Singaporean mama Chelsey Tang talks about life in the port city of Saint-Malo, homeschooling her toddler, and how parents in France are less concerned about academic results and more about social skills
With stunning beaches, laidback neighbourhoods and a parenting culture that’s more focused on social skills than a child’s academic achievements, there’s plenty to love about life in Saint-Malo, France, says Chelsey Tang. This Singaporean mama of one, who has lived abroad for six years, spends her days homeschooling her daughter and investing and trading stocks for income. She shares what first brought her and her family of three to Saint-Malo, why she fell in love with the people here and why she’s not keen on returning to Singapore anytime soon.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a born-and-bred Singaporean and I just turned 40 this year! My husband is French and we now live in Saint-Malo, a port city in Brittany, France with our little girl who is four years old. My love for National Geographic and Reader’s Digest magazines when I was young got me curious about the world outside of Singapore. I started travelling for leisure at 16 years old and I’ve had many opportunities to travel both for work and pleasure ever since. I think my travel experiences have helped me stay open-minded about the world outside of Singapore, be curious and accepting towards others. I’ve always yearned to go work abroad somewhere with four seasons that is self-sufficient. I never imagined that I would eventually marry a foreigner instead.
What brought you to Saint-Malo? How long have you been living overseas?
My husband’s maternal family is from Saint-Malo. He had fond memories of childhood vacations here and it was also here where he bought his apartment. His very elderly parents are nearby so naturally, we decided to come back here to spend some quality time with them while we can. We had lived in Bali, Indonesia for three years before moving to France in April 2018. I still cannot believe that I’ve been living abroad for six years!
Favourite aspect about living in Saint-Malo?
We are just a three-minute walk away from beautiful beaches with the biggest tidal change in Europe. We get to enjoy some pretty spectacular extreme high and low tides. Living in the walled city is a bit like living in a kampung. People sort of know and look out for one another, especially when I’m the new Asian kid on the block with a little girl. People are really welcoming of young families moving back.
And the worst part?
Saint-Malo is one of the top five holiday destinations in France. Come summer, it can get really, really crowded. This is usually the time when we leave the walled city for somewhere quieter in the countryside. This year, we went camping up in the mountains.
What are the current restrictions in Saint-Malo due to Covid-19?
We have to wear masks indoors and it is even stricter in the walled city where it is mandatory to wear masks even outdoors. One will need to have a pass sanitaire (health pass), certifying if one is fully vaccinated or has tested negative in a recent Covid-19 test, to dine at food and beverage establishments or enter arts, entertainment and sports centres as well as campsites with shared facilities such as pools and restaurants.
How have you and your family been coping in the midst of Covid-19?
Life didn’t change so much for us as my husband was only confined during the first lockdown. After that, his profession was considered ‘essential’ so he could continue working as usual. The biggest change was during the curfew period when we could not travel more than 10 kilometres to visit family and friends. We had to make adjustments to our regular visits to my father-in-law’s. Our biggest problem now is not being able to go back to Singapore while we await new updates.
How do you think parenting in Saint-Malo differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I enjoy that we get to spend a lot of outdoor time together simply because of the climate. In the colder months, we just dress warm and head out. Parents in France are much less protective and allow their children to be more independent. They are generally less concerned about academic results and more about social skills. Children here barely have homework and even if they do, it normally takes them less than an hour to complete so I don’t think parents need to be as involved in their children’s studies.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I was a self-employed event organiser before our daughter was born. Even after we moved to France, I was still servicing my clients in Singapore. For my last project, I travelled back to Singapore so I left her with her dad for three weeks (although if you asked him, he would say I left for three months). After that, I took a Montessori homeschooling course online as I have always been interested in this area. Now I’m a full-time homemaker and homeschooling mum. When your child turns three years old in France, it is compulsory to send your child to school so we have declared that we are homeschooling and are subject to annual inspections. I’ve now learnt to invest and trade stocks as my current source of income.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Saint-Malo?
Le Corps de Garde is a crêperie with excellent service and good food at reasonable prices. It is also the only restaurant that is on the ramparts. It’s definitely worth going there to have a meal overlooking the open sea.
Top five places in or around Saint-Malo you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
Beaches – There are at least three beautiful beaches literally a stone’s throw away from one another that one can visit in Saint-Malo, each with its own charm. Plage du Môle is smaller and more intimate with soft fine sand. There are lots of rock pools for little ones to wade in. The sand at Plage des Bas Sablons is not as fine but there is an amazing natural tide pool at low tide to swim in. Grande Plage du Sillon is the longest beach with fine sand and during very low tide, you can probably walk 30 minutes towards the water with your eyes closed and you will still not reach the sea! Saint-Malo has the highest tides in Europe, with water that can rise 13 metres within six hours. During extreme tidal changes, you will see a lot of people heading really far out on Plage du Môle at low tide to dig for shellfish and six hours later, if the winds are right, you might be treated to an extreme tidal spectacle.
Grand Bé and Petit Bé – See the remains of an ancient fort at the tidal island Grand Bé, accessible on foot during low tide. Just behind Grand Bé, there is Petit Bé with its Vauban fort. From Grand Bé, you can look back and see the beautiful panoramic view of Saint-Malo’s walled city. You can also climb up the stairs at Petit Bé for an incredible view of the surroundings. Don’t forget to walk back before the tide starts to rise or you would risk calling the emergency evacuation unit to come to rescue you or getting stranded on the islands for the next few hours.
La Ferme du Pré Bois – A free-range pig farm where little piglets run around and you can purchase great meat. This farm also educates the public on what they do and how they farm pork. Every Thursday during the summer months, the farm organises a farmers’ market where regional farmers come together to sell their produce. There are traditional music and dance performances from time to time.
Le Parc de Port-Breton – This is a huge and beautiful park situated in front of the sea in a town called Dinard less than 20 minutes away by car from Saint-Malo. Previously a private property, it is now open to the public. There is a big playground, lots of open spaces for picnickers and a zone with animals the park has adopted.
Micro Zoo – A mini zoo inside the city walls of Saint-Malo where we can learn about the world of smaller creatures we tend to overlook. The staff are knowledgeable and passionate, and we get to see up close how the world of small animals operates.
Is there something that you do to keep your child in touch with her Singaporean roots?
We FaceTime a lot with my family in Singapore and we look at photos we took in Singapore. I prepare local Singaporean cuisine so that her taste buds will be accustomed to more diverse foods and she will appreciate Singaporean cuisine when we are home. We also try to celebrate popular Chinese festivals and watch the National Day Parade every year.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Saint-Malo
– for a child:
A collection of shells and treasures from the beaches. Look out for pretty pink scallop shells, shark and stingray egg cases as well as cuttlebones!
– for a mama friend:
Bordier butter! One of the world’s most famous butter is made within the walls of Saint-Malo. I usually freeze-wrap the butter to better transport them on my trips back.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
I finally understood the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. Not having the support of close family and friends is both physically and mentally exhausting. Coupled with my introverted personality and the struggles of mastering a foreign language, I have to admit it is quite a lonely journey.
On raising multilingual children …
We made the mistake of not exposing her to all our languages. Instead of speaking French with her papa, Chinese with mama and English with both parents, we ended up with only two languages as I speak in English with her. Chinese is a much harder language to master so it is unfortunate that I did not start her off sooner. We are trying to play catch up now with some words here and there but I doubt it will be sufficient for her to become proficient. I will have to find a new strategy soon!
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
Lots of Prima Taste sauce kits that can hopefully last us for at least six months, Bengawan Solo kueh lapis and pandan cake, and some good instant coffee!
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
My last-minute no-prep meal is a galette, a thin buckwheat crêpe that is also a local speciality. I buy readymade galettes instead of making them myself then crack an egg in the middle, sunny side up, before adding some shredded cheese and ham. I would then fold the sides of the galette in, forming a square and exposing only the yolk. Other times I would make the galette with whatever I can find in my fridge, just like in the South Korean cooking variety show, Please Take Care of my Refrigerator.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Saint-Malo if you moved away?
Our beautiful neighbourhood definitely. The beauty of both the landscape and its people.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
My family would welcome us at the airport and we would go get something local to eat. I’d usually have my to-eat list ready in my head!
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The weather! Even though I was born and bred in Singapore, I’ve always struggled with the tropical weather and the heat definitely gets to me, even more so now. My daughter doesn’t do well in the heat either and each year when we come back to Singapore, she becomes totally lethargic in the day and suffers from nose bleeds.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
Living overseas can really open our eyes to show how our lives in Singapore are both privileged and stifled. There is so much more to experience – things to learn, see and enjoy, different and interesting people to meet, and new ideas to exchange! While we learn to appreciate what we have, we will also have the guts and confidence to do more, live more and be more adaptable in life.
Thank you for your time, Chelsey!
More OVERSEAS MAMA stories for you