Can you believe it’s been FIVE years since we packed our 14 pieces of luggage and took our one-way flight to Paris, France?! I truly thought we would only be abroad for 14 months, max. Funny how life throws us for a loop but we are still pinching ourselves have made a life in this magical city.
Five years ago, Liv was only 7 years old and now she is as tall as us at 12!
I must say, there are things that we still aren’t completely used to yet. There has been major greves (strikes) throughout the city due to President Macron pushing the age limit for retirement up from 62 to 64. Millions of people have protested and this coming Tuesday is supposed to be a 100% strike which we haven’t experienced yet. We are stocking up since almost all businesses are going to be closed. I will say, I commend the French people for coming together in solidarity for causes they believe in. I wish Americans would protest in the millions against the insane gun violence happening there. That is one of our biggest reliefs about leaving the States. Our daughter doesn’t have that kind of threat/trauma to endure. Her school is already extremely secure, the way they build buildings here, it feels like a fortress. There are only two entrance and exits and they will not allow anyone in without being vetted first. When I go to pick Olivia up from school early, I have to wait outside the building and a supervisor brings her out. The campus is strictly off-limits without an appointment. The layout of schools in Paris often don’t have outside spaces that is facing the public street as a safety measure. Most of Paris has armed soldiers that patrol the streets. Someone messaged me on Instagram recently asking what the school life is like for us so I’m going to give you a run-down of our middler schooler experience in Paris.
School Life & Curriculum
Her school is a combination of middle school (6th grade – 8th grade) which is called college and high school. The middle school kids pretty much have their own entrance and section of the school. They have their own cafeteria, and they don’t interact with the older kids. The high school kids go to le lycée (the larger portion of the campus) and for no reason other than to confuse me, they begin to count down after 6th grade. So Liv is a 7th grader in the US but here she’s in 5eme. The French count down each school year; La quatrième (4eme), Troisième (3ème), Seconde (2nde), Première (1ère). The senior year is called Terminale/Tle. There isn’t a large amount of standardized testing in France. The students do take an exam at the end of middle school called le brevet. High school students prepare for their diploma by taking an exam called Baccalauréat général (often called Le Bac). School is only compulsory until age 16, students can choose to take a CAP or Baccalauréat technologique course. All Students are enrolled in school based on the year they are born and not how old they are in September. This means most of the kids are the same age in their class. Schools are assigned based on where you live just like in the US. We requested a special exception to enroll Liv in her elementary school because we didn’t have our lease for our apartment when we first moved here and I had to put up a major fight to get her into the school we wanted. We always assumed she would go to the high school next door to her elementary school but because of where we live she was assigned another school that we were not too impressed with but only around the corner from our apartment. Liv is enrolled in a special English program called Section International (SI). This is her second year in the SI program and her class is the first one at her school. There are other schools in Paris with SI programs but they are pretty far from our house. If you meet the English criteria for the program, you have to request an exception to attend that school with the school district. There are only 21 students in her class and they must pass a written and oral English exam to participate. This is so important to us because Liv attended a French/English curriculum in Los Angeles so we feel relieved she can maintain her English in a smaller class size. For her first year in the SI program, there were some huge stumbling blocks because the program was just being established and they didn’t have a full-time English teacher available. This meant Liv spent a couple of hours per week in an English class for French speakers. I thought she could take advantage of an easy class however, her teacher wouldn’t allow the English speaking kids to work on other projects during that time and she wasn’t a native English-speaking teacher so she would make many grammatical and oral mistakes. Needless to say, this year there is a full-time English teacher (from Britian!) and they have Geography/History class in English as well. Liv’s schedule is pretty tight. Most days of the week she starts a little after 8am, then there’s some days she starts after 9am. She has a longer day than the non-SI students because of the extra English class so she doesn’t get out of school until almost 6pm! Don’t feel too bad for her, on Wednesdays they get out early and everyday she gets a 90 minute lunch with 5 course meals. The school year begins the first week of September and ends the first week of July. This sounds like a long school year but they get two weeks of vacation nearly every six weeks. So she ends up with 56 days off of school not including summer break. When I asked Liv what is she excited about most this year, she said she got a locker inside the building the 9th grader kids use. Most of the middle school kids have lockers outside but because many of them are damaged, Liv requested one inside so now she has a cool locker she shares with her best friends. I told her she should decorate it and now all the kids want to decorate theirs. Yeah, I may not be able to help my kid with her French homework but I can make sure she has the most American Gilmore Girls aesthetic locker at the school… I’m nailing this parenting thing!
Teachers and Grading
One of the things we gained from the pandemic is France finally shifting to digital communication and access to Liv’s assignments online. Prior to this all school communication was handled through a notebook called a Cahier des Coorespondance which was frustrating to use. The school now has an app for the students and one for the parents. We log-in and can see her daily schedule, which is a life-saver because we can see in advance if her teachers will be absent. They also upload her grades from her tests directly to the app and we can send messages to her teachers. There is no traditional A – F grading system in France. Here, it’s best out of 20. It blew my mind that getting a 20 grade is nearly impossible but after 2 years in this new school, I see that the teachers are not giving up anything higher than an 18 easily. Liv has 70% of her classes in French and those are a bit challenging for her because French is not her native language and she sometimes gets lost in the context. There isn’t much of an incentive for the students to do well academically. The teachers have openly mocked and make fun of the students not necessarily out of meanness, it’s just culturally accepted here. There’s no Dean’s List, no awards or certificates for excellence. Students can graduate with an honor called une mention (honors of the jury) but those are often for students applying to Ivy League schools. The school’s concept of academia is pretty much, you are either doing well or you are an absolute moron, there’s no in-between! Liv tells us so many horror stories of teachers bullying the students but it’s remarkable how academically mature these kids are. They are really happy to be nerdy, they read 1000% more than they watch TV. In Olivia’s experience her teachers (professeurs) are commonly strict, they speak at a speed that can be difficult to keep up with and they are (for lack of a better word) eccentric. They believe that students should be seen not heard. They believe in collective punishment (to Liv’s detriment) and there is a system called Croix. Croix (crosses) are what we called strikes, if you get 3, you automatically get detention. During Liv’s 2 years in middle school she has been the only student in her class to not get detention thus far and she is determined to keep it that way. She has seen The Breakfast Club so she is always curiously asking me what is American detention like. She came close to getting detention once because her teacher mistakenly marked her as late for class once but she was able to get it removed. However, she loves her two English and her PE teachers. It’s pretty much night and day for her in those classes. We agree it’s mostly because the English teachers are from England and her sports teacher is much younger than her other teachers.
Even though the school has an indoor gym, and has tons of outside space, her class gets to take a charter bus to a nearby park for their physical education class. The first month of this class they played ultimate Frisbee! I used to pick up Liv from school on her ballet days so I have met most of her classmates. It’s sublime that we can finally speak to her friends and their parents in English! We are included in a parents group chat on Whats App and we are in the process of creating a Parents Association similar to what the other schools in Paris with an English section have. I don’t volunteer at her current school at all, which is mostly due to the campus being restricted and there isn’t many activities that are open for the parents to participate in. Every now and then they have ceremonies for war holidays and the student choir will sing, or they have a class movie night. The last movie Liv attended was by one of my favorite French directors, Michel Gondry. The film was Be Kind, Rewind which is super cute! The funny thing about parenting an American child at a French school is, we don’t really have a clue of what’s going on half the time. The school app has been helpful, but it is in French (we use Google translate) and we are learning all this as we go. When we encounter an issue, I reach out to my expat friends or google as much as possible. So far, I have found great advice and support in our parent group chat. Liv’s class trip to London has been postponed until next year due to the retirement strikes so this year her class is taking a 3 day trip to Normandy. She is looking forward to returning to the Caen Memorial museum since our visit in 2020 was rushed because we arrived 45 minutes before they closed.
Most of the kids in her class participate in after-school activities that take place at the school. There is basketball, violin, guitar, dancing, chess, fencing and many others. It blows my mind that the school offers FREE extra-curricular activities because we used to pay a pretty penny in LA. We do pay for Liv’s ballet classes but it’s through the city and the rate is based on our tax bracket. The cost of her ballet is miniscule compared to the tuition and random fees we used to pay in LA. So twice a week Liv goes to ballet after school. Some days she only has an hour to come home, have a snack, change into her ballet clothes and put her hair in a bun (never an easy feat) and get to class in time. Somehow we manage but we love Wednesday afternoons because she’s home from school early. We usually have a long lunch together, she can take her time getting ready and she can chill before going to class in the evening. This schedule is not typical for other French kids, they get out at 4:30. There’s a girl in Liv’s class who does horseback riding and tennis outside of Paris. Many of the girls in Liv’s class tried to recruit her on the basketball team but she’s not interested at all. We tried for weeks to find a volleyball team but the ones for her age group were too far from us and didn’t fit her schedule. We’ve grown accostumed to Liv coming home during the day for lunch due to the frequency of her teachers striking or being absent. They don’t have an English substitute teacher and if another teacher is absent the class usually is sent to study hall. She is always happy when she can leave school before dark. I was pretty surprised to find out the kids don’t have any formal soccer teams. They also don’t have any typical American high school sports teams or clubs. As I mentioned before, they do have a basketball team, but they really just mess around, they don’t play against other schools or even have games with an audience. There’s no football team, no cheerleaders, no band, no glee club, nothing you would see in a John Hughes movie. The sad thing for me is Liv missing out on yearbook and not going to dances. This year the students begin their third language and Liv chose Japanese. She said the class is harder than she anticipated but she is enthusiastic to learn. Other languages offered at her school is English (for the French kids), Spanish, Arab, and Latin. They do have art and technology classes and choir during school. The school does occasionally put on an art gallery show for the older students. The parents of the Sectional International kids were invited last year because the seniors wanted to practice their English skills with us. It was so bizarre seeing these students compared to how we see students in the US. These kids were extremely serious and most of the ones we spoke with were very focused on what they wanted to do once they graduated. They don’t have any graduation ceremonies nor a prom 🙁 Liv says only recently the older students have started a formal ball but it was cancelled for the last two years due to Covid. Sometimes, I get a little sad that Liv will miss out on so many social activities when I see her old classmates in Los Angeles going to their first dance. I told Liv she needs to start banding her SI class together to have a prom by the time they graduate. She is more interested in having a Grad Night at Disneyland Paris since I told her about mine at Disneyland in California. Liv spends the rest of her free time going on dates with her friends, working on her Twitch channel and watching her favorite movies (at the moment it’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World and The Craft).
What’s University life like?
Most of the universities tuition are government subsidized for citizens and even quite affordable for foreign students. Antz took Olivia to an open house for the art school in Paris she is considering and we were pleased to find out the tuition for 4 years is how much most students would pay annually in the US.
I don’t have tons of insight on university life in Paris however based on the little info I’ve gathered, there’s no dorms, no stuff like student body government, yearbooks or college party life. Yes, kids go to bars (happy hour is very popular in Paris) and clubs but it’s not the keg stands or Greek life atmosphere like we are used to. The trade-off works for the three of us. Liv is practically a Puritan. She has informed us that smoking is dumb and she only likes white wine. There’s a cute bar on our street that we sometimes order food from and they have a trivia night that is spoken in both French and English. Liv said she would like to join something similar to that when she’s old enough. The legal drinking age is 18 in France and that was recently raised from 16!
So What else is New?
We’ve had so many highs and lows in the past year. Our best news is we have made it this long without any of us getting the Covie!
I really think that masking and not being as social in-person as we used to be has really worked. I don’t go anywhere in crowds without a mask. We have continued to travel during almost every school break. It would take another five years just to catch up with all our trips but I have posted all the details in my highlights on my Instagram (hope you follow me over there). Anthony and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary last August with a family trip to Morocco. I promise to make a separate post about our trip because it was epic! If you want to see some of the photos now, click here. After a fun Mommy/Daughter trip to Berlin, Lufthansa airlines lost my carry-on bag and that whole experience was traumatic for me. I finally got compensated several months later (after publicly shaming the airline) but I lost my Insta camera, some of Liv’s favorite jewelry and some items that meant a lot to me. Another terribly sad event happened last year, our beloved cat Lola got sick and we discovered that her kidneys were failing and after being in our lives for 15 years, she passed away. It was hard for all of us, however we know we had such a long, happy time with her. We had her cremated and I bought an urn necklace for Liv to carry her ashes in.
Five months later Antz found a sweet calico kitten online to adopt from an animal shelter in central France. Liv and I took a 2 hour train ride to the town of Angoulême (the town Wes Anderson filmed the French Dispatch). Then I rented a car and drove another hour to the tiny village to pick up our new family member.
Say Bonjour to Éloïse von Toast, her nickname is Ella and she was 9 months old when we adopted her. Olivia has always wanted a calico cat. She has the same black spot on her nose as Lola did so we know she was meant to be ours.
She was described as playful, gets along with kids and perfect for an apartment in her online listing. This cat is terrific but also has the energy of ten cats! She gets the zoomies like she’s on drugs. She loves to run laps around our apartment at top speed in the middle of the night. We bought her all the toys, a cool mushroom scratcher and even a bed that looks like a piece of toast and she completely ignores them. Her favorite toy to play with is a hair tie. After she began scratching our furniture, I bought her a boring plain brown scratcher that she loves and she prefers sleeping on the rug in our bathroom. Liv likes to carry her in a sling when we go out and she usually falls right asleep. We are working on training her to use her harness. She’s so cute our hearts are exploding for this floof!
Ella has been a wonderful addition to our family and we feel a little bit more French with our petite choupette.
We have some exciting trips planned this year. Liv and I are taking a weekend trip to London to celebrate my birthday this month. Antz is staying home to babysit with Ella. We were super happy to pick up our 4 year passport talente visas, what a relief! Antz and I are pretty much still A-level in our French however, we have mastered a few useful sentences that really help us communicate. I know, nous devrions pratiquer plus!
Today we took some photos at the place where it all started, our local town hall (Mairie) and then we had lunch at our favorite place, Cafe Charlot. It’s Paris Fashion Week so of course the cafe was full of fashionable people. Liv has taken up knitting so you will always find her with needles in her hands these days. She’s getting really good and I’m going to commisson her to make me a bonnet with horns!
So, that pretty much wraps up our five year update. I am happy to answer any questions in the comments or if you follow me on Instagram, I have Ask an Expat and Expat Life highlights saved that you can always access.
Merci for following along on this journey with our family and a bientôt!