In Amazing Annecy - Part One, we met Fiona and her family. Originally from Melbourne, Fiona took us through their pre-departure preparation (including their choice of visa) and their arrival in Annecy. It had been a long-held dream to move country and experience life differently but their journey was not to be all French fun and laughter. Today you will read, despite major setbacks, of Fiona's bubbly personality and strong optimism, which serve to emphasise the 'doing' - now, not later.
Can you share with us a couple of the most memorable/funny experiences that you have had living in France?
We arrived in Annecy during the French summer, thinking we would have a couple of months to settle in before school started. However, while it did allow us to explore the region at a beautiful time of year, it was more difficult getting things organised with small kids in tow. For instance, we were trying to buy a car, but we kept turning up at the car yards around 11am, spending ½ hour looking around and waiting for someone to help us, and then, when they finally did, they’d say that it’s too close to lunch time to test drive a car now and to come back after 2pm! All normal here but quite frustrating at the time.
Our kids were not enthused about going to see yet another car yard either. On one particular occasion, Ben said he was tired and sat down on a mat inside the dealership building. We wandered outside to look at some more cars, but before we knew it, the shop had closed and locked its doors - with our son fast asleep inside! We knocked (banged) on the door and rang the phone number but it seemed as though no-one was there and Benjamin was fast asleep on the mat. Eventually, someone heard us, but instead of opening the door for us, they scooped Ben up and carried him to us!
Of course, we have also had many more memorable experiences while living over here. We love being in the Alps and enjoying the mountain sports (downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, cycling, hiking, staying in mountain refuges, rock climbing, etc), and also the lake and water sports when it’s warm (beach picnics, stand-up paddle boarding, wake surfing, rowing, etc). Just writing this it amazes me how much there is to do here - and still lots more we haven’t even tried yet.
We’ve also had some great side trips to other areas that are so hard to travel to from Australia. Some of our favourites have included Italy (Venice, Cinque Terre, Pisa, an opera in Verona, etc), Jordan (dead sea, Petra, deserts), Greece, Morocco (camels, desert camping, Souk markets), Netherlands, Croatia, Portugal, Sardinia, Germany, London, and Cambridge.
What have been the most difficult aspects?
By far the most difficult aspect was uncannily similar to your story. In fact, I was gobsmacked when I read your book, first realising how close you were living to us, and then when I learned you’d discovered you had breast cancer while here, I couldn’t believe it. After we’d been living here for about a year, I found a lump in my breast which didn’t seem right. I went to the doctor thinking it would end up being nothing, but after a series of tests, it was confirmed to be breast cancer. After more tests, I also discovered I had thyroid cancer.
As you can imagine, this was a huge shock to me - I was healthy and at 41, I considered myself to be too young for any of this. I was also unsure of what to do - should we abort this French experience and head back to Australia for treatment? Or maybe just go back to Australia short term and then return? Fortunately, some Australian doctor friends of ours had just finished a 6-month sabbatical in Lyon so we sought their advice on the relative comparisons between the two medical systems. We had a discussion over FaceTime with them and came to realise that the two systems are equally good, and also that the treatments were likely to be long. We decided to stay in France.
Navigating the French medical system was challenging at times, but all of the medical staff were extremely helpful and prepared to take the extra time to ensure we properly understood everything. Paul attended all the early appointments with me so that we had two brains to decipher the French. (We now know a lot of French medical terminology I never expected to learn!) I ended up having two surgeries, chemotherapy, and two types of radiation - all of which took about 9 months from the diagnosis.
I was lucky that I handled the treatments quite well without the side-effects being too severe, and we were so lucky to be surrounded by lots of good friends that rallied around. Our families from Australia also helped a lot with my parents coming to spend Christmas with us (our plans to travel to Australia that year had to be cancelled), and Paul’s parents taking our kids on a trip through the UK for their school holidays. Some of my friends also booked trips over to spend time together and cheer me up. It was a hard time but there were lots of silver linings!
I know that you and your husband have continued to work in France. Can you give us a snapshot of a typical day for the family?
Paul and I both work from home on different technology businesses. We are lucky that we can do this work remotely which has enabled us to continue living here. Paul mainly works on Powerdiary.com- a practice management system for health professionals, and I’ve started a new business - Actioned.com- a productivity tool for individuals and teams. I also do some coaching for small businesses.
A typical day usually sees us waking around 7am (or earlier if we have a lot of work on). Paul generally gets straight to work in order to overlap with Australian business hours. I’ll usually get the kids ready for the day, do a few chores, then drive them to school. A couple of times a week I go straight to a boot camp class where I get some exercise and mix with others in the neighbourhood. Then I’ll go home and work for the rest of the day until the kids get home. For me, that involves managing my developers (I currently work with two who are both located in Ukraine - so only one-hour time difference), refining the app design, writing content, preparing marketing messages, etc. I’ll also have a few video calls throughout the day. Paul works closely with his team of developers for most of the day and will sometimes go out for a ride with friends in the afternoon, or in winter, go cross-country skiing.
The afternoons see us picking up the kids and sometimes shuttling them to their various activities (at the moment, that’s piano, gymnastics, trampolining, and art classes). We eat dinner together and then Paul and I generally get back to our computers and work - usually until midnight or later (but I’m trying to change that!). We’re lucky to enjoy our work and usually, it doesn’t actually feel like work!
Wednesdays, there’s no school, but the kids have some activities, and often playdates with friends from school. In winter we try to ski most Wednesday afternoons (it’s only 30 minutes away so really easy to do).
On Friday nights, Paul helps a group of teenagers learn about technology and software, while the kids and I watch a movie at home. For the rest of the weekend, we’re often busy with friends - picnics, bbqs, dinners, or doing activities like boating together, skiing, or hiking - there rarely seems to be a quiet moment!!
Do you have any words of advice for other families who are dreaming of their own French adventure?
The way I look at it, you can either live your life with more of the same, and when you look back it will be hard to distinguish one year from the next. Or, you can take a chance and do something different. Even if it doesn’t work out, chances are it will be memorable! (And chances are it willwork out anyway!)
Moving to France has been one of the best things we’ve done - both individually and as a family. It’s made the bonds between us closer, opened us up to new cultures and ways of thinking, and given us all a much greater appreciation for the world around us. It’s hard to explain many of the cultural differences that we’ve come to appreciate, but we even have a better understanding of Australian culture. It’s hard to see the water you’re swimming in, but being away has given us fresh eyes.
Learning a new language has been challenging for Paul and me, but also something that feels like it must be good for us! Our children are now completely fluent in French, and although they don’t yet realise what an amazing gift this is, I’m sure they will one day!
If you’ve got any inkling to have an experience living in France or somewhere else, I’d strongly encourage you to find a way to make it happen.
Thank-you Fiona for taking the time to answer my questions... and now a personal post-script.
Although we have only connected a few times, Fiona has always tried to reach out and help push me onwards from my cancer, which I have found very hard to do. Although I am sharing her French story here as part of my 'Australians in France' series, there is definitely a secondary theme: that of support, friendship and understanding when life throws you a curve ball. There is no doubt in my mind that she is a very special person.
For our French story - Kindle or print - click here But you are in France, Madame