"When I first moved here it was impossible to buy a book in English, and even in the early years of this new century all English books I ordered from Amazon had to come from USA!! I used to commute to work in London (I am an actress) and I always had to take a very expensive BA flight as there was no Eurotunnel and no Easy jet or Ryan Air flights! It is much easier to keep in touch with family & friends now and to access those things we miss - like M&S, cheddar cheese, bacon & tea bags. We were vegetarians when we first moved here and honestly it was impossible to eat in a restaurant and even in the big supermarkets there was no such thing as "BIO" or organic food. For the first year we only had French TV - but I really think this helped us all to speak French. Nowadays it is almost too easy to hardly ever speak French:-( French life has changed of course in the time we have lived here." (JRW, Aug 2011)
How many children do you have, what are their names and when were they born?
I have 2 children, Jenna born in 1985 & Luke in 1988
How long have you lived in France?
Since Sept 5th 1994
Has it changed much in the years you have lived there?
Yes....and no!!! Of course many many things have changed which have made life easier for us "immigrants", such as the advent of the internet! And cheap flights. When I first moved here it was impossible to buy a book in English, and even in the early years of this new century all English books I ordered from Amazon had to come from USA!! I used to commute to work in London (I am an actress) and I always had to take a very expensive BA flight as there was no Eurotunnel and no Easy jet or Ryan Air flights! It is much easier to keep in touch with family & friends now and to access those things we miss - like M&S, cheddar cheese, bacon & tea bags. We were vegetarians when we first moved here and honestly it was impossible to eat in a restaurant and even in the big supermarkets there was no such thing as "BIO" or organic food. For the first year we only had French TV - but I really think this helped us all to speak French. Nowadays it is almost too easy to hardly ever speak French:-( French life has changed of course in the time we have lived here. Most of my childrens friends were cared for by the live-in grandmother if both parents worked. In the 90s in rural Charente most parents came home to eat at lunchtime and found work within easy commuting of their home. I think now times have changed and so many young French families are living away from where they were born and where they have family & friends. This puts a strain on childcare facilities, and can create a generation of "latch key kids". This is OLD news in UK, and also one of the reasons we moved to France, to be with our kids as they were growing up. We wanted them to have an old fashioned upbringing with old fashioned ideals. I am no longer sure whether this is possible as the internet (and with it FB, computer games etc) is part of every childs life, everywhere in the world.
For those who don`t know, can you describe what is Charente Maritime like?
We have lived in the Charente and the Charente Maritime, and I love them both. They have good climates, and parts of both even have a micro climate as they are protected by the islands off the coast. They boast being the 2nd sunniest part of France! The Charente is slightly slower with less tourism - but this is a good thing! However there are possibly more expats living there because it is lovely & green like UK with great weather, PLUS it is so close to the Dordogne. We lived 500m from the Dordogne when we bought the former boyhood home of François Mitterrand in 1995, and the children were at collège in Ribérac in the Dordogne. The Charente Maritme is all nearer the coast so is a little more "cosmopolitan", but the down side to this is in the towns more people & tourists, and more modern housing. The countryside is still very unspoilt, though in places especially the oyster beds, it can be very flat. We have moved a number of times as we like to buy and renovate old properties, and currently we live in paradise - imho! No neighbours, but just 7kms from the little thermal town of Jonzac and only 45 minutes from Bordeaux. There are far fewer English speakers here, and so we are are still considered a bit of a novelty:-)
How well integrated would you say you and your children are?
100% and even my husband who speaks fluent bad French is fully integrated:-) However it is a problem for my 82 yr old mother who is now living with us. She speaks not a single word of French, and i realise how isolating this can be for families new to france.
What language do you speak to your children? Do you speak fluent French?
We always speak English to our children, and in fact when they were young they REFUSED to speak to us in French as they considered us to be so bad!
The strangest thing is that they have always spoken to each other in French, and still do on FB or by phone or when they are at home.They can chat to each other in French and turn & speak English to us...weird! But I do think you should NOT try to speak French to your children - they work out from an early age which language goes with which people, and we should respect this so as not to confuse them.
Do you feel that you need to speak French to be fully integrated in the area?
Yes I do - not fluently, but to go to school meetings, talk to other parents you need to be able to communicate with them. To deal with french "officialdom" you need to speak some French, for yourself protection, but also out of RESPECT for the country you choose to call "home". To be obliged to choose friends, workmen etc JUST because they speak English is not the best way to do things imho!
Do you feel that having children has helped you integrate?
Certainly - but to have a hobby or pastime or neighbours who you are interested in, these are all motivation to integrate and chat in bad (hopefully improving) French! Isolation is at best, depressing, and at worst, plain dangerous. We all know how tiring it is having children, and how to share experiences is so important for the morale - if you cannot do this, depression will set in, and it is a slippery slope. Life in France is NOT a dream - there are ups & downs just like all life, but many Mums find themselves without their friends & family and can see no way to replace them, because of the language difficulty. You need to be BRAVE to move to a foreign country, it isnt for everyone.
How much French and how much English culture do you think your children are exposed to?
We are all actors, singers & musicians so culture such as theatre & music has always played a big part in their lives. But access to cultural events has become easier now. When my kids were young the school fête or the Repas de la Chasse were our cultural events! Our friends & family in Uk are also involved in theatre & music so the kids had a lot of contact with UK culture.
How welcoming were the locals when you moved to Charente Maritime?
Most were and still are lovely;-) Our first neighbours were Pieds Noirs so knew what it felt like to be strangers. They were fantastic! Some people treated us as tho we were from Mars - and you will still find these! But there are not many of them:-) In 1999 we had huge storms on December 27th which blew down 400 MILLION trees and caused huge damage throughout France. We were without electricity & water for almost 5 weeks. Everyone helped their neighbours and this really made us part of our small community. Because we had bought François Mitterrands old house we were already "famous" and often had to show people around at their whim - including the gendarmes. We always stayed polite and helpful, and that is how the locals were - and still are - to us.
How would you describe a typical local?
There are fewer now - but an old farmer in his blues & "charentais" slippers with a BIG smile driving an old tractor and always the time to say "bonjour". His wife will wear a wrap over pinny and seem to clean 24/7, and she will smilingly welcome you at any hour.
How would you describe the education system in France and do you feel they would have had a better or worse education back in the UK?
Without a doubt - it was a better education than the state system in UK. Both children were at a private prep school in UK - but we did not want to & nor could we afford to continue in the PRIVATE system in UK. Just my opinion - but I feel the Maternelle, Primaire and some Collège are very good in France. Younger children have a safe, in many cases in a village school - a smaller happier education here. However as they get older they are almost stopped from having their own thoughts & ideas, as the SYSTEM takes over. My advice - dont let this happen!! Keep the philosophical discussions going at home and be sure they take Philosophy at Lycée. Encourage them to have opinions. The French system wants to pigeon hole kids too young - and then put them onto a path for the rest of their lives. If they dont know what they want to do - they do law! Always plenty of jobs there!! Make sure when your kids start to decide what subjects & percentages etc they will take for the BAC that they chose English as a special extra subject - with a BIGGER percentage of the marks:-) If the French kids compalin - they can answer, they did the hard slog aged 5 (or ??) when they had to learn French from scratch!!
Is there anything you think would improve children´s lives where you live?
Honestly I can only speak generally rather than about my region - now as my children are grown up - and my first grandchild wont arrive until next month! I would say to try and enjoy the REASON you brought them to live in France: the freedom, the still relative safety, the outdoor pursuits & the FAMILY. Eating around a table and discussing the days events is so wonderful. TVs, PCs, games etc etc are all isolating
What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of relocating to Charente Maritime with children?
Come early & decide how isolated you can deal with! After a certain age, you will be the taxi driver if you are too isolated. Decide do you want to work? Dont worry about the kids speaking French - but REALLY make an effort to learn it yourself. Try swopping lessons with another Mum - you chat with her for 30 mins in English, and then she chats with you in French, all over tea & cakes (which they think we eat every day LOL!!)
Remember your kids will grow up so you need to create a life for YOU.
Having a baby is great here - but once again the language barrier can cause difficulties........
Can you ever imagine moving back to the UK?
No - maybe to Spain....or...who knows! But NEVER UK. It feels like a foreign country whenever I have to go back. I travel all over Europe every year, and I feel more welcome and at ease in other European countries like Croatia, Slovenia & Macedonia, than I do in UK.
What could you live without in Charente Maritime?
What couldn´t you live without in Charente Maritime?
The sea & the clean air & the freedom & safety:-) To walk through our fields with 6 or 7 dogs off leash hearing only birdsong is pretty amazing. To see lychen on all the trees and to have thrushes nesting in the barn....all magic, especially when it is warm & sunny.