Sunday, October 27, 2013

Show me your neighborhood - Pessac, France (Bordeaux Area)

Pessac Centre
Show me your neighbourhood around the worldShow me your Neighborhood
Pessac - France
Southwestern France - 
near the city of Bordeaux
(Part of the Show me your Neighborhood Series 
with The Piri-piri Lexicon)

We live in Bordeaux, France - to be more specific a suburb on the Western side of Bordeaux.  Pessac is actually located within the CUB (Communaute Urbaine de Bordeaux)-so we have wonderful public services and great transportation. In essences we are considered part of the city. The city centre is only about a 30 minute drive/bus or tram away. This post was a bit harder to write than I first thought - as of course, I wanted to share Bordeaux with everyone - such a beautiful, vibrant, gorgeous city - but that's not really our neighborhood.  In reality, our neighborhood looks quite different than the downtown interconnected sandstone houses built up against the sidewalks. Pessac is also a large enough suburb that there are several different quarters, each having their own neighborhood feel. We have more space out here - it's greener and more spread out.  Personally, I think we have the best of both worlds.  We live in a quiet neighborhood area with all the benefits of being in the city.

In this post - I will share the required photos along with some additional fun ones hopefully giving everyone a good feel of our little town. The first photo is a little park located in our quarter center.  The playground is relatively new and in the 2 years we have lived here - they have added more pieces to play on. This type of playground is a fairly new concept for France - when we first started visiting about 10 years ago - it was really difficult to find a playground for our young daughters to play on.  Most "Aire de Jeux" or playgrounds consisted of only a small slide and a couple of swings. Unlike in the States, school playgrounds are not accessible to the public. It's nice to see things beginning to change.
Fun place for the kids to play

The full playground - Not huge by American standards - but nice by French.

Transportation in our neighborhood is really up to the individual.  We have public buses that run into the city, to the local shopping center and where ever one needs to go. There is also a wonderful tram system in Bordeaux.  Presently, the tram system only comes out to the most Eastern part of our town, but new lines are under construction to arrive in our quarter by 2015.   Most people out here have at least one car, and more often now, 2 - but for local errands there is definitely a preference to ride bikes or walk.  we sometimes even ride our bikes to school - about 20 minutes.  I love the fact that our public transportation system provides these rental bikes all over the city - One can even take the bikes on the tram system and then return them to any other bike kiosk.

Bikes part of the City wide - rental system

Even the mail is delivered by bicycle in our town.  

One of the public buses that run throughout our town

Scooters are also very popular to get around this area
Typical House

Our houses are not the typical city houses that one sees in urban areas.  Most people out in our suburb have larger yards and the houses sit back behind walls.  The French people like their privacy.  Unlike American neighborhoods, which are open and yards run side by side with often no barriers, French houses are built and then enclosed.  As this area was at one point, "the countryside" and fields were divided up into parcels - often houses sit behind each other with an access driveway running along one  side allowing everyone entrances to their property.  Our house is actually like that - we sit behind another house and then behind us are natural fields where horses run about. It's really nice to watch the horses, practically in our own backyard. Another property trait that is common here is that a family may have owned a large plot of land about 50 years ago and then children or grandchildren built their houses on pieces of that property.
A typical street in our area - Property & houses sitting behind walls

Houses vary in style - it's hard to get a good photo as they sit behind walls, but here's one example.  Some house are 2 floors -others are ranch style.

Another great feature about our neighborhood is that we have our own little shopping area.  This short little street includes all the essentials that one might need.  A small Carrefour market, a fruit/vegetable store, post office, optician, hair salon, dry cleaner, florist, fish market, photo store,wine/liquor store along with a few assorted shops. Just down the street is of course, a pharmacy. Yes, amazingly - everything one needs is here.  Many people walk or ride bikes to this area -or as you can see stop by on the way home from work. 
Everything you need on one little street!

A school or Educational facility -
It's difficult to get a photo of a school or educational facility in France as they are located behind doors and like houses are all protected behind gates. When we drop our kids off at school, the gates are open and only the kids walk in. So far, as a family, we have experienced the Maternelle (Pre-school), Primary School and Middle School here.  The set up of classrooms at the Maternelle and Primary school levels are fairly typical in comparison to American school classrooms.  It is highly dependent on the teacher as to how much decorations or color is displayed on the walls.  The middle school classroom is more basic, as often teachers share classrooms and have office areas, not individual classrooms.

The indoor courtyard of a Primary school.  This was the first day of school - so parents were allowed inside.

This is a newer College & lycee (Middle & High School)-Note the Black & White wall in front - One has to ring a bell to be let inside. 

A Local supermarket
Our small local grocery store - Great for local quick errands.  There are also larger supermarkets located within a 5 minute drive.

We can't forget our local Boulangerie or bread store - we stop here daily!
Often the kids will ride their bikes here to pick up bread.
A few more photos to give everyone a feel of  our area.  We have several parks, all within biking distance.  One of the things I love best about a Sunday afternoon is to head out on a bike ride and just enjoy nature!

Another local park - we love to ride our bike here!

We love our local parks - several to choose from!

This is our town's Mayor's office - located in the same park as the playground!
Many couples get married here on Saturdays!  Beautiful place for photos! - don't you think?

I hope everyone enjoyed my little tour of our neighborhood.  It's a great place to live and as I said in the beginning - I feel like we get the best of both worlds from here.   I certainly do a lot more biking and walking here than i did in the States - for that i am grateful.  My children are also more independent here as they will run errands for bread or go to their local activities - all by bike.  It's definitely a different lifestyle - but in some ways reminds me of how my parent's grew up in the States - where everything was also close by and they walked or rode bikes all over the place!  Thank for taking the tour with me.  Please click the link above or below to enjoy other neighborhoods around the world.  Thank you The Piri-piri Lexicon for organizing this great event!

Show me your neighbourhood around the worldShow me your Neighborhood

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Six Year Old Birthday Party in France

My youngest turns 6.

The tea pot cake

I'm a little behind here in publishing this post.  On October 1st, my youngest daughter turned 6!  Yes, my youngest is a sweet-natured, happy, friendly little lady.  Her personality shines in everything she does!  She's very social - has always been and enjoys coordinating everything!!  I sometimes call her the "mayor" of our family, as she's very logistically oriented.  She thinks about details that are often beyond her years and helps to organize all of us.  She's a very special and spirited girl! (A little aside here, she reminded me each day for a week before her party, that I needed to clean off the dining room table & set up her party...she also checked with me that I had bought balloons, and decorations.)

For her celebration, she wanted a tea party.  So last Saturday we hosted an afternoon of tea, crafts, games and of course, cake!!  Her older sister told her that I had made a teapot cake years ago for her birthday, so of course she wanted one too.  Since moving to France, I have hesitated making fancy cakes, mostly because I didn't know where to find certain special ingredients.  But it's really hard to turn down, that sweet beautiful smile of my youngest, so I went on a mission to find fondant icing, and other decorations to add to her cake.  All I can say is - Thank you - Cultura and Hema stores for providing just what I needed.
All dressed, table set...not it's time to dance and wait for friends to arrive!
So at 2:30 in the afternoon, eight girls arrived for an afternoon tea party.  Apparently, children's tea parties are a different concept for French birthdays.  Yes, there are "Salons du the" or Tea rooms at cafes - and tea seems more popular here than I know it once was - but at this point, it's an adult beverage.  That's okay, I love the fact that we can share new traditions or themes with friends here.   All part of learning about other cultures.

I chose not to go too over the top with high tea and finger foods.  We did set a very nice table, included tea choices, china cups, little cookies, candies and of course, the cake!
Ready for Tea

But before all of that - there were games to play, and crafts to complete.  Unfortunately it was raining this particular afternoon - so all of our games were inside.

Musical chairs...

Indoor musical chairs

When the girls got "out", they got to help choose music.
Always fun to dance to the music

Then there was "hot potato"...with a stuffed rabbit.
Hot Potato game...turned into a giant friend hug!
and finally - the girls had fun gluing mosaic glass beads and tiles onto mini-frames.
Always fun to be creative

I love the free-form and creativity they all showed.

Then it was Tea time.  The girls all sat down and we talked about tea and how it's an important drink to the British.  We also explained that Americans enjoy it too.  We shared that tea time is in the middle of the afternoon (for French kids it's the same time as "gouter" or afternoon snack) and how long time ago, women and girls use to dress up to enjoy a nice conversation and tea among family and friends. It was always a very nice and special time. One of my daughter's friends, told us that she knew that tea was the National drink of England.  They all tried different kinds - mixed reviews - but they all had fun.
Trying tea and waiting for cake

My husband brought the cake out for my youngest and we sang happy birthday in not one, or two but three languages!  First in French, then in English and spontaneously, the girl's sang in Spanish too!  Apparently, it's a bit of a tradition around here for kids to sing to other kids in all three languages!
Love the faces!  So sweet!

And we blow....

She really did blow them all out the first time
...but I put magic candles on the she enjoyed blowing out several times!

Enjoying tea and cake
And of course, after tea, it was time for presents!!

Yes, my sweet wonderful 6 year old enjoyed celebrating her birthday with her friends!

It truly felt like we celebrated her birthday for a couple of weeks.  Since her true birthday was October 1st.  - on that day we enjoyed a small family celebration of a special dessert.

Creme filled Almond paste animals, eclairs and a strawberry macaroon

So excited to blow out candles on her true birthday

She also enjoyed her gift of a house for her barbies!  Yes, that fun age where barbie dolls are cool!  Even her sisters had lots of fun helping her set it up and they all played together!  Love those sister moments!
Thumbs up for her gift - that was after the hugs and kisses!

Joyeux Anniversaire to my beautiful sweet spirited young lady!  She charms everyone with her contagious smile and is always in a great mood!  She's learning to read this year and enjoys school, her friends and dance.  She has just started tennis and is enjoying that too.  My special wish for her this year is that she continues to just be herself - caring, loving and joyful!  Happy 6th birthday - my darling!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sunday in France - Fun with friends & Automne du Bourgailh

Le Bassin Cap du bois


I really enjoy Sunday's here in France.  They are low-key, quiet and very much about family time.  Since for the most part, everything is closed on Sunday - it is really about quality time together.  Hang out with family or friends, go for a walk, a bike ride or just relax.  It's just time to mellow out and unwind. Today was no exception.

We were invited over to a friend's house for lunch.  So nice to get families together.  Turned out to be 3 families who all had kids of similar age.  So while, we adults socialized and snacked - the kids went off and all played together.  Love when this happens!  Our host had gone off to the market this morning and returned with a delicious fare of delicacies to enjoy and try. Ah -French markets - you can find some delicious food.  We dined on smoked salmon, seafood paella and finished with the local specialty of canelles.   It was so delicious and truly relaxing to enjoy a wonderful meal with friends.

As is typical French culture, we talked, ate, and drank for several hours.  Again..this is what Sundays are made of here in France - socializing, relaxing and enjoying time together.  No errands, no running around trying to get things done...just hanging! I Love it!!

We returned back to our house around 5 pm.  We would have stayed longer with our friends and enjoyed a nice walk around the city, but my oldest who is in 5eme (grade 7) still had some homework to finish.  I was feeling so relaxed but it was so sunny and fairly warm out, that I talked my middle daughter into going on a bike ride with me. I figured we would be gone about an hour.  Off we went - heading out on my favorite route - across town and biking to the Site du Bourgailh. - a wonderful park near us that is great for walking and riding bikes.
Taking a break from riding

As we entered the park from the far end, I noticed that there were more people coming out than usual.  But it was a beautiful day!  As we rode further in, we were passed by a horse drawn buggy and noticed even more people strolling.  It turned out there was a festival going on today. - Fete de l'Arbe et de la Nature

Entering into the festival

They say...when in Rome, do what the Romans we got off our bikes and walked slowly through the festival.  It was super!  Lots of booths selling all kinds of natural juices, wines, jams.  Other booths had handmade goods, plants, candles. On one end, there were lots of trees, scrubs and small plants for sale. There was even an old-fashion wooden game area for kids and a giant lawn chess game set up.  Older kids could also be harnessed to scale up a tree and zip line down and of course - there were pony rides.  It's was a wonderful surprise.  We even stopped and enjoyed a snack and bought some fresh pressed Apple juice.
Time to walk the bikes through....

Family game area

More festival booths

It was a great surprise and a fun little break!  I have enjoyed festivals at this park before - they never seem to disappoint - & I think are growing bigger.
Always fun to find a snack

After our lovely little diversion, we headed back enjoy some homemade chili and salad!  As I said at the beginning of this post - I love Sundays!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Education in France - Our experience of choosing schools as expats

Our School in France

Schools - Where do we start?

I can't believe it's already October.  School has begun to settle in for the girls, it's beginning to feel a bit like Fall - although it's been very warm.  Truly - I'm not complaining about the weather - it's actually been beautiful.    This area is so pleasant when the sunshine is out.

I recently read a post from another expat who described how they selected schools for their children when they moved abroad.  It got me thinking about our experiences here in France.  When you are moving to a foreign country - the whole system is different and new.  I still remember the stress and the back and forth we went through as we chose schooling for our girls.  As I have said before - one of the primary reasons that we choose this adventure was to have the girls experience the other half of their heritage and also become bilingual.  Even though my husband is French, my girls really couldn't speak French before we moved here.  Yes, they knew a word or phrase or two...but for the most part - my husband and I did a lot of translating for them, when we would visit the French relatives.

Now  Bordeaux,  France like other places around the world, has several different schooling choices, there are international schools, private catholic schools and public schools.  Initially, my thoughts were like any other protective parent.  My girls didn't speak French, so I checked into the International school, which was advertised as bilingual with a strong emphasis on English.  (Now our situation was a bit different than other expats - as my husband is directly employed by a French company here - so. our education/schooling costs were not covered -as they are in many expat packages).  Looking at the tuition and the fact that we were reducing ourselves to one income this particular school was not a realistic option financially. So that option was out.  As we cut this option out early on due to financial reasons, I didn't look too much more into their programs - other than I knew they were bilingual in design.

A friend of mine in the States pointed out that immersion is an excellent way to learn a language and my children were certainly young enough to benefit from directly starting in French schools.  (At the time we moved here - My girls were entering Grade 5/CM2, Grade 2/CE1 & in Pre-K/Moyen Section).  She also reminded me that we were lucky as my husband was a native speaker.  As I pondered these thoughts, it made a lot of sense, what better way to help my kids become bilingual.  I figured we could also hire a tutor, if we needed to for my older daughters.

As my husband & I talked about possible immersion options - we were concerned especially about my oldest.  How far behind would she be?  Would she be able to catch up?  Would she be able to successfully complete the 5th grade curriculum?  Would they allow her into the grade level she's suppose to be in, even though she didn't speak the language?  Would she have to repeat the grade if she doesn't meet the expected standards?  Like most parents, we wanted to set our girls up to succeed, but at the same time, it was very important to us for them to learn French.  My husband's schooling experience in France was that the system was rigid, strict and non-forgiving.  From his memories, it was not as relationship-oriented or the positive confidence building one as the American education system.  He was very concerned about how our children would feel and would the teachers be understanding, as our girls had a different background than traditional French students.

We started leaning toward immersing them right into French public schools.  I had to imagine we were not the first or last family to ask this of French schools.  We figured we would speak to the schools and hire a tutor to help our oldest girls.  I think we were feeling pretty good about this decision - I kept telling myself that the girls were still young - and  they could do this.  It wouldn't necessarily be easy, but I had faith that we could get through this with the right support.

Then we met with the relocation specialist who was helping us find housing.  Obviously, one of the biggest questions about housing was where were we going to send our girls to school.  This decision would guide her about where to look at houses.  We confidently answered that we would place them in public French schools.  This answer was met with hesitation and then the BIG question - Do they speak French?  When we answered - a firm "No", she came back with her concerns and fears of placing a foreign child into the public French system.  Yes, they were the same concerns we had....They would be lost, they wouldn't understand, it would be really hard.  My French family had also voiced these same concerns a few days earlier.  We knew them well.  The fear of failure, the fear of being uncomfortable, the fear of being lost....

We explained that the International school was not an option for financial reasons.  She understood that, but suggested a private Catholic school that had what they called "International" sections.  These schools were use to educating foreign students in addition to their majority French population.  The curriculum was French, but as children got older, there would also be an "advanced" English section and even certain subjects could be taught in English.  When we asked about cost, she explained that tuition for private catholic schools is relatively small compared to other private schools.  The tuition cost is about $1,000/year.  However, an additional cost  would be lunch and since these schools are not public, they don't get National or Federal assistance - so that would increase the cost.  We could always opt for the girls to eat at home.  This sounded like a great compromise.  My main question (coming from a raised Protestant) was how "Catholic" were these schools?  I'm all for learning about religion, understanding it's history and significance - but didn't want the Catholic doctrine pushed onto my girls as the only option.  We were told that even though these school were founded and supported by the church, the religious component has become optional.  The students only took a religion class if they wanted do.  This was fine for me.  So, we had a French school, the girls would be immersed but have the understanding and support of teachers who were more comfortable working with non-French speaking students & it was affordable.  Sounded like a good option to me.

So we began looking at housing with a particular school in mind but also be close to my husband's work. However, this was the beginning of August.  One of the facts about French life is that many businesses and stores close during August for summer holidays.  This school was no exception.  They wouldn't be opening until the end of August.  So we wouldn't be able to visit the school, speak to anyone or even know if there was space for my daughters until then.  We got our housing figured out, returned to the States and waited.  The relocation specialist, our French family and us were pretty relieved to have made this decision - it seemed like the best of both worlds.  I could sleep at night!

The end of August rolled around, we called the school the day it re-opened and were met with the Bad news...No, they were full!.  We couldn't even talk to anyone, they were full.  Yes, we were welcome later on in the year to apply for the following year, but at this point, there was no room for this year.  Okay, there went the the perfect plan, the compromise and all the fears came swirling back....our option now...public French school.

Now, I'm a believer that things happen for a reason - events take sudden turns but in the end, things will eventually work out.  So when my husband arrived in France at the end of September, he headed off to the Town's Mayor's office to register the kids for school.  We were assigned the closest Primary and Pre-school to us (They luckily had space, as if they didn't you might get assigned another school in the town). My husband was to meet directly with the directors of the schools and finish the enrollment process.

I have to say, this is where we got super lucky.  The director of the Elementary school herself was bilingual and she understood our predicament.  She reassured my husband that the girls would be fine, the teachers would ease them into French work.  They had had a few other foreign students in the past, and by the end of the first year, these kids were fluent in French - my 2 older girls were at a good age to learn.  She even gave my husband a name of a tutor who could help our girls.  At the Pre-school/Maternelle, my husband had the same experience, a welcoming environment and an understanding of our situation.  Here, too, the Pre-K/Moyen Section teacher was also bilingual, so could understand my daughter's English.  (Which my youngest daughter continued to use for the next 3-4 months)
Sample homework assignment in CP/1st grade - Sept.

So, in the end, our girls starting off in French public schools turned out to be a great experience.  This is not to say that first year was not without it's ups and downs.  It was definitely an adjustment.  Days of headaches, being overwhelmed, stomach aches, tears and frustration of not understanding.  My youngest daughter took about 4 months to speak in French.  We met all of these challenges head on but with the belief that the girls would be fine.
Fun Carnival at the Maternelle

Every one's experience is different and I do feel we got extremely lucky with our public schools near us for that first year.  Presently, my 2 younger daughters still attend that same primary school and we continue to be impressed and happy.  My oldest daughter, who just began  5eme or 7th grade has probably had the toughest time adjusting and catching up.  As she was in CM2/5th grade when we moved here, after that first year, she transitioned to college/middle school.  Unfortunately, that public school was not a good academic experience for her or us and last year, in the middle of her year, we transferred her to another college.  That whole story is another post to write and maybe I'll write it someday.  She is presently attending that very same Private Catholic school that we had first heard about and we are content once again.

A couple ending reflections - I think just like in the States there are always teachers that are extremely good at what they do.  There are also teachers who are not the best.  My impressions of a classroom here in France is that overall they are a lot quieter than in the States.  Yes, there is interaction between the teacher and the whole class.  This depending on the teacher's personality can be more animated, funny or fairly dry.  But when the kids are asked to complete assignments, it is done in silence.  It's taken seriously and kids are expected to sit and work quietly.  The whole atmosphere is a lot quieter than an American classroom.  Very simply - there is a time and place to do things.  Classroom equals school work - recess and lunch equals time to chat and talk with your friends.  The elementary teachers here teach everything - regular curriculum, art, music,and PE.  There are assistants who supervise lunch and recesses, but the rest falls on the teacher.

With all that said, I will stop here - this post is already long enough.  Just wanted to share our experiences and especially that early part of moving here and choosing our schools.  Any feedback, comments or questions are always welcome - would love to hear about other families' experiences.

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