My husband and I have always dreamed of spending a summer abroad. We love to travel and have had some amazing adventures, from hiking to Macchu Picchu to trekking lions on foot in Zimbabwe to snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. But, with demanding jobs, kids, and life, getting away for more than a few weeks seemed impossible.
Then, in early 2013, our world shifted. My job moved to Minnesota, and we decided not to make the journey. At the same time, the Boston Marathon bombing reminded us how precious life can be. What had at one time seemed impossible now felt like exactly the right next step.
So, with the decision firmly made, the planning began.
Part I: The Plan
The first big decision was where. We quickly settled on Provence; I speak French, and had traveled there extensively. Planning commenced. Here are a few of the things we did, and recommend to you, to create the best possible trip.
1. Prioritize. Consider the types of experiences and activities you and your family enjoy the most, then prioritize. We wanted to be in a small town, but close to a beach, hiking trails and mountains. We also wanted a house with enough space for visitors, wifi, laundry, kitchen, pool; the list went on and on!
2. Use your network. I put the word out to all friends with connections in Provence that we were in the market for a rental. Once we settled on a house, we had many detailed email exchanges and a few phone calls with the owners, who patiently answered all of our questions, to get smarter about the region.
3. Negotiate. Once you find the right rental property, donít accept the first price offered by a home owner. The weekly rental fee can often be negotiated if you plan to rent for a lengthy period of time.
4. Protect the home front. Forward mail and set up credit card statements and banking online. Make sure you have a credit card with new chip technology and access to cash. Have someone look in on your primary residence every now and again, to be sure it hasnít been taken over by raccoons.
5. Travel light and smart. Leave your valuable jewelry at home. Bring as little as possible and plan to do laundry or buy what you need locally.
Part II: The Summer
The anxiously anticipated day of departure finally arrived, a mere three days after the last day of school, given all the snow days we had endured during a hard New England winter. After a long night and day of travel, we arrived at the house late in the afternoon on July 1st. The owner and the two housekeepers welcomed us warmly.
Here are a few tips to make your stay easier and more fun.
1. Conquer the language. If you are going to a country where you donít speak the language, learn a few key phrases in advance (or make Google Translate your friend).
2. Immerse yourself in local culture. We embraced the local food and customs of France, and educated the kids to be open to new experiences, to make the trip meaningful.
3. Pace yourself. Know your limits and plan accordingly. Living in a place for a longer stretch of time gives you the luxury to set a slower pace, so donít pack too much activity into one day. (Bribery also works; if the kids behaved particularly well on a long sightseeing day, an ice cream treat was always well deserved and appreciated.)
4. Plan ahead. We brought water bottles everywhere to avoid major expense and lines. We brought towels, a change of clothes and footwear to the beach to avoid costly chair rentals and whiny wet children.
5. Find your zen. We spent as much time as possible with the kids, while balancing work demands, and set schedules and limits. While it was a bit of a juggling act, we both made sure client demands were met while maximizing family and fun times.
Part III: The Debrief (or Lessons Learned)
1. Expect the unexpected. Rarely does anything go exactly as planned; being makes any trip better. We did not expect, but learned to love, the petanque court at the house. The kids had never tried, but learned to love, many typical French foods. On the downside, the "air conditioning" we were expecting turned out to be the open (but unscreened) windows. The house also turned out to be farther away from the nearest small village and the coast than we had been told. We concluded that the French drive much faster than we do!
2. Profiter. The French have a saying: "Il faut profiter" - One must get the most from any situation. We found that the key to the kids' behavior was attention, which we were able to give them without the normal distractions of life at home. We welcomed every new cultural experience, even if we concluded after the fact that we wouldn't do it again.
3. Relax. On shorter trips, one sometimes feels pressured to see as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. We found that we were able to pace ourselves given the length of the trip. Sometimes, just staying at home was fabulous (especially with a beautiful view and a pool to cool off in).
The family voted the trip the best summer ever. We loved every minute of living in and adapting to a foreign culture. We loved being more unplugged than we are at home. We had a blast spending 24x7 with our kids (and each other), more time than we had ever spent in each other's company. We created memories that we hope will last forever. References to the trip, or a French word, enter the kids' conversation frequently. As I write this, I smile as I think of how often our family conversations turn to the topic of next summer: Where? What country? How long? We can't wait!
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