We hope this finds you enjoying le rentrée, as they call the return to school in France. Our rentrée was a bit sooner than would have been ideal, coming only four days after our arrival in France. We did our best to prepare ourselves. Since we had not driven to the school before (and because we shipped our GPS unit sans maps of Europe) we decided that it might be wise to scout the route to school the day before. Turned out to be a good idea, as our first drive in was a circuitous route that included missed turnoffs and detours through unknown villages until we finally arrived at the school, 3o minutes longer than our estimated drive time. But at least we knew how to get there.
On Monday morning our jet-lagged family piled into our Ford Focus rental car at 7:30am for le premier jour of class. Thanks to our previous day’s recce we arrived 30 minutes early and had time to meet several of the teachers who were delighted to meet the new American family who couldn’t comprehend a word they were saying. As most of you know, Paige and Ryan attended a Waldorf School in California, and we were fortunate to find one for them to attend here in France. Opening day at a Waldorf (Steiner) school entails a series of beautiful ceremonies, songs and speeches to welcome the families back to school. And I’m pretty sure that if we had understood any of it this was equally as beautiful.
We breezed through the three-hour parent meeting and collapsed back into the Focus for the 30-minute return home, imagining our children already well on their way towards French literacy. Or at least conscious.
I have only a vague idea what we did the rest of the day, or even the rest of the week. Our days were a blur of driving back and forth to school, interspersed with shopping at Auchan (the French equivalent of Target) for home and school supplies. Now I know that this doesn’t sound like the idyllic Provençal lifestyle glamorized in Peter Mayle’s novels, but little village shops really aren’t the best place to buy A4 notebook binders and toilet paper.
One of our main priorities was to buy a car to replace our rental Ford Focus (which is a fine American automobile, but at $250 a week not particularly a bargain). In California you can select pretty much any model of used car you want and have a dozen viable options. Not so in Provence. We were assisted in our search by a very sweet French woman who has been working at La Maison Rose, and offered to help us in the delicate art of French negotiation. She recommended finding a car at a dealer, because they offer a 12 month warranty and are less likely to try to sell you a piece of merde (Google it).
We spent two days visiting dealers and found a Citroen C4 with low milage and an automatic transmission (possibly one of the only voitures automatiques in all of Provence). We were ready to make the purchase, but our French negotiator had other plans. Felicia and I looked like Wimbledon spectators as we tried to follow a conversation that must have covered the entire history of the French automotive industry. Really, what could they have been talking about for so long? Perhaps this is a good opportunity to point out one of the first things we have learned since moving here: the French love to talk. I think it is because they sound so good doing it. As one of Paige’s classmates pointed out to her, “I like speeeking French becaussse eet ees suuch a beeuuteefull language.”
But I digress. Our Citroen negotiations stalled when the dealer wouldn’t agree to our negotiator’s demand to reduce the price by 30%. We were ready to pay retail, but this is not the way things are done in le Sud (the south). There is a process that must play out, and we were advised to come back in a day or two and certainly the salesperson would reduce the price. Since it can take up to a week to take delivery of a car after purchasing it, we decided we would come back the next day and take whatever price we could get.
That evening we had a meeting with a family with whom we hoped to covoiturage (carpool). The father, it turned out, worked for many years in the auto industry. When he heard we were searching for a car his only advice was to steer clear of Citroens, especially the C4, unless we liked frequent trips to the repair shop. He told us that of all the manufacturers, Toyota was hands down the best in terms of quality control.
To make a long story short, we bought a 2011 Prius that is very much like the one we sold in Los Angeles before we moved. We learned a very important lesson about the pace of life—sometimes slowing things down a little allows time to gather the important information needed to make smart decisions.
The other activity that consumes much of our time is the buying and eating of food. It now seems perfectly normal to eat a loaf of bread and drink bottle of wine daily. Even the most simple lunch of some ham and cheese on a baguette is accompanied by moans of pleasure at the taste and texture of the bread, the sweetness of the fruit, and the stinky ripeness of the cheese. A trip through the Bédoin outdoor market on Monday’s yields seafood paella, roasted chicken, artisanal goat cheese, walnut fig bread, wild boar sausage, lavender honey, and even a linen dress for Paige.
Our first two weeks haven’t been all work. We've spent time with friends from the US who have been living in France for almost five years, done a bit of site seeing, and attended a lovely aperitif party, thrown by the woman who is renting our village house. In her few months in France this outgoing woman from Seattle has become a part of the village social scene. She introduced us to a friendly group of artists, musicians and actors who generously shared valuable information about life in the village.
Meeting people in Provence in a social situation almost always starts with les bisous: three kisses starting with the left cheek. Messing up the left-cheek-first rule can be awkward, so concentration is required. We also noticed that the people we met, despite not knowing us, were very interested in having a conversation despite the limitations of our grade-school French. Why would we move from Los Angeles to Bédoin? How are the kids adapting in school? How long are we planning to stay? It’s a relief to be met with such openness, and makes us hopeful that we will be able to forge new friendships here soon.
No conversation would be complete without the requisite discussion about the weather. For the most part, il fait beaux. Days have been warm, with cool breezes blowing in during the evenings. Perfect for afternoon naps. But the weather can change quick. We had a brief introduction to the dreaded Mistral. The Mistral is a cold wind that arrives with a fury, often accompanied by hail, lightning and if you believe the rumors, can blow small children and pets into the next village. Our Mistral blew in, and it was quite impressive. Gusts of wind slammed shutters and doors open and closed, thunder and lightning put on a sound and light show, and sheets of rain washed over the dry countryside.
Alors, we were told that this was only a petit Mistral; just a taste of what we can look forward to in Winter. When the real thing hits we plan to keep the kids and dog inside, just to be safe.
Of course there are things we miss about Los Angeles: Leaving behind our family and friends has created the biggest hole in our lives. We miss them all and think about them every day. Other differences are more mundane. Shopping here takes much longer, primarily because we don’t have the advantage of brand familiarity. Staring down an entire isle filled with every cheese known to mankind is impressive, but intimidating. Thank goodness for gouda.
Simple business dealings are far more complicated. Opening a bank account requires an appointment a week in advance. Store hours are limited (and a bit arbitrary), nothing is open on Sundays after noon, and every official transaction is accompanied by vast amounts of paperwork. As the person who sold us our car said when handing over the contract, “C’est pour la poubelle.” (This is for the trashcan).
And of course the language barrier can’t be denied. Sitting through a two-hour school meeting in French left me brain dead. I can only imagine how the kids feel after an eight-hour school day, and try to be sympathetic when they climb in the car tired and grumpy. We also try not to instantly fall back on English, though almost everyone is very willing to try to communicate in English if they can. We really do want to learn French—it’s just so darn hard. By all reports, it gets better after about 3 months.
I can’t think of a better Christmas present.
The church bell in the village is ringing 11pm and I’m reminded that tomorrow is market day. I have to get up early to buy our paella and baguette from the boulangerie before they sell out. Life changes, but goes on, and we feel lucky to be together to experience whatever the future holds. Thanks for allowing us to continue to share our story with you.
Avec notre amour,
Ken, Felicia, Paige and Ryan Wallace
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All images © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
With the decision to move to France now official and sealed with four Lufthansa airline tickets from Los Angeles to Marseille, the excitement that comes with a life-changing decision is being elbowed aside by the mind-numbing reality of all the work that lies ahead.
We have just over a month to prepare our house to go on the market, and less than four months before we climb aboard a plane, squeeze into four economy seats, and bid California au revoir. An all-hands-on-deck attack on 17 years of clutter is underway. I'm flying home from NY nearly every weekend for the next six weeks to pack boxes and excess furnishings into storage. It's 48 hours of non-stop roll-up-your-sleves hard work, then a red-eye back to NY Sunday night.
I know that every person who has ever moved says the same thing, but mon dieu, "I cannot believe how much stuff we've accumulated." On our first weekend of packing we carted off boxes of books, bins of DVDs, cases of photo albums, and enough random sports equipment to host a summer olympics (did we really think we would have time to learn to play tennis?).
We are thinking of this as a first culling. The goal is to be quick and get the stuff into storage so that we can prep the house for the real estate agent to sell it. Once the house is sold we will begin the process of selling, donating, or tossing everything that isn't going to France, staying in long-term storage, or being burned. My primary goal is that the storage unit not look like the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Besides preparing to sell our house there are dozens of petit details in France to think about. A house, utilities, bank accounts, a car, visas, the best sources for wine, cheese and bread. But the most urgent problem was to figure out where we could send our kids to school. Our kids were petitioning for a French school that taught classes in english. Alor, we had to break it to them that for the most part the French like to teach their students in, well, french.
In California, our children attend a Rudolph Steiner Waldorf School. It's an artistic environment that puts hands-on learning above technology and standardized testing. Science, math, art, language, music and drama are given relatively equal weight in the curriculum. It was our hope to find a Steiner school in France so that our children could continue in the same learning environment, albeit in la langue française. After researching our options we were very happy to find the Avignon Steiner School. After sending copies of the kids' records, letters of recommendation and a few Skype video calls with the instructors we were thrilled that they agreed to accept our kids for the 2014/15 school year.
Our next item of concern was housing. The initial ill-conceived notion was to move into the house we already own in France. But four people and a dog in an 800 square foot house with no yard seemed like a plan that had the potential to end badly. Like The Shining.
We decided that it might make sense to search for a house that we could rent, ideally one with enough room that our kids could shout at each other from separate bedrooms. We searched out homes on Sabbatical.com and the other popular rental property sites, but they all were either too small, too expensive, or required that we move out during the summer months when the owners either used them or rented them short term at much higher premium vacation rates.
Luckily for us, a very nice couple that our property manager knows had just gotten a divorce. Their four bedroom villa with a pool, olive trees and a wood-fired pizza oven in the kitchen was sitting empty and they wanted to rent it. It is perfectly situated just outside the village, and big enough that everyone gets their own little piece of Provence.
And that, readers and friends, is where were are on our path. We don't know exactly where the path leads, but that is part of this experiment called life. We want to plan, of course, but we also want to be open to a new ideas, new experiences, and change. And through it all hopefully create a new vision of our future together as a family.
With our own bedrooms.
My daughter likes to know the odds. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is this move to France?" she asked. A few weeks ago, I'd say it was a "6." It was an idea that seemed to have legs. This week it has moved to a strong "9." We've met with realtors, told most of our friends and family, and started serious research into visas, shipping, pet transportation and schools.
It is rather frightening how quickly an idea transforms itself into a reality. It really does look like we will be moving to France this summer, which is at the same time exciting and terrifying. There is so much to do, and much of it to be dealt with from afar while I am working in NY. My brain is overflowing with to-do lists that wake me up at 2am demanding attention.
The biggest challenge will be the selling of our home in Los Angeles. It is full of 17 years of memories, and even more full of the stuff that a family gathers and saves over the course of nearly two decades. What do we sell, give away, ship or store? There are certain to be things we can't bear to part with, yet can't take with us to France.
I see some stormy times ahead, but I see an amazing opportunity as well.
My wife goes through cycle of excitement and uncertainty. She is excited to see new places and experience another culture, but most of all to be together as our children approach the ages that will soon see them leaving home. She is uncertain about cutting ties with what is safe and familiar, and with what feels like home. We've been fortunate to live in a part of southern California that is truly a community. We are close to our neighbors, who are loving friends, and can always be relied upon when we need them. For the most part our families are not near us, so the impact is slightly less immediate, but we both have aging family and being far from them will make it even more difficult to stay connected.
Opinions amongst friends and family range from envy to surprise to bewilderment. Most are supportive and make promises to visit us in Provence "one day." Of course some will, and most won't, but for those who make the adventure we can promise a warm "bonjour" and a glass of local wine.
One of my most important tasks is to locate a school for my children to attend in the Fall. They are at a tricky age--old enough that learning a new language will require effort and will no doubt be frustrating for them at first. In California they attend a Steiner School, and luckily there is one in Avignon, not too far from where we will be living.
I cannot imagine how people made moves like this before the age of the internet. The resources that are at our fingertips is truly astounding. While searching for information about the Steiner School I stumbled upon a blog from an American woman whose children had attended the school. We exchanged emails and then talked on the phone, and she reassured me that it is a wonderful school with a multi-cultural student body that would embrace foreign students and ease the transition. Many of the high school children have even spent the last year abroad studying in the US, and have come back fluent in English.
Of course, while it is our goal to assimilate into French culture and learn the language, we also realize that major life changes come with major emotional challenges as well. When you are a kid, it helps to cope with change when people can understand you.
There's no question that no matter what happens, this is going to be a great adventure that can only make our family stronger. If it doesn't kills us.