First Impressions

Here's the story (written in September 2000) of our settling into the Cote d'Azur and our first impressions the region and the people.

We had been told that it would be difficult to find something affordable to rent – it was nearly impossible! Accompanied by Claude (Catherine’s brother), we went to dozens of agencies and in almost every one the agents threw up their hands in despair – “Oh, la, la, on n’a rien du tout.” One agency, however, told us they had just what we were looking for, though they weren’t giving it away (1150 €/month = 750 GBP = 7800 HKD = 1025USD, cheaper than HK but still very expensive for France). We were shown around a building site where small, ugly cubical houses rubbed shoulders in a sea of dust and raw earth. We didn’t sleep well that night.

The next day we got lucky. A house near the pretty village of Valbonne, just a few km north of our new school, had been reserved by someone else, but he had not shown up to sign the contract at the agreed time so we rushed in, spent 5 minutes looking round, and signed on the spot. It was expensive for us on our new French salaries, a tiny fraction of what we were earning in HK, but the building is well built and has a certain charm, despite being only 12 years old. It’s in the middle of a terrace of six houses, with 3 floors, 4 bedrooms and a tiny garden. It was a little bigger than we needed, but we only stayed in it for a year.

View from the bedroom:

For one year, from 2000 to 2001 Valbonne was our local village, 2 minutes' walk from our home. It dates from the 16th century, when it grew up next to its monastery. At one time the village was abandoned when Europe was devastated by the plague. The streets form an unusual grid pattern. Valbonne is now part of the commune of Valbonne Sophia Antipolis which includes the Sophia Antipolis high tech park. The park's activities generate a lot of revenue for the commune so Valbonne is privileged to enjoy a much higher standard of renovation than other villages in the region (some might say that it feels less authentic than villages such as Biot). It also has a cosmopolitan aspect - go to any one of the many restaurants and you are likely to hear French spoken by a minority of the clientele. Many English, Americans, Germans and Scandinavians live and work here.

More pictures of Valbonne: The new town hall (below left) is NOT built in traditional style, but reflects the modern architecture of Sophia Antipolis, the high-tech industrial park. The church (below right) dates from the 16th century (?)

Valbonne is 20 minutes' drive from the coastal city of Antibes and about equidistant from Cannes and Nice. St. Tropez and Monaco (Monte Carlo) are about 90 minutes away, and Venice, Aix-en-Provence and Milan are all within a few hours’ drive. Beautiful, rather unspoilt Corsica is easily reached on the ferry from Nice. You can see Valbonne and Sophia Antipolis on this map - just north and north-west of Cannes.

We moved in on September 1, the day after I started work, so moving in was a stressful time (even after moving house nearly every year for the last six years!) The workers who delivered our stuff were not nearly as professional as those that had packed for us in Hong Kong, and delivery day was punctuated by sounds such as a Chinese antique desk slipping off a worker’s back and crashing loudly on the floor, or another worker cursing as an antique Buddha head from Burma slipped form his fingers and crashed likewise to the floor...

Our new school is called the the Centre International de Valbonne and I teach in the Anglophone section, which is called the International School of Sophia Antipolis. Sophia-Antipolis is a technology park, the biggest in Europe, and it's meant to be Europe's answer to the Silicon Valley in California. Actually the weather here is comparable to that in central California, except that it's more humid here, despite the fact that it rarely rains. But the Sophia region is much more rural and wooded than the 'real' Silicon Valley, as it's surrounded by a green belt, so in many ways it's more liveable. It's also much calmer, or less dynamic, than silicon valley - it seems healthy enough right now but this is France and we suspect that French bureaucracy and taxes must make it much more difficult for technology startups to succeed here than in the States.

As I write, Catherine has been teaching for nearly a week and is slowly getting used to her classes, though the level is much lower than in Hong Kong and the classes are relatively huge (most of her classes have more than 35 students). It has to be said that the school is rather disorganized – the rapid growth of the school seems to have overwhelmed the administration.

School has been in session for a week but I still don’t have my full schedule so most of my classes have not yet met. The school has known of Catherine’s nomination since April but still cannot provide her (or any other new teacher) with a locker so she misses all the school’s mail and has nowhere to keep her books.

In the biggest high tech park in Europe it seems strange to be using chalk again after 10 years using white boards, and the school is generally poorly equipped relative to international schools such as the French School in Hong Kong, though probably no worse than other state schools in France. You have to understand that this is mainly a French state school and that most families pay no fees to send their children here. The exception is the English-speaking community that pays fees to send children to the International School of Sophia-Antipolis which is just a small subsection of the Centre International de Valbonne. While Catherine works in the state school section, I work in the International Section. As yet I just work part-time, teaching science and computer classes to high school classes of no more than 20 students. I hope to fill out my schedule one way or another.

We haven’t had much time to explore the region yet. Our first trip to the ocean was a pathetic failure – we parked our car about 300m away from the beach and then walked towards the water, only to find two busy roads and a railway line running along the edge of the beach. We walked for twenty minutes parallel to the railway but could find nowhere to cross it so we gave up and went home, without ever having set foot on the beach! In any case, that part of the coast between Cannes and Nice is quite uninteresting, overdeveloped, ugly and with few sandy beaches. Yesterday, September 12, we went to Cannes and were pleased to find plenty of sandy beaches there, though mostly private (you have to pay about 80F to rent a sun-bed for a few hours). The city didn’t look too bad either, though we’re told Nice is more interesting. Leaving Cannes, however, we got caught in a traffic jam and took more than an hour to cover about 5km. At first we thought this must be due to the long queues of cars waiting for petrol and blocking the roads (there had been a blockade of petrol supplies in France for about ten days in protest against increased prices). But later we learned that Cannes often gets gridlocked like that during the rush hour - we won't make that mistake again. The recent petrol shortage is part of the reason that we haven’t been able to explore much but keep watching for more news on our travels.

What about the local people? They have a reputation of being a little unfriendly and dishonest but it’s hard for us to judge as the high-tech park that we live in is full of non-local French as well as many foreigners (including many English and Americans).

Ultimately, we’re enjoying our new house and the wonderful sunny climate. These things alone compensate for the difficulties of settling in to a new school, a new neighborhood and a new country!

We'll leave you with a couple more pictures of our new school:

Click here for the continuation of our first impressions of the region, a trip to the Esterel peninsula.

Click here to see our 'second impressions' of the region.

Click here to visit Cap Ferrat and the perched village of Eze.

Click here to access reports on other parts of France.