A Family Sabbatical in Provence

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of putting our overscheduled lives on pause to savor the rhythms and rituals of a simpler existence? When their daughters were teenagers, Bob and Carroll Pierce did just that, leaving Boston behind for a three-month family sabbatical in Provence. They found a charming stone house with beamed ceilings and arranged for private tutors so their kids could continue their schoolwork. Indagare spoke with Carroll one month into their adventure.

What was the impetus for your trip?

A sabbatical abroad is something my husband and I had each thought about on our own, but we weren’t sure we could pull it off. The catalyst was our oldest daughter’s decision to spend her January-to-June semester in Rome. We thought, “What if we did this ourselves?” We have two sets of friends who had gone abroad for several months, so we had a template. One family took a sabbatical in Luca; the other traveled the world and took the school curriculum with them. Both emphasized that it was so worthwhile. Bob is the CEO of his family’s aluminum company and is able to work remotely, so we started to think that we could really make it happen.

Did your children embrace the idea? The kids were horrified at first. The fifteen-year-old, in particular, dreaded leaving high school and everything familiar: her friends, her sports team, our neighborhood. We almost thought it wouldn’t work. Our thirteen-year-old has enough curiosity about life that any resistance she had was overcome. Our youngest daughter was the most open to it. But to be honest, all of us needed an adjustment period.

How did you decide on Provence? My mother’s family is from there, and I speak a little French, as does one of our daughters. Bob loves to bike, and we wanted to be able to pursue a lot of outdoor activities. We chose a house called Le Moulin near Sablet, a tranquil little village on a hill.

Did the house and grounds live up to your expectations? I did not anticipate how large and beautifully landscaped the property would be. It’s not formal, just very relaxed and Provençal. Watching spring bloom has been a treat. The house was exactly as I had hoped: simple and a little bit rustic. Houses in this region tend to be dark because it gets so hot, so the lighting is not great in the living room. It’s someone’s home, so there are a lot of antiques—not necessarily my taste but quite charming. And there are little details that I love, like the beautiful French linens in the kitchen.

How is the education working out? The tutors we found us are absolutely amazing. Our kids were attending private schools in Boston, and they were quite encouraging. They understood that this would be an education with a larger perspective. They gave us their curricula so our tutors could implement them. Most assignments are posted online.

What have been some of the unexpected pleasures of your stay? One of the joys of being here has been the ability to be spontaneous—something our family lacked at home. It’s a real luxury for all of us to linger at the table until we really want to leave, or to ride a little longer on our bikes because the route is especially beautiful, or for the girls to go to bed an hour or two later than usual just because the day is so fun and full.

Were there unforeseen problems? For me, the most challenging time was when we arrived in Provence in March and all of a sudden I had to be the support system for these kids who were adrift in a foreign county. We had somehow expected the weather to be warm and welcoming, but instead the Mistral was blowing and it was cold. Now, a month later, the younger two have completely adjusted. The older one will never admit to having a good time, but I see so many smiles.

What are some of your favorite rituals and details? At night we close the downstairs shutters, which makes the house snug and cozy. Upstairs we leave the windows open, so that we can hear the church bells chime the hours. Twice a week, a local gardener comes in to tend the herb garden. He proudly shows me his new additions, and I try to find a way to use them in that night’s dinner.

Do you have any advice for others contemplating a similar move? Plan to go for longer than you think you’ll want to. This trip has allowed our family to experience a quality of life that our generation has a hard time creating. In Boston, the pressure of afterschool sports meant that a typical meal lasted fifteen minutes. Here, one might last an hour or two. We all cook together—the girls love to make crèpes. At night, we play backgammon and cards. And we’re outdoors constantly, enjoying the countryside. My husband and I have been on a bike ride together every day since we’ve been here. Stepping away has been such a luxury.

Published onApril 9, 2007

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