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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
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December and January are the perfect months in which to reassess your garden – in terms of the previous year’s successes, your ambitions for next year and your plans for structural changes you might decide to make.
The leaves have fallen from deciduous trees and shrubs. They have all been swept up and added to your leaf mold bin ready to break down into next winter’s leaf mold. Many perennial herbaceous plants have died back and are either displaying winter stems and seed heads or have been cut back and composted. Annuals are, similarly, in your compost bins rotting down to provide mulch in about a year’s time. In the vegetable garden most of the harvest has been safely gathered in. Your garden is at its most stark and sparse. Add to this the peculiar quality of cold, low, slanting winter light and you have the perfect conditions in which to critically re-evaluate the design and balance of your garden and plan what changes you want to make over the next year.
In no particular order, here are four elements to consider when giving your garden it’s annual appraisal:
Study the lines of your garden. You will want any paths or arrangement of borders to lead somewhere – it may be to a practical destination (like the front door) or it could be to some focal point, such as a favourite pot, statue or water feature. You may also want your vista to draw the eye to borrowed landscape features (that is something beyond the boundary of your own garden). This could be a view, or distinctive tree – or maybe an attractive building on the horizon.
The edges of flower beds get untidy during the year, planting plans may change and existing plants mature – all of which mean that your beds may no longer be the right shape or size. Using a rope or hosepipe reshape the border. You can move the rope/hose around the new outline of the border and then stand back – look at it from an upstairs window, even - until you are happy that the shape is right. Next, go along the edge of the rope/hose with your border spade or half-moon shaped edging iron and dig out a shallow trench marking the new outline. Once you have done this for all of the borders you plan to change and you are happy with how they all relate to one another you can start to dig over the reshaped bed(s). Remove the top layer of turf with your spade (or a turfing iron) and re-use it. It can fill in bald patches in your grass, be used to build up hollows in existing lawn or you can create a turf stack. If you store the turfs upside-down they will gradually rot down and create some topsoil for future use. Dig over your new border at the beginning of winter, turning the earth over to bury any remaining grass. and any frosts will help break up the clods of earth and kill unwanted greenery.
Hard landscaping is the non-plant element of your garden – terracing, paths, walls and structures. These permanent features come into their own in the winter when much else has died back. Think about the texture: stone, brick or wood structures, gravel, paved or grass terraces. Try to marry the material used to its environment. For example, a meandering bark path through a woodland garden would be more sympathetic than one made of tarmac. Think also about practicality and purpose – a boundary wall is immediate and will give greater privacy than a hedge and whereas it costs more initially it needs less longer-term maintenance. However, if you are creating a barrier against the wind then a hedge will be more effective as it filters the wind while a wall will create turbulence.
These come into their own in the winter months when they are starkly revealed. Tightly clipped evergreens give colour and shape all year round and form a pleasing contrast to the comings and goings of bulbs and perennials during the year. Hornbeam, when clipped will keep most of its dead brown leaves throughout the winter adding extra colour and texture. Some deciduous trees have wonderful barks. The birch tree Betula utilis, for example has a ghostly while trunk while the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has a spectacular peeling bark that turns orange/red in winter. Both trees also have attractive leaves and form which extend the interest throughout the year.
As you can see when you look at the great gardens of France, good design looks good all year round. None of us is going to have a garden on the scale of Versailles or Villandry, but we can ensure that our own patch of France has the bone structure which enables us to enjoy its appearance 12 months of the year.
This blog is taken from the gardening section of The Local Buzz - a magazine for the SW of France. You can find out more about The Local Buzz here: https://www.thelocalbuzzmag.com/
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Another instalment from Catherine about the renovation of their glorious manoir in La Creuse
My family and I found ourselves living in Central France, in La Creuse - department 23, in a large Manoir/Chateau. We were located in the foothills of the Massif Central, which can be very rainy (thus making everything lush and be able to grow wonderful produce) but it can also be very hot in the summer, and very cold in the winters - a continental climate. It had taken more than 6 hours to drive down to this area from Calais (far more if you get lost around Paris!) and we didn’t know a lot about the region, other than what we had researched and seen on the internet.
La Creuse is a really beautiful area, very rural, with some large towns dotted about and some cultural history about the stone masons and the work they did in Paris and the region, mentioned in the last blog. The Limousin region is renowned for its Limousin cow; a hardy, generally healthy and adaptable animal that could be as old as the whole continent! Old cave drawings of approx. 20,000 years old, show cattle that look incredibly similar to the Limousin cows of today. The Limousin cow is the original breed from which all other breeds are descended.......
The story continues here:
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We helped Catherine and Dale sell their house in France a few years ago. They have now moved to Spain, and in the meantime Catherine has started a blog about her time in France. It is very interesting and given that they bought this:
And we helped them sell this:
her blog might encourage a few other people who are setting out on their own dream. Here is what Catherine has to say:
"I wanted to share my blog with you, a funny collection of stories as my family and I moved from the UK to France. Looking at issues from moving with kids, working remotely, renovating an old Manoir and creating a gite, dealing with cultural and language situations in France and Spain, relationships, making mistakes and friends along the way!
I hope it might inspire some of you to reach for your dreams!"
And here is a link to Catherine's blog:
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We have attached a few suggestions which you may find useful and which may help make visits to a property as safe as possible as the estate agency industry moves towards life after lockdown. This is not an exhaustive list, but is a summary of tips we have found. As always, ensure as a priority, that you follow the legal guidelines set out by the French government and that you exercise caution and common sense throughout.
Both buyers and sellers should, in the first instance, satisfy themselves that they are able to take part in the visit. Consider your age, underlying health problems and how well you are on the day of the visit. If in doubt you could always ask a third party to undertake the visit on your behalf. If the risk is simply too great – postpone the visit.
Suggestions for sellers:
Ensure that you give a buyer as much advance information about your property as you can - the last thing you want is for someone to turn up and wander through your house when it is very obviously not what they are looking for. Use photographs, Google maps, telephone conversations and virtual visits via smartphone, tablet or an app such as Zoom or Facetime to ensure that neither you nor your viewer are at risk unnecessarily.
Plan the route of the visit. In what order will you show people each room? How will you navigate corridors and staircases? Will you go into each room yourself or will you stand outside smaller rooms and watch your buyer as they look around inside it on their own?
The less people involved in a visit the better. I would recommend that you insist that no more than two visitors take part in the viewing – and preferably only one of them plus either you or your representative. The virus is spread more easily indoors so the less people there are in the house during the visit the better.
Contact your buyer before their visit to explain how you require the visit to be conducted. If you like, you could send them our suggestions for buyers, outlined below.
Ask people to ring you when they arrive at your property so that you can be sure you are ready to receive them.
Before the visit starts open as many doors and windows as possible. By maximising a stream of fresh air throughout your property you will dilute the concentration of any virus in the air and so minimise the risk of inhaling it. Leave the windows and doors open for as long as possible after the visit has ended.
Please ask everyone to wear a mask for the duration of the visit and to sanitise their hands as soon as they have got out of their cars. They should sanitise them again before getting back into the car at the end of the visit. If they follow this practice they are less likely to spread the virus from one property to another.
You should also wear a mask during the visit. Avoid touching your face and practice social distancing. This means remain two metres away from your buyer and not standing face to face with one another. The virus is expelled from the mouth or nose of one person and is either inhaled by another, or, when it lands it can be spread by touch. Similarly, if you have the virus, every time you touch your mouth, eyes or nose you will collect the virus on your fingers – or, if you don’t have the virus you can introduce it to your own respiratory tract from somewhere else.
Ensure that your visitors touch nothing during the visit - the most notable things being door handles. Open the front door when they have phoned to tell you they have arrived. They should not have to knock on it. Ask them not to open any doors themselves. You should not make your buyer a cup of coffee or allow them to use your WC.
Do not exchange bits of paper. Information can be e-mailed or given to you verbally for you to write down. They can also download the brochure about your property from your page on our website.
Keep the visit as short as possible.
Suggestions for buyers:
Only visit properties you are seriously interested in. Use photographs, Google maps, telephone conversations and virtual visits via smartphone, tablet or an app such as Zoom to ensure that neither you nor the homeowner is at risk unnecessarily. If viewing with an agent, do not be persuaded to visit the infamous “wildcard property” – now is not the time for that sort of gesture. Every unnecessary visit puts you or the property owner at unnecessary risk.
Wear a mask, carry hand sanitiser and make sure you do not have to answer the call of nature while viewing a property.
Do not share a car with anyone other than someone you live with or who is already inside your social bubble.
If at all possible only one person should view a property. Every extra person present multiplies the risk of transmission of the virus.
Ring the property owner when you arrive at the property. Get out of the car, put on your mask and sanitise your hands then wait to be admitted. Do not knock at the door.
As you go round the property touch nothing (note door handles in particular) and do not exchange any paperwork with the property owner (or any third party if you are accompanied by an agent).
Maintain social distancing throughout – stay two metres apart and do not stand face to face with anyone. The virus is expelled from the mouth or nose of one person and is either inhaled by another, or, when it lands it can be spread by touch. Similarly, if you have the virus, every time you touch your mouth, eyes or nose you will collect the virus on your fingers – or, if you don’t have the virus you can introduce it to your own respiratory tract from somewhere else.
Keep the visit as short as possible. If the property is not for you, then say so and end the visit there and then.
When you leave the property, sanitise your hands again as you get back into the car. This minimises the risk of you carrying the virus from one place to another.
Everything we do in life comes with a risk and all we can ever do is mitigate that risk to the best of our abilities by understanding the risk we are facing and acting as intelligently as we can to counteract it.
We do not mean to put you off ever visiting another property again – or ever letting another stranger across your threshold. We will all have to learn to live with this virus if we are to continue with our day to day lives and adapt our behaviour patterns accordingly.
We hope these suggestions will help you to buy or sell your property with confidence this year. If you have any other tips to add to our suggestions, please let us know.
French Properties Direct