If you drive into many towns in our region you will see a sign for AVF - Accueils des Villes Francaises - and you may have wondered what this sign and these initials could mean for you?
AVF is, in fact, a French national organisation with some 70,000 members in 340 branches spread across France. Just within the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur (PACA) region there are 34 branches, including those at Nice, Cannes, Antibes Juan les Pins, Sophia Antipolis, Mandelieu, Vallauris, Vence and Villeneuve Loubet. A link to a complete list of branches can be found at the end of this article.
The purpose of AVF is to help anyone moving to a new region or town in France to settle quickly into their new environs. It gives the opportunity to learn about the district, to make friends, to have access to a wide range of activities and to meet a network of people who can offer help and advice to newcomers.
While primarily for ‘new arrivals’ to a town, AVF also welcomes people who have lived in the region for some time, but who would like to better integrate into the life of the community; to find new activities and to meet new friends.
We moved permanently to Antibes in early 2008 and someone recommended that my wife and I join the AVF association, as they thought it would help us to settle into our new home.
At the time my French was very poor. I had hardly used it in the 40 years since I had left school and, even then, I had failed French O level three times, so I was not exactly fluent. Hilary, my wife, was much better equipped as she had a degree in French, but apart from ordering meals and booking us into hotels on our many holidays in France, she had hardly used her French since she had left University. She also found that the language had changed very much over time and the language of French literature was not exactly helpful when chatting to our neighbours or discussing renovation work on our house.
We joined the AVF Antibes branch a couple of months after our arrival in France and found a very friendly welcome. Membership costs €35 per person each year and you then pay for each activity you join, with a typical cost of €15 to €20 each per annum. AVF is, of course, entirely non profit-making and many branches receive a subsidy from the Mairie of the town in which they are based. Without this, the cost would be much higher and it is typical of the French feeling for ‘patrimoine’ that the town halls support so many AVF groups.
The list of AVF activities at each centre can be huge. Firstly there are the outings and visits to places of local interest. In the AVF Antibes group, there are about ten outings each month. Recently, these activities included a coffee club, tenpin bowling with a pizza / pasta / salad meal; visits to an olive mill and the Museum of Culinary art at Villeneuve Loubet; a guided tour of a mountain village with lunch; a walk in the snow with raquettes (snow shoes) and a walk on the Col d’Eze with a botanist guide. Outings also included a lunch with a cabaret show followed by dancing, a visit to the hotel college in Nice with lunch cooked by the students, a Carnival evening with dinner and dancing and a day’s golf.
A few major events are also organised each year. For example in April this year there was a 3 night stay in the Camargue with walks to explore the region.
There is a charge for most events, but there are also special free events for new members during their first year. For visits to local villages and museums we usually meet in the car park of a local supermarket and operate a car share scheme, so that those who do not like driving, or who do not have a car can always find a lift for a small contribution towards the cost of petrol.
In addition to the visits and special events there is also a calendar of regular activities. In Antibes these include bridge; French, English and Italian language groups; water-colour painting, choral singing, gym and petanque.
Walking is one of our most popular activities. We have five different levels of walking groups, from a once-a-month gentle walk in the country, through themed walks, up to the highest level group which typically does a 6 hour walk with a 300m change in altitude through the length of the walk. Regular walks take place for the more advanced groups every two weeks and we often have more than a hundred walkers taking part in one of other of the groups in any month.
Hilary and I have joined in many of the outings and, as I do not like too many hills on my walks, we also do the easiest walks on a Sunday once a month.
For two years I joined the French group which greatly helped my grammar and my vocabulary, but my favourite is our conversation group. Around thirty of us meet every Wednesday morning and are divided into groups of four or five. There is always one native English (or Irish, or American) speaker, one native French speaker and the remainder of the group may be English or French, or any other nationality. At present our groups include many Scandinavians, as well as Dutch, German, Italian and Polish.
The groups each take a table at local cafés, inside in winter, on the terrace in summer, and we talk for one hour in French and one hour in English. The groups talk about anything and everything which interests them. Where they have been on holiday; where to find a particular product; how to cope with French bureaucracy; recommendations for good local restaurants, or anything which interests us personally. Often we discuss differences between the different countries and learn, for example, how the health service works in France.
As I said earlier, my French was extremely limited when I arrived in Antibes and for the first few months I probably understood one sentence in ten. This was really hard, but I persevered and, after three years, with almost no effort, I understand most of the French and if I get lost, either I will stop the conversation and ask for an explanation, or one of the other people in the group will ask the speaker to rephrase what they have said in French, or to explain the phrase in English.
Of course, for foreigners coming to France, this is a fantastic and relaxed way to improve their French. It is not suitable for absolute beginners, but anyone with a moderate level of French should benefit.
For the French members of the group, many of them learned English at school or used it in their business life and now want to keep up their English for holidays, or in some cases to converse more easily with the families of children who have moved and married abroad.
Because AVF is designed to help people to settle into a new area, membership is initially for a two year period. However, having made friends and enjoying the many activities lots of members want to stay with AVF after this time. We are always glad for people to stay with AVF but, after two years, we ask them to be available to help in some way, when required. The type of help which is requested could be as simple as putting out tables and chairs for a dinner dance; spending a couple of hours each week signing up new members, or members for outings; manning AVF’s stall at the Christmas market for a couple of hours, or helping to organise an event. Some people join the committee, while Hilary and I translate the quarterly programs from French into English. It seems a small contribution for all we have got out of our membership.
AVF has certainly been the most important element in helping us to settle into a new life in France. While there are many other societies on the French Riviera, most are either almost exclusively French, or mainly expatriate, whereas AVF joins both communities. We have gained an enormous amount - much better ability to speak and understand French, practical advice, a good social life with a wide range of activities and last, but not least, we have made many, many new friends.
Maybe it is time for you to see what AVF could offer you.