My Charmed Life

I’ve just had a really nice email and it’s just about validated every decision I’ve made since 2007. I know I don’t need to tell you about my life in the rat race, or my life as a field mouse, as this blog documents just about every step of the journey. That’s the nice thing about blogs: they’re kind of a living document that shows how you change. And change is good, right?

It certainly was for me. When you look back on crazy habits you had, they always seem so very crazy that you don’t know why you did them for so long.

It’s kind of funny to think about how la rentrée would have been five years ago. Returning to school is such a big deal here in France, and it was for me back in England. I’m always sad I don’t get to have two hundred and thirty children, probably sixty of them I know well already, and to have the year to build relationships with this many amazing teenagers. On the other hand, the longer I taught, the higher I got, the more challenging children I took on. Now, I don’t get to have quite so many fabulous teens in my presence (or quite so many ratbags who are the perfect reflection of my teenage pouting) but I get to have deeper relationships.

Tonight, I went to teach two students, a boy who has gone from being a shy teenager who was too nervous to speak English, and his sister who tried so hard to pick English up. The boy has been to summer camp in Taunton and come back brimming with confidence. He was the best English speaker in the class and he realises now how great it is to speak a language that’s a lot of other people’s second language too. He told me how he writes emails to his Spanish friend and his Russian friend, and we spent a lot of time laughing about the faces in the synchronised swimming in the Olympics. His sister has shot up and even though it’s only been ten weeks since I last saw her, it reminds me that there’s nothing like watching children grow up. It’s nice to be able to share a little in that. I’m lucky to have a work life that I love so much, a work life that is not bogged down by politics and governmental decisions, by change for change’s sake, by petty-minded bureaucrats and bean-counters.

Not only that, but in the last week, I’ve picked up four new students and it’s so nice to be able to extend my world. I still get excited by new faces. What a lucky girl I am to be able to work with such lovely people. The great thing about working in France is that I’m often working with people who’ve had the confidence to make changes and to live a simpler life. It was always the hardest part of my job to explain that changes were needed. Many people are dependent on the status quo and will do almost anything to protect it. Different is scary.

What I like about France is that there’s a higher proportion of people here – the British, Belgian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Scandinavian incomers – who’ve decided to change, who embrace change. People who like to make new acquaintances, to see the world through different eyes. I love that. There’s a certain optimism and enthusiasm about such people – they know that the world is full of interesting and unusual things. Not that there’s anything wrong with the status quo, with security, but if you never branch out, if you never leap, you never see how it could be. And that reminds me of that line in Strictly Ballroom: A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. So true. A lot of people are terrified by what might lie beyond, convincing themselves that the status quo is a nicer place to be. It’s why we stay in jobs, in relationships, in places. And we’re afraid that the grass isn’t greener, or that we’ll be into the fire from the frying pan.

And there’s something that change-makers realise.

Mostly, it’s a good thing.

Eventually.

Change is exciting and fresh and it teaches you that in the big wide world, we people have more in common than we don’t. How wonderful is it to move to new countries or new places and realise that there’s a whole load more people who are nice, helpful, kind, funny, sweet, crazy and supportive? For me, that was a massive thing, because when I’d surrounded myself with work, many of the people I worked with were tied down with their own issues, problems, petty jealousies, politics, neuroses and complaints. And it’s exhausting to hold those people’s hands through their first changes, reminding them to laugh a little and smile.

People always think the fact I was a team-maker was something ‘natural’ without realising I had to work at it just the same as I worked on my leadership skills or my teaching skills. I planned nights out. I invited people along. I deliberately changed places in the office and made sacrifices. I instigated bad jumper day. I sometimes wore smartie-orange suits just to make other people smile. Sometimes, I wore leopardskin-print dresses and motorbike boots just because I knew it made people smile. I brought in cakes on Fridays and I did so with sincerity, because I cared about those people, sometimes despite themselves and mostly because behind all of the negativity, there were some really great people who’d been stifled by the louder voices of those who complain. I hope the one thing I took places was a little laughter. I deliberately tried to emulate the best qualities of the best team-builders I’d known. But it’s very tiring to be such a person, because it can drain it right out of you. It did that to me.

And sometimes you have to be selfish and say you can’t do it any more. It’s very easy for people – women more than men, I find, but not exclusively – to give too much in the wrong direction.

Yesterday, I nearly did another stop on another road and took another picture of another empty lane, surrounded by sunflowers and sunshine and trees and rivers. I’m pretty sure most people are quite bored of my ‘gridlock’ photographs of my rush-hour traffic in France. I’ll not subject you to another such photo, since you all know that it still delights me not to be stuck in traffic, especially when a former student’s facebook status was about the traffic through Wigan. It’s a hard life. One thing’s for certain though, I would never have it if it were not for taking a chance. And, most importantly, for having the support of those closest to me.

Quitting my day job was at once the most terrifying, most exhilarating, most sensible and most stupid thing I ever did. Moving to France was lots less terrifying or stupid than quitting my day job, and so I guess everything is easier by comparison. Once you’ve done the thing you never thought you’d do, well, then you can do pretty much anything.

Now I need to get back to reality. I should remind you that I had no power for five hours today, that my blind cat has just abandoned another mouse on the couch, that both dogs have realised they can eat as many hazelnuts as they can trough and prefer to do it in the house and leave the shells on the floor, that puppy Heston just destroyed another magazine, that I am beset by mosquitoes, that my dad said I was in danger of becoming the crazy cat lady and that Tilly shredded the recycling rubbish bag and distributed all of its contents on the floor shortly before Heston decided it was a good idea to shred the magazine and that life in rural France meant I’ve waited in queues today for about thirty minutes. Perhaps, following Much Love Monday, I need to have Much Reality Tuesday so that you don’t all think I swan around in pretty dresses drinking Pimms all day.

Anyway, here’s my charmed life now and a little Dr Seuss quote that everyone should believe in.

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4 thoughts on “My Charmed Life

  1. A great overview of what it’s like to change your life by choice. I can identify with this so much. I would say the biggest challenge is not being frightened of being poor and learning to really manage money in a way that means you are not depriving yourself of anything that really matters to you.

    As an aside, I would note that it can be a mistake to work for an organisation that employs a Change Manager, or hires someone specifically because of their experience at taking an organisation through a period of change. These people have a vested interest in change, and will make sure that things continually change so they can be seen to be doing their job. Many of them can make changes, but can’t manage the management bit. Change is not always necessary. A period of respite and consolidation in the workplace is often gravely undervalued.

    1. You’re so right. I was brought in to make changes after 33 years of stasis, and it was ALL about the management of people. Too many ‘change managers’ think it’s about the system, when it’s not. You’re also so right about the respite. I think I’d got tired of changing everything ALL the time at the insistence of the Government – sometimes throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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