Your interactive family guide to France as recommended by local mums | Last updated 4 weeks ago

Interviews

Wendy Blakeman - Charente Maritime

"It is an advantage being a foreigner when it comes to gossip and local discord ! I speak to and am friendly with everyone, whereas it is quite obvious there are cliques that do not have anything to do with each other based on some ancient history - I think I get away with it because Im a foreigner, whereas a French person is expected to take sides.
It is a slight disadvantage not being completely fluent - I sometimes miss the nuances of a conversation, particularly when a lot of people are all chatting at once (or gossipping about each other !!)"
(WB, Feb 2012)

  • What is your name, age and how long have you lived in Charente Maritime?
    Wendy Blakeman 44yrs old and lived here in the Charente Maritime for 16 years

    Why did you decide to move there?
    My parents had a holiday home here so we had been coming on holidays here for years. We loved the peace and quiet of such a rural area, in those days you could of sunbathed in the middle of the main road and maybe had to move for a tractor passing by once a day; its a little busier now, but still quiet by UK standards.

    What nationality are you and your partner?
    We are both British

    How many children do you have, what are their names and when were they born?

    We have two children, Benjamin born in 2003 and Thomas born in 2005

    Do you work and if so what do you do?

    We are self employed, we own a gite complex offering family friendly self catering holiday accommodation specifically aimed at families with young children, toddlers and babies. We also manage another similar complex owned by my sister. Its a 24/7 job for 6 months of the year. Throughout the winter we are closed but have all the marketing, bookings and paperwork to deal with as well as repairs, maintenance, and redecorating of the gites, with that and the children, and building a new house too, it keeps us busy and creates a nice change of pace throughout the year so we certainly dont get bored.

    What was your experience of relocating to Charente Maritime with your children?
    We were here long before our children were born, so it wasnt an issue. Im not sure we would of taken the plunge if we had had children.

    How well integrated would you say you and your children are?
    Totally.

    What language do you speak to your children?
    We always speak English at home unless we have French friends around. Although we speak good French - its by no means perfect (terrible grammar and an English accent !) and we did not want our children picking up bad habits from us. They both speak fluent French and have local French accents having learnt at school and with their friends. We also believe that they need to continue to develop their English in order to be perfectly bi - lingual, they both have private English lessons to help them with their reading and particularly their writing.

    Do you rent or own a property and how did you find the renting/buying process?
    We actually built our own house but over the years have bought and sold quite a few other properties. I have always found the system to be efficient and have never had any problems. I do prefer to cut out the middle man (agents) and deal directly with the purchaser/seller and notaire myself, it saves money and you know whats going on !

    Do you think it essential for someone to speak French when relocating to Charente Maritime?
    When we arrived here in France we didnt speak French - well I could politely ask for a baguette in the boulangerie but that is about it ! 16 years ago there were very few English speakers around in our area, our nearest was about 15 miles away and they were in their 60s, whilst I wasnt yet 30. We are very sociable people and we would of made French friends and integrated anyway but in a way we had no choice but to learn to speak French. Now there are literally hundreds of English speakers in the area and if you do not want to learn French then you could quite easily have a social life without speaking a word. Most of the larger businesses have an English speaker working for them and there are lots of Brits working as translators to help you through the difficult bits like buying a house and dealing with the bureaucracy, so actually, no it is certainly not essential to speak French before you arrive here however if you didnt try to learn once you got here would, in my opinion, mean missing out hugely on what being in France is all about.

    How welcoming have the locals been towards you and your family?
    Very welcoming. Weve been told (by French) that the Charentaise are very closed and unfriendly. That has not been our experience at all. We have made some very close friends over the years and are welcomed into their homes as part of the family, experiencing all of lifes major events christenings, confirmations, wedding anniversarys and funerals as well as simple family meals.

    How would you describe a typical local?
    80 year old ex farmer with a large vegetable garden, wears blue overalls and slippers and his wife wears her apron all day, theyll offer you a Pineau (the local tipple) at breakfast time and speak the local Charentaise Patois.

    What is your impression of childcare and education where you live?
    Child care is excellent. Both our boys went to the guarderie in the local town, St Jean dAngely, a few mornings a week before they went to school mainly to help socialise with other children and start learning the language rather than necessity. It is incredibly cheap, I seem to remember paying 0,75cents an hour ! The staff were well trained and friendly and the building was modern and well designed. I didnt know it then but there are also a huge number of assistant maternelle or child minders here in France who also charge very little and look after your children in their homes. It is strictly regulated and now assistant maternelles have to undergo training too - I know quite a bit about it now as I have now trained and qualified as an assistant maternelle myself so I can offer day time child care to our guests.

    Now both our boys are in Primary education, one in CP, so is learning to read and the other in CE2. I have found the system quite old fashioned and rigid but both boys seem to be doing well. I am surprised that there does not seem to be a national standard text for learning to read. The teachers style makes a huge difference, we have had good and bad.

    Why did you choose this school/these schools and are you happy with your choice?
    The school is local - just 5 minutes walk from our house. We wanted our children to integrate in the local community and have friends that are local to us. We ourselves have met a whole new set of people since our children started at school. We are happy with the school. It is small with less than 80 children from 3 to 11 years which creates a pleasant atmosphere although one teacher must teach 2 years, creating a class of about 20 which must be harder for the teacher to organise. The secondary school that they would go to however is a different matter. We have heard some bad reports so are considering our options. We do not have a huge choice with us being in such a rural area.

    Are there any services, activities for kids, day-trips for kids, family-friendly restaurants or kids’ shops you’d like to recommend? Absolutely ! We are very centrally located for the whole of the Charente Maritime so can easily reach La Rochelle with its fabulous aquarium - brilliant for young children as most of the tanks reach down to the floor, so they can see everything easily, weve been taking our children since they were babies; La Palmyre animal park near Royan is one of the best Ive ever been to. So well laid out and they are specialists in breeding rare species and rescuing mistreated animals from around the world. Its really interactive, the boys love feeding the giraffes ! A real treat close to us is the St Savinien boats where you can hire a small electric boat in the form of paddle steamers, cross channel ferries and even the rainbow warrior ! They have been hand crafted and beautifully painted, you can sail around the lake and down canals which wind through the park - a brilliant day out. We have literally hundreds of miles of sandy beaches down the coastline, and because they are sheltered by the islands of Oleron and Ré they have calm shallow waters - perfect for paddling. Our favourite restaurant in Andrés in La Rochelle, its a superb seafood restaurant where you can get amazing local oysters and fruits de mer platters so mum and dad can enjoy a really grown up meal but where the children are welcomed too - beautiful grown up childrens menu, high chairs and great service.

    What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a parent from the International Community living in Charente Maritime? It is an advantage being a foreigner when it comes to gossip and local discord ! I speak to and am friendly with everyone, whereas it is quite obvious there are cliques that do not have anything to do with each other based on some ancient history - I think I get away with it because Im a foreigner, whereas a French person is expected to take sides.
    It is a slight disadvantage not being completely fluent - I sometimes miss the nuances of a conversation, particularly when a lot of people are all chatting at once (or gossipping about each other !!)

    Is there anything you think would improve children´s lives where you live?
    I sometimes wish we were a little bit closer to civilisation with regards to there being more activities like scouts to go to and not have to drive so far to their music and swimming classes but to be honest the rural environment is just perfect for them, so safe to play, to cycle and go for walks in the woods, so no I wouldnt change anything.

    What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of relocating to Charente Maritime with children? Spend some time here in winter. We have met so many people who seem to think its warm all year - its not ! We are in northern Europe, it gets cold (-2c today) it rains. I find it incredible that people would up root from the UK just based on a 2 week holiday they had last August. It is also very quiet here in winter and is a very rural community with not many job opportunities even if you do speak the language.
    What couldn´t you live without in Charente Maritime? a car - I have to drive everywhere but thats a small price to pay for the peace, quiet and view when I step outside my front door

    What could you live without in Charente Maritime?! Bad customer service, although Im fairly sure that is not restricted to the Charente Maritime, but the shoulder shrug and Boff expression ( meaning tough luck what do you expect me to do about it) drives me insane !!

    Feb 2012