So how did we end up in our tiny little French town of Ax-les-Thermes, in the little-known départment of the Ariège? We have been asked this question more times than I can count so I should have this story nailed. Usually I mime circling a finger in the air and sticking it in the map, because that’s the way I began.
In part 1 of this blog, I explained how we settled on the south west, the mountains rather than the plains, and initially on the town of Quillan. That was back in February 2019, and for a while things seemed set.
But by April, I was having wobbles.
When there are external parameters that determine your new home, like a job or a house, well then the decision is more or less made for you.
But with freedom to choose anywhere, comes responsibility. It would be my choice and mine alone. If I picked a town, and the children were miserable there, or had a hard time being accepted at school, how would that feel? In theory we could get up and move. In reality, with lease commitments and school administration, it’s not so simple.
So why was I wobbling? On paper everything looked fine. Quillan was a quiet country town, but that’s what we wanted, and in theory it ticked a lot of boxes, with a gorgeous setting and plenty of outdoor exploration.
The first problem was that I had read two recent books by expats who had spent time in Quillan. Although these shared so much to love about the town and the amazing region, I felt like everything had been discovered for me. I knew the name of the café owner and which bakery was the best and which walks we should tackle and where to eat.
This would have been perfect if we were only spending a few months in France. But I wanted some surprises. Quillan felt too easy, I suppose – and goodness knows my French teacher (and my business coach) will tell you how I like to complicate things.
So I hopped on Facebook and posted perhaps the most irritating possible question to the members of the New Zealanders in France group, many of whom have lived in l’Hexagone for decades. Where should we go, with our criteria (from part 1) in mind?
The responses were interesting. Many said “wherever you go, the experience will be what you make it.” Some challenged our assumption that small towns would be more welcoming, saying that it can take generations to be accepted in some rural villages. Several plumped for Albi, a larger town north east of Toulouse. And one piped up to share her experience of spending two years in a small town 90 minutes south of Toulouse, called Ax-les-Thermes.
Ax-les-Thermes has mountain biking and hiking trails straight out your front door, and it’s just off the main road to Andorra (more amazing skiing and hiking) and Barcelona, just three hours away, and we would later discover it’s one of the few towns in France with an overnight sleeper train direct to Paris. It’s also a thermal resort… ahh hot baths for après-ski. It had a great rock climbing club, rugby, hip hop dance and horse riding – all things my children had requested. Ski and snowboarding clubs run on Wednesdays and Saturdays through the winter and the télécabine (gondola) runs right up from the centre of town. There are also school ski days, an exciting novelty for the children.
Whoa, sounds amazing right? So I hopped on the phone to this new Facebook connection to find out more about Ax-les-Thermes. She turned out to be the teacher of my good friend’s children down in the South Island. #onlyinnewzealand. She couldn’t speak highly enough of the schools in Ax, and advised there were few other English-speaking families there, so it would indeed be total immersion. She said that while Ax-les-Thermes doesn’t have the postcard-perfect village centre of “les plus beaux villages” in the Dordogne or elsewhere, it had magnificent natural beauty and plenty of country village atmosphere. It felt like this would suit our low-key vibe.
I debated internally for many days. On the internet it had only half the population of Quillan’s 3000 so on first glance, I would not have considered such a small place. But being a ski resort, it would not shut down in winter as many villages do – on the contrary, this would be the most vibrant time – and it seemed to tick all the children’s requests which would help sweeten the whole leave-friends-and-home-behind-and-live-Mummy’s-dream thing.
Finally we put it to the children. Everyone was unanimous. Quillan was off and Ax-les-Thermes was on.
Things moved quickly from there. That one British family at the school put me in touch with another family who had a home to rent in a neighbouring hamlet. I reached out to the Mairie (village hall) to enquire about schools, they passed my emails immediately to the two principals and within 12 hours both had emailed to say they would love to welcome our children and it was no problem that they did not speak French.
For me, that sealed the deal. If the schools were welcoming and the transition went smoothly, the whole experience would be better for everyone.
At the end of our summer roadtrip, we spent 10 days in our almost-Quillan house in August over the lively summer festival, really hoping not to like it too much! It was great fun, with concerts in the square, the annual Quillan criterium cycle race, and a riotous répas du boeuf, but as soon as we arrived in Ax-les-Thermes, we felt like we had made the right choice for us. Phew!
So how would you go about choosing your hometown, if you had no fixed parameters?,