Being a parent is tough. Being a single parent is tougher. Being a single parent in a foreign land with a different language, well sometimes I question my sanity!
When the opportunity presented itself, for me to live in a city I had romanticized as a home from my teenage visits, across the sea vs. the Atlantic to my family, with a company and client I was already familiar with, it seemed an opportunity I should accept.
My son was three when we arrived. A lively, vocal, confident and playful boy; tall for his age, with a knowing look on his face, he is often considered older than his years. There was no question of stay-at-home mum, part-time employment, or freelance flexi-schedule. I needed care, as I had in New York, five days a week, and through school holidays. The first port of call was Le Marie. Armed with passports, birth certificates, apartment and work contracts, the Marie assigned the Ecole Maternelle that he would go to.
My mum had very kindly come over to help me set up (including some city wide searches for mops and specific plugs) and to help get S. settled. A former French teacher, she proved not only a great source of emotional help and support (it’s nice to have dinner with an adult as well as a child), but her translation skills were critical. She came with me to meet the school Directrice, identifying the whys and wherefores, schedule requirements, vacations dates and how the Garderie ((after school) kicks in after school and over the vacation period. Also identified was the need for a trip back to Le Marie to get confirmation of the Cantine tariff I would have to pay. Whether lost in translation or just general lack of clarity, there were a lot of fingers pointing me in different directions as to who actually assigned the Cantine tarriff. Ultimately, it was the Marie who needed to see a payslip and salary verification. They then provided the tarriff amount on a yellow stick-it note (très official!) and sent me back to the school who then captured the amount in their records and it was locked in for the year.
On S.’s first morning at school, I was relieved to find an Irish/French bilingual girl in his class. As I sat with S., attempting to encourage interaction with the other kids, it was my mum who honed in on the mother and started drilling her for information- phone numbers, doctor recommendations, and the English Speaking Parents Messaging Board URL. In Brooklyn, I had been actively involved as a user and moderator of the free Bococa Parents Group, so I found the Parisian board expensive to join and not so intuitive to navigate. However, I did find, most importantly, a babysitter. I posted a request for babysitter referrals and after meeting with five different people, I met a lovely couple who asked me if I would mind if it was the husband who collected S. vs. the wife. Absolutely not! I am really happy that S. has a male baby sitter, and am even more happy with the fact that they have been with me for the entire 2 years that I have been here. S. loves his babysitter and has been embraced by the entire family, even going to christening and birthday celebrations with them!
I must have looked like a deer in the headlights every morning as I dropped S. off at school, not able to communicate with the teacher or the parents. I tried to talk to the other parents (giving the Irish mum a rest from being my only target) and tried to set up play dates. Not only was there a language issue, cultural differences emerged. In NYC, play dates were a frequent and desired activity. Social circles and weekend activities formed around the children. In Paris, this did not seem the way. With a different sense of work/family division, a general feeling of closed communities, as well as weekends being occupied with family activities or trips to the country to see the grandparents, there was minimal uptake on my play date outreach. Whatever my challenges, poor little man! He couldn’t understand, or be understood. He wanted to go back to Brooklyn.
We arranged some facetime calls with his fellow musketeer preschool friends. Not the easiest form of sharing toys and latest news, with the cameras often presenting the ceiling or the carpet, we changed to video’ing messages that we emailed back and forth. That works much better! The three musketeers are always reunited when we go back to New York, and the friendships seem to remain strong, picking up where they left off.
Eventually, a Parisian father took pity on me. His son was also fairly quiet so he also thought solidifying an ally for his son outside of the class room might be a good idea. We had a couple of outings, and whilst the kids had a blast, our conversations in broken English were challenging. I needed another plan. Not only to help S., but to help me! Weekdays are limited to bed time story, and walk to school time; not very much parental time for a child. So weekends are precious and important for us to spend together. We became acquainted with the Aquarium, the zoo, the Palais des Découverte and several other museums and parks. Whilst great company, I kept thinking there must be other mothers who might want a companion for outings. I posted on the english Message board offering to host a children’s English songs singing group but got no inquiries for a year! (When I had almost forgotten about it, I received a couple of calls and now I have met with a couple of parents about three times for a sing along!)
I then tried MeetUp. A zillion groups for every configuration of family, interest, and activity. I found the expat parents and signed up. it took a few schedulings before we actually managed to “meet up”, but when got together, we had a really fun day. S. got on with the girls really well, and it was so nice to be able to have an actual conversation. The organizer is a power house, scanning kid friendly activities and continually posting in the group. My other life saver was finding a music group that turned out to be 10 minutes walk away, organized by a wonderful Bulgarian Piano player who just so happened to have a daughter the same age as S. They buddied up immediately. So from having no adult social life, I had a friday night hang, live music, in a bar/restaurant, where I could take S.; he had a friend to play with and I got to chat with adults and sing. I was very sad when the bar decided to close down.
The most unnerving situations have been when S. had some medical concerns that resulted in couple of 2am calls to the Pompiers followed by trips to the hospital. I hate not being able to discuss and understand clearly what is going on. I have worked on my french, and it’s certainly better than it was, but I am no where near fluent or able to navigate those moments with certainty. I now know there are also Medical record books that you can get from Le Marie. You have to get them in person (presenting birth certificates, passports and job/apartment contracts. This is how you record your child’s health, immunizations etc. (so when you are there getting your school and Cantine tarriff assignments, go an get one of these too! the doctors do not provide them!)
After a rocky start, and a couple of “Pas Sage” moments, S. can now speak fluent french, and has a great group of friends. I have found a core group of mum’s, mainly english speaking, but some French, who I feel confident I can call if need be. It’s not quite like my friends in NY where we can go and hang out, lounge on the couch, watch the telly, eat, chat, and not have a set end time. But it’s a lot better than it was!
Paris is a beautiful city, the museums and parks are great. I am very impressed with the école Maternelle and Garderie. The art work they do is amazing, the trips to museums and chateaus are enviable, the extra curricular activities are energizing. As S. gets older, the next issue will be homework and being able to help him. If it is in French, I will not be a good tutor!
It’s been a challenge, but I think it’s a wonderful experience that wherever we end up, S. will have benefited from and have some wonderful memories of our time here.
- Ask the Marie for everything you need in one go – School, tariff & medical book
- the Ecole Maternelle and Garderie’s are great
- It takes a village – ask for help, use the social groups, and try and learn french!