What does it take to make a successful life as a working expat in France? Tenacity, determination and will power, a pragmatic attitude and a lot of resolve plus a bit of good of luck helps! Lucy Pitts interviews an expat couple in the Vendée area of France about their rocky road to France…
Pauhla and Darren Hill are as much a part of the local Vendée landscape near La Chataigneraie where they live, as the rolling fields and woodland in which their quintessentially French home nestles. With whitewashed walls, blue shutters and a garden that looks over the sloping valley and gentle colours of the Vendée’s “bocage” the couple make “living the expat dream” look like a breeze. But their journey to Western France was not always a smooth one and they’ve certainly shown some sticking power to get where they are now.
Back in 2002 in the UK, Pauhla had a demanding job as a sales director and Darren was a mechanic at a busy garage. Speaking of their lives back then Pauhla explains, “It certainly wasn’t the life I’d dreamed of. We both had jobs that demanded long hours and we lived like virtual strangers. Crime in our area was bad and I felt like I had to keep looking over my shoulder. Despite the long hours we worked, we never seemed to have anything to show for it. Darren had always wanted to move abroad but I was really close to my mum who lived on her own and there was no way I was going to leave her.”
But as Pauhla explains, all that suddenly changed. “I spoke to my mum on the phone one afternoon to say I’d be round to see her later. That was the last time I spoke to her and she died totally out of the blue within minutes of putting the phone down. I was devastated and it changed everything. Suddenly, I had no reason to stay and every reason to leave. We didn’t have children then and within months, we’d packed up and sold our home. We literally got in a car and drove. And we ended up in the lush green countryside of the Vendée.”
Their original plan had been to run a bed and breakfast style business and they bought a house on the outskirts of the little town of La Chataigneraie which had plenty of space and a beautiful, if slightly overgrown, garden. “Looking back, of course I realise we hadn’t really thought it through,” explains Pauhla. “When we first arrived we invited all our friends over to visit rather than knuckle down to running and building up the business. We had lots of fun but by the end of the first year, we’d had forty two groups of friends to stay. We were exhausted, broke and we realised that the hospitality business was not for us. It was time to wake up and start making a go of it and it was a complete reality check.”
“Darren had always dreamt of running his own specialist motorbike business and I knew I wanted and needed a challenge but the trouble was neither of us spoke much French. To stand any chance of success, we realised we not only had to learn the language but fully integrate ourselves within the local community. We’re not a couple who gives up easily,” Pauhla continues. “So at that stage I quite literally begged my way into a job in a factory. The work was hideous and no one there spoke a word of English. It was a really tough time but after 6 months and a lot of long shifts, I could speak decent French!”
Meanwhile Darren, who had trained in the UK and Italy as a classic motorbike restorer and engineer set about converting the couple’s garage into a workshop specialising in motorcycle repairs and sales. “Obviously I had to have the support of the local mayor and the Chamber of Commerce as I was starting a new business and I had to prove I was suitably qualified. Then once I had their backing, I not only had to physically set up the workshop and get the necessary equipment but also learn French and build up the business,” Darren explains.
“While Darren set up the bike business, I took any job I could find which included working in the local supermarket,” says Pauhla taking up the story. “But by 2004 I was pregnant with our son Freddie and I really wanted something which was going to be more flexible and fulfilling. When I met expat Linda, an experienced estate agent who was working at Agence Melusine we hit it off instantly and she persuaded me that I had what it takes to be an estate agent. These days I work in Vouvant, one of the prestigiously named prettiest towns in France, or from home, as an English speaking, French estate agent – one of the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Ten years on and the pair are well known throughout the region as well as their local town where their children go to school. “I’m so proud when I hear the children switching from French to English or when they correct my French. At aged 7 and 8 ½ they both already speak it better than us,” Pauhla explains.
“We’ve had some real highs and lows,” says Darren. “The recession hit us hard as the property market died over night. I also found when I started out that the locals often preferred to go to a local French mechanic rather than an Englishman even when I was more experienced, so I’ve had to work extra hard to gain their trust and respect. There have been times when we’ve been ready to quit because making a living here isn’t something that is easy. We’ve often found ourselves living hand to mouth and you certainly need tenacity to succeed.”
Pauhla too explains that “living the dream” as she describes it, has had its down sides. “Being accepted took a while. But we both went out of our way to ensure we didn’t just mix with the local expat community; I perform with the local comedy troupe and have tried to learn the nuances of the local dialect. I get involved with the school and my community as much as I can.”
I ask, would they do it all again? “In an instant,” says Darren as the sun slowly slips behind the hills. “The French have a more relaxed, less materialistic and very welcoming culture and it’s been an amazing experience. Our children have a much better quality of life here as well as a beautiful home. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s all been plain sailing. You need to be thick skinned, resilient and determined to make it here and French bureaucracy can be very hard to get your head round.”
Pauhla’s equally pragmatic, if not a little more philosophical, “It’s not a life for everybody and we’ve certainly had our moments but I absolutely love my life here. Some of the French “systems” drive me nuts and helping the children with their homework can still be a challenge… however it’s a really good time to buy French property at the moment and it’s a very exciting time to be here,” says Pauhla.
And with Darren fast gaining a reputation as the motorbike specialist in the region if you’re restoring, repairing or buying a motorbike, later this month he’s opening a new and larger workshop in nearby Cheffois.
Looking out across their garden in the evening twilight, with nothing but birdsong, children’s laughter and intermittent French conversation to interrupt the silence, this is a couple who’ve certainly taken some knocks during the course of their French adventure. But as they sip wine with their French neighbours and friends, I can’t think of a couple who look more at home.
Addendum: Pauhla and Darren have since this article was published in February 2014, relocated to Australia