzheimer's or dementia. OK, that as a clincher is probably not going to work.



I had a blog post going round and round in my head last night. Eventually, in order to get some sleep, I had to get up and jot down some notes. It was vaguely centred around the differences between French and Australian education, and was probably prompted by my son's enthusiastic description of his last Friday's Maths class. (Haha says the teacher in me, the choice of Friday afternoon was not a coincidence.)

His class had been taken to the sports oval where, along with another class, they had been asked to make a straight line. Then, representing an angle corresponding to their position in the line (my son was number 66), they were to work out the sine of their particular angle and walk to this spot along an imaginary y-axis. A lovely flowing sine curve (and the possibility that he will remember the value of sin 66 for a long time) was the result. Woohoo - a great lesson from his perspective. Why? Because it was physical and visual but also different and communal.

How, though, did my son's description of his Maths class lead me to thinking about language learning? Some might argue that most things do. The thing is that headline-grabbing subject descriptors, or promises of future success are not enough to convince high-school students that they should take a particular subject. No doubt, the bells and whistles do help, but a teacher (like my son's Maths teacher on Friday) who is not only knowledgeable, but passionate, motivating and inspired to change things around according to the particular group of students that she or he has is, for me, the biggest factor in student success.

And this is where I am brought back to France and French education; it is true that language learning there is viewed as a significant plus and, from my admittedly limited experience, the expected level of the foreign languages taught is high (and higher than in Australia), but the students remain lacking in confidence and the teaching is often rigid and uncompromising.

Imagine if, in Australia, we could find some of the discipline (subject matter) attention and importance attributed to languages as per the French approach to language learning and if, in France, the language classes could be more exciting, student-centred and communicatively (less grammatically) oriented.

Who knows, we might then be speaking each other's languages.

* full article here   

PS  For more, take a look at this TED talk (where language changes your perspective) 
http://bit.ly/2J6QI3H

*** I wrote about our family's French adventure in 'But you are in France, Madame',  click on the following link for a Kindle  or a print copy


Monday, 20 August 2018

Aix marks the spot - Part One


In previous blogs, I have introduced you to other Australian families who, like us, have been so drawn to France that they have up-ended their 'normal' and headed there to live. What is interesting is that each of us has a very different story. Of course, there are similarities (from the simple - markets, fresh food to the complex - profound emotions) but our stories - what we have each done, what we hoped to get from our experiences, how long we stayed and where we stayed - have varied quite significantly.

Today, in Part One of 'Aix marks the spot', we meet Meredith, her husband and their two children who left Sydney for their French life in Aix-en-Provence. 

What was it that prompted you to head to France with your family?  

My husband is a natural cook and had studied catering with the French chefs.  From that day on, he wanted to live in France.  It was all my husband’s idea, although he would say that I made it happen.  

 To undertake a trip such as yours there must have been a fair amount of preparation? What were some of the things on your pre-departure to-do list and do you have any hints for families who might be thinking of doing the same thing?

There is an enormous amount of work that goes into living in another country.  We made our decision to leave Sydney around February 2010 and were on our way 4/5 months later.  My husband had been talking about wanting to live in France for so long that I was sick of hearing about it.  I gave him an ultimatum, that we either go in August 2010 or that he simply never mention it again.

He looked me in the eye and said “Alright, let’s do it”.   
I held out my hand and replied “You have to shake on it”. 
And he did.

We always felt that 1 year would never be enough and assumed 1-3 years would be the probable outcome. The children were 7 and 10 years old when we left and almost 10 and 13 when we returned, two and a half years later. 

So, probably the main piece of advice that I would give to any prospective families wanting a similar sea change is to allow as much time as possible.  It takes most people a year to settle in and the last thing you want to do is to have to turn around and come back.  

Of course, packing up a family and moving to Europe is no easy task.  You just need to make extensive lists and work your way through them. Given that I have a British passport and my husband and I both spoke some French, we had quite an advantage to start with.

I would certainly suggest that anybody thinking of living in France should start learning the language in earnest.  On the other hand,  don’t be put off if you don’t speak French.  Most French speak English and it is relatively easy to get around without it. 


How did you choose where you would live? Did this area live up to your expectations? 

Once we’d decided to move to France, I asked my husband the same question,
"Where do you want to live?".   He looked at me as if I was an ‘imbécile’,
“The south of France, where else would you go?”.  And he was right.

My search began with schools.  We assumed the kids would go to an international school and I could only really find three such schools in the south.  There were two on the Côte d’Azur and one in Aix-en-Provence.  Put simply ‘Aix marked the spot’ and that was where we went.

Aix-en-Provence boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, is 25 minutes from the sea, 3 hours by TGV to Paris and is the gateway to the Luberon valley.  It was no surprise that Aix was voted the most desirable place to live in France by the French!
  
I really didn’t have any expectations.  We were going to live in the South of France and we were going to have a totally different life experience with our kids.
  
Of course, it was extraordinary and the best thing we ever did.

You have two children. How easily did they make the transition into French living? Can you tell us a bit about their experiences of school, making friends, adjusting to new routines, food etc? 

We actually decided to put the kids in the local French school initially, which only lasted 4 months.  My youngest son was struggling with phonetics in English and therefore he was drowning in French.  I was very proud of them both, they never cried.  They just went off every day to school and came home talking about what they had for lunch. That is the best thing ever. The French schools provide a 3-course lunch every day for the kids and it is outstanding.

We quickly decided that having an authentic ‘French’ experience wasn’t as important as having happy children and therefore settled on an ‘International’ experience, moving them to the local International school.  They were ecstatic and loved the change.

They adapted very quickly to their new school and once they had English speaking friends they were very content.  They quickly became connoisseurs of olive oil, cheese and what was the best saucisson at the market.  But they never really embraced going to museums and art galleries, they were far more interested in skiing and climbing trees.


Once settled, what did a typical day look like for you and your husband?

A typical day started with us checking our emails for any work issues back home.  Then we would drive the kids 15 minutes to school stopping on the way back for a morning coffee and a few fresh goods at the market.
  
If it was a Tuesday we would be going direct to the hiking group, a combination of French and international people being led all over Provence to places you would never find on your own.

Two days a week we would go into the centre ville for our French classes.  We only lived 5 kms from town but it was always fun to go into Aix for French lessons followed by a wander around the market and lunch.

We had to work a bit from home but this would normally be followed by walks around the property, a visit to the local Set club for tennis, or an excursion around the region.
We were kid free during the day so we had plenty of time to explore.

And my husband would delight in deciding what he would cook for dinner and then cook something delicious every night.

In Part Two of 'Aix marks the spot', Meredith will share some of their more colourful moments living in France and talks about their eventual return to Australia. 

PS A sneak preview to the continuation of this story is that Meredith loves the area so much that she joined forces with a company called On The Tee Travel to create and host some exciting ‘Golf Getaways’ to Provence, The Riviera and even Mallorca, Spain.  More next time...


Plus...in Part Two, a funny episode related to the following photo will be revealed.

I wrote about our family's French adventure in 'But you are in France, Madame', please contact me on cb222@me.com for a print copy or click on the following link for a Kindle copy.

And finally, I am linking this post with #farawayfiles - varied collection of travel stories.