It happened like this … an English family move to France. Part 2. Lost in France.
As a family, we were happy in our own world. We were closely-knit and all got along together. The children joined in, we had little rituals and traditions that we stuck to, and family life was fine. I am from a very large family, and both our parents and a variety of brothers and sisters, along with a collection of spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends, came to visit. The children made friends at school and rapidly learnt to speak French, especially Pippa who learnt French extremely quickly – a matter of weeks. Little girls are very receptive at that age. William took longer. By the time Jake was seven or eight, he spoke better French than English, but as a toddler he spoke a delightful Franglish that only we could understand.
It is arguably terribly rude to not learn the language of your host country, and for me half the fun of being abroad is trying to speak the lingo. But some people have a knack for it and others do not – it is like being able to sing, or draw or do Maths. For Bruce it was very hard indeed and he just could not get his head round it. For me, that in itself was exhausting – I had to interpret for anything and everything, answer the phone, the door, make calls. I remember I wrote the verbs “avoir” and “etre” in huge letters on the kitchen wall and told him that learning those were Step One. He never learnt them, but now speaks fluently, if extremely ungrammatically!
The boys in the kitchen. The ceiling had started to fall in so we had to put an upright in to retain it. The previous owners had “modernized” it, and we had all sorts of plans to create a more tradtional kitchen, in keeping with the house. But we had long since moved on before we could even think of affording it. All the rooms were huge, except for the bathroom which was pokey, smelly, dark and had no window. The French were notoriously backward with their sanitation, and right up to the turn of the century had no indoor loo and no mains drainage
Things were very different
It took a while to adjust to how different things were. They were very different. We had come from the most expensive area of the UK – Sussex – to a French backwater. Even though we had both lived abroad a great deal, to include some third-world countries, we were nonetheless taken aback by the poor standard. The village was essentially just a collection of dark grey stone buildings with a lorry-plagued road blasting through the middle of it and dangerously narrow (broken) pavements on either side. The shops were very poorly stocked. There were no cereals of any sort whatsoever, no tea, no fresh milk, and chickens were sold with their heads and feet still dangling grotesquely. Christmas, so jolly and colourful in England, regardless of one’s opinions about tat and commercialism, was a non-event with one drab Christmas tree outside the Mairie (town hall) and the local radio blaring out of loudspeakers in the street, loud enough to drive you mad.
Another thing that was so different was the overall look of each village. A lot of British people comment on it – everything looks so utterly dead, even today. Shutters closed, nobody on the street. Even the shops frequently looked shut when they were in fact open. I hasten to add that this is not a criticism of France, it was just the way it was and I think many French people from Bordeaux or Paris or the Cote d’Azur would agree. It was terribly depressing.
Our energies found their own levels, with me doing most of the viewing of properties and taking potential buyers round. This was partly because I always know where I am – whether or not I am facing north or south, which side of the town I am on or whatever – so I found it easy enough to follow the directions and locate the property. Also, of course, I spoke French, crucial when discussing the price with the vendor and working through the papers with the notaire. Bruce worked on the house to make it more comfortable, and he also tended to do the shopping and fetch the children from school, look after Jake and so on. It was a role reversal that I had no trouble with, but I think he sometimes felt a bit useless – which he was not.
We pulled out all stops to integrate.
We too made a few friends. Not many. And they didn’t last. We discovered that for every ten couples we invited to dinner we would be invited back perhaps once. I don’t know why that is. Just a different way of doing things. We got the children to join in – judo, ballet, horse-riding and so on, attended the Christmas fund-raiser and the parent-teacher picnic … and remained 100% outsiders.
Well, we were outsiders.
Sales were good and we both worked very hard. My days were filled with driving people around, showing them in and out of houses, explaining to them how the system worked, pointing out the land boundaries, listening to them talking, smiling and listening some more. The British snapped up properties on a regular basis, sometimes buying something idyllic and frequently (like us!) buying something completely unsuitable. It has to be said that the British snapped up all those derelict little properties that the French didn’t want and as a direct result of this (according to an article in a French national newspaper) places like Bricomarche opened – and created employment. And so on. All and any business brings in trade, and our business was not an exception.
The red tape also kept me on my toes. I had to drive over to Chateauroux, the main town, about forty minutes’ drive away, over and again to fill in this form and that form. I tried to do things professionally, properly, be correct ….
But we had been at La Haute Perriere barely four or five months when we accepted that this was not the place for us. We fought against it for a while. It seemed ridiculous to give up and move on already, but look at it from every angle as we might, it was clear this was not the place to be.
There were seriously hundreds and hundreds of grotty little properties for sale. This one was in a village, though the British usually wanted something out in the countryside. It sold for the French franc equivalent of £6 000 ! Unlike a UK estate agent, in France you have to accompany your client – sometimes for miles and miles. This is partly because that is expected from the vendor but also because your client would never find the property, down little lanes in tiny hamlets, in a country that is double the size of the UK. Furthermore, properties in France could be with 10 different agents, so if you wanted to nab that sale you had to keep that client close.
There were a variety of reasons we had to go. We were very isolated was one. Although the little town had all essential shops, doctor and so on, it was backward and slow. The dated telephone exchange still closed for lunch. Everything closed for lunch, even some restaurants! It reminded us both of the UK in the 1960s. In fact, I think that is why the British so loved buying in the area – childhood memories.
Anything that might be entertainment was miles and miles away. In Sussex I had belonged to a health club, complete with pool and a fully equipped gym, restaurant, huge lawns … but the nearest I could get to it in France was a keep-fit class in Chateauroux, and the keep-fit was so slow and lady-like it was not worth going.
There was nothing. There was nobody. The climate was dreadful. There was nowhere to go. Nobody to meet. Worse, we couldn’t integrate. There should be a badge available for people like us who tried so hard to build-up friendships. Part of the trouble was that Bruce spoke no French, and keeping company with somebody who doesn’t speak your language is tedious. On the rare occasion we were invited out the conversation depended entirely on me, and trying to include Bruce was a chore for all concerned. And he felt miserable, desperately attempting to join in, and one has to give it to him – he tried really hard and kept up a good, cheerful front against all odds. But there was more, vastly more to it than that. Even though France is just the other side of the English Channel, the cultural differences are immense and it is foolish to think one can just slot in, least of all in an area like the centre of France where nothing had changed for donkeys’ years.
Those early years were (for me) extremely hard. I missed my friends terribly. In England the mothers used to stand around the school gate to pick up their children after school, and we would all be chatting to each other, and we would get chatting even if we didn’t know each other. Here, the mothers stood in silence. One or two spoke. Nobody spoke to me. I am a very open person, easy to talk with, casual and at ease with almost anybody – but I could never get a conversation going beyond the rather formal “Bonjour Madame”. I tried really hard, and in the early days I was determined to swing in to the French way of life. But I just couldn’t.
Another house for sale. I sold it to a Dutch couple who lived in London and who wanted it for holidays. It was a good buy and I hope they had plenty of lovely holidays there. The lake was part of it and there were grounds of about half an acre. I can’t remember the price but it was something in the region of £20 000.
In France in those days – and even now to a large extent – it is quite usual for a property to remain for sale for years. La Haute Perriere had been for sale five years before we turned up. We were conscious that this was potentially a big worry. We had decided to move on, so move on we must, but the thought of trying to sell the monster we had bought, was daunting to say the least. But I found, slightly to my surprise, that I was now a business woman; I had experience; I knew the ins and outs of advertising; I knew how to present a property, what to avoid … we did a bit of cosmetic work, vases of flowers, a few artistic draperies, and sold the place within a few months. The buyers were an older American couple who, years later, telephoned us and told me they had hated the place from Day 1, and asked me to sell it again – which I couldn’t, for I had long since moved on, and moved away.
A rare moment of relaxation in our garden, that first swelteringly hot summer in France. My mother commented that the heat was as bad as Nigeria.
In the meantime we talked about where to go. We discussed returning to South Africa, where I was born, and a part of me will always wish that we had done that. We discussed Australia, where Bruce had spent his youth. We talked about New Caledonia where I had lived, or Spain and any number of other places. Mostly I wanted to go home to England, but we had lost our house and we knew that raising the funds for another would take a very long time.
And as all parents know, the children have to come in to the equation. We had removed them from a school where they were very happy and doing well in the UK. Pippa and William were now fluent in French. They were part of the French education system. And we didn’t have the funds for a big move anyway. Oddly enough a friend asked me just the other day where I would recommend living – where in the world, that is – for we have travelled a great deal and lived in a lot of different countries. And I replied:
“While you are young and energetic, if you are going to go to the trouble of moving country and culture, for goodness’ sake choose somewhere a bit more exotic than France!”
I still feel that. France is great for a holiday. But live there ? Nah …