Writing headlines in the sun

Founder and managing editor Sarah Smith tells of Connexion's early days and life in France

24 February 2011
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Founder and managing editor Sarah Smith tells of Connexion's early days and life in France, while long-time subscribers tell how they have fared here since 2002

So, Sarah, why did you move to France?

We were looking to move out of London, we'd always loved France and enjoyed holidaying here and the children were at a good age to move (two and four). We had family friends near Nice and it was a great opportunity to start a new life and, like many newcomers to France, we just went for it.

How was your French?

It was school French but I found that, generally, with a smile, perseverance and a positive approach, you can get by and make yourself understood.

What was your plan for work?

Like a lot of people, you think you will pick up things along the way. I taught English for a while, but then, having been a journalist in the UK, I wondered why there wasn't a paper that was covering what I was looking for about living and working in France so Connexion began - initially off the kitchen table (literally).

How was it in the beginning?

It was tough and hard work but exciting. I quickly found out the obvious is not always so obvious. Not only are you working in a different language, but also a different culture and mindset. Dealing with French printers presented the challenge of a whole new set of vocabulary. At the first meeting, I wondered why they kept talking about the police and why they needed to get involved. I eventually worked out that police is the French word for fonts [type faces].

What experience did you have?

My last job was as a sub-editor on The Sunday Times and before that I was a sub-editor on The Sun. I wanted to create a paper that drew on my practical experiences of setting up a home, family and business in France. There was so much I
didn't know about it all, but I knew the paper would work because there had to be so many people asking the same questions as me. Our newspaper is so popular because we kno wour readers' need for information because we are our market.

And how did it go?

It started with just me and now we're a team of 11. It grew organically. It takes a lot of energy founding a business in France - energy, humour and confidence in where you're going. When you see people reading it at the airport or discussing an issue we have raised on forums or in letters and emails we get, that's great, satisfying.

What were the milestones?

Good question and there have been a lot of them over the years. The pick of them must include becoming France's longest-established (and best-selling) English-language newspaper and getting our first paid subscriber. Then there was moving out from home into an office and employing the team. Changes to the French healthcare system for newcomers to France in 2006-07 was a big story for us. People were worried and we worked hard to find out what was happening and to make sure those involved in the decision knew our readers' concerns. Then there was relaunching the website, launching two local papers and, most recently, appointing an editor, leaving me free to expand the business.

How did you choose your team?

That's a key element to our success. All our journalists love France and have made the move to live here, thus living the same joys, frustrations and experiences as our readers every day. It's brave to venture into the life and politics of another country. You need a good team; it's a responsibility. It's information people follow. We get calls about all sorts of issues because we've become the authority on all things French. It's amusing with French friends when you can chip in with something they don't expect, or something about France that maybe they didn't know themselves.

What do you like about France?

Oh, almost everything ... but we don't have space here to cover it all!

What has surprised you about France?

How much a country of contrasts it is: on one hand, you have so many rules and regulations; on the other, you have a ‘C'est pas grave' approach.

The best things?

You mean, after the food, wine, great conversation and stunning countryside? It has to be having bilingual children. It's nice hearing them speaking French with friends. Learning to ski was a great experience, too, for me; I started two years ago. Sitting in the garden on Christmas Day with the sun on your face. I love the climate, which is not just about the heat. It's just a good feeling on sunny days. I think, coming from London, life is slower, which is also appealing. There's a French pride, which is nice. You can feel that French people are proud to be French and they protect their Frenchness. I like what some readers would call the "old-fashioned" values, saying "hello" and "goodbye", that gentillesse.

Worst things?

Dealing with France Telecom has to be top of the list. At one point, an operator insisted our office wasn't on the ground floor because her records had it on the first floor - even though I was (still) standing in that office on the ground floor waiting for the engineer to arrive.

Whom would you most like to interview?

Gérard Depardieu and the head of French business federation (Medef) Laurence Parisot, and of course President Sarkozy. I'm proud that we do interviews with people in the French world. I hope it opens up more of France to our readers.

How does running Connexion compare with working on Fleet Street?

It's a totally different role. Our role here at the Connexion is creating a bridge of understanding; I like the usefulness of what we do. I like that it affects our readers in their everyday lives in France. It's nice making a difference and being respected. People have an impression in the UK of the press as being negative, of being invasive. It's not like that here.

What about the future? Britons in France, the Connexion etc...

There is always going to be a large number of English-speakers living and working in France and they all need information and want to celebrate all the great things that France has to offer: that certain art de vivre. France and the UK are like siblings; there's a lot of rivalry, but there's admiration and respect as well. For our company, I'd like to stay true to our core values, but also to expand. We'd like to bring out some more local newspapers and to increase our range of helpguides and other services to our readers.

What advice would you give people coming to France?

Do plenty of research, learn French, buy Connexion and keep an open mind but most of all enjoy it!

WE MOVED TO FRANCE IN 2002...

- DISAFFECTED with the decline in the British way of life, Ann and Alan Beresford moved to the Deux-Sèvres in 2002 and say they have "no regrets, at all" and have never seriously considered moving back.

At 61, they are retired and enjoy everything they had hoped for in their new life: "The French way of life is less frenetic and intense than in Britain. People have time for you and in general are accommodating," Mr Beresford said.

Since they moved, their biggest hurdles have been "getting established with the medical system and understanding the plethora of taxes paid to various government agencies".

Communication with the artisans working on their renovation was not always simple either: "We bought them a small book in English/French which explained building terms."

Today, the couple enjoy the quality of life and the countryside. They also enjoy the clean and safe environment and, surprisingly, "the daily challenge of making ourselves understood to our French friends and neighbours".

Mr Beresford's favourite anecdote is while playing golf at La Rochelle for the Les Forges seniors team. "It was a blustery day following about a week of rain. The fairways at La Rochelle are lined with deep dykes that lead off to the sea. I hit a ball into the dyke and, as I went to recover it, my golf bag blew over and I fell into the dyke, complete with golf bag.

"The dyke contained fast-flowing water about a metre deep and the banks were so slippy I could not climb out.

"I was rescued by my French opponent, but only on condition I concede the hole."

Mr Beresford said: "We learnt the ease of acceptance the French have in welcoming guests to their country. They are a very proud people who value tradition. It is a nice country."

However, he adds you should never underestimate the French person's relationship with bread or wood: "They are obsessed with eating bread and hoarding wood. Seriously."

- ONE of their first encounters with village life near Grenoble left Roberta Mucher Prodi's husband, Willem Mucher, with a bitter taste and they contemplated moving back to Holland.

Now in their late forties, the couple moved for Roberta's work to Grenoble. "We spent the first years in bliss.

"The natural environment was so different from the Netherlands, the climate, the food, everything sounded and tasted better. But we seriously had to invest in summer clothes!"

However, when they moved to the Maurienne valley to build an ecological house, their dreams were shattered as they encountered a different mentality and felt deeply rejected.

"The neighbours did not trust us. We did not care at first, but then realised we were considered almost like invaders and were barely accepted.

"Our son started classes at the local collège, and was very badly treated, even beaten up on occasion, because of his accent."

Roberta said: "It became unbearable, so we decided to move to Albertville in 2007, thinking that, because of the ski tourism, people would be used to seeing foreigners."

Despite the initial coldness, they found people to be friendly once they had opened up.

"Here in Savoie, people tend to keep to themselves. The best way to meet people is still by taking part in sports."

They opened a music school and found a place in the community, but miss the dynamic, international environment and work opportunities of Holland. Roberta added, however: "Things have changed in Europe since 2002, and today we are not sure if the life we had in the Netherlands still exists."

- OUR mortgage in the UK would have kept us working into our seventies, says Ron Cook, as he explains one of the reasons why he and wife Sylvia moved to the Dordogne in 2002.

Now both retired and in their sixties, Mr Cook said they chose the department after looking at Spain, but "found life there almost as hectic as in the UK. Friends holidayed every year in the Périgord and advised us to look there."

Now they are in Excideuil, a village in Green Perigord, in a maison de maître with six bedrooms. "We knew we had to find a way of supplementing our income and, as Sylvia had always wanted to run a B&B, we looked for a house big enough to convert.

"The house had been empty for more than 10 years and needed complete renovation. We spent 18 months working on the house, installing showers and toilets and redecorating, and opened for business in 2004."

Ron said he thought they were only the second British couple to move to Excideuil permanently, but with 80 second homes in the village – about one in 10 – their neighbours "made us welcome, knowing we were prepared to become part of the local scene. They were extremely helpful. As our French improved, so did their acceptance of us."

Things have changed since their first guest in 2002. The Cooks later got a call from police, who suspected him of being in a gang in an armed robbery at the local bank. "We didn't know whether to laugh or cry; we decided to laugh and carry on regardless."

- A WHIM brought Suzanne Thorne and her eldest son to France in 2002 and she said: "I had never been to France in my life and spoke no French, but decided life was too short not to try different things."

She ended up buying her present house in Deux-Sèvres by sticking a pin in a map after she and her son spent time travelling France in their 1.1 Fiesta, living in tents. Now a consultant and group sales manager at cosmetics company VIE at Home, Suzanne, 56, said: "Life here has often been a struggle, particularly in finding work, until I joined VIE at Home. The language continues to get the better of me and living in a cold house in the winter is always something of a challenge.

"However, it has been a steep learning curve and I have learnt a lot about myself."

She had worked 10 years with The Body Shop in the UK and two years in sales and marketing, and said she would "never have dreamed of being my own boss and having a team under me, and this is the reason I am still here in France.

"I moved to France on a whim when my marriage broke up. What I like most is the gentleness of the people, the respectfulness, the wide open spaces, the roads which are a dream to drive on and, sometimes, how it pushes you to find inner strength to carry on when you want to give up."

Challenges along the way have included spending one winter being in a caravan in the Manche and buying food for dinner. She and her son spotted lasagne, perfect for an evening meal, and only halfway through baking did they realise it was a rice pudding.

"Of course, being in France and nothing open after 7pm, we could do nothing but laugh and try to enjoy our rather bizarre meal.

"Daily life is peaceful, but can also be quite isolating and, of course, the language, culture and bureaucracy can sometimes still be quite frightening: even the French bang their heads against the bureaucracy. It is not just us."

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