Coming to live in France was something I was always prepared for. Being married to a Frenchman, one has to be ready for that sort of thing. After all, my husband had spent ten years in Malaysia and is very accustomed to eating roti canai and dhal for breakfast. Now it’s my turn, and I don’t see any problems in eating buttery croissants for breakfast. The problem will be fitting into my jeans. Although, I confess I am a Penang girl at heart, and a good kuey teow thng is what I miss most some mornings. But it was the first time I was going to live abroad as a parent, and I did have some panic moments.
When you are single (and young), the unknown is an adventure and you have only yourself to think of. With kids though, one tends to succumb less to spontaneity and try at least to have some things planned ahead. You can’t crash on a friend’s sofa for a few weeks. Registering for school is a little bit more complicated than opening a bank account or getting a membership at the local pool. Not only did we have to have a residential address, we could only register the kids the moment the insurance for the home kicked in, which is the day we moved in. So if we thought we were being smart and had a lease prior to our arrival and could register the kids in advance, we were mistaken.
I do speak French, and considerably well it seems, according to my husband and my French in-laws and friends. Of course, could be they are just being polite. The French language is full of subtleties, and the true meanings of certain words I have only started to fully understand now, more than ten years since I first learnt the language. Perhaps I’m just slow. And certain situations demand a precision in a language I fear I have not mastered. The image of being in an emergency room (and how to get there) with my kids, stuck for words, strike me with fear. I could go to the butcher with a picture of the cut of meat I want but googling for a picture of a urinary tract infection or for a translation in an emergency room seems like a not-so-funny episode of some old comedy on TV. And I am still working on being able to come up with a smart retort to some obnoxious metro fellow passenger there and then, not five minutes later.
My girls are 9 and 7, and had been coming to France every summer. They both speak French fluently and are easily adaptable. When we announced to them that we were moving permanently to France, they were first of all excited. Then they started to think that their lives were being ruined, with their friendships destroyed and their beloved grandmother left behind. Their home, with their huge bedroom and a swimming pool would be an unknown luxury in Paris. As we left our house for the last time, they were choked up and although we had spent months preparing them, wailed “Why do we have to leave? This is our home!”
We did not expect a difficult integration. There was no language barrier for them to overcome although they do seem to speak it with much more fluidity now and have certainly picked up some colloquial largo, or dialect. The cultural affinity was already there. After all, their father is French. They had already been in a French education system.
Two weeks before school started, they were both highly strung. Excited, at the same time anxious, they bickered. They couldn’t wait to start school. I couldn’t either.
In France, school is not compulsory but education is; although only a small 0.2% of the school- going population are homeschooled in France. Primary school officially starts when a child turns 6. Equivalent to Standard one is CP, Cours Préparatoire.
Kids in France are generally not pressured to learn to read before this age (they are only expected to be able to read their name), and the focus in preschool, or what is known as maternelle, is to acquire a good level of spoken French. Being able to speak clearly is seen as paving the way to thinking clearly and therefore reasoning, counting, classifying, describing, all should follow suit.
At the end of each term, my kids came home with enormous folders of drawings and paintings, often of lines, waves, semi circles, circles – they were learning how to hold a pencil correctly and the basics of handwriting: another important element focused at preschool. They are encouraged to explore their senses, their feelings, and imagination. Most important at preschool is learning how to be an élève ie a student or a pupil, what school is about and being part of a social group. Living with others requires rules of civility, cooperation and independence. The child learns that the teacher is there not for her only, but for others in the group too. She learns to be part of a group but also to understand the constraints of being part of a group.
When my younger daughter was in maternelle (this was in KL, but the school maintains a French spirit), the teacher in the report card praised her for her enthusiasm but remarked that she needed to “wait her turn and raise her hand to speak”.
One thing to get used to in France is the French workers’ proclivity to strike. This does not exclude teachers. Protesting against the proposed re-installation of Wednesdays (there was no school on Wednesdays in France but this changed with the new school year in September) as a school day, there had been two days where parents were expected to “be understanding” and keep their children home while the teachers were on strike. And the French parents do understand. Strikes and demonstrations are part and parcel of French life and everyone just deals with it.
One evening over dinner, my younger one said to me “Mama, we’ve both made friends in school. How about you? Have you made any friends?” I explained that for adults, it always took a little longer. My considerate daughter, supportive and full of encouragement, said “Don’t worry, next week there is a parents and teacher meeting. You will meet other parents there and I’m sure you will make some friends!” How do I tell her that French mothers are not inclined to say hello to you and be your friend, just because your kids are friends.
So how are we adjusting a year later? I just know that its all easy to plan but its never easy to know how you will adapt and what you will feel, until you are there sur place, facing the life it offers day after day. Today I feel the panic going slowly but the craving for the kuey teow thng has started…