“We went on holidays to the Vendée for years and always talked about how lovely it would be to live in France permanently. After a great holiday in August 2015, we finally decided to think about our plans more concretely.” explains Mr Smith. “This is the second marriage for both of us and the children from our previous relationships are grown-ups. My wife has a flexible job with a UK firm that requires her to be on site for one week every few weeks and I am now self-employed, so there was nothing holding us back.”
The couple adopted a rational approach towards their move and carefully researched what they would be getting themselves into. They had their house in the UK valued and studied their financial means to check if they could afford buying a property in France without a mortgage. Then, with a fixed price range in mind, they searched the Internet to see what types of properties they could buy.
Initially the family looked at properties in the Vendée and Loire region; yet, having visited both areas for viewings in February 2016, they realised that they were looking at the wrong end of France. “With ageing parents in the UK and not being used to constantly good weather, we thought the North would be a more suitable choice. So we focused on Normandy and Brittany.”
The Smiths strategically planned to visit properties in February – the month during which “the towns are empty and every place is pretty horrible weather-wise, no matter where you go in France” – to get a realistic insight into the life of the region. A relative, who works as a professional builder near Brittany, helped the family evaluate properties and decide which options were a solid investment.
Despite viewing a wide range of houses, the Smiths did not find what they were looking for. “Seeing what was on offer helped us crystallise what we didn’t want in our minds. We learnt that we were not willing to sacrifice our time and energy for a ‘project property.’ We wanted to own a finished 3-bedroom house that suits our taste and has some land to keep ponies or chickens on for our girls.”
Several months later, the family found their ideal property in St. Tugdual in the Morbihan. Nevertheless, they took some time to rethink their plans before committing: “we researched the amenities and schools in the area and went back to see the house at the height of summer. Sitting in the garden in the sun, we knew that we should buy it.” They agreed with the current owners of the house that they would buy on the condition that they had sold their home in the UK.
Mid-December came the move. After celebrating Christmas with relatives in their new home just a few days after moving in, the Smiths quickly began to feel settled. Their neighbours made them feel very welcome and, since the family live opposite a cemetery, someone always dropped by to introduce themselves.
“It was very practical to move in winter because nothing was growing outside and we were not tempted to do any gardening. This allowed us to focus all of our energy on making the house our own. In spring, we can dedicate our time to the garden and reap the benefits of the warm weather when we work outside.”
Jessica and Lucy started school in the new year and adjusted to the French educational system with little difficulty. In comparison to their schools in the UK, the girls now have longer days (from 8.25am until 4.55pm) and fewer pupils in their class, which allows them to receive more support from teachers. Tests are less pressured than in the UK making the children feel more comfortable.
“Our girls are much happier in this system. Surprisingly, the curriculum in their French schools appears to be slightly behind that of UK schools, especially in maths and science. This allows them to catch up on their French language skills before they learn new things,” says Alan Smith.
Looking back onto their former life in the UK, the family are grateful to be able to enjoy their downtime more in France. “We have open space, wake up to birdsong and can grow our own vegetables. Even throughout the workweek we have more time for ourselves as we aren’t stuck in as much traffic. We cannot believe that this is our life; it still feels like we are on holiday.”
“We love the lack of commerciality around Christmas or Easter – the French promotion periods are far shorter than those in the UK where Christmas is advertised at the same time as Halloween,” says Alan Smith. “Furthermore, the fact that everything shuts down on a Sunday and every day between 12pm and 2pm allows us to enjoy more family time. Then the seasonality of businesses from 1st April onwards suddenly awakes the entire town and creates a pleasant buzz.”
The Smiths were also pleasantly surprised by the organisation of local amenities and GP offices. They found déchèteries everywhere, received the help they needed from local services, and were able to choose the date and time of their medical appointments according to their timetable. Moreover, the local authorities just redid their village street.
So far they only had one bad experience when a huge storm paralysed the road network and trapped everyone in a three-hour long traffic jam. Mr Smith, who was returning from the school run, was running low on fuel and had no reception to phone his family. “It was frightening to be so helpless. I panicked as I felt vulnerable being in such a strange situation in a foreign country and unable to communicate with anyone. I speak a reasonable amount of French, but making yourself understood in an emergency like that is very difficult. Since then I never have less than a quarter tank of fuel.”
Reflecting on bureaucratic procedures, the Smiths believe that newcomers can achieve want they want if they follow procedures: “you usually fall flat when you try to circumvent the norm or are too British.”
The couple advise expats not to tackle all the paperwork at once because this can be extremely daunting and exhausting, especially with limited language skills. They also learnt to check any advice given from friends or expat forums before acting upon it. “You can look at Facebook pages and everyone on there has a different opinion. So we found that the best thing to do was to go to the local prefecture with all your documents and questions, and ask them for official situation-specific advice.”
“All in all, we have not had any major issues. We planned meticulously and faced the transition realistically. We told ourselves it wouldn’t be easy and we are lucky that everything aligned itself.” Now the family look forward to enjoying their sunny garden over Easter and watching the local cycle race in the town centre.
The Connexion will check up on the Smiths at various intervals in the future to see how they continue to adjust to life in France.