Head start

Psychologist Wendy Kendall loves her life in France, but it wasn’t always easy. Now she uses her experience of integrating to help others, as Fiona Webster discovers

As a leading Ministry of Defence psychologist, Wendy Kendall had worked with serving soldiers and their families and was used to helping people adjust to change.

So when she decided to fulfil a lifelong dream to move to France a decade ago, she knew it would involve challenges.

Wendy admits her family’s relocation wasn’t easy at first, but says the lessons it taught her not only added her to her skills, but helped her launch a new business that is enjoying worldwide success.

Now 39, Wendy is happily settled in her renovated farmhouse surrounded by 10 acres of land, just outside a small village near Lombez in Gers, in Midi-Pyrénées. Life is clearly better than ever for Wendy, her husband Hervé, also 39, and their children Éva, 16, and Hugo, 12. “My family is thriving over here in France and we love our lives,” she says. “Work is going really well, and I have honestly never felt so excited about the future.”

It’s clearly a long way from the journey Wendy decided to make, one rainy day in Manchester. “I grew up in Manchester, a real city girl, but my dream was to live in the countryside,” she says. “I met Hervé, who is French, at university when he came over to study in the UK. We visited France together of course and I just knew I wanted to live there. I was attracted by the lifestyle, the countryside, the lovely food and wine but most of all I thought it would be a wonderful place to raise children.”

Wendy and Hervé launched their careers, living the life of a high-powered city couple. They had two children and settled down, but Wendy still nurtured her French fantasy.

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“I liked that idea of French rural living,” she says. “When Hervé was offered work in France as an aeronautical engineer based in Toulouse, it seemed the perfect opportunity to take the plunge. I was 29 and ready for a change.

“The children were the right age too, Hugo was two and Éva was six and had only just started school, so I knew they wouldn’t be too disrupted.

“My work seemed moveable too. I am an occupational psychologist and had been helping soldiers fight and train more effectively and working with the Army Families Federation helping forces families move. I could continue working in psychology wherever I went.

“I couldn’t wait to get my house in the countryside and spend every summer in the sun. I dreamed of people coming over to visit and a big happy group of friends and family eating round our table on the terrace, sipping rosé wine.

“This was an opportunity to spread my wings and I saw it as a big, brave chapter in my life. It was my chance to ‘live the dream’ that you see on those TV shows.”

Inspired by her dream, Wendy set to work researching possible locations online. They decided to rent a property first to get the lie of the land, then buy once they had scouted the area and decided exactly where they wanted to be. She soon found a small house on a ‘lotissement’ (housing estate) that looked ideal and the move began.

“We arrived with the children full of hope, in the summer of 2003,” she says. “It wasn’t the best of starts, it was the year of intensely hot weather and temperatures were over 40°C for nine weeks. It was impossible to take the children out in such weather so we didn’t really meet anybody.

“But it didn’t put us off and we started looking for a family home. One day we came across this fabulous Gascon farmhouse set in 10 acres of rolling countryside, with wonderful views overlooking the Pyrenees. I wanted to keep horses and I knew it would be perfect for them. I could see the house and the area would be great for riding, walks, everything.

“The nearby village was lovely, very peaceful and traditional, with no crime and great views. It was heavenly. The people were friendly but quite reserved which we sort of expected. The area was quite isolated and not an expat enclave, so we knew we would be experiencing a real taste of French life.”

The house needed some work, but Wendy wanted somewhere the family could make their own. So they moved to their new home in September 2003, employed an architect and building work began.

“Éva started at the local school in the first class and Hugo, who was two-and-a-half, started at nursery,” Wendy says. “It was very different from our old life in the UK where we had been doing corporate jobs and paying £800 a month for full-time childcare. Part of the reason for moving was to get a better work/life balance and suddenly I was seeing a lot more of the children. Life just seemed more relaxed because I wasn’t rushing everywhere and trying to stick to a rigid timetable.”

Wendy found some differences in her newly adopted country, particularly regarding her work. She had started her own business in January 2004 and although it was ticking over, she felt there was not enough progress for the amount of work she was putting in: “I loved my career as a psychologist and was a highly qualified and respected professional, but there wasn’t even an adequate French word to describe what I did for a living.

“I soon realised friendships were going to be a challenge too. I’d had a network of friends in London and in France I did make friends, but they were mostly over an hour away. Meanwhile my husband was working all hours to get established in his new job. I realised that I needed to make making friends part of my job. I would have to go out and find them.

“I began to organise horse-related activities, bringing instructors over for events, and so built a network of friends, as well as making a lot of cyber friends.

“But there were more challenges. Some of our horses fell sick and then my grandmother in the UK passed away. She’d given us her blessing when we moved back in 2003 and said ‘you mustn’t stay here to live up to other people’s expectations’ but it’s still hard to know if you’d done the right thing. It was a low point and I even considered giving up and going back home.”

It was clearly a nadir for Wendy, but she says she realised she had a very compelling reason to stay. “That reason was quality of life for my young family’” she says. “It was the one thing I was absolutely unwilling to trade for anything.

“So I set about using my training as a behavioural sciences researcher to figure out what made expats successful, because I wanted to make this work.

“I put out a couple of messages on the internet asking if anyone would be interested in participating in my study on relocating and the challenges it raises. I was inundated with people wanting to take part.

“I worked with this initial group of participants intensively for the next four months, developing new ways to help them thrive in their new environment. It was this work that inspired me to develop my career in the direction of helping others to launch and grow their overseas careers and adjust to change.”

Wendy’s business (www.expatjobsuccess.com) took off and her turnover tripled in two years. She was recently offered a high-powered job in Dubai, but says: “I turned it down because life is too exciting here! I love my work and I love the fact that I can help people. I know what it is like to move to a new country because I have been there myself.

“Life is great now. The children have settled in and are doing well at school. They have lots of friends and of course are bilingual. They love all the sports they are able to do here and see France as home. We have also made friends both close by and further afield in France.

“The house is now as we want it. We have four bedrooms and a lovely terrace where we sit in the evenings and sip the rosé wine I used to fantasise about. The garden and land are full of wild flowers and alive with wildlife.

“Life is lovely. I get up at about 7am and make breakfast with eggs from our own hens. I take my son to school and then work till 1pm and than make lunch of salad, which in the long summer months comes fresh from our garden. When the children come home they can play or go riding or see their friends. We eat at about 8pm, usually something like fish or chicken with grilled vegetables, using lots of local produce, that I cook. And always finishing with something like local Pyrenean cheeses. We never had time to eat together as a family before.

“We are so much more active living here. In the summer we go riding on the horses or walking in the mountains and in the winter we ski, which we can do nearby. We have everything on hand. I also recently took up long-distance trail running and there is nothing lovelier than going running in the cool mornings or evenings, listening to the bird song. Spring is the most beautiful time of year here as the skies are clear and blue and the mountains still snow white.”

Would she ever consider moving back? The answer is an emphatic no! “I think the things I like most about living in France are the community spirit, beautiful countryside and wildlife and the sense of safety and security,” she says, before adding: “When I come back to Britain with all the rush and noise and stress I am so glad we moved here and persevered to get our lives as we wanted them.” LF