Thursday, 27 September 2018

Aix marks the spot - Part Three


For those of you who have enjoyed Part One and Part Two of Meredith's French adventure, here is the final chapter (of the blog story, but not altogether...as you will read).

Can you share with us a couple of the most memorable/funny experiences of your time in France? What were the most difficult aspects?

Because I had an English passport, I was allowed to live and work in the EEC, however, my husband needed to apply for a ‘carte de séjour’, the right to reside.  We had a wonderful time with the French bureaucracy in Aix and when they told me Colin had to go to Marseille, in person, and get it there, Colin simply didn’t believe me.

We decided to book in to a hotel in Marseille, despite the fact that Marseille was only 25 minutes away.  We had heard horror stories about having to line up early in the morning, so the afternoon before we walked down to the Préfecture to make sure we knew where he had to go.  We finally found the destination in some back street, deep in the city of Marseille. I am sure you are all aware of the French reputation for ‘grèves’ (strikes), and much to our dismay, Marseille was in the grip of a massive garbage strike. The city was literally stinking.


On arrival, we noticed some people were already queuing.  We approached one African-looking person and asked if we were in the right place.  He was very helpful, confirming that we were, in fact, at the correct destination. He was already in the line for the following day and said that he would be happy to mind Colin’s spot! How lucky were we?

So, off Colin went at 6.30am in the freezing cold, through the stinking garbage to arrive with coffee and
croissants for the kind man who had spent the night on the street, holding his spot in the line from the day before.

We were the lucky ones. Only one hour later Colin was the proud owner of a five year ‘carte de séjour’ (right to live). I doubt anybody else in the queue would have had the same success. It was worth its weight in gold for our kids to see all the other people from different countries, queued a mile long, desperate to get permission to live in France. I only hope our kids appreciated how lucky they truly were.

This next little ‘histoire’ is for all the coffee addicts:
The French take their culture and their cuisine very seriously, but given that Aix is a very international city, it is natural that some coffee shops would also sell take-away coffee.  But there are limits and when an English woman got on a local bus with her takeaway coffee, the bus driver demanded:

“Madame, descendez de mon bus!”.  (Madame, GET OFF MY BUS!)
Nothing like insulting the bus driver for bringing a takeaway coffee on his bus.
Be Warned!  Take some time out and don’t rush your coffee!

Part of going to live in another country is being open to trying new things.  I had always wanted to dance salsa, so I signed up for salsa classes and my husband decided to come too.  Towards the end of the year our teacher started teaching us a routine that she wanted us to perform at the end of year ‘spectac’ (show). Of course, there was no way my husband was going to dance a salsa routine on stage, so I signed up ‘toute seul’ (alone).  In the end, the teacher managed to talk him into it. The curtain came up, and front of stage we did our 3-minute sexy salsa routine with 5 other couples in front of 300 people, including the kids.


You couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.  He turned to me and said:

“If you’d told me I was going to dance the salsa on stage in France in front of 300 people, I would never have believed you!”

Therefore, my advice would be, never say never.  Just embrace every opportunity and see where it leads you.


Did I find anything difficult?

Some of you might find this story amusing, but I can assure you my husband took a while to appreciate the irony.

Finding a suitable place to live is no easy task. Colin had sent me over on a reconnaissance trip three months before we were to leave, and he gave me an exact brief.

“I would like a four-bedroom house and pool on an acre of land with spare rooms for visitors.  I would like an open fire to lounge around, a large kitchen so I can shop at the local markets and cook delicious meals each night and all within walking distance to the local bar where I can have my coffee in the morning, my pastis in the afternoon and read Le Journal."

It sounded like a perfectly reasonable brief to me.

However, it became apparent almost immediately I touched down in Aix-en-Provence that I was going to have a hard time fulfilling his dreams.  Aix-en-Provence was not a small French village; it was an energetic university town with a population of over 160,000 people.

So, with some reservation, I set about finding the house of Colin’s dreams.  I imagine it was like looking for the perfect man on RSVP, systematically crossing off every listing you look at. The fact was that nothing remotely resembled what Colin had in mind. Not only were these sorts of houses in the middle of nowhere, they had no charm, they were ridiculously expensive and the owners expected you to vacate during July and August so they could rent them out for more money.

However, on my second-to-last day in Aix, I was introduced, by chance, to a French lady who suggested I contact an agent she knew.

“I don’t have anything suitable, but I do have a very charming cottage in the middle of a vineyard. It’s called La Petite Maison. It is very small", she told me, somewhat apologetically.

The next day I found myself on a dirt driveway with lush vineyards on either side leading up to a magnificent house, just like the one my husband, I am sure, had dreamt of.  For the first time during my two week visit I really felt like I was in the south of France. It was picture postcard and I was so mesmerised by my surroundings that I completely missed the fact that the woman standing at my side was pointing...to a tiny cottage on my left.


The real estate agent opened the door to reveal a very cosy, 62-metre-squared, fully furnished cottage with sliding doors to a huge terrace, only metres from a vineyard, that seemed to go forever.  I fell in love immediately.  And when one falls in love, it is only natural to completely gloss over the minor imperfections associated with one’s love.

“It is very small isn’t it?  But charming, non?” remarked the agent.

I looked around and noted there were two bedrooms separated by a combined lounge living room with an open fire.  I recalled Colin really wanted an open fire and conveniently forgot he had also specified four bedrooms and a pool.  There was a tiny kitchen with a bar fridge and it came with unlimited wood for the fire. It was already connected to wi-fi and we didn’t even have to move out for two months in summer.  After all, Colin had requested land, and voilà, I’d found a house on a vineyard with a view to die for.  Surely, he would be thrilled.

La Petite Maison had our name on it.

“We’ll take it”, I cried.

And promptly signed a one-year lease before I flew out the next day.



Postscript:  Colin did end up with his pool, but I’m afraid it was one of those blow up backyard versions…

Back now in Australia, what do you miss the most? How do the children view their French adventure? Have you visited France since your return to Australia? Do you have any long-term French plans?

Probably the thing one misses most is being so close to everything.  We travelled at every opportunity, visiting Egypt, England, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Spain and many other places. You just can’t do that from Australia.

The children settled straight back in.  Kids are generally very adaptable and if the parents are relaxed, the kids are too. They loved their time in France but were very happy to come back to Australia. We return to Aix regularly and continue the connection. For me, it feels like a second home.

In fact, I love the area so much I have 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.  I hope to extend to Bordeaux and other parts of France going forward.

Combining my love of France with my obsession for Golf is my ultimate dream job.

When we were living there a friend gave me a lovely little olive tree in a pot and, before leaving, I asked our landlord if I could plant it in his oliveraie (olive grove) of 200 trees out the back. He happily agreed.

It is now huge and I visit it every time I go back.  I love that I own my own olive tree in the South of France! How cool is that?

Overall, would you recommend the experience to other families?

I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Giving your children an experience of living abroad, especially in a place like France, is such a gift.  I am sure my boys will fully appreciate it when they are older.

I truly believe that taking people out of their comfort zones empowers them with greater life skills. I have no doubt that it was the best thing we ever did.

Thanks so much, Meredith. Your energy and positive attitude shine through and no doubt contributed in no small measure to the success of your family's adventure. Best of luck with On The Tee. I'm afraid our journeys by necessity part at that point as my past experience with golf was not note-worthy⏤ except perhaps to the members who, from the clubhouse, witnessed my step-up-and-thwack-like-a-hockey-ball drive, which propelled the divot spectacularly further than the ball.

***A reminder to US readers that the latest Kindle deal for 'But you are in France, Madame' finishes today.***


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