It’s easy to fall in love with a fabulous property – or at least one with a lot of potential! – when you’re house-and-lake-hunting abroad. You rush off to buy it, and it’s only later some of the practicalities start to hit home. This is particularly the case when children are involved, so here are a few things worth bearing in mind, which we didn’t when we moved here!
We arrived in France in August 2006 with our three children who were then 14, 11 and 5. We moved into two hovels which were borderline uninhabitable, with one tap, one plug and one working socket between them. We left a beautiful house in Ireland which we had built ourselves just three years earlier, thinking this was where we’d be for ever.
So why did we find ourselves at Les Fragnes, with its total lack of facilities, it’s rat skeleton in the floor, its strange piles of sand in the corner of one room and its carpet of owl pellets in the attic?
Because of the lakes. Les Fragnes has three lakes, which is exactly what husband Chris was looking for when we made the decision to change our lives and move to France to run a carp fishery. I can still see the expression on his face when we went to see the largest lake of the three, the one we’ve called Alder. It was a freezing cold November day, we were halfway through an exhausting, stressful house-hunting week, and we’d seen so many hopeless venues before this one that we were starting to despair. So we knew this was something really special. The fantastic lakes made us gloss over the awfulness of the cottages and the sheer volume of the adjoining 75 acres of farmland and woodland. We’d cope. We’d sort things out.
And we have done. But it wasn’t easy. The first winter was horrendous. Chris was back in Ireland working, the kids were struggling at school (more about this later), it was a very cold winter and we didn’t have central heating. We were sleeping downstairs in one cottage (the upstairs were rubbish-filled attics with more hole than roof), and eating in the other one (which had the one tap). Don’t ask where we were going to the loo! But we got through. Looking back I have to wonder how, now that we’ve got used to such luxuries as running water, a proper kitchen and central heating.
So factor in renovation time for your project, if it’s one like Les Fragnes that needs some attention. Bear in mind that while it might be bearable semi-camping in the summer, it’s a different story in winter. Very different! Start insulating the moment you step inside your house, even if it’s the middle of June. You can never have enough insulation, take it from me.
Factor in builders too. They may say you’ll have your central heating by Christmas but it’ll be the end of March. Believe me.
Now, practicalities. Children need schools. The chances are you will be fairly close to a primary school, wherever you end up. There is a huge network of small rural schools, although some are coming under threat. Where we live, three schools form a co-operative. One school, Bussiere St Georges, takes the three maternelle (infants) years – Petite Section, Moyenne Section and Grande Section. When children are 6 they move into the Primary sector. Our Ruadhri had his first two years of this cycle (CP and CE1) at Nouzerines school, the second in the co-operative, and now he is at the third, St Marien. He’s in CE2 now, and will spend CM1 and CM2 there. When Ruadhri was at Bussiere and Nouzerines we were able to cycle or walk him to school most of the time. Now he’s on the school bus. Last year we left the house at 7.50am for the bus to pick him up at the end of our long drive at 8am. He tootled around country lanes for a long while, changed bus and eventually got to school just before 9am. That’s a long time for an 8-year-old. Fortunately, he was first off the bus in the evening, thanks to good planning by the Mairie who organised the bus-route. However, this year we walk or cycle him to get on the bus in Nouzerines, to lessen the amount of time he spends sat on a minibus. That takes a good chunk of our time, although it keeps up fit. So bear transport to schools in mind.
Our eldest two started at Collège, secondary school, in Boussac. Secondary schools are likely to be further away, unless you live in a town. Caiti began in 6eme, the first year, and Benj was put into 3eme, the fourth year. However, that was way over-optimistic. It would have meant he would be doing his major exam, the Brevet de Colleges, after just a year in France. He would have scraped through, but it would have been a lot of pressure, so we got him moved down a year. That wasn’t easy for him of course, but it all worked out. After six months, everything started to come together. Benj took his Brevet in 2008 and got the second highest grade of ‘Mention Bien’. Caiti jumped a year, she was doing so well, and she too got a ‘Mention Bien’ in her Brevet in 2009. There was a school bus to Boussac too, which made a long school day even longer. The bus left our gates at 7.36am and returned at just before 6pm. That’s tiring, even without the foreign language element. Of course, school finishes early on Wednesdays (and primary school is shut on Wednesdays) so there’s a brief respite halfway through the week.
Now our eldest two are at lycée, more or less sixth form college, which for us is in Guéret, 50 km away. Lycées will be in the major towns of each departements, so most probably further away again than Collège. So they board at the internat. It’s basic but adequate and the two of them love it. They don’t love the Monday 6.45am rendez-vous at the bus-stop for the lycée coach which is 11km away. And neither do I. It’s up by 6am, out the door by 6.27am to get there on time. They’re home by 6pm on Friday, and again they have Wednesday afternoon free. They can come home as there are buses on Wednesdays and Thursday mornings, but they prefer to stay. Most kids do go home. Our guys love boarding but it might not suit everyone, so think about that when you move over. If you’re a long way from your nearest lycée, there’ll be a lot of travelling involved. And of course there’s a cost. The fees for boarding at lycée are around 1500 euro for a year, something to budget for. There are grants available for low-income families, and also merit bursaries. (Non-French children can and do get win these bourses de mérite. Our Caiti won one, and it lasts for three years which is wonderful.)
Before I go, another thing to think about is teeth. France has a strange system in that any orthodontic work has to be started before a child is 16 otherwise the sécu (social security) won’t help out with the costs. Six months of orthodontistry costs 530 euros, and the sécu reimburses 193 euros of that. There are forms to fill in beforehand – you have to get your claim accepted before the work can begin. We were caught out. Owing to a muddle over our carte vitales (health cards) – we had to wait almost a year to get ours – we didn’t get to a dentist until Benj was already 16. So he’s not covered by the secu and he’s needed a lot of work to straighten his interesting dental array. That was a horrid shock, but it’s just one of those things you have to do so we’ve managed. Be warned – if your children are approaching 16 when you move, get straight to the dentist, even without a carte vitale. You’ll have to pay for the appointment upfront, but the fees aren’t too bad. Your dentist puts you in touch with an orthodontist and helps get things started with the sécu.
Children aren’t always a liability, of course. In France, provided they have passed their ASSR1, a road safety course that they do at school, once kids are 14 they can apply to get their scooter licence. This involves 5 hours of practical training. I don’t know of anyone who has failed it yet. And so your teens have independence and freedom to potter along the roads at 45 kph to see friends, go to clubs or take themselves to school. This is a godsend in rural France where they haven’t heard of buses.
I’m starting to think I may have to do several, more structured articles about different aspects of French life with children that it’s worth thinking about when you move over. I’m NOT trying to put you off. As someone who has made the move, my advice is always ‘go for it’. But it helps to think some things through. Look beyond the lake! It might have an impact on the location you finally choose.