Jill Harrison runs a gîte business in Brittany. Having spent the past 10 years in France, she considers how life has changed since she left the UK behind for a farmhouse in France and offers an insight into what it takes to be in business.
Why did you decide to move?
I was working all hours just to pay bills, so after hours spent researching I decided to just go for it. A big factor in this was that I wanted my son to grow up in an environment that I grew up in at his age.
How did you find your new home?
I found an agency that had English reps around Brittany, which was great. An appointment was made to view some houses in France and we found our dream home. Our rep did all the translating and paperwork.
What type of property is it?
A beautiful 200 year old stone Breton farmhouse (longère) in the countryside – the chocolate box type that us Brits love! It was ideal for us as it only needed a little work to be converted into three gîtes.
What are the best things about living in Brittany and Redon in particular?
The Bretons are very protective of their region. I know the French are polite in general, but the Bretons are unique in that everyone is your friend. We are 10 mins from Redon, an up and coming area with a port, a cinema, a bowling alley, a beautiful ‘old town’ with cobbled stones, quaint boutiques and different restaurants.
Did you have any experience in the hospitality industry before opening your gîte?
I have always been dealing with people: working in restaurants, hotels and being a receptionist in various places.
How many gîtes do you have?
Just one at the moment. I used to let out all three and lived in a mobile home on site. They were nearly full all year round with people staying long term in winter whilst looking for a property to buy. Of course the economic crisis has put paid to that. The family and I now live in the main farmhouse.
Is it a full-time job?
It certainly was at the start. Two or three of us would clean from early hours in the morning until just before arrival of our guests at 3.30pm. These Breton farmhouses are very large!
How is the business weathering the recession?
Not very well. I noticed the change a few years ago. Nowadays you need to have a pool to be booked most weeks, but it is possible to have a lot of the summer weeks booked if you advertise enough.
Talk us through a typical day….
First of all, I look at my computer to see if any enquiries have come in. If so, I send them a welcoming reply. If you have guests in, every now and again make sure that everything is to their satisfaction. If they have just left, clean and change beds ready for the next customers, check appliances are working OK, check flowers around gîte are up to scratch, grass cut. First impressions are so important.
What is it like living and working in the same place?
Very hard. Although you welcome your guests, you don’t know what the people who are going to arrive are like. Usually they are lovely, but you do lose your privacy and of course we are always on hand!
How have you benefited from the move?
At first it was difficult to adjust, but the quality of life is second to none, the friendliness of the local people and in general the relaxation and enjoyment of a country that does not want to rush. My son, who was four when we arrived, has really benefited for being fluent in both languages without any accent – what a gift!
Do you plan to stay in France?
Without a doubt. Sometimes I feel like a foreigner when I visit the UK!
What have been the most challenging aspects of your move?
The French language and the bureaucracy! The paperwork is second to none – they want to know every little detail, but that’s just the way it is over here.
How have you improved your French?
It’s so important to mingle with the locals, which is what I did. It certainly helps if you have a child at school and can talk to the mums. Your local bar is also a good place to learn and by working, you have to get involved with the French language.
Do you have any tips for settling in and making it work?
Just go for it! Don’t think for too long, otherwise it will be too late. If you come over and find it’s not for you, you will feel richer for that experience. A lot of retired people say “we are too old to learn a new language”. You are never too old! You will never be fluent, but as long as you can learn the basics you will get by and integrate.