More than just moving house

Sandra and John Howard
Sandra and John Howard

John and Sandra Howard have been working diligently on their French since moving to the Dordogne a couple of years ago. They don’t find it easy. “There’s no logic to the genders,” John objected. “Why should moustache be feminine but soutien-gorge masculine? It’s as if French women had moustaches and French men wore bras!”

They persist, however, finding mastery of the language indispensable for integrating with the locals. Indeed, the extent to which they have become part of the community is remarkable. As we had our tea (Tetley’s teabags from the local supermarché) in their garden opposite the village church, a French neighbour stopped his car outside and presented them with a bunch of radishes freshly picked from his garden. Then another dropped by and was welcomed in for “une tasse de thé“. At Easter, the Howards organised an Easter egg hunt round the churchyard for the village children. On another occasion the children invited them, spontaneously, on a picnic in the countryside and a visit to the local spring.

Local events in Issac

The church at Issac
View of Issac

The Howards’ village, Issac, consists of a jumble of houses and a church on rising ground by the river Crempse, between Mussidan and Villamblard. It’s like a French equivalent of Saint Mary Mead – a sort of Sainte Marie des Prés – and would be a perfect breeding ground for a Mademoiselle Marple. The Howards’ stone walled house, several hundred years old, was modernised by the previous owners – Parisians who used it as a holiday home. John and Sandra continued the process into the first floor, to accommodate family and most importantly their two daughters.

In the attractive garden beside the house, is a pigeonnier. It has a steep pyramid roof, typical of the region, topped with a stone pineapple – the sign of friendship. The building leans alarmingly to one side but it is solid and the Howards use it as a summerhouse. “We don’t intend to straighten it, as it’s part of its character, although the lean does embarrass John being a structural engineer,” Sandra told me.

From the first, the Howards observed local protocol. They went to meet the mayor of the village in order to introduce themselves. They attend the village events, which consist mainly of monthly get-togethers in the form of a lengthy lunch or dinners served in the salle municipale, and the village fête in January. But national events are marked as well. On Armistice Day and other memorial days there is a gathering at the village’s War Memorial where “The Marseillaise” is sung. John and Sandra normally attend these services. “I’ve reached the stage where I can mouth the words,” John joked. The service is followed by an aperitif at the mairie, and a chance to practice their French.

How they came to be in France

The move was no less radical a decision for the Howards than for many other Dordogne immigrants. Four years ago, when they were still in the UK, Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer and had major surgery. This experience made them both take stock of their lives. John was at that time 61 and working as a structural engineer. His father had died at the age of 60, as had his brother. “I thought, ‘What have we got to lose if I retire early?'” John said. Sandra added: “Having got through the whole breast cancer business I felt I could tackle anything!”

Based in the home counties, they first looked at the UK’s south coast. But the price of housing was too high. Then they thought of France, where Sandra’s father was living. Narrowing their choice down, they rejected the Mediterranean coast as being too hot and too far, and the hinterland of Provence as being too expensive. They came to the Dordogne, and, having approached VEF, a French housing agency based in London with local offices in Neuvic, were shown the Issac house.

The Howards' house in the snow
From this…

They arrived in March 2004, when the weather was bitterly cold, and spent their first night on an inflatable mattress on the stone floor. They were surprised by how cold the Dordogne winter nights were. From then on, however, everything seemed to fall into place. “It wasn’t easy, but we instantly knew that the right decision had been made and we settled in well,” Sandra said. “Local visitors couldn’t believe that we had only been here for a few months as it seemed so much like an established home in a short while.”

Breaking away

As happens with many English first coming to the Dordogne, the Howards made contact with local English neighbours. Their first surprise was with some English builders who came round to estimate for work to the house. John’s professional background enabled him to see that they weren’t really up to the job. The search for a reliable builder began –”French or English, as long as we could trust them,” John said. A visit to the cinema to see an English version originale film in Mussidan, was embarrassing, “This man came in, stood in the centre of the stalls calling out loudly: ‘Hello everybody, anyone from the Isle of Wight?'” Sandra told me. “Other people started talking out loud to each other in the audience. It was embarrassing to see English people behaving like that.”

The Howards decided to do their own thing. In common with some other English residents, they made a deliberate choice to integrate with the French, rather than sit selectively at an English table at village events. “We consider that, after all, this is France,” Sandra said. They registered with the tax authorities and got themselves into the local medical system. None of this was easy, involving chasing backwards and forwards to and from, and all around, Bergerac. The villagers were aware that they wanted to become part of the community and responded with courtesy and generosity.

The Howards' house in the summer
…to this

Integration has not been instant. Sandra says “Like a marriage, you have to work at it. Too many British people appear to cheat the system, living like tourists in their own ‘Little Britain’, not accepting that this is a different country, and a different culture. So many work on the black whilst the local French struggle to get by in their non-materialistic world, while ex-pats benefit. We appreciate that a lot of improvements are made by ‘les Anglais’ – but a lot of friction is created by the groups that are set up and ignore the French community. Of course we miss a good cup of tea and fish and chips but we have gained so much more. We miss our daughters but our new neighbours (French) and friends ( French and English) help to compensate.”

As we sat at the garden table on the small terrace between the steps to the front door and the front hedge, John and Sandra seemed happy and relaxed in their new life. They continue to work at their French, with weekly visits to a teacher in Périgueux. Slowly but surely, they are tying themselves into the fabric of rural France. And finding that integration in a foreign country brings a richness of experience that is all its own.

Antony Mair

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