Expat life: Surfing and family life in Biarritz

Expat life: Surfing and family life in Biarritz

A family move led artist Wilma Johnson to a new life near Biarritz, where she plucked up the courage to start surfing. We find out how it happened

Written by Stephanie Sheldrake

Biarritz is well known for being one of the best places to ride a wave in France, but when Wilma Johnson moved close to the cosmopolitan seaside town in 2001, she had no intention of struggling into a wetsuit and taking to the water. Before the move, London-born artist Wilma had been living in a tiny village in western Ireland for 10 years with keen surfer husband Nick and their three children; whereupon they decided they needed a change.

“We did a few tours round Europe in a camper van but one of Nick’s firm things was that we had to live somewhere with surf,” says Wilma. But as a self-described ‘surf widow’, Wilma was keen to move somewhere that had more going on than just good surf; and Biarritz seemed to fit the bill. “I thought this is a place I could enjoy myself without surfing,” Wilma says, adding: “It was also for the kids. There was a bit of an international community, the local schools are quite good and it just seemed to tick all the boxes. So I didn’t come for the surf; but when I got here, I became converted.”

Wilma had, rather unsurprisingly, been put off by her first experience of surfing (in a snowstorm in South Wales), and never quite got round to learning. After having children, she thought the chance had passed her by. But after a couple of years in Biarritz, and after the breakdown of her marriage, the mother-of-three thought there might still be time to learn. “The idea that I still might be able to do it when I came here became really important to me. Maybe I hadn’t completely missed the boat,” says Wilma.

With very few female surfers braving the Atlantic waves, and even fewer of those that do being over 40, Wilma decided to start an informal surf club for women in their thirties and forties, dubbed the ‘Mamas’ Surf Club’. Her transition from surf novice to surf addict has been the subject of her book published last year, Surf Mama.

As well as describing her surfing highs and lows, the book is a diary-like account of Wilma’s life as an artist and mother, and her search for happiness in her new life in France. Writing the book came naturally, as Wilma had started writing diaries and stories about the inspiration for her paintings, which developed organically into a book: “I started writing when I was feeling a bit stuck in Ireland, and I found that it made me focus on what I should be doing with my life. I found it quite inspiring,” she says.

Moving to the small village just outside Biarritz, was bound to have its challenges, not least for the couple’s three children: Daisy, Nat, and Alice, who were then 10, seven and four respectively. Not only did they have to get to grips with a new language and a new school, they also had to adapt to a culture very different to the one they had left behind in rural Ireland.

“We thought maybe we could teach them French and then put them in school, but with our level of French that would have been a disaster. Everyone told us to do the immersion system – just put them in school and they will learn,” says Wilma, who reveals that the children’s first days at school were very difficult. “They were absolutely furious – it was like ‘how could you do this to us? Particularly my son came out and said, ‘thanks, that was the worst day of my life’.”

Despite this rocky start, the children soon adjusted and began to settle into their new life in France. “As soon as they made friends, things started to click in. We did make quite an effort to make sure they always had friends around. I’d say it took about three months for them to be able to talk a little bit in French. They were really great about it. They would just go up to kids in the village square and just start talking. After six months they were fluent – it was shocking!” laughs Wilma.

The mother-of-three’s advice for encouraging children to learn French is to put them straight into school and open them up to as much of the French language as possible. “The headmaster said to let them watch as much French TV as they want at first,” she remembers.

As for Wilma, she is now confident speaking French and sometimes does translation work. “My French varies a lot. I’ve noticed when I’m doing full-on writing in English, the French does disappear a bit, and if I’m tired my accent starts getting really strong,” she says, adding that it’s not always a bad thing: “The other thing is to remember is that the French actually quite like your accent.”

When it came to making friends and fitting in to the community, Wilma found the locals to be friendly and welcoming, in particular the young people. “The first part of the community that accepted me was the surf community, which was great because they’re all local Basque people. They’d see me out in the waves and struggling, and occasionally help me,” she says.

“A funny thing happened a few years ago. The mayor of the village rang me up and asked me if I would do a stall at the village market on Sundays during the summer. I make products associated with my paintings – matchboxes with images of my paintings and cards and things like that, so that put me in the centre of the village. I just thought it was so nice that he’d asked me. It was great, so funny. I’d be in the market swapping my things for oysters and cheese from the local farmers,” says Wilma.

“I think I’m probably known as ‘that eccentric English woman artist’,” says Wilma, laughing. “I’m probably an accepted outsider rather than actually a part of the community.”

One of Wilma’s highlights since moving to France has been setting up the Mamas’ Surf Club. The idea came about when Wilma was out jogging with her friend Johanna, who was living with a surf instructor, and was also learning to surf. “She was really disappointed with how few women surfed at the time, and she wanted to inspire women to surf,” explains Wilma. Johanna suggested that they should set up a surf club for women in their thirties and forties so that they could learn together. “We started discussing it and got together a group of women we knew who we thought might take to it. I hosted a sushi night to put the idea around. Everyone said ‘I’m up for that – I’ll try it’.”

Getting out into the waves proved to be more terrifying for Wilma and her troupe of trainee surfer friends than they had imagined. “You’d go out some days and think ‘this is fun’ and then a big set would come through and you’d get this primal fear. You’d been told all your life to stay away from currents and big waves, and then you’re searching out the currents,” admits Wilma.

“Even though we were terrified, there was always the moment we were going to get out of the water and talk about it together, and have a laugh about it – that made all the difference from trying to learn it alone at an age when quite a lot of people here thought I was completely nuts to even be trying.”

Ten years on, there are many more female surfers riding the waves off the south-west coast of France. “I think we did prove something to a lot of people that you can still get in the water in your forties and get somewhere.”

Wilma is now a confident surfer and loves taking to the waves, but feels that it isn’t the most important part of her life. “I really love it but it’s not my entire life. I’m an artist that adores surfing – it’s a big part of my life, but there’s quite a lot of other things in my life as well.”

Wilma’s love of art started early in life. She studied painting at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London and during her time there co-founded the radical art ‘Neo Naturists’ movement, of which Grayson Perry was a member. Today, Wilma paints in her studio that she converted from one of the bedrooms at her house. Her bold and colourful paintings take their inspiration from travelling and stories she has been told. “I think there’s a lot of influence from when I lived in Mexico for a year a long time ago, but I’ve been back a few times. Seeing the way they use colour in Mexico has definitely been a really strong influence,” she says.

“They are influenced either by things that have happened to me, or women I admire, stories I hear – goddesses. It is very much my representation of women,” she says, adding: “Having spent quite a lot of time in the water with rather beautiful men, I am planning to start painting men, and that’s going to be quite a departure.”

Wilma’s two eldest children, Daisy and Nat, have now left home and, with Alice due to leave home next year, Wilma plans to spend more time travelling without the constraints of the French school system. “I’ve been thinking I’ll do a surf tour of the world,” reveals Wilma, but she goes on to add that she has no intention of leaving Biarritz. “This is where my base is, not least because of the kids, but also because I love it here. It’s nice for the kids to have somewhere to come back to that they think of as home.”

There are plenty of reasons why Wilma loves life in this corner of south-west France, and the lure of the sea is undoubtedly a big one. “I love going out into the ocean. I think setting up the Mamas’ Surf Club has definitely been one of my high points – the excitement of just being able to pick up a board and paddle out into the ocean and have an adventure out there,” she says.

And it’s not just the surf that can be impressive here. The weather can be equally dramatic. “Last winter it rained torrentially for 64 days running. My studio was flooded and I had no heating. It was totally apocalyptic. There were waves of over three metres,” says Wilma. But despite this, the attractions of living here outweigh any negatives. “Things like walking the dogs in the mountains, going into Biarritz and eating oysters in the market – it’s such a beautiful place.”

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