One year ago at midnight, as the seven stars of Matariki rose in the southern sky and one day after the winter solstice, we embarked on our grand adventure – what I hoped would be a year in France. A perfect moment for new beginnings, regeneration and reflection.
In the pictures taken at Auckland Airport, I look tired, with greasy hair (I swear I had just washed it!) and bleary eyes. We’d packed right up to the wire, leaving forgotten traces of ourselves in pictures blu-tac’ed behind the office door and on the undersides of upper bunk beds. By the time we got down to the city for dinner with family, six hours ahead of our flight, our youngest could barely sit still. He was equal parts excited and afraid that we would miss the plane.
What did we hope for back then? Time together as a family, an adventure, a chance to fulfil a lifelong dream, a second language for the children and mastery of French for me, and lots of outdoor activity. A break from normal life, time to breathe and heal. And for the first six weeks, a whole lot of fun – reconnecting with old friends and haunts in London, the Cricket World Cup, Harry Potter World, then on to France for castles and swimming pools and cute villages and croissants.
Today, we are home again, sooner than I intended and still trying to unwind the bureaucratic grip of our French life.
People ask ‘how was France?’ and I know the answer they want to hear is ‘amazing’. They want the fairytale, the happy ending, the dream fulfilled, tales of incredible adventures and unabashed family bliss. They want the picture perfect village that welcomed us in, lasting friendships and endless fun times.
Like everything in life, the real answer is far more complex. Our French adventure brought highs and lows, sometimes within a single day. It was joyful and it was gut wrenchingly painful. It was hugely challenging and profoundly rewarding. It was fun and it was sombre. It was a time of rich connection and deep loneliness, when we saw our circle shrink and our world expand.
It was also normal life, transported. Once our six-week holiday was over, Simon and I both continued to work remotely, with the added challenge of an unfriendly timezone. There were still projects to complete, deadlines to meet, email inboxes to clear, meetings to attend, fires to fight and colleagues to brief and supervise.
I filled out what felt like thousands of pages of paperasserie as we learned how to buy a car, open a bank account, sort out mobile phone contracts, organise insurance, enrol at school, register with the doctor, sign up for clubs, deal with a traffic accident, handle our daughter’s broken arm, visit the orthopaedic surgeon, get the car serviced and snow tyres fitted, register for ski passes, source second hand ski equipment. I had to get comfortable making phone calls in French, learning once more that facial expressions play a huge role in language comprehension.
We did kids’ sports, the PTA and school camp. We did birthday parties and play dates and neighbourhood functions. We learned to navigate the supermarket and we stood in the aisle of E.Leclerc, heads spinning, as we attempted to locate the exact types of binders/refill pads / clear files on the epic school stationery list, resulting in dozens of mis-purchases.
It was parenting to the power of 10, as we supported our children through one of the biggest challenges they have faced. As we travelled around France in those early days, I often joked with people we met that we were ‘cultivating resilience’, by popping the children in French school for a total immersion experience. Turned out I knew nothing of how hard it would be.
For our two boys, especially the youngest, those first months of school were brutal. The long days, the rigorous French education system with its emphasis on form over creativity, and the exhausting nature of total immersion pushed our kids to their limits. I endlessly questioned whether we were doing the right thing – or whether we were scarring them for life. I had late night Insta-chats with other parents on a similar path, equally pondering whether the price was worth the cost.
Once winter rolled into town, skiing and snowboarding became the children’s saving grace. An activity we could enjoy as a family, a forum in which all the kids were physically challenged yet experienced the satisfaction of incremental improvements, picking themselves up when they fell and digging deep for courage and tenacity. Fresh air, fun and friends – what more could we have asked of a family activity?
By the end of February 2020 we had found our French rhythm and the kids were doing so great. They’d had five months of schooling, and their language progress was rapidly accelerating. They could happily run errands, chat away to the shopkeepers or give presentations in front of the whole class in French. They could ski and snowboard like champions, whizzing around our local ski resort as a trio sans parents when a knee injury relegated me to the sidelines. They’d been to Paris and Barcelona and night skiing in Spain. We had stuffed their weekends so full of castles and croissants and mountain trails that they would moan – not again!
When we got on that plane one year ago today, I thought ‘anything could happen’ – and wouldn’t you know it, it did? Our grand adventure was rudely interrupted by a global pandemic. Didn’t see that one coming.
When I woke the boys at 6am on March 17, to the unexpected news that we were leaving NOW, they cheered. Who could blame them? They’d worked so damn hard and they were getting on okay at school but they missed the solid, easy friendships they had back home. The ski season was almost over, and France was going into lockdown – what was to miss?
Now, we are home and the kids are happy and thriving and I am constantly asked if I am ’glad to be home’, or told that we ‘made the right decision’. Yes, in the scheme of global events it was the right thing to do and New Zealand is a fine old place to be right now.
As for whether I am ‘glad to be home’, well that’s another complex question.
Like many around the world, I’m practicing the art of letting go. While what I have lost is nothing compared to the current struggles of so many, it’s still painful. The dates of all the adventures we had mapped out for the summer keep popping up in my calendar – Venice, La Rochelle, hiking Le Chemin de la Liberté over the mountains to Spain, Corsica, the Côte d’Azur, the Costa Brava – and I can’t quite bring myself to delete them. I watch French programmes on Netflix, to try and maintain my ear. And I’m still trying to sort out the sale of my car in France – so let’s call that ongoing free French lessons.
So did we get what we wanted from our epic adventure? Yes and no.
I’m proud of us for taking the leap. It took a lot of effort and hard work, before and during, to make it happen. It could easily have been something we said we wanted, but never achieved. I’m thankful that my husband and kids supported my dream. I’m so glad that we went when we did, back in those-not-so-long-ago days when travel seemed so simple – no quarantine, no closed borders – even if we didn’t understand that at the time.
I’m grateful for all we experienced and the people we met, who opened my eyes to new possibilities. I’m grateful for the lessons we learned, for the many ways the children grew in confidence and for the opportunity to open their eyes to another way of life.
I’m sad that my kids put all that work into surviving total immersion, yet did not experience the payoff of true fluency, lasting friendships and ongoing connections.
Today, as the Matariki stars again rise in the sky, I can’t help yearning for that sense of excitement and possibility we experienced one year ago. The whole travel landscape looks so different, that it’s hard to imagine when we might ever travel like that again. And it’s frustrating that after 25 years, France is STILL unfinished business for me.
But then, I’ve always said my favourite travel destinations are those where I’ve left feeling that there was still more that I wanted to do.
Perhaps that for me will always be la belle France xx