“We left Australia not knowing the language, where we would live, nor if the kids had a school to go to, but believing everything would work itself out.” Nikki Mahony
In 2009 Peter and Nikki Mahony left the home comforts of their farm in Queensland to embark on an epic French adventure with their 4 children Josephine (7 at the time), Christopher (6), Patrick (4), and Dominic (3). For over a year they lived, worked and played near St Menoux in the Auvergne Region – collecting memories that would last a lifetime.
Over the next 2 posts Nikki tells us what it took to get there, how their new life in France unfolded, and how the experience continues to enrich their lives…..
Nikki, what made you decide to embark on such a venture and why France?
Peter and I lived in England for two years and came home for the birth of our first child. We decided then that we wanted to return to Europe to a non-english speaking country to live once we had our little family sorted. Our main goal was to immerse ourselves and our children into another way of life …. It is one of the most rewarding and enriching ways to see a country. We loved France from the few sojourns we made across the channel. The country people were so friendly, the climate amazing and food to die for!
There were a million reasons why not to do it or why we couldn’t or shouldn’t go. Things happening around us indicated it was time …. The kids were old enough (just) that we didn’t need nappies or prams and hopefully would remember some of it but not so old that schooling would be majorly impacted.
We wound up or sold two of our business partnerships (it was time to start the building process again or take a break), my brother came home to take over the family farm where I managed the accounts (I felt it was best to be well and truly out of his hair and to not be an easy fall-back), and a friend discovered they had cancer (this was enough to spur us into action – we thought, one never knows what is around the corner ……we could stay here and work our little hearts out day-in-day-out, and live with regret at what we hadn’t done……or just do it).
Plus I found a lovely little saying……
“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily.
To not dare, is to lose oneself.”
~ Soren Aabye Kierkegaard ~
How much did you plan or organise before you left?
I spent 2 years researching / investigating / budgeting. We quickly determined it was not possible to obtain a working visa (not speaking French was the main stumbling block) and the study visas were fairly restrictive for extended family members …. We were very fortunate to host a young French man on my parent’s farm, whose family returned the favour. They sponsored us for a long stay visa which included having to submit the title deeds of their house and land (under the guise of allowing us to live there for 1 year), passports and all sorts of information that required a lot of mutual trust for a family they had not met.
I started listening to French language CDs with 10 months to go, and bought a video for the kids to watch. We didn’t seem to be progressing very rapidly… every time we listened to them, it seemed like we were starting again. I wasn’t too worried, surely all I needed to be able to say was “pain au chocolat”!
Then to look for a school … again we considered several options including School of Distance Ed from Australia, but that would have undermined the immersion experience. We decided that if we were going to go that far away, the kids should experience a whole different type of education as well. My uncle worked closely with a few Steiner schools (www.steinereducation.edu.au), running camps on his farm, and it felt like a good fit. I researched Montessori, Steiner, International and State schools. France has only a handful of Steiner schools. We looked at the regions where all the schools were, then chose the one with the lowest cost of living!!!
SO…. We had a school lined up but they didn’t want to commit unless we popped over for an interview the year before. In the end a Dutch family living nearby, who had a lot to do with the school, suggested the school accept us conditional to an interview just before school started.
We left Australia not knowing the language, where we would live nor if the kids had a school to go to, but believing everything would work itself out. If it all went pear-shaped perhaps we could find a house-sit somewhere near the Spanish boarder as Pete and I both had passable Spanish…….once … 10 years ago.
Many of our friends and family didn’t know whether to be jealous of us or terrified for us …. Most chose the latter, and happily admitted they thought we were more than a little crazy! When my cousin asked why we were doing it, I responded that we thought it would be fun, and we were ready for a bit of a break. He looked aghast, and spluttered “You consider packing up your whole life, dragging 4 little kids all the way over the other side of the world to a country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language, have no work and nowhere to live…. ‘a break’?”
…. “well, when you put it like that!”
Everything indeed fell into place…. The school took us (as we were one of the few able to pay full fees). We bought a car big enough for all the visitors we knew would come (and they did). The “house” was part of an old chateau on the school grounds, complete with private tower which became the kids’ playroom. The whole lot was on a farm with its own organic shop, a creek with a small forest, old open wells and a walled vegie garden worked by horse-led plough …. A fairy-tale paradise. We slowly learnt enough French to get by (the children were fluent in 3 months) and of course had many an awkward, hilarious and confusing conversation.
Besides language what were some of the other significant cultural differences you experienced?
Seasons – that was the most sensational and spectacular experience … to truly really feel the rhythm of life and strong change in the seasons.
Kissing – the French kiss you on each cheek (mwah, mwah) every time they see you (no matter how many times a day that may be). The teachers and coaches kiss and hug all the kids and the kids kiss and hug each other – another very special experience … and one we Aussies had to get used to having such a big personal space and stand-offish casual greeting culture. (Even the French say there is nothing quite like an embracing Australian bear hug though.)
Eating habits and opening times – We had a lot to learn as an “early to bed – early to rise” farming family. No-one gets going and certainly no shops open before 10am. Banks and most other businesses were shut Mondays and open Saturdays.
Anytime between 9am-11am many would indulge in a strong black coffee, a smoke and perhaps a croissant or pain-au-chocolate (The kids LOVED that Nutella was considered a vital food group and chocolate for breakfast was a celebrated French right).
Then promptly at 12noon it’s tools down and everything shuts for a huge lunch break (the main meal of the day) … 3 courses and 2 hour closing time.
Dinner usually consists of a variety of aperitifs but can extend to a 3 course meal. More pertinently it is never served before 7:30 or 8pm at night and the French love to turn up late for everything or not at all. We once attended a junior football dinner (Chris played soccer at a nearby town) that started at 7:30. At 8pm when we arrived there was no-one there. We assumed that with the thick snow and icy roads it had been called off, but no … people started dribbling in at 9pm and we started eating at 10pm. Dessert was served at 2am. We woke the kids up from under the table for each course!
Words and Images: Nikki Mahony