While most of us may occasionally dream (especially on a grey, wet Monday) of relocating to somewhere lovely and warm, mum of two Jill Cowdry convinced her family to relocate to Aix en Provence for a year. She explains why they made the move, and how they’ve found their adventure so far.
Why did you decide to move your family to France?
A mid-life crisis? That may be overstating it, but I certainly wanted to change direction and, thankfully, my husband did too. I suppose it was a combination of elements – the more or less constant grisly grey of the British weather, the traffic congestion, the challenges of the English education system and the cost of living. After 15 years of surviving in London, we all needed to break the pattern.
France had drawn me in some 15 years earlier when I first visited Paris and tasted my first crepe. Strangely, it almost felt like home. Perhaps I was French in a previous life! Numerous trips to France followed, including ones with my family and as I got to know the country better the conviction grew that one day we would live there.
How did you find your home there?
Last June, dream and opportunity came together almost miraculously. One morning, towards the end of another ‘search for school and house’ trip to Aix en Provence, a lovely man came over to the café table. He had seen us at a restaurant the night before and heard us talking about schools.
We started chatting and were soon talking about how we were planning to rent out our house in Richmond and move to Aix-en-Provence for a year. He said he knew an estate agent who might be able to help. An hour later he called to say a charming house had just come onto the market in Luynes, a village close to Aix. We viewed the property that night and, a few weeks later, having rented our own house out, we signed a one year lease.
Why did you choose AIX en Provence?
We had got to know quite a few parts of France, but Provence was our favourite because of its climate, beautiful landscape and proximity to the French Alps, Spain and Italy. We had also investigated the three school options – public, private and international – and had discounted the first two because we felt it was a little dramatic to go from English to only French, particularly if it was only going to be for a year.
Aix en Provence is one of the most beautiful French towns I have been to. The old town is an absolute joy with its cobbled streets, charming old buildings and enticing shops. There are festivals aplenty and markets every day. Tourists and locals alike enjoy Aix all year round and the many universities attract plenty of young people. Mont St Victoire, whose impressive sight Cezanne captured in numerous paintings, can be seen from the town and is a delightful place to walk or bike.
There are so many areas to explore close to Aix including Avignon, St Tropez, Luberon and the Camargue. The vibrant city of Marseilles is close but it’s the coastline near here that has really impressed. Cassis and the amazing Calangues are my favourite by far. One of my new activities, hiking, has taken me down a Calangue to a beach lapped by clear med waters and up mountains covered by rosemary and thyme.
Sea swimming, skiing and biking are popular activities and the Southern Alps are two hours away. Olive picking, truffle hunting and French cooking are just a few new activities we have embarked on and I simply can’t wait for the lavender.
How have your children coped with the move?
Bringing young children to another country is hugely enriching for them but it’s not easy. Challenges abound – new teachers, new school regimes, leaving their old friends, making new ones and of course, a new language.
Choosing an international school eases the language difficulty but only partly: children up to six or seven at CIPEC spend 50% of the time being taught in English and 50% French. Older children are taught in their native language, although they receive significantly more foreign language classes than they would in an English school.
My eldest coped mainly because she was embraced by a wonderful group of non-French speaking girls. My youngest didn’t fare so well for the converse reason – there were few native English speakers in her class and she had difficulty making friends. She tried but it was too different from her school back home and, at one stage, we almost felt it was time to go home.
Thankfully, the school was very responsive when we raised the issue. Anna was moved up a year to more English speaking classes and a better choice of English speaking friends. Phew!
What’s the schooling like?
CIPEC, a mixed school of around 300 children age four to 11, lies on the edge of Aix surrounded by sunflower fields and forests – a magical setting. It’s a simple building, simply equipped with no computers or anything fancy. The’re’s a mix of international and French teachers. French teachers are strict and tough (a very different style to the UK) and the kids have to fend for themselves. Thankfully the strong international element balances this all out.
French is taught for an hour every day with extra tuition available. Playtime is running in the forests and making dens, rain or shine. They do plenty of sports too, including handball, gymnastics, golf and horse riding. But it’s not like the ordered, whistle blowing kind of school sport you find in the UK – the PE teacher wears gold converse shoes and always has her little dog with her. And our last sports day was held in a forest full of giant holes in the ground (no health and safety forms to fill out here).
I asked the children what they liked about CIPEC and they said ‘being freer’ and being able to ‘make more decisions ourselves’. Interesting! It’s a far cry from the girls’ private school in the UK and I can see what a wonderful benefit and experience this has been for them. And their French? Well, the kids say they’ve learnt hardly a word but I don’t believe them. I’ve overheard them exchanging snatches of French with friends and the other day they were singing French songs in the bath!
The school day is essentially nine to five, substantially longer than its UK equivalent but the total number of taught hours is roughly the same as the school shuts at 12 noon on Wednesdays. Pupils are regularly tested, and homework is done mainly in study periods, removing what for many families at home is an almost daily source of friction.
It’s not perfect and if you’re looking for major, shiny facilities with white boards and amazing sports grounds then it’s probably not for you – my mother remarked on visiting that it was just like her old school! But I really like it, because the kids are happy and because it is unique. There is a fascinating mix of nationalities here and they have made unforgettable friendships.
And what about French women?
Women are certainly different here, and it takes time to get to know how they operate. One thing is for sure – they have it sorted on the look and glamour stakes. For them size does matter, which goes at least some way to explaining why you rarely see an over-weight femme francaise.
On a recent trip back to the UK I asked myself – have I lost weight? And then it hit me… I felt slimmer in Britain. Back in France and I was back to feeling a size 16, even though I’m a size 12!
Maybe it’s Aix or maybe its France, but women here are an inspiration. They celebrate their age and they work at their shape and dress. I look around the streets of Aix filled with young beautiful women but I find myself drawn to the older ones. They are amazing – they wear what they want, regardless of their age. Yes, they work hard at it but there’s pride and celebration too. Recently I saw a woman in her late 50s walking down the boulevard in sparkly jeans and thigh length, black leather boots. Wow – I thought. Good for you.
If French women have a big meal one night, they’ll detox on vegetable soup for the next few days. I’m inspired – I’ll never be chic but I’m going to try to learn one or two tricks!
What inspired you to start a blog about your adventure?
For several years before relocating to France I would eagerly scan travel blogs in my relaxation time. Travel has always been my passion, but I had become stuck. After having the kids I stayed home to bring them up – something that was very important to me.
My career disappeared after I decided I didn’t want go back to it, and I felt lost for a while as I searched and explored different ventures but nothing stirred the desire to start. It was the travel related stuff that I loved, and it was only at the moment we decided to relocate to France that I started designing the logo of my blog.
I’m not really not sure if it was France or a change of direction that inspired me, but suddenly I realised that I was perfectly capable of creating my own blog. And that’s what I did! A few months on and I’m learning about photography, writing, technology and social media. I adore it and can’t imagine life without it now.
I love any feedback and people are generally lovely about it. I’m now planning to set up a travel company called ‘dreamy little adventures in Provence’ which will offer short trips to this beautiful part of the world. I hope to run my first trip this summer and it will focus on the lavender fields. I want to target mums like me looking for inspiration – even if it’s just for a weekend.
Do you plan to return to the UK, or stay in France?
We came here for a year and love it. It’s a hard decision whether to stay or return to the UK (partly due to family back home, finances and senior school decisions) but whatever happens we will never let Aix go. If we choose UK, Aix will become a second home where we will buy a property, and the memory of this little adventure will stay forever.
You can read more about Jill’s adventures in her blog My Dreamy Provence.