From tips on buying the right property to integrating with the locals, eight expats who have already moved to France share their advice for those of you thinking of making the move
1. Embrace your new life in France and throw yourself into the local community
Chris Radford retired to Creuse in 2006, with wife Brenda.
“Moving to a whole new place can be difficult, especially in retirement. But over the past 11 years, Brenda and I have really integrated with the local community. As soon as we arrived, we dived into the local social life. I became secretary of the local club ‘de troisième âge’ for two years (as no one else wanted to do it!) and we join in with communal meals, enjoy local dances and always make sure we attend local fêtes.
Brenda goes to a French country dancing club every week, despite struggling with the language, and we enjoy a certain notoriety locally as we are both cyclists and ride our tandem every Sunday. Sadly, not everyone seems able to integrate or to build a full life over here, which is a shame. I’d say to anyone thinking of making the move, make sure you don’t cling on to your old customs. You’ve chosen a new culture, so jump in and enjoy!”
2. Rent before you buy
Micala and Paul Wilkes moved to Deux-Sèvres in 2012.
“As well as keeping the focus on our businesses in the early days, we also learned a lot about what we were prepared to put up with in a house, and what we couldn’t cope with before we bought. So we really knew what to look for when the time came. We found our first rental property on a forum, and rented two different houses over a period of four years before buying the property in which we now live. One of the rentals we lived in had a ‘waterfall’ cascading down one of the chimneys, and a boiler that could only heat the house to 11°C. Another had electric heating – which we found to be very expensive.
Learning through experience as we did meant that when we did purchase, we chose something smaller that we could keep warm and maintain more easily. We also made sure we checked out internet connection speeds, and chose a property near to a main road so that Paul could easily get to his jobs. We’d always recommend people try before they buy.”
3. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Gillian and Ray Harvey bought a house in France in 2009 but the subsequently relocated from a small village to a nearby town in Haute-Vienne.
“We began our house hunt in a small, pretty town. However, searching for the ‘right’ property, we chose size over location and ended up 20km away in a remote village. Seduced by the idea of a large barn and 5,000m² of garden, we signed on the dotted line without a second thought. Unfortunately, having 5,000km of garden wasn’t as wonderful as envisaged. Having purchased the property in the April, we arrived in the July to find 5-foot weeds crossing the entirety of the garden and all over the shingled drive!
Once a neighbour had mown down the weeds with his tractor, maintaining the garden became laborious. Worse, while beautiful, the garden was far bigger than we’d ever need – even though we lived in the property for three years, there are still corners on which we have probably never set foot. We also began to feel a bit lonely in our remote location. After a few years, we sold up and bought a different property in a local town. This time we chose a more modest property with 100 metres of garden – more than adequate for our children to play in and much easier to maintain.”
4. Remember that running a chambres d’hôtes is a lot of work
Laura and Paul Blew run a chambres d’hôtes in Peyrat-le-Château in Haute-Vienne.
“Even though Laura and I had done our research – with the help of Laura’s parents who already live in France – we still found ourselves wading through a lot of bureaucracy when we arrived. We now know that some of the websites and forums don’t necessarily have accurate information on them. In fact, in France, even the official channels can be inconsistent.
We opened our chambres d’hôtes in 2014, so 2017 will be our fourth season, and we feel a lot more confident about everything. The biggest problem a lot of new proprietors face is underestimating how much work actually goes into running a B&B. In peak season, you are working 12-hour days, seven days a week. It’s easy to run yourself ragged trying to meet individual guests’ demands, but I’d recommend deciding on the service you are offering, the breakfast menu and the house rules and sticking to them. Being upfront about what you expect means that you can provide a good service without spreading yourself too thin. We love our life in France, and our B&B is doing very well, but it was a steep learning curve at the start.”
5. Make an effort to integrate with the community
Brenda Cook lives in Croisilles, Pas-de-Calais
“When we moved to France, we were determined to become part of the community so we try to join in as much as possible. We always go to the commemorations for Armistice Day and VE Day. It is thanks to those men who gave their lives that we can enjoy a happy retirement in France.
The village committee organises outings and social events such as the fête des voisins and the Concours des Maisons Fleuries (floral garden display competition) and we attend as many as we can. We are the only native English speakers in the village and we have run English workshops with various themes. We talk about anything and everything and it’s non-stop laughter. I have also been to the school on several occasions and really enjoy introducing them to English culture and singing with them. There are lots of associations locally and so I have joined a choir, a keep-fit class and a line dancing group – things I have done in England so the only difference is the language. In short, if you make an effort to join in, you will be welcome and accepted. Of course, to be able to do these activities you have to speak some French, but it doesn’t have to be perfect and they really appreciate the effort. The more you use the language, the easier it becomes.
6. Don’t expect it to be like the movies
Annette Morris moved to France on her own in 2008, she now lives near Montpellier with her new partner Miles.
“I’ve always loved the sun-drenched, laid-back French culture portrayed in the movies, and have enjoyed family holidays in the country for as long as I can remember. As a fluent French speaker, when I made the move in 2008 I imagined myself living a similar life to the one I had in the UK – but speaking French, rather than English. I didn’t realise that the difference in our heritage and customs was as vast as it turned out to be.
I remember the first time I walked into the local bar, and it was as if tumbleweed could have blown through! I had to rethink my place in society and the way I perceive myself. I also found it difficult to understand why everything took so long – it took me seven years to get my Carte Vitale (health card) simply because a change of address wasn’t processed properly. It’s taken me a while to adjust, but I love life in rural France now and accept how things are. I often tell people it’s like living in the UK 40 years ago; it’s a rural environment, a slow pace of life. It’s glorious, but it takes a bit of getting used to. Thankfully, my experience hasn’t gone to waste. I now have a job helping expats with their admin, at a company called ‘Renestance’ – in that way I can make the transition easier for others.”
7. Find something your children love to do
Jane and Doug Gardner moved to Indre-et-Loire in 1996 with their daughter Laura, then aged 11.
“When we arrived, Laura struggled at first – it was a culture shock. With no English speakers in the local school, although staff did their best, it was very difficult for her. Laura had loved horse riding in the UK, so we found a local club and encouraged her to join up. Despite the language barrier, because she was doing something she loved, she really thrived. The experience helped her to settle in, and also helped with her language acquisition.
As parents, you can’t really get on with life until your children are settled and I think finding something they love to do is a crucial part of that. Laura’s 24 now, and hoping to become a professional showjumper. She still has friends she’s made through the pony club, as well as friends from school and university. Finding the club made all the difference to our new life in France.”
8. Have a housewarming
Alex Phipp via Facebook
“Have a housewarming and invite all the neighbours. Invite them into each room, because otherwise they will stay in the first room you take them in. They will be curious about their new neighbour but keep to themselves unless they know you. But once they have been in your house they think of you as a friend. We didn’t speak much French but invited everyone and they all came. Now we have lots of friends who know who we are and what we are doing. They even pop in with visiting family to show them our house!”
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