As there’s nothing more annoying than someone prattling on about their trip to [insert exotic place here] for months after the fact, I will limit myself to some brief comments here, and then the blog will settle back in its normal routine of comments about the Formosa Tea House, technology, Island Life, and how horrible the Festival of the Lights is.
Our trip came at the confluence of three events: Oliver starts Kindergarten in the fall, so this was a last patch of school-free life for our family; having Johnny here at Reinvented meant I could be comfortable leaving the day-to-day firefighting of the business for a while; and Catherine and I wanted to experiment with a long-form vacation (after many trips of what my friend Oliver calls “monument-hopping between hotels”).
I also wanted to put the whole “I’m a digital worker and can work anywhere” idea to test and see whether a “working vacation” would work.
As I’ve detailed in this space over our time away, we were largely successful at the “vacation” part of this. We saw a lot of the area around Aniane, from Nîmes to the east down to Perpignan in the southwest, as well as some interesting parts of the country’s spine on our way to and from Paris. We tended to alternate our days: one day I would work and Catherine and Oliver would spend time in the village, the next we would set our sights on adventure. While we did visit many of the “monuments” of the area on these adventures, because we weren’t on a whirlwind tour, we also got to see a lot of the “everyday life” of the area: playgrounds, public libraries, shopping malls, car washes, and the like.
Indeed there’s a long list of things we didn’t see in the “monument” category, things like the Pont du Gard near Nîmes, the entire city of Toulouse, and the area right along the Mediterranean, which we only caught a short glimpse of. So we’ll have to go back.
Catherine and I agree that we liked the “staying in one place” part of the trip: we didn’t have to pack up shop every night, we could cook most of our meals ourselves, and we got to know the village of Aniane in a way we never could have with only a short 2 or 3 day visit. I’m pretty sure we’ll try to do this again, perhaps even back in Aniane.
Oliver seems to have thoroughly enjoyed the trip. He didn’t seem to find it odd at all that we left home and pre-school and family for a month to uproot to a different place with bunk beds, chocolate croissants, ice cream and merry go rounds. Nor did it appear to stike him as odd that everyone spoke a different language (perhaps because he’s new to language period even back here). He made friends quickly on the playgrounds where language wasn’t required (his favourite technique: find a cute little girl, go up and hold her hand), and became immediately curious about what the French word for everything we encountered was (and therein stretched my vocabularly recall to its limits). Yesterday on the flight from Montreal to Charlottetown he said “Merci” to the flight attendant when she handed him his orange juice.
For me one of the best parts of the change in venue was getting to spend more time with Oliver. Every morning Oliver and I would get up and walk to the boulangerie to buy bread; I came to value that 15 minute morning walk, and I realized that, with my crazy sometimes all-consuming approach to work back here at home, sometimes several days will go by without a similar time together. I’ll have to work on that.
And of course Catherine and Oliver and I spent a lot more time together as a little family “doing stuff together” too, which was nice. I think we managed, by the end of the trip, to find a good balance of time together and time in various sub-groups (i.e. Catherine and Oliver go to the park while I work or Oliver and I take a walk while Catherine goes to art gallery).
That all said, sometime Catherine and I are going to have to go to France alone to allow us to explore the kinds of things — long dinners out, copious wine drinking, visits to the opera, jumping off cliffs, etc. — that don’t work well in a family situation.
Language-wise, Aniane is no Montreal, where most everyone you encounter, especially in the service industry, speaks some English. That said, language never really proved to be a real stumbling block to anything. There were a couple of times when, in the late afternoon low blood-sugar period, I failed to adequately find sustenance because I couldn’t muster the energy needed to translate my needs into French. And we did struggle to communicate our desire for “just the handle parts of the shutters, without the rods” at various hardware stores when we decided we needed to procure parts for installing wooden shutters on 100 Prince St. But, whether through my recalled French, Catherine’s pure moxie, sign language, roping in helpful English speakers we encountered by chance as translators, or a combination of each of these, we survived.
We found the house we rented in Aniane through a listing in the Vacation Rentals section on Craigslist. Owned by a professor in New York, the house was a well-outfitted four-storey townhouse on a narrow alley right in the heart of the village. On the first floor (which was more like a basement) there was a washing machine, bicycle storage, and a bath and shower; up a steep flight of stairs was the main floor with kitchen at the front and living room at the back opening onto a small walled garden in the back yard. Up another flight of stairs there was a small bedroom with bunk beds (leading Oliver to develop his first rhyme about “bumping my head on the bunk bed”) at the front, a bath with tub and shower in the middle, and master bed room at the back with double bed. On the top floor, more of an attic, there was another double bed, a television, and doors leading to a roof terrace. I turned this attic space into an impromptu office space, thus allowing me to work while gazing out over the village.
The house had almost everything we needed: sheets, towels, pots, pans, wine glasses, corkscrew, and so on. The only thing missing was tea towels. We used the washing machine in the basement to do our laundry, and dried the clothes outside (Catherine will attest that this was the least vacation-like activity of the trip).
We made all of the rental arrangements by email, and I sent off a $350 US deposit by courier a few weeks before we left. There was a “woman on the ground” — the back yard neighbour — there to meet us when we arrived, and she took the full payment for the 21 day stay, and showed us how to use the stove, the (weird and complex) heater and told us which cafes were good and where to buy groceries. Although we didn’t need to call on her again, she made herself available to us if we ever ran into problems, which was a nice comfort to have.
The 21 day rental cost us $750US, plus an extra $30 for the electricity we used, for a total of about $960 CDN, or $45 CDN a night. We would return without hesitation.
The village of Aniane was a good home-base: it had all of the things we needed for everyday life, from bakeries to grocery stores to a hardware store, a health food cooperative and several restaurants and cafes. Everything was within walking distance, which let us try out the “shopping for food everyday” lifestyle (result: it’s way, way better than a weekly trip to the Superstore). The village had a playground, and lots of alleys and passageways, and an excellent glacier for ice cream, so Oliver was well catered to.
We were about 35 minutes drive from the city of Montpellier, which seemed about the same size as Halifax. We enjoyed the several trips we took into the city, and came nowhere near exploring it to the extent possible.
While we’d originally thought of going vehicle-free for the trip, using public transit to get around, we ended up leasing a Peugeot Partner for 29 days through Peugeot’s “Open Europe” program. We made the arrangements through the Quebec-based Europ Auto Vacances and the process could not have been easier: after filling out various forms here in Canada and couriering them up to Montreal, we received a package back from them with details about what to do when we arrived in Paris. At Charles de Gaulle airport we simply picked up a courtesy phone to request a shuttle, signed a couple of forms at the pickup depot near CDG Terminal 3, and got the keys. Returning the truck was just as easy. Total cost for the 29 day rental was about $1700, or about $60/day.
The Partner was brand new (it had only 1.7 km on the odometer when we got in), and with the exception of needing to have the headlights aimed (done by a dealer, for free, in Millau on our way home) it was entirely problem free. When we returned it on Wednesday morning, there were 3523 km on the odometer, so we obviously made good use of it. As a vehicle the only downside of the Partner was that, because it’s quite tall (which is good for headspace inside), it’s affected more by the highwinds on the highway; passing a truck at 130 km/h when it was windy felt vaguely like driving a bucking bronco. Otherwise, though, it was a pleasure to drive, had enough space for the three of us and all our luggage, and was relatively inexpensive to operate (we averaged about 800 km to the 60 litre tank, for about 7.5 litres/100 km).
I don’t think we could have managed with out the vehicle: although Aniane was self-contained, we would have been hard-pressed to explore the countryside by bus, and I would have had a difficult time wardriving for WiFi without a way of getting around. If we had been content to stay put and conduct a realistic simulation of everyday life, we could have managed; the “vacation” part of the trip, however, needed the truck.
As to the “working” part of the “working vacation,” the greatest drawback to the setup was lack of Internet access. I knew that the house we were renting was telephone and Internet free going in, so I knew I would have to rely on spurts of free or for-fee WiFi for my connectivity. I compensated for the lack of Internet by setting up a reasonable facsimile of the webserver I was developing for on my Apple iBook; this let me develop web applications without the web, so to speak. But I still needed web access for email, to update the productions servers with new code, and to respond to any server problems that needed my attention.
While the lack of home-based Internet did take me on some interesting adventures wardriving for WiFi in mediaeval towns, I never did find a space nearby enough that had reliable WiFi and a good place to set up. What I did find was just enough WiFi to get by, either in nearby Clermont-Hérault (15 minutes) or in downtown Montpellier.
That all said, I did find, as I mentioned here earlier, that not having the distraction of the Internet always available did make me more productive because all I could work on was the work at hand. It provided interesting exposure to a sort “uni-tasking” that I’m not used to. I did get a lot of work done, and the projects I was working on I choose specifically because they demanded a lot of focus.
But I think to move the shop to Aniane (or anywhere away) for a longer period would require a better net access solution.
The saving grace, techology-wise, was my mobile phone: it not only allowed me to participate in conference calls with headquarters, but as I slowly uncovered the capabilities of the phone (a Sony Ericsson T610) and the network (Orange France), I was able to use it to check email (using the built-in IMAP client) and even to get my laptop online from the house using it as a GPRS modem (although at huge expense; a couple of web pages and a check of email in a minute or two could cost 5 euros; I was never sure how I was being billed for that access).
I would not want to have been without the phone, as it was the lifeline back to home base that really enabled the “experiment in working from anywhere” part of the trip. The phone itself cost me $150 on eBay. Before I left for France, I bought an Orange SIM card from Telestial for $59US (I’d dealt with them before and recommend them; good selection, fast service, good documentation); in France during the trip I purchased pre-paid time for the Orange network in blocks of 30 euros from tobacco shops (just asked for a “Mobicarte Orange” and they would take my cash and print me out a little chit with a 14 digit code that I entered into the phone). The Orange network worked everywhere in France; I never had a problem with access. Although all of the documentation, the website, and the voice prompts for things like recharging the account were French-only, I was able to understand enough to get buy (Orange has service in the U.K. as well, so I could glean some information from the English-language website).
In the end, I’d rate the “working anywhere test” a qualified success. Certainly I found that I could combined vacation and work without really detracting from the other; I’d been afraid, going in, that I would either end up working all the time, or end up getting no work done at all — neither happened. With a little more work on the net access side, I think I could really be comfortably nomadic.
The entire trip — airfare for three, truck rental, house rental, gas, hotels — cost us about $6000 CDN, or about $66 per person per day. Food and other day-to-day costs (which I don’t include in that total) were about the same, roughly, as here in Canada (food was cheaper; hard goods a little more expensive). So it’s not a trip we’re able to take every month. Or every year. It basically took “all of the money we had in the world” to pull off. But for the variety of experiences we had, the people we met, the places we saw, and the new approach to travel it allowed us to explore, I’d count it worth every penny, and recommend similar travel to anyone able.