"When I first became a mom people asked me But isnt it tough being a single mom? to which I would laugh and say This is easy compared to the adoption process in the UK! In the UK the system is obstructive, incompetent and unnecessarily slow. Ive learnt that adoption in France, whilst not easy, is very much more the norm and you are not treated as a problem for wanting to adopt as you are in the UK. Here in France adoption is seen as a normal way to make a family. Unlike the UK I am never asked here Why or how did you adopt?. People, if they ask, just ask what age was she when you get her? or what is her original country?, there is no mystery around the process or reasons for adopting" (PC, November 2011)
What is your name, age and how long have you lived in the Alps? Which part of the Alps do you live in and what is it like ?
Pippa Curtis, 49 years old and I moved from London to Briancon in the southern French Alps five years ago so that my daughter could start school here at the age of 3. This part of the Alps is a well-kept secret, wild, unspoilt, not overdeveloped and relatively unknown to Brits, yet beautiful, stunning and with skiing, climbing, hiking, everything you could want to do in the mountains, and all with 300 days of sunshine per year!
Why did you move there?
For years before being a mom I climbed every weekend and headed to Scotland, the Alps, the Himalayas for mountaineering and climbing in the holidays and at weekends. Id always hoped to live outside of a city but being on my own it didnt feel like something I wanted to do on my own in the UK. I planned to move to Edinburgh once I was a mom, to have the benefits of city life but to be nearer the mountains for weekends. Then I was in this area for the second time ice climbing, climbing frozen waterfalls, and, completely by accident, saw our house for sale. I looked out across the snow in the walled garden, the espalier fruit trees under a perfect blue sky and felt this was right, despite being on my own. Knowing I was going to be a mom I checked out the village school. It was a gut instinct thing; it felt right, a great place to bring up a child.
What nationality are you?
Im British Australian and moved around all my childhood, 13 homes by the age of 11, because my dad was in the Australian Navy.
You adopted your daughter Becky when you were living in London, can you tell us a bit about the process of adoption there and how long it took from start to finish?
When I first became a mom people asked me But isnt it tough being a single mom? to which I would laugh and say This is easy compared to the adoption process in the UK! In the UK the system is obstructive, incompetent and unnecessarily slow. Ive learnt that adoption in France, whilst not easy, is very much more the norm and you are not treated as a problem for wanting to adopt as you are in the UK. Here in France adoption is seen as a normal way to make a family. Unlike the UK I am never asked here Why or how did you adopt?. People, if they ask, just ask what age was she when you get her? or what is her original country?, there is no mystery around the process or reasons for adopting.
How did you end up living in France?
I stumbled upon a great opportunity to live in a mountain community and grabbed it with both hands. Id loved spending time in French mountains, hiking and climbing, had a few years of very poor school French (taken in highschool on the other side of the world), but Id never imagined I would live here. It took eight months for the house purchase to go through and then I had to stay in London for the adoption to complete, eventually another 15 months later, and then longer to give my daughter a couple of years learning English and adjusting to life with me and in the West before moving here. We finally moved to France three years after Id bought the house.
Do you think the adoption process would have been much easier if you had been living in France at the time?
No question. The vetting by my local authority in the UK cost thousands of pounds and took over two years. In France it takes a maximum of nine months and 200 euros. Im very involved with current governmental review of the adoption system in the UK - it needs a complete shakeup. Ive heard from a woman who adopted a child whilst in France who is now adopting in the UK and she says adopting in France is a breeze compared to the UK which says a lot considering adoption is never an easy process.
How old was your daughter when you moved to France and how did you find the relocation process?
Becky was a week off her third birthday when we moved across. I prepared well for the move, and leaving the UK. Emotonially I was as prepared as possible, but the day we drove to the ferry at Dover, and driving across France with a full car and young child, not really knowing anyone in the beautiful town we were moving to was both scary and exciting. I remember sitting in deck chairs in the garden after we arrived, listening to the crickets, soaking up the sun, Becky gathering plums that had fallen from the trees, exhausted, happy, but also shell shocked - what do I do from here!?
Not only did you have to adapt to living in a new country, your daughter was starting school and you had to find work, how did you manage to cope with all that at once?
Becky started at the village school just after her third birthday, thrown it at the deep end immersed in French, her third language by then (until 15 months shed only ever known a mix of cantonese and local dialect), 35 hours a week. I put her in canteen every day so that she could make friends and continue learning French, and be well fed, whilst I had 8 hours a day to focus on sorting the house, finding builders and a mortgage for building work, progressing the business, French lessons once a week etc. After school I looked after a couple of other kids too to bring in a little money. Once Becky was in bed at 8pm Id sit in the garden with a glass of wine or cup of tea for a 20 minutes, enjoying stunning mountain views, before powering on with things for another couple of hours before collapsing into bed.
You now successfully run Snowgums, self-catering apartments in an Old Farmhouse. How did you find the property and how much work did it need before it was viable as a business?
I wasnt seriously looking when I stumbled on the house whilst here on holiday. I knew I wanted to change my lifestyle and work when I became a mom and the house presented a great way of doing that. Two holiday apartments were already created so I knew we could live in one when we first here whilst we were putting in a kitchen and electrics on our floor, enough to make it liveable. The house is an enormous project. Even if you had pots of money things are not renovated fast here. Builders often work other jobs in the winter. Mine takes 3 months off in winter for snowboarding! but works really hard the other 9 months. Because the apartments were ready from the off, and a friend in London helped me set up the website, we had clients from the first season. However, it would all be infinitely easier doing this as a couple; many people running gites have one person earning a regular income and then the gite is more of a second income run by the other half, or at least if there are two of you doing all the running it spreads the work, often with one or both doing the building work. I cannot do the building work on top of everything else and parenting a young child single handed, so I have to raise the funds for substantial building works, all done in a sympathetic and environmental style.
How do you find running a business in France? What do you think are the main pitfalls to look out for?
I havent run my own business anywhere else, but I imagine many things are the same wherever you are. The tax is complicated, but when you are on a low income, as we have been, you pay very little tax. Once you find someone helpful and straighttalking at your local tax office keep going back to them. Very helpful. The monthly Connexion newspaper has been invaluable with guides in English on tax, eco-loans, school cost reimbursements etc. A great resource.
How well integrated would you say you and your daughter are now?
I will never be French but my daughter might be, as well as English, Australian and Chinese. I spent the last year working full-time in a specialist mountaineering and climbing shop. This has really helped my French and introduced me to a whole lot more folk. Technically we are now able to apply for French nationality (after 5 years residence), but Im not sure what advantages that would bring and I dont need more paperwork. Will definitely do it for my girl before long.
What language do you speak to your daughter?
We speak English, with the occassional French phrase thrown in. There was going to be no point in her taking French from my poor school French, so I took everyones advice and let her learn from the French. She is now old enough to help/ correct my French, which is great.
What is your impression of childcare and education where you live?
So far so good. Subsidised childcare in town means it is very affordable, about the same price for one day as one hour in London, when I need it. We have a great village school with about 150 children and a great atmosphere. My impression of French schooling is definitely too much rote learning, but in primary they are certainly getting lots of other stuff too. They do skating, swimming, skiing, X-country skiing, judo, theatre etc so lots of rounded subjects too at this stage.
What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a parent from the International Community living in Briancon?
My imperfect French is definitely a disadvantage. I work hard to mix with other parents, spent a year on the school committee etc, but there is a limit to how much I am really integrated because of language. We would be integrated in different ways if I had a partner; when the village oven is fired up for pizza and bread making for fundraisers, it is the men who join in making dough all night over an aperitif.
How welcoming were the locals when you arrived with your daughter?
They were extremely welcoming. My daughter was made a huge fuss of at school. Because she looked different, and was particularly cute at age 3, she was the darling of the school. It was all a bit too much and often by the end of the day she was fed up with having her cheeks pinched! Seriously, I think some were a little wary of the single Australian woman with a Chinese daughter whod arrived in the village but once they realised that I wasnt a threat they have been very friendly. We rarely get invited into others homes, though thats a very French thing, and usually those that do invite us are people who have lived abroad themselves. One shy old guy around the corner was cautious of us at first, but about 18 months in he stopped us on the lane, popped back in the house and came back to give us a huge jar of redcurrant jam hed made. That moment was a sure sign we were being accepted.
Would you say your area is family-friendly and is there anything you think would improve children´s lives where you live?
This region is fabulous for kids and families, with lots of subsidised sports all year round for the kids. There is everything children need here, including 300 days of sunshine per year!
Are you able to recommend to other MumAbroad members in the area any local services (home delivery, plumbers, dentists, babysitters etc) or any activities, restaurants or shops for children in the area?
Vide grenieres are a great resource for second hand clothing. Held throughout the summer in villages scattered around, they are a great way to meet people, pick up brocante, kids clothing, and to get to know the villages. Often there is an organised meal under a marquee, with good local fare and a glass of wine. Use the municpal subsidised sports for your kids: gym, ski, swim, VTT, canoe, snowboard, all for 10 euros a term. Nobody misses out.
What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of relocating to the French Alps with children?
In at the deep end. Immerse yourself and your kids in sports and local activities.
Yours is an incredible story, and most would say that being a single mum with an adopted daughter whilst not living in your native country is no mean feat, has it all been worthwhile?
It has been exhausting, but the rewards are huge. We have a wide network of friends, many of them with adopted children, who support us, either by regular contact on facebook and/or visiting us. I wont be taking on a huge renovation project again - this is a once in a lifetime project. Now my daughter is 8 years old she is more independant and that brings advantages. I told her she had to be old enough to look after it before we had a dog. She has been saving her pocket money since she was 3. We hope to have this new member of the family very soon. After years of hard work things now should be a little easier, and with more time for me to do the things I would like to do too.
What couldn´t you live without in Briancon?
Internet. This has meant I never feel cut-off or isolated. Such a great source of information and in constant contact with friends and clients from all over all the time. Also the BBC. We didnt have TV for the first two years. Since then we have had a digi box which gives us Cbeebies, Cbbc, and the main UK terrestrials. That is wonderful as British TV is so good, and the kids channels are a great resource for Becky.
What could you live without in Briancon?!
Unpredictable opening hours!! Ive calculated that France loses 2% of GDP because of the wasted time due to arriving at offices etc to find them closed. And that doesnt include the frustration.
You can contact Pippa via her self-catering business Snowgums www.alpsholiday.com