Meet the Ashtons! Home Exchange: Phoenix to Provence

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(photo by Nicole Hill)

The Ashtons: Dave, Stasha, Abigail (10), Sophie (7), Samuel (5), and Carter (2)
Hometown: Phoenix, Arizona
Adopted Hometown: Mougins, France (near Cannes) since August, 2007

In our daydreams we move to France (or Italy, or Greece, or...) and leave behind the life we know for new adventures, new cultural experiences, new tastes and sights. But we're snapped back to reality by our job, language barriers, financial concerns, and fear of the unknown. The Ashton family, on the other hand, made their dream a reality and have spent the past year living in Provence while a French family has exchanged for their home in Phoenix.

Mom, Stasha, kindly agreed to fill us in on the family's "French experiment." Read on to learn more about home exchange, packing up four kids for a year away, getting past language barriers, schooling in another country and their incredible, life-changing experience.

Have you and your husband always had the travel bug?

Yes! When I was young, my Father would gather us in the living room for family meetings. Each time before he could tell us the latest news, I would ask with excitement, “are we moving!?” My husband and I took our first big trip together 18 months after we got married—to China. Since then we have lived in Hong Kong, England and France.

Before this year-long exchange, had you ever tried a home exchange before?

Our first exchange was in the town on Nantes, in the northwestern region of France (Brittany). We planned this exchange for four weeks in July and August 2007 before we received the request to exchange for a year in Mougins.

Were your kids at all resistant to moving for a year – leaving friends and school behind?

Our kids had absolutely no interest in moving. They would cry and ask us why we were making them go to “dumb France.” Especially our ten year old, who has a harder time with change and was enjoying the fact that her cousin had just moved about 4 minutes from us. The night before we left, the kids were all in tears. We were all basically in tears. I know my husband was wondering what he’d gotten us all into. He’s said so several times.

What and how does one pack for a year away from home, especially for children?

As lightly as possible! We could bring ten bags, two for each paid seat. I have to say, I did a horrible job packing. I was so worried about the kids missing home that I packed an entire duffel bag with stuffed animals and little toys. Big mistake! I also did not do enough research into the weather in this part of France and just assumed it was very similar to Arizona or California. Wrong! I did not pack enough winter items, and I really could have used some rain boots. Along with the regular things like clothes, I brought some children’s books in English, as well as some of those large workbooks appropriate for the child’s grade level. Luckily we had a few visitors who kindly brought us things like peanut butter and syrup, which are either impossible to find or very expensive outside of the U.S.

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(view from their home in Mougins, France)

Did you do anything special to your own home before you left to accommodate your exchange family?

As soon as we agreed to this exchange, we made a spreadsheet of all the things we needed to do to the house before we left. I’m sure we didn’t get to everything on the list, but we did manage to repaint the kitchen and hire a gardening company to take care of the yard.

Do you ever worry about your home being in the hands of "strangers"?

For some reason I never had any anxiety about this issue. My husband flew to France to meet our exchange family before we agreed, and he felt very comfortable with them. When I was a kid I went to a party once and a boy was rough-housing and knocked some things off a shelf. I will never forget that my friend’s mother said, “Don’t worry, they’re just things.” Also, those strangers are leaving their home in our hands, so there is a mutual agreement that you will take care of the other person’s home. When Dave visited our exchange family back in May of last year he actually wrecked their family van! It wasn’t a big accident but it was enough to show him the kind of people they were, the way they responded. They basically said “it’s just metal, no one was hurt, so it’s no big deal.” I think he knew then that they were like us in that regard: aware that in an exchange not everything goes perfectly and that you need to have trust between the parties. It’s that trust that makes it work. We were also lucky in that we have relatives that live very close to our home to drop in when needed.

Did your kids know much French before relocating and has the language barrier posed much of a problem?

My children knew zero French. They didn’t even know where France was. To them it was just some place we were going to, but it wasn’t really a real place. We tried to get them interested before we left, but they were so resistant. We were literally like children arriving at the first day of pre-school: waiting for someone to help us or tell us what to do and how to do it. We were very lucky to meet some very patient and helpful adults in our town. By Christmas, Sophie and Sam were conversational with their friends at school, and by March, Abby was as well. It took her a little bit longer because she is more shy and also had a girl from England in her class, which was great, but slowed down the language absorption. We also totally immersed ourselves with French. In this part of the country there are a lot of English-speaking people, and therefore amenities like Satellite TV giving access to all the British channels, English radio, playgroups for Anglophones, schools for Anglophones, etc. etc. We stuck strictly to French tv, French radio and mostly to French people! It has made a big difference. The kids are truly fluent at this point, and passed Dave and I in their ability to communicate several months ago. Now they correct us all the time. It’s a little bit of a weird feeling, to have you child speak to you and you have to say “I’m sorry I didn’t understand, can you speak more slowly please?” But that’s what’s happening around here.

Were you worried about schooling your kids in another country and how did school work out for them?

This was by far our greatest concern. Would they understand anything, ever? Would they make friends? What grade will we put them in when we go home? We were both very stressed out by this, especially for our 10 year old. Thankfully, everything worked out great. The teachers have been very patient, and at first all of them would explain as much as they could in English to help our kids feel comfortable and understand. I have been very impressed with the activities and learning experiences that my kids have been offered here. There are many things that you get at school that one cannot get in the United States. That’s not to say that one system is better than another, but they are just different in certain ways. For example, Abby spent two weeks at a special school in the mountains two hours from here. The kids went to school in the morning and skied in the afternoon, or vice versa. The class ate together, studied together, shared dorm rooms together, and played together. This experience really helped Abby break out of her shell. It was wonderful. And the kids go on field trips all the time, at least every two or three weeks.

Are there any downsides to home exchange?

I think if you have done your homework about the region you are visiting, the family that you are exchanging with and are aware and ready to deal with any issues, then there is no real downside to home exchange. It offers the ability to travel with children and not break the bank, while providing all the necessary amenities, like a car and kitchen! If you’re going to be worried about your “stuff” all the time then it’s probably going to be more stress than it’s worth. But the system works really well: people are basically good, and they want to please others. And when you’re living in their house, everyone has an extra incentive to do what’s right and to take care of things.

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(photo by Nicole Hill.)

What's the best part of home exchange and what will you miss most about it?

The best part of home exchange is not paying rent (or hotel costs)! We pay our usual costs at home, like the mortgage and car insurance, etc., and we each pay our utilities as used in our respective countries. Therefore, if you throw out differences in the value of local currencies, it actually costs nothing to live in another country.

Has this experienced changed your family?

Absolutely! My children have gone from zero knowledge to fluency in another language in ten months. They speak to us in French at home at least half the time. We have been exposed to the unique culture of the South of France, and the people we have met have changed our lives: we love and appreciate the culture and the people here for who they are, and see the value in certain things that are much different than in the United States. We will always be Americans and our love for the US will never change, but we feel like we understand another part of the world better now (and an interesting part at that!) and this fact brings us great happiness. And we are planning on staying in France another year!

Do you think the Ashtons will do this again? If so, what's your dream country for another long-term exchange?

We will definitely be doing home exchange again. We wish we could find someone to exchange with us in Mougins for next year! If you know of anyone with a nice house here who wants to go live in Phoenix, let us know! We may never again have the opportunity to exchange for a year, but for vacations, it is definitely the way to go when you have young children. I have to say, if we could do another long-term exchange, I would love to learn Spanish, and I hear Spain has some spectacular cities! Otherwise, if you just stick to shorter exchanges, the whole world is open to you, and you’ll make new friends in the process! Like buying books over the web, or browsing for stuff on ebay, the Internet has fundamentally changed the way we can vacation. For families, finding someone through the web to exchange homes with is just a better, less expensive, easier, more rewarding and more flexible way to vacation. In our experience anyway, it’s just better in every way!

Thank you so much, Stasha, for sharing your family's experience with Ohdeedoh! We're a little bit in love with you guys!

Readers, you can learn more about the Ashton's year in France at their blog, La Vie Échangée (start with Dave's post, "How We Got Here").

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As Apartment Therapy's Family Editor, Carrie covers design and modern homelife with children. A lapsed librarian, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two kids and is in contention to break the record for most hours spent at the playground.