Strolling hand-in-hand down a charming boulevard in Southern France, All Black star Colin Slade and his stunning wife Emma are the picture of happiness.
Life in Pau, in the Pyrénées mountains, is picturesque – from the tree-lined walkway and the town’s stunning architecture, through to Colin (29) and Emma’s gorgeous white-washed home, which the 28-year-old painstakingly decorated after the pair uprooted their lives to settle in the gorgeous European city just over a year ago.
“We love it here,” the rugby star tells the Weekly from their home. “It’s a really nice city and I guess we’re still in the honeymoon stage with everything over here.”
The couple never thought this would ever be their lives, especially when they exchanged their vows in a ceremony in Kaikoura five years ago.
Then, Colin was one of the All Blacks’ brightest up-and-coming stars – who could forget his turn during the Rugby World Cup in 2011, when he was subbed on to replace an injured Dan Carter only to tear a muscle in the next match?
But just before the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where he played the pool match against Namibia, the first five-eighth announced he’d signed a three-year deal with Pau and was hanging up his All Black jersey at the age of 27.
Even now, Colin admits the decision to shift his and Emma’s lives to the other side of the world – as well as give up his place in the All Black squad – was tough.
“I certainly lost some sleep over it,” he concedes.“But once I’d made the decision, I couldn’t help but look forward to it. It was a big decision, to uplift your life to look for adventure, but my wife and I were at the stage where we thought that’s what we needed to do – we wanted a change.”
“I never imagined I’d ever be living in France!” laughs Emma. “If I had, I would have made sure to take French at school! There’s definitely been heaps of ‘pinch me’ moments since we’ve been here, but we’re loving it.”
Still, the announcement Colin was leaving New Zealand stunned rugby buffs, but Colin says he and Emma have clear priorities, and time is of the essence.
“I suppose I left a little younger than what most guys do, but I didn’t want to come over here and realise I’d left it too late,” he explains. “Hopefully we’ll be over here for a few more years, before we decide to come home.”
In the end, it was the lure of travel and seeing the world that led the pair to make the decision, and in the year since they arrived in southern France, Colin and Emma have racked up the air miles, travelling not only around Europe but further afield.
“We’re definitely making the most of it!” smiles Emma. “We had a week off recently and we managed to whip over to Morocco, which was pretty insane. It’s nice being able to chase some hot weather!”
Adds Colin, “We sat down and had a look at the photos from the last year, and it’s pretty crazy to see how much we’ve done. Any time off, we’ll try and jump on a plane to go and do or see something. We wanted to get the travel stuff out of the way before we thought about the family situation.”
From romantic strolls in Paris to punting down canals in Venice and stolen weekends in San Sebastian, Spain – which is only an hour-and-a-half from home – the couple are living the dream before the possibility of having children lures them home.
The pair admit they didn’t quite know what they were in for when they landed in their new home in November 2015, just 10 days after the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup.
“We had just over a week to pack up our whole lives basically and move over,” says Colin. “We really didn’t know what we were expecting – I’d never heard of Pau before.”
It turns out their new home town is actually a city with a population of 180,000 people, nestled on the northern edge of the Pyrénées mountain range and close to the wine region of Bordeaux, with a stunning boardwalk, amazing restaurants and gorgeous architecture. The pair instantly fell in love with the city.
“It’s definitely bigger than we thought it would be!” laughs Colin. “It reminded me of Dunedin, actually. It has the same sort of feel to it.”
“We have our own little spots now,” Emma nods. “There’s amazing little ice-cream parlours, coffee shops, that kind of thing. They’re really big on adventure sports here – there’s heaps of parks and tracks, the ski field is close and there’s plenty of cool little towns around where you can explore. And Saint-Émilion, in Bordeaux, of course – I’ve definitely acquired more of a taste for red wine now!”
Certainly there was an element of culture shock in their first days in Pau, Colin remarking that pretty much everything is different to back home.
“Their way of life can be a little challenging, just because it’s so different,” he muses. “There’s lots of stuff New Zealanders take for granted that you don’t realise until you go overseas – like here, pretty much everything is shut between 12 and two. They all have a lunch break! If you’re out shopping, they’ll just close on you. And they don’t really have convenient food where we are. You have to sit down and eat, and take two hours out of your day... Still, may as well enjoy it.”
The only real challenge has been Emma’s work situation – she’s on a partner visa attached to Colin’s, meaning she’s unable to work in France. However, the former primary teacher has found ways to keep herself busy.
“The visa situation is really hard to work out,” she explains. “So I’ve enrolled in some study – I’m doing an online interior design course. When we moved over here, we had to furnish the house literally from scratch. I spent three to six months doing that, and then I thought, why not actually study it, seeing as I enjoyed it so much.”
And there’s the small matter of mastering the language. Out of the two of them, it’s Colin who can parlez Français the best, though he says he’s still got a fair way to go before he’s fluent.
“Let me tell you, faux pas happen daily. I know enough to get by but making mistakes is all part of it,” he grins. “I speak some French with my teammates, but the funny thing is, they then try to speak English and they make as many mistakes. So they’re always interesting discussions, the Franglish mix is quite entertaining.”
“Yeah, mine is really basic,” adds Emma. “It’s a little harder – he can practice every day with the boys at training, my only chances to practice are when I make reservations or go to the supermarket!”
And as for any loneliness, the couple have built up a kind of Kiwi family in France, with former All Blacks Conrad Smith, Tom Taylor and Jamie Mackintosh also signed with Pau.
“We had a Kiwi orphan Christmas last year,” smiles Emma. “You just build a family out of friends. It’s really lovely.”
Still, the pair – who are both incredibly close to their real families back in New Zealand – admit the distance can be tough.
“Sometimes it’s hard being so far away – you see photos from your little nieces and nephews, and you wish you could be there, but we still love every minute we’re here,” tells Emma.
And Colin admits to little pangs of longing when he watches his beloved All Blacks take the field, but he reckons he’s happy with the trade-off.
“You do miss it a little bit,” he says. “But we’re getting to live this lifestyle now and I know what I could be doing back home, but we’re happy right now. It’s tough, but I still get enjoyment out of watching them play – I have a lot of mates in that team!
“Though I did watch the game where we lost to Ireland... you try watching the All Blacks lose to Ireland with a couple of my Irish teammates. Geez, they couldn’t shut up.”
But with children on the cards one day, both Colin and Emma know their days in Europe are numbered.
“We’re definitely keen to come back,” says Colin. “It’s really cool being able to come over here and explore another culture, but we love New Zealand and it’ll be awesome to raise a family there.
“Though, if we did have kids here, they’d probably be speaking French before I will!”