A year in Aix-en-Provence
PUBLISHED: 17:34 28 July 2014 | UPDATED: 11:28 05 January 2016
Keen to try something new, last summer Jill Cowdry persuaded her family to swap life in London for a year in Aix-en-Provence, and they haven’t looked back since
Was it a mid-life crisis that made us take the plunge and move to the south of France? That would probably 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; the cost of living. After 15 years of living in London, we felt the family really needed to break the pattern.
France had drawn me in some 15 years earlier when I first visited Paris and tasted my first crêpe. Strange it may seem, but it almost felt like home. Perhaps I was French in a previous life! Numerous trips to France followed, including with my family, and as I got to know the country better the conviction grew that one day we would live there.
Then, 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 at which we were indulging in a grand crème.
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 would love to come and live in France by renting out our house in Richmond and moving, as an experiment, to Aix-en-Provence for a year.
He said he knew an estate agent who might be able to help. Then, unbelievably, an hour later he called again to say a charming house had just come on 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 took a deep breath and signed a one-year lease.
With our eldest almost 10, we couldn’t procrastinate any longer because she would be going to secondary school in a year’s time. The thinking was, let’s try France for 12 months and at the end of the year decide whether to stay in Provence or return to Britain. You have to give your dreams a chance.
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. We waved goodbye to family and friends and drove to Dover.
Aix-en-Provence is one of the most beautiful French towns I have ever 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 universities attract plenty of young people. Mont St-Victoire, the impressive sight Cézanne captured in numerous paintings, can be seen from the town and is a delightful place for walkers and cyclists to explore.
There are so many areas to visit close to Aix including Avignon, St Tropez, Luberon and the Camargue. The vibrant city of Marseille is close but it’s the coastline near here that has really impressed. Cassis and the amazing Calangues are my favourite by far.
My new love of hiking has taken me down to a beach lapped by clear Mediterranean waters and up mountains covered by rosemary and thyme. Sea swimming, skiing and biking are popular activities and the southern Alps are only two hours away. Olive picking, truffle hunting and French cooking are just a few of the other activities we have embarked on and I simply can’t describe the beauty of the lavender, which is now in full bloom.
Bringing young children to another country is hugely enriching for them but it’s not always easy. Challenges abound for them, including getting used to new teachers, new school regimes, a new language, and of course leaving their old friends and having to make new ones.
Choosing an international school eases the language difficulty but only partly: children up to six or seven spend half the time being taught in English and half in 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 best, mainly because she was embraced by a wonderful group of English-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 in the UK 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 where there was a better choice of English-speaking friends. Phew!
CIPEC, a mixed school of around 300 children aged four to 11, lies on the edge of Aix surrounded by sunflower fields and forests. It’s a simple building in a magical setting, simply equipped with few computers and nothing fancy.
We have been told that French teachers can be 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.
Playtime is spent running in the forests and making dens, rain or shine. They do plenty of sports too, including handball, gymnastics, golf and horseriding among others. 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. Although children are required to have insurance in France, our last sports day was held in a forest full of giant holes in the ground.
I asked the children what they liked about their school and they said they enjoyed the feeling of freedom and being given the opportunity to make more decisions for themselves. 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. There is a fascinating mix of nationalities here and they have made some unforgettable friendships.
And their French? Well, the kids say they’ve hardly learnt 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.
Women are certainly different here. It takes time to get to know how they operate. One thing is for sure: they have it sorted in the look and glamour stakes.
For them size does matter, which goes some way to explaining why you rarely see an overweight femme française. 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 it’s France, but women here are an inspiration. They celebrate their age and they work at their shape and dress. I look round 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 they have a big meal one night, they’ll detox on vegetable soup for the next few days.
For several years before relocating to France I would eagerly scan travel blogs during my downtime. Travel has always been my passion.
Funny, but the moment we decided to relocate I started designing the logo of a possible blog. I’m not sure if it was France or the change of direction that inspired me but suddenly I realised that I was perfectly capable of creating my own blog. And that’s exactly 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 any of it now. I love to hear people’s feedback and generally it’s lovely.
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 people like me looking for inspiration – even if it’s just for a weekend.
We came here for a year and we all 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 the UK, Aix will become a second home where we will buy a property, and the memory of this little adventure will stay with us forever.