I’m an ex Londoner and I bought an old farmhouse that needed a lot of work about ten years ago. I moved here full time a couple of years ago when I decided to take a sabbatical from my job as a freelance project manager for financial corporations. Within months I took in a stray cat and then 3 more and then 3 dogs. I act as chief gofer to my husband as we attempt to renovate the house and I grow all my own vegetables and fruit.
Many years ago I and my husband started taking my Dad on French day trips as he liked to shop for wine in Calais and we would have lunch in villages in the Pas-de-Calais area. After a couple of years we started to really like the country side around Calais, particularly the Seven Valleys region – a string of lovely rural villages linked by streams and rivers. Most people drive as quickly through Calais as they can, rushing off to the South of France but this area has an awful lot to offer – we feel we were lucky to discover it.What challenges did you face during the move?
It was actually pretty easy. We got a French mortgage via an English agent. The interest rate was far better than we could have ever got in the UK. We opened a French bank account through Credit Agricole Britline in Normandy. They offer an English language service which was really helpful for us. We’re really close to the Calais and Dunkirk ports and Eurotunnel so we can get back to see family and they can come to see us easily – it’s less than three hours from our village to London.
How did you find somewhere to live? (e.g. how did you locate a suitable property? what was the buying/renting process like?)
On a whim we got some details from a local estate agent for three “very cheap” properties and amazingly fell in love with one of them despite the fact that it was obviously in need of a lot of renovation and could be a money pit. Buying it was very simple, the estate agent spoke enough English to help us, he arranged a notaire (French conveyancing lawyer), I paid to have any documents translated if I felt they were important and that hadn’t been done by the estate agent though in all honesty he did the bulk of the translating for free.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Yes loads! There are people from all over Europe in the villages in the Seven Valleys – and from South Africa, Australia, America and New Zealand. Quite a few of the little villages here even have expats on the council committees to facilitate life for English speakers and ensure that their views are included.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
The locals are friendly but not greatly sociable I find. They are really supportive; if I have a problem they are all happy to give advice or help. When I first bought the house I came out one weekend and the septic tank got blocked. The farmer down the road rushed to our aid with a machine that unblocked us and he wouldn’t take any payment – he said we were neighbours and neighbours must stick together and help each other when they can.
What do you like about life where you are?
The huge open spaces, splendid country views, the friendliness of the people, fresh produce at the street markets, carnivals and the fabulous “giants” of the north (huge puppets that appear at public festivities). The love for tradition and local culture, the respect that people have towards the cemeteries of the Great Wars and those who lost their lives. The fact that I have chickens, cats and dogs and enough room for us all to be happy!
What do you dislike about your expat life?
It can be lonely particularly in the winter months – we don’t get too many visitors as it can get very cold here and we’ve been snowed in some years and unable to get to see family in the UK. French officialdom is probably no worse than anywhere else but being unable to speak the language perfectly makes it difficult to deal with at times. All expats must go through an issue of French bureaucracy though – it’s like a rite of passage!
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
As a Londoner with a career in the city I had a great social life. At least twice a week I would be out with friends in bars and restaurants, letting my hair down after a long and usually stressful day in the office. Here it’s a complete change. People generally don’t spend much money on going out- there are no pubs just small bars and they’re only open for short periods on the whole and not greatly frequented – I think it’s hard for people to earn a living here and they don’t spend their money in bars and pubs.
How does shopping (for food/clothes/household items etc.) differ compared to back home?
I love the markets and the supermarkets here. Our local supermarket stocks food that’s local, fresh and seasonal and I like the fact that our local supermarket butcher has some autonomy over where he buys his meat – it’s not all delivered in bulk on the back of a corporate lorry. I find electrical goods are much more expensive in France than the UK on the whole.
What do you think of the food in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
I’m amazed by the attachment to chips (French fries) here! There are friteries (chip wagons) everywhere. There are some great restaurants but many of the eateries are really quite mediocre which has surprised me. There are lots of regional specialities and I love flammenkeuches – a sort of Flemish influenced pizza, delicious and made with a sour cream on the dough base rather than cheese.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
We were lucky that our village suits us so well – we didn’t know it at all, we didn’t do any homework or check it out thoroughly. If I moved elsewhere in France I would rent first and make sure I knew what village life was like, how far away the shops are – that sort of thing. I’d also check carefully that all of the documentation pertaining to the property was correct. We thought that our notaire had done this as part of the purchase process. We were appalled to find out – 7 years after we purchased – that the plan cadastral (the official French log of our property) was hopelessly out of date. Extensions and work carried out over a period of thirty years by previous owners had not been declared. We had to pay an architect to draw up new plans reflecting the work that had been done and submit the plans for retrospective permission before we could apply for planning permission to carry out further works. It was very time consuming, stressful and costly.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m loving writing a blog and articles for a website that I and some friends set up www.thegoodlifefrance.com. We started it a few months ago as so many people started coming to us for advice about living in France and we aim to be able to inform people about France – places to go, things to do and advice about daily life “everything you want to know about France and more…”