Living in France had been a dream for my family and myself for many years. With my mother being Irish and my father being Polish we had always felt a great affinity with Europe and that Britain simply wasn’t ‘Europe’ enough. Our two-week holidays would be spent saying ‘I could live here’ or ‘I wonder how much it would cost to do that up’ and other such comments. Going back home was always a let down and no sooner were we back than we were poring over brochures and maps working out where our next holiday was to be.
Between the holidays life of course, went on. I left school and went to university. In turn I became a civil servant and got engaged. However, I felt that life had much more to offer me than this and the man I was engaged to wasn’t really my ‘prince charming’ even though he was a nice man. I spotted an advert in a newspaper for a temporary job in the US. I applied and got it. I know, America is in the opposite direction to France but at least it was a change and speaking American English is MUCH easier than speaking French.
While there, my younger brother was the first to realise the family dream and got a job in Paris. After nearly three years of American culture I decided enough was enough and joined my brother in Paris. What surprised me most was that I had forgotten the sense of history that Europe has: the buildings, the monuments, even the air. America is so new and what interests the Americans is… America. I finally felt that I was home.
I got a job as an au pair as at least that gave me accommodation while I looked around for something else. I met other au pairs who told me where to find jobs for people who spoke less than perfect French. While in the States I’d qualified as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language and was delighted but apprehensive to finally land my first teaching job.
Terrified, is probably a better description of how I felt before my first lesson. Fortunately I’m not shy and my mother says that through her Irish genes I’ve got the ‘gift of the gab’. What shocked me most though was my limited knowledge of English grammar. I could read it well enough and speaking it was no problem but how was I to explain what a phrasal verb was and in which situation to use ‘no’ and when to use ‘not’? For weeks I devoured English grammar and teaching books. I only hope that my first students aren’t scarred for life by my then, inadequate knowledge.
How I survived I’ll never know. But survive I did and with time my confidence grew so that now if I don’t know something I’ll admit to it instead of trying to bluff my way out.
Paris is a great place to live. It’s not surprising that it’s the most visited city in the world. So much history, architecture, concert halls, museums, galleries, libraries and churches crammed into such a small space. (And so much dog… you know… merde (s**t). Although I have to admit, it is getting better.)
As with most cities, Paris is expensive. I just about managed to rent a tiny (13m2) 7th floor flat (no lift of course) with a balcony overlooking the St Sulpice church in the very chic 6th arrondissement (district). I was lucky though as I had my own shower and toilet instead of having to use the communal ones in the corridor.
Unfortunately, I became quite ill and was introduced to the French health system. I have tested both private clinics and public hospitals. I would vote for the public system every time. Apart from a few minor hiccups I have always been treated well and more importantly, quickly. Waiting lists are unheard of except for perhaps 3 months for a minor operation and in general the staff are pleasant and competent. However, my ill health meant that I couldn’t work full time and could no longer afford to live in Paris.
So, reluctantly, I gave up my flat and after another major op I moved in with my parents to convalesce. I have to confess that I had every intention of going back to Paris once I’d recovered but instead I fell in love with where my parents were living.
They’d bought a house in the Creuse, central France some years before as a place to retire to. They’d chosen the area as it wasn’t too far from Britain (6 hours by car to Dieppe) but far enough south to benefit from better weather. House prices were vastly lower than suburban London, which meant that their quality of life was far greater than what they were able to afford back in Britain.
The Creuse is a beautiful département: green rolling hills, unspoilt villages, and wide-open spaces. It’s not known as ‘the green heart of France’ for nothing. Life is slower and better appreciated. The air is pure and it even seems that the food tastes better.
But…. Yes, there’s always a ‘but’. And the big but here is ‘work’, or to be more precise the lack of work. The Creuse is depopulating to the tune of 3% per year as the young leave to find work elsewhere. Predominantly agricultural the area is suffering from the crises hitting farming in general: mad cow, foot and mouth, globalisation and cheap foreign labour are just to name a few.
So what could I do to make a decent living? I managed to get a few teaching jobs here and there but they weren’t really enough. Although the cost of renting is lower you need a car to do anything and petrol isn’t cheap. I struggled and was seriously contemplating trying Paris again when I met my future husband. Ironically he was living in Paris at the time and loved the idea of moving to the country. A passionate cyclist, he finds the Creuse great for both off-road and road cycling.
So, we got married (and dealing with French administration when trying to get married is a story in itself!) and suddenly I had the safety cushion needed when trying to set up a business. I slowly built up a network of clients. I’d learnt that ‘knowing people’ was worth more than expensive advertising. I constantly get clients who tell me ‘Such and such a person told me about you’ or ‘you taught X who’s in the same class as my daughter’, and so on.
I also saw a business opportunity in the number of British who are moving into the area. Unfortunately, a number of people, including my parents, had been robbed by unscrupulous British playing on their lack of French. So, I set up a hand-holding service where I help with administrative matters relating to buying a house or settling in France for people who don’t speak French. I don’t sell houses and I don’t work by commission so I can be totally impartial when it comes to whether to buy or not or which builder’s estimate to accept. I also try to be as honest and frank as possible (mind you sometimes a white lie doesn’t hurt!). It seems to be working as I’m getting more and more clients every week!
Creating the business was relatively painless as I set it up as an ‘English language service’. This means that I can do virtually anything that uses English that doesn’t need a specific qualification or government certification: adult teaching, non-official translating, hand-holding etc.. This also meant that all I had to do was register with URSSAF (social security) and the tax-office without going through the ‘paper mad’ Chamber of Commerce or the Commerce Register. This has allowed me to be varied in what I do. For example in addition to the above I’ve done short programmes in English on the local radio, I’ve done some writing and recently became the Creuse Tourist Board’s English Press Agent. Who said that ‘variety is the spice of life’? I love it!
The key to making a success of living in France is adaptation. France is a different country with a different language and different customs. Even their humour is different. My husband will be doubled over in laughter at a film while I’ll be unmoved. I am constantly amazed when I hear of people here who have no desire to learn French and expect things to be as in Britain. I can’t understand as to why they bothered to come to France in the first place. They are missing out on the whole opportunity of learning something new, exchanging ideas or even simply making new friends.
The vast majority of French are pleased when someone tries to speak their language and will make allowances for incorrect grammar! It’s also true that they aren’t the first to offer help but if asked, they will often bend over backward to be of assistance.
I believe it’s important that if you wish to wish to succeed in France you must attempt to ‘fit in’. If you want to work here you should be able to speak French at least enough to deal with the various administrative bodies that you have to confront. Try to respect the way of life and working practices. Drink your English tea and eat your currant buns at home but don’t expect shops to stock them – although icreasingly there are one that do. Before coming, research where you want to go and what you want to do. There are books, magazines and web sites with a vast amount of information. Use them. But what ever you do, remember that we are the foreigners.