I was recently asked to write about expats in France, people who leave their homes in all areas of the world to go to France to live.
I thought back over the years about the many expats I’ve met, interviewed (I am a journalist not just a crazy person going round firing questions at people!), become friends with and it seems to me that they fall into distinct categories on the whole.
Group 1 – Retirees. Retired expats go to France for the good life – wine, food, weather, healthcare, quality of life. Some of them are comfortably off, others less so. They are generally a happy bunch who make the most of what’s on offer in France – even on a budget.
Group 2 – Escapees. Those who are running from something back home, perhaps a failed marriage, business, lost their job etc. Going to France may be a long held dream or not. In this group are also those who seek adventure in foreign lands. From what I see its not quite so successful for this lot. The right attitude is needed and some of them don’t find the life they seek and may eventually return from whence they came. Others fall under the spell of their new destination.
Group 3 – Life-Style-Changees. This group take a decision to move to France often because they have fallen in love with an area, a village they went on holiday to, Paris, a house which they knew could be a home like no other, the quality of life – or all of the above.
In this group of expats in France my favourites are those who fall in love with a derelict property that most people wouldn’t touch with a barge pole – if they had one. In the heads of these dreamers is a chateau, a vision of loveliness and a home that they feel they will love forever.
They buy old houses the French don’t want because it costs a fortune to renovate them and make them water tight and warm.
Houses with acres of land which look wonderfully picturesque and offer a mental picture of liberating freedom and space away from the crowd.
They give up their jobs, homes and ties to family and friends to chase the dream of the good life in France and hope a little luck will come their way. They pack their worldly goods into the back of a lorry, van, trailer or car. They squash confused pets in between cases and kitchen paraphernalia and head off into a rose coloured sunset, merrily waving goodbye to their past lives, ready, willing and able to embrace a new life in France.
Not yet at retirement age they must plan to earn an income – often needing to swerve from a previous career path and be imaginative in how to use their skills and homes.
The fact that their home to be has no water, no electricity and no bathroom doesn’t daunt them – they plot and plan a way to live with these little problems while they resolve them.
No roof? No problem! They’ve never re-roofed before but they buy books, scour the internet for advice on how to re-roof, install windows, build walls, plaster a room, and lay a floor…
At some point inevitably, they will realise that the wonderful house they fell in love with is a hovel, a money pit, a demanding creature that never stops. The budget they had has long been eaten up. They realise that whatever you think it will cost do renovate – you should double it . The bureaucratic nightmare of registering to live and work in France eats into their very soul.
The acres of land that offered so much freedom become a tiresome slog, needing constant work, cutting grass, pruning trees, mending fences.
Relationships become strained – each blames the other for the decision to give up what now seems like the best job in the world/civilisation/comfort.
But – eventually with luck and determination obstacles are overcome, the tiresome paperwork is completed, the house slowly awakes likes a phoenix rising from the flames and the course of happiness is regained.
The most successful expats I’ve met in this group all share similar qualities – they are very determined, bloody minded, hardworking, pragmatic, sanguine, flexible and learn to accept that everything doesn’t go the way you plan it. They open gites, write books, take on building work, teach English, learn a new skill – often in the creative sphere and work hard to earn far less than before but they are happy.
They are also quite possibly a bit mad.
I am one of them!
Ps see My French House to read about my epic renovation journey – an on-going work in progress!