Welcome to my first foray into the world of blogging. I hope it will be something that develops and improves with my writing style. It is my experiences of foreign cultures, many similar to my own and some completely alien as I live an expat life and throw in the odd journey or two along the way.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Highs and Lows of being back in Britain

Having lived in places of the world where the sun nearly always shines (though the temperature differed) getting re-acclimatised  to the grey, hanging weather was not going to be easy. It did seem to be going on forever - and then the sun came out this week!!! Temperatures of 25 degrees C and blue skies brought the smile back and Britain was beautiful. Just wish this could be guaranteed for the next 4 months. Maybe if I wished really hard?.........

The low point is more a veritable deep sea trough - the school admissions process. After having received the feeling that the LEA did not care about the boys' education on the 10th May, I left them to their 20 school days. When nothing had been heard by day 23 I phoned the school we want the boys' to go to. Only to discover that they had been contacted by the LEA on 19th April and told the Education Authority that there was a place for the youngest but not the eldest. So my youngest could have been in school 4 weeks ago, and the Appeal process could have been started (and maybe even finished) for my eldest! That same day I phoned the LEA to ask when I would hear only to be told "We've been very busy. I have your application on my desk. It will be actioned this week." Whilst I can understand that offices get busy, I was hurt by the fact that they couldn't even send an email or phone to explain the situation that they were trying and would get it done. But nothing was sent and no apology offered when I phoned. Today (school day 26), I received a letter in the post, postmarked 23rd, letter dated 22nd, giving our youngest a place in the school of our choice. This is great news. However, I felt a real sense of "being had" by the system as the letter is a stock letter sent out to everyone. There is no mention of taking too long, not meeting their own self-imposed targets, nor the fact that because of their incompetence my children are on their 5th week out of school.

There was no letter for our eldest. Apparently, according to the LEA this afternoon a letter for him was sent at the same time! Let's hope tomorrow's post brings news. If he doesn't get the school of our choice I want to Appeal but currently have no idea how long that process might take. The only thing that is certain is that it will probably entail some emotional heartache for me as I have to explain to a bunch of strangers why he should be in that school! If anyone reading this post has had experience of the process would be grateful for advice and tips on how to win!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Aaaaagh! UK School Admission System stinks!

After an early start, 17 hours in the car, quick chip test for the cats at Calais - we arrived knackered at my mum-in-laws. Our life squeezed into every nook and cranny of the car, roofbox and trailer. The cats weren't happy to be in their box but they definitely thought travelling by car better than by plane - they talked to us occasionally from the boot to remind us that they were still there.

Moving back was emotionally draining and physically exhausting. Especially after the lovely drinks and meal with our wonderful Dutch and French neighbours who had so quickly become friends. But the hardest work was yet to come.

Finding a suitable rental property was very difficult - family sized house with a garage, a garden and being within the catchment for a good primary school was a lot of boxes to tick but we did it and have now been living in the lovely historic town of Malmesbury for 10 days! It has taken this long to write my blog because of waiting to be connected to broadband which happened yesterday! However, finding a house and getting internet and television was easy compared to how frustrating it has been to get the boys into school!

At the moment, 3 weeks after doing the application and 10 days after moving in we are still waiting for an answer as to whether they have a space in the school 5 mins away or not! The system allows them 20 working days to get a reply out to us! Despite the fact that the children are not in school and I am homeschooling them. (That is a whole separate blog!)

I have just had a conversation with the Local Education Authority, which I instigated because I wanted to find out how much longer they were going to take and gently remind them that the boys are not in school. I can not remember the last time a phone conversation left me so frustrated and belittled.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Why is it taking so long?"
LEA:"We have 20 days to give you an answer."
Me: "Why, when you know my children are not in school?"
LEA:"We have 20 days."

LEA:"You're living in Calne?"
Me:"No - as I said on my form, we were at my mother-in-laws when we came back from overseas and we would be in Malmesbury from 28th April. I clearly stated our future address."
LEA:"Well you said you lived in Calne, we need proof of address for Malmesbury."
Me: "But if I had put down Malmesbury you wouldn't have asked for proof of address."
LEA:"No, but you put down Calne."
Me:"Why are you only telling me now when I've phoned up? When were you going to contact me?"
LEA:"Well we are now - we need proof of address."

Me:"Will this delay the process as we are at week three?"
LEA:"Your application is pending."
Me:"But you won't give me an answer until I send proof of address?"
LEA:"No but we have 20 days"
Me:"In the meantime I am homeschooling and technically breaking the law having the children out of school."
LEA:"You chose to move them."

So as you may have gathered they have 20 days to get an answer out, and 20 days they will take. They are not bothered by the fact that children are not officially in school - so that implies that it's ok to go on holiday during term times. They cannot think outside the box and read forms and understand them when the future address and moving date is give and the school being applied for is no where near the address for correspondence given on the form. A proof of address is required yet they had chosen not to tell me.

I know that the fight is not over for the school is fairly full and has a place for only one of my boys. But it is the closest, 5 mins walk as opposed to 15 minutes in the car adding to the pollution and frustration on morning roads. So I will have to face the appeals process and then possibly have to make a decision about either moving them both to the same school or splitting myself to be in 2 places at once!

The French education system may have been poorer than the British; however their administration is streets ahead of ours!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

One Thing Achieved!

I can leave Carla knowing that I have achieved one thing at least whilst being here. I have managed to make 27 French children and their teacher understand that England should not be used to refer to the whole island across Le Manche!

Delphine, my youngest's teacher, asked me to come into class and explain about life in England (in French of course!). Being Scottish I decided to take advantage of the situation and try to get it across to the children that there was more than one country across the water and therefore everyone was not English. So I presented the maps of Great Britain and one of the UK and explained that there were four countries - all very different.

My one day in class became three sessions of 2 hours each! I have managed to talk about cities, industries and tourists sites in England, Scotland, Wales and N Ireland! Learning new vocabulary as I went along. They had not realised that laws and systems were different between England and Scotland and that for years they had been at war with each other. But they loved the tale of Nessy and finding out that Arthur and Merlin had lived in Wales! I also treated them to some UK tastes - home-made rice crispie cake, shortbread and marmite on crackers. Marmite was not their favourite taste!

I could answer most questions posed though I was stumped (sorry about the pun!) when Delphine asked me to talk about sports particular to the UK. I couldn't think of anything and it was Delphine that said "What about Cricket and that game with horses and sticks?" Well, can you imagine trying to explain the game of cricket (which I have never played and rarely ever watched) in French to a bunch of kids and a teacher who have never seen it either? Even my lovely diagrams on the whiteboard did not enlighten them further!

As I was in school for a third time I thought I would take advantage of being in the classroom alone before the children came in, to take photos to show you what the inside of the boys' school is like.

On the right is our eldest's classroom. He sits at the end of the back row in centre of the photo. He is in CM1 and shares the room with those in CE2 and CM2. So the ages range from 8 to 11 (almost 12). The rooms are very basic and old. The photo on the left is the corridor outside the classrooms.

 This on the left is the class of our youngest - CP and CE1 - the first two years of French school (7 and 8 yr olds). This is the part of the classroom for the 8 CP children. They face one white board and the CE1 are to the right facing another whiteboard on the wall at 90 degrees to CP. You can see their desks in photo below. Teacher sits in the back right corner.

Our 3 months here has at times felt long but has actually gone quite fast. But it is good to  know that I've managed to educate a few french children on the geography and highlights of the United Kingdom. It was fun to be involved in the classroom and the children were very welcoming and patient with my stumbling over certain vocabulary. As with my last post - more good memories to take away.

Ground rush!

Three sleeps! The days are rushing past and I am slowly ticking things off the list. We have had a week of gorgeous weather which has provided lovely memories to take away of this beautiful area of southern France.

Last Friday was Carnaval at school. Originally associated with Mardi Gras and to celebrate the start of Spring, the boys' school tends to hold it closer to the Easter holidays probably because of the slightly better weather.

The parade started from school about 2 o'clock and weaved its way through the little streets of the village. We made a stop for sweets at the centre for handicapped young people then we moved on down the hill to the centre for asylum seekers. There Monsieur Clown was unloaded from the trailer and set on fire. Whilst he burnt everyone tucked in to gouter, cakes, pancakes and more sweets!

It was a good afternoon with wonderful weather.

We were invited to my youngest's teacher's house on Sunday afternoon and to visit the small village of St Lizier. It was a lovely afternoon with so much hospitality and friendship being shown to us that I hope we can maintain the friendship and I can continue to practice my French by writing to her. We were served fois gras made by her mother-in-law. This was served with a bread that was called bear's paw and home grown preserved figs. Then we had the rest of the duck that had been preserved with salt and is called confit de canard. Then after the kids had run off some energy outside we set off for St Lizier just 5 minutes away where there is a gorgeous Roman Church with beautifully preserved murals and calm and inviting cloisters. Many years ago the bishops lived there and there is still a palace at the top of the hill.

The views from the top near the Bishop's Palace were stunning and that is despite the haze which veiled the Pyrenees preventing them from being in sharp focus. There were lots of little details on the houses that had no real purpose except to make you smile.

It was a good end to our short stay in France, but hopefully cemented the friendship between Delphine and I. And, hopefully the dream will happen in the future.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Life in Freeze frame - where now?

I found a link to this on another blogger's site (  ThresholdMum  ) so thought I would give it a go as it sounded like fun.

My life is in freeze frame. We have taken the decision to head to the UK for education and to be together as a family. And yet I feel sad, sad that a life in France was not to be, sad that we are back in the UK but without real purpose as my husband is looking to change jobs but to what and where is unknown.
I have no jewellery tools to make any new designs and feel very much in limbo. I am starting to feel that I need and want more in my life than being the trailing spouse. But I can never be the major bread winner as I have been out of the habit of a sizeable salary for so long. Therefore I have to continue to wait until my husband lands a new job, a new house is found and the children are happy and settled.
And yet that has an indefinite timeline. So maybe I should use it to work out what it is I want to do, what I can do? With that then maybe I can answer the where now? Not just for my family but for me.

Life after the dream

I didn't know how much I had wanted the dream until we took the decision to move to the UK. I feel that I have gone through a period of grieving. For something that will now never be - our family growing up in the beautiful countryside of France, bi-lingual. The long summer evenings living outside and drinking good wine.

However, we were not prepared to gamble on the education. Being bi-lingual would be an amazing skill but not at the expense of all the other attributes and skills that learning should bring. Even after only 3 months the boys have a good level of French and using a private tutor back in the UK will hopefully build on this knowledge and give them the chance to be as fluent as possible. As for the boys, now they know they are going to the UK they are more relaxed with their language and improving even faster.

A comment that my youngest made when we told them brought home how two people can look at things so differently. For me I am going back, even the very phrase sounds negative. I know about the traffic, the poorer climate compared to France, I lived there for 30 years. However, for my little ones they cannot remember ever living there. It was always only a holiday destination. My youngest said that he was excited to be going to live in England because he had never lived there before and didn't know it. I realised that showing them the country whose passport they hold will be exciting. And actually as I have not been there for 6 years we will all be like strangers, discovering the culture and customs all over again. So we are going to be tourists, learning the heritage and history of the land they call England.

The list of things "To Do" is shorter than last time but still quite meaty. A lot is done, cats have their passports, tunnel booking is changed, landlord notified. Just a simple thing of squeezing our stuff into one estate car and roofbox. As my husband doesn't arrive back till the day before we leave at 6 am we have decided to err on the side of caution and buy a trailer to ensure that it will all fit in! One of the major things on the "To Do" list is to find a house in a catchment area of a good school with spaces for the boys within commuting distance of my husband's work. Unfortunately it is proving to be moveable jigsaw puzzle that refuses to be finished. I fear that I may yet be home schooling the boys. We have another 3 weeks to find a place so fingers crossed!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

What now?

In my last post, granted only posted today, but written about 2 weeks ago, I hinted at our concerns about the difference between the two education systems. It is something that worries me. We were so lucky with our last school. It had a carpet for the kids to sit on to listen to the teacher, the modern desks were placed so that the children sat together in groups of 6 or 7 and there was a white board in every classroom. The children from FS2 up had regular access to technology and a large space to run around outside.

The current one as previously mentioned has a yard 20m by 10m. All ages play in this space from the small maternelles at 3yrs old up to the CM2 at 11. The access to the two classrooms is up a dark staircase. The classes have 3 different year groups in them. Our youngest's class has two rows of desks each facing a different wall. The desks are old. At first glance there is very little order in the classroom with piles of books and papers on desks on the far side of the room. The eldest's class is similar, accept that they all face the one blackboard at the front of the class. The headmaster is also a full-time teacher only having Friday out of the classroom to attend to headteacher stuff. There is no school secretary. There is a before / afterschool service and these ladies also look after the kids at lunchtime because the teachers have no responsabilty for the children during this time.

A good thing about being here is taking part in the "out of the classroom" lessons. Two weeks ago the boys went cross-country skiing for the day at le Plateau de la Beille. The weather was amazing and it was a fantastic day. It allowed me to see first hand the differences between UK and French ways of doing things. There were no seatbelts on the bus. The teachers did the cross-country skiing instructing, however given that for most it was their first time, either ever, or at least for a year, there was no basic instruction of how to put on the skis, how to move or even how to stop! I was walking with the bottom group helping to pick them up when they fell but I was a bit concerned about my two given that they had not done this before and they were put in the top two groups because they had done downhill skiing. At lunchtime the children were told to sit on the snow and have their packed lunch whilst the teachers all sat together. There was no real concern to ensure that all the children were drinking enough or staying warm. It was then that I learned that teachers in France have the right to hit a pupil! Listening to my eldest describe his morning it sounded like a testosterone filled group that had been out to go as fast as possible uphill and down. Although he is competitive at other things he felt out of his depth, not helped by the fact that the teacher mocked him every time he fell over. This was more evidence that he has not settled and feels completely under-confident in everything that he does. Luckily he was able to change groups and went in the next one down with his brother and loved the afternoon session.

In January we had put in an offer on a house and had it accepted. We had even got as far as going to the lawyer's to sign the first of the documents leading to purchase - the compromis de vente.  However the seller dragged his heels on completing a survey required for sale on the septic tank. When it eventually came in, it transpired that he had not had a new survey done just the old report re-written. He thought it said that everything was fine. He ignored the part that said that it was fine for up to 5 people! Given that it was a house that could sleep over 8 with gites that slept 12 we were not going to be able to take the "do nothing" option with the septic tank. The cost was unknown and was probably going to be very high. Too high for our budget so sadly, we pulled out of the sale. 

Where does that leave us? The situation is thus: no house, a school system that does not appear to offer what I think my boys need, a rental that is too small for our needs, all our stuff in storage and a husband at home 4 nights a month. This all adds up to not much of a life. So we have had to admit that, this time around, our french dream is not to be. It is something for later on, for hubby and I together when we only need to worry about watering vegetable patches and having a cave du bon vin

The question now is where do we live? As of 7 April we have no house nor a school for the boys. Answers on a postcard please!