Choosing the town where we would live our French dream was a bit like sticking a pin in a map. Where do you start?
From the beginning, my husband Simon told me that I should feel free to pick any town or place, in any part of France I wanted. This was my dream, and he didn’t have a personal preference, he wanted me to have freedom to choose.
Trouble was, I didn’t have a particular preference either. There was no special place or region I wanted to explore, I only knew I preferred the south to the north of France. I felt strongly that as long as the kids were happy, then we would all be happy, so a place where they could enjoy their favourite activities was top of the list.
But the things that could really make or break our experience, like the community vibe and the degree to which the schools will welcome your children are hard to glean from websites or Google Streetview.
For me, the first priority was the language experience. I didn’t want a place with too many Anglophone expats, as I wanted to be sure that the kids (and me) would get the language immersion we need to to make rapid progress in French. However this also required a school that was willing and open to support this experience. One family I spoke to in my research, said the teachers in their French school showed no interest in their English-speaking children for the first four months. This was a little worrying. Of course I understand it’s extra work having non-French speakers in the class, but I would hope having different cultures in the class brings something valuable too.
While it would have been ideal to mooch around France for a bit and choose our village based on first hand experience, we did not have that luxury. Because our daughter was almost 12 and in collège (intermediate/middle school,) she had to be registered with the school by June, or she may have been unable to start school with her peers at the beginning of the September term. While we could more or less rock up to primary school, places for foreign students at collège are allocated by the inspector for the education department for the region, and require an in-person appointment. We spoke to one Kiwi family in a neighbouring prefecture who arrived in August and had to wait six weeks into the term before their child could start school. Now that we are here, I don’t think that would have been the case in the Ariège, but every department is different and the local procedure is something that is hard to glean from afar.
All of this meant we had to settle on a town and enrol our kids in school, before setting foot in France. In truth, that kind of suited my hyper-planning, over-thinking personality.
So we got out a pen and paper and jotted down some ideas for our dream hometown:
- A total immersion experience for the kids
- A school that is open to foreign children, especially beginner language learners
- Small town community over big town anonymity, (we reasoned) it would be easier to get to know people
- Not too touristy and still feels French
- Easy access to the outdoors – for hiking, biking, exploring, skiing. We didn’t need a beach or the coast as we live near stunning beaches at home and wanted a different experience.
- A rugby team for Tom (he was clear this was a non-negotiable part of the deal)
- Availability of an affordable rental, with great WiFi, so we can both work from home. room for guests and walkability to a cafe, boulangerie and ideally, a school
Our initial plan had me spending most of our “real life” time in France alone with the children (this subsequently changed). For this to work, I knew I had to make it as easy as possible, and that meant finding someone who could lay a path for us to follow, or introduce us to people in the community. The flipside was that I was keen to make it our “own” experience. I didn’t want to be New Zealand family #65 passing through the town that year.
Here’s how I started the process:
Step One – Ask everyone you know
I emailed everyone I knew with a connection to France, sent them our list of ideas and asked for their recommendations. Based on our criteria, three out of the four responses recommended the area around the Pyrénées. One friend recommended the gorgeous market town of Mirepoix and put me in touch with an expat who lived nearby.
I’d already read a couple of books and blogs about Aussie and Kiwi families spending time in the Pyrenees – Am I French Yet by Kate Petersen, and a blog that became a book, by Jennifer Andrewes, Parallel Lives. Both families ended up settling in a town called Quillan, in the Aude, and wrote extensively about the town’s attributes. In fact, at different times they even rented the same apartment above the cafe in the square.
Step Two – Talk to people
I spoke to a number of people about their experiences in the area and got some inside info on what it’s like to live there. This included yakking to two families who had lived in Quillan, and scrutinising Jennifer’s book including her reasons for choosing that town. It had a beautiful setting in the foothills, was close to ski fields and had easy access to walking and mountain biking trails.
Mirepoix was more aesthetically pleasing to my eye, but finding useful information proved more challenging. People would agree to chat on Skype, but then it never seemed to happen. And while the town was lovely, had a famous market and was only 40 mins from the mountains, it was otherwise in the middle of a rural setting and I wondered what we would actually do there. I had read many books that talked about villages virtually shutting down from early November through to the spring.
Step Three – Look for long term rentals on Airbnb
At this point we were still working out the financial viability of our vision, and the first step was trying to find a house. We emailed a number of property owners on Airbnb and a surprising number were interested in long term lets, at an affordable price (more on that later). I also reached out to local estate agents for their ideas.
The other great thing about Airbnb is it’s an easy way to connect with foreign property owners, who are likely to be a bit more flexible about things like signing a lease when we don’t yet have a French bank account, and wording the lease in English. I spoke to two families who spent time in Quillan, We also hopped on Skype with one owner and heard his enthusiastic sales pitch on why their town Quillan was the best choice.
We tried to do this with a family from Mirepoix too but it turned out months later that they didn’t get the message. Quillan just seemed to be well… easier. Was it a sign?
Step Four – Reach out to school administrators
In France, school enrolments are handled via the mairie or town hall. So I reached out to the administrators to seek information about enrolments and check what we had to do to make it work.
Step Five – Sign up..
We agreed we would go to Quillan and had everything lined up with the house…
Three months later I had a total freak out, threw it all up in the air and changed my mind…
All will be revealed in part 2…