Hello, Friends. Thank you so much for your patience as I took a week to tackle some just-moved-to-another-country-tasks. I sincerely appreciate it. I feel like there’s so much to tell you, so I’ll just dive in.
We arrived last Wednesday evening (August 28th) and checked into an Airbnb that we’ve reserved through the month of September. We did our best to stay up until normal bedtime hours, but ended up waking around 3:00 in the morning with jet lag anyway. : )
The next day, Thursday, we connected with a few friends (so lovely to see familiar faces as we ran errands in town!) and spent a good chunk of hours arranging for our French SIM cards for our phones. We also had a surprise: we thought school was going to start the next Monday (September 2nd), and that we’d have a few days for the kids to adjust to the new time zone and gather the long list of French school supplies. The Monday start was true for the middle school. But for Flora June, we found out the first day school was actually the next day (Friday, August 30th)!!
So after the phones were sorted out, we went straight to the school to make sure her registration was all set (it was), and get a school supply list for her class. It was such a wonderful visit! Flora’s teacher gave us a tour of her classroom and building, and we got to explain in person that Flora really doesn’t know any French and is starting from scratch.
Sidenote: Flora’s teacher has a Harry Potter theme for the classroom, and the students got to pick their “house” out of a Sorting Hat. In French the four houses are called: Gryffondor (Gryffindor), Serpentard (Slytherin), Poufsouffle (Hufflepuff), and Serdaigle (Ravenclaw). Poufsouffle is my favorite translation.
After the school visit, we went straight to the grocery store to buy school supplies. The stores in Argentan typically close at 6:00 or 7:00 PM, and aren’t open on Sunday at all, so there are no late night Target-run options. There are different sized grocery stores with labels like Marché, Super-Marché, and Hyper-Marché. The Hyper-Marchés are similar to a Super-Target — they have groceries and household goods and some clothing too.
On Thursday, we also went to the laundromat. By the time we got to France, we had been staying in hotels for four nights, and our laundry was piling up. There is a small clothes washer at our Airbnb, but no dryer (more on that later), and we decided the laundromat would be the most efficient way to get everything clean at once. The laundromat is open till 8:00 PM.
We ended Thursday with dinner at our friend Caroline’s home. She bought a house a few months ago and has been fixing it up and it’s wonderful! It’s right in town, it has a big garden, and it’s a three minute walk to her work at the library. Caroline is my dear friend and she has been such a help as we’re getting adjusted — things like helping us understand a note from school, to letting us use her wifi, and even receiving a package for us.
On Friday, Olive and I took a 7:00 AM train to Montpellier. (Which means, Ben Blair was the parent for Flora’s first day of school. We made sure to set out Flora’s outfit the night before.) Our train went from Argentan to the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Then we took an Uber to another station, Gare du Lyon, where we took a train straight to Montpellier, which is in the South of France.
Sidenote: In case you missed the news, Olive is spending her senior year in Montpellier as an au pair. Olive took four classes this summer (taking the final exams the Friday before we moved!) and that completed her required coursework, so she’s officially done with high school. Knowing we needed to take Olive to Montpellier so she could start her Au Pair work on Monday, September 2nd, was one of the reasons we needed to prioritize getting our French phones in order.
The father of Olive’s host family met us at the station and helped us navigate the tram to the hospital campus where the family lives. (Both of the parents work at the hospital and live right on the campus — there are a few houses for the hospital directors.) He gave us a wonderful tour of the house, gave Olive her key to the house, and then had to return to work because it was the middle of the day. We got Olive unpacked, made a list of a few things she wanted for her room, and then used the tram to explore and figure out the best place for shopping. It turns out the tram line that goes to the hospital, also goes straight to an Ikea, so we picked up everything Olive needed really easily.
Friday evening, Olive and I met her host parents, Laurent and Emilie, at a super charming restaurant in the old part of the city — you know, tiny cobble stone streets, and charming little shops around every corner, and then surprise! a giant cathedral or castle that’s 400 years old. Laurent and Emilie are really lovely. What a treat to get to know them a bit, and be able to picture where Olive will be living. After dinner, we shared desserts, wandered around the old city (it was HOT during the day, but the evening was the perfect temperature), and then took the tram back to the hospital.
Sidenote: I really loved the tram system in Montpellier. It’s super easy to navigate, and you’re above ground the whole time, so you can see what’s happening. The city of Montpellier was not really built for cars, and it’s difficult to navigate and park a car there — especially in the city center — so everyone just uses the tram and it’s awesome.
Back in Argentan, Flora had her first day of school, and Ben Blair got the kids signed up for music lessons. Oscar will continue with trumpet. Betty will continue with Clarinet. And Flora will try the oboe (she wanted guitar or piano, but they were full). Ben also figured out where and when to sign up for swim team, and took Betty and Oscar to get their school supplies.
On Saturday morning, Olive and I (still in Montpellier) went with Laurent and Emilie to the weekly market. It’s held beneath the ancient aqueduct (of course it is). And my oh my one of the things I was impressed with is the older ladies at the market — I’m talking about the ladies in their 70s and 80s; so stylish and put together. I definitely felt under-groomed.
Montpellier is a big city and the market was big too. It was really fun to see how this French couple shopped. They said they always start at the fishmonger, then Laurent picked out a week’s worth of bread, while Emilie picked out fruits and vegetables at vendor who only sells organic options (organic is called biologique in France). She mentioned she also buys from the grocery store when needed, but that the quality is much better at the open air market. The last stop was their favorite cheese vendor. (There are many cheese vendors, meat vendors, bread vendors, etc. at these markets. And overtime, customers figure out their favorites.)
Emilie also joked about her good friend Mr. Picard. Picard is a famous frozen food chain in France. They only sell frozen food, and it’s known to be very high quality. Emilie said the reality is they are both working parents and sometimes is easier to throw some Picard in the microwave than figure out dinner. Olive was like: We agree! And we don’t have Picard in the U.S., but we had a freezer full of Trader Joe’s. : )
After the market, we took a touristy walk around town, and then they dropped me at the train station and I was off to Argentan once again (with a stop in Paris as usual). But this time, with only a small bag and leaving Olive behind. I think she’s going to have a wonderful year and I’m proud of her for figuring out the au pair scene all on her own.
Sidenote: Montpellier is a college town with several universities and it was fun to see all the students on the trams, with luggage and pillows, moving into dorms or student housing. I’m hoping Olive will be able to take a class or two.
Another sidenote: While I was on the train, I pulled out my laptop to write my Friday Link List, and realized I left the laptop in Olive’s room. Ugh! The post office isn’t open on Saturday, so Olive shipped it on Monday and it got to me on Tuesday. I’m so sorry I missed publishing a weekend link list — I don’t know when I’ve ever missed that before. I felt bad about letting you down.
On Saturday, while I was on Montpellier, Ben Blair took the kids to Deauville Beach, did the grocery shopping, and then met me at the train station at the end of the day.
On Sunday, we slept as much as we could (jet lag is killer!), and had friends over for Gouter in the afternoon/evening. Gouter is basically an afternoon snack. In France, lunch is at 12:30 PM, and dinner is around 8:00 PM, so Gouter is a snack, typically sweet, that happens around 4:00 PM (perfect timing for an after-school snack). Our friend Capucine made a gorgeous and delicious peach charlotte and we gobbled it up.
On Monday, Oscar and Betty had their first day of school, and Flora had her second day. While they were in school, Ben and I started tackling tasks like buying a car, and figuring out long-term housing. We also had more paperwork to hand in at the school for Oscar and Betty’s registration. When the kids were out of school we took them to test drive a couple of family cars. We haven’t made a car decision yet, but we’re getting closer.
Sidenote: When we landed in Paris, we had reserved a big van for a week (there were six of us plus we had so much luggage!). Funnily, the van they gave us was the exact same Mercedes utility model we drove in the U.S.. We handed that in today, and we’ve rented a smaller car (a five-seater) to use until we make a purchase decision. Even though there are only five of us here at home, we’re still feeling like we need lots of seats, because of likely visitors. At the same time, we’d rather skip the industrial size van if we don’t need it, you know? We’re not sure — it feels like we’re trying to guess at future trips and visitors. The nice thing is, if we do decide to go with the industrial van, literally every car company here makes their own version so we have tons of choices.
Tuesday looked a lot like Monday, but included tours of five houses that are in town and for sale. (I’m going to do a whole separate post on our real estate happenings here. Lots to tell you!) And I got my laptop back! I confess, I feel so dysfunctional when it’s not around.
That completes a report of our first week, and here are a bunch of other things I want to tell you about:
-It’s been interesting to see what is familiar and what has changed about our little town of Argentan — like a new windfarm just outside of town, and changes to weekly trash pick up and recycling. There’s a new bakery we’ve been to 3 times already, and we noticed three other bakeries we like to visit have all had facelifts — new signage and canopies out front.
Argentan is not a touristy town — though it’s a wonderful home base for seeing the big tourist spots in the Normandy region, like Mont St. Michel, the D-Day Memorials, the resort town of Deauville, the fishing village of Honfleur, the Bayeaux Tapestry, and several of William the Conquerers castles.
To our eyes, Argentan is a community that is constantly improving, with exciting public works projects that benefit everyone who lives here, like a new art museum, and a current project where they are transforming the area around the town hall to be a walking district and park. Even just things like they’ve added new covered parking to one of the big grocery stores, which is a huge help when the rains begin. I love that the city really seems to keep the quality of life of their citizens in mind.
-School here is HARD for Flora. We’re only a few days in, and she really doesn’t speak or understand French. For sure she’ll get there, but it’s tough. The nice thing is she gets lots of breaks. Her grade only has school on Monday and Tuesday, and on Thursday and Friday. So she just has to face two days of school at a time. Also, the kids have been super friendly to Flora try hard to communicate with her. It’s really sweet.
Oscar and Betty remember more French than they thought they would, but not enough to feel fluent. Plus, the combination of new school, and new language, gives them the feeling like they never quite know exactly what’s going on; or that they’re missing information (which I’m sure they are). A happy thing for them? English class! It’s totally in English, and they feel like they can be helpful to the other kids.
Betty really wants to get good grades while she’s here, so we’re trying to figure a tutor that can help her until her French is up to speed.
Another happy thing is the school schedule. As I mentioned, there’s no class for Flora on Wednesday, and school lets out at noon on Wednesday for the middle school. Plus, the school has four 2-week breaks during the year (the first one is in October), and a two month summer.
-We’re curious to see what being on the swim team will be like. We didn’t really do anything like that last time we lived here. Ralph’s memory is that you are an athlete by default if you come from the U.S. because we’re so saturated with sports. Like he remembers they were doing a section on baseball in P.E., and the kids thought you held a baseball bat with one hand. Ralph is not into sports at all, and only played one season of baseball as a 4 year old, but still knew a baseball bat is held with two hands.
In addition to swimming, Oscar is planning to do handball, and Betty is currently signed up for kayaking and horseback riding — that may change depending on the final schedules. Swim team is it’s own organization, but the other sports are done through the school.
Sidenote: The U.K. is so close to Normandy, and there are many people from the U.K. who visit this area, so if a local hears someone speak English, they assume it’s a visitor from the U.K.. The kids have noticed they get positive attention when people (adults or kids) realize they are from the U.S.A. — I’m sure it’s partly the novelty. They seem to get extra good vibes when they add that they’re from California and San Francisco. : )
-I think I’ve mentioned this before, but June (full name: Flora June Blair) was wanting to switch her name to Flora for a quite a while, but it’s challenging to get people to use a new name. We’re finding it’s much easier to do here, since the kids and grownups at school don’t know her as June, only as Flora. At home, to help the family get used to the new name, we’ve been trying to say Flora June while we make the transition.
-I really want to find a French language exchange partner. I’m committed to improving my French as much as I can.
-We did all the recommended jet lag remedies — like staying awake till local bedtime, eating meals at the local times, and using melatonin — but jet lag just stinks no matter what. I think it takes at least a week to adjust no matter what you do.
-Two things I’m having to adjust to again: 1) Stores aren’t open at the hours I’m used to. In the U.S., I do A LOT of my errands in the evening or late at night. So I’m having to be more mindful of the closing times here and planning my schedule accordingly. I know I’ll get used to it, but it’s going to take me a minute. 2) Coins here have much more value than they do in the U.S. A handful of coins here ends up being like ten bucks instead of 80 cents. Hah! I need to remember to keep track of my change. : )
-It feels like we’re going to be doing big administrative stuff (like: we need to find an orthodontist to continue Oscar and Betty’s treatment), pretty much every day for several weeks. But I feel great about what we’ve already accomplished, and I’m hopeful we’ll settle in to our new routines soon.
That’s it for now. Other posts I’m hoping/planning to write include some Q&A on why this move happened in the first place, what we did with our house in Oakland, and what it’s like looking for long-term housing here in France. And there’s a bunch of current event stuff I want to discuss too (like I’m really feeling a welcome shift about gun attitudes in the U.S.).
Today is the first day since we got here that I’ve had regular work time with my laptop, and I’m hoping to write a ton this month!
I hope you are well and I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything I reported. Question are welcome! I can add them to my Q&A post.
P.S. — Another time, I need to tell you about my depression meds and how they somehow got shipped on the container with our household goods instead of getting packed in my suitcase.