By Ian Collins
We moved to the Aosta Valley in Italy with our two boys, Olly who was then aged 11 and Marty aged 18 months in September 2014 from a small village in the Pas de Calais, France called Inxent.
Inxent is located 10 minutes away from the town of Montreuil sur Mer and about 20 minutes from the famous Cote d'Opale seaside resort of Le Touquet. The village is in the pretty Vallee de la Course, one of the seven valleys that together make up the area of outstanding natural beauty known unsurprisingly as the Seven Valleys.
The Vallee de la Course has its own primary school called ‘le Regroupement de la Vallee de la Course’ which Olly had been going to for the previous 3 years. The Regroupement comprises five separate little school houses located in each of the main villages along the valley, most of them attached to a Mairie. Each one accommodates a single year group and the kids progress through the 5 years of ‘l’ecole elementaire’ by moving around them all, one year at a time. And there is a free, dedicated bus service which tours around all the sites in the morning, at lunchtime and in the evening, picking up and dropping off along the way. It is a brilliant system and Olly had been very happy there.
So we were of course concerned when the time came to take him out of this small, cosy set up and put him into a new school in Italy where he would be starting again from scratch with the language. Especially as in Italy he would effectively be jumping up a year as well. Whereas his French headmaster, Monsieur Marc, had taken the view that Olly should drop down a year because he didn’t speak French, in Italy they had a different view and insisted that he went straight into his own age group regardless of the fact that he had no Italian. As he was 11 years old at the time that meant going into year one of ‘scuola media’ – middle school, the equivalent of the first year of ‘college’ in France.
Olly joined his little French school when he had just turned 8, arriving from Budapest where he had gone through 4 years of pre-school and one year in primary. He spoke Hungarian from his Mum’s side and English from my side of the family, but no French at all. I remember vividly his first day, I felt so guilty that I stayed there with him all day long, sitting at a little desk at the back of the class. What the other kids must have made of me, heaven knows. The teacher, Monsieur Bigan, was very kind and understanding.
One of the main reasons we ended up living in the Valley de la Course in the first place was the discovery of this delightful school. We knew we wanted to come and live in this part of France – very close to England but still Europe – but not where exactly. I had been visiting the area 6 months previously, doing a bit of reconnaissance and looking at some houses and by accident ended up driving along the Valley de la Course thinking ‘this looks like a nice place’. In the village of Recques sur Course I saw a lady and her young daughter about the same age as Olly standing in the driveway of a house opposite what looked like a kindergarten. For some reason I stopped and ask them where the local children went to school. The next thing I know, Dominique and her friend Audrey, who had now also appeared, were phoning the headmaster, Monsieur Marc. He invited me to go straight round and have a coffee with him. Audrey jumped in her car and led me to Mr. Marc’s house and before I knew it Olly was enrolled to start at the school in the first week of September. With Olly’s school decided I was able to commit to renting a house in the area and our destiny was settled, at least for the next 3 years.
For the first 6 months or so I think Olly just sat there quietly in class absorbing the language. During break he joined in the playground games of ‘balle au prisonniers’ and communicated with the other kids in grunts and gestures. He was very fortunate that his teacher in that first year in the Inxent classroom was the lovely Monsieur Bigan, who spoke extremely good English and who was very experienced in working with non-French speaking children. And he was fortunate again the next year and the year after in the Montcavrel classroom having another extremely kind teacher, Monsieur Martel, also very good at English. By the time we left for Italy Olly was speaking French like the other kids, was doing very well with his school work and had made lots of friends.
Some how or another he managed to keep up with the school work, even at the beginning. I clearly remember him learning lots of long poems and songs off by heart, even if he didn’t understand what they meant. He visited twice a week a lovely lady called Isabelle who together with her husband Bruno have become dear friends. They did most of his homework together and she helped him enormously with his French. Without her I am sure we would have really struggled. It is quite distressing as a parent not to be able to help your 8 year old with his homework because you do not understand it and it wouldn’t exactly be confidence inspiring for your child either. So getting some extra outside help early on would definitely be something I would recommend.
However don’t be too concerned! It is just incredible how young kids can adapt to new situations which would completely freak out most adults and how quickly and easily they pick up languages. I have heard that before they get to about 12 years old they learn unconsciously, without translating in their head back to their native language or worrying at all about the theory. They just listen, memorise and repeat. Olly basically didn’t speak a word of French for almost a year, then started speaking almost perfectly and without an English or Hungarian accent. Isabelle says from his accent she can’t tell that he is not French. She doesn’t say that about me or Anita. Annoyingly she says Anita’s accent is much better than mine. Just because she can roll her r’s!
As a grown-up foreigner new to the area it can be difficult to learn the language because you don’t get to practice, unless you go on a course or pay someone to suffer listening to you. You don’t say anything in French for days and then suddenly have to speak with Orange on the phone or you bump into a neighbour at the shops. The kids on the other hand get the full immersion, spending all day, everyday with their French friends and going around to play after school and at weekends. Dominique, the lady by the side of the road and her kids, Virginie, Nico and Anaelle were a godsend in this regard. Anaelle was the youngest in Olly’s class whereas he was the oldest, but on day one she latched onto him and soon became a loyal friend. They lived just down the road in a pretty ‘fermette’ with a big garden and lots of animals and Olly virtually lived round there.
I can’t speak highly enough of this little school in the Vallee de la Course. We were incredibly lucky to stumble on it and to have experienced it together as a family was a real gift. We went to bingo nights in the school hall and also to the summer fetes. One year Olly’s class went off for a week’s ‘classe de neige’ skiing trip in the Alps for which the parents had organised various fund-raising events. We went on group walks in the countryside and I even went to a few parents committee meetings. Everyone was so kind and welcoming and they knew how to enjoy themselves in a very low key and natural way. There was a real sense of community attached to the school. All the teachers were incredibly professional, calm and genuine, joining in with all the fun and games and out of school activities.
I think they got the teaching and the behavioural side of things spot on. They didn’t over burden the kids with home-work but they did a lot of memory building stuff, which I think even in the age of the internet is a still good thing. They were quite firm on attitude and manners. I guess from an English perspective it was all rather old fashioned and quaint. And being in quite a privileged and very quiet, rural community I suppose it might not be entirely typical of French primary schools in general.
The school itself didn’t do sports, as is also the case here in Italy, something I still struggle to get my head around. But on the other hand, the local sports clubs are very well organised, taking place on Wednesday afternoons and at the weekend. Olly played a couple of seasons of mini rugby at Etaples / Le Touquet and a season of football for local Vallee de la Course United. We went with the team to tournaments all over the place, to herring eating evenings and to BBQ’s. He did tennis courses in Montreuil, golf lessons at Le Touquet Golf Club and went horse riding with his Mum at a stables in Campigneulles les Petits. Thanks to these sporting activities Olly’s circle grew quite large and his confidence in himself was boosted enormously as a result. Playing sport together and doing group activities outside school is a great way for kids to mix and make friends. And for the parents to feel involved and part of the community.
I have to confess that there are times when I worry, perhaps needlessly, about the stress and confusion that we might have caused Olly by first taking him to France aged 8 and then to Italy aged 11. I cant help wonder whether it has disturbed his academic and social development, as well as his confidence in himself, so am constantly on the lookout for tell-tale signs, even now 10 years later. While we grown ups get excited about the fact that our children can speak different languages and have experienced different cultures, which we believe will help them in the future, this means nothing to them, at least not at the time. They just want to fit in, make friends and play. I guess that as Olly was able to do that after a few awkward and upsetting weeks then it was okay. But if it had gone on much beyond that I think we would have probably packed up and gone back to Hungary.
As it is, I am very glad that Olly experienced a few years of local school in France. Likewise the time he spent at middle school in Italy. And he says looking back on it that they were all very happy years with lots of good memories, which is the most important thing!
In part 2 I write about our Italian school experiences