Born in Thailand to a Thai mother and French Canadian Father, Annie Andre is a seasoned world traveller currently living in the south of France with her husband and three kids. We talked to her about soaking in French culture, her personal and financial goals and how she came to be living in the small French town of La Garde.
I’m sure you’ve never heard this before: where are you from?
This is a really hard question to answer. I don’t really feel like I am from one place so I’ll just tell you very briefly where I’ve been.
So my answer is, I am born and technically from Thailand but I don’t feel like that is my home. I spent a good chunk of time in California growing up from five years to about 14 but also don’t feel like that is my home either.
I suppose I feel most at home when I am in Montreal and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that my extended father is from Quebec and my aunts and all my cousins on my father’s side o the family live in Montreal and the surrounding area.
And what did you do there, then?
After a 3 year gap year living in Japan and travelling around the world, I went to the University of California in Santa Cruz and majored in Economics.
I chose economics because it seemed the practical thing to do even though my heart was telling me to major in cultural anthropology and linguistics. This was the beginning of a huge regret.
I held a wide range of analytical jobs after college from corporate finance analyst, foreign exchange heding analyst for Motorola. I eventually worked my way up the corporate ladder making a nice income as a database marketing analyst and a web traffic manager for a software advertising company.
I met my second husband at work and together we had a great lifestyle. We lived in a great area near San Francisco California. The kids went to great schools. We had friends and a big house and lots of stuff.
However: it was an expensive lifestyle and most of our income went to just paying for our lifestyle.
Underneath it all, I was getting burnt. I felt like I was living someone else’s dream. Whose dream I had no idea. All I knew was that I did not sign up for a life where I lived for a mere annual two week vacation or snippets of weekend getaways while the rest of the year was spent working and living a very busy and hectic lifestyle.
I knew there had to be another way but we kept at it because everyone else was doing it. I really felt like I was on a hamster wheel, helpless to jump off and make change happen.
Have you lived abroad before?
Yes, I have lived abroad several times. First as a child in Thailand. When we moved to the U.S it was like moving abroad to me. I also spent several summers in Taiwan as a kid. (My step-mother was from Taiwan). Then I lived in Montreal during high school. I took a gap year after high school to travel which turned into 3 years where I lived and worked in Japan modeling and teaching English. I would work for several months in Japan; my home-base. I would take a couple of months off in between work to travel to surrounding countries throughout Asia and parts of Europe. When money ran low, I returned back to Japan to work and start saving again. I ended up visiting over 15 different countries during that time.
How did you end up in La Garde?
We ended up in La Garde by accident. We originally wanted to spend a year in Paris but since we were footing the bill ourselves, i.e. a company was not sponsoring us nor would we have jobs, we decided it was best to move to a cheaper area and stretch our money.
We set our eyes on the south of France which was much less expensive than Paris. We found Marseille. It was near the water, mountains and it had a metro system and Tram system. After almost a year in Marseille, we decided it was too urban and grungy for us.
We could have gone home at that point but decided to stay in France for another year. Just not in Marseille.
We started looking for furnished flat to move to but there are not many furnished places willing to rent to foreigners so inventory was limited. We finally found a house for rent in La Garde from a British couple living in Canada. It looked perfect. It had 4 bedrooms and was just 15 minutes on bike to the beach.
Blake and I took the train to La garde to check things out. It was small, quaint and much more wholesome than Marseile. Blake and I decided to take the flat for a year.
So what’s so good about La Garde?
I love that La Garde ticks off almost all the boxes for me and my family. First of all, it has that typical French feeling to it. Something that Marseille did not have at all.
Plus, it is perfect for families like ours. Our kids are all involved in sports, have friends and are totally immersed in life here. That part is great because often it can be hard for kids to adapt to another country especially if they are not fluent in that language.
We love that our town is a small town near the beach with lots of water sports. It was important for us to be near the water.
I love that La Garde is pretty much self contained. We have an outdoor market 3 days a week where we by fresh produce, meats, tapenade, strange new foods and even clothes. We have several boulangeries, an integral part of French living.
Our town is near a train station that takes us out to the surrounding areas and throughout Europe so we can go literally anywhere we want anytime.
I also love the area where our house is located. We live in the medieval part of town on what is called “Le rocher” meaning the rock.
Our fully furnished house was built over 400 years ago. Walking out our door onto the narrow cobblestone street makes you feel like you are in a renaissance fair. There is one small square where everything happens. It’s called “La Place République”. The market takes place there, dance events, shows, gatherings etc. It is also where Catherine learned to ride her bike for the first time.
And what don’t you like?
La Garde is a small town. Small towns lack some of the amenities of bigger cities. The museums, the social life, the culture, the upscale bistros. These are the things I miss having at my finger tips. I also miss not having a metro like we did in Marseille to take us places. In la Garde we get around by either taking the bus to surrounding areas. The train to visit surrounding towns or rely on friends to take us to local events like birthday parties or other outings. If you have not guessed yet, we don’t have a car in France.
Do you feel like an insider or outsider?
Sometimes I feel like an insider and sometimes I feel like an outsider. It all just depends.
When we first arrived in France we felt like outsiders. We did not know how to do basic things that we would normally know how to do at home like turn on our electricity, open a bank account and other seemingly simple things.
Some people treated us like total idiots because we did not know exactly what documents we needed to have before opening a bank account. I remember talking with one person at the electric company who’s tone suggested I was a complete moron for not knowing I needed a French bank account before opening an electric account.
Other times, people have made me feel so welcome. They know that we are not from here and don’t understand certain things and they go out of their way to help us.
These days, I have learned the way of the French and that is to be very direct. When I don’t understand something or how something is done, I just ask and show no fear. In that way , i feel like an insider now because I know how to get things done now.
I think understanding the local ways, the schedules and the little intricacies of day to day lie is the key to feeling more at home and in some ways like an insider.
How do you support yourself?
One of the many goals we had when we decided to move to France was to build sustainable incomes that would allow us to stay home with the kids and work from anywhere in the world if we wanted to.
I started a website in the hopes of selling advertising from it once traffic picked up. My husband Blake does various consulting for companies in the US as a software QA consultant. Blake also wanted to write a book and get published.
To support us while our long term financial goals were perculating, we lived off a combination of savings, rental income and scarce freelance work my husband fount here and there.
After a year, I am finally starting to earn some money and expect income from my site to grow as the site grows. My husband finished his book and is shopping around for a publisher and if he does not find one, he will self publish.
Going forward, I hope to diversify my income even more by creating books about how to spend a year abroad and travelling with kids long term.
I look at our French sabbatical as an investment much like college. I spent 4 years going to college following all the rules. I graduated and had a successful career climbing the corporate ladder. Our time in France is our time to invest in ourselves. In many ways, it’s our do-over.
Any advice for wannabe La Gardéen?
To integrate into life faster and more organically, don’t try to figure it all out yourself. Jump right in, start making friends if you can and ask for help. Sometimes I will ask the local merchants questions about certain holidays. Or I will ask one of the daughters schoolmate’s parents things. Asking locals has been the key to making day to day life more enjoyable.
Is the move permanent?
Initially we thought we would only spend a year in France but we are now on our second year in France looking towards a third. I don’t think it is permanent but I also did not think we would be here this long either.
As far as what I would like to do… I would like to spend a year in Thailand re-learning Thai and teaching it to my kids but my two older sons are now 15 and 16. They are not really interested in that so unless that changes we will either go live in or near Montreal Canada or move somewhere on the East coast near Canada like Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont.
I want to be nearer my boys and support them if they plan to go to university and it will be hard to do with continents between us. I will still travel but perhaps I will make our trips shorter. As far as I am concerned anything is possible.
Finally, tell us about something typically La Garde (or French)
Many people wonder if French people kiss each other on the cheeks when they greet one another. The answer is yes but you need to know when and how.
When you first meet someone you do not kiss cheeks. You usually say hello and maybe shake hands. Once you have established a friendship, is when you would would kiss cheeks or “faire la bise”.
Sometimes you give one kiss on a cheek, sometimes two, three or four. The number of cheek kisses you give depends on the area. Here in the south of France, we give two cheek kisses. To kiss, you lean forward and lightly touch your cheek to the other person’s cheek.
This custom is taught from a very early age. Even my now five year old greets other friends with kisses in formal situations. (not at school). Cheek kissing extends to men too. My two teenage boys usually greet their friends with cheek kisses when they meet them out on the streets.
When my son’s schoolmates come to our home, they immediately lean in to kiss my cheeks.
If you are interested in taking a break from the rat-race to travel or live abroad like Annie and her family, just visit her travel and lifestyle site full of tips, stories and resources that will both inspire and help you achieve your unconventional travel dreams. Practical Adventurology is at www.AnnieAndre.com. Annie can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.