It is a mild February morning today, with pale clouds and an even paler sun, which lights up the muddy farmyard and breathes life into the winter pansies I have decorated our courtyard with. The road outside heads due east, and is as straight as it was 2,000 years ago when the Romans marched down it to establish a trading post and temple in what is now the next village. Now it carries the huge lorries that are the lifeblood of France, roaring past in their ceaseless journeys between the motorways and main roads of Europe. Our rather tatty farm cottage was a temporary refuge which we gratefully fell into nearly three years ago when things went wrong with our big move to France and we are, much to our amazement here still. The kids are just as happy speaking French as English and the little one comes out of his ecole maternelle speaking English like Inspector Clouseau. We have built up a business breeding dogs which is making money at last, we have fought our way to an understanding of French bureaucracy and how it works, and are bona fide members of French society. We can count on one French family as friends and have made many more acquaintances, who are over the moon with our dogs and have sent us countless photos and grateful letters.
It was four years ago that we started on the road which has led us here. A familiar story in Britain these days; we couldn’t afford a bigger house to house our 3 children, and we were paying a small fortune in a mortgage and in rent on a yard which housed our kennel of show Parson Russell Terriers and two horses. My husband was working 10 hour days as an accountant to pay for it all; the oldest girl was bullied at school, principally because she was academic and wanted to work, whilst the middle boy was into gangs on the housing estate where we lived and was heading for trouble at the tender age of 8. We found what we hoped was going to be our dream home on the Internet and in two months we had remortgaged, been over to see it and put down a deposit. There was little more thought to it than that – our only criteria that it should be within an easy drive of the ports for a week-end home and under £10,000. It took a year for reality to sink in; a wet winter meant that the gable end started to fall down and Jeremy’s cousin-in-law, a builder, said it would cost twice as much to renovate than we had been quoted by the entrepreneur who had sold it to us. Not only that, we couldn’t get hold of a French builder to even look at the place. They didn’t trust us and didn’t want to work for us. The only quote we had to do the roof was vastly over the top and they wanted the money up front!
This time of year, three years ago we had come to the painful conclusion that we had to sell up to pay for the roof and gable end to be repaired and get the basics done so we could live in it, or leave the whole site as an expensive campsite for holidays. I was qualified as a French and English teacher with years of experience and a M.A.ED. so we thought the best thing to do would be to sell up and for my husband, Jeremy to travel until I could find a job teaching. We reasoned that with no mortgage to pay we could afford to renovate the house quickly and pay for the travelling. We put the house on the market and bought an old horse lorry with living as temporary accommodation. We also agreed to buy a field from a local farmer for the horses. With nearly 5 acres to wander around in we thought that they would not cost us anywhere near what we had been paying. We were also going to move the dogs and horses across in one trip and the furniture in another. Brittany Ferries charge a commercial rate for lorries that is not subject to seasonal changes and we worked out that the 4 trips would cost us around £1,200 and we would still have the lorry to live in. This would be far better and cheaper than paying a proper removals firm. The house sold very quickly, and we had the trips booked on the Portsmouth-Caen crossing. The kids were frightened but excited about our big adventure, and Jeremy and I were just plain terrified!
But then disaster struck. Just a week before we were due to move the animals across the girl who was buying the house rang up to say that they were backing out of the sale. The house had to be put back on the market and we had no money even to pay for the field, never mind the ferry journeys. We decided to go ahead anyway and borrow the money for the first trip and sell all our furniture to pay for the field. Three days to go and I was busy packing up the lorry and showing the auctioneer round the house when a knock on the door revealed a bailiff issuing me with a summons. My ex-husband had a trial date set for the day before we were to travel to try and make my 2 older children wards of court! Grimly determined to carry on, when perhaps those wiser would have called it day, we went to court with the lorry all set to go, loaded up with cages for the dogs, hay and feed and the living equipped with necessities including the TV, video and Nintendo 64! We were lucky; the judge had other things on his mind that day than us. He rapped my ex over the knuckles for wasting his time, granted the children permanent residence in France and sent us away. By 6pm.we had the court order signed, only 8 hours before we intended to load 8 terriers, 1 labrador and 2 horses onto the lorry and drive to Portsmouth for the 8am. boat. I was to drive the lorry as I had the most experience from my years working with horses, Jeremy was to follow in our battered old Saab with the last terrier and Joseph. (You are allowed to import 3 dogs per person into France and we had got round the bureaucratic form filling by allocating 3 dogs each to the 2 older children).
It was raining at 2am when we started loading the animals. The dogs were stirred up because of our fear and excitement, but the horses loaded placidly enough. Years of early starts to go racing, hunting or to shows made them used to loading in the dark and they munched their haynets happily enough. Beaminster, where we came from, was quiet with hardly a soul around. Unfortunately, it is situated at the foot of the Dorset downs and there are some very steep hills that have to be climbed to get out of it. In the 3am dark, halfway up one of these hills the crawler gear decided to collapse. The engine was too cold to even attempt a hill start, loaded up as the lorry was., in second gear. There was nothing for it but to back the lorry all the way down the hill, about half a mile. Holly had to get to out and shout when I got too near the ditches on either side of the road and it felt like the longest time of my life but we managed to make a side road where I could turn round! With the engine warmed up I decided to try for the main Dorchester road. The hill there was not so steep but much longer, worth a gamble before giving up the whole idea and going ignominiously home. It was a very tense time as the engine strained up the hill to Askers and we slowed down to around 10mph. We crested the hill still moving however and from then on we made our slow but steady way to the boat and in the end we were only quarter of an hour late for the check in. After that, loading the lorry was a piece of cake and all the animals travelled peacefully in the hold while we caught up on our sleep in our cabin. At 5pm we were dropping the ramp into our very own French field and the horses tottered off to have a roll and a canter. It was hard not to cry tears of relief.
I would like to say it was all plain sailing from then on in but of course it wasn’t. Only a small stretch of water separates England from France and indeed there have been long periods of time when France and England have been united under the same kings. However, we are continually surprised about what huge differences there are between the two countries and what traps there are for the unwary. For instance, the quiet and the stillness, especially in the countryside strike most people on their first visit to France. The lack of vandalism and the conspicuous absence of kids on the streets also impress them. The cleanliness of the countryside and villages, towns and cities, the roundabouts full of flowers and the beautifully maintained parks and leisure areas also catch our attention. The wildlife is abundant, wildflowers fill the verges and ditches and everywhere there are deserted farms and other old buildings just waiting to be renovated. Life appears leisurely; everyone has time to stop and chat; shops and banks seem more often shut than not and the main priority of the French seems to be to ‘eat, drink and be merry’. But the French pay a high price for all this, and it is no wonder to me that they search for so many divertissements. Once you have lived here for a while you begin to see the hard realities of French life. Those realities which make it very difficult for a foreigner to fit in and to make a life for themselves; those realities which make my father’s best friend Hedric, (who has been here for over 20 years) say the ‘first ten years are the worst.’
France is controlled by draconian laws and a top-heavy bureaucracy, which everyone accepts because they go to school from the age of 2 and are taught by people who to qualify, don’t take teacher training exams, but those of the civil service. They are taught ‘education civique’ from the age of 6, which according to my children is virtual brainwashing! The country operates on principles of protectionism and exclusivity, which mean that it is virtually impossible to set up a new business without a lot of capital, and that every way you turn you find there are laws or customs in place to prevent new beginnings, and to maintain the status quo. France is a static society with high unemployment, (50% in some country areas) and what you do earn goes back to the state in high cotisations, (around 43%). In order to get a job in France you must speak French fluently and have French qualifications, and then you have to be lucky!
We have made it, so far, I think because of three main things. I could speak French very well when we came to France; I am now fluent, and I am prepared to take on bureaucracy at every turn. The best advice that anyone has given me was what Hedric said when we came up against our first setback, ‘don’t let the buggers get you down’. You can’t afford to take anything personally and in many ways it is not meant to be. Fonctionnaires cannot lose their jobs and therefore pay little attention to the man in the street so you have to fight hard and dirty! The second thing has been that we were flexible. When it became apparent that our little corps de ferme was not suitable to house our dogs, because you have to be a kilometre away from the nearest habitation to have more than three dogs without interference, we sold it. We could not get jobs, but we wanted desperately to stay so we put the money into building up a dog breeding business instead. Dogs are probably one of the few things that the French will allow the British do better, and so we have managed to keep afloat during the recession. The third thing is of course a strong sense of humour! We decided to give up the idea of owning our own place for the time being as it is so much easier to rent in France and French law protects you thoroughly. If you rent something it is virtually yours as if you had bought it. You can even pass it on to your children! Rents are very reasonable, about a third of what you may pay in England and it is virtually impossible to lose your home so you do not have the constant worry and insecurity that is a factor of renting in England.
So we are still here and getting to be ‘almost French.’ We are starting to panic if we have not stopped to eat at midday, and take the frequent rudeness of the French in our stride. We have even learnt to answer back and quote the law if necessary. In the end, coming to France has not been about having a fabulous house or a cheaper lifestyle. It has not even been about escaping the horrors of urban Britain; what we have is the freedom and space to try and achieve something for ourselves; which we had not thought possible four years ago. We have invested in some lovely dogs, which we are hoping to show and breed from in the years to come. We can now offer Borders, Westies and Cotons as well as black and chocolate Labradors and Parsons and Jack Russells. We have bought a white van, our PUPPY EXPRESS in which I trundle round the roads of France making deliveries of puppies, and you may see it parked up at a campsite this summer. If so, do come and say hello. I am also always happy to answer questions and help solve problems that people have. You can meet us on www.parsonrussellterrier.com, or email me at [email protected]