JEN­NIFER ANDREWES

SOUTH OF FRANCE

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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.”

MAK­ING PLANS

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.

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