I spent the year 2005-6 living in Provence. I think, somewhere in the back of their minds, everyone has a dream of living in the South of France…
I came here because I was determined not to put my 11 year old into the local ‘sink comprehensive’(1). I was even prepared to move country. Moving to Grimaud, I enrolled her in the nearest French comprehensive in St.Maxime. In France everybody puts their kids into the local school. Private school costs peanuts, around a £100 a month, and is chosen for religious reasons, as they do not teach any religion in French State schools (separation between church and state very important here). Unlike Britain, particularly London, where the sole topic of conversation between parents of 8 to 11 year olds centres on what secondary school you are trying to get your kid into, France has a comprehensive system that works. This means: lots of lovely well brought up children; good teachers; good facilities; school bus.
School lunches however, were a bit of a problem. I had it in my head that all the kids would sit down to tiny pîchets of red wine with lunch, hors d’oeuvres, plats principals, cheese course, dessert and mini expresso coffees. With the exception of the wine and the expresso, my fantasy was fairly accurate: how many English schools serve goats cheese and crackers with lunch?
“We don’t do all that religious stuff here” she declared “just like we don’t allow veils or crucifixes“.
In France, vegetarianism is a kooky religion.
The mothers outside the school gate, being near to Saint Tropez, looked like film stars. High heels, coiffed hair, full make-up (brown lip-liner a particular fave), colour co-ordinated outfits were par for the course. So unlike our own dear England where most of us mums rock up bleary eyed, in trackie bottoms and hair (Croydon facelift style) in a scrunchie.
Kids don’t wear school uniform in France. The girls wore the latest fashions, jewellery, make-up, heels, tiny skirts over long brown legs. Plus there were school yard fashions. My teenager soon learnt that to wear your backpack high up your back was the ultimate nerdy thing to do. You had to wear the back pack with the straps so long it is hanging down by the backs of your knees. Thereby removing any advantage one might gain from a backpack. This is important in France because all the kids have to carry all their textbooks and exercise books into school every day. There are no lockers. The bags weigh a ton. As a result, French school kids have terrible back problems.
It was surreal waiting outside the school leaning next against a palm tree. And hard for the kids too, trying to concentrate on academia while outside there is beautiful weather, a beach, tennis courts, horse riding etc etc.
My teenager was very brave, starting secondary ‘big’ school in a foreign country. The first term she was terrified: she had to get used to kissing everyone she met on both cheeks which made getting on the school bus quite a lengthy process. By the second term she’d gained enough confidence to start being naughty at school.
She settled in just fine. It was me that had the problems. Being a single mum in a foreign country in the countryside was no fun. I was bloody lonely. The French were not friendly even though I spoke French. France is not a ‘mates’ culture. They hang out with their family. The ex-pats were not in general the sort of people that I would mix with in London. Many of them were a bit ‘Del-boy’, absconding fathers or worse, actual criminals on the run. There were hardly any women (2).
It’s an ex-pat cliché but they did all drink loads. After a couple of months my kidneys hurt from drinking so much rosé. I grew to like a lethal short called a Slippery Nipple: Sambucca, Baileys, with a Grenadine nipple on top.
I was obliged to spend time with the bored British mums, none of whom were single (3). A typical day would be taking kid to school then meeting at the bar opposite Leclerc. You’d do your shopping and then order a few rosés or kirs. Cocktail hour started at 11. All they ever talked about was plastic surgery, diets and how much their husbands annoyed them. Next thing you knew it was tea time so you’d drive home gingerly, quickly tidy up the house so it looked like you’d done something productive, brush your teeth and make dinner.
Some days though I was so depressed and lonely I didn’t even bother to go to the shopping centre (which was basically the only place open in winter…off-season is deathly dull). I just switched on the TV which had Sky. I would watch all the medical and legal dramas and then start on the True Movies channel. I knew I’d watched too many True Movies when they started to repeat the same ones a few months later. I could have pretty much written the script for one myself. A typical storyline would have a psychologically disturbed mother/brave divorcee, who met with Prince Charming/axe murderer who would then steal her child and she would spend the rest of the movie overcoming the illness/beating the odds in some way. It appeals to housewives’ worst fears.
In the evenings, on non-school nights, aching with isolation (for there was no work off-season), I’d drag myself to the only place open, an English pub. It was clear that I didn’t fit in. One Liverpudlian said to me, you’d get on with M, he’s your type, he’s got a bookshelf, like, full of books.
Sometimes you’d meet someone, get on quite well and then further along in the conversation discover that they’d killed someone back in England and could never return. Nobody was who they seemed.
How did you guess? she asked.
Well, nobody writes hand written letters anymore, especially not ‘successful’ business men. I said. The lack of visits now made sense(4).