Have you ever wanted to live in France for a year? Or more? Then this post is for you. You might remember the Abbotts from Ben’s account of their youngest son’s birth. Such a sweet retelling! So I’m pleased Rachel wrote to me years later, wondering if we’d like to hear what her life is like living in the French countryside with 3 young children. Maybe travel-related since they tour all over the place! Or maybe, since she loves her life so darn much, she’d take us around a typical day.
So here she is. And I will warn you now: You’re about to feel some wanderlust!
Hi, we’re the Abbotts: Rachel, Ben, Ingrid, Henry, and Caspian. We live in the countryside in Brittany, France. Ben’s work as an ecologist and researcher at the university in Rennes is what brought us here. We have lived in Rennes for two and a half years, and we return to the States in the fall where Ben will be a professor at BYU.
We are from Fairbanks, Alaska, where the winters are cold and dark and last for nearly eights months, so living in such a mild and moderate climate where the grass stays green year round is just a dream for me.
Our time in France has been magical, and we have most definitely taken advantage of this unique opportunity living abroad. Our children go to a public school and are totally fluent and bilingual and immersed in the French culture. We travel every weekend to some new part of France, and we use our longer holidays for travelling around Europe. We have loved our time here. We feel very fortunate to have this experience.
Along with all the novel aspects of living in France, there is also a wonderful feeling of just living an everyday life here. I have noticed the feeling of coming home whenever we get back from our travels around Europe, and it feels good that this is our home. Sure, I constantly feel like a foreigner with the cultural differences and language barrier, but our home and our life is here for now.
Part of the dream of living here is living in our beautiful house in the french countryside. It is so bright and open; our main floor is surrounded appropriately with French doors. Our living room is big and open, and this is where we do our living and playing. There is plenty of space for kids to make loops through the living room, kitchen, and dining room.
In the winter, we heat this main room with a fireplace, and I love the coziness of having a fire burning all day. We enjoy our big yard that encircles the house. Our property is surrounded by a enormous hedge on all four sides, so it feels very private and secluded for us to run around the yard. It’s like our own private park.
We have a wonderfully average French life here. Each morning after our breakfast, the kids and I hop on our bikes by 8:15 for our ride to the school. We have a lovely 15-minute ride through cornfields, wheat fields, apple orchards – we even ride past a donkey, some horses, a lake, and a handful of 19th Century farmhouses. Pretty much all times of the year I just weep at the pastoral idyllic beauty that we live in.
The drop off at school is definitely one of my favorite daily French cultural experiences: the obligatory “Bonjour” to anyone you see, the perfectly coiffed, gelled, and sprayed hairdos of the parents, the clacking of high heels and dress shoes, the suits, the make-up, the nylons, the scarves, the perfumes and colognes, etc., etc.
French people truly love their fashion, and I am continually amazed at how put-together and stylish people are just for everyday life.
Once the baby and I get home from the drop off, I tidy up the morning mess, take a shower and get myself up to French standards. I have learned to wear makeup every day, put on a belt and some jewelry, and I even sport some perfume and heels every now and then. The Alaskan dress code is quite forgiving, to say the least, and my Fairbanks friends would die to see me now, but I actually enjoy the dressing up every day.
Then I head out for the daily errands. And what comes next is one of the things I just love about French life. Food is fresh and local; it is shopped for every day.
In the States, there is a big push for eating local, eating clean, and buying organic. But here, everything IS local and most of it is organic, and neither of those details are hyped up. It just IS how food is here.
Once a week I go to the cueilllette (a u-pick farm), to get what is in season for vegetables, fruits, berries, herbs, and flowers because in this climate something is always growing and in season. We currently are eating leeks in about every meal!
Then I swing by a co-op market where I buy eggs, milk, butter, cheeses, and meat – all produced by the farmers whose farms I pass on my ride there. Then to the bakery to get whatever bread or treat we would like for the day.
If I’m short on a certain something during the week, there is a lady down the road who sells daily from her gardens. She sells her goods out of her cellar where she has all the vegetables in wooden crates beautifully displayed, braided garlics hanging from the ceiling, and fresh eggs and honey next to the register. It’s like a farmer’s market every day.
I’m not making any of this up. And what is so wonderful about all of this is that it is totally affordable; in fact, cheaper than buying food in Fairbanks that has been hauled up in refrigerated trucks and picked three weeks before I am able to buy any of it.
I don’t think walking into a French bakery could ever get old. When you walk in the door, you immediately inhale the sweet smells of the golden baguettes and loaves of breads, the freshly dipped chocolates, and the patisseries. After our bakery stop, which is pretty much a daily occurrence, we rip into the warm baguette and I tell our kids, “You guys, just try to really remember all this, because we will not see or taste stuff like this when we go back to the States.”
And then I whimper a little bit.
Every day, the kids have a lunch break from noon to 2:00 pm. TWO hours. The French love their meals, and these two hours are sacred in this country. Shops and businesses close down, no appointments are going on, and only cafes and bakeries are open. Most kids stay at school for lunch and eat at the cantine since their parents have their workdays, but I feel it is important to bring my kids home to have some down-time and regroup for the afternoon.
After we’ve eaten our lunch, Ingrid and I practice her violin. I’m very proud of her effort and progress, and amazed at how she can focus on playing while her little brothers are reeling about the room. We are dedicated to daily practice, and this has been as much a learning experience for me as it has been for her. After the violin practice, we use the remaining time to play and recharge before I take them back for the final two hours of school.
The French educational system is very institutional and has been a hard pill for me to swallow. We are more of a Waldorf and Montessori-style family, and French schooling is pretty much the antithesis of those philosophies.
Children start school full-time at three years old. They sit at desks all day starting at six years old. Playgrounds are paved areas with no greenery, trees, or equipment. There is an intense amount of structure and regulation in the classroom. Things are done a certain way here, and there is no room for deviation.
Parent participation or volunteering in the classroom is nonexistent. In fact, I don’t really know what they do during the day. Ingrid has thrived and loved it, but the first year for Henry when he was only three was a real struggle for him (and me) to conform. He would rather be home in his jammies and help me make food all day. He was only three years old, for heaven’s sake, so the push to have him in school full time was a constant internal struggle for me.
Thankfully this second year he has just bloomed, and now he is totally fluent and has lots of girlfriends.
We want our children to experience this rare cultural opportunity and be fully immersed in French culture. But I am constantly second-guessing our decision to start such a little child into school so early.
While the older two are at school in the afternoon, our baby Caspian takes a nap. I use this time to catch up on emails, prep dinner, do some reading, take a rest if I’m feeling bogged down, or start planning our next weekend adventure. I am the family travel agent, and I have become very adept at planning trips and the essentials of booking travel, securing housing, and finding the best sites and activities to see as a family. We have been to pretty much every region in France, from Normandy, to the Alps, to the vineyards of Aquitaine, and to Provence and the French Rivera.
We particularly loved our visit to the Loire Valley to see all the castles. We went in the fall, and it seemed so magical with the crisp air outside and the leaves falling and swirling around us. There were very few people during our visit. From our experience, October and April are the best months in Europe to avoid crowds but still have nice weather.
My favorite castle in the Loire valley is the Chenonceau castle. It is amazingly restored, and I love the enormous beds, tapestries, and massive fireplaces. The kitchen was amazing with the brass pots and pans and the long plank tables. Each room had impressive modern fresh floral arrangements made from flowers from the castle’s gardens. Inside, fires were burning in the fireplaces, but still there was a frosty feel inside. It was very cozy.
We’ve also enjoyed extensively exploring Brittany. We love its ruggedness…well, as rugged as France can get according to an Alaskan! There is so much to see here: castles, coastlines, megaliths, forests, caves, and cliffs. One day we were driving home from watching the sea salt being harvested in Guérande, when we whizzed past a castle. We quickly spun around to check it out.
This is what we love about France: spend 30 minutes on any country road and you’re bound to stumble across some sort of castle or historic site.
We love the beaches and coves in Brittany, and the immense cliffs especially in Finistere. We’ve done a couple bike tours in Brittany where we loaded the kids and camping gear into our two trailers and biked along the coast for a week. Those trips have taken us slowly along the coast, playing at beaches and biking through villages. We love to talk particularly about the nude beaches we biked through in Finistere! Our kids travel so well and they love to camp. They truly thrive when we take them outside.
I was quickly converted to the French ten-month school year (which ranges from September to July), when every six weeks there is a two-week vacation.
Most school kids spend this time with grandparents while the parents continue to work, but our family uses these extended vacations to travel Europe. It does require a lot of planning and logistics, but we have had such successful trips. Our kids have loved the constant family time and the plane rides and eating at restaurants that come with all our travels. They still talk about the panda they saw at the zoo in Vienna, the bevy of swans in Prague, the boat ride around Stockholm, climbing up to the Acropolis in Athens, the time we spent the entire day at an outdoor swimming pool in Barcelona, and the week we spent in the Swiss Alps sledding, hiking, and building a snow fort.
Our trip to Greece was a real highlight, a total success in every department. I would highly recommend a trip to Greece in April: no crowds and the weather is so pleasant. After we saw the main sights in Athens, we rented a car and drove through the countryside for a couple days. We loved the smell of orange blossoms everywhere we went. The kids loved eating Greek yogurt and ice cream every day, and all the fresh-squeezed orange juice. Needless to say, we ate Greek salads and gyros for about every meal. Keeping kids fed and stopping for lots of treats, plus taking time to just play, are the keys to happy kid travelers.
In April, we’re headed to Italy to see Cinque Terre and Tuscany.
The advice I share with those travelling Europe with children is to be ok with not covering much ground or seeing all the must-see sights. We usually got to one or two major sights per day, and spent the majority of the day swinging by cafes and playing in parks. There is a lot of beauty just found on the grounds of a castle or down a cobblestone road. Our kids love to run around and hide in gardens, look at flowers, throw rocks in water, or play in a park. We have countless precious pictures of our children exploring the small details of the world, with a monstrous castle or Greek ruin or a cityscape in the background. I treasure all those pictures and memories.
When we are home, our evenings together as a family begin with dinner. Ben comes home on his bike most evenings with a warm baguette poking out his backpack. I can safely say I could live off baguettes, butter, and cheese. I’ve learned quite a few French recipes, our favorites being quiche lorraine, tartiflette, paupiettes, and galletes; and for dessert, crepes, far breton, chocolate mousse, and salted caramel sauce.
We’ve also incorporated, to some degree, the French courses: first a small salad, then the hot dish, then cheese plate, and then dessert consisting of yogurt or fruit or a sweet treat. The kids like drawing the meal out, and I think that is fun for them. We have always eaten as a family at home every night, but I appreciate that the French also value a sit-down meal as a family and do not eat out on weeknights.
After the meal, we try to clean up quickly so we have time to head outside for a family walk – which we call adventures – through the surrounding forest or fields. Depending on the season, we pick blackberries, sticks, flowers, chestnuts, acorns, or steal some corn from the next door field. The evening is ended with a chapter from Narnia, a prayer, a drink of water, kisses and hugs.
I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually use my last couple hours on social media to see what is going on in the lives of family and friends and the happenings in America. People often ask if we have been homesick since we’ve been here, but I can honestly say that thanks to social media and video chatting, we feel very connected to our family and friends. We’ve had a steady stream of visitors over the last couple years, and that has been wonderful to show them our life here and the amazing places and foods we have discovered.
Though seemingly glamorous, living in France has had its challenges. For me, the greatest frustrations are the unwritten social and cultural rules.
I was an exchange student in Finland for a year, I studied abroad in London for a semester, and I was a missionary in Sweden for a year and a half, but let me tell you, the French are their own pot of differentness. It took me almost a year of feeling like I was always in trouble before I remembered that the French are actually known for coming across as being standoffish and unfriendly, and that I shouldn’t take it personally. In French culture, they are not being rude and unfriendly, it is just how they interact with strangers here.
I laugh that there is a whole section of books in Amazon related to how to navigate the French culture and people. The hardest to get used to for me is the non-smiling and looking right through people bit. From an American’s perspective, there is quite a bit of iciness in the French public sphere. There are so many formalities and niceties that are required in French culture, that if not done, then YOU are the rude one. So, that has been hard for me – trying to be liked and acknowledged when out amongst strangers, but realizing that is not how French people approach and view each other.
As far as living abroad and trying to gain the most from the experience, our family has found that total immersion in language and culture has made this time feel truly authentic. My husband speaks French fluently and works all day with French colleagues and students at the university. Our children are in school every day with French schoolmates and teachers. I would most definitely say I am not fluent, but I get by with my French when I do my errands and appointments. We are not part of any expat groups, and in our two and a half years so far, we actually have come across very few Americans. All our friends are French citizens. Though challenging, we’ve really appreciated this feeling of living as French of a life as possible. What a great experience it’s been.
I have a PhD, and there is room for me in my field. I put many years and a painful amount of effort into my education. But now that I have children, I value this time home with them more than a career outside the home. I see it as a privilege and a luxury to stay home with our family.
I am so grateful that my husband supports me with my decision. We live in a culture where women can have it all, but for me, I do not want to divide my efforts between work and home. I know the terms homemaking and homemaker are outdated these days, but it is what I do and who I am.
I find total fulfillment and satisfaction making our home a clean, warm, and unhurried place. Though I don’t do it gracefully a lot of the time, this is the life I always wanted, and I feel very fortunate to have it.
So sweet, Rachel. And those photos from your travels! I hope you’ve got some scrapbooks going.
It’s always nice to hear about daily life from France. Did Rachel’s version inspire you to put on some make-up and heels today before erranding?