Culture Shock part deux

We’ve been living in France now for 18 months and there are some things that we just love and others not so much and just cannot imagine ever getting used to.  I thought I’d make a note of some of these cultural bits & bobs before I get too Frenchy-fide and start to think they are normal.

Things I love about French life:

  1. Sundays – these are family days in France, pretty much nothing is open other than some cafés, restos and museums.  I love this!  Even our local hypermarket is closed most Sundays, so no family outing to Carrefour (shame – not!).  Sundays are a day to see friends and family, or to curl up on the sofa and watch the 6 Nations or a Fred & Ginger DVD.  Yes! love love loveleek
  2. The food – fruit and veg in France taste like they are meant to.  Cucumbers have a flavour – yeah crazy huh? Tomatoes are red and juicy.  I am guessing that travelling that little bit further to the UK can often be to the detriment of flavour, but I’m no expert
  3. aperoApero – what a great concept!  A great way to meet neighbours and spend time with friends having a little tipple and a nibble of something
  4. Bonjour – whenever you go anywhere, and sometimes just walking down the street, people say ‘Bonjour’.  You walk into the boulangerie not only do the people working there say bonjour but so do all the customers waiting, in the doctor’s waiting room, at the school gate (however, just to add, lovely as this is, getting past a mere ‘bonjour’ is not an easy nut to crack)

Things I find I can cope with:

  1. Bises – After 18 months I think I am finally getting used to when and how to give the french ‘bises’ bises(welcome cheek kisses).  It’s not simple people!  For example, on a Thursday and Friday I drop Victor off at our childminder at 9h – Bises – we chat and I leave – no bises – I then go and pick him up at 17h – no bises – and then I leave with Victor in tow – Bises.  As long as we never move region we’re ok for now but I still have an issue when meeting non-frenchies living here, are they or are they not ‘bises’ people??!
  2. Vous/voyez vs Tu/Toi – basically, if you meet someone new you always ‘vous’ them unless they are a child.  Wait for them to initiate the ‘toi-ing’.  Unless it’s someone in a professional position, such as a doctor/teacher and then always ‘vous’.  Oh and you always always ‘vous’ the older generation, even your own grandparents.  Simple right?
  3. The French medical system – I have to say this took a while to get used to.  The UK has it so easy with the NHS, it being free and all.  However, although yes I still don’t have my carte vitale (my card making me eligible for health care) I can still receive the care I need it just makes the admin side of things a bit slower (never good!).  Our experiences so far have been very good.  For example: Rog recently saw the doctor about an issue he has with his knee, appointment the next day, “yes, you have a problem; here have 10 sessions with a physio and an X-ray of your knee.”  He was offered an X-ray the next day and then started with the physio 4 days later.  No waiting, no letters saying your next appointment is in 4 weeks.  Bish bash bosh here you go.  I still can’t understand why the French take soooo many extra vitamins and can be hypochondriacs about some things, but I have started to now be much better at giving Victor his VitD (which the doc always asks me if I am doing), so perhaps I am turning a little French after all!

Things I just don’t think I’ll ever get used to/still don’t understand:

  1. The French way of driving – Oh My Days!  I’ve heard Italians are bad but seriously people, to quote the great Take That, “‘av a little patience!”  French drivers are very quick to use their horn but not so much their indicators, to overtake even if they are then about to turn off the road and need to then pull in-front and across of you, to not stop at pedestrian crossings and to drive up on the curb, over a footpath and on to a side road if they are stuck in a queue (yes I saw this happen – twice!).  Let’s not even mention the fact that they just cannot do roundabouts properly, I mean seriously, you are not meant to drive all the way around a roundabout on the outside!  Argh! Oh and traffic lights appear to be merely a suggestion rather than an obligation, at least to the average Renault driver
  2. Nights out – I haven’t been on loads of these but I’m still confused as to what the culture is.  I think the meal is the most important thing, therefore when us Brits are usually in the pub by 22h, French people are still eating and being merry in a resto and may not venture out until well after 23h.  Then I believe they would usually head home and continue festivities there, but that doesn’t account for how many bars there are…are these just for students?  I don’t get it.  Perhaps more research is required…
  3. Cooking – it seems to me that the french, despite their reputation, don’t actually cook much.  gouterFor a start, finding a rental property with an oven, or even a space for one, is not an easy task.  As the majority of people work full-time, earn Tickets Restos (lunch vouchers) and have a 2hr lunch break, so they can afford the time to eat out most days at a local Brasserie or such like. Kids then get a ‘gouter’ (snack) at about 17h to get them through to a lighter meal of say pasta or a salad and baguette at about 20h.  I have cooked and prepared a number of things for french people and they are always amazed that I have prepared something from scratch.  I’m not convinced the french are so good at cooking as they are eating (out)
  4. Drink driving/using your phone while driving – although both illegal a lot of people are happy to do this.  The phonenumber of people I see on their phones while they are driving is shocking.  The French government have just brought in a law making even hands-free sets illegal, I’m not sure this will change much. And families going over to friends’ houses with their kids, all staying up to the wee hours of the morning and having had their fill of booze, getting back into their car to drive home…WITH THEIR KIDS IN THE BACK!!
  5. Begging on the street – as I’ve mentioned in another blog this is one thing that shocks me still (thankfully – I hope it always does).  Even yesterday I was taking some money out at the cash machine and a little Romany girl came and walked with me for a while asking for money.  We chatted a bit but she didn’t speak much French or English; it’s so hard to communicate when what they want is a few euros put in their battered paper cup

Well there’s my list for now.  There are many more things great, bizarre and silly that I could waffle on about (French admin, school holidays, opening hours, Sunday quiet time, war sirens) but perhaps another day.

Moving culture always takes some kind of adjustment. I guess we all spend our lives adjusting to what the culture around us is doing and saying even if we have never moved.  I am conscious that it can be so easy to look at all these differences with a proud ‘we do it best’ attitude, but who does that help?  I could certainly write a very similar post about British culture.  French culture is different, it just is.  Who am I to say we do it better?

La Rentrée – Starting School for Parents

For any parent the first day of school for your precious little one is daunting.  Will they cry when we arrive and when I then leave?  Will she make friends? Will the teacher be nice and not like scary ancient Miss Robbinson, my teacher when I was 5?  Will she be obedient and not throw those awful strops she throws at home? Will she eat the canteen food?  Will she join in?

Mim at School

Mim at School

Our little Mim started French Maternelle earlier this month.  We’d been chatting about it at home for months before and she was excited and ready for a new challenge.  The first day arrived and off we all trundled, actually we piled into the car cos we were running late.  She didn’t cry but wandered straight into the classroom, found the toy kitchen and started yabbering away on the yellow plastic phone that was attached to it.  Phew!

Three weeks in and we are all knackered!  Mim doesn’t love school but she doesn’t hate it either.

Starting school is tough but in another country and another language I’d say there’s most definitely challenges you may not face in your homeland.

Here are some of my initial thoughts and experiences:

  1. Kids in France start school as young as 2 1/2, some of them full time straight away!!  It is viewed as free childcare by many parents and Roger has had more than one conversation with colleagues who have questioned why we wouldn’t want Mim to go full-time.  Mim’s teacher is also pretty adamant that her age group should be going all day otherwise they will fall a year behind (?!), we have compromised and sent Mim all day on a Monday but the rest just mornings with Tuesday and Wednesday only being mornings for all the kids anyway.  Having 2 different cultural views isn’t easy, perhaps neither are perfect but we are learning to do what is best for our little one and not what is necessarily expected of us because it’s what everyone else does
  2. Making friends at the school gate isn’t as easy as people say it is. For one thing, I’m scared!  My French isn’t great and so that makes it harder to just go up to some of the other parents and join in their conversations. It’s early days and I’m not the only one standing there on my own every day so I have hopes that things will change as Mim makes friends and as I become a regular feature waiting at the gate
  3. Communicating with the teachers is also tough going and understandably they can’t give an account to each parent about what the kids have done that morning but I would like a little more than “she was fine”.  On more than one occasion Mim has said something and when I’ve asked the teacher is wasn’t  actually like Mim said at all
  4. The school run is exhausting! Early starts, 20 min walk there (buggy & buggy board); 20 min walk back; pray Victor sleeps for at least another hour (rarely does); feed Victor; 20 min walk back to school; 20 min walk home; Lunch; pray the kids nap at the same time; collapse.  On the plus side I’m gradually getting back into all my pre maternity clothes!
  5. Coping with a very tired and grumpy 3 year old and a  less grumpy but quite demanding 2 month old isn’t easy.  Some afternoons we chill out and others I have tried to do a bit of English reading with Mim when possible.  Mondays after school Mim goes to her swimming lessons and Wednesday afternoons we pop along to the British Library in Lille with a friend for story time.  Both of which Mim enjoys which is some light relief for me

My journey in the French schooling system is only just beginning so I thought it would be interesting to get some thoughts from a good friend of mine who has been living in France for a bit longer.  Here is her story followed by some questions I asked.  Her testimony is so encouraging and inspiring, so even if you aren’t a mum, are still living in your homeland, keep reading cos you might get inspired to do something completely new in your community!  If you are a parent and your child is starting school soon you may also get inspired to get involved in your kid’s school and make a difference.

Rachel & John

Rachel & John

My name is Rachel Mumford, and I am married to John. We have three children, Louis, Mia and Sophie, aged 7, 5 and 2 ½ . We came to live in Lyon, France 4 years ago in 2010, so we have just done our 4th ‘rentrée’.  For John, having grown up in France, moving back was going home. For me, although I had lived in France for a few months after my A levels, I had to relive culture shock through the lens of family life.

Before moving to France, I saw the English mums and how they often made friends with the parents of their children’s friends, either at school or a toddler groups, and I couldn’t wait for Louis, our eldest, to get stuck in after the move so that we would launch our French social life, and build lasting friendships that God could use and that we would enjoy. Such high, and unmet expectations!!!

Initially we lived 18 months in one village, before buying a house elsewhere. These were possibly the loneliest, most frustrating months I have ever known. Louis started school in the beginners class, called ‘Petite Section’, for children aged 3. He went to school in the mornings only, so one of us would drop him off at 8h20, and I would pick him up at 11h20, trudge home and make lunch. Louis spoke no French on arrival, and was in a large class. It took him a long time to start speaking any French at all. His teacher was nice enough, and sympathetic to the English mum with good French but little confidence, however with such a large class Louis got a bit lost, and it wasn’t until he was in ‘Moyenne Section’, the next year, that his French really took off.

It took me a few weeks after our move to realise something: I was different, not only because I was foreign, but because I was nearly the only stay at home mother there. Most of the women picking children up at lunch were either child-minders or grandparents, and the majority of children stayed at school for lunch. Where was the crowd of mums to chat to and get to know? In the mornings dropping Louis off I saw plenty of parents rushing in to drop off their kids and rush back out to get to work, but no one with time to spare. There were a few tired mums on maternity leave. Those who I did eventually meet would often be evasive when invited round for a coffee, and of the few that did come around, only one lady invited me back to hers in return a few weeks later. There were no Mums and Toddlers groups either. Life totally revolved around the school routine, but the children seemed to get along fine.

Louis, Sophie & Mia

Louis, Sophie & Mia

When we bought our first house in a village 5 minutes down the road I wanted this new start to be different from our first experience of French family life, and I had a plan! I made the decision to throw myself in and sign up to as many things as possible. We needed friends and were very blessed to move to a street with two other young families on it.  I also began going to the park next to the school with the kids after school, and got to know as many parents as possible, over time. Many play dates later, the kids have found friends and we have grown friendships with many parents.

Although it was very scary, as I doubted my own capacity and felt embarrassed by my imperfect French, at the beginning of the school term I went along to the meeting for the ‘Parents d’élèves’ (Parent Teachers Association), and became a parent representative. It has been really interesting going to the meetings, helping parents whose children are having troubles, and contributing ideas to how the school is run. Last year I started up an English conversation class one evening a week which gathered a good few parents and neighbours. We have tried to be a family that make things happen, inviting people to events in our home, such as open house parties and guys’ nights. It has been a great way to gather and deepen friendships. We are thoroughly enjoying life in our village.

This year I was approached by the Mayor and asked if I would join the village council as one of his team of 19 and run in the election. We were voted in in March, and since then I have had the privilege and responsibility of representing the rest of the village on key matters at our local council meetings. I am in the commission for Youth and School affairs, and the commission for Culture and Associations. I felt these two groups gave me the best opportunity to shape life in our village, and it has been exciting to see some of my ideas put into action. I want to bring people together so that they feel part of our community too. There have been many changes brought in to the French school system this year after a reform was imposed. Each commune had to work out how they applied the reform, and I was so grateful to have a say. I felt like I could really represent the interests of the children, and fought hard for families on certain points that I felt were important.

Over the last couple of years I have gone into my kids’ classes and given one off English lessons, sharing about English culture and traditions, food and language. I have really enjoyed it. I am now employed to teach English in the Maternelle every Monday for this school year.

It takes a lot longer in France to make friends than it does in England. French friendships require gentle slow nurturing, whereas in England people tend to decide pretty quickly to form friendships, and are willing in invest time a lot sooner. This has been a big learning curve.  The French way requires a lot more patience! We are two years into our life here in Sourcieux les Mines, and we are at a stage now where we have more intimate friendships, not just acquaintances.

So I guess in summary, I feel that God has encouraged us through our own needs for connections with others to remember the lonely and isolated, and how awful that feels. This has made us a couple who desire to gather people together, to be inclusive, and to try to make all feel welcome. I am excited by the many opportunities that arise. This adventure that God is leading us on is a daily challenge and a joy. The village school has been such a relational hub for me, and for that I am so grateful. I want to give and give to this school as part of my mission field, to see our village transformed by God’s love in action.


1. What have been the best things about schooling your kids in France?

I love the systematic way that the French system prepares children in the Maternelle to all be ready to learn to read and write once they turn 6 and start at primary school. In maternelle the focus isn’t on shoving a pen or pencil in their hands and getting them to hold it correctly and write. There is no rush. First, school provides activities that develop their fine motor skills, such as handling small beads. They later start writing block capital letters, and then straight into beautiful cursive handwriting.  My kids go to a small village school, and it’s been great to get to know all the teachers, and be on first name terms with many of them. I am in the school so frequently, and with the English lessons that I have given, I know most of the children by name, and enjoy being greeted enthusiastically by many each day. They are so sweet!

2. What have been some of the challenges?

I think for my older two children particularly, the challenge of learning a language whilst attending school was huge. It meant that they were on the back-foot in terms of getting to know others and playing games.  They muddled through at the beginning. The staff were very patient, and little by little they have gotten there. One big challenge has been teaching the children to also read in English, without any support, and trying not to conflict with them learning to read in French. Knowing that children learn to read when they go into the ‘CP’ class (aged 6, first year of French primary school), I wanted to make sure that my son was rooted in one language first before starting to learn to read in the other.

A huge difference between English and French schools is that French schools are ‘laïque’, or secular. You cannot talk about God or religion whilst at school. At Christmas there is no Nativity for the children to perform, but absolute focus on ‘Père Noël’ as the reason for the season… At Easter, don’t dare mention the resurrection! Only chocolate and bunnies, eggs and bells… However, Haloween seems to be allowed. I am still pondering ways around laïcité.

3. What are some of the biggest differences from schools in France to those in the UK?

The biggest visual difference is that children don’t have a school uniform in state run schools. The next is that the state school system is free to children aged 3 onwards, effectively free nursery school as part of the national education structure. Children at Maternelle are actively encouraged to bring in a special cuddly toy, or ‘doudou’ as a comforter for when their parents are not around. It is more common to see children sucking on dummies in France at an older age (but not beyond Maternelle), and these are permitted for drop off time and ‘sieste’ time. After lunch, children in ‘petite section’ and tired children in ‘moyenne section’ are put down for a sleep for a couple of hours, for a ‘sieste’. The schools are often equipped with dormitories, and the children sleep in low beds in rows. In France, because families tend to eat later together (around 7pm), children go to bed later (8pm or later…), and therefore small children are often tired at midday and ready for a nap after lunch. Speaking of lunchtimes, the children have a lunch break of two hours (ours is between 11.30am and 1.30pm) in which children have the option of eating the food at the canteen or going home to eat. There is no packed lunch option! My kids come home virtually every lunchtime, and it is a nice time together to regroup, speak some English again, and go back refreshed for the afternoon. Something I have found challenging about the structure of the school day is the lack of any considerable block of time to get anything done. I get two blocks of just under three hours, and it goes so quickly! There are days where I wouldn’t mind the 6 hours straight of the English school day! Many of the differences are so small, but of course something more noticeable is the way that friends greet each other. The French ‘bises’ greeting of kissing each other on the cheek can take a while once you get to know lots of parents!


WOW! Awesome testimony of perseverance and throwing yourself in to a community.  I’m not sure I’ll be running in the Mouvaux elections anytime soon but what a great testament to Rachel’s determination to get involved in her local community.

Being a parent in a foreign country is tough, perhaps at times tougher than being an innocent little one who actually doesn’t know any different.  We are so proud of Miriam.  In the last 18 months she has moved countries, changed child minders, learnt another language and become bilingual, had a new baby brother enter her life and start Maternelle.  There’s not many 3 year olds that could handle all that and still be so brave, fun and feisty.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

and do not lean on your own understanding

In all your ways acknowledge him,

and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6



Culture Shock #1

In June 2013 my family and I moved just 200km (124 miles) from the beautiful city of Canterbury in the UK, to Lille, France.  When you really think about it, it’s not that far.  It’s further to Paris if you wanna talk kilometre-age.  This week Roger had his France-iversary and in a couple of months we will all have been living in France for a year.  Doesn’t time fly?!

As culture shocks go I think we’ve had it pretty easy.  We’ve had a lot of lovely visitors bringing us yummy food packages from home, a mild winter, made a few friends and enjoyed being together as a family having come from very busy lives when a spare evening came once a fortnight (if we were lucky).

In February I was driving to a friend’s house in Hellemmes, a rather unglamourous area of Lille, for our weekly French conversation over a Tisane (herbal tea – I’ve learned to like these in order to be accepted here).

It was a cold and wet day and I was thinking how thankful I was for our cosy, warm Renault Scenic.  As I was driving, thinking and taking in the surroundings I passed a very small, what can only be described as, ramshackled camp surrounded by muddy puddles and beaten up cars.  I’ve driven past these ‘homes’ a number of times but on this particular Friday, as the rain was sheeting down and I saw a few adults and kids milling about in the mud and rain, a few rather obvious thoughts struck me.

  • These people are families, they have children just like me
  • This is where they all live, in these one room shacks made of corrugated iron and bits of wood.
  • Where do they wash?
  • Where’s their toilet?
  • On days like today, do they have sewage floating around their house, cos I sure can’t see that they are attached to the sewage systems?
  • Are the kids getting any kind of education so they can get themselves out of this way of life?

I’m embarrassed to say that this was perhaps the first time I’d thought of these things, of these people, and how middle class can I be?!  Here I am moaning about the fact that we no longer have a bath, that I have to go all the way down a flight of stairs to use the very cold toilet in the middle of the night, that our kitchen is so small!  Wow, how your heart can harden in less than a year!

When we first moved to Lille I was shocked at the number and size of some of the, mostly Romani, camps around Lille.  I was saddened every time I drove up to some traffic lights and a young child, a middle-aged or an older lady or gent came to my window to ask for a small amount of money.  My heart would sink when walking around the city centre and I’d see a young family or a lady with a small baby sitting on the floor with a beaten up paper cup in her hand and a few copper coins in it.  My heart still does sink, but more out of guilt and wanting to avoid them than out of compassion.  I’ve since learnt that over a quarter of France’s Roma population live in and around Lille.  Just last week one evening our doorbell rang and there on the door step was a young woman with 2 children asking for money.  She was either very gutsy or very desperate!

Here I am, just 200km away from the gorgeous, and pretty middle-class city of Canterbury, and yet I’m faced with more poverty than I’ve ever come into contact with.  I just cannot imagine what it is like for those who feel called to go to the Favela’s of Rio de Janeiro, the slums in Calcutta or the open sewage areas of Jakarta.  Don’t get me wrong, the UK has its social problems.  There are homeless and poor people in Canterbury and I’m sure there are areas of London I would be shocked about.  What I’m saying is that I’ve lived a very naive and privileged life and yet I’m shocked at my now almost lack of shock!

I don’t know what the answer is.  I don’t yet know of any local charities or organisations that are working with the homeless in Lille, but I’m sure there are some.  Do you give money, or don’t you?  Do you give food, or don’t you?  I’ve heard it said “Oh they are all being controlled by people who drop them off in the morning and pick them up at night”…..  errrr, isn’t that worse?  They are effectively slaves, it’s 2014 people and this is Lille, western civilisation, and yet we are passing people literally in slavery every day!

There’s so much more to this sad subject than I have time to write about today, like how for many in this situation, it’s their choice to live a life with no fixed address and connection to a given state. I don’t have any quick-fix solutions to all the poverty that goes on every minute of every day in the world.  But for now, in regards to the people in my city, my community they can have my 1 or 2 Euro piece (if I’ve actually got change in my purse, darn the credit card culture we live in!), and if they give it to their ‘pimp’ then at least it may stop them getting a beating that day.  As I hand over my change I’ll look them in the eye and remember their face as I pray that God impacts and changes their life as only He can do.  Finally, they can also have a smile, and as neither of us speak very good French that’ll have to do. For now.

A couple of interesting articles for those interested: