There’s an added dimension to a house move when you move abroad. It’s that little bit trickier to fit into the local community because of the different culture and/or language. Not to mention the beaurocracy and paperwork that crossing a border often brings, which is for another post another day.
Here are some of the things we did to weedle our way into life in rural France. Some of the suggested ways to move towards becoming a part of the community are a bit obvious, some are well nigh genius. Can we say that? They are things which helped us, that’s all. They are not a definitive list. Everyone’s experience is different.
1. One of the obvious ways is to take some small related people with you. It makes integration easier and necessary. We had only been in the new house a day to two when an unfamiliar (they were all unfamiliar at that point) face with a cloth cap knocked at the door. What were the names of our kids, were they boys or girls, and how old were they? Geez! My first thought was that France had the most efficient tax, immigration or census department in the world.
It actually turned out to be someone from the local village hall who wanted to add the kids to the Santa list. I am deeply sorry younger readers/Graeme for this revelation. But it was only October and it was impressive.
If you enrol your children at school, you are huge a step along the way to integrating, meeting other parents and children and having to communicate in a tongue where you often feel a bit like a child yourself. We were lucky that our tiny local primarily school was only one class, so it was a bit like home schooling at school.
Make a plastic bottle greenhouse
2. This is one of the genius ones. And possibly a first. Make a plastic bottle greenhouse. The greenhouse itself is not a first – I learnt about them in Scotland when I worked for an environmental charity. You need 1500 large plastic bottles, bamboo canes to thread through the middle of the bottles with the bottoms cut off, some wood for a frame, and a lot of patience.
We drink an average of one bottle of lemonade a year. The maths was glaringly obvious. So we asked neighbours to help. Who in turn asked friends to help. Who asked friends of friends to help, because by then everyone was well curious as to what these incoming Scots, newly on the Santa list, were up to.
I think making the plastic bottle greenhouse deserves a post of its own, suffice to say that over the course of the next few months we had lots of visitors armed with bags full of plastic bottles. We also invited new friends to come round for a version of a painting party – a cutting and threading bottles onto bamboo canes party.
3. Work. That’s an obvious too, but it’s sometimes difficult to come by when there are more cows than people where you have chosen to live. We were very, very lucky. After the man with the cloth cap from the village hall, along came our new neighbour from the goat farm. They had seen the removal lorry trundle down the road to the hamlet and had come round to say hello, and offer us some of the best goats’ cheese in the area. The family from the goat farm, and all the friends and family of the family from the goat farm, have turned out to be wonderful people. And now good friends.
We got talking. They’d only ever had one employee and she had just left after 15 years. We loved goats. We had milked them on previous travels in Spain. Would either of us like a job making goats cheese next milking season (it was winding down for the winter)? Sure!
Neil started in the fromagerie the following Spring. And I joined him later, as a goat milker. Possibly one of my favourite ever jobs. Katie and the boys were also welcome to lend a hand during ‘baby season’ when the kids were all born, or at harvest time for the hay.
Volunteer in the village
4. Volunteer at the local library. Like many countries, France is facing a major decline in library users. Local libraries are often at the heart of rural communities. There is a big push to retain local outlets. Our library was in a room above the village hall. Would I like to help out on a Saturday morning?
This allowed me to meet everyone from the little toots in the village and surrounding hamlets wanting new picture books, right up to the pensioners looking for mushroom recipes or craft ideas. I’m not saying it was busy. Our village has a population of 100. That’s the big village I mean, the one along from our hamlet which has a population of 15. But the subscribed and active members went up by nearly 1000% to, gee, more than 50.
I got to go on a library volunteer training course which boosted my French no end, and I got to pick the little selection of English language books on book changeover day. A new supply of books in your own language becomes surprisingly valuable after a while. We organised a calligraphy day, a craft day, a little ones’ Red Riding Hood day…. It was fun. “Tu en as de grandes oreilles!” I am sure will also prove to be a useful backup phrase to have in my French arsenal.
The kids books were great for me too. Simple, useful language in French. Big print (and not too much of it) which can allay the depression felt as a struggling reader when faced with foreign words. Repetitive. Repetitive. Perfect.
Volunteer at the school
5. Help at school swimming lessons. Nearly all little French kids, even those out in the country, have school swimming lessons right through primary school to secondary school. Part of the Baccalaureate is a swimming test. You can become a parent helper after passing a swimming test and attending a training course. I had been a lifeguard as a student, so other than my head nearly exploding when I had to dive to the bottom of the deep end to retrieve the brick, it was ok.
I went in the school bus every Friday afternoon to the (really) big town where the swimming pool was. I loved it. The kids taught me about collecting mushrooms. I taught them doggy paddle.
Join a Committee
6. Join the Village Fete committee (Comités des fêtes). Not for the faint-hearted, especially those who pretend their French is better than it is by nodding knowledgeably and saying “oui, oui” or “bah, non” during gaps in a conversation. It sure had to get better when I became the president. And I learnt just how difficult it is to organise anything involving food in a land where everyone has an opinion on food. Or how to get a public performance licence for music, when you have only been taught at school how to write down where Henri the removal man wants to put the furniture in the house.
My French improved, and it was worth the grief, just to be able to say to family back home that yes, we were doing fine in France, and I was now the new President.
Learn some card games
7. Finally, if it’s France you are moving to, learn how to play Belote. It’s a card game. You know those packs of cards in the shop that you’ve wondered about, which only contain 32 and not 52 cards? Well, they are for, amongst other things, Belote.
In France, directly proportionate to how rural you go, there are increasing numbers of Belote tournaments in all village halls all winter. It’s the winter sport. It’s the social extravaganza of a commune. You can win whole pigs. Or just settle for another step towards integrating with the local community. It’s an ace game played in pairs against another pair.
You move around the room challenging different pairs, and your final scores are added up to find the winning team of the night. There is wine between moving tables. There is sometimes food. There are clever tactics which I haven’t worked out. This winter, that is my challenge. I want the pig.
Even though I don’t eat pig, it will be an undeniable sign of integration to walk away with the Belote pig.
Looking back at all of this, there is one big thing that they have in common. The language. Getting to grips with the language is such an important part of getting comfortable in a new home abroad. You don’t need to be perfect – we sure aren’t – but you do need to get out there and try. And not be afraid to make mistakes. Learning any language involves making mistakes. It’s a essential part of experimenting with and mastering that next level. And you may just walk away with the Belote pig one day.