British expat Sue Aitken lives in south west France and runs Blackhen Education – a business that she set up after planning to move to Spain to be a teacher. She and her partner travelled through France on their way to jobs and a life in Spain but they fell in love with the French way of life and ended up staying and teaching English in France…
Sue takes over the story: I’ve been in love with France since I was a child. Camping holidays with my parents and three siblings travelling along back roads crammed into the family’s humble Morris 1800. I still remember hearing a lady sing ‘’ La Vie en Rose’ in a campsite in the Dordogne and thinking ‘I want to live here’! I was 12… I always felt that I’d come home once we drove down the ramp from the ferry. I used to go back to the UK and try and become French! Watching old Alain Delon films and trying to dress like the French girls did. I started to dream of how I could eventually move & live in France. That was a long time ago.
My partner Andy was interested in moving to Spain. Like me he would often complain about the crazy life we lived, where work seemed all consuming. So when six years ago my youngest child was going off to university we decided to do something. It was all a little crazy if I’m honest. We had decided to go to southern Spain where we had arranged teaching jobs. We were going to live in a small hill-top village in Andalucia and drive down through France. We had given ourselves three months to pack up our home, rent it out and then leisurely drive through France and for me to show Andy the places I’d visited as a child.
We never made it to Spain.
We stayed for a couple of months in Deux-Sevres in the Poitou-Charentes region, south west France, with a lovely couple who had renovated an old mill and were living the sort of life that we craved – it made us stop in our tracks and think about what we really wanted. Then we went for a weekend visit to an old school friend in Languedoc Roussillon, deep in the south of France, and ended up staying for six months. We rented a village house owned by an American surgeon and aspiring artist and I started tutoring some local children in English; I also started teaching Business English to the Head of Commerce in Montpellier. We had fallen in love with France and decided to stay. However, despite really enjoying this beautiful part of France, the property was over our budget. If local gossip was to be believed Johnny Depp had been house hunting in the area at the time!
We returned to Deux-Sevres as we’d really loved the area and particularly La Rochelle and we started house-hunting. Andy had to return to the UK to work as a supply teacher and I began to think of what I could do in France.
A year later, we finally found the house that would become home. A lovely Charentaise house with ‘great potential.’ The first winter I lived in the house there was no heating and only three lights in the entire house; my fridge was the window-sill; we had a make-shift bathroom. I did think at times ‘what the hell have we done?’ We have slowly renovated the ground floor, tamed the garden, started a potager and keep chickens.
I set up an online business offering teaching English courses for English-speaking children living in France. ‘Blackhen Education’ named after the first chicken we bought. I had managed a drama/English club locally for a year for English speaking children and parents spoke of their concerns about their children losing their mother tongue. It was from this that Blackhen was born. The company has grown in the last few year and we offer online tuition for children from seven years old up to IGCSE.
When I first started Blackhen Education, I was a total ‘technophobe’ but soon realized how important IT is, especially for a business run entirely online. Obviously there have been obstacles and some low points in the last few years. Probably the hardest part of moving to France for me has been that Andy has had to work in the UK for periods of time. This has really challenging, as for seven or eight weeks at a time I have to contend with things on my own – whether its fuses that blow, a machine that won’t work or a sick animal. Trying to explain this to friends and family in the UK, who think you are ‘living the dream’ has been difficult at times.
I think that whenever you move to a different culture many of your reference points are lost. Language is certainly a key one. My French has gradually improved, most notably when my lovely French neighbours moved in next door a year ago. It’s a cliché but the only real way to learn a language is to throw yourself in and speak it. The brief conversation with the bread lady in the morning really does help. It also shows that you want to become part of the community.
Finally, now when I get off the plane from the UK, I feel that I have come home!
We may not have followed the ‘normal’ route, or gone about things in a logical way, but to quote Edith Piaf ‘je regrette rien.’