Here’s something you don’t read everyday: English family of seven lays down roots in the Charente Maritime. Since 2008 (minus a brief interlude in the United States for work) Susan Hays and her family have been discovering the simple, everyday pleasures of living on the Southwestern coast of France. With four school-age children navigating the French educational system and a more laid-back lifestyle, Susan created the site Our French Oasis as a way to keep friends and family updated (and entertained). As the story goes, the site has grown beyond the confines of Susan’s tight-knit network of friends and amassed a readership of Francophiles all over the world who are enchanted by her stories of life in the sun-drenched southwest. Here, she shares tidbits about the region, raising a (large) family in France and learning la bise. Meet Susan!
Describe what you love about France in three words.
Lifestyle. Architecture. Food.
Something people might be surprised to know about the region you live in?
It is considered by many to be the oyster capital of France. The Marennes-Oléron oyster beds are renowned for their oyster production and their great quality is linked to the mixture of fresh and salt water. The oysters are bred in beds 5km out to sea and then matured in shallow ponds called ‘claires’. A small algae, known as the blue navicula is present in these ponds and is the reason for the green colour of the Claire oyster. On Sundays locals can be seen selling oysters in all the area’s villages and towns here.
It is also the second sunniest area in France after Provence and the Mediterranean coastline, averaging around 2400 hours of sunshine a year. This certainly helped influence our decision to live in this area as we are in a little microclimate enabling us to grow olives, grapes, figs, peaches and lemons.
The greatest challenge to raising a family in France?
Undoubtedly the greatest challenge has been the language. Had the children been born here or moved here when they were tiny it would not have been the case, but moving here when they were of school age meant they all had to learn a new language; they are educated at French speaking schools and it has been hard work for them. However, with the help of incredibly enthusiastic teachers and encouragement from friends they have thrived, and what started out as a huge challenge has turned into my greatest joy; watching my bi-lingual children integrate with their French friends and the ease with which they flit between two languages is totally fascinating. However, I can’t just stop at that – there is truly so much JOY in raising a family in France and without being boring I have to tell you just briefly, that I love that the children can all live a slightly simpler life, they are able to walk to the baker in the village on their own, cycle to friends houses and enjoy planting vegetables and raising chickens. At the same time they love eating in French restaurants, late into the evening with adults, joining in the conversation; it’s all very civilised and yet very relaxed, in a way formal and yet so much fun, it’s amazing how the two go hand in hand!
Your favorite outing in the region?
Oh, there are so many! My favourite has to be a day on the Île de Ré. We rent bikes, because everyone cycles there, and it is by far the best way to get around. We cycle for miles and miles, stop at a restaurant for lunch, and have a drink by the sea and a swim. Our entire family love discovering the little harbour villages and the endless cycle-paths that adorn this little Island on the Atlantic coast which is linked to La Rochelle by a toll-bridge. The oh-so-chic capital of Saint-Martin-de-Ré is incredibly busy but still manages to retain it’s charm and low-key, laid back atmosphere.
Most frustrating or amusing interaction with the French?
Without a shadow of doubt, “the bisous”, the traditional French greeting of kissing. Always two, sometimes four, dependent on where they are from. But when to kiss, and how often each day? It is a subject that has been written about endlessly but it really is worthy of all the attention! As a general rule, it’s a handshake with a stranger, two kisses (in our region) for friends, but when you see them for a second time the same day there is no need to kiss again. The children all kiss each other hello, the boys kiss each other hello… it melts my heart when little 8 year olds rush up to me at the school gate and give me a bisous, even though I don’t know their name, but they know who I am! Of course, there is always room for error, and it’s incredibly frustrating to us when we get it wrong and terribly amusing to the French!
Follow Susan’s adventures from the Charentes Maritime:
Our French Oasis blog
Susan on Instagram
Susan on Facebook