Making friends with the French

Four British expats whose French and social life have both flourished after taking up a hobby

2 April 2011

SIMON JENKINS took a step back in time, along with a few more around the dance floor, as a way of making French friends and learning the language when he moved to a farming community in 2008.

The 57-year-old took up Occitan, a dance which is traditional to La Courtete, a village of 43 people in Aude, part of the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

Simon and his wife Maria, who speaks fluent French, are the only English dancers in a group that ranges from small children to retirees.

The move not only helped Simon to learn French, but immersed them into the community, which in turn boosted their social life. "It helps to practise French... even the little ones ask me things now, whereas before they would always go to Maria first," he said.

The Jenkinses also joined the local ramblers group, a hobby that again not only helped make French friends, but also got them through their first two harsh winters.

They also belong to the Acceuil de Villes Francaise (AVF), a national association that helps newcomers integrate, while Simon plays tennis at Limoux Tennis Club three times a week.

"You've got to make the effort to find out what's out there. It helps to get you accepted; even if your French isn't very good, the locals appreciate the effort.

KEVIN WILSON, 63, doesn't beat around the bush when speaking about the challenge of settling into rural France and learning the language, particularly when one reaches a certain age. But if you want to experience "real" France and avoid becoming entrapped in a ghetto with the English contingent, you have to make the effort, he says.

"It's a slow and painful process for people of a certain age and requires hard work," he adds.

Kevin and his wife, Enid, who is fluent in French, set up a gite in Lot-et-Garonne when they moved there eight years ago. But even though Kevin had taken a language course
beforehand, it did nothing to prepare him for rural life.

A villager convinced him to join Kiwanis, an international organisation that raises money for children. The local club has 36 members and holds several functions throughout the year.

"We agreed from the start that they wouldn't speak English, so I had to learn. You have to be prepared to trip up along the way." Still, it took 18 months before the Wilsons felt fully accepted by their community.

"Most people in the village mix with people they went to school with or are related to, so you are coming in like an alien from out of space; you can't expect them to accept you immediately," he said.

"It's a slog, but enjoyable. If you want to get beneath the surface of France and the culture, then you have to try; if you don't want to, then why are you here?"

AVRIL HAMLEY'S story of how she overcame the language barrier and made French friends is a tale of two halves. During her first stint in France, between 1989 and 2004, in a village called Montpon, she mainly stuck to a British colony, picking up the odd word of French with the help of a friendly neighbour and dictionary.

The 55-year-old went back to England for personal reasons, but returned in 2009 with renewed vigour, which is when she stumbled across the Mozaic Jazz Band in Pineuilh, Dordogne.

While Avril's French at the time of joining as a saxophonist was good, the experience has broadened her horizons socially.

"It was like learning a whole new vocabulary," she said. "Being a member has certainly boosted self-confidence and the motivation to work hard to achieve."

Joining the band, which includes 21 French people, one Japanese woman and six Brits, has also been poignant for Avril in terms of finding a loyal support group, something that was reinforced after a recent car accident: "The messages of support I got from the band were amazing."

HARVEY STROUD, 41, found the thick accents of rural France a struggle when he moved to St Germain du Salembre in the Dordogne two years ago with his wife, who is fluent in French, and family.

But this didn't stop him taking on the challenge of picking up not just one, but two, languages. In fact, classes in Esperanto, the proposed lingua franca, have helped him to see just how far his French has progressed.

For the past year, Harvey has travelled to nearby Périgueux for lessons, many of which have taken place in a bar.

"The idea of a single universal language has always interested me, but it's very important for Europe," said Harvey.

"It's only really now that I'm starting to converse in Esperanto. The teacher gives me a lift to lessons and we speak a curious mix of both, so if I struggle with Esperanto we fall back into French. It has made me appreciate how far my French has come along."

To further practise his French and mix with locals, Harvey joined a petanque club, where one of the joys is a get-together over a glass of pastis after a game on Saturdays.

"Older people go, so it's not really my own generation," he added. "But it has helped me to get to meet the villagers."

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