Escape to the Chateau for real
My friends Tash and Ben recently moved their family to France where they are living and working at Chateau d’Isle Marie, a literal GODDAMN CASTLE.
I have subsequently become obsessed with this whole concept. How does this work? Why doesn’t everyone do this? IS IT HAUNTED BY SEXY FRENCH GHOSTS?
I had many, many questions and my friend Tash was kind enough to answer them. If you would like to escape to a chateau in the French countryside, read on.
Why did you decide to pack up and move overseas?
Early in our relationship we set a goal that we wanted to be digital nomads but being a blended family, with ‘yours, mine and ours’ ( I have two kids, Ben has a daughter from a previous marriage and we have one together) we thought it was impossible.
In the end it was the decision to homeschool my kids, the pandemic and the eye-watering cost of living in Sydney that created the perfect reason to pack up and start this lifestyle earlier than we thought we could.
What have been the highlights? And lowlights?
It has been … interesting so far. It is such a huge, steep learning curve in so many ways with very high highs to very low lows that has required more from us individually, our marriage and as a family that we ever anticipated.
From learning new languages, ordering groceries, figuring out how to homeschool in a way that works for each child and also shining a very bright light on the neurodivergence of each person in our family, it has been the a thrilling, yet overwhelming challenge. But I say this all with humour and pride!
Highlights so far have been big things like exploring London with Ben, the kids watching couples proposing in front of of the Trevi Fountain and exploring Mont St Michel. It’s also been little things like making friends with Kazim, a cafe owner in Clapham, London, where we had breakfast each morning, and the utter peace we have felt staying at a Chateau de L’Isle Marie, a Co-Living place in Normandy, France.
Malta was a definite anticlimax and rather disappointing. My father was born in Malta and I had wanted to go for my entire life, so I had really built it up in my mind. It was both overwhelming and underwhelming in equal measure and I still can’t put my finger on why.
We visited in March and it was unseasonably cold, our accommodation was not what we expected and we ended up leaving two weeks earlier than planned.
How are the kids going with school and the change to their routines?
Due to the lockdown last year, and then the decision to homeschool, they haven’t been in a classroom environment for nearly a year.
The kids are going very well considering the HUGE change they have gone through, both starting homeschooling (we had been going through a de-schooling period prior to leaving), packing up their home, as well as coming to new countries that speak foreign languages. I think doing this coming out of a pandemic has had its unique challenges, especially with emerging from the severe lockdown bubble that Sydney had been in and coming to Europe where restrictions had been lifted long before many of the ones in Sydney had.
It has also been hard recognising and navigating Autistic/ADHD meltdowns and burnout we have each experienced so far. For every highlight, there has been a lowlight of an ADHD/autistic meltdown.
Prior to the beginning of this year, I would not have known what they were, how to deal with it or what to do. Having to rely largely on an online community to figure it all out has actually allowed us to get answers and support fast. We head home to Australia soon for ADHD assessments for the children and I (hooray – universal health care!), but thanks to Telehealth, a lot of support can be provided online.
We have realised as a family that we really need sloowwwwwww down the travel. We thought a month in each location was slow travel but talking in WorldSchooling groups and having discussions with the kids, it looks like 2-3 months in each location will be ideal.
We have also identified we need to bring supports everywhere we go (for us, that is a nanny and using Ben’s EA to figure out logistics stuff like shopping, visas, SIM cards, etc) and for us all to feel safe communicating our needs and feelings.
Is it expensive?
It doesn’t have to be, but for us and our unique needs, it has been. If you travel slow, use Skyscanner to find great deals (often with multiple stops, but way cheaper than direct) and use platforms like TrustedHousesitters, where you stay at someone’s house for free in exchange for caring for their pets, you can travel very, very cheaply.
Similarly, there are a lot of locations in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America where the cost of living and travelling is very low. Because we have a bigger family and Ben sees his daughter regularly (either flying her and a family member over to us, or visiting her in Sydney), our budget is a lot higher than most WorldSchooling families.
We’ve also made some expensive mistakes/decisions (leaving an apartment earlier than planned because it was inhabitable and not getting our money back, booking a flight for the wrong date, etc) but we are learning.
How did you find out about the Chateau d’Isle Marie?
Someone on a Facebook group I am part of recommended trying the Chateau. I spent ages stalking all their stuff online and just knew we had to go. We had also binge watched Escape to the Chateau and buying a Chateau was – and still is – a dream of ours, so we wanted to give it a try.
How long are you planning to stay?
We only have a few days left here but stayed for about five weeks in total. It definitely wasn’t enough time. We love Normandy and there is so much to explore. I am toying with the idea of running a pop-up WorldSchooling event here sometime in the future.
Can you describe life at Chateau d’Isle Marie?
We are staying in a three bedroom gîte apartment in a separate building to the chateau. This building was originally a 17th barracks for the soldiers of the Comte de la Houssay in the 17th century.
I actually prefer staying here as we get views of the beautiful Chateau d’Isle Marie across the park and can go and visit it any time. I also don’t have to worry about the kids being too loud for the other co-livers!
I love walking into the stone entrance and seeing the date ‘1675’ above the lintel and then climbing the spiral granite staircase to our apartment.
We go for daily walks in the lush green forest of the estate, can hear the stork families and their babies that live above the chimneys, as well as blackbirds and cuckoos. Sometimes we are lucky enough to see a stag or deer on the grounds and the kitchen is often filled with the smell of the ancient rose bushes around the property that have dozens upon dozens of roses blooming at the moment.
Life is wonderfully slow. We usually wake up around eight or nine. Have breakfast and do some maths or literacy work with the kids or they tell me what they have watched and learnt on their iPads that morning (we largely unschool, so the kids are free to follow their interests rather than a set curriculum). Sophie usually has a new drawing style or artwork to share, or jokes or skit she wants to practice, and Xavier often needs to ‘info dump’ (his way of cementing what he has learned) new information he has learned about WWII and their tanks. Being in Normandy he had a lot of opportunity to learn about D-Day.
Ben usually goes off to work in the adjoining co-working space in the afternoon after lunch, ready for calls with his American clients. The sun doesn’t set here until well after 10pm so the days are long in the best way possible. Sometimes we jump in the car and go exploring around the countryside, other times we head to the chateau for a chat with the others, or to play chess.
The kids just love chilling on their iPads and playing games with family and friends around the world. A lot of people don’t realise that so much learning happens in life. Homeschooling doesn’t have to look like school at home. A lot happens by just talking, going to the shop and doing life. Currently it has been hard to engage with other kids as we are still building our WorldSchooling community but moving forward, we will be making travel choices based on joining other world schooling hubs and expat communities.
What are the best things about being there?
The best thing about being here is the sheer beauty of everything. It is so hard to pay attention to the road when you’re driving as there are so many old and beautiful things to see. I also love the inbuilt community there is with co-living. Often the co-livers share similar values, outlook on life and experiences.
As an extrovert I love the community activities like shared meals, movie and games night too.
What are the biggest challenges?
Grocery shopping in a different language is next level hard, especially if you are doing it online. When we didn’t have someone to help with the kids, it was almost torture. We were with each other 24/7 and Ben and I never got a break (individually or together). I know a lot of families live like that daily but, for us and the success of our marriage and sanity, we need to have regular help with the kids.
How are you finding working a different in timezone?
For Ben this time zone actually suits him better than what he was doing in Australia. Now his client calls are mostly in the afternoon and early evening, whereas in Australia he would often have early morning and late evening calls.
Would you recommend doing this to other families?
Absolutely! It is easier than I thought, the challenges are ‘good’ challenges and I am loving this lifestyle. I think I am a little bit addicted. I don’t think I could ever go back to ‘real’ life.
Where to next?
We are heading back to Australia in June for a month, to see Ben’s daughter and other family, as well as pursue ADHD assessments for us all. We are trialling our first housesit on TrustedHousesitters and I am excited to start using that platform more. After that, we are headed to Phuket for a while to see how Asia works for us as far as timezone and proximity to Sarah, so Ben can see her more often.
Any advice for people who want to try a ‘digital nomad’ life with their kids in tow?
There is never a ‘right’ time to start. If you feel it is a lifestyle you are curious about, just give it a go. Don’t let your kids being young put you off. It’s actually easier with younger kid. They make friends with kids at the park and really don’t care where they are as long as they are with their family. Teens and tweens sometimes find it more difficult and making travel decisions based on their social needs becomes more of a priority.
Using platforms like TrustedHouseSitters or AussieHouseSitters is a good way to trial the digital nomad life in a place away from ‘home’ to see if it works for you for relatively low cost. You don’t have to give up your current housing to try it out.
Pull the kids out of school if you need to; a month away won’t hurt, and they will learn so much more than they ever could in class in that time. If you don’t want to jump feet first into homeschooling there are WorldSchooling hubs like Boundless Life where kids can attend school, accomodation is sorted, instant social groups for kids and parents as well as co-working space (it’s a bit $$$ though!) Start local and move slow. There is something available for everyone no matter what your budget or way or life. AirBnb, Booking.com, Skyscanner, TrustedHousesitters are your friends.
Are you looking for more family travel advice? You might like this story about Yamba, NSW.