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French life and living in Languedoc-Roussillon

French life and living in Languedoc-RoussillonThe following article was kindly supplied by Tony Clay at The French Estate Agents Window.

18 years of being an ex- patriot living and working in the Languedoc-Roussillon, and rarely going ‘home’, doesn’t really qualify me to comment on the way of life back in Britain. However, the last five years spent working for a French estate agency and watching our clientele quickly changing from having been mostly French to becoming mostly British has made it clear to me that whatever it may be like to live in the UK these days a great many people seem to prefer the French way of life, or perhaps it would be truer to say that they prefer living in France.

One of the major factors influencing the change in our clientele has been the development in recent years of budget airlines flying to smaller airports like Carcassonne and Perpignan etc; this alone has drawn thousands of Brits to the Aude and the Pyrenees Orientales departments where we work. Another factor is the popularity of shopping, even for real estate, on the internet. Five years ago I worked everyday in our agency in Estagel where we hung our ‘wares’ in the window and waited for clients to come into the agency, now I work from home managing three property websites and only meeting my clients when they actually come out to visit with a short list of property compiled over weeks and months of E mail communication

There are personal, individual reasons too of course, some come for financial reasons, cashing in their chips in UK property and buying a home or business in France can often leave them with a tidy sum left over to fall back on or invest in something else. Some come for a new start in life, a chance to realise a modest dream that wasn’t possible in the UK. This is especially true for anyone interested in farming as France is predominantly an agricultural society where farms are affordable and still state subsidized.

Many are drawn to France for the space it enjoys, having approximately the same population as the British Isles but being twice as big. Here you can actually enjoy driving, there are fewer cars per head of population, less traffic jams in the towns and country roads where you can drive for half an hour and not meet another car.

Even before Ryanair and French property websites changed the market, we always had British, Scandinavian, Dutch and German Francophiles buying the odd holiday home, but now the trend is for people to move out here lock, stock and barrel. I often tell my clients that if they can survive here for two or three years then they will probably never want to go back ‘home’.

To leave ones country of birth is a great wrench for anyone, to adapt to a new country with new customs, new rules and a new language to learn isn’t something one ought to undertake lightly, it requires a great deal of motivation and commitment.

Some people often underestimate the culture shock of trying to set up in France, the often frustrating French administration that can bury you in social charges and paperwork, the frustration of not being able to communicate as freely as you could back home and the little things that you have to learn to abide with like shutters on the windows, shops being closed at mealtimes, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and every village having its own town hall….these are not insurmountable problems for anyone with an ounce or two of motivation and commitment for living in France but they are daily reminders that you are an alien in someone else’s country and not just on holiday.

Some of the people I know who have chucked it all in and gone back to blighty during the first two or three crucial years have done so because they underestimated one very important thing….support.

No man is an island, I know of several couples, one couple in particular who had been together for 23 years, whose relationships couldn’t survive here with out the support of the family and friends they had left behind in England. Others who had moved out here on their own and for whatever reason just couldn’t adapt to the ‘French way of life’ or just couldn’t get to grips with the language so that they always felt lonely and isolated. France is a nation of villages and these villages are real communities not dormitories as most villages have become in the UK. Some villages are very good and welcoming, others are less so. When you ‘install’ your self into a French village community you will be treated with a) a certain amount of suspicion and b) as a kind of minor celebrity at least to begin with. Once they have satisfied themselves that you are not a terrorist or a drug pusher etc; and that you are ‘genteel’ they will normally begin to accept you and draw you into their community. If you want to survive in France you have to allow this to happen. It’s no good trying to retain your British ‘stiff upper lip’ reserve as the French don’t understand this at all, they will ask you incredibly personal questions like how much do you earn ?, how much did you pay for your house ? (and they will always tell you that you paid too much), these morsels of information will be passed on throughout the village, you can be vague about your replies, you can even lie, but you must answer.

Another mistake some Brits often make is thinking that in order to get to know people we have to invite them for meals, polish up the family silver and put on an impressive spread. This is unnecessary and unless you are an expert cordon bleu cook unadvisable as most French like to criticize what they have just eaten almost as much as they like eating and they won’t even notice if you get offended.

The French way of getting to know people is to invite them for aperitifs, a stock of assorted drinks, niblets, olives and slices of sausage etc: this is all you have to do but you might have to invite the whole village. In our new village Auriac which has a total population of less than 30 people we were invited to the Mairie along with everyone in the entire commune for aperitifs provided by the Mairie so that everyone, even people from the outlying farms could meet us. We actually didn’t quite understand what it was all about and almost didn’t go, which as guests of honour would have been disastrous. However, you may not be as fortunate as we were and you might be expected to take the initiative your selves.

Returning to the need for ‘support’ I would like to offer just a few bits of advice. I learned very early on in France that French people love to interfere and to give advice, this could be seen as treating you as if you were almost a complete idiot and is quite annoying until you realise that it is their way of investing in you as a person, as a neighbour and a member of their community. This idea of investing in you is very important, for instance, if you need an allotment to grow veggies in, most villagers will have a spare bit of land somewhere that’s not being cultivated and you offer to buy it, they will rise to the occasion of playing at a little business and you will probably get your allotment at a grossly inflated price the news of this and of the price you paid will then become common knowledge in the village. However if you just inform your neighbour of your need for a garden he or someone else will most likely lend you one for life and you will have been invested in. This investment is a sign of trust and commitment on behalf of your neighbour towards you and as everyone in the ‘commune’ will know about it before teatime you can then expect more investments to follow in the form of advice on how to till the soil with a mattock and how and when to plant your veggies and most likely you will be presented with baskets or plastic bags full of examples grown by your gardening neighbours. One old chap that I grew to love used to bang on my door at 6.30 in the morning and drag me out to his allotment to give me lessons on planting French beans. Should you survive the first couple of years it will probably not be because you love the French way of life but because you have fallen in love with the French people themselves.

Many of my clients will tell me that they don’t want to be in a village that already has a lot of English people living there and I usually reply by advising them to buy quickly because if you can find an English free village in this area then you had better get in there quick and enjoy it for a while before the inevitable next English family moves in.

I know that moving to France to be with English people is a bit off putting for some, but having one or two other English or English speaking people already installed in a village isn’t necessarily a negative thing, again thinking about the need for mutual support. Of course when it gets to stage when there are so many ‘etrangers’ in the village that you don’t know if you should say Bonjour or Hello when you go down to the village to get your bread then perhaps there are just too many English in that village.

There are actually one or two villages in my ‘patch’ where I don’t recommend my anglophobic clients look for property, especially if they want to learn to speak French.

One of my friends is a Maire in a village close to my own and after receiving a complaint from an English resident regarding other Brits buying in the village, recounted to me “you British are a strange nation, that you can’t stand to be in one another’s company” if having a few English in a village poses no problem to the locals themselves why should it be a problem to us ?

One final bit of advice regarding fitting in to a French village community, beware being too friendly with the first person that knocks on your door, you are entitled to be a bit suspicious about the French just as they are about you and sometimes the first friendly person you meet might have a hidden agenda, of course he or she might just be some lonely person who sees your moving in as a possible cure for loneliness but they might just have their eye on one of your fields, try to exercise a little discernment before committing yourselves to an over friendly neighbour.

Those are my tips for surviving in France, I suppose I should add that the local Mairie or town hall is a strange animal for most Brits to come to terms with, but it’s function is to serve the community and most French people expect it to be the first port of call in any dispute or any administrative problems they might have…my advice is to make use of it as much as you need to and try to stay on the right side of the Maire.

My wife and I have lived and worked here for 18 years, our children have grown up here, we love it here and we intend to stay here for the rest of our days …..

……I can offer you no better recommendation for living in France than that.

Tony Clay

Please contact us if you are looking for vacation accommodation or long-term lets in Languedoc-Roussillon.