Thursday, 22 September 2016

WHEN FRIENDS ARE FAR AWAY...

We've lived here for three months (and half of that was in a tent in some woodland out of the village) so I know rationally that it is fine not to have made friends yet. I know that just because I have not made friends so far, that it doesn't mean I will never make friends here. However, who considers these things rationally when they are missing their friends from home and life as a family of four needs some serious fresh air ? I am prone to emotional responses to most things in life, it's what led me sob whilst listening Nadya Hussein on Desert Island Discs a few weeks ago, as if I had forever forfeited the opportunity to bake cakes or reminisce about the Backstreet Boys with friends simply by moving to France. It was perhaps also the repetitive task of chipping plaster off a beam combined with a lunch of tinned mackerel that led to the emotional outburst but the bottom line is, if there's an opportunity for teary melodrama, I generally take it.

When we first arrived I threw myself into making friends so enthusiastically that I think most people I met were terrified. There were certainly very few positive receptions to my manically friendly 'Hellos' in the park or indeed anywhere where I came across someone: in shops, in the street, on foot paths... 

 

Today, I think someone was about to say 'Hello' to us. Not the polite Bonjour to each other the-way-we-do-when-we-pass-in-the-street that everyone does here. He might have actually wanted to talk. He looked our age, had two young children, reminded me of friends from home and my imagination took off; someone to invite to dinner, someone to have a drink with, we were no longer that weird family conspicuous for their lack of friends, the possibilities seemed endless. And then Little L cried out 'I need a poo'. I hesitated. What was the probability that she would actually do a poo if I ignored her and started to chat and, if she did do a poo, what was the probability that the man would be put off from being our friend. Perhaps it would be a bonding moment. All parents can bond over their child shitting themselves when you really don't want them too. ('Shit yourself all you want inside my love, just never when I'm trying to make a friend and I've not got any wipes with me'). By the time I had thought all this through Little L had repeated herself four or five times, the volume increasing. I took a deep breath to stop the fury at the injustice of this from overflowing and headed back home. There'll be a next time...

Sometimes I think about some of the great people I know and how they inspire me and one thing that comes up is their open homes and their welcoming in of, for want of a better term, waifs and strays.

When I was born my parents were homeless (temporarily after a run of bad luck) and a friend of theirs welcomed them in, first the two of them, then the three of us. He even drove my Mum back to his home from hospital with me, all new, next to a collie dog and a spare car engine on the seat because my Dad was hay making. (English summers do not allow hay making to wait, even for new babies to be driven home). I have loved this story for as long as I have known it, in the way we all love these stories which frame our lives from before our own memories begin. Particularly I have loved how this friend of my parents so unhesitatingly welcomed so many into his home; the displaced, the unlucky, the unwell and that at the very beginning of my life I was one of these people and so lucky to be so.

I have always imagined that I would have one of these open homes and my children would learn wonderful things from this. Like other friends of mine, I would take hospitality to incredible lengths and welcome everyone through the door. I have been so humbled by other people's tales of their willingness to share their homes and time with strangers or friends in need I've been inspired to do the same. This openness seems to bring a richness to life, it's a small and peaceful revolution against the pervasive suspicion and mistrust around us.

Then, I realised that, right now, we are the waifs and the strays. So much for my lofty ambitions... I am the person feeling homesick, feeling lonely and, tragically, thinking every day, perhaps today is the day I'll make a friend. So each chat with the librarian or our neighbours means so much. Even each Bonjour that hints at something more than just a polite formality but suggests a genuine wish that I have a good day is sustenance.

A man who works in the village kindly offered to show us some walks we could try out that would be suitable for two small children. We met with him the next day in his office and he showed us a few circular routes along gentle forest paths. I explained that what I was really after was a walk with friends, or people who might become friends, 'I don't have any friends here, yet' I finished lamely. He looked uncomfortable but not unsympathetic. It's true that when somebody tells you they don't have friends it's really hard to know what to say. Loneliness is a great taboo but we should talk about it because it'll happen to a lot of us at some point or another and it's nothing to be ashamed of (so goes my new mantra). Then, he scribbled down his contact details and invited us out, along with his family on a walk they are doing this Sunday. I was embarrassed, there's no denying that, clearly he'd be explaining to his wife later that he'd had 'no choice', 'they look really desperate', that he 'felt sorry' for us.

We are the waifs and strays.

But, it would be silly to let pride get in the way of an opportunity to spend time with someone generous enough to offer... So we'll see. Perhaps we've made a friend.






THE HOUSE

Things are beginning to feel exciting. We have some bags of hemp and horse manure for insulation and plaster respectively and this feels like the turning point from demolition to construction. Little L spends a lot of time planning furniture layout, always unorthodox and always fun; sofa's on top of wood burners and a lot of purple paint. Sadly we're much too boring to concede to her instructions but the suggestions liven up the discussions about whether intact window panes or a safe staircase are the priority before the move in. Little I runs about the open floor spaces like she's found a cache of amphetamines, throwing herself to the floor as if she's playing rugby with imaginary friends and having a whale of a time. Ignorance is bliss.

Six weeks until we move in...



Saturday, 10 September 2016

AUTUMN'S CALLING

Finally the incredibly long lasting green of the countryside has succumbed to the burning of the hot sun. Leaves have begun to fall from the plane trees lining the village's streets and the woodlands around are beginning to patchwork browns and yellows. It feels as if summer is mellowing and Autumn is around the corner.



With Autumn comes the start of school and a new adventure for Little L. Navigating a foreign education system is a challenge to me. I want to be informed and informing myself of the differences and nuances between what to expect in the UK and here in France is difficult. It seems I might have to learn as we go along, not something that fills me with much enthusiasm as I wave goodbye to Little L at the school gates for the first time, hoping that it will all be OK  .

It seems opinions are divided about the education system here. Generally people familiar with both highlight the disciplined and perhaps 'old fashioned' approach here in France vs a less rigorously academic but more holistic and individual centred approach in the UK. Some people like the emphasis on good behaivoiur and exacting high standards in French schools as well as the consistency between schools and others are dismayed by the punative approaches with less room for creativity than there purportedly is back home.

Anyone who knows me will know that I am not one for a punitive regime of education and will sing the virtues of imagination, creativity and time in nature to my grave! The phrase 'by rote' sends a shiver of dread down my spine. The idea that if you happen to be good at memorising and repeating information you are therefore a good student is a bit regressive if you ask me... Poor Florent bears the brunt of my very opinionated ideas about education and fears about how bad schooling could affect our children however thankfully we agree on the essentials. He has pragmatically pointed out that twelve hours a week in school will still leave us a lot of time to spend time outside doing whatever we want to do, and, if it's not right, there's no obligation for her to remain in school. ('Maternelle' covers the first three years of schooling which although not compusory nearly all children attend.) We also remembered that we know a lot of teachers who work incredibly hard and I would happily see any one of them teach my children.

I think of all the major challenges of parenthood for me one that has pushed me to grow most of all is when my preconceptions are challenged and I am forced to rexamine what I think I think or think I know. To be able to decide where to compromise or when to reassess my opinion. So we will see. The obscenely heavy bag, the dictation, the uniform handwriting, the hours of homework are all things that come later and who knows what the situation we will be then so I've put aside my sceptisism and am hoping that Maternelle will be the beginning of an exciting time for Little L. She is keen on the idea of school so we have negotiated a part time place and hope that her keenness will be rewarded with fun and friends and play.

Until then, I have renewed energy in making the most of the next few weeks without the restrictions of a school routine. We will try to fit in as many morning hours reading books in bed or preparing the garden as we can. We can take evening trips to the lake to enjoy the last summer swims and not worry about bedtime. Most of all we can watch Little L do as she pleases, play and create as she wants to. It's hard to always relish what we want to, or what we might wish we had done in retrospect but I do want to keep in mind that this time with small children, alive in their own small worlds is so short.





We are collecting blackberries at every opportunity. The taste of a perfectly ripe blackberry takes me back to the farm where I grew up more than anything else. Watching Little I negotiate the spikes on the brambles herself to pluck blackberry after blackberry and place them straight into her mouth reminded me of why we have adventured here. Every outing is inspired by good intentions to make jam but each time our harvest is halved before we are home. I'm sure children shouldn't eat quite so many blackberries.

The ever abused bus has been ferrying a huge amount of horse manure from a pile of it in the woods to our garden. There's litterally tonnes of it and I am so keen on a bargain and even more so for something for free that before we are growing our veg in nothing but, I need to get in some Permaculture research so we get the balance right... The soil is very clay heavy and is baked so hard we are not even attempting to dig it but creating raised beds from a mixture of wood chip and manure.




THE HOUSE

The house is moving forward slowly. After a day scraping a self levelling compound, read really f##king hard ciment and resin, off some floorboards and making almost no progress I happily swapped back to my childcare duties. Florent would argue that he sacked me after catching me out on the phone and it being evident that I had also spent a lot of time pausing with the scraping to better listen to Woman's Hour Podcasts. Anyway I am relegated back to the domestic sphere with the girls and Jane Garvey. Some rats have moved in so perhaps we should take that as a compliment of kind. Luckily Florent is doing the vast majority of the work so we will get there...