Grown-up gap year
It’s never too late, even if you have little ones in tow. As Amy Jones and her husband Richard leave Wales for a new life in Deux-Sèvres with their young sons, she shares her advice on planning and funding a year abroad in France
Who says you have to be a student? One couple proves it’s never too late, even with a young family in tow
Sometime last summer I was chatting with my husband Richard as our babies lay sleeping. Yet again, we started dreaming about where else we could be in the world, wishing we’d travelled more before we had children and wondering if we’d ever find the perfect time to do something a bit different.
It’s not that we hated our home in west Wales or that we were particularly unhappy with the way things were; we simply had a longing and a sense that there was more to life than just waiting for the weekend. “Let’s just go,” Richard said at 2am. “Okay,” I replied, and that was that! So there was a little more to it than that, but deciding that having young children shouldn’t stop us from doing something different was a big step in the right direction. It didn’t take long for us to agree that we wanted to spend our year abroad in France. Richard has family connections there and has spoken French to our boys Léo, aged three, and one-year-old Sébastien since birth (although they are yet to use it much at all!). If this was ever going to be more than just ‘something we almost did’ we needed a plan, and quickly, before we got too bogged down in nappies, work and washing up. This is how we made it happen.
TELLING YOUR EMPLOYER
Once you have committed to taking a gap year the next obvious step is informing work. As a teacher, Richard had to hand in his notice a full term before finishing work. If the thought of leaving worries you then it’s worth asking your employer if you can apply for a sabbatical. That way you have a job to come back to – if you want your French adventure to end, of course!
REDUCE SPENDING AND INCREASE SAVING
You don’t need to be rich to plan a year abroad. We plan to make as much money as we can from our house in Wales, earn a little while in France and only dip into savings if we really have to.
We had already considerably reduced our spending when I chose to stay at home to look after our boys rather than return to work. We were pretty adept at saving and making money wherever we could. We bought second-hand, sold the things we didn’t use anymore and bought a cheap annual ticket to a local farm park to save on days out.
It helped to record what we spent and then review it at the end of the month, as it really highlighted where we could be making savings. It’s the ‘little but often’ purchases to look out for. To give you an idea, spending £40 on a weekly takeaway for a family of four equates to over £2,000 in a year. That’s your crossing to France, motorway tolls, insurances and first few months’ rent paid for!
EARNING MONEY FROM YOUR HOUSE
Reducing our outgoings helped a lot but we also needed to make more money if we were going to fund our year (or more) abroad. One of the most financially beneficial things that we did was to sign up to the holiday letting site Airbnb. We first advertised our house to holidaymakers a few years ago as we’d seen a lot of people make extra income doing it and we knew it could work for us too. Our house is only a small three-bedroom end of terrace but it is nicely decorated, well kitted out for children and is just a short drive from the Cardigan Bay coastline. Having decided that we wanted a gap year we committed to spending last Easter and summer away from our house so that we could add even more to our savings pot.
Cleaning the house for our paying guests was a lot of work. We’d only finished building it five years earlier but we’d already collected far too much ‘stuff’. I can’t really find a better word to describe it. It was literally stuff; those little things that you acquire but never really use and yet for some reason can’t bear to part with. Anyway, we did it. We emptied the attic, filled it again, cleared cupboards and sold as much as we could on Facebook before finally admitting defeat and taking a few car loads to the charity shop.
When the school holidays came and our house was filled with paying guests we stayed
with family, went camping and even went on holiday ourselves. We found a local cleaner to get the house ready between guests when we were away. This was a great trial run for being away longer term while renting out our house. So far we’ve had no real issues and we’d really recommend it to anyone who wants to make a few extra thousand pounds. Just make sure that your mortgage company allows it and that you’re properly insured.
WORKING IN FRANCE WITH THE BRITISH COUNCIL
So, we had savings and an unpredictable ‘income’ from Airbnb. It was a good start, but with children to look after we needed something a little more dependable to fund our time in France. We decided to approach the British Council for a language assistant placement. Richard had already worked with the British Council when he was at university studying French and Spanish, and had spent seven sunny months working in a school in Huelva on the southern coast of Spain.
English assistant placements arranged by the British Council are limited but the application process itself is pretty straightforward. Successful applicants work 12 hours a week and are paid around €800 per month. It involves a standard job application but it has an additional section where you select the location that you would prefer.
That was the hardest part! We spent hours staring at their list of available regions. ‘Choose one from Group A, one from Group B, and one from any of the three groups’. It all sounded so simple but choosing between the likes of Lyon, Reims and Versailles wasn’t an easy task.
Having narrowed it down to our top seven or so we then looked at the weather averages for the year. Yes, in true British fashion, it came down to the weather.
In the end we opted for Poitou-Charentes as our first choice as it is known for its mild winters and it looked like it would suit our family with plenty to do outdoors.
The application went in as soon as they opened in the autumn. Although we were hopeful we knew that university students would have priority as part of their degree courses. We waited... and waited. We had to wait a long time to find anything out.
We went ahead and booked our Eurotunnel tickets anyway. Whatever the outcome of the application, we were determined that we would spend a year in France somehow. And then finally, in May, Richard received an email confirming that his application had been accepted. We still had no idea where we were going but that was just a minor technicality.
A few months later we were excited to hear that his placement would be in the town of Thouars and nearby St-Varent in the Deux-Sèvres department. We went online immediately and ‘walked the streets’ on Google Earth and checked out the parks on my favourite Playground Buddy app, but we can’t wait to get there in person and take a proper look around.
Getting our heads around what we needed to do before leaving our home took a bit of research. We read so much conflicting advice that overcomplicated it and almost put us off, but thankfully in the end it was quite simple.
We needed car insurance that covered us fulltime in France rather than the more common 90-day cover period. There are a few insurers that offer this but be sure to check the small print. You’ll probably want European breakdown cover too and this can either be arranged in the UK or with a French company after you arrive.
France is known for its love of paperwork so make sure you pack marriage certificates, birth certificates and payslips covering the last three months, as you’ll need them when you come to set up a French bank account or rent a house.
You shouldn’t need to worry about income tax as the double taxation agreement between the UK and France means that language assistants are only liable to pay income tax in the UK (for up to two years). That’s one less thing to worry about.
CONSIDERING OUR CHILDREN
Our sons’ wellbeing was our top priority when it came to planning our year in France. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being slightly anxious about taking them away from their home, their climbing frame, their bedroom, their grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins. We have no idea yet how they will take to travelling, or how they will cope with leaving their home. We’ll do everything we can to make it a positive experience for our little adventurers and if it all goes well, we’re planning to keep travelling long term for a while.
Our son Léo was due to start school this September in Wales. Having worked in education for 10 years before having children I have to admit to feeling disheartened by the ‘system’. I’m keen to homeschool the boys for a while at least. I prefer to use the term ‘world school’ as we’ll be learning from experiences that arise naturally.
Travelling is part of the world schooling ethos but you don’t need to be a nomadic family to subscribe to it. It’s an ethos and an awareness that there are so many rich teaching opportunities outside the classroom walls. It’s about the importance you place on being openminded and learning from others. We want our boys to develop a sense of self with us as their guides first.
We’re so looking forward to exploring France and seeing what it has to offer our family. I’m determined to become fluent in French and hopefully become part of a community. We’d love you to join us on our adventures through our monthly column.
The couple listed their house in Wales on Airbnb
Amy found savvy ways to save money
Amy’s little helpers Léo and Sébastien
Saying goodbye to life in Wales
Part of the Marais Poitevin, France’s ‘Green Venice’, is located in Deux-Sèvres