SOUTH OF FRANCE
Imagine this… You’re in the south of France, living in a small village nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees with a population of 3500. The pace of life is slow, the cost of living is low, coffee is cheap and the cheese is to die for. You don’t need to win Lotto to have this life – just a little careful planning and a wee bit of sacrifice can turn that dream into a reality.
Forty-seven-year-old Wellingtonian Jennifer Andrewes gave up the humdrum routine of corporate life after becoming increasingly dissatisfied and wanting to chase her love of travel and passion for language and culture. Along with husband Stephen, also 47, and their three boys Oliver, 16, Tom, 13, and Nicholas, five, she packed up life back home and set off in April 2014 to the town of Quillan for a three-month sabbatical. It was a decision that was met with mixed reactions.
“A lot of people were inspired by what we were looking to do and to a degree wishing they could do the same,” Jennifer says. “But there were quite a few comments on the other side, wondering how we were managing to do that. People saying, ‘Gosh that’s courageous, aren’t you worried about giving up your job?’
“Lots of people said, ‘Goodness that’s bold,’ or ‘That must’ve been scary.’ But in some ways it’s harder to stay put and think, ‘I wonder what I might’ve experienced?’ and having that regret.”
A FRENCH AFFAIR
Jennifer’s decision to pick France shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock to family and friends; her father was a French lecturer and she’s a fluent French speaker. As a child, Dunedin-born Jennifer spent time living in France, which kicked off a lifelong love affair with the country. Jennifer and Stephen had also done quite a bit of travel, spending six years living and working in Wales where their first two boys were born. While there, the family would often head off for long weekends and short breaks through Europe.
“I’ve grown up with French in my blood and as a family we’ve always talked about wanting to give our children that same opportunity to experience life outside of New Zealand in a different culture and country. Having the language rather than starting from nothing makes the transactions a little easier. We also had reasonably strong knowledge and networks, friends throughout France we could call on. We had a degree of knowledge of the way the country works. I’d spent time living in France teaching English previously so it wasn’t a complete unknown, and we’d had lots of holidays in the Pyrenees and loved that area, so it was a good place to start.”
Having sown the seed long ago, the boys knew it was part of the fabric of their family and were up for the adventure. In order to prepare, one of the first things Jennifer did was invest in French lessons for the boys. They had lessons over several months as well as one-on-one tutoring in the weeks leading up to leaving. “That was a valuable investment and made it a little less worrying for them.”
The couple did a lot of internet research of French towns, looking where to settle – and in that mix was very much the question of what the school was like. They narrowed their search down to two or three towns and, while looking at accommodation options, stumbled across an apartment above a café in Quillan. It just so happened that the tenants already had kids in the local school at the time.
“We were able to have a good discussion with them and talk personally about the teachers, their experience and get a sense of what the school was like. That’s quite hard to find out from afar. Schools have very little online presence, so it can be hard to find out from a mere Google.”
Through them Jennifer got an introduction to the principal and phoned him to have a chat before turning up. “He sounded lovely and gave me some reassurance that actually, it’d be fine.”
After the challenge of locking down a school and getting the boys enrolled came the process of working their way through the paperwork and red tape associated with it. But Jennifer says the hardest thing by far was actually making the call to go.
“We spent three or four years actively talking about it, weighing up times and options, but not much action. We realised we were going to have to make it happen because the reality is, there isn’t a perfect time and if you were weighing up
everything logically you’d never do anything, because there’d be too many perceived obstacles. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have similar reflections. Once we’d made that decision everything else fell into place. You work through the practicalities after that.”
When it comes to sacrifices, Jennifer and Stephen put the experience on the mortgage and have foregone any house renovations. “You have to decide how you’re going to spend the money you’ve got, how you’re going to invest your resources and time. That’s the way we like to spend our money, so we’ve sacrificed at this end.”
There were definitely a few nerves closing the door on a comfortable life and giving up good jobs when there’s a mortgage and family with mouths to feed; Jennifer’s background is in communications and Stephen works for the Ministry of Justice. But, as Jennifer points out, life’s short.
“We took the view, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ If it doesn’t work out, we’ve taken some months out of the workforce and we’ll pick things up and look for another job. You’ve had a few months in France and that’s a great experience, that’s educational; it’s worth a lifetime.”
LA VIE EN ROSE
For the family, there was a dimension of culture shock going from the capital city with a population of 330,000 to the French village of 3500. “Coming back to the intense rhythm of life in Wellington was when I noticed we’d been living quite differently. The first thing that hit me was when we had calls to go out for a meal for somebody’s celebration. Dining out is so much more costly, and felt somehow excessive. In the south of France, people live very simply. The ability to go out and have a simple meal with friends is so culturally engrained that it’s not an expensive deal.”
The family had such a good experience the first time, they were keen to do it again in some shape or form. “We didn’t know when, how, or whether we could sustain another trip in terms of the boys’ schooling, financially or the logistics, but I felt like it was something we’d regret if we didn’t.”
So, a couple of years later in September 2016, under the auspice of Jennifer writing her new book, Parallel Lives, based on their experience, the family made the decision to do it again. Having made the call they then got an incredible offer from acquaintances in the town to run their B&B while they were away, which gave them an additional excuse. They ran the B&B for four months while Jennifer found time to write. They’ve now joined lots of community groups and recently purchased their very own house in Quillan – allowing the ‘best of both worlds’ arrangement to work long-term.
“It’s a nice feeling to think it’s another home on the other side of the world. It’s been exciting to see the growth in the boys in terms of their perspective, insights, resilience, and awareness of the world around them, and bring that back to normal life in New Zealand. It’s character building above all.”
It’s taken Jennifer a while to make peace with the fact that when she’s in Wellington she appreciates the good things about New Zealand, and when she’s in Quillan she appreciates the good things about France. “We’ve always got half a mind on the other, particularly half a mind on the French end when in New Zealand, thinking, ‘I miss the people and being able to drop down to the café and have a cheap coffee.’ The pace of life is such that nothing matters so much. But over time we’ve made peace with that, and it becomes easier.”
MAKE A MOVE
In the pipeline is more trips for the family; having accommodation sorted there now makes it easy to head over. The aim in the immediate term is to travel to France once a year around the December/ January period so the boys don’t miss school; the older two are at college now, which makes it more challenging with missing academic courses. In the medium to long-term, the family are hoping to spend another extended period of 12-18 months in Quillan once the older two are finished school and the youngest, Nicholas, is still primary-school age. That’s the loose, five-year plan – but Jennifer and Stephen are still trying to figure out how to make the long-term split work.
“Do we work hard here in order to have time there where we don’t work or do we work from anywhere? And what does that look like? That’s an ongoing conversation.”
The plan is to rent the house when the family aren’t there; so far in the first year that’s worked well. “Our target rental audience in an ideal world is people like us, wanting to do the same thing. It means there isn’t the constant change-overs and it’s nicer for the village and residents to have people there for a while.”
They had a great start last year, with two Kiwi families each booking to spend a couple of months in the house and pop their kids in the same school. First up was an Auckland family who absolutely loved it, followed by a Central Otago family. “That’s what makes me excited, seeing other people coming out of the woodwork and having the courage to do the same thing.”
Jennifer’s advice? “Just do it. Nobody else is going to do it for you, you have to make it happen. Plan and prepare so you know what you’re going into, and talk to others who’ve had this experience because it’ll give you reassurance. You won’t regret it, whatever your dream is.”
‘You’ve had a few months in France and that’s a great experience, that’s educational; it’s worth a lifetime’
From top: Nicholas trying the local French fare; Jennifer out and about with her book; the author spent four months writing Parallel Lives($35) in France.