Six secrets to making your new life in France a happy one

Gillian Harvey asks stress-management coach, clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist Irena-Marie Makowska for tips on creating a happier life in France, and talks to three people who have managed it

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Moving and living abroad comes with its unique stresses and worries — and, if they are not dealt with they can quickly turn a lifelong dream into a nightmare. Here are Irena-Marie Makowska’s six tips to make moving to France more manageable.

Let yourself worry - but only when it suits you

If you feel overwhelmed, try assigning a 'worry hour' at a certain time each day. When you feel anxiety coming on, remind yourself that you are going to address that particular problem later. By the time your allocated hour arrives, you will be able to think rationally about any genuine problems, but dismiss any meaningless anxieties.

Recording worries can also help to get them out of our heads and see them in a more practical light.

If you are dealing with a difficult renovation, or wading through challenging paperwork, it’s good to have a notebook in which to jot any thoughts, ideas or concerns.

This can be an important way to start taking control of our lives, and seeing worries from a new perspective.

See the positives

Rather than focusing on your problems and how to overcome them, try focusing on a positive future, using creative visualisation.

Our brains are programmed to respond to feelings and images, so this can be the fastest way to change how we feel. Create a 'success image' in your mind — whether it is simply living a relaxed life in France, or achieving something more tangible.

Focusing on this image and the feelings it creates within us helps us to move towards achieving our goal by creating a new habit, behaviour and belief. This can work well for weight loss too — rather than focusing on the size you are, visualise yourself at the end of your weight loss journey.

Breathe like a baby

When a baby breathes, his or her stomach inflates – this is actually the correct way to breathe. Adults often breathe more into their chests, and don’t fully inflate their lungs.

When we are under stress, our breathing tends to get much shallower, which can trigger the release of the chemicals which cause anxiety and stress. So, if you feel stressed, try taking deep, slow breaths into your stomach to alleviate the symptoms. It is a simple trick, but it works.

Start every day right

Did you get out of the wrong side of the bed this morning? That is why you may be in a bad mood now, hours later. The first 17 seconds of our day can have a big impact on how we will feel for the next few hours.

Rather than wake up to the sound of an alarm clock, or listening to the news first thing in the morning — which can make anyone feel rather negative — try to have your favourite music set to come on. Listening to something that makes you feel good can create a positive mind-set for the day ahead.

Get involved

We all need company and interaction to keep us healthy — and doing something that interests us can also help to keep us smiling.

Do not give up on your old hobbies just because you have moved to a new country. Try to find local clubs or like-minded people — both English and French — and join in with sports and activities.

Having personal connections and a range of different people with whom to share your ups and downs is a crucial part of minimising stress and maximising happiness.

And relax

ALTHOUGH not everyone is drawn to meditation, it can a be powerful tool in minimising stress. Even if you just meditate for five minutes a day, it can have a significant impact. The more you practise meditation, the more effortless it will become.

We are soulmates

Susan Keefe, 54, Sarthe

Having fallen in love with France aged 14 on a school trip, Susan Keefe had long dreamed of making a life on this side of the Channel.

Then, having split with her first husband in 1995, she and her new husband Michael honeymooned in Indre in 2004. He, too, felt they could make a life in France. Two years later, former herbalist Susan and 66-year-old Michael — an electronics engineer — decided to take the plunge.

“Michael’s initial plan was to run his business remotely from France,” explained Susan. “But that proved difficult.”

Being together 24/7 can take its toll, but Susan and Michael have thrived. “We really are soulmates. We have so much to talk about — and don’t even have a TV.”

The couple, who keep in touch with their family via Skype, have relished their new life, enjoying the countryside and wildlife.

“They say you can’t live on a view,” said Susan. “But I don’t agree.” More happiness was to come the couple’s way when they bought their border collie puppy, Toby, in 2008. “He inspired me to pursue one of my other passions – writing,” said Susan. “I began to write my first Toby’s Tales — a children’s book about his doggy adventures — shortly afterwards.”

Susan and Michael have now worked on six books together.

Susan said it is the strength of her and Michael’s relationship and their appreciation of what they have that feeds their happiness.

“I love where we live, and I love the fact that we support and complement each other,” she said. “We really are very happy in France.”

New French neighbours welcomed me into their family

Tony Marsden, 59, Limousin

TONY Marsden moved to France in 1996 — but his dream of living happily ever after with his then boyfriend never came to fruition.

“When I sold my house in the UK after my mother moved into a care home, I had the money to do whatever I want — probably for the first time in my life. So I suggested to my boyfriend that we go to France and ‘live the dream’ and he agreed,” said Tony.

Things did not go to plan. “We bought an old water mill, and the plan was that I would renovate it, while my partner worked and sent money over.

“But his heart wasn’t really in it. Then we found out that the mill was registered as an industrial building, and our work ground to a halt while we sought ‘change of use’.”

The relationship survived, long-distance, for another seven years, but in 2004, newly single and with the renovation project permanently stalled, Tony moved into a small rented property.

“I’d been building up a business as a translator, so luckily, by this point, I was earning reasonable money,” he said. He sold the mill in 2010.

Having worked for 15 years in higher education in the UK, Tony initially missed the daily interaction with his students.

“I used to enjoy teaching people in their twenties,” he said. “They are so optimistic – it’s infectious.”

Now, Tony has formed a close bond with many locals, after immersing himself in French culture. “The family I lived next door to when I owned the mill really took me in to their family,” he said. “I have become a big part of their children’s lives and am even godfather to their youngest. I have nieces and nephews back in the UK, but I don’t get to see them on such a regular basis, so I’ve never had that familial bond with them.”

“I also have a great group of friends and we meet regularly.”

Tony said people’s acceptance his sexuality this side of the channel surprised him at first.

“It’s different for younger people, but I found in the UK some people of my generation were quite prejudiced,” he explained. “Here, I was surprised and pleased to find out how accepting people are.”

You have to be happy on the inside

Morag Hamilton, 66, Dordogne

WHEN Morag Hamilton moved to France in 2005, it was with the hope of having a more fulfilling retirement.

“I was the deputy headteacher of an inner-city primary school and after 30 years in teaching, the stress of the role was taking its toll,” she said. “Then
I read that the average life expectancy for managers who work to retirement age was shockingly low! I felt it was time for a change.”

Since moving to France, Morag has also become the musical director, or chef de choeur, of a local choir in Neuvic, Amitié Musicale.

“I joined a choir in the village in 2007, and enjoyed singing along to some of the carols we were learning for our Christmas concert,” Morag said. “One week, the chef de choeur was very late. As people were getting impatient, I sat down at the piano — after all, as a former primary teacher, I’d played Away in a Manger in public many times!”

Two years later, Morag was asked to take over the choir.

“Happiness is state of mind,” she said. “When I was in England, I was on autopilot, going to work and coming home — often in the dark. I now appreciate the luxury of not having to do things if I don’t want to.”

“To me, happiness is finding gifts on a daily basis for which to be grateful, and not having unrealistic expectations: I choose to do things that bring me joy.”

“Of course, I miss family in the UK, but I have found inner happiness in the tranquility of France; and have learned that if you aren’t happy inside, you won’t be happy anywhere.”