If you are lucky enough to have the chance
Thirty years ago almost to the day my husband and I bought an old French farmhouse in the South-West of France in the beautiful Lot Valley.
We had to remortgage our home in England to do it but from our point of view it was worth it.
At that point my two youngest children were 10 and 12. We had been taking holidays in France since the youngest was approaching 2, we had five children altogether, three of my husband’s from his previous marriage and our two. All the children lived with us, so we were a large family. This made holidays in the UK expensive when compared to a gîte in France at £50 a week! The children all loved France from the get-go.
At first, we were only able to go down to the house for three weeks in Summer. Leaving to go home was heartbreaking every year. After my husband retired, and I was able to stop working, we would go there for anything up to six months (six months is the limit in terms of UK taxation rules). We just loved it more and more, were able to witness all seasons of the year, we got to know people in our village apart from our immediate neighbours.
And then two catastrophic events changed things. In 2002 my husband’s pension company collapsed and he lost the pension he had diligently paid into for over 40 years, cutting his retirement income by a massive amount. Then, in late 2003, I developed Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, an aggressive and late onset form of the disease, that progresses very quickly so by 2007 I was barely able to walk and was no longer able to do the stairs in our UK home. By this time our middle daughter was living in our French village and begged us to relocate to our house there, which had no stairs. We did.
The house was slightly unsuitable for living in full-time. Our bathroom and separate toilet were outside on the terrace. In the winter it was necessary to dress up in winter layers, socks etc just to take a pee in the night! So we made a few adjustments, taking part of the huge barn adjoining the house (there was more barn than house) to make a sitting room and to build a new bedroom with en-suite and a small terrace for my husband and I. It was lovely.
With daughter and grandchildren living round the corner, life was good. I could still walk with a stick to visit them and their swimming pool!
We really got into the swing of life in a beautiful part of France. Our nearest big town is Cahors, a medieval city with a famous bridge, a beautiful cathedral and many historic monuments. Over the years, coming to the house each year on holiday, we had got used to meandering through its narrow streets to find little restaurants tucked away where locals ate and you could get a fantastic three course meal with wine for about £2-3 a head. People often say to me that France has become more expensive. That’s probably true of the cost of living, certainly since it changed from francs to Euros, but search and you can find, in the most out of the way places sometimes, really good meals with wine for €12 a head.
How does it feel to live as an expat? At first, even though we knew the house and the village, it was a totally different feeling from being there short term. Suddenly, we became aware of different social and cultural references that we had to get used to. Learning to speak the language was essential. I picked it up fairly quickly because I had to speak to doctors and social services about care as my MS progressed.
The social care system in France is of an extremely high standard as are the hospitals and nursing staff. As the disease progressed and I needed more help and under reciprocal arrangements with the UK I had excellent care at no cost.
It’s a pity that as a consequence of leaving the EU those arrangements may come to an end, making it more difficult for expats living with chronic conditions or other illnesses.
Contrary to popular opinion, the French are agreeable, kind and very community- and family-minded. If you have a problem there is always someone willing to help from your neighbours to strangers who see you having trouble with something in the street or a car park.
It’s just a question of getting to know and understand them, not being an overbearing arrogant Brit (believe me I’ve seen plenty of them), and at least trying to speak the language. You will often find that they are as happy to practice their English as we are our French.