Heads Above Water is the latest offering of Stephanie Dagg, an expat English woman who arrived in France in 2006 via Ireland with her husband and three children. Filled with passion and determination to make a success of their new lives the family embark on an adventure at their run down farm and 75 acres – AKA the hovel.
Their new home has one electric plug and no plumbing, they have to enrol their three (non French speaking) children at school and they need to earn an income. To enable them to remain in France they fearlessly (some might say foolishly) try their hand at whatever it takes – from offering lama treks in beautiful countryside surroundings to running gites with fish filled lakes to pull the punters in.
Life takes on a nightmare quality when Stephanie has to deal with various bureaucratic government offices when she attempts to get planning permission or to register the fledgling business the family set up. When she tries to install a composting loo to compensate for the lack of plumbing for a flush toilet things go badly wrong – one of those laugh out loud moments when you read what happens – and I won’t spoil it for you by telling you here – you’ll have to read it!
Throughout it all Stephanie remains pragmatic, rarely losing sight of the goal that made the family choose France in the first place – a better quality of life overall. Despite the administrative difficulties, misunderstandings with the builders, incomprehension at the myriad and expensive paper, pens and forms that are required to send a child to school, missing fish, decapitated quails and stroppy lamas she is unflinching in her resolve and after two years the family do indeed manage to keep their heads above water.
At times funny, often informative with little titbits of information about French life and French attitudes – Stephanie Dagg describes life as many expats experience it when they move to France. Reading this I recognised several situations – empathising with Stephanie’s frustration at the DDE – the local planning office whose staff hold back pieces of information in what appears to be an obstreperous attempt to draw out the agony, chasing after wayward animals, trying to make a home out of a hovel on peanuts.
A really enjoyable read with some hilarious anecdotes such as her advice for answering the phone to French cold call salespeople, the bane of those who live in France – “… we just reply chirpily in exaggerated pidgin French along the lines of: ‘My uncle is a potato and I keep croissants under the bed. Now I must sing to my onions. Hello please,” and put the phone down…
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