Growing Up in France from Sarah

January 26, 2011

Note from Design Mom: While I’m busy with the move to France, I’ve got a crew of talented Guest Moms filling in for me. Today, Sarah is sharing her story of growing up in France. Don’t you love this themed family photo? Enjoy!

In 1989, my parents became Christian missionaries and moved our family to France. I was seven, and my younger siblings were five and three. At the time, we had no idea how this decision would change our lives. We just knew that something exciting was happening!

We spent one year in language school in a small town in the southwest of France, but I don’t remember much about how I learned to speak French. In the mornings, we gathered in a special classroom where we were explicitly taught French. My teacher knew precisely two words in English: “shut” and “up”. But somehow, I magically spoke the language pretty fluently by the end of that school year. In fact, it became so natural that my sister, brother, and I started using “Frenglish” around the house. When we transitioned to outright French, my parents tried to outlaw the use of it at home…. they claimed they were worried we would lose our English. (But I think maybe they were just jealous of our flawless accents!)

We moved around to different parts of France every few years: Orleans, Grenoble, Alsace. The one thing that was a constant were the public French schools I attended. The teachers were super strict. The subjects were academically rigorous. The lunch break was long (90 minutes!). And with every new school came curious, soon-to-be French friends who would ask me all sorts of questions: You’re American? Do you know Michael Jackson? Do you eat hamburgers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Say something in English!

There were perks to living in France, perks that I completely took for granted. When we lived in Grenoble, my fourth grade class went skiing in the Alps to fulfill a PE credit. One year, we took a field trip to the WWI trenches. During our summer vacations my parents would drive us to Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Holland. We took the ferry over to England and swapped houses with another missionary family. At the time, I thought these were completely normal experiences.

All of this served to blow my worldview wide open! I got to see, taste , and experience things I otherwise never would have. But truthfully, I didn’t see it that way when I was growing up. I thought we were just another normal family. I whined on long car trips across Europe. I craved American junk food like donuts, Oreos, Butterfingers, and root beer. And when I got a little older, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of any shopping malls.

These days, I’m incredibly grateful that my parents insisted on dragging me across Europe. It taught me to be open-minded, to respect other cultures, and to see that a smile needs no translation.

I have no doubt that the Blair children will come away from all of their adventures in France with the same appreciation as I did! Just remember to pack some extra junk food!

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Robin January 26, 2011 at 11:05 am

I have a very similar experience with living overseas in England. I lived there for 6 years then 4 more a few years later for a total of over 10 years! My father worked for the Navy as a civilian so my parents got to chose when and where we moved. Although I didn’t learn a ‘foreign’ language I was fully immersed with a British accent and their culture after 6 months. Car trips around Europe were very normal and I too missed regular American junk food. It was a very exciting part of my life even though I was so young I treasure it!


2 Kristin January 26, 2011 at 11:15 am

This is one experience that gives my mind the possibility to understand why we should try to do this as well w my husbands job (it is a global comp & I would entertain Sweden or uk or even austrailia no doubt). I just don’t know about leaving the grandparents. Maybe when my youngest is actually out of the womb it will seem more feasible. Can’t wait to read your adventures (& we live right by a nestle headquarters, so if u need that kind if junk food, lmk! & I’ll gladly send u & ur Sis some!-ha)


3 Zina January 26, 2011 at 11:35 am

Oh but there is such delicious food in France! Even of the junk variety. When I was living there as a 21-year-old missionary a friend well-meaningly sent me Hershey’s Kisses and I just had to shake my head.

I did miss cinnamon candy, though. And Mexican food. But I think you can now find most American treats as easily in France as you can find Nutella and other French treats stateside–that is to say, it takes a little effort, but is usually not impossible.


4 Keri Bryant January 26, 2011 at 11:57 am

OH, je suis jalouse!! :)
I miss La FRance, terribly. How lucky that your childhood was there! I spent a yaer and 1/2 there as a missionary, also, and I wonder often if she misses me as much as I miss her! :)
Where were you in Alsace, Sarah? I lived in Mulhouse and Strasbourg in 1993-1994. Were we neighbors?
Thanks for sharing.


5 Sarah January 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm

We weren’t in Alsace at that time, but my parents now are close to Colmar (not too far from Mulhouse either!) What a small world :)


6 Mom in Mendon January 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm

A great report, Sarah, and comforting to those of us who will be missing the Blairs.


7 Holly January 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm

What a great blog post!


8 Ana January 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm

This is amazing! I am a Francocphile and I haven’t even been there. I love this post!


9 terina January 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm

sarah, i also lived in orleans, and really miss it! france feels like home to me, sometimes more than the USA.


10 Tanya January 26, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Oh this is so exciting. Speaking French fluently! So cool.


11 sparkling74 January 26, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Wow, I am quite envious! I am a French teacher and would have loved to have done this as a kid. To just think your trip to the Alps is normal is just so cool! And something American just don’t understand, no matter how much you try to explain. I have never been to this site before. I came over because I read Sarah over at Confessions. Am I reading correctly that you, the blog owner, will be moving your family to France? I might just have to follow this blog, if so! I want the bird’s eye view!


12 Denise Laborde January 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Excellent post !

Frenglish. Ha! I am always eager to hear how other families handle many languages inside the home. We have a rule : begin and finish your phrase in the same language. But it is sometimes very hard to follow. Spanglish, Frenglish, we’re guilty of all of it.


13 Amy Gilbert January 26, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Oh my gosh, Sarah! We went to church together as kids! I’m sure you don’t remember me, but my brother went and stayed with your parents last year. So crazy to see your picture- a picture I’m pretty sure we had on our fridge when I was a kid so we could remember to pray for you. Fun to hear your story!


14 Sarah January 26, 2011 at 4:05 pm

That is so amazing!! I wondered if anyone would recognize that old picture :)


15 Brenna January 26, 2011 at 3:39 pm

What an amazing experience! I am not sure my children will ever have the opportunity to have something like that, but it certainly reinforces my belief that they need to be exposed to cultures and traditions (and language!) outside of their own.


16 malia January 26, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Sarah! What a lovely post and the photos are priceless. I am in awe of your family and the amazing adventure you had. It’s my dream come true…


17 Carina January 26, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Oh my stars! The rootbeer! We missed it so badly! And we used to beg, beg my parents to just take us to McDonald’s when we lived in Europe.

Although we always went to local schools, my parents spoke the language fluently, so we got away with nothing. (Except for the time we nearly convinced my mom that Valentine’s Day was a national holiday in Austria and there wasn’t any school.)


18 Kathleen January 26, 2011 at 10:56 pm

I loved reading this! I want more!


19 pascale January 26, 2011 at 11:16 pm

I was born in France though my parents are Korean. It’s amazing how children can be bilingual, trilingual and learn even more very fast. I lost french 3 times and got it back 3 times in matter of few months all the time (every time we went back home to Korea for summer holiday I would lose the language). The last time I lost it I was 7 (when we left France) and it never came back till I had to study it in high school because I was too young when I lost it. It’s said that children who learn a new language should be exposed to the language till around 11 or 12. If the language sets in before that age and stays till that age, the language sticks in for life almost like a native . Hope the Blair children get to keep the language forever too. If they ever come back before getting to 12 or so, they should definitely be exposed to the language weekly even after they are back :)
Btw, I speak 4 languages (I dont count French… unfortunately… dont speak it that wellanymore…) because I was exposed to them while I was young… great gift from my parents :) I am sure the Blair children will appreciate the experience when they grow up! :)


20 Shannon Taylor January 27, 2011 at 7:51 am

I love your story, Sarah! A lot of people didn’t understand our decision to bring three small children (6, 4, and 2) to China with us to get their little sister, but it was the best thing we ever did. I agree with you: these experiences change your worldview. I know my kids see the world differently because they spent so much time in another culture. I hope you’ll write more about your life in France!


21 Bek January 27, 2011 at 9:50 am

That is similar to how my husband grew up.. But in Belgium and Holland. As result is we go back to Europe often and our kids will complain on long car trips across the alps as well. Fun memories.


22 Laurel January 27, 2011 at 11:23 am

I am so excited for your family. We lived overseas for 8 years of my childhood with the Air Force. My parents made sure we travelled and saw most of Europe in the time we lived there. You are opening your kids eyes to so many different experiences. They will be so much better for it. I can’t wait to hear of your adventures. Best of Luck.


23 Robyn January 27, 2011 at 1:20 pm

When I was living in France after about 9 months I was really craving those red coconut zingers. I wanted one so bad. After nine months of wholesome and delicious french food, though, that much anticipated bite of “American junk food” left me feeling sick. I haven’t had one since! That was 16 years ago! Although, when my family lived in northern Africa, a case of peanut butter mistakenly came to our local grocery store–That was a treat. They bought each of the 6 kids their own jar of peanut butter and said we could eat it as fast or as slow as we wanted. My brother ate his in 1 week and my sister savored her for 6 months!!!


24 Andrea January 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm

I love this! I spent 1978-1983 in Germany with my family, courtesy of the Air Force. While many of our cohorts went back to the states often, we took full advantage of living in Europe. We traveled to as many countries as we could, and brought our family over for long visits. I still treasure those memories and would love to get back there someday.


25 Patti Lecron January 27, 2011 at 11:48 pm



26 Lauren January 31, 2011 at 11:50 am

I really love this post. We are currently living in Belgium with our two young children and I often wonder what there memories will be of this experience years from now. There are so many similarities between things you and your family have done and what we are doing. Love it! Also, wish there was more to read!


27 Mademoiselle Dentelle February 2, 2011 at 9:26 am

Lol ! Don’t worry, we have Oreos, Donuts and shopping malls now !
I have the same kind of memories from my years growing up in Albany New York, though (i was born in France and live there now). How i craved baguette and croissants !!!! :)


28 Sibylle February 2, 2011 at 9:42 am

I love this post! I was always wondering if it is really a good thing for our children to move all the time. From Germany to the US to Canada and maybe to Australia soon. But i read your post and I am re-assured that I am doing the right thing, thank you!


29 Shelby July 26, 2011 at 4:10 am

Thank you! I LOVE this post. We have lived overseas as a family for years now with our three young children and while I guessed that the consider their childhood ‘normal’, it is wonderful to hear that viewpoint from someone who grew up this way. Our family is having a great time and I love hearing that other families are thriving expats as well.


30 Kim June 21, 2012 at 2:30 pm

When I was 15, my dad took a sabbatical from the university to take a job with Boston University in Europe. I was kicking all the way there and all the way home a year later! What a fabulous and life changing experience to be in international schools, spending weekends in different countries, waking up to a view of the Alps each morning. I spent most of my 20′s living in Europe and have enjoyed a career in international business to ensure I always have an excuse to go back!

Loved this post!!!


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