I first moved to another country at the age of 11, but of course, the story starts a long time before then; even before I existed. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s in my blood.
My father was born in America, and moved to the UK with his parents when he was 11. My grandpa, being American, is descended from Danish and Irish settlers. My family can hardly stay in one place for a generation.
My parents have always loved France. They went to Brittany on their honeymoon, and my dad searched for jobs in France even then. They had some french friends who helped them reply to ads and use a minitel to find job offers.
Unfortunately, nothing came of these attempts. They continued to live in the UK, and my dad began working in aerospace.
When I was 7 and my sister was around 4, our parents first broke it to us: did we want to move to France?
We had been on holiday to France before, and they promised us a house with a pool in the sunny south of France. As a child, this just sounds like holidays will last forever, so of course we agreed. We put our house up for sale, and began learning as much french as we could, even watching TV5 monde (a Swiss TV channel) and Le plus grand cabaret du monde to immerse ourselves. I was top of my class in French and even got to go on a school trip to France for a week.
Even with all that, the French you are taught in school or in courses is rarely enough to actually get by on a day to day basis, or convey anything useful beyond reserving a hotel room.
Making the move
All in all, it took 6 years to sell our house. I was in my last year of primary school and for a good while did not know whether I’d be attending secondary school in the UK or France.
At almost the same time as the house was sold, my dad was made redundant. The pieces fell perfectly into place, and with the money from the house and severance package, we bought a campervan. We moved in with my maternal grandparents for a while, and my sister and I were officially homeschooled. We spent that summer doing a Tour de England in the campervan, so my sister and I would see as much of the UK as possible before we moved for good. We went as far north as York, and while there met a girl from Newcastle who had never been further south than York, which I found so funny as a child. Other notable stops included Bakewell and the tarts, Banbury cross and the Kraft factory that smelled SO bad, and Bath – the roman baths and the American museum.
Finally, we visited all of our relatives one last time before getting on the Eurostar train and bidding good-bye to the UK – forever.
I am the only member of my family that has returned to the UK at all since the 5th of September 2006 (for a school trip). I remember the last day in the UK very vividly, as we stopped in a corner shop in Folkestone, and the news of Steve Irwin’s death was the front page of all the newspapers.
We then began zig-zagging down France in the campervan, seeing most of the west coast. Did I mention that we had two cats and all of our worldly belongings with us the entire time?
Some of the more interesting events included a thunderstorm so bad the van was shaking and my mum and I got into bed with my sister while my dad slept through the whole thing, a very explosive bottle of cider and a farmer who let us stay on his farm bringing us a box of eggs in the morning.
Contrary to when they were job hunting on their honeymoon, my parents now knew that we would be heading towards Toulouse and not Brittany. Not only is the weather much better, but Toulouse is the hub of all things aerospace, hosting the likes of Airbus, CNES and Thales.
We then rented a gîte east of Castelnaudary in the tiniest, spookiest, emptiest village I had ever seen. We lived across from the graveyard of all places, and generally did not have a good time here. It was infested with house centipedes and a mysterious creature with two very long legs that lived in a hole in the wall. There were no shops or services in this village (that we ever saw open) aside from a medieval church on a hill that rang a bell on the hour, and for mass. We never saw another living soul there – but the graveyard, and subsequently our gîte, suffered a fair amount of paranormal activity.
We rented a car and we would drive (nearly two hours) to Toulouse almost every day to take my dad to job interviews and to scope out the regions around Toulouse – we concluded that we did not want to live that far east.
My parents would reach Toulouse, and then pick a more or less random direction, and drive about an hour away (an acceptable commute time). We would then explore the towns and villages we ended up in and saw if they suited us or not.
This is how we found our spot. One day we drove out west, to the region of Gers. We went through the town of l’Isle Jourdain and weren’t impressed. We decided to continue on for another 20 minutes or so, and came upon the town of Samatan.
As soon as we arrived, we were struck with just how lovely and welcoming it felt. All the amenities could be found in the town centre, as well as the town’s signature fountain. I distinctly remember my mum wondering aloud whether there was a school there, and I read the black and gold “École Yves Chaze” sign and pointed it out. It was at this point that we knew this was where we belonged.
Starting new school
Although that school was a primary school, and I was supposed to be starting secondary school, both my sister and I went there, and were both held back a year in order to learn French and be immersed in the school system before having to buckle down for secondary school and exams. I soon found out that there was also a middle school there which we both went on to attend.
When we first met the headmaster to sign my sister and I into school, he feigned an inability to speak any English, and so my parents struggled to explain the situation with the help of a pocket dictionary. When I arrived for my first day of school, he conversed with my mother in near perfect English. None of us have forgiven him for that to this day.
Being held back worked out for the best in the end, even if my self-esteem suffered a blow. It didn’t help that I had grown like a tree during our travels and already stood a head taller than everyone else (although I’ll admit that French people – especially girls – are generally small, the word “petite” is French with good reason), and that puberty hit me about a year before anyone else. Oh, and I cut my hair far too short when we first arrived and looked like I was trying to bring back disco. These factors coupled with the French level of a three year old, did not help my street cred.
This experience at least cemented my affinity for maths and science, as they were the only subjects that were largely unaffected by language, setting me up for where I am today.
I should add, there was another anglophone in my class, who I was sat next to so that he could help me. He was Scottish, with a heavy Glaswegian accent that I still have trouble understanding, and rarely paid enough attention in class to help me follow.
By the time I started middle school I had enough French to get by and do assignments reasonably well. It also meant that I began middle school with another English girl whose French was worse than mine, allowing me to help her.
We rented a house a little way out of town at first, and brought our belongings over from the UK. This house was next to a riding stables which, as a part time horse girl, I loved; though we never went riding there.
A few years later, we moved into my parents’ forever home. A beautiful stone house with an amazing garden, a walking distance from town.
Now, 13 years later, my French is perfect, aside from a light English accent. Foie gras, magret de canard and floc de Gascogne are just part of my diet and in 2018 my family and I became French citizens.
I went through French school, passing my Brevet and my Bac (S-SI), and even stayed in France for university – contrary to a lot of British expats at the time – graduating with a DUT in computer science then a Diplôme d’ingénieur in robotics.
Samatan has been very good to us over the years, and we have repaid it. My mum is now a member of the town council, focused especially on implementing eco-friendly solutions to things around town.
My mother, sister and myself also represented our town in regional archery competitions, and became very familiar with the major towns of our region, most of them being over an hour away.
We also participated as volunteers in various festivals: the annual foie gras festival “Gasconha’Table”, the African festival Sam’Africa, as well as helping to tidy up and animate the annual Promenade aux flambeaux (a midnight walk to or from the neighbouring town by torchlight. I was a teenager when I helped with the preparations and was entrusted to launch fireworks by myself).
We still don’t have a pool though.