Updated: Jul 8
Monday the 15th of June i took the train to Dax in the very South-West of France to do a Workaway at a French family living on the countryside about half an hour from town. Nathalie and her two children Adela (2.5 years old) and Jonas (6 years old) picked me up at the station, while William, the father, was still working. From the get-go it was obvious that Adela and Jonas were very different from other children I've met - Jonas was not shy in the least, but difficult, wild and temperamental. Adela was sweet most of the time, but extremely attached to her mother and very emotional, crying and in hysterics often. The family follows the belief of un-schooling, is anti-vaccine, believes a variety of things is poison (including added calcium in things, gluten, soy milk and salt) and much much more. And I've never ever seen children at the same time so unbelievably spoiled and so screamed at and at war with their parents. But I'll talk more about my thoughts on all that at the end of this post.
The first week was a blur of getting to know the family and the house, and working on all the preparations for Jonas' 6th birthday. My tasks mostly consisted of making and helping with the meals and the cleaning, gardening, as well as playing and helping with the children. Though it was always busy, it felt much more like being a part of the family than working, Nathalie and I helping each other with most of the everyday jobs and Nathalie always telling me to only do as much as I wanted and to take a break whenever I needed.
It took me a good while to warm up to William, who worked a lot and seemed a bit cold and odd when he was at home in the evenings and mornings. But throughout the three weeks I tagged along for a variety of different activities with him and ended up helping him quite a lot with his projects, and so he slowly grew on me.
Tuesday, I made a birthday guirlande with Jonas,
and spend the whole of Wednesday preparing food and baking a giant six layer cake for his birthday party - which turned out very rustic because of all the layers sticking to the forms and the oven being an old gas oven that burned the bottom of the cake before cooking it through on the inside. But Jonas was ecstatic, especially when we spend Thursday morning decorating it with fruits and candles (after he'd had just about 8 hysterical meltdowns from having to wait with decorating it) and blowing up balloons.
The mothers and children started arriving around 11 am and the first family didn't leave until around 6 pm. It was a very long and a very chaotic day with about 10 grown-ups and 20 children, all a part of the the "un-schooling club", but all super sweet.
Luckily William took me with him for a long beautiful walk with Adela and Guinness (their dog, which I quickly became best friends with) through the nearby forest, giving me a much needed break from the noise and people.
The day after, Nathalie and I put up the giant 6-person tent that I would be sleeping in for the coming two weeks.
William's parents arrived in the afternoon and stayed until Monday - they were sweet, but awkward and I really got pulled into the family drama when Natalie's parents came for lunch Sunday and the father proceeded to get embarrassingly drunk and unpleasant, before driving home with his handicapped wife in the back just after stumbling and falling three times (something that apparently happens every time they visit) .
Putting aside the very tense relationships, my first weekend with the family was great.
We went to the local market in Dax Saturday and I made lots of good moments with the children, one night singing English children's songs for them and reading aloud from French children's books, another morning going on an adventure with Jonas through dense thickets, corn fields and wild forest.
I spend Saturday and Monday planting corn, green beens and beets:
and working hard on a spiral cactus garden for Nathalie. It became my project to first weed the slope and arrange the stones into a specific (spiritual) spiral (together with Nathalie) and then arranging and planting 20-something plants in the very stony ground. It was satisfying when I'd finally finished it and Nathalie was super happy, having wanted to do it for years.
The second week with the family went by much more calmly and I seamlessly became a part of their everyday, tagging along for all activities and helping where I could.
Monday evening I went with William to his weekly 1.5 hour intense yoga class in Dax - it was hard enough to follow along as it was, but throw in following along on French and I couldn't help but feel a little stressed. I enjoyed it a lot though, and I ended up joining him the next two Mondays as well - and even joining him at 6.20 am one day to do a lesson on our own in the cabin in the backyard.
Tuesday Nathalie, the kids and I went to the beach by Lake Marin, a tranquil lake just by ocean. Apart from the typical hysterics, we spent a cosy day playing in the water and eating ice cream.
Wednesday I miraculously managed to stay home with Jonas and Adela while Nathalie was away for about 30 minutes, without Adela crying for Maman - we were all very pleasantly surprised.
Thursday morning we spend preparing food for the weekend of camping and going for a morning walk.
We met up with the 'un-schooling club' in the afternoon at another lake, just as calm and nice as the first one, and I kept an eye on Jonas and his friends for most of the afternoon, talking a bit to one of the dads, who was keeping watch as well.
And then Friday came around where Nathalie and I spent most of the day cooking, cleaning and preparing for the weekend. With lots of hysterics we finally parted around 7 pm and drove for about 1.5 hours, most of which was through the beautiful hills of the Basque Country and the Pyrénées. We set up our tents and ate dinner on the grass of the camping area with Séverin (a part of the "un-schooling club"), her husband, their two children and their two dogs. It was an incredibly calm area and after spending the late evening talking, I quickly fell asleep in my tiny tent to the soothing sound of the nearby stream.
Saturday I went on a long walk to explore the area. It was hot and I kept climbing up higher and higher, quickly finding a gravel road taking me in between fields and further uphill. I ended my hike at the very top, climbing up a tiny hill to an abandoned little hut, from where the view was incredible. What with the confinement and all, it felt incredibly liberating to explore without knowing where I would end up and a couple of hours alone was just what I needed after two good, but hard weeks with the family.
When I returned we all drove to a nearby river, where we met up with another family for a picnic and afternoon by the river.
I went on another long walk with William and Guinness and in the evening we made a small fire and all ate together, spending another incredibly cosy evening talking. Laetitia (the other mother) told me of their life as nomads, driving around and traveling, and her incredibly cute 2-year-old son became very infatuated with me - listening as I read him a story, offering me small gifts in the form of fruits and rocks and not wanting to let go of my hand when it was time to say goodnight.
When we packed down our tents the next morning and headed back to the house by Dax, I was a little sad to leave. But the weekend had without a doubt been a highlight of my stay in France, and I know that I will definitely come back to explore the region more thoroughly.
Later that afternoon William took me to the nearby park to teach me full-body boxing. For about an hour I got hit and kicked in the head, side and stomach, and learned how to do the same to him. I felt pretty badass and it was actually pretty fun, but before long I was completely finished, sweating and panting and a bit woozy from the (probably pretty mild) hits to the head. And for some dumb reason I said yes to a second lesson later on in the week.
My final week with the family was definitely the best. William took the week off to work on 'la Cabane' in the backyard with another workawayer, Prim from the Czech Republic, who arrived Monday evening to help him.
By now I had gotten really close to the children and I often read French children's books to them (which was difficult) or played with them - Jonas loving sitting on my hip and Adela preferring to do gymnastics in my lap or standing on my shoulders, every night giving me a goodnight 'bisou' (kiss) (and running after me, if I made my way to my tent without it).
I spent most of the week working on the cabin with William (and Prim) - and a learned to use various tools and techniques. I also sanded five big windows and painted them all with three layers of polish.
Monday, before Prim arrived, I helped William set up the scaffolding, which was super dangerous but fun. I felt like a real badass, climbing around and slowly building it up, at one point balancing maybe 4 meters up, while trying to secure a bar - the scaffolding moved a lot under me and my heart was definitely in my throat, but we finally got it all set up and secured.
Image: a very accurate representation of me sitting on the top bar, William and I trying to move another bar to secure the security railing (the arrow), at that point there was no ladder or platform to walk on of course.
Tuesday afternoon we visited Emmeline (the mother in the un-schooling club closest to Nathalie), Nico, Sasha and Elie after grocery shopping, and in the evening we packed a picnic and ate our dinner in the forest, just by the river.
Wednesday afternoon I decided to start my project of doing a thorough cleaning of the entire house, something Nathalie hadn't done since before Jonas was born. I spent 5 hours on a ladder, armed with a vacuum and sponge. When Emmeline and co. arrived for dinner around 7 pm I had finished the whole house besides the two bedrooms, Nathalie still working on the kitchen. I finally finished the last room this Monday, the day just before departing.
Thursday we went to the lake for children's yoga and a picnic with the un-schooling club. And Saturday I went for a long walk alone, before going with Nathalie and the children to an 'open doors' day at a riding school (which ended mostly in a lot of disappointment, crying and hysterics). In the evening I watched the French documentary 'Être et Devenir' on un-schooling with Nathalie and William and it was actually incredibly interesting and definitely made we understand their lifestyle a little better.
Sunday the whole family, Prim and I drove to Lake Marin, to spend the day at the beach. It was a great day of swimming and tanning, playing in the water with the kids and going for a paddle boat ride with Jonas and William.
And then Monday, my last real day with the family rolled around, and after lunch Nathalie, the kids, Prim and I drove to an open air museum, taking an old train the very last of the way and then walking around, exploring the charming old buildings. It was a lovely outing and we made it back just in time for me to change and drive to yoga with William.
And now it's Tuesday and I'm back with Ben and Eric in Montpellier. This morning I packed my bags and moved out of my tent. At breakfast Nathalie and William gave me a red baret handmade by a local as a parting gift and Prim gave me a card with quotes he liked. On top of the Brazilian bracelet that Nathalie had made me earlier on in the week, I felt showered with gifts and affection.
And though I was ready to get back to Montpellier, I couldn't help but feel a little sad hugging the kids and Nathalie goodbye at the train station.
Because even though their opinions on a lot of things really made me frustrated and the absolute egoism, hysterics and disrespect of the children made me want to rip my hair out, I did get really close to them all during my stay. And they were always extremely generous, Nathalie always grateful and thanking me for my work or telling me to relax and let her do it. And I've learned a lot as well - of course in regards to the language, having only spoken in French during my stay (which was completely draining at the beginning) - but also about their life so different from the usual. I can see how school and the conventional way of learning might not be for everyone, but I really don't think that it works in this particular family. The children have a complete lack of respect for rules and their parents, refusing to do anything anyone tells them to do and screaming and acting out when they don't get what they want. Although Nathalie is fighting with her children at least 15 times daily, they will quickly learn not to take her threats or anger seriously, when she always ends up giving in, if they continue screaming long enough. At the same time the parents put a lot of guilt and responsibility on very young shoulders and I just don't think that they have the mental capacity or energy to successfully "un-school" the children. The environment is often the opposite of calm, independent and happy, and while the mother talks about wanted to respect the children and not battling with them, I've never ever seen a family with more battles and disrespect. They aren't learning anything from "life" by being in the same exact environment, tied to the mum 24/7 - with no creativity and music, no travel or introduction to new places and groups, no structure. Their theoretical ideal just doesn't work for them in reality, instead leaving the children in a bubble and the mother angry and stressed. Nevertheless, I'm very curious to see how the children turn out.
And that's that: a little glimpse into my very ambivalent last three weeks - while I one hand have made some great memories, met very kind people, learned a lot and bonded strongly with the family, I've also wanted to scream at some of their extremely egoistical, unnuanced and hypocritical opinions and choices. But it's been a really interesting experience, and it's definitely made me reflect on a lot of my prejudices and on how I want to raise my own children in the future. No matter what, it's really good to be back home with Ben and Eric.