“More than anything, the people and the seasons were the essence of our time in France. Without that connection to the land and the communities it would not have been the same.” Nikki Mahony
It took effort, determination and a whole lot of wanderlust for Peter and Nikki Mahony to make the move to France with their 4 young children. However, once settled, they embraced their new life on a farm outside St Menoux with gusto. In this final instalment Nikki reflects on daily life, school, community, friendship, returning to Australia, and how their family time in France will, in many ways, remain with them forever.
Here’s what she had to say…
There is no doubt our experience in France changed all of our lives.
The children have an inherent understanding that the world is far bigger and far older than their backyard.
The Steiner experience (www.steinereducation.edu.au) exposed them to music, art and language in such a rich manner. There was singing practice every Monday and then every day in the 2 weeks leading up to a festival -Christmas, 3 Kings Day, Chandeleur (Candlemas or Groundhog Day), Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday), Easter, Mat Fleuri (May Day) -and the list goes on … made even richer as it truly fitted with the northern hemisphere seasons.
We made lanterns with autumn leaves or carved pumpkins; baked bread and gingerbread houses; constructed real Christmas wreaths, Waldorf dolls and wax candles; roasted chestnuts on the fire; danced around a maypole; sang from the hilltop at dawn en masse; and attended medieval festivals.
Living in a Steiner community in the rural heart of France was perhaps not a classical French experience. There were very few foreign tourists, and we were surrounded by a community of people who railed against the somewhat overbearing French system; an eclectic mix! There was the man who washed naked from the barrel under his downpipe once a week, an oscar-winning costume designer and his young family next door, an english teacher, her musician husband starting his own business and their children (our constant saviours, french tutors and friends), single parents, mixed families, French and foreigners. Our family were known as the “meat eaters” as most were strictly vegetarian.
A Dutch family who lived on the next door farm took us under their wing. Her father owned the school land and buildings and she & her husband were heavily involved with the school. We became very close to them, helping on the farm and in the school for reduced rent.
We befriended the lady who sold milk and cheese at the weekend markets and ended up working on their farm where they use only horses and man-power (no machinery)…. Picking potatoes out of the field, harvesting & gathering in wheat by pitchfork & trailer, then enjoying a French feast afterwards.
Every child in the school played at least one instrument, so we found an English couple to teach us music – piano, violin & guitar. He of course used to be the Malaysian Orchestra conductor. Christopher’s school teacher taught the entire class violin for fun and used to stand outside the classroom playing before it was time to go in every morning.
Our summer weekend ritual involved hunting and gathering from the local food markets, ensuring we had a hamper filled with fresh baked baguettes, cheese, cured meats & salad for “le pique nique” before heading off to music lessons, then exploring …….or even better, finding the nearest Brocante (French flea market). Oh how we loved them, the sights we saw and the treasures we found. We furnished our house & cupboards while Pete and his dad came home with swords, knives, coins and antique guns!
We travelled all over our region and still only saw a small amount of what was on offer (…managing to lose Dominic (4yrs) in almost every city and country we visited. He had ribbons tied to his clothes, laminated cards with contact details in all his pockets and in marker pen on both his arms. He was always disgusted to be found as he just wanted to do his own thing … not the boring stuff his family wanted!). We skied in the Swiss Alps with English friends who had a timeshare cabin there, travelled to Italy, Hungary, Germany, Austria on the train, visited our old haunts in England – travelling by ferry and car, and then a separate trip on the Eurostar to London.
We spent Christmas with another family in Germany in the biggest winter snowfall/freeze in about 20 years that shut half of Europe down. It was minus 17 degrees in Strasbourg on our way home. Friends from home pooled together and bought our family EuroDisney tickets – a frivolous and fun outing. We ice-skated on the Eiffel Tower the day before we flew home which was magical. Pete is godfather to our French friends’ son who was born while we were there. We were guests at a French wedding in the Alps in summer. We attended a funeral of a young mother who died from leukaemia in a beautiful cathedral and buried her in deep winter snow. More than anything, the people and the seasons were the essence of our time in France. Without that connection to the land and the communities it would not have been the same.
Despite all of this, we returned to Australia. To start with we really had to return home to take over the farm again. Secondly our visa expired after two years. Ultimately though, it was not where we wanted to raise our children. In Australia, there is much more opportunity to “make a go of something” armed with nothing but a can-do attitide.
We came home to a changed world in the wake of the 2011 floods that saw Theodore entirely evacuated and inundated, and massive changes to the landscape, river and infrastructure on farms. Everyone spoke English (WOW, how easy everything suddenly seemed). The two youngest went straight into school in prep and Year 1. The school slotted Josephine and Christopher back with their peers. Josephine chose a boarding school with a French immersion program, plays three musical instruments and does speech and drama as well as being actively involved in her pre-France love … any sport.
Peter and I swapped farms with my brother and are now learning the ropes of a much bigger historical family operation, which we cannot just up and leave. We are blessed to have taken the chance when we had it …. The kids have strong and fond memories of the trip (even Dominic who was only 3 when we first went). The photos and days we reminisce nostalgically, keep those memories strong, and the experience alive….. I have to agree with a friend of mine who likes to remind me, “One should never let formal schooling get in the way of a real education”.
As a result of going to France, all our children love to draw, sing, play musical instruments, and speak some French. They really miss the seasons, their French friends, living in a tower, making their own bread, visiting castles, picking wild hedge berries, playing in the snow, and eating chocolate for breakfast …….. (OK maybe I let them …. sometimes, on a Sunday).
Words and Images: Nikki Mahony
Thankyou so much Peter, Nikki, Josephine, Christopher, Patrick, and Dominic for sharing your story. Regards Rachel Walker (Journeytribe).