Here are our thoughts on some simple tips to help you make your trip a reality, based on our experience. This is a work in progress – feel free to comment or ask questions as it will help inform this guidance.
Decide to do it! This may seem a silly statement, but it is probably the hardest bit. Most people (us included) miss the opportunity because they think they have to wait for a window of opportunity. There is no shortage of opportunity but rather a lack of commitment to seizing it. In our case we finally decided to go while on maternity leave, and opted for April to July. The school terms overlapped nicely, the final term of the year in France would be more relaxed, and the weather would be more pleasant than if we had gone in the winter terms. We could have just as easily not gone at all though, when our new baby disrupted our original six-month trip plan. The key was that we realised we could do it anyway, and we were determined to make it happen. Once we made that commitment it was amazing how everything fell into place. Truly.
Whatever you decide to do, work out how you will finance it. This is also a common sticking point. It’s a lot of money, whatever way you look at it. In our case we decided the benefits outweighed the costs, so we were determined to do it whatever. In practical terms we put it on the mortgage. If we had gone for longer, one or both of us would probably have looked for part-time work, or we might have freelanced to cover costs. Initially we had planned to go for six months and were going to finance that with Stephen staying behind to work in Wellington full-time, but coming for 4-6 week holidays beginning and end (and possibly in the middle!) That didn’t prove workable with a baby…
Request leave from work or make plans for your business. In our case we had statutory parental leave entitlements, but would have been prepared to take unpaid leave in addition to annual leave. We know others who have managed or are managing their business in such a way that it will be able to function in their absence. I’ve heard of people who agree a deal with their employer whereby they work full-time for 4 years at 80% pay, then take the 5th year off at 80% pay. If you had will power (and the ability to live on 80%), you could decide to set aside 20% of your salary for four years.
Book your flights and insurance. Now it’s real! If you are organised, the cost of flights doesn’t have to be huge. We decided to go a year in advance and were therefore able to snap up pre-early bird fares as soon as they were released, saving us several thousand dollars as a family. Remember travel insurance. It’s required if you are sending your children to school in France as proof that you will be covered if something happens to your children while on a field trip, as the French education system declines all responsibility.
Narrow down your location, depending on your criteria. We started by agreeing a region of preference. We then agreed criteria for the sort of place we wanted to live within that region: small but with a decent infrastructure, scenically appealing, with access to sights and countryside, intact old town, somewhere with both primary and intermediate schools, access to smaller villages, good public transport options. We spread all our maps of the region across the floor, marking up all the towns of a certain size. We then spent several weeks googling our (long) list of likely towns, researching their councils, tourist sites, schools and demographics, and gradually discarding those that did not fit the criteria. Note that many French towns and villages have a ville.fr website run by the local authority. Some may also have a tourism site. Where these are available, they are an invaluable source of all the vital information (and the quality of the websites gives you a good idea of how well things are generally maintained). In the case of Quillan, the council even runs a Facebook page, regularly posting news and event information.
Find somewhere suitable to live. This takes a surprising amount of time to complete but it’s a lot of fun. Once we had a shortlist of two or three towns, we started searching for potential accommodation. Any earlier and the options would have been overwhelming. You have to pace yourself to avoid real estate burnout. We were looking for something comfortable and sizable enough, in the centre of the old town, with some kind of outlook or outside space, within walking distance of the school, at a price we could afford. Be aware that when you are renting for a longer period (especially through the off-peak periods) you can get monthly rental deals at much better than the advertised rates. In the end you’ll probably have to compromise on something. In our case it was the private outside space. But, with access to the whole of the square below, and the roof terrace above, we figured it was do-able. What you’ll get in a town is also very different from what you’ll get in a small village, of course.
Find a school that you are happy with. This is easier said than done, mainly because most schools don’t have their own websites, making it very hard to get a good feel for the place. You can glean quite a lot of vital statistics through determined research of more general education sites. Add to this a view of the buildings and grounds via Google Earth, and a trawl of any associated message boards or social media sites, and you’ll have a basic picture. We went largely by size of the school in the first instance – something with 100 children or less, so as not to be overwhelming. We combined our school research with our accommodation search before making a final call. This way we were able to ask our potential landlords for their views on the local schools. This proved valuable. In our case we opted for a situation where the landlord had tenants in another of the apartments, whose kids were already at the school. This gave us some comfort. After some procrastination, I phoned the school principal ahead of our arrival. The tone and nature of the conversation reassured me that we were making the right decision and that our boys would be welcomed.
- Not a holiday
- Straight to the Principal’s office
- Registering for school
- My first day at a school in France
- First week at French primary school
It pays to put in some time before you go, up-skilling yourself and the children in French. Stephen opted for self-directed learning through CDs, internet courses and podcasts, which he listened to on his way to and from work for months before going. We’d had the boys in Alliance French classes the year before, and increased that to private tuition three mornings a week at home in the final term before departure. This was a significant investment, but I know for sure it paid off when they arrived in the classroom. We also took the kids to see several French language films in the French film festival, not long before we left. This was a great way to immerse them in French. I recommend the movie Etre et Avoir, which you can probably rent on DVD from the library. It’s a documentary about a small French village school and is useful not only for the introduction to the environments your kids might be in, but also because the language used is clear, simple and exactly what they will encounter in the classroom.
Book a car or explore public transport options. If you’re in a bigger city you may be able to do without a car, and just rent when you want to do side trips. For long periods of time in smaller places though, a lease car option can be practical, operated through Citroen, Renault and Peugeot. They have agents in New Zealand, which made it practical for us – we were even able to try out one of the potential cars and test the fit of our car seats in it.
Consider letting your house – for security and income. This isn’t always possible, but we were delighted to find a French family to mind our house for almost the exact period we were away. In our case it was extra fortuitous as, not only did we have security for the house, and some rental income to mitigate costs, but we also had someone to mind our cat, saving us on cattery fees.
Living the dream
Once you’re there, especially if you’re only there for three months, the trick is to make this seem more than just a long holiday. The key is to get involved in the community as much as possible, and to seek out absolutely every opportunity to speak French, no matter how spurious. This can be harder said than done, as most conversations these days (not just in France) are necessarily transactional. What we found was that it was actually easier to engage in conversation and community as a fluent speaker, than as an average speaker of French. Being involved with the school is a great start, then seeking out other groups to join, where you will meet others and have an excuse to talk. I joined a weekly baby and toodler soft play coffee morning, which was probably my best opportunity. We didn’t do too badly, in the short space of time we had. But next time we would probably both look to join more groups.
Pack your bags – enjoy. If you’ve got this far, most of the hard work is done. It remains to complete all those last jobs around the house and pack your bags. These days we travel with as little as we can possibly get away with. On this trip we had two suitcases and a piece of hand luggage each (5 pieces – the baby’s was the largest, of course!). We also had the car seat and buggy. We would rather not have had to travel with the car seat but it would have been difficult to obtain one in France immediately after arrival. In future I might also be tempted to leave the buggy behind and just get by with the baby sling/backpack carrier as buggies are all bulky. Over the years I’ve developed a general packing list for each of us that I re-use, adapting as needed. This saves a lot of stress with packing as I know the list is tried and tested. If in doubt, prepare your packing list, then remove half the items from it! Boys only need 2 T-shirts in my experience. You will likely acquire extra clothing during your trip.
And then, the anti-climax! You’re back home, wishing you were still in France – how do you keep the spark going? Good question. We’re sending the kids back to French language classes at the Alliance Francaise. Oliver will be taking French at high school next year. We listen to French music and try to have French breakfasts at home once every week or two. I’d like to keep up a French magazine subscription for the boys. I’m enrolling in a new French playgroup. We will see how it goes.