Yesterday was la rentrée for my boys at their French school after the two-week October holiday. This is rentrée with a small ‘r’ though, rather than La Rentrée – the grand back-to-school and back-to-everything moment that happens in France around the 1st of September. After two full months of summer holidays, September in France is the great fresh start of the year, not just a time for new pencil cases and uniforms (actually, not even uniforms for most French schools), but also for new jobs, new cars, the publishing of new novels, starting new projects, activities, hobbies, habits and resolutions. The annoying ads for collectible magazines that appear all over British telly in January (“Each month, add a new button to your collection, and learn something new about the amazing story of buttons!!”) are all over French télé in September. In Francophone expat life La Rentrée is also the time when spouses and children, if not the whole family, return en masse to their posting. We arrived here in Pointe-Noire in the middle of August, because who wouldn’t want a bit of time to settle in and get acquainted before school starts? Not the French – we were almost alone on our site until our neighbours – even the other new arrivals – appeared, during the last weekend of the summer.
But this time is feeling like the real fresh start for me.
There was political unrest* that prompted some families to leave for a short time. We talked about it, and I joked, “If you send me away now, chances are I won’t come back!”
I wasn’t joking.
After four moves in four years, and this period of adjusting myself to a new routine, new culture, the (happy) work of making new friends, watching my boys work hard to make their adjustments, I was exhausted. Now this too, this feeling of tension and insecurity. We didn’t feel unsafe – things were predicted to stay relatively calm; our company has a big presence and was well-prepared – but we didn’t feel comfortable. If I had gone off to Scotland for a couple of weeks, put on a scarf and my lovely knitted Uggs, and taken the opportunity to bring forward our house-hunt by a few months, then, no, I don’t think I would have come back. Instead, I stayed, I stocked up, and was actually looking forward to not being able to stray too far from our site. I am a nester, after all.
Only I did have to spend the weekend somewhere else: our company’s clinic, where we watched the 2-year-old endure a lumbar puncture and the insertion of an IV, and try to understand why his strange bed kept being surrounded by strange people talking about him but not really to him. After all the nasty stuff was quickly ruled out, the cause of his high fever and neck pain was deemed to be an infection of unknown origin, but the antibiotics were working, rather leave it at that than keep invading him for tests.
So the last couple of weeks have all been very…Africa. And they will hopefully count amongst the worst of our time here. We had a hump to get over, and if I’d got off before reaching the top, I wouldn’t have wanted to start climbing again. But now I’m over the hump, and the way looks clear ahead. Life in the town has returned to normal, the boys are healthy and back at school and friends are returning from their bonus sojourns at home (with the fruits of bonus shopping trips in their suitcases!). And I’m proud to say that those are already some true friends, who I’m missing, and with whom I have exciting plans and projects in the works. Even though it’s still early days for our time here, and I’ll still be making some adjustments, I’m ready this time for my rentrée.
(*You can read a little about what went on outside of my self-involved little bubble here. There’s been tragedy, but I’m not going to pretend sufficient knowledge of the complicated circumstances and history of this country to pass judgement with any half-assed opinion of my own.)