"I appreciated not being turfed out of hospital as soon as my babies were born and had four days to recover with nurses on hand to help if required, although sometimes the advice was conflicting and confusing and breastfeeding support was non-existent. Once I left hospital I was very much left to my own devices – you don’t get a health visitor here to ask all those stupid questions. I felt quite isolated when the children were very young as I could not find any baby and toddler groups to meet other mums, although I believe some have now started up in the area." (Nov 2011)
What is your name, age and how long have you lived in Perpignan?
My name is Louise Sayers, I have just turned 40 and have lived in Perpignan for nearly 9 years.
How many children do you have, what are their names and when were they born?
I have two children who were both born here in Perpignan. Rosie is 6 and Jonah is 4.
Do you work and if so what do you do?
I run a company called Med and Mountain with my husband, Mark. My side of the business provides assistance for homeowners via a service called Help in France. Mark sells property. I see myself as a troubleshooter, helping people with whatever they need, either because they don’t have the French language skills or the time to deal with it, or because they need someone ‘on the ground’ when they are based outside France. I am really flexible and love a challenge which is perfect as this job is so varied and people ask me to do some unusual things. I get involved in a huge range of projects including assisting individuals and families who are relocating to the area, helping homeowners to get their property ready to rent, getting quotes and liaising with workmen during works and basically dealing with all those little annoyances that crop up all the time because of the infamous French bureaucracy.
What was your experience of having children in Perpignan?
It was generally very good. I had an excellent gynaecologist and obstetrician who I saw monthly throughout both pregnancies and who delivered both the children. I think this continuity of care was exceptional. However, the French approach is, in my experience, very medicalised and there was no talk of a birth plan – basically, you do it their way! They thought I was mad to refuse an epidural with Rosie but they begrudgingly allowed it. An hour later I wished they hadn’t! I appreciated not being turfed out of hospital as soon as my babies were born and had four days to recover with nurses on hand to help if required, although sometimes the advice was conflicting and confusing and breastfeeding support was non-existent. Once I left hospital I was very much left to my own devices – you don’t get a health visitor here to ask all those stupid questions. I felt quite isolated when the children were very young as I could not find any baby and toddler groups to meet other mums, although I believe some have now started up in the area.
For those who don`t know can you describe what is Perpignan like?
Perpignan is the capital of French Catalonia and fiercely proud of being Catalan. The Catalan influence is evident in the cuisine and traditions. The main reason I chose to live here was for the sunshine – all the tourist blurb makes much of the fact that we get 300 days of sunshine a year. It does get coldish in winter but I can do sunny and cold, I struggle with drizzly and cold. I live right in the centre of the old town which has loads of character – I love wandering out my front door and straight into the largely pedestrianised centre which is a maze of cobbled streets, boutiques, cafés and restaurants. Perpignan is a small city so I can walk pretty much anywhere I want to go and I always see the same faces out and about. A lot of money is being spent on the city at the moment so the facilities are getting better and better – a new theatre has just opened up and we are awaiting the opening of the high speed train line to Barcelona (although we’ve been waiting a while now! It will happen…). The atmosphere in town is pretty laid back and there are an increasing number of good places to eat out.
What language do you speak to your children?
My husband and I are both English and we speak English to the children. Although we are both fluent in French, it would feel contrived to speak French to them. As the children get older, they are exposed to more and more French and I expect that eventually French will be the language which they are most comfortable in, so we work on the basis that we want to keep their level of English up. At the moment they mostly speak English to one another but it will be interestin
Do you feel that you need to speak French to be fully integrated in Perpignan?
I think this is probably the case for expats living anywhere. If you can’t speak the language to at least a basic level, how can you hope to be properly integrated? Even having done a degree in French and having lived and worked in France for almost 9 years, it has been hard at times. That said, the French are very welcoming and as long as you make the effort, they are very patient! My advice to anyone would be to practice as much as possible and not be embarrassed about making mistakes.
How would you describe a typical local?
I’m not sure there is a typical local! If I had to generalise, I would say that the Catalans are quite a reserved and insular people who are very family orientated.
Do your children go to a nursery or have any childcare, and if so how do you rate it?
When they were smaller the children both went to nursery and we also had a French nounou (nanny) part-time at home. Both were absolutely fantastic and relatively inexpensive as both were subsidised by the state. This is one of the great advantages of living in France with small children. Our nanny was also amazing – having one on one time with her really helped the children to learn French quickly. I wanted them to hear French from a very early age so that it would never seem alien to them and they would be 100% bilingual. This strategy worked as they speak with no accent and are now both correcting mine!! Now they are both at school – Jonah is at maternelle in the Moyenne Section and Rosie in her second year of primary in CE.. The city state schools near us have a bad reputation so they are at a private Catholic school, although we are not Catholics and the religious education is minimal! Private school here is a lot more affordable than in the UK – we pay around 600 euros per year per child.
Are there any particular activities for kids or shops you can recommend in Perpignan?
Perpignan park (Square Bir Hakeim behind the Palais des Congrès) has a good children’s play area, and there is another one in Parc Saint Vicens. In the summer we spend most of our time at the beach – the nearest is Canet Plage just 15 minutes’ drive from here. There is also a lake just south of the city at Villeneuve de la Raho which is very shallow and kid-friendly. As well as swimming you can walk and cycle round the lake. It is also possible to go daytripping to the ski slopes from Perpignan which we will do more of now the children are a bit older. For eating out, the pirate-themed restaurant Rocher des Pirates which is in the Zone Commerciale Carrefour Claira, north of Perpignan is great for children. There are loads of shops for children’s clothes in the centre of town – my favourites are Du Pareil au Même and Okaidi – which are both inexpensive chains but good quality.
What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a parent from the International Community living in Perpignan?
There is not an international community as such in Perpignan. At school there is only one other English family that I know of, the rest are largely French. Outside of school, we have made lots of English-speaking friends of many nationalities over the years. I strongly believe that bringing up bilingual children who straddle two different cultures can only be a good thing in making them more rounded and open minded individuals who will have more choices as they grow up. The big disadvantage is missing family back home and not having the support of grandparents close by.
Is there anything you think would improve children´s lives where you live?
More family-friendly restaurants and places to go would be welcome and better quality facilities at those that exist. Many of the attractions for family days out in the area are really poor quality so we stick mainly to outdoor activities. And restaurants with baby changing facilities are almost non-existent which is no longer an issue for us but is something that really needs to be addressed!
What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of relocating to Perpignan with children?
This is a great place to bring up children and I would highly recommend it. Make sure your babies hear as much French as possible from a very early age, get involved in school life as a parent by volunteering to go on trips or help out when required as you meet lots of people that way. Invite your children’s friends over to play and don’t get hung up about doing things the “right” way – the French love seeing how our culture, food and routines differ from theirs.
What could you live without in Perpignan?
Well I’m sure it’s not just Perpignan but the bureaucracy and high taxes and social service contributions are a constant worry and make it very difficult to run your own business. Plus the dog mess on the streets – Perpignan does have a “poo” bike which goes round sucking it up (yes really!) but people need to be educated to clear up after their dogs in the first place.
What couldn´t you live without in Perpignan?
The sunshine and my fantastic city garden.