Ian Callen is a British expat living in Provence, France, with his wife Anna, and his three kids. He is the founder of Go Provence Supported Holiday, an amazing project that Ian shares with us and this beautiful article. Please, spread the word! Thank you, Ian.
When I was a child, living with my mother and younger sister, on a Bristol council estate, I was infatuated with the television programme, ‘My Family and Other Animals’. A drama based on the book by Gerald Durrell, which depicts the naturalist and conservationist’s childhood on the Greek island of Corfu. Each week, when the programme began, the title credits showed a soft focus, setting sun, over the sparkle-blue Mediterranean Sea, accompanied by a whistle-y, folk song, equal to anything Brian Eno has recorded. For 25 minutes my seven year old self was transported to this exotic, pure and sunny paradise. A far cry from the cloudy, heavy populated and suburban Bristol that I was used to.
I now live in sunny Provence, South of France, and when I look back into my past to try and work out when my desire began to move away to a land where the natural landscape dominates and the sunshine pours like wine, I can pinpoint it to this television program.
My longing to move to a sunnier climate away from England, drove me as a teenager, with two of my best friends, out on a trip to Spain and France. We bought a charming red and white 2CV car off of my then girlfriend for £200, we put up with the mocking jokes from our friends concerning the cars speed, but we saw this car as perfect for our needs and style.
We spent time in Spain and then into France. We travelled along the French Cote D’Azur in the summer of 1995, as free as our Simon and Garfunkel tape made us feel. We camped in a small port, near the famous fishing village of St Tropez, called Port Grimaud. The campsite we stayed on seemed to be a magnet for other similar, free spirited people like ourselves and we ended up staying there for the rest of the summer. My adulthood began in Port Grimaud, with the Mediterranean as the backdrop. There was something attractive about the French culture that struck a chord deep inside of me, although I didn’t truly understand it then. It was the same feeling I had when I used to watch My Family and Other Animals when I was a child. Today, when I question why I continue to be happy living in France, I come up with a wishy-washy answer that I cannot really define but it is something to do with the fact that French people seem to have a very strong sense of themselves and have passion for what they are and do. The author Thomas Merton, poet, social activist, student of comparative religion, puts it a lot better than I ever could, in his book, ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’, his description of 1920’s France, where he spent a lot of his childhood.
‘But the wonderful thing about France is how all her perfections harmonise so fully together. She has possessed all the skills, from cooking to logic and theology, from bridge-building to contemplation, from vine growing to sculpture, from cattle-breeding to prayer, and possessed them more perfectly, separately and together, more than any other nation.
Why is it that the songs of the little French children are more graceful, their speech more intelligent and sober, and their eyes calmer and more profound than the children of other nations? Who can explain these things?’
All in all, I spent about three years in Port Grimaud in the late 1990’s. The time spent there led me to meet my future wife, on the very campsite I had lived on when I arrived in Port Grimaud, Anna, an English girl from a nice part of Kent, (is there a bad part of Kent I hear you say) and a language student of French and Spanish.
At 24 years of age, Anna and I were married back in Bristol, and we lived together in a small flat in central Bristol near the M32 motorway, a massive Tesco and an Ikea. Quite different to the vineyards of Provence, but we liked it and we were happy there. For a while anyway.
It was after about five years, in 2005, that I began to feel restless, began to feel that there was more to life. I had studied horticulture at Bristol Zoo and had set up my own landscaping business, during my time back in England, but I often found myself dreaming of France. Whilst my friends around me all started to get ‘proper’ jobs and quiet murmurings of ‘mortgages’ and ‘babies’ was rife, I was thinking up ways of stopping myself getting tangled up in financial commitments. Anna and I, became Anna and I plus one, then plus two. Life was changing for us and parenthood began to dictate, our liberty was being slowly trimmed at the edges as each child’s personal milestone was met. Claustrophobia set in and after some ‘gentle persuading’ I managed to steer our direction back towards living in France.
Once we had made this decision to move to France, I felt a lot happier, but I also felt a sense of urgency, I was worried that we would get trapped and not be able to move if we didn’t find a way in. We trawled the French/Anglo friendly websites looking for jobs. We found one job that seemed quite interesting, a maths teacher was needed for a post in an international school, in Provence, that specialised in teaching dyslexic pupils.
Having not long qualified as a teacher, I taught horticulture and conservation to people with learning disabilities on a farm, I wrote a letter to the headmistress, Sally, of the international school, aptly named The Olive Tree International School, with a passionate plea as to why she should choose me over someone who is actually qualified to teach mathematics, in her unique school, based on the banks of the river Verdon in Provence. There must have been something in my letter that Sally read into, that was more than what the words actually said. Sally wrote back to me saying of course I couldn’t teach mathematics but that she would create a post for me and Anna, teaching in her school. She wanted me to teach, horticulture and conservation, photography (a massive passion of mine) and astronomy. She also wanted Anna to teach French, Spanish and English.
We were offered the posts in February of 2007 and by July we had sold and given away most of our belongings, piled into our newly acquired, white transit van with our two young children and two Bristolian cats, bound for Quinson, Gorges du Verdon, Provence.
Our teaching jobs lasted just two years. Sally, a gifted teacher, with an eye on helping students who were struggling with archaic teaching methods, and her beautiful school were sucked into the black hole that was called the ‘2008 Financial Crisis’. I remember one afternoon in the local supermarket, when I first got wind of this economic nightmare, an American lady that we knew, said, as she was loading her basket with tinned peaches, ‘There is a storm coming, one like you’ve never known, you’d better batten down the hatches’. This prophetic warning couldn’t save the school sadly, and Anna and I found ourselves in the French dole queue. Nice.
Standing in those dole queues, I was forced to think about our future. One thing I did know was that I did not want to go back to England. We felt at home in Quinson, the children were happily installed into the local village primary school and we had begun to make friends. Despite being the poorest, we had ever been as a family, we were the happiest we had ever been.
One morning on a walk with Anna, in the sunny, spring hills of the pre alps, I remembered an idea I had had back in England. It was when I was working on the farm teaching on my last day at work. One by one, people were coming into the classroom (glorified shed) saying goodbye and wishing me luck in France. I would reply to their good wishes, well you know you will have to come down and visit me, and at the same time wondering if they ever could as travelling for people with learning disabilities can be complicated and expensive depending on the support an individual needs. It was then that I had the idea of setting up a supported holiday company, there in that shed. Whilst saying my goodbyes, an idea was born.
So, falling back on this idea, in the summer of 2009, I thought I would run a pilot holiday week. I got back in touch with all my previous students and a group of 7 wanted to come down and spend a week with us. I knew we would need more help with support so I got in touch with an old friend, Neil Manser, who still lived down in Port Grimaud, an hour and a half away from us. He said he would love to come up and help for the holiday.
The holiday we organised, was slightly ramshackle, but in a family way, as our children were there too, we all had a wonderful time. We did a lot of laughing and everyone, not only went home happy, but also changed a little, hard to quantify exactly how, although I think it was related to hope.
In January 2010, we launched, Go Provence Supported Holidays. Our aim, to offer non- patronising supported holidays to people with learning disabilities using the backdrop of the Gorges du Verdon, Provence and its culture that we found so life affirming.
The most difficult obstacle was how to set our business status up. French or English? Charity or Business? We decided to set up under a French structure as a business. In order to achieve this status we had to complete a dossier for three different domains of French law. Tourism, Disability and the Chambre de Metiers. We passed on each dossier for the disability board and the Chambre de Metiers, but we failed on the Tourism board dossier. The Tourism board said that they required us to have up to 3 years of experience, working in a management position within tourism. We only had one week’s experience.
One of the great tragedies of the French bureaucracy around setting up new business is a failure to recognise the potential and credit new entrepreneurial ideas. The French’s obsession with diplomas and qualification is undermining for people without qualifications. Not everyone, who has an entrepreneurial spirit, is academic, and not having any qualifications, should not mean that you cannot realise your own innovative idea or project.
Instead, we went down the English route of setting up our structure. We couldn’t register as a charity as the directors lived outside of England and Wales, so we were able to register as a limited company finally, ironically with only filling in one form. I pointed out to Companies House that we would be working with vulnerable adults and was there another level of clearance needed. They were happy with their one generic form. From one extreme to another. Thus, Go Provence Supported Holidays was born. An English baby living in France. A proper Expat.
We struggled to get ourselves known in the beginning, but we steadily grew, learning as we went, refining what worked the best and identifying and preserving what we wanted our holiday makers to take away with them. One aspect that we are proud of about our holidays is that they appeal to everyone. Anyone who comes on one of our holidays, with or without a disability, would have a great time.
Many ideas are born on our holidays from holiday makers. I put this down to a change of environment and the fact that holiday makers have the space and time to get inspired. A new idea can result in a massive change back home in England for our holiday makers. They could be inspired by Neil’s (our chef) cooking and decide to take up catering at college and throw their life in a new direction, so we try to naturally draw out ambitions and ideas from our holiday makers during the holiday as this is a great opportunity for change.
If we can get a handle on the French administration of business, we would set up a French structure, so we could attract French people with learning disabilities on our holidays. We would love to then mix up the groups so they would be French and English. This would be an enriching cultural exchange between holiday makers and would add another element to the holidays.
We also want to branch out to holidays outside of Provence, wildlife photography holidays in Canada, supported backpacking around Europe, Northern Lights in Sweden, volunteer working in developing countries. We want to change the way people with learning disabilities can travel and increase their opportunities, so that access to travel becomes the norm. Travel is so important to ones sense of wellbeing. I knew someone who worked in a hospice and his job was to sit with people during their final days on this earth. He said to me that when people talked about regrets, they didn’t talk about money or careers. They said that they wished they had spent more time with their family and friends and that they had travelled more.
This is why I feel our holidays are so valuable.