The Fitzjohn family: European style on home turf
I met the Fitzjohn family in their classic Kiwi bungalow beside the Waikato river. Their Hamilton home is a world away from the café in Paris where Hamiltonian Elliot first met Parisian Audrey. “I remember seeing her and how beautiful she was. With a huge bag under her arm, and a badge on it that read ‘one day my prince will come’. She was something I’d never seen before. We began talking, deciphering each other’s best efforts to speak the other’s language. That was the start” remembers Elliot.
Audrey’s recollection is equally romantic. “I still remember the first time I saw Elliot, his smile was so sincere, and he lit up the room. I was smitten instantly. I did not even know where New Zealand was, or that New Zealand even ‘was’! The funny thing is that, as a teenager, I always said I wanted to marry a foreigner, the idea sounded very exotic to me. Little did I know I would marry one from the furthest country possible from France!”
Fast forward a decade, and spin around to the other side of the globe, Audrey and Elliot are at home in Hamilton with their four-year-old son, Charles, and their French bulldog, Violet. I was curious as to how the France vs Aotearoa decision played out. In fact, it was very practical – Elliot’s working visa and contract work made it too difficult to secure a home in Paris, so the couple headed ‘home’ to NZ. “On the condition that I was able to bring with me a container full of French furniture” laughs Audrey.
Elliot is an arborist and owner of his own company, Honest Tree Work. As Elliot chats unassumingly about chainsaws and Waikato gardens, Audrey informs me that her husband is actually a competitive tree feller, representing New Zealand on the international arborist stage.
For as long as Audrey remembers, she has loved food, styling, photography and the feelings around good photos of beautiful things. She studied law for a year before deciding that wasn’t for her, the pull towards a more creative vocation obviously strong. Having always enjoyed thrifting and crafting, Audrey started a blog and truly found her voice. “I realised that this is what I want to do. I decided to go for it, to put myself out there”. A self-taught photographer and stylist, Audrey is now signed to publisher Hachette and has had three books published (two recipe books and one on home styling and craft), with another on the way.
La vie de famille
While the grown-ups nibble fresh croissants and drink tea out of beautiful earthenware cups, Charles happily perches between his parents and begins work on some drawing, after finishing his snack.
Charles goes to a Montessori kindy three days a week, days Audrey makes the most of for work, either at home shooting or on location. “I pick him up in the afternoon, we share afternoon tea together and chat about the day. If Charles is happy to keep himself busy, I usually try to sneak in some computer work” says Audrey, who has designed her home office, in the bungalow’s front sun room, with plenty of play space for Charles. “I don’t plan too much on the days Charles is at home, so we can do what we feel like. Sometimes we go to Raglan to spend the day at the beach, or go for lunch at our favourite sushi spot. Sometimes we go to the library, or catch up for play dates.”
Meanwhile Elliot spends his week days in the trees. “I mostly work around Hamilton. Sometimes further when the trees need me. I do my best to sneak out of the house in the morning without waking anybody. Then I work the day to a point that I can go home to see my family”, he says. “We have a loose plan that, in the evening, one of us hangs out with Charles and the other cooks dinner. We alternate evenings doing that, but it all seems to blend into one a lot of the time” says Elliot.
Until recently, Elliot worked quite a lot in the weekends to build his business, but he is now able to focus more on home life at the end of the week, which is handy as - in typical Kiwi DIY style - there are always little projects on the go. “The garden is hard to keep up with. It keeps growing! Charles and I have heaps of fun working outside together” says Elliot.
Audrey enjoys pressing pause in the weekend. “Our work week is quite hectic for both of us, so when the weekend comes, we like to hang out at home. In winter, we cosy up around the fireplace with warm drinks, in summer we are on the top terrace outside making fresh pizzas in our pizza oven.”
“With both of us being business owners, it is fair to say we are still trying to figure out the elusive work/life balance” says Audrey. “I have just accepted that, as a freelancer, I have very busy periods and then calmer ones, and when I am feeling overwhelmed with work, I always remind myself that it is only for a season. I love to work, but I am quite careful of how much I take on and try to be very organised to fit my professional commitments into those days when I don’t have Charles at home. I only get to have him with me two days a week for one last year so I see this as a priority. I will have more time to focus on my career when he goes to school.”
The generation game
While worlds apart, Audrey and Elliot both experienced happy childhoods. Elliot grew up in Hamilton, playing sport and enjoying the outdoors with his brother, and doesn’t remember ever being bored. Audrey grew up in a very traditional French family, deeply rooted in French culture.
“I was very close to one of my grand-mothers, Mamie. I cherish her memory so fondly. She was so elegant and always very dignified. My parents got divorced when I was 15, which hit quite hard at the time. It broke our tightknit family apart, and we had to learn how to do life differently from then on. Today I am close to both of my parents. When they are with Charles, I love to see sides of them I did not know existed, especially my father” says Audrey.
Naturally we all draw from our own child-hoods when raising the next generation. It’s evident Audrey and Elliot are parenting with intentionality, passing on to Charles a rich mix of culture. “My mother was always very supportive and encouraging of my dreams, she would always tell me that nothing was impossible, that if I worked hard, I could achieve anything. I wish to pass this on to Charles. It was a very freeing way to grow up. It allowed me to think outside the square. I also love French traditions that I am definitely keeping alive at home. It bonds our family and creates great memories” shares Audrey.
Elliot brings a passion for the outdoors and an adventurous spirit to the table. “There are so many things to see and do in the world”, he says - a curiosity he wants to instil in his son.
Still on the theme of equipping kids for life, Audrey adds: “It’s important we all feel that we are achieving our personal dreams, yet part of a supportive family. I also think that having a good sense of humour is very important in life, and I am quite happy to see that Charles is confident enough in his own skin to have a good laugh about himself or some wacky situation we might come across” says Audrey. Elliot whole-heartedly agrees: “A lot of good can come from not taking oneself too seriously. How do we instil that in Charles? Probably the massive three-person dance parties we have in the dining room”.
French children don’t throw food
It goes without saying that there are some cultural differences between Paris and Hamilton, but Audrey and Elliot seem unphased. “When we first met, we could hardly speak each other’s language, but that almost made it fun. Elliot has a very easy nature and fits in absolutely anywhere, my family back home adores him” says Audrey.
“I suppose I was quite surprised, when we moved to NZ, that dinnertime was so early! And everything was always so casual, but I am a convert now!” Food is a notable difference between cultures, Audrey observes, but more so the relationship to food. Food is a chance to gather together and the French are very good at that. Although the couple agree that we are more spontaneous and relaxed in New Zealand, which helps us be more social. Audrey explains that in France you might go to someone’s home for an apéro (pre-dinner drink), but you wouldn’t just drop by for a casual pot luck or BBQ.
And what about parenting styles? “Before I had Charles I noticed differences a lot – New Zealand kids seemed really wild and parents so relaxed. Now I have my own child, I appreciate those differences more” says Audrey, who has observed that French parents are typically stricter. French children are always a part of meal times, and consequently, Charles knows how to behave in restaurants. Audrey picked a local Montessori kindy for Charles as she recognised values there that resonated with her culture, for example at lunchtime, kids all sit and eat together and wait for one another to finish eating.
As we finish our tea, I bring up the topic of aesthetics. Again it’s needless to say that French and Kiwis do style differently. I’m curious for some insight (and tips!) from the effortlessly graceful Audrey. “Style is a personal thing, but for me, wearing clothes I like and having my hair and make-up done helps me feel good. So I make time for style – personal style, but also for our home. We want to feel good in our house, so I take time to keep the house how we like it - a space where we feel good” says Audrey, who firmly believes it is good for kids to see us taking care of ourselves.
Kids’ clothes are different in France so Audrey orders a lot online. Charles’ little leather boots, for example, are the best kids’ shoes available, in Audrey’s opinion, and she buys pairs for Charles to grow into whenever she’s in France. And dare I ask about Elliot’s wardrobe? “Audrey offers plenty of advice”, Elliot says with a smile.
It’s a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning - chatting over croissants with a genuinely friendly family, happy and content with who they are. And the rustic-French dining room is certainly a lovely place to sit. Audrey’s best tips for family home décor may come as a bit of a surprise: “Don’t be scared of white, everything is washable. Our couch has a cover, and it’s washable, but it doesn’t get dirty because we never eat in the lounge. It’s the French way, to sit at the table to eat”. It makes sense: food is one of the biggest mess-makers in the home, so when it is contained to the table, it is less of a threat.
The Fitzjohns also apply the ‘one touch’ rule - ie put things away as soon as you’re finished with them, rather than simply moving an item from one place to the next. “You can blink and the bench is covered in bills and keys”, Elliot says, an obvious convert to the ‘one touch’ rule.
The conversation moves to Christmas - in France celebrations centre around Christmas Eve, while here the 25th is the big day. The Fitzjohn family celebrates Christmas across both days, reflecting their family philosophy in general: mixing two cultures to create something unique to their family.