Felicity Simpson, 42, is director of Cirque Pour Tous, a Franco-Colombian charity funded by Cirque du Soleil that develops circus teaching for marginalised children, and Circus@Work, which designs corporate circus workshops for tense executives. Originally from London, she lives in the south of France with her husband, François, and their three children.
From the age of two, whenever someone went to the door I’d put on my coat. I was always ready to move whenever necessary. Born in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, I spent one year in Paris Circus school and the rest of my formative years in Brazil. Blessed with the abominable energy of eternal youth I set up a contemporary circus company, Intrepida Troupe, which toured the north-east interior (apparently decentralising culture) then crossed into TV, opera and musicals. And it was in Brazil I had grand rencontres: the late Hector Cobo Plata, my Colombian work partner, and one formerly wild French man whom I married.
Circus (and a French husband) brought me to France. Hector and I were chosen to represent Brazil in Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, which projected us on to the international variety scene, and in 1989 Paris became our new floating base. France is the capital of contemporary circus. Circus – and culture in general – is aggressively funded by the state in France and being immersed in French culture is a constant source of inspiration.
In Paris they prefer cats and dogs to children. Far more is done to accommodate them. I was once refused a taxi because I had two wet children under my arms. That was it. With the arrival of our third babe, Ginger, now nine, we started using the word “settle” and moved to Languedoc-Roussillon for family life, fresh food and far more space. We bought a mas [a traditional thick stone-walled farmhouse] in the country, long and large with a bull in the barn. And we’ve finally finished the pool. The house is a respectable distance from a village, a peaceful sanctuary to come home to.
They call us “les Anglais ”, which is hard on my husband, who is from that part of France. But if you’re not third generation from the same village, you’re an outsider. Integration is about building an interest in pastis and bulls but we do get on with our neighbours very well. Our region is not as well known as other parts of France; there are still property bargains to be had although prices are shooting up. It’s right in the middle, between Nimes and Montpellier, so only two hours from London by air, less than three hours on the TGV [train à grande vitesse] to Paris, Charles de Gaulle [airport] and the rest of the world. Interesting arty people are moving down from Paris, as well as Dutch, Belgians and Danes. A fascinating mix. Micha Bergese, the former artistic director of the Millennium Dome in London, has a house in the next village.
People here have an expectation the state will look after them. The health system is fantastic. I skipped back to London two weeks before giving birth to the first two children, though; I didn’t want that linguistic confusion at tense moments. François was horrified there were other women in the ward but I loved it: meeting them all and sitting around talking. I had the last baby in France with five people from the medical team all in a private room. In England parents are much more united than here in France, where individual families have the state to look after them. There’s childcare (or incarceration, as my father calls it) in the village for children from the age of three months (people pay according to their means) and nine-to-five state-funded nursery schools, the école maternelles, for children from two-and-a-half. The aim is to get women back to work.
The children are frighteningly French, the infidels. Whatever happened to the mother tongue? Our children go to an international school in Montpellier to maintain the bilingual bit. My mother-in-law was English but had grown up in hotels on the Riviera and lived all her life there and never spoke English to her children. I make a conscious effort to speak English 40 per cent of the time. The trouble is, as I speak a lot of languages, I get confused so it’s Franglais and Portañol.
The French education system is based on humiliation. They’re obsessed with diplomas. To its credit, it’s a very complete curriculum; it’s just that they have abandoned the idea that learning can be an enjoyable experience. We’re considering moving to Barcelona for a year, principally for that reason. The best thing the children can learn is to be mobile.
My office was given to me by the town hall. Cirque Pour Tous works with partner organisations around the world. Our mother project is in Colombia, where we set up the world’s first professional circus school for street children (now the National Circus School), but everything is co-ordinated from Vergeze, the source of Perrier water. I was given an office in the Maison des Arts, an old and beautiful building covered in roses.
Sometimes it’s just really wonderful to be back home in the English melting pot. Visiting recently for my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, I was rummaging around Shepherd’s Bush market and found metres and metres of gold organza. I was overjoyed. And it was lovely to find everything so familiar – the saris, plantain and the pet shop still there – and to be surrounded by instant reminders of my teen years; to cycle the same bike routes. There are things I miss. I love the English ability to laugh at themselves, to always look on the bright side. Although that might just be a family thing. But I won’t move back. I fancy retiring to Colombia, the hidden gem of Latin America.
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