I know some readers are finding these posts from abroad rather unsettling, what with pictures of beautiful mountains, gorgeous French food and the pull of a brocante-bargain. It’s a wonder we have anyone left in the UK! Well this lovely post on ex-pat life from Juliette tells both sides of the story, although I’m still keeping the Eurostar timetable to hand. Also, I need a Porcherie…..
Do you remember daydreaming about how your life would be when you grew up? Amongst other madcap schemes I was going to marry a handsome Frenchman, live in a chateau and have bilingual children. In reality I’ve ended up married to a very English Gent and my house isn’t quite up to chateau standard, but as for the country and the kids part – uncannily I got that right.
My expat life is really one of two halves – the Swiss years adjusting to life as a ‘trailing spouse’ (as expat wives who follow their husbands are still archaically referred to around here – yes really!) and the French years as a full-time Mum with two young boys, a cross-border school run and a mad cat. I don’t think I could have dreamt that up if I’d tried.
University sweethearts, E.G. and I were bowling along quite happily with London life, but by April 2000 we were ready for a change. It wasn’t supposed to be a life move, just a break: the offer of of a new job and career progression for E.G. at the World Health Organization in Geneva (all that skiing!) and the opportunity for me to take time out after 10 intense years in the film industry – we jumped at the chance. We would be away for 2-3 years, maximum 5. Apparently they all say that.
I had lived in French speaking Switzerland as a child, so Geneva was familiar to me in many ways. However, regardless of when and where you go, landing in a foreign country is a major upheaval: you are thrown together in an ‘us against the world’ type scenario, as you pick your way through the minefield of admin, foreign languages (4 in Switzerland) and making a new life together. Against a backdrop of stunning mountains and picture perfect scenery, we settled into the Swiss ‘mode de vie’, fuelled by fondue, local wine and a large amount of chocolate. I dabbled in various jobs and when the opportunity came to stay, we stayed.
The second phase of the adventure began when two became four and we went in search of a house of our own across the border in neighbouring France.
We may be only 20 minutes from central Geneva but life couldn’t be more different. The Pays de Gex is a sleepy, originally rural area, sandwiched between Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains, and largely forgotten in the national scheme of things. We live in a small village in a beautiful ‘maison de maître’ dating from 1840. It came with a derelict old ‘porcherie’ dating from 1788 (the year before the French Revolution) which we’ve restored to its former glory (a story in itself) and are very proud of, particularly in light of the mass unchecked building programme that is currently going on all around us to ease the housing crisis in Geneva and which is sadly destroying the authentic feel of the region.
And our bilingual children? Full immersion from age 3 in the local village school has worked a treat. With additional English classes to keep them up to speed with their reading and writing, they are a fantastic mix of little Englishmen who speak perfect French – they play cricket locally, think bacon butties are the best thing since, well, sliced bread, have an extensive knowledge of French cheeses and are avid readers of the Beano and Harry Potter – in both languages.
Now the eldest has moved over into the International school system back in Switzerland so I have two children in two different countries with completely different education systems and holidays! My cross-country/cross-border taxi driving skills are being honed to the max but they are both happy and thriving which is the most important thing. Growing up as ‘third culture kids’ we hope we are giving them the best of both worlds, plus the surrounding countryside is a sporting playground for skiing, hiking, swimming and cycling – we all appreciate how lucky we are.
Yet, even after 15 years, the pull of the homeland is always there.
I feel strongly British and our house is a reflection of that – vintage Union Jacks abound and there’s always some bunting on hand for the slightest celebration (the brocante prices round here are rather higher than Bebe’s part of France – I need to get over there!) For all that I speak the language, French bureaucracy is mind-bogglingly long-winded and calling the gas board or the tax office can be quite an ordeal. Indeed there are days when I do not see ‘la vie en rose’ and long for a mooch around Waitrose, and whilst we do all we can to fit in with school and village life, it is hard to be fully integrated into the local community.
Thankfully that’s where my friends come in. Without family nearby, when you meet like-minded women you click with, strong bonds are formed fast and I couldn’t have coped without my girlfriends over the years. My Book Club meets once a month, my yoga girls keep me motivated, and in our village of a Friday night, 5 families regularly get together to share a glass of wine and cheese, with pizza for the children, in a merry hubbub of French, English, Spanish and Italian and the international bonhomie we share plays a vital part in all our lives.
I think it’s fair to say that in the absence of family, your friends do in fact become your family. The difficult thing is though, with the transient nature of the UN and other international organizations, people move around a lot, so friendships are forged and then suddenly one day you have to cope with the sadness when they leave. Goodbyes are never easy and when the families concerned have been your lifeline, they are even harder.
I can’t deny that there have been times when I’ve asked myself whether we did the right thing moving here and wondered what our lives would be like if we had stayed in the UK.
Not being near your loved ones can make things very tough – heartbreakingly my mother suffers from dementia and the overall burden of her care rests with my beloved sister, which is not how it should be and my inability to be on hand to help is both upsetting and frustrating. Of course we go back as often as we can and return visits chez nous are incredibly precious.
I completely agree with Steffi (in her moving post about her life in Ticino), that the advent of social media has been a godsend in making the world a smaller place and thanks to Instagram, FaceTime and warm, informative blogs like TWR (ahem, thank you Juliette! A), I can stay connected to my family, roots and heritage – it will always play a large part in who I am.
Starting my own blog After My Own Fashion has also given me a creative outlet and something for myself in the busy whirl of family life. 15 years and counting and I can’t predict what’s coming next, but I do know how blessed I am to be on this adventure with my wonderful boys, and I couldn’t possibly do it without them.