Thank you for your patience! I’ve owed you this post for a few weeks. Here’s a long Q&A about our move. Why we chose to move. Why we chose to move to France. And why it might have seemed out of nowhere to you (but not to me).
Q. What prompted such a sudden move?
A. I know it seemed sudden, but we actually started planning the move in earnest during the fall of 2018 — a full year ago.
To be frank, it was mostly a financial decision. As is well known, the Bay Area is incredibly expensive. It’s like any expensive city (though probably a bit worse because there’s such a housing crisis). Big cities are expensive, and they often offer work opportunities that pay well and make the expense worthwhile.
But I’m self-employed and I work at home, and my work and my earnings are the same wherever we live — whether it’s a big city or a small town. So it’s not very smart of us to live in a really expensive place. If we move somewhere more affordable, it feels like getting a raise, you know?
When we first moved to Oakland, part of the thinking was that we would take advantage of work-related Bay Area resources, and we did do that to some extent. But ultimately we still work at home 90% of the time, so it just doesn’t make sense to pay for the privilege of living near so many awesome resources — resources that we aren’t using.
As we looked into the future and thought about having 3 kids in college at the same time, and about retirement savings (remember, we’re self-employed, and there’s no matched 401k for us), we concluded that no matter how much we love living in Oakland (and we love it so much!), we are being really financially unwise if we stay. Because our jobs don’t require us to live in Oakland. Technically, we can live anywhere with a decent internet connection.
Q. So why didn’t you start talking about the move last fall?
A. Well, we felt really private about the whole thing. We didn’t know where we would move and were quite overwhelmed by the whole prospect. I knew if I talked about it publicly, lots of people would chime in with feedback (some welcome, some not so welcome) and it would overwhelm me even more. So until we were 100% officially decided, with a solid plan in place, I simply didn’t want to put it out there in a public way.
I should mention we were also quite conflicted. We knew a move was the wise thing to do financially, but our family is very invested in Oakland and has put down some solid roots. The kids LOVE their schools and their friends and we went back and forth for months on whether or not we should try and stick it out in order to avoid uprooting them.
Q. Were you planning to move to France since last fall?
A. No. Not exactly. Starting last fall, we started planning to move somewhere. But we didn’t know where and we didn’t really know when the move should happen. Because we can live anywhere, we started with a really wide search and then started narrowing it down.
It seems like it would be fun to get to choose exactly where to live, and even pick the date you’ll move. In some ways it is fun, but there’s also something really nice about having a job that tells you where to move and when to be there — and you just have to adjust and get on board and make the best of it. When you’re choosing for yourself, if you choose the “wrong” place, it’s all on your shoulders. If your kids are struggling, you can’t blame the move on a job, it’s all on you. So there’s a lot of pressure to make the “right” decision (and try and predict the future in the process).
But this isn’t the first time we were moving away from a big city, and had to decide for ourselves a new place to live. When we moved from New York it was for the same reasons — we were both working at home and didn’t need to live in proximity to NYC anymore. So we started doing internet searches for “best quality of life” and “lowest cost of living” and at the time, decided to move to Denver.
This time around was similar in some ways to our move from New York — including lots of research on good places to live — but now, we had international experiences under our belt, and we were open to locations all over the world. Internationally, we researched and considered four places:
-The Philippines — groups from the Philippines have shown interest in Ben Blair’s startup university, and we wondered if a move there might offer some advantages for his work.
-India — this was mostly pushed by Olive who has been craving and planning an extended trip to India for years.
-Mexico City — I got really into Abby Clawson Low’s book about Mexico City and Ralph convinced us that learning Spanish would be easy.
-France — when we moved away from France, I assumed we would return to Normandy every year for a couple of months at least. It didn’t happen quite the way I thought it would, but a return to France has consistently been on my mind.
We also looked very seriously at more affordable places in the U.S.:
-North Carolina — gosh it’s easy to love North Carolina and it seems like a really smart real estate bet. It’s growing like crazy! We looked pretty intensely at the Raleigh-Durham area, and can still see ourselves living there at some point. Perhaps after France.
-Upstate New York — when we lived in New York, and we couldn’t afford to buy a house but I still wanted to day dream about real estate, I would look at houses an hour or two north of the city, in places like Poughkeepsie and Saugerties. These areas have surprisingly affordable real estate options — and the city still feels close enough to have NYC adventures.
-Detroit — part of what we love about living in Oakland, is that it is the most diversely integrated city I’ve ever encountered. It’s a beautiful thing. We did lots of research on other cities that might feel similar, but offer more affordability, and Detroit came up over and over again. Real estate in and around Detroit is pretty amazing.
-Northern California — I know the Bay Area is considered to be Northern California, but actually it’s pretty much in the middle, and there’s a whole huge part of the state that’s north of San Francisco. If you’re willing to go far out enough that it’s not commutable (which is fine with us because we work at home), you can still find some really good real estate prices.
We discussed all these options with the kids for months, and we’d tally up the pros and cons of each place. We did a ton of house hunting — both online and in person, and talked to friends and contacts in all of these places as we tried to narrow things down. Oh my goodness there were times I really wanted to talk to you about these places — to get your advice and see if anyone would say something to help us cross one spot or another off our list.
Q. And France eventually won out?
A. Yes. For several reasons. One of the biggest reasons being that it was familiar. We know the schools, the neighborhoods, the grocery stores. We know the extra-curricular options. We know the foods we like to eat. We know what we’ll be homesick for.
Anytime I considered an international move to anywhere but France, I would feel exhilarated, but also overwhelmed. I told Ben Blair, “I am up for it. I will move pretty much anywhere. I will be a good sport. I will dive in and embrace wherever it is. But I need someone else to figure out all the logistics.” It’s like my brain would just shut down when I started looking into international visas and local schools and trying to figure out housing.
If we worked for a company who was transferring us to an international location, and was helping us figure out the logistics, that would have been great. But we aren’t. And I just wasn’t up for figuring out another international move to an unfamiliar place.
Other reasons we ended up choosing France:
-We wanted Oscar and Betty to get a chance to regain their French in a more permanent way. Ralph, Maude, and Olive have all moved back to France since we’ve lived in Oakland, and because of that, their French has stuck with them. Also, we knew Flora wanted to learn French — I imagine it feels like all her siblings are part of club that she is excluded from, and she wants in!
-We love the lifestyle and pace of life in Normandy. I can’t stress this enough. I’m going to write a separate post about it.
-We feel a connection to Normandy. We have friends here. We have property here. We truly love it here. This summer, Ralph was visiting Normandy and called us from Argentan to tell us the obvious move was coming back to Normandy because it’s such an amazing place to live, and he reminded us how much our family had thrived when we lived here before.
-As I mentioned above, we always thought we’d be living in France for at least a part of each year, so the thought of moving back seemed natural.
-When we lived in France before, we did a lot of traveling during the school breaks. And the older kids remember all those adventures, but the younger kids don’t remember much of the traveling at all. So we like the idea that we’ll have a chance to show them some of Europe while we live here.
-Financially, it made the most sense. We ran the numbers and our budget stretched the furthest in France. That was a big help in narrowing down where we should move. Moving to Normandy feels like an adventure, but it’s also familiar which makes it easier for us to settle in, and on top of that it’s affordable!
But to be clear, we didn’t officially decide on France until early August. And we moved on August 27th. So it did end up happening really fast. (Plane tickets! A place to live! Luggage! Packing up the house for shipping! Visas! And a thousand other things.)
Q. How long will you be in France?
A. We’re planning at least a year, but in my head it will be longer. A year is an easy place to start because a long-stay visa only lasts for a year and then you have to reapply. So there’s no guarantee we can stay more than a year anyway.
Initially planning on a year is also easier to wrap our heads around, especially when things are tough, or speaking French has our brains exhausted. But we also know that by the end of one year, there’s a good chance the kids will have deep friendships here, and that their French will have mostly caught up, and that sticking around for another year or two will sound appealing. So, we’ll see how it goes.
Q. Are you going to live in the French Cottage you bought last time you lived there?
A. Actually no. I mentioned this in an older post, but I know it was easy to miss so I’ll sum up: it would be quite expensive to make our little cottage a welcoming homestead. And we’ve discovered it’s more economical right now to buy another house that doesn’t need as much work instead.
But beyond that, our cottage is really out there in the countryside — a good 25-30 minute drive from the kids’ school, from grocery stores, from swim team practice. And when we bought the cottage, we didn’t really picture it as a house we’d live in while the kids had their daily life in France. We thought it would be for vacations and summer trips. The location is amazing for a rural retreat, but not very convenient for daily life where we need access to the town multiple times each day.
Q. What are you doing with the Treehouse in Oakland?
A. [Long sad sigh.] We’ve decided to sell it. We considered renting it out, but we have been long distance landlords before and did not like that experience at all.
The Treehouse, and the mini forest that surrounds it, require quite a bit of upkeep and we’ve decided it’s ultimately better to remove it from our list of things to do. I’ve learned I’m a very out-of-sight-out-of-mind person, and having to think about or manage the Treehouse while living across the ocean would drive me bonkers.
But we are so deeply sad. We love The Treehouse, we’ve remade every inch of it, and our family has grown and thrived there. It’s really hard to say good bye to it. (In fact, if you’ll indulge me, I was thinking maybe I’d do a farewell Treehouse home tour post sometime.)
And it’s not just the Treehouse. Saying goodbye to Oakland is crushing. We didn’t know anything about it before we moved there, but oh my goodness we fell in love with Oakland hard. And getting to go to Oakland public schools is probably one of the very best gifts I’ve given my kids.
Q. What about all your stuff? If you sell the house, what are you going to do with all your furniture and other stuff?
A. Well, as it turns out, our stuff is currently floating somewhere on the ocean in a shipping container. We decided to ship it instead of store it. Storing is quite expensive. and you may remember, that dealing with our storage unit in Colorado, after we’d moved to Oakland, triggered a full-on nervous breakdown for me (it wasn’t just the storage unit, but I want to avoid a repeat anyway).
We considered an estate sale, but when we looked at what we could earn, we felt better about just shipping our things to France. At the end of the day, we like our stuff. We’ve been married for 24 years and have chosen our belongings quite carefully over the years. So we felt happy about bringing them with us.
When we were deciding whether to sell, store, or ship to France, one of the thought exercises I did was ask myself: If there was a job that took us to the East Coast for at least a year but maybe more, and we had to move from California, would we bring all our stuff with us? Yes, we would. So we priced that out, and discovered that shipping our belongings to France on a slow boat was a similar cost to a cross country move. (I’ll do another post about the shipping later. It’s its own adventure.)
Q. How about your car? Your vintage Vespa?
A. You are nailing these questions! There are so many loose ends to tie up before a big move like this. Our van was a lease and the move timing worked well with the lease return, so that was good news. Our Vespa was in need of attention, and we ended up giving it to a man who could rebuild it and enjoy it.
Q. What about Ralph & Maude? What are they doing? Will they ever come to France?
A. Maude started her third year at Berkeley and is living in an apartment close to campus. She is majoring in English and wants to be a writer. Ralph is finishing his last semester of Community College and plans to apply to Berkeley this November (if accepted, he’ll start there next fall). He wants to study film at Berkeley. Ralph is living with my brother Jared and my sister-in-law Liz (of Say Yes) in Oakland — we left our little electric Fiat with Ralph so he can drive to classes in Berkeley.
For sure we hope they’ll come see us in France! I’m guessing the first opportunity will be the holidays.
(And as you might remember, Olive is spending her senior year in Montpellier, France as an Au Pair. She was already planning this and had it all set up long before we knew we were moving back to France.)
Q. Was your move coordinated with your sister Jordan’s round-the-world trip?
A. Hahaha. I guess it could seem like that. Too funny. It was a for sure a separate decision made on a different timeline, but as you can imagine, we’re over the moon that our paths may criss cross a bit while she travels with her family. For instance, we’re headed to England for a wedding this coming weekend and we’ll get to meet up in the English countryside for an afternoon.
Last time we lived in Normandy, Jordan & Paul lived in Paris, and it was such a treat to get to see each other when we went to Paris, or when they were craving some time in the countryside. They’ll be traveling all over the world this year, so it won’t be the same, but I’m sure we’ll still try and coordinate a vacation or two so that we end up at the same place at the same time. Crossing my fingers!
Q. How did you get a long-term visa?
A. Great question. I’ve got a whole other post I’m working on about visas and foreign bank accounts and foreign cell phones and that sort of thing. So stay tuned.
Q. Are the kids in an International School?
A. No, they attend a local French school. It’s the same one they attended when we lived here before. It’s fully in French and it’s tough for them right now. But we’ve done this before and are confident it will be worth it.
Q. Does everyone in the family speak French?
A. Not yet. But we’re working on it. Oscar and Betty were perfectly fluent last time we lived here, but after six years in Oakland, they’ve forgotten a ton. So far, they say they understand about 50% of what’s being said at school. It’s just going to take some time to get back up to speed. And Flora is learning French for the first time.
Ben Blair is awesome at French, though always trying to improve. I am awful at speaking, but understand 75% of what I hear. Ben and I are setting up language exchanges — where you meet with someone local and spend 30 minutes conversing in French and 30 mins conversing in English. Our first one is this week.
I think that’s it for now. Hopefully I covered all the questions I’ve been asked so far. But if I missed something, or you have new questions, please feel free to ask me. And thanks again for your patience while I wrote all this down.