"So much of what we do as parents is culturally informed, and it can be hard not to let the cultural differences/expectations get in the way. For example, attitudes towards breastfeeding, discipline, education. There are some amazing things to do with children in Paris, but since most Parisiennes go back to work much earlier than British women there arent as many activities to do with your children and the impact on your career of having a maternity break is more severe" (CS-A, June 2011)
What is your name, age and how long have you lived in Paris? Whereabouts do
Im Catherine Sharp-Aouchiche, and Im 35 years old (2011). Ive lived in Paris for two years, in the 19th arrondissement (the north eastern corner).
Why did you decide to move there?!
After time in the US and elsewhere in Europe, my husband had to come back to France for work reasons.
What nationality are you and your partner?
I am british, and my husband is French, of Algerian origin.
How many children do you have, what are their names and when were they born?
I am the proud Mummy of Lily (aged 3) and Ali (16 months). Lily was born in New York, and Ali in Paris.
Do you work and if so what do you do?
I do some freelance marketing consultancy, but since I got pregnant with Ali one month after moving here, most of my time here has been spent at home with the kids.
What was your experience of having a baby/babies in Paris?
Compared to the British and American systems, the French system is extremely thorough - sometimes overly so. Each month there are a barrage of tests to do, and the whole process is very medicalised. As with other areas of the French system, theres a high level of care but a low level of choice. I was lucky enough to get a space in a public hospital (you need to register - in person - extremely early in the pregnancy) after being turned down by about 4 other hospitals. Because of problems with my pregnancy, I spent a week in hospital at six months and was then told to stay in bed for the rest of the pregnancy...not easy when you have an 18 month old, as I did at the time. I was readmitted at 8 months and not allowed home because of the distance between the only hospital with a place for me and my home. In the US I gave birth with a dr who I had seen throughout my pregnancy, and for whom I had a high level of trust. Here, the midwife who delivered my baby refused to let my husband into the room until I had an epidural. After the birth, you stay in for 4 or 5 days and I could not wait to leave - despite Frances culinary reputation, their hospital food is as abysmal as the UK!
What was your experience of relocating to Paris with children?
First point of call should always be the mairie - if youre lucky enough to find somebody helpful they can provide so much useful information about how the system works, how to apply for childcare etc. I found it very hard, but then I was in the early stages of pregnancy and with a lively toddler.
How well integrated would you say you and your children are?
My children (thanks to French childcare) are completely integrated - Im less so. My work is mostly from home, so theres not as many opportunities to mix. However, my in-laws dont live far away and have been brilliant.
What language do you speak to your children?
I speak English, and my husband speaks French. My daughter speaks both languages and recognises easily which one is appropriate for the situation. My son is just learning to speak and so far has a smattering of words in both languages.
Do you rent or own a property and how did you find the renting/buying
We rent, via my husbands company, so the whole process was very smooth. Wed like to buy, but prices are so high that we couldnt afford somewhere of a similar size if we bought.
Do you think it essential for someone to speak French when relocating to
Well, you can always get away with leading a totally ex-pat life if your budget is large enough, but if you want to get the most out of your time in Paris then yes, you need to speak French.
How welcoming have the Parisians been towards you and your family?
A real mixture. There is a community feel where I live and my children and I are recognised and known by the local small traders, people along streets we take to get to the creche, etc. However, theres your typical big-city people who are rude, aggressive and unwelcoming. You very quickly become aware that children are persona non grata in most Paris restaurants and soon stop bothering to ask if they have a highchair....
How would you describe a typical Parisian?
Busy, smoking, busy smoking.
What is your impression of childcare and education in Paris?
My daughter went to a local childminder before she got her place in a state creche and now my son goes to the same childminder. She was very helpful when I had difficulties in my 2nd pregnancy, and clearly has a strong bond with my kids. Having said that, I have seen childminders in the park who are so busy on their mobile phones they dont even notice when the child theyre looking after wanders away. Whereas the childminder I used in the UK used to give me a detailed report about what Lily had done that day, here the information from the creche and childminder only comes when I specifically ask. My daughter is very happy in her creche, where she does a lot of activities, and we know we were lucky to get a place.
What school(s)/nursery(ies) do your children go to?
Lily will start school in September, at the Living School, a private bi-lingual local school. She will be nearly 3 and a half, and lots of French friends have asked if we arent worried that she will be behind, as most children start between 2.5 and 3.....
Why did you choose this school/these schools and are you happy with your
There is no choice when it comes to state schools - you are allocated a place according to where you live. In our case, we werent happy with the state school we were allocated when we visited it, and heard some very negative things about it. Since we couldnt change schools, we looked at private ones and were delighted to see that we had an option nearby that was bilingual and employs a lot of Montessori principles. We found the methods of teaching and discipline at the state school rather old-school - hands on heads, stand against the wall, etc.
Are there any services, activities for kids, day-trips for kids,
family-friendly restaurants or kids’ shops you’d like to recommend?
Were mad about the auto-partage schemes: rather than owning a car with all the expense and inconvenience that comes with it, we pick one up from a local car park, that we can book at 10 minutes notice, and pay for by the hour. That means we can enjoy all the great things in the surrounding areas of Paris without the stress of 2 small tired people yelling all the way back on the train.
I organise a group for English-speaking parents; it generally meets a couple of times a month in different locations around Paris. Most of the mums are stay-at-home Mums, and the kids vary from newborns to around 3 (the age children start school here).
What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a
parent from the International Community living in Paris?
So much of what we do as parents is culturally informed, and it can be hard not to let the cultural differences/expectations get in the way. For example, attitudes towards breastfeeding, discipline, education. There are some amazing things to do with children in Paris, but since most Parisiennes go back to work much earlier than British women there arent as many activities to do with your children and the impact on your career of having a maternity break is more severe.
Is there anything you think would improve children´s lives where you live?
More respect for pedestrian crossings! At the very least, it would make me worry a bit less.
What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of
relocating to Paris with children?
Take your time, dont judge it by the first few months. Try to get out of the house, even in winter. Reach out to people, and dont be embarrassed to admit if youre struggling. Work out what made you happy in your home town and try to find a source for that in Paris: I run an English-language bookclub, because I realised after about a year here that not talking about books was making me miserable.
What couldn´t you live without in Paris?
The stunningly beautiful view of a famous monument that surprises you when you turn a corner and reminds you that youre living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The fantastic bread. The mouth-watering cakes. A turning point for me was when I realised that all the stuff that makes Paris fantastic when youre here on a holiday was totally missing from my day to day life: the museums, the restaurants, the cultural life....so I decided to try and put in some of the glamour, even if it was only walking around the Marais and soaking up the atmosphere.
What could you live without in Paris?
My chance to rant! Ill try to keep this brief....motorbikes on the pavement, smoking everywhere but particularly in the sandpit, restaurants and in childrens play areas, bureaucracy, some of the attitude. The complete and utter dichotomy of customer service: the customer is most certainly not king, but the level of knowledge and passion that some small-business owners have is amazing.