France en famille
It was January 1983. I was 11 and, thanks to my parents, found myself at the back of a classroom in a large French city primary school.
I knew about 10 words of French and was unable to understand a word of what was going on.
The children were friendly, but spoke to me s-l-o-w-l-y, like I was thick. The teacher was unfriendly and, I suspect, genuinely thought I was thick. It took all my courage to survive the first day.
Given the shaky start and the frequency with which my diary records my subsequent sick days, my parents could have been forgiven for thinking it was not an experience I would thank them for, let alone be in a hurry to repeat.
And yet, 30 years later, I find myself uprooting my children from their lives, to spend three months living in France.
Why? Let's be honest – because it's the south of France and Stephen's as much of a Francophile as I am. But also, we hope, to instil in our children a love of travel, an appreciation for the world, some deeper knowledge of a different culture and a strong foundation in another language.
Finally, we want to throw them in the deep end, in an environment in which we could give them plenty of support and encouragement, and see whether they would swim.
So far, so lovely, but if it were that simple, everyone would be doing it ... right?
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Wrong. "Making it happen" might be a sound bite, but making the decision to go and then following through, can sometimes feel like a bite too hard to chew.
The crunch for us was when we realised with our eldest about to start college that we were running out of time – though we do know of people who've done this with high school age kids. Despite having talked about it for years, we'd done nothing practical at all to make our dream a reality.
Now, when we looked back we realised, with a sense of regret, that we'd had ample opportunity in the last few years – but never had the courage to follow through. Much longer and the boys would be off on their own OEs.
So we just did it. We seized the opportunity of impending maternity leave, booked flights (yes, you can add the baby's name after he arrives) and a lease car through Citroen, and arranged to let our house – to a French family, in a strange karmic twist.
I'll be honest, we were a bit apprehensive about heading abroad with a baby again – that wasn't in the original plan.
Thankfully, after many trips, we have the process down to a fine art, which helps reduce the stress a little. With our first son, we were determined to start as we meant to continue, as travel is important to us. We were living in Wales when he arrived and, after progressively extending our comfort zone, at four months we took him to Slovenia for 10 days. Crazy. What were we thinking?
It was hot, the village bell tolled loudly every 15 minutes night and day, we got no sleep, drank too much coffee. It was great. We were hooked.
We were bombarded with questions when we announced our intentions. Prime among them was: did you win the lottery?
It's true that the whole trip cost a lot of money – something like $50,000, including loss of income, flights, accommodation and vehicle lease, which we were able to put on the mortgage. We do not generally buy Lotto tickets and have zero winnings from that, but we have won the lottery in the sense that we have this incredible opportunity, and it will cost only $50,000.
Hang the cost, we'll go. But, how to choose where?
From our very first French holidays together many years ago, we loved the Pyrenees. The weather was sunny, the snow-capped mountains stretched as far as you could see, the people were friendly, the countryside was beautiful, and the food was fabulous.
We wanted somewhere small that we could feel at home and get to know people. But we needed somewhere big enough to have schools for the boys and a little bit of infrastructure.
We covered the floor in maps and trawled the internet. We looked at demographics, environment, schools, accommodation, affordability and access to sights.
And so it was that we found ourselves planning to spend three months in Quillan, a town of 3000 residents, about 40 kilometres south of Carcassonne.
LIVING A LIFE IN QUILLAN
When preparing for this journey we had certain expectations about our style of life in Quillan. It was a chance to simply "live" in a different culture. Equally, with three months out of the work force, it was an opportunity to do some of the things we never have time for. It was rare family time – especially with our new baby. It was the chance to explore new territory and favourite haunts.
In the event, it was all of this and more.
We worried about living in an apartment on the town's main square, above a cafe, but it was a site that, while very different from our living experience in Wellington, also provided for endless hours of entertainment in observation of daily life. It felt like a very old-fashioned way of passing time; like what people did in towns like this for the 1000 years before television was invented – and probably still do.
The square was always the centre of something, from the Wednesday produce market to the summer events programme. One night the square would form a stage for all-night music, the next day it would be a fishing lake.
We formed comfortable habits like pulling certain window shutters to keep out the hot sun in the morning then others in the afternoon. We developed new routines. The boys would go out to buy bread and pastries before breakfast. Stephen would do some running in the morning. We'd have a long family lunch during the two-hour school break. We'd village crawl in the afternoons.
We'd linger over an aperitif – sometimes at one or other of the two cafes on the square, sometimes on our roof terrace – followed by a late dinner. We'd blog or write in the evenings.
We concentrated on getting to know the local area. We found our favourite cafes and the best weekly markets. We located the closest goat farm for fresh cheese. We visited and revisited favourite local villages and followed up local tips on hidden swimming holes. We fostered friendships and began to recognise people in the street, who we greeted on familiar terms. We called the cafe owners by their names. They knew our favourite tipple. We felt at home.
NO HOLIDAY FOR SOME
Like they do at home, the boys went off to school each day, walking the 200 metres from our apartment on their own morning and afternoon.
Apart from that, school was not at all like in New Zealand, with the boys observing many practical and cultural differences in the school experience from the hours of class to the school curriculum and the style of teaching.
The first and arguably the most important lesson they had to survive was the recre – playtime, in which different laws and customs applied to what they were used to. Here, all their powers of intuition, behavioural psychology, and quick judgment came to the fore. Their sporting skills were also vital for "street cred" – though Ollie's talents actually backfired initially, getting him offside with the previous classroom football star.
In spite of – or perhaps because of– the differences, the boys had a great experience overall. Although they were quick to point out the injustice of their hard work four days a week while we "relaxed".
In fact, quite a lot of hard work went into making the school experience as smooth as possible. After summoning all my courage, I'd called the school principal from New Zealand and, as he promised, registering was remarkably straightforward on arrival – presentation of passports at the mairie (town council office), and one simple form to complete for each boy on the first day of school.
The school was small, with just three composite classes, which helped make things a little less overwhelming than it could have been. This was a deliberate choice on our part, when deciding where to base ourselves. The different hours and class routines soon became familiar and the teaching style less surprising.
Each morning in addition to regular class our boys had dedicated French lessons, a fantastic resource to have available in a small school, in an economically deprived region. PE included gymnastics, cycling and swimming. They did music and drama. In the final week they took a trip to nearby mountain forests for orienteering and participated in the end-of-year school concert, an impressive affair.
The boys' coping at school was a credit to their strength of character. Learning some French before we went also gave them a great foundation. We increased their weekly Alliance Francaise classes to private lessons at home three mornings a week before school, which was very effective, particularly as their tutor happened to be a trained French primary school teacher. It was a significant investment – but one that paid dividends.
In short, they swam.
Leaving Quillan after three months felt like a significant ending. Life there was good but was, inevitably, too short. We miss the pace of life, the people, the cheese, the wine, the markets, the endless vistas over leafy plane trees and tiled rooftops. We left with questions that cannot yet be answered with certainty. Will we ever return to Quillan? Years from now will we carry regrets about what we did or did not do while we had the chance? Will our children thank us or curse us for it?
Ultimately we believe that the benefits of doing this adventure have been greater than the financial cost. In fact, there is plenty of evidence of the hard financial benefit longer term of young people studying languages. Our kids especially have benefited from getting up close and dirty with an unfamiliar language, culture, environment, and people, and are noticeably more confident and resilient. We think it's been better than winning Lotto.
Who knows, maybe in 30 years' time when they're working for the UN, we might even get some thanks. In the meantime, planning for the next trip begins ...
Read more about Jennifer and her family at: putitontheslate.wordpress.com