Have you ever wondered what it’s like to raise a family abroad? In this next post in my living abroad series, we find out what it’s like for a family of seven to live the slow life in a village in France. Thanks, Susan! (You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog, Our French Oasis.)
I live in Charente Maritime, a department bordering the west coast of France with my husband and our five children, a couple of dogs, two cats and lots of chickens! We deliberately chose this area for its wonderful temperate climate, long sunny summers and generally mild winters.
We live just south of Rochefort sur Mer, about fifteen minutes from the closest beach in a very small village with no commerce apart from a bar and a bakery. As we are both fortunate enough to work from home, this suits us perfectly. My husband has an internet based business and I run our small holiday cottage which we rent out on a weekly basis. I also write about our life here in various magazines and on my blog, Our French Oasis.
On the decision to move to France:
We first moved to France in 2008. Both my husband and I have always spent a great deal of time here in our childhoods and we both have a profound love of the country. We really wanted our children to grow up with a slightly slower pace of life and to be able to walk to school and to their friends’ houses feeling safe and secure. We also love the fact that the French embrace family life, which is so important to us.
On first impressions of life in France:
I don’t think our initial impressions have changed as such, they have just grown as we have learnt so much more living here. Initially I felt like we were the strangers in a village where most people knew each other, at the very least, by sight. We were then, and still are, the only English in the area and I felt as if we stood out like sore thumbs. However, slowly people began to get to know us and over time, we began to feel as if we belonged. Now years later, I feel as if we are one of the locals, almost!
On getting used to cultural differences:
The biggest thing is the fact that everything stops for lunch. Shops close at 12 and reopen at 2 in the larger towns, in the smaller ones perhaps not until 3. Businesses close too. It took a while to get accustomed to the fact that it is simply impossible to do anything during these hours, except eat of course!
We also had to get used to Sundays being real days off, not just for those that work in offices, but for everybody, shops are closed and we had to learn never to phone any tradesman on a Saturday afternoon. The weekend is for family and friends.
On making friends in another country:
Quite naturally we made friends through our children and parents of their friends at school, we also joined the local tennis club and met a great many people and we attend village events. Sometimes we don’t always want to and now we have been here a while we can pick and choose a little, but initially we made a huge effort to join in and at the very least show our faces. We got to know our neighbours and invited them for dinner. In short we made a huge effort to be as social as we could be and not just hide away and keep to ourselves, and we have been rewarded by meeting some wonderful people and making some lovely friends.
What a typical day looks like:
My day starts around 7am when my husband and I wake the children. Breakfast is always noisy with lots of hungry mouths to feed and it’s always a bit of a rush getting everyone out of the door and into the car on time. I usually do the school run which is only ten minutes down the road. When I return home, I always make myself my first cup of coffee of the day, I hate to drink it when I wake early in the morning. However, by 9am it tastes so good!
I then usually spend the morning working on my computer, writing articles, writing my blog, answering emails, replying to comments, and replying to any booking requests for the gite. My husband and I always eat lunch together, often something simple like fresh vegetables from our own garden in the summer and eggs from the chickens. In the afternoon in the winter I work on several of the projects I am currently undertaking and in the spring and summer I try to spend at least a couple of hours gardening. We have just over an acre and it takes quite a lot of upkeep, plus we want to keep everything nice for our guests.
By mid afternoon it is time to collect the children from school and from there on it’s all go, sports, homework, etc. Each day I also have to fit in cleaning the house, the laundry, shopping and cooking dinner, being a mother and running a family home. There is never a dull moment and certainly no time when I ever have a spare minute to get bored!
On the best parts of village life in France:
I love visiting the market to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, in the winter we don’t produce much in our own garden so these are the best place for buying local produce. We also love the history, the architecture, walking down the road and looking at the walls of a 12th century church — there is just so much to see. We love walking through the local vineyards and the grape harvest in the autumn. We love ice skating in the winter in Rochefort, our closest town and dining al fresco under the stars in the summer without the need for a jacket. There’s so much to love about life here!
On the challenges of living abroad:
At first the language was the biggest challenge and at times I still make stupid mistakes, and setting up a company here and all of the paperwork involved has been incredibly difficult.
Fun facts about living in rural France:
I had to learn to have enormous patience! Nothing ever happens very quickly.
The French love an English accent just as much as we love a French accent.
This is the oyster capital of France and the locals eat them as a takeaway. They’re inexpensive and little wooden cabins selling them beside the road can be found everywhere.
Up until ten years ago every newcomer to our village was given a pair of chickens as a welcome present by the Mayor.
A cheap bottle of local wine costs less than a bottle of coca cola!
French children really do eat everything!
On raising kids in France:
It is fabulous to think our children are now fully bilingual. I still marvel at the way they flit between the two languages without any thought whatsoever. When they speak French no one would know they are not from here but when they speak English there is no hint of a French accent!
Susan’s travel tips for the countryside of France:
Try and get away from the big tourist traps and head to the local towns and villages. This is a hugely varied area with something for everyone. We have four Atlantic Islands, the über chic Île de Ré and the larger and more laid back Île d’Oléron, the Île d’Aix, Napoleon’s last home on French soil and where no cars are allowed and the Île Madame accessed only at low tide across the causeway. We have fabulous cities, a Roman amphitheatre, and beautiful countryside and some of the country’s best beaches all within half an hour’s drive, not to mention fabulous local wine and great food. Plus of course the best oysters in France! My biggest tip when looking for a restaurant is see if it’s busy. If the locals are eating there it is sure to be good!
One never knows what is around the corner, but for now, no, I hope we never leave, but I have learnt never to say never!
Thanks, Susan, for this peek into life in this corner of France. Doesn’t it sound lovely? If you or someone you know has lived abroad, please let me know if you’d like to share your story!