Rural France is paradise, right? Everyone knows it. Your friends come back from the Dordgogne gîte at the end of every summer and bore you rigid droning on ad nauseam about the wonderful lifestyle, the cheap wine, the endless sunshine, the fabulous fresh produce.
It might surprise you to find out that all this changes the instant people actually move here. All of a sudden the French are rude, that idyllic rural retreat is miles from anywhere and you can’t get a Pot Noodle for love nor money. They start complaining about the weather, ordering all their shopping from ASDA and clustering together with other expats for whinge-ins over mugs of PG Tips and imported digestives. They’re always ‘expats’, notice, never ‘immigrants’ in the way that, say, Poles or Pakistanis are immigrants. And certainly not ‘economic migrants’, which is Daily Mailspeak for illegal immigrant. Because they definitely aren’t illegals, not even the ones who’ve been working for tour operators for the past 15 years, are still earning in sterling on posted worker contracts and haven’t paid any income tax since 1993. You know who you are.
It seems to come as some surprise to many of them that tiny Spar shops in remote mountain villages don’t stock baked beans and Marmite. Or that the local economy was doing just fine before they got there and bizarrely is not actually crying out for former local authority political correctness audit executives who fancied ‘downsizing’ and don’t speak a word of French.
It always amazes me how many of them lumber themselves with huge building projects, small businesses and hordes of animal life all at once. I’m quite partial to goats myself, but I’m also aware that keeping livestock involves a whole lot of bureacracy these days (added to which my outdoor space consists of two balconies, which isn’t all that practical, goat-wise). I also know what’s involved in running a hotel here, which is part of the reason why I have not yet embarked on that one either. In fact, one very small building project was quite enough to be dealing with, thank you very much.
Admittedly we didn’t just up sticks all of a sudden and move to a derelict barn in a medieval hamlet consisting of a dozen interrelated pensioners and a three-legged dog, which is the – frankly rather odd – course of action favoured by a lot of Brits. We sort of oozed over here gradually via various seasonal jobs and the fact that JC is technically French, thus spreading the culture shock thing over a period of about 10 years.
But culture shock is no excuse for whining about every aspect of your new ‘dream life’, from prices in the Spar through French administration to the fact that it rains on occasion. It’s not going to be the same as life in suburban Basingstoke (thank God) so you might as well just chill and go with the flow. Having apoplexy every time you’re asked for some irrelevant piece of paper will not enhance your quality of life.
So here are my top tips to add to the mountain of advice out there for potential immigrants to France:
1. The weather is the weather – get used to it. You wouldn’t move to Cleethorpes on the basis that it was sunny during the three summer holidays you spent there, so why do the same with France? It rains here from time to time, you know. And it gets a bit parky in the winter – bring a jumper.
2. People are not dying to make friends with freaky foreigners. Sorry to break the news, but you’re really quite scary. You’ve just arrived from planet Basingstoke, bought some hovel no-one in their right mind would look at and installed half a zoo. Add to that the fact that you only speak three words of French and can’t explain yourself. Are you surprised people are shy? You’re the immigrant here, it’s going to be up to you to make the effort. Every single time. I know, it’s tiring. Get used to it.
3. There’s a lot of bureacracy. And before you moan about it, ask yourself what it’s like for a foreigner trying to move to the UK and get himself registered and integrated into all the necessary systems. You don’t know, do you? Because you’ve never had to do it. So for all you know, it could be just the same there. Reflect on that before you start in on how crap France is and how much better things are organised at ‘home’.
4. Stop calling it ‘home’. It isn’t. You live here, remember?
5. Let go of your habits. Rather than whinge about how it’s impossible to do so-and-so here, have a look at how everyone else does it. Then copy them. I’ve lost track of the number of Brits who’ve told me that it’s impossible to make a living from running a business in France. I know numerous French people who do just that and they all own lots more property and drive much nicer cars than me. Ergo, it must be possible, mustn’t it? Do things their way.
6. Learn French. I’m astounded by the number of people who gaily move to France and assume that they will get a job/run a business/get building work done when they have a grasp of the language which would disgrace a retarded five-year-old. Are you mad? And stop grumbling that everything is in French. I bet you’re the same people who get all up in arms about local authorities in the UK translating everything into Urdu.
7. Don’t bury yourself in some God-forsaken hamlet with no running water and mule access only. If the idea of living in a small rural community miles from anywhere in the UK fills you with trepidation, why on earth would you think about doing it in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language? Go and live near a town.
8. The shops will be closed sometimes. There’s no point in rambling on about the relaxed pace of life one minute and then demanding that the shops open 24/7 the next. Consider that the opening hours (or lack of them) may be closely related to that relaxed pace of life you profess to admire so much, and if you change one you lose the other. Besides, you lot are the only people out there who want to spend all of your leisure time in some sort of retail emporium. Go home, have some lunch and get a life.
9. No, you can’t get Pot Noodles. Or baked beans, or Cadbury’s chocolate, or those nasty teabags you’re all so fond of, unless you live in a tourist area and are prepared to pay through the nose. This is because they are imported foreign products and nobody else wants them. Trust me, there are plenty of other (and much nicer) things to eat. See point five above.
10. Don’t try the andouillette. Seriously. There’s such a thing as taking integration just that little bit too far.
And finally …. when you’ve calmed down, started eating proper food at the correct times of day and leaned to say ‘pof’ like everyone else does when faced with intractable fonctionnaires, don’t turn into this sort of smug expat. Because they are definitely people with what the French call a tête de claque.