Have you ever wanted to live in France for a year? Or more? Then this post is for you. Rachel lives in the French countryside with 3 young children, and since she loves her life so darn much, she’s taking 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?
28 thoughts on “Call It A Day: Rachel Abbott”
Wanderlust Indeed!! what a wonderful opportunity, thanks for sharing. it sounds like life should be like that everywhere..
What fun! You should have Rachel back for a Living With Kids home tour. That picture of her living room is dreamy.
My favorite quote- “I’m not making any of this up.” I love that. The flow of everyday life seems dreamy. It is so simple and lovely. Thank you for sharing your day with us.
What a wonderful experience for you and your family, thanks for sharing!
What a lovely life you live!! When I got to the end and discovered you also have a PhD, I almost fell out of my chair. I am so grateful that you and your husband have found a way to make everyones’ lives work. We are a 2 PhD household too and the years we both worked left us exhausted and unhappy with each other and the world. Then, my husband moved into being a stay-at-home dad and life got better for all of us. Our little boys have flourished and I could really invest in my academic career. It has not been easy (especially for him) but it is working.
Keey enjoying your life and savour every minute. Moving back to the US will be your next great adventure.
I appreciated your comment because my husband is also a stay-at-home dad. Although I know many families that work great with two working parents, I have absolutely loved having my husband stay home. As Rachel said, it feels like a luxury to have one parent be able to focus on the children and household.
Amazing! Thank you. I had to laugh at your final note about feeling fulfilled with homemaking but not always doing it gracefully… I love my role at home, too, but objectively I am not at all skillful in the home arts, except for making my loved ones feel supported and cared for.
What a beautiful life! As for your son Henry, it sounds like he has flourished despite starting school early. But don’t think you can’t go back! My daughter did a year of traditional kindergarten (learning to read, etc.) and then we realized it wasn’t a good fit for her so she did a second year of kindergarten at a Waldorf school and played outside all day, baked, learned to finger knit, etc. Some might have seen it as moving backward, but it really worked for her (and us). Best of luck on your move back to the US. I live in California but I think Utah is one of the prettiest states in the country. You will have lots of adventures there as well!
Thanks for your nice article Rachel. I’m wondering if you ever visited Le Puy du Fou in Vendée (http://www.puydufou.com)? It’s a terrific destination for families with amazing medieval, viking, historic shows and activities. It’s only 2 hours south, next to Cholet. Not to be missed before you leave the country. Spend 2 days and see the night show.
I actually just put that on my list yesterday of things to do before we leave!
Oh how I can relate to almost EVERY bit of this post! I lived in Annecy, France with my family for 3 1/2 years and just moved back to Canada over a year ago. I actually came across design mom when researching about North Americans living in France and it is the only blog I read. Rachel your descriptions of French life are so alike mine. From the food and travel to getting dressed up for school drop off (I also upped my fashion game for walking out the door) and stressing about sending my 3 year old to school. We too enjoyed all of the travel and have been to so many of the same places although I always regret not getting to the Loire Valley. I truly miss it every day now that we have returned to North America and I have to admit I would leave all of my possessions behind if I could go back! I can’t find a good croissant anywhere and I think I might have turned up my nose when I asked at the bakery if they were made with butter and the person told me that it was probably margarine. The horror!!! Thank you so much for sharing your life and taking me back to those wonderful years. Now I’ll just go drown my sorrows in a glass of wine that cost me the price of 2 bottles of french wine that I could have picked up at the grocery store!
Everyday I wonder how we will survive/exist back in America. I don’t want to be a snob! Though we don’t want to live in France for the rest of our lives, we have been thankful everyday for living here. It has been a wonderful blessing and experience.
Rachel, if you are heading towards BYU next, I’m happy to tell you that there is a wonderful French bakery right between Provo/Orem at the top of the State Street hill. The owner is from France, and everything he makes is authentic, delicious, and beautiful. My girls used to have a gymnastics class next door so we all looked forward to Wednesdays when we could bring home fresh bread and a box full of sweets. We now live in NC, and we miss his delicious goods.
This is such good news, thank you.
Rachel, thank you for this article I can so identify with!
Lee, I live in Annecy and can’t imagine going back to the States. I also found Designmom while searching for Americans in France. Also, the people are very friendly here. Maybe it’s the of a Swiss influence living so close to the border?
Rachel, there is no doubt that you will experience some reverse culture shock (especially if you kids only get 20 minutes to eat lunch like ours do!) but it’s fun to hold on to the little french traditions and keep them a part of your life. I’m not sure how you have found dealing with anything administrative in France but that’s one part I don’t miss :). Enjoy the rest of your time!
Amanda, isn’t Annecy just heaven on earth? It truly was a dream for us to live there. I also found the people to be very friendly. In fact here on the west coast of Canada I am often the only one saying “hi” when I walk by people. I remember everyone saying “bonjour” to me. I could have sat and looked at that lake and those mountains forever! Savour every moment and eat as many croissant as you can :)
So gorgeous! I totally relate to all the ex-pat feelings, and we are living in England where there’s not even (much of) a language barrier! We’ve traveled to France a bit and loved it, esp the food, and we’re heading to Normandy later this spring, a trip I am really excited about!
I’m French and I would just like to set the record straight about starting school early. While I share some of the feelings about school being a bit too “rigid” school is not obligatory before 6 years old. There is no obligation to put a three year old at school if he is not ready or doesn’t want to. Especially full time: we’ve just moved to France from London and my 4 year old is only going to school in the mornings. Most people see the early start of school as free childcare and something that makes it easier for mothers to go back to work if they wish.
Unfortunately, our school has an all-or-nothing approach. Either they go all day or not at all :( It’s been a very hard decision, because we have wanted them to learn french, and school is the best way.
We lived in Chamonix for 2 years. Rachel’s account on French life and the schooling sounds so familiar. We developed a mantra of dealing with logistics in France – “the French start with ‘no’, so when you get to the 3rd ‘no’ you will usually get a ‘yes'”. I loved the two-hour school lunch as I felt it teaches kids to value the time spent eating and in community together. While we kept our kids in school for lunch time, I loved hearing that the kids sat in small groups in the cantine and had to serve themselves as you would at a family dinner. It reinforced dining etiquette that I think has served them well. And 4 year olds do eat salad with a fork! I do miss the strict schooling a bit. We are now in California and sometimes I feel teachers are back-bendingly accommodating to the kids. I don’t know which will serve the kids better in the long-run. (Before France we were in England, maybe we’ve grown accustomed to stricter approaches). Anyways, I love hearing other moms’ perspectives and this is just a great post. Thank you for sharing!
It’s Brittany (from USU). Love this post about your family. It really sounds like a dreamy time in your life. Thanks for sharing.
LOVED this post so much! What a wonderful experience and thank you for detailing it so well for us!
Sounds wonderful! I am happy for you getting to be a home maker! The world needs more of those! I was fortunate to be able to stay home with my children until they started school full time. I wish I could have been home with them longer and just been able to soak up more of the memories of their childhood. Thank you for the story about your life in France. Loved it!
Well this post made me feel very nostalgic. Thank you for sharing your experience here, Rachel! My family spent a year in France from July 2015-2016. I would go back in a heartbeat. I read every bit of Gabrielle’s french experience while I was researching for our time there. My kids are older (they were 10 and 7) and already knew french but both came home completely bilingual after our year, as did I. The details of your everyday life are just as I remember ours. The niceties and way of interacting with the local shopkeepers and market vendors were some of my favourite things (though i’m sure glad I knew of those expected niceties before we arrived!!). We lived in the Loire Valley, about 20 minutes from Chenonceau, which was also our favourite château!
We, too, traveled extensively during our longer school breaks, and visited the regions of France closest to us during the weekends. I particularly loved our times visiting parts of the coast of Brittany and Normandy. I feel like no amount of time would be enough to explore that country!
I am envious of your heading to Italy — we spent five weeks there before returning to Canada in July. If you have the chance, visit Portovenere, which is just directly to the south of the Cinque Terre (often considered the sixth “terre”) and is famous for their mussels, they are incredible! It is a beautiful place. There are a few posts about it on my blog if you’re so inclined!
I wonder if you’ve visited the Machines de l’Ile in Nantes? My children (and we!) absolutely loved seeing this magical place, the machines, particularly the Carousel, were out of this world!
Now home for close to nine months, I miss life in France every single day. We can hardly wait to get back to Europe. Do enjoy the rest of your time there! And eat a chausson aux pommes for me, my very favourite french pastry :)
I’m happy that my post was nice for you and the others who have commented here who also lived in France. It is quite a place to live. I’m going to check out your posts about Cinque Terre!
Rachel, I enjoyed this so much. What a great adventure for your family! And I have to say thank you for sharing your feelings about being at home full time. I’ve come back and read those last couple of paragraphs multiple times and love them. Finding fulfillment in making your home a clean, peaceful place is so wonderful. I’ve just finished working and will be home full time with my baby boy which I’m really looking forward to. I find your example reassuring while I’m making that transition. :)
Michelle, I’m glad I could write some comforting words for you. Good luck with homemaking. It’s not very easy, but it is fulfilling for me.
I’m French and married to an American. We lived 3 years in the US, and now we are back in France. I wanted to let you know that school is not mandatory before elementary school (6 years old). You can also send your kid for mornings only if you want to. We are so grateful to have free kindergarten from 3 to 5, because we don’t have to pay for daycare (even if it is not expensive compared to America, it’s still money).
I promise, some french people are also very friendly :)
It looks like you have a beautiful life in France, I’m very happy for you!
PS: Caspian should be our son’s middle name.