slow travel family - a home tour in the South of France  

Keep your suitcase handy while you read this one. And maybe open another browser window and so you can check flights, because there’s a very good chance this home tour will give you the travel bug (if you don’t have it already).

Jessica is a designer and entrepreneur, who currently lives in the south of France with her husband and two kids. But not for long. They are a slow travel family, which means they choose a new country to live in every 9 months or so — just long enough to really dig in a get to know a community. 

I’m so glad I get to introduce you to this adventurous family.

slow travel family - a home tour in the south of france

Hello! Hola! Bonjour! My name is Jessica. I am so happy to be part of Design Mom and to meet all of you.

I am the mama bear of our family, an adventure-seeker, voracious dream-pursuer, photographer and glass-is-half-full kind of gal (even when the glass is broken into 1,000 pieces and I am out of super glue). I have been known to jump without a net, and wouldn’t you know it? I married my best friend and fellow jumper.

 

My husband, Will – whom I affectionately refer to as my Hot Latino – and I are slow traveling the world with our two kids and Sunshine the hamster. (Doesn’t everyone travel with a pet?) Avalon, is almost a teenager and much prefers that description to “12 years old.” Her brother, Largo, is 9 AND four months. Currently, we call a quaint village in the south of France home, but that is only until July. At that time, we will choose a new hometown and begin our next adventure. As slow travelers, we live the world one hometown at a time. We have had three hometowns, so far.

Our lifestyle is perfect for our unconventional family.      

I met my Hot Latino 20 years ago at a travel tradeshow in San Diego, California. The short story is that he was an exhibitor, I worked for the company producing the tradeshow and he wanted more free drink tickets.

The longer version is that we met by chance, neither one of us was supposed to be traveling that week. I was never the type to believe in fate, but even to this day I wonder how we would have ever met otherwise, with me living in Los Angeles and him in Miami. And the rest is travel history, well, sort of, but that is a story for another day.

I have been a graphic designer, business owner, real estate investor, photographer and blogger. One year ago, I retired from my graphic design business in an effort to live more authentically and grow a passion-based travel business, WorldTowning, based on our experience with slow travel.

The experience is challenging me, but I believe that you only live once and there is no promise of tomorrow. That’s why you should love hard, laugh often and dye your hair pink. Oh, and you should also eat lots of amazing cheese and warm baguettes while living in France, even if the only pants you now can fit into are your yoga pants.

Will is an accountant in a contract position for a global company. But, as I type this, is ready to jump with me (yet again). He is the hardest worker I know, honest down to the penny and an impeccable judge of character. It was not until we decided to slow travel the world that he took stock of his hours in the office (and lack of hours at home) and contemplated a better way.

He loves our children tirelessly, still thinks I am 23 and hot, hot, hot, and makes me laugh, even when I want to cry. In just a few weeks, Will is joining WorldTowning with me, growing this one-woman start-up to a two-person family business.

   

Avalon is a protector of her brother and an outspoken defender of our lifestyle. She is quick to respond to anyone who thinks she does not have friends, because she is a traveler. She has a strong moral code and empathy toward those less fortunate, a trait that is more pronounced as a result of our travels. Avalon relentlessly pursues all things creative, challenging and out-of-the-box. And reading is her lifeline. She claims she may die if she doesn’t read. (I admit she gets her flare for the dramatic from me.)

She did everything early, talking, walking, reading, and she is in a great hurry to be an adult, as well. I try to remind her to enjoy her current place in time, but I make sure I balance that with her desire to learn and grow.

Largo is our thrill and adventure seeker. This has me hanging on the edge of my seat most days. While we practice a free-range style of parenting, this little guy pushes my comfort level. He is the first to hike the Incan mountains, jump into the frigid waters of the Galapagos or “zip line” through the cloud forest of Costa Rica. He redefines “fearless.”

Largo is a builder – and he will work with whatever he gets his hands on. This mostly means Legos, but sometimes includes clay, parts of trees, or even toast at the breakfast table. He fancies becoming a drone builder when he grows up, so he is eager to practice his craft. He loves to talk, a lot. He is comfortable in his skin, knows exactly what he wants and is not easily influenced by his peers. He also loves and admires his sister.

  

Our reasons for choosing this lifestyle are five-fold: 1. We want to spend more time with our kids before they take flight on their own adventures; 2. we value learning through travel; 3. we want them to have real world experiences and interact with people who live differently than us; 4. we want to create memories instead of buying stuff. 5. we want to give our children our version of an epic childhood. We have found these things in slow travel, and, while this lifestyle choice has had many benefits, the greatest part is our family unity, support and love, hands down.

Our current hometown is the quaint village of Hyères (pronounced yeah). The silent H and S often has me joking, “Oh yeah, we live in ‘yeah!’” Nine months of the year, Hyères is a sleepy town with a population of 56,000. It swells to double that size, however, at the first sign of warm weather. We arrived at the end of August 2016 – the beginning of its resting period. Hyères stretches 51 square miles that include mountains, beaches, wetlands and the cutest 12th century historic city center.

Hyères has the charm you would imagine in a French village: fresh baguettes, shops closed for afternoon lunch and locals practicing the art of great conversation. In the late afternoon, the town is ablaze with people enjoying a coffee or aperitif before their dinner. In the early evening, you can hear the clanking of silverware and light laughter (the French are not loud) from the outdoor cafes, but by 10 p.m. the sidewalks roll up, the shutters shut and the town settles in for a long night’s rest.

On Saturdays, we visit the local market for all the amazing fruits and veggies, fish, meat and cheese. France has officially been termed our “year of food,” for obvious reasons. On Sundays, our town shuts down for a day of rest and preparation for the upcoming week.

We live in a two-bedroom apartment a seven-minute walk from town and we pay $1300 a month. As with our other moves, we came to the south of France without visiting first. We have rented all our apartments through Airbnb, sight unseen. So far, it has worked out. Our rent includes utilities, Wi-Fi, a yard and a pool. We don’t have a car, but, when we need one, it costs 5 euros a day, plus gas and mileage.

An important part of our lifestyle is living simple and consuming less. We have been able to lower our overall expenses by 75% since leaving the United States. This has given us more money for the adventures and memories we want to create. Just last year, we realized two dreams: hiking to Machu Picchu on the Inca trail and visiting the Galapagos. We never could have afforded these adventures when we lived stateside.

Typically, slow travelers stay in a location for 3, 6 or 12 months at a time. Our primary goal is to create community wherever we live. It is very important to our family that we connect deeply to the local culture. For us, that means making local friends, learning the language (or in my case butchering it), understanding the food, studying the religion, appreciating the history and living like locals. We have found that the best way to do this for our family is to stay at least nine months.

Avalon and Largo have adjusted remarkably well to this lifestyle. We worried that Avalon, not yet 10, would resent the move when we made it, but she never has. In fact, she sees the value in it more with each passing year.

Like his sister, Largo transitioned to this lifestyle remarkably well. The only difficulty he has had is that he misses my parents. Luckily, they visit often.

Will and I have always said that if either kid becomes disenchanted with this lifestyle, we will stop. So far, they want to see more and make moves more quickly.

Our journey into slow travel and WorldTowning unfolded over a decade. Our story is a long one, with lots of curves, a handful of disappointment, but a happy ending. An ending that took two ordinary people to the brink of collapse to create what they felt was an extraordinary family adventure. A story that started over margaritas in Venice, California and ended underneath the Eiffel Tower many years later. We are not that overnight miracle, not by a long shot.

It all began when an opportunity surfaced for Will to work abroad for a global company with a cushy expat package. We saw that as a ticket to our dreams. The offer changed, however, when I became pregnant with Largo. So, we buried our travel dreams and settled into a fabulous suburb just seven miles south of Boston.

Within a few years, we were back to seeking options to move abroad. Then, one day, I had an epiphany (some may say I snapped). It stemmed from one question: Why couldn’t we go to Paris for the summer? I worked from home and could easily do that from anywhere.

With that simple question, Paris became our goal. We got creative with our finances. Will’s company agreed to let him work from the Paris office, enabling us to rent our apartment on Airbnb while we were gone. Things came together, and we spent the summer of 2013 in Paris in the smallest, crappiest one bedroom apartment. The toilet was broken most of the time, there was no air conditioning, Avalon was hospitalized for five days with Mononucleosis and I was sick for two weeks.

Despite all that, we loved it.

We returned to Boston determined to pursue this slow-travel lifestyle. We spent every spare moment planning. It was what we talked about over dinner as a family. We began selling our stuff, scouring blogs, reading books, and checking items off our spreadsheet lists. We all saw our journey into this lifestyle as a natural progression of things.

We also began telling friends and family of our plan. Most were encouraging, but some thought we were crazy. Still others told us we were not giving our children a proper childhood, that we were ruining our careers and putting our family in danger. Early on in our relationship, though, Will and I adopted the philosophy that no one else gets a vote on how we live our life. We removed ourselves from conversations in which people attacked our choices and surrounded ourselves with positivity.

When we were deciding where to move, we initially considered cost of living. We quickly learned that many countries offer an affordable lifestyle, so we began to add in several other wish list items: French school, Spanish speaking country and culturally rich environment. All of this led us to Costa Rica.

On October 6, 2014, we left Boston bound for Costa Rica. While we envisioned paradise in a land full of monkeys, lush greenery and good coffee, we found that the transition was hard for everyone and presented a huge learning curve. We all processed the change differently.

Will, who had only always known the corporate 9-to-5 (or 8-to-8) lifestyle, was lost, having left his company when it would not allow him to work remotely. I had bitten off more than I could handle, moving my design business, homeschooling one of the children and moving to a new country. We were unable to support each other at the time, but the ending was happy. We made it past our largest learning curve to date, but I would never want to go through an experience like that again.

Our next destination was Ecuador, as neither Will nor I had been to South America. And for location number three, we threw all caution to the wind and let AvaLar, as we collectively call our children, pick the country. They chose France, our current location.

We are discussing our fourth adventure now, and it will prove to be the grandest, thus far. Our plan is to speed it up a bit and reduce our living space square footage. Moreover, the kids will plan the whole 18-month itinerary. Our end game dream is to one day live on a sailboat, if exhaustion doesn’t set in first.

As much as it would be nice to just pick any place on the map to live, we take cost into consideration. We believe the lessons the kids are learning about how to live simply and below our means will stay with them forever.

Regardless of where we go, creating a sense of home is important. When we arrive in a new location, we make a trip to the local home goods store. We buy a couple of throw pillows and blankets to snuggle with on movie night. I am a sucker for local art, and we always create our own art for the walls.

Overall, however, for our traveling family making a space feel like home, comes down to what we experience within the walls rather than what contents exist. A location feels like home when we enjoy a favorite meal (I travel with my spices), bake or play a game together.

We carry our traditions with us, and we gather new ones as we go. Some of our traditions involve holidays we’ve invented. Dream Day (consisting of creative ice cream sundaes) celebrates the day we left the United States to travel. Freedom Day (a “no work” day) commemorates the day we launched our start-up, WorldTowning.

In addition, we maintain our routines, like reading before bed, enjoying our weekly movie night and eating dinner together each evening to reinforce that feeling of home. I cannot deny that there are days when I miss having their childhood art framed on the walls, my grandmothers 1940’s tea cups on the shelf and displays of all of the treasures we have gathered from previous travels; however, I have learned the great art of compromise and making it work. If the walls have love within them, we can compromise a bit on aesthetics.  

Once we are in a new location, we settle into our day-to-day lives. First thing every morning, I go for a run. This is my “me” time to get out and greet the day. I get up early enough to see the shop keepers setting up their storefronts and soak in the delicious sent of fresh baguettes drifting from the ovens at the local boulangerie. By the time I get back, the kids and Will are just starting the day.

Breakfast time is never organized, as we encourage the kids to get themselves ready at their own pace. Avalon, the ever organized one, needs 10 minutes of reading before jumping out of bed, cooking her breakfast and jetting off to her school. Largo’s morning is a bit more relaxed. He treats every morning as if it was Sunday. No rush for this cool cucumber.  

Both children currently attend a local school. When we embarked on this lifestyle, we embraced a form of education called worldschooling. For us, worldschooling means an education philosophy that has a heavy emphasis on global learning. It often involves multiple language components, local activities, academics and a business education option.

Some years, the kids are educated at home, in the community or online, and other years they attend local schools in the towns we live, as they do now. In all forms of education, we take United States standards into consideration, as well as their personal goals and learning styles. Next year, both kids want to be worldschooled at home.

After we walk the kids to school, a luxury we did not have in Boston, the rest of the morning is all work for Will and me. We absolutely love setting up office at our favorite local café. The barista knows us by name and automatically brings us our order of coffee and croissants.

French school goes until 4:30 p.m., but the kids come home for lunch three days a week. This gets our noses out of the laptop and gives us time to connect as a family. 

At dinner time, the kids are a huge help as chefs in training. We get dinner going using locally grown ingredients, while Will, who works on Boston time, is usually occupied with phone calls. He takes over on the weekends, though. Dinner is earlier than is typical in France, and then we have our bedtime routine – reading, snuggles and lights out at 8:30 for the kids. Finally, Will and I go back to working. We keep long hours, but we have flexibility to mold them around family life. As with any family, balancing it all is challenging.

 

We are often asked if we miss our former lives. Overall, the answer is no. We miss bits and pieces, and moments and people. Personally, I miss having a multitude of food choices. I miss our friends. I miss our family. I miss Chipotle (did I really put that in writing?). I miss efficient systems. I miss having a washer and dryer. I miss that some relationships are not what they used to be and others have dissolved. But, I miss all the bits and pieces at different times and to varying degrees. If it all hit me in the same day at the same time, I would probably be on the first plane back to Boston – or maybe not. But the list of what I/we love about this life is double in size, so it all works out.

There have been so many memorable experiences on the road, but forming community and friendships has been at the top of our experiences. We have been invited to be part of family celebrations, local traditions, weddings and birthdays. We have felt so much love and warmth for no reason, except that people are good, everywhere. Travel has reaffirmed my belief in humanity.

Engaging socially in a culture isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t speak the language. It can be done, though. We have created community in three different countries where my command of the language has been limited. One way I have found to do this is by sending out party invitations to the families in the kids’ classes. I am an extrovert, but it still scares me to death. But, there comes a point where you must just go for it. It has been one of the biggest gifts this travel life has given us and worth every scary moment.

Meeting the fascinating people of the world cannot help but change one’s thinking. My most profound experience came from a parent at Largo’s school in Ecuador. I was still fairly new to the travel life and subtly mentioned my disappointment with some United States practices. In a matter of three minutes, this gentleman reminded me how lucky I was to be an American. We enjoy freedoms many others do not. Our children are raised with a level of self-esteem that sets them up for success and much more. I was embarrassed, humbled and enlightened all at once.

Probably the greatest lesson I have learned through slow travel, however, is that children are capable of more than we think. They are capable of change, empathy, unconditional love, hope, creativity, understanding and doing hard things. I have always felt that our children were pretty darn cool, but traveling with them has brought me to tears of joy on more than one occasion. They are forgiving and understanding way beyond their age, but also playful, unique thinkers at the same time. I often wonder if I would have ever truly seen the lessons they present to me each day in our previously over-scheduled life.

Whether a traveling family or not, I, like so many others, wish I was the perfect mother. I wish I had learned earlier how to forgive myself for not being that. Launching a business is a lot of work. I have been sleep deprived and sometimes short with my children more than I prefer to admit in the last six months. The house is a mess, meals are less than healthy, and I am not always available to have those long talks we used to have.

My logical side says this is only temporary. It tells me that the kids can pull more responsibilities for the short term and their exposure to their parents creating a passion based business together will teach them how to dream big and bring them to fruition.

But, as I type this, the tears are dripping on my keyboard. I still want to be “that” mom who has her professional work done when they arrive home from school, with crafts ready to go and a home-cooked healthy meal headed to the table.

I hope one day they will forgive me for forgetting them at school last week and visiting McDonalds after they had just watched Super Size Me. I hope they look at us with admiration for creating a business that helps other families plan and realize their slow travel adventures – a business that embraces kindness, diversity, global learning and family.  

In closing I would like to thank you readers for opening your hearts and minds to our less traditional choice of life. I continue to learn a very important lesson as we travel. Parents want the same thing for their children across the globe, we all just have our own version of how we do it, our own authentic normal. Have a fabulous day. I am sure this last part will not come as any big surprise…Go Travel! Bisous!

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Okay. Who’s ready to pack their bags and leave their cubicles and school schedules behind? Let’s all spin a globe and see where our finger lands and book that flight. Jessica definitely has me feeling the wanderlust.

So many good quotes too. This one is so beautiful: “We have felt so much love and warmth for no reason, except that people are good, everywhere. Travel has reaffirmed my belief in humanity.” And the one about the privileges of being America has me feeling patriotic: “In a matter of three minutes, this gentleman reminded me how lucky I was to be an American. We enjoy freedoms many others do not. Our children are raised with a level of self-esteem that sets them up for success and much more. I was embarrassed, humbled and enlightened all at once.”

What do you think?I know it’s not a lifestyle that would appeal to everyone. Does the idea of finding new homes around the world sounds appealing to you? Would your kids be into it? Or do you feel like the lack of structure would be challenging for your family? And if you choosing 3 places to live in the next 2 years, where would you choose?

 


Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! Reach out at features@designmom.com.