“Daddy laughs more here than anywhere else,” our daughter observed one sun-kissed afternoon. In 2017, our family fled overwhelming suburban commitments to house sit for strangers in the South of France. Six glorious weeks of traveling slow, the goal: living simply, exploring together. Not completely cut off from jobs but unavailable from the pressures of life.
Summer in Southern France is the perfect place for slowing down. The purpose of our trip was restoration and connection. We transplanted a stripped-down version of our daily lives to a new locale and focused on renewal. Admittedly, we stumbled into this through exhaustion but the simplicity was exceptionally good for our souls.
We didn’t have ambitious plans. We had the gift of time. We didn’t have to rush to the next event or moment. We enjoyed a second cup of coffee, wandered around the next corner, stopped for ice cream, read one more chapter. Our adventures were simple. We’d discover a market and take something home to cook. BBQ over an open flame, stack river rocks, pick wild blackberries and tell stories of forgotten days.
My soul craved these daily delights like an oasis in the desert of life. I hungered for this different dance. With less pressure to see and do, we lingered and observed, we found playgrounds, cafes, markets, and engaged locals, soaking up their way of life. The French intentionality to savor life is magical. If the table is the evening’s sole entertainment, you go the extra mile for just the right ingredients and stay a little longer in your seat.
At a truck stop in between destinations, I marveled at how the French linger. It’s common to bring a picnic to a rest stop next to a busy highway. The French never dream of taking coffee or a meal to go. An excellent dinner is always worth the hungry wait for detailed preparations.
Around the table with sweet friends, I learned to slowly savor delicious moments like a lovingly prepared cheese course. We discovered that bread is always best served fresh. The extra effort is worth the time and company you meet along the way. Of course, I was only a visitor so I paint the culture with broad strokes but the lessons breathed life into my weary bones.
Where ever you go, you take you with you.
Learning a new rhythm was difficult at first. We ran out of snacks, discovered that most French restaurants don’t serve food after 2 in the afternoon and wouldn’t start serving dinner until 7:30. We napped often and the children learned a few choice expletives while we drove through compressed city streets with a French GPS.
Epic scenery didn’t magically make us better people or parents. Many days we hiked up urban mountains to the tune of a crying four-year-old or a moody teenager. We bribed with ice cream or Netflix. We still ate hamburgers and pizza. Despite all the reality that seeped into our dreamy escape what began to move me was how we grew as a family.
The time invested strengthened our children.
At four, my son would simply extend his hand into one of ours and step into the unknown. He’d whine or wonder about how many stairs he’d be facing. He might fret about the heat but he never questioned the route. He’d bravely trust his daddy simply because he was daddy. The scenery changed and some days were better than others but in my heart I’ll keep the image of Isaac and daddy, hand in hand, leading us down unknown roads.
At eleven, my daughter was invested in the destination. We began to teach her how to step into the world. She memorized directions, read signs or took a fistful of coins into the store in search of something cool to drink. Somewhere in the middle, I realized I was less lonely than on previous trips because I was traveling with a friend. The kind of friend I’d raised but was discovering anew. We meandered the crooked shops of Old Town Nice, stuck Euros into a viewfinder perched at the edge of the world. We sank into a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. Even though our location was rootless, it wasn’t just the children, we all grew into our own skin as we took on the world together.
Amid tantrums and whining, I began to notice little by little how everyone’s stamina gradually changed. They’d gladly stop for a glass of Orangina but they’d also soldier on if it meant indulging one of us with a moment of enjoyment. A toy store for Isaac, macaroons for Sophia, a museum for mom. If it held a place in someone’s heart they’d find the strength to go the extra mile or wait till dinner.
By the end of our journey, the children were inspiring me with their new set of expectations. An extra-long walk in the summer heat to find a spot to watch Tour de France bikers speed through the streets of Marseille? The kids embraced it gladly. This was daddy’s special treat. His excitement alone propelled them uphill and down. As much as I loved to see the world through their eyes, they loved giving it back to us. It’s in the giving as much as in the receiving that we truly experience joy in life.
Traveling slow opened us to new adventures and invitations.
In the village we called home, we were swept into the excitement as the locals let bulls loose into the street. We’d been watching the whole town prepare for their summer festival. When the day arrived they invited us to a choice spot behind the metal fence they’d erected along their ancient boulevard to show us their time-honored spectacle. They laughed and hooted and grabbed our children by the belt loops to pull them back if the bull came too close.
New friends invited us to coffee and showed us ancient Roman bricks their ancestors had plundered from their conquerors to build into their homes. We were invited simply because we appreciated their corner of the world and lingered long enough to listen, laugh, sample a cup of hospitality. The owner of the cafe by the river became a friend when we finally realized the rhythm of languid afternoons and dinner at eight in the evening. The sun lazily hung on the edge of the world while we sat and watched children throw rocks into the water, enjoying the endless summer evening.
The glow of the vacation has faded from our skin the postcards have slipped away but our family’s reserves are deeper and more meaningful than I could have dreamed.
The practice of savoring every day has stayed with us too. Today, I’m slower to make plans, slower to commit, slower to respond or fill the quiet places in our lives. I don’t think I’m strong enough not to get sucked back into the frantic pace and demand of suburban living but as the weeks have turned into months I’ve noticed a deep vein of confidence in my children. The rhythms we enjoy as a family are still simple, but somehow they mean so much more.