Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Monday, September 8, 2008

Our New Home

After an incredible 11-week journey we arrived in Fréjus on Sat. August 30, our home for the next 10 months. By incredible, I mean: challenging, fun, new, old, joyful, maddening, alien, familiar, refreshing, exhausting, spontaneous, planned, difficult, relaxed, educational, inspirational, chaotic, unbelievable and emotional. How can one plan so thoroughly for such a year and have so many unexpected occurrences? Should I be relieved or freaked out that life can still be so full of surprises? I am thankful I had the foresight to set up this blog to document our travels and travails, but as much as it does that, how much went unshared and will be lost to the sands of time? How much will stick like glue to my brain cells that won’t be forgotten, even if I want them to be? Does Lisa feel the same way? At least she, as a participating adult had a choice in this momentous year, but what about Irie? It has been a roller coaster ride of a summer for her - from the highs of playing with cousins, traveling across two continents and an ocean, visiting Mont St. Michel and climbing the Eiffel Tower to the lows of saying we are wrecking her life, she doesn’t want to be here, fits on the streets of Paris, and her first day of school. Will she, as I believe, adjust and remember the incredible joy and experiences of the adventure we took her on? After Day One of her first day in a French Public School, I can only hope so...but more on that later.

Our arrival, after an 8-hour drive from Alsace was late enough in the day that all we wanted was to get the van unloaded and to start to acquaint ourselves with our new home. We found rue André Lazès easily, could tell from the pictures online that we were at the correct apartment complex, and the clicker given to us by the Chantriers opened the gate. It’s sunny and hot and Maggie needs out right away and we immediately find the big grassy courtyard where another dog is roaming off leash. Great, this will be a regular haunt for Maggie. But where the hell is our apartment? Our apartment inspection papers say B1, yet there is no such building. We are tired, hungry, hot, and feel like we still have a ton to do, but here we are wandering around a strange apt. complex with no idea where we belong. Somehow (systematically trying out keys, building to building and peering at names on mailboxes) we finally figure it out, and the first order of business is to open up all the shutters and doors and get some air flowing. Actually the first order of business was to figure out how to open all the shutters and doors. Did I say it was hot? It’s almost September and summer has finally arrived for us! Meanwhile, all those bags we’ve been lugging from Oregon to Michigan to Baltimore to NY onto the QM2, to England, to Granville to Paris to Merxheim and finally to Fréjus need unloading one last time.

We are all excited, but do not have time to revel in our “permanent” surroundings. It is Saturday night and the rental van is due back at 9 am on Sunday morning. We have learned enough about France by now to realize that supermarkets are not open on Sunday and most gas stations need a European credit card (which we still do not have - another long story) on Sunday when no attendants are working, so off we go on more errands. Lucky dog gets to stay home. After a 30-minute adventure getting the tank filled, we sight a Picard store which carries all kinds of delightful frozen foods (from frozen veggies to ice cream to meat to prepared entrees) and get there 5 minutes before closing time. Serendipity, a stroke of good luck, so we skip the grocery store and head home, frozen lasagna for dinner! The freezer is packed to the point of bursting and the fridge is empty but who cares, let’s put the lasagna in the oven and take a quick walk down to the beach! It is a Saturday night, and the beachfront boulevard is hopping. With only two days until La Rentrée we wonder how quickly that will change. Since it’s almost dark we don’t dress to swim, but the sand feels fine and the water is warm on our feet. Here we are - the south of France! The Mediterranean! Can you believe it, we’re here! On the the way home, we walk past the supermarket and a sign says they are open on Sunday mornings...another stroke of good luck. Home for lasagna and unpacking suitcases, we go to bed late, tired, but pretty damn satisfied.

In the morning, it’s off to return the van in neighboring St. Raphaël. We figure it’s early in the morning so let’s drive right along the beach and enjoy the view, only to find the boulevard closed for a market. A massive market. After returning the van we take a walk out on St. Raphaël’s pier/park which extends like a thumb into the bay and gives us a great view out to a small group of islands as well as back towards Fréjus plage (see pics). The beachfront boulevard which connects St. Raphaël to Fréjus plage is closed to traffic and packed with booths of arts and crafts, clothing and food. Fresh fruits and veggies - yeah, another score! Having filled three bags Lisa and Irie head home while I head to the still-open supermarket to complete our food needs for awhile.

The apartment is cute and quaint, and full of stuff. The owners are world travelers and the decor is emblematic of their adventures. The walls are full of eclectic paintings and weavings of various styles and from various locales. Unique chandelier-type lights hang from the ceilings in each room. Big consoles and little end tables are everywhere and loaded with keepsakes and knick-knacks, almost all of the breakable variety. With a dog and Irie (of the world class “set-ups”, ie. arranging small items in imaginary motifs) we are hoping we can store these away. Not only do we not want such precious items to get broken, but we need the space for living. The veranda has a nice view of the plush courtyard and has an automated awning that extends so the sun doesn’t beat directly into the apt. in the afternoon. With all the doors open to the veranda the apt. stays airy and comfortable and so far we have eaten all our meals out there. Also, there is a Pleyel upright piano which Irie has already taken to playing quite a bit - piano lessons are in her future. Discovering the kitchen and it’s supplies is the next big task, but overall we are very happy with our new home and the location is ideal. The beach is 3 short blocks away, the grocery store two blocks away, and Irie’s school is right across the street. First days in Fréjus photo gallery

That brings us to the last and most important issue, Irie and her acclimating into a new school. Not only is she “the new kid” but she doesn’t even speak their language. She has been nervous and anxious about it all summer, which I’m certain is why she has been acting out so much. Doesn’t everyone get irritable and grumpy when scared? On Monday, we went downtown to the busy central office to register her for school. School goes from 8:30 - 11:30 and 1:30 - 4:30 M, T, Th, and Fr, no school on Weds. with a two-hour lunch. We tried to sign her up for lunches figuring this will be her chance to socialize, make friends, and learn french informally, but we could only get Fridays. They said to check back mid-Oct. for more days. While walking to the beach on Sunday, we read the notices at the school so knew that she needed to be there at 8:20 am on Tuesday and that all the new students needed to wait at a separate entrance to be admitted in after the other students.

Upon approaching, it was clearly the first day of school with kids and parents filtering in from every direction. It is so nice to walk and not be in the driving chaos that we know at Walker School. We went to the entrance that had less kids and Lisa surveyed the different moms deciding who to ask if we were in the right place. The woman she picked was a dream come true for Irie as both moms realized they were Americans and Irie immediately had an English-speaking playmate, Abigail. This was a huge surprise as we had been warned that Irie would probably be the lone English speaker and we thought it set the tone for a successful first day at school. Abigail is a year older, but the Director put them in the same class only asking that they not sit together as learning French needed to be a priority. (Abigail and her mom, Michelle, are from Atlanta). We obviously agreed, though the girls didn’t necessarily like it. The teacher introduced herself, tried to assure us that they would learn quickly, and off we went leaving two wide-eyed girls alone in a foreign environment in their new classroom. We picked her up at 11:30 and took her out to lunch, as promised. We had a very nice lunch at a beachside restaurant, but Irie was having some difficulty. She felt isolated by the language difference and two boys had teased her and Abigail during recess (“Americains, Americains”). We explained that that wasn’t really an insult and the best response would be “Oui, et bien?” (Yeah, so?) Little girls came up and said “friends?” and some wanted to learn English from Irie and Abigail. But Irie freezes at positive as well as negative interactions. She was still trepidacious upon returning after lunch but knowing Abigail would be there made a big difference.

Arriving at 4:30 for pick-up we laughed at the crazy manner in which parents were crowding the entrance/exit area looking eagerly for their kid(s). In Ashland, parents wait out in the playground, outside the classroom in the hall, or even go IN the classroom to get their children. Here, parents are specifically asked not to go onto the school grounds so the exit scene was chaotic and full as each classroom filed out onto the sidewalk. Irie’s class was near the end, I saw her teacher, Abigail appeared...but no Irie. Lisa squeezed through the mass of parents, through the gate and approached the teacher, who immediately recognized her from the morning and invited discussion about what was going on with Irie. Seconds later Irie came down the stairs, clearly upset and promptly tripped over another girl. That fall was the opening needed for the floodgates of tears about her day. Ten minutes before the end of the day the teachers made a decision that this level was too difficult for her. Essentially we had stuck her into 4th grade in a foreign language. The teacher was very kind, worked with her all day, but said she didn’t have the math skills she needed to be in this level. Irie felt humiliated and more alone than ever. She complained the new class looked like kindergarten (but only had seen the kids for a few minutes and they were all seated). Her new teacher, M. Fedoul was also kind. Between the first teacher and the second they explained that she was too overwhelmed and needed to be in the lower level (which equates to a 2nd/3rd grade mix). They both seemed genuinely interested in her well-being. M. Fedoul is youthful, energetic and was wearing flipflops. He speaks some English and isn’t intimidated about using it, and wants Irie to help him improve. He wants her to talk to the class about Oregon when they return on Thursday. She cried and cried, it was the worst day of her life.

Our hearts ached but we stayed upbeat and positive, telling her how proud we were of her, reminding her what her Spanish speaking friends successfully faced back in Ashland, and telling her stories of when we felt embarrassed and incompetent. Luckily, with school starting on Tues., we had the next day off which we hoped would allow Irie time to settle down and adjust. Instead, she spent all of Weds. worrying and fretting, and saying she didn’t want to go back to school. As a teacher and a psychiatrist we were trying all the tricks of the trade, but our têtu daughter was buying none of it. While watching Irie suffer so badly was heartbreaking, we also made it clear that she was not giving up that easily and would be going to school come Thurs. morning. Some of the key points we made were that she is a smart, capable girl and that we are not concerned with grades, math (a key point of concern to her for some reason) or any subject. except for learning French; that she knows how to enjoy life, so she needed to figure out a way to look at the positive parts of the experience; and that there were plenty of nice people everywhere, including here, which means there are friends waiting to be made. Thurs. morning we dropped her off at the front gate and she went in with an anxious attitude, while we felt terrible. She came out at lunch holding hands with a little French girl (but didn’t even know her name) and said the morning was ok.

I took her home to make her favorite french meal...crêpes. I make the batter from scratch and we usually each have a main course crêpe of cheese, mushrooms and spinach, and then share a dessert crêpe of sliced bananas, nutella and honey. With a two-hour lunch, she actually seemed bored and ready to go back to school. I am now finishing this post on the weekend and she made it through Thurs. and Fri. (including staying for lunch on Fri.) with each day getting better. She came out Thurs. afternoon holding another girl’s hand and learned that the first girl’s name was Tia. She actually admitted her favorite part of her meal at lunch on Friday was salad! She also had fish with a little mussel on top. She seems to be settling in to the routine, part of which includes going to the beach everyday after school, and has done her homework (writing cursive in French) for tomorrow. This has been an incredibly emotional experience for us all but we are very proud of our brave girl and hope someday she will actually appreciate this experience. As my friend (and french teacher) M. McKinney says, “she’ll thank you when she’s 25.”


Bren said...

I know everything will work out and Peeps will get into the entire French school experience but can't help but tear-up hearing about her ordeal. I love you all and please don't give up on my e-mail. (did you try home and work?) Mom

And huge hugs to Peeps from Nana and Papa.

M. McKinney said...

Wow. Congrats on your arrival "home" and getting into the actual routine of daily life in France! I had a feeling that getting Irie integrated into school would be the hardest part of your trip, but it sounds like the worst part is (hopefully) over.

Katie, Gemsy and Brandt all say hello! I'm going to be recommending students to your blog soon (they're blocked from blogs on school computers)if OK!


Anne & Stewart said...

Rick,Lisa and Irie!
It has taken me some time to catch up with you but Ted Mularz gave me the link today and we love it!
On Sunday we are having the Quail Haven Summer neighborhood picnic and we will miss you all! Keep up the good work!

Anne/Stewart said...

I think I did it!

Rick said...

Bonjour Family and Friends! Thanks for the comments all. M. McKinney, blog should be student-friendly :) Say hi back to the kids. Brenda, thanks for the good thoughts! Anne and Stewart, nice to hear from you too, say hi to all the Neighbors.

Our landlady, Christine, was here the last two days, lots of busyness between inventory, rental agreements, repairs, shopping, and still trying to get services at the apt. Christine is so friendly and helpful and tolerates my english-mixed-with-french-words when possible. She was a godsend with France Telecom so hopefully we'll have services soon.

My Mom and Dad are somewhere in Europe right now and expected here on Oct. 5, I believe. If you're out there, give us a shout!

Lin said...

Yeah for Irie!!
What a brave, brave girl.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that by now Irie is doing much better. I hope all goes well with her presentation on Oregon.

That is quite a selection of Belgian beer that Rick has acquired. He just needs some frites and mayonaisse to make his tasting complete.

The photos of Frejus are wonderful. I'm looking forward to getting there in the spring. Jan's trying to convince me to bring the girls. It could be quite fun for them as well.


DanaM said...

Our thoughts are with you all and especially Irie as she uses her courage, determination and patience in adapting to her new school life. She is a trooper and so full of love and compassion. It has probably already happened but those other children will cling to her because of her independence, strong will and friendly composure. Love to you all. Merv has a client who is on the cusp of moving back to Paris. I see a possibility of some sort of trip in our future! I will keep my fingers crossed. Continued best wishes to you all and a squeeze from Jenna and a high five from Jack to Irie Brown!

rekrapt said...

Whew! With an 11 year old and a 5 year old facing the prospect of starting school in Lyon next year, this post made me cringe!