From the suburbs of Melbourne to the fields of France, Suzanne Acteson packed up her young family in search of a more simple life.
Why she did it and the journey so far.
I laid awake one morning. It was 4.30am. My mind jumped from one thing to the next, scanning the work issues and list of things to do, in a mental jumble of circular thoughts. I never resolved anything this early and would stew away on small little issues, that once the sun came up, would disappear into the horizon.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was waking earlier and earlier and instead of it happening once in a while, it was becoming a daily habit. What I also didn’t realise at the time, was that this was a tell-tell sign of anxiety. It wasn’t until months later, after I’d made some serious changes to my life, that I recognised how unhealthy this was. My stress had mounted to a level that my mind and body couldn’t handle, and I’d hate to think what would have happened, had we not brought it to a halt.
Rewind 2 years when I’d had my 3rd boy. I was walking by the park, on the way to my store, when one of my customers waved ‘hi’ from the playground and said ‘I don’t know how you do it all, you’re amazing!’. I smiled, wanted to shout back ‘I don’t have it together!!’ but said ‘ah, thanks’ instead. The impression I gave, was very different from the reality. I was very good at masking the stress and staying focused on the business and tasks at hand.
I left a career in advertising after 11 years, to follow my first dream. A concept store, called Habitots, that delivered a number of services to modern parents, all under one roof. It was a beautiful retail store, a workshop space for art, music & yoga classes, a local hangout for mums in the week and party central on the weekend. Our community loved it, I loved it. It was a place that some customers described as ‘magical’ and had a beautiful energy in the gorgeous Victorian terrace, we fit out perfectly.
So what was the matter? Why insomnia and stress? My husband and I both ran our own businesses, which come with high levels of flexibility. They also come with high levels of responsibility and very little security. We were both working 60 hour weeks and whilst we loved our jobs, we started wondering if that was what we wanted long term. My business was still costing us and was at the point where it needed external investment to grow. But what would that mean for our family? We started putting our long-term dreams on the table, and realised that to pursue the biggest one we’d often talked about, we’d have to give something up. It was my business that would have to go.
The big dream included spending more time with our kids. Learning a language. Living a slower life. Living closer to our respective families. The dream was to live in France for a year or 2, and once we’d decided to pursue it, there was no turning back.
In June 2017, 9 months after I emailed my customers with the news, we were on a plane and were traveling to south-west France, on a new adventure. Another big leap in our lives, but one that felt more purposeful and authentic, one that was all about us and our kids.
We arrived with 6 suitcases in hand, found a place in the south-west that sounded nice (that’s about how technical it got) and went for it. The town when we arrived, was everything we hoped for. It was quaint, small but not too small, sandwiched between the best French surf beaches (we have Aussie boys after all!) and the Pyrenees mountains, where, as a Canadian, I could get my fill of skiing.
The first month was all about settling in. We got a bank account, found a school, bought a car and explored the area to make 100% sure this was where we wanted to be. Of course, there are always bumps in the road and we hit a few of them…but we already look back and giggle and talk about those first few weeks as fond memories.
Our biggest unknown with the whole trip was how our 2 older boys would settle in school. We found a house to rent in a little village with a local school of 65 kids and were introduced and registered easily when we arrived on their doorstep. September rolled around, and our nervous group of little feet walked to school the first day. We were expecting some tears or not wanting to stay. Instead, both boys were very brave and walked off into their classrooms, with only the knowledge of a few French words.
The kids can come home at lunch here, so we picked them up at noon, to smiles and responses of ‘that was awesome!’. We were very surprised and thought the initial ‘honeymoon’ period would wear off. Three months in and we’re heading into Christmas, and they are still loving it. They are understanding 100% more than they did, talk in broken French, mix French & English words and are loving it. They have made friends both at school and through their sports in which we enrolled them. Despite the lack of conversation, they communicate, laugh and play as if they were French children. This is such a huge relief and we couldn’t be prouder of how they’ve risen to the opportunity and are becoming such resilient little people.
In our down times at weekends and on Wednesday afternoons when the kids don’t have school, we love to explore the region and see what it has to offer. We are 30 minutes from the beautiful beaches north and south of Biarritz, where in the summer, we spent lots of time. Our visitors are keen to visit San Sebastian in Spain, which is 1 hour away. We pinch ourselves to think that we can go for a quick lunch there when we want to.
The weather in the last couple of weeks has started to get quite cold, with frost on the grass in the mornings and snow on the tops of the mountains. We are enjoying rugging up in the morning, stoking the fire (as our only source of heat) and are looking forward to hitting the slopes in the coming months. This morning on the walk to school, our eldest said ‘this is amazing, I love the cold’. Whether truthful or not, what I see is a kid who is becoming adaptable and is embracing what we have and are doing as a family, with both arms. We are only hopeful that this prepares our kids for a life where they are able to more easily adapt and make changes. To be accepting of new environments and take risks like we have, in search of new & more fulfilling ways of living.
So our adventure continues, with our sights set on fun trips next summer and an onslaught of visitors who make their way westward from Australia. We are proud to show our visitors our new community and region, with the hope that they too take in the simplicity and slower pace, that we are loving.
In case you’re wondering, what about the business? Well, many friends and mentors advised me to keep my eyes open for new creative paths that my business might take. My business has taken on a new direction with a focus on living a simple, modern life but still has its core values at heart. I am excited about some of the new ideas I have for growing the brand from here, in France. I’m grateful that my community has been so supportive of this journey and the journey the business is on. Whoever said we had to follow a straight line or prescriptive path? It’s not one that we’re on and we’re loving every deviation and curve on this road so far.