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Being an expat: mad or courageous?

Photographer Rip Hopkins said being a British expat in France was either mad or brave. Here are some of your replies.

WE’RE neither courageous nor mad… just prefer the French way of life and values. I have not yet met any unfriendly French people and they seem very willing to help with any problems which inevitably arise in another country.

Even the bureaucrats seem able to help more and be more caring than English ones.

However, the English should remember they are foreigners in France and not expect everything to run for their benefit. They should try to integrate and make as many French friends as English ones.
Often the English complain about other nationalities in the UK not integrating and the same applies to the English in France.

Gloria Peek
Via email

WE have lived in Brittany for the last eight years and the thought of returning to Britain is daunting. The lack of traffic and the relaxed life here is nothing I would swap for the manic pace of life in Britain. The only reason for returning to Britain would be a family one.

Heather Dennison
Via email

When we bought our house here in 1988 and friends found out that we were going to live in a tiny hamlet (four houses) in the Forêt de la Double, after living most of our lives in London, most of our friends and family thought we were mad.

But my husband, then in his early sixties and I, in my late fifties, wanted a last adventure, before time and old age would slow us down.

We bought a building, consisting of barns, stables and cow sheds, and with the help of very competent French builders and craftsmen, turned it into the house of our dreams, where we still live.

Neither of us has ever looked back, in fact, my husband has never been back to England at all and I only a few times. We were very welcomed into this rural community and made a lot of friends.

Life here is changing slowly, but during the first 15 years we often thought that we had been transported back in time by 50 years, and we were very grateful for the chance to live the last third of our lives this way. I have heard it said that we are running away from reality, but then why not?

The world is not a very happy place today but here, lost in the woods and surrounded by very kind people, deer, beautiful birds and countryside, we live a happy and contented life.

Marlis Ayling

THOSE who survive best as expats in France are far from mad. They are rational and measured people who have made the biggest change and free choice of their lives for another way of life in another European country. To say that, for those of us in this category, the change has everything to do with money and little to do with French culture borders on insulting. Mr Hopkins has obviously used as subjects for his photographs those expats who fall into another category altogether. I have met them, too many of them, and I don’t like being lumped together with them.

People who move to France without having the slightest intention of integrating into the life and culture of their commune nor attempting to learn the language are, indeed, mad. Furthermore they are unlikely to stay the course in the long run.

I don’t want to sound ‘holier than thou’ but all expats know that there are both kinds of expat in abundance. I met a Breton farmer from a neighbouring commune while walking our dogs. He knew who I was and where I Iived, though it was the first time I had seen him in the two years we’ve lived here. “You know what I can’t stand?” he said (in French) “It’s the English who come here and don’t even make the effort to say Bonjour or Au Revoir.” And why shouldn’t he feel like that? I do, too.

My husband and I feel more at home in our little rural community than we ever did recently in North Devon. We work hard to integrate and sometimes it takes courage. We work hard at speaking the language. I worked hard to retrain as an English teacher. Our commune welcome us.

They know the efforts we make and they are gentle folk who both appreciate it and reciprocate tenfold. Perhaps Mr Hopkins would like to come to Guilliers?

Pauline Smith

I WAS brought to France by the need to start a new life at 72 years of age and following the death of my wife. I have been welcomed into the rural, Dordogne community, in spite of my limitations with the language and the fact that quite rightly everybody speaks French. I could not imagine I would fit in so well and my only visit back to England was not an enjoyable experience, I was not happy until I got back home.

I am fully involved in all the village activities where I am always made welcome, and life here is beyond my expectations in every respect.

Jack Dyson
Via email

I can only say “look before you leap”. My husband and I moved to France over four years ago – did up a house but now have returned to Scotland. We made wonderful friends in France in our small community and were treated like family because we made an effort to talk French and help with fetes etc.

We did not go over there with rose-tinted glasses but felt in our 60’s it was time to return “home”. There are many pluses and minuses to living abroad and often the minuses are overlooked. Good luck to those who manage to overcome them. Often the grass is not greener on the other side.

Elizabeth Shaw

This comment may apply to some people, but it seems a very broad generalisation. A very warm welcome during my first visit to Languedoc in 1949, encouraged return visits and when we married our honeymoon was spent in Agde (the town, the Cap had only one building then) and in 1983 we bought a village house for holidays, not at the time intending to live here permanently.

Before retirement we started looking for a smaller house in the Thames Valley but soon realised that France was where we wished to be. We have never regretted our decision and personally I feel more at home here than anywhere I have ever lived.

We have been very well accepted and I have been President of a Lions Club and of the village Club du Troisième Age, in 2001 I was elected to the local council and again in 2008 where my main responsibility is the organisation of regular patrols in summer to detect forest fires.

My wife, Jackie and myself met at Covent Garden, we still love opera and organise a group of 167 people from 17 villages to go to the Opéra of Montpellier. The amount of cultural activity in the provinces is simply staggering and yes, we do enjoy it and feel part of it.

Jim Buck

We moved to France because, after paying off our huge mortgage by selling our house, there was precious little left to buy anything other than a back street terrace in a poor district. We always knew that we should be faced with this on retirement, and so started making plans about six years in advance.

We bought our house in 2000 and spent the next six years restoring the lovely old place, built in 1619. It initially cost us £8700. For the next six years, we spent three fortnights a year here, doing what we could, and working around workmen that we were employing. It great fun to see our investment growing.

By the time I came to retire in 2006, we had a finished home waiting for us. Beautiful countryside position with lovely views, nice neighbours, a mile to a small town with all the shops we need day to day, no traffic, and the warm season is a month longer overall. My retirement lump sum paid for a heated swimming pool.

One of the most important things for us is the superb and efficient health service. Here you can ring the surgery on a Saturday morning and get an appointment that Monday. In the UK you may have to wait a fortnight for an appointment, unless it is serious.

OK, so the exchange rate is not as good as it was, and retirement incomes here are reduced a bit, but one knew that might happen anyway, and if you have not made provisions for such fluctuations, then you suffer the consequences. We hear so many stories of Brits, who come out here having done no homework at all; thinking that they can ignore all the regulations; pretending they are still living in UK; avoiding local, and income taxes; paying for work on the black; and then they wonder why they can’t sell their houses without a huge tax bill, because they have no proof of expenditure, or guarantees.

Those that try to bypass all the regulations, usually get caught out one way or another.

The answer is to read at least half a dozen books on the subject of retiring to France, talk to others who have made the change and then give it a go. Be prepared for the laissez faire attitude and don't stand any nonsense anymore than you would in UK. If your language skills are not up to conversation standards, learn enough to speak ‘bank’, ‘supermarket’, ‘doctor’, ‘DIY shop’.

Don’t take any stick from the pompous few who ‘speak French fluently’. If you already do, then great, but don’t spend time and money trying to become fluent.

You never will be able to speak French like a native, unless you have started learning at an early age in a French school. There are plenty of French people who will charge very little for being your interpreter, and who will write letters for you, or ring people in authority for you. There are many 'Conversation Classes' to join, but so many are run by British people, whose pronunciation is often laughable.

Nigel Perry

COURAGEOUS definitely – I said to friends when we were making plans to move that we must be either very stupid or very brave and, after five years of living here, I would say it is the latter. The quality of life here in Brittany is certainly less stressful than that in the UK which we visit several times per year. Traffic, crowds, lack of space to name but a few of the problems we do not experience here.

The downside is the lack of choice in shops (although getting better) and the language which we are still trying to get under our belts. Despite that, we have managed to deal with the health system in France as well as paying taxes, insuring the car, having a French bank account and dealing with problems in the home ie. water leaks etc.

I feel a sense of accomplishment when I remember that we arrived here knowing absolutely no one and couldn’t speak a word of French. We had to make a whole new life for ourselves and we’ve managed to do that. Having to earn a living in France is much harder and I doubt we would have survived had we had to go down that route.

We do, however, know expats who have succeeded in making a decent living here and it’s all down to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Brits. As a nation we’ve travelled and explored and we seem to have this urge to try something different, whatever the challenges. The French, on the other hand seem to travel very little and are happy to remain in their country of birth with no curiosity about other countries or cultures.

I continue to love my country and will, eventually return there but I am enjoying this big adventure and am pleased that we decided to make the move.

By email

MY WIFE and I have had a second home in Deux Sèvres for the last four years and are just about to make a full-time move to France. Friends here in Jersey keep saying, “You are so brave.” What’s brave about it? Ok, it’s not as cheap as it was for expats in France but we still reckon that we can live more cheaply there than in Jersey.

We have always wanted to become part of the local scene and have been delighted by the response of our neighbours (virtually all French-speaking) who have made approving noises about us taking on a rather run-down little house and making it come to life again.We are also involved, through the church, with the expat English-speaking community and are really relishing being able to be there full-time.

Just make sure that you can still get good old Radio 4 and you’ll survive and thrive.

Geoff Cornwall

I THINK that I'm neither. For a long time I had held to the desire to retire to France. When the time came it was an easy decision to make. The pleasant town in which I had lived and worked for 30 years had turned into a lout-filled place, full of drunks and druggies where it was not safe to walk after dark. Having worked with the public during that time I found that they had become ill-tempered, impatient, bullying, overly expectant and with a desire to get something for nothing. In short I had fallen out of love with England and my fellow countrymen.

Life in France is much better, people respect each other, the streets are not full of foul-mouthed, drunken, young people and it feels safe to walk around any time of day or night, at least in our department. Yes the devaluation of the pound has not helped most retirees but we are still better off financially than if we had stayed in the UK. We have tried to integrate with locals with some success, I am now secretary of our local Club des Aînés and my wife who speaks almost no French goes to a country dancing club. Wild horses wouldn't drag us back.

Chris Radford
Via email

MOST people thought I was courageous when I came to live in France 7 years ago. One person, however, thought I was completely mad. He said "to think, at 68 and all alone, of moving to a new country, with new people, new language, new church, you are setting yourself up for a loneliness such as you have never experienced or could even possibly envisage.” He was so wrong.
I've never been happier in my life. I didn't know a soul when I first came over to see if I thought I might like living here. Having originally decided which area appealed to me most i.e. Lot, I made two visits, summer and winter, planning to find a house I wanted to buy. Just before my first visit however, I felt I should be choosing a church first. Having put out a number of feelers I did exactly that and ended up at a wee little church in Chapdeuil in the Dordogne feeling totally at home and having received a wonderful welcome from the members including an invitation to a lunch party.

During my second visit, I came back to Chapdeuil and started looking for a house within a 25km radius.

Before I returned to England - to put my bungalow on the market - I had already signed the contract for a house over here. There were 'For Sale' signs all over the place when I got back to England but even so, I managed to find a buyer in time to move to France in the 4 1/2 months agreed with the vendor.

Yes, of course there have been problems but there has always been someone to help me sort them. I am now trying to sell my Charentaise maison de maitre where I have created a lovely garden including vegetables in order to move on to another project - but smaller!

Elizabeth Dyer
Auriac de Bourzac

WE bought our house in the Tarn eight years ago. It had stood empty for 30 years, no floors, toilets etc. We fell in love with the area and the people when coming over to help some friends and spent the first three years living six months here and six months in the UK.

It is a wonderful way of life and the people are lovely, they have welcomed us into their world, even though neither myself nor my husband could speak the language.

As time goes by and trying to speak with the help of our wonderful French neighbours (who never spoke any English) and French lessons we are getting there. It is how life should be with little stress.

Carolyn and Del Eden
By email

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