Why an ex. pat I always ask myself – I am still a patriot to the UK – I love England but have chosen to live in France for lifestyle, sunshine, reduced stress and cheap wine – and we get X Factor and Downton Abbey for goodness sake so I can’t be that foreign!
During our search for a property we had various amusing incidents, particularly when looking in an area densely populated by Brits and being shown around by an English estate agent (the very words “estate agent” send a chill down the spine, rather like “banker”). Our guide placed us in the back of her tattered Range Rover and off we went, four houses to view on the list. John and I felt a great sense of excitement, the properties looked so wonderful on the internet. However, Fiona (loud horsey voice and swearing extensively at anything that dared entered her line of vision while on the road), started narrating about the occupant of every passing car. “Oh look, there’s Virginia, she does bridge on Wednesdays, oh lovely, that’s Sybil, she organises sherry evenings on a Friday night, splendid, that’s Marjorie, arranges cracking knitting parties on Thursday, spiff-ho!” As this continued, with every evening of the week seemingly occupied by well-meaning and hearty Brits, John and I sank further and further into our seats, looking wide eyed at each other. This was definitely not what we had in mind when we imagined our life in France. This particular batch of houses turned out to be atrocious too. “Large farmhouse kitchen” meant large roofless room surrounded by open farm courtyard. “Minor renovation needed” was equivalent to no walls, no electricity, no water and certainly no habitable house. “Stunning views” in one case overlooked the cemetery – at the least the neighbours would have been quiet.
On our second foray from the UK we looked at sixteen houses in five days and discovered the Lot region in the Midi-Pyrenees. We immediately fell in love with the countryside – wild, rocky, wonderful architecture and beautiful little medieval villages, unchanged for hundreds of years, along with their inhabitants. And then we found it… Les Rossignols (The Nightingales). We arrived at the front of the house, an hour late, having sped past gendarmes with their spray-on trousers and holsters at their sides (oooo, young man, she breathed). You always know when you have found the right house. It speaks to you and as I stood by the vast barn in the garden I felt an overwhelming sense of contentment. John and I looked at each other, nodded and grinned – and we hadn’t even been inside!
We have now been here for nearly six years, (and got married in the village!) renovated two bedrooms, added two bathrooms, built a swimming pool (oh YES!) and turned the house into a bed and breakfast. This was not our original intention. We thought we would retire (very early in my case, I hasten to add) and enjoy life but then The Crisis started. Plummeting exchange and interest rates caused our income to drop by 35%. Slight despair set in as I realised we couldn’t afford to stay (“Your house is at risk if you messed around by incompetent bankers and governments”). A friend suggested we start a bed and breakfast and so the first guests arrived…and we love it. We now have 28 “excellents” on Tripadvisor, repeat business and many interesting and delightful people passing through our door. Obviously there have been the ones who were not so delightful … like the alcoholic Dutchman who walked barefoot into the kitchen, uninvited, while we were preparing a meal, and looked through our fridge explaining that it told him the character of the people in the house. Yup, my character was pretty chilly at that moment. The American child I nicknamed “Damian, spawn of the Devil” as he was obnoxious, rude, spoilt and I swear his head rotated on his neck when I asked him to put his Gameboy down at the dinner table. And no, we don’t do corn dogs (hotdogs wrapped in pastry and deep fried) for breakfast, Damian. The man we called Mr Blobby as he was the fattest Belgian I have ever seen and we discovered why. We serve excellent meals and he repeatedly asked for foie gras when booking. Something I don’t usually put on the menu due to profit margins (can’t believe I wrote that!) but I relented and when we sat down to eat, his family announced they didn’t like it and he proceeded to eat all five helpings. The English woman who clicked her fingers at me when demanding caraway seeds to sprinkle on her scrambled eggs. But on the positive side, we have made friends with many of our guests and have been invited to Italy, Spain, Canada and the States.
Our summer months are manic but fruitful and the bookings are slowing a little now. The colours of an early autumn are starting to set on this drought ravaged countryside. We’ve had no significant rain for three months. The sheep on the farm next door are giving birth to their second set of lambs this year and when we sit under the pavilion by the pool we can hear their plaintive bleating and then watch them as they spring and bounce their way past the front gate to the top pasture. We sip our very drinkable wine at €1.95 a bottle (about £1.60 at today’s slightly improved exchange rate – somebody has to!) and glory in our fortunate lifestyle, not without it’s hard but enjoyable work. John is now the treasurer for our village fete committee, I sing with a local choir where they teach me French swear words while we wait to learn our parts; we buy entire sheep carcasses from our farmer neighbour which have grazed on herb infused grasses; any local fruits are quickly turned into delicious jams; we join in with village celebrations where we have six hour lunches; we eat with the seasons; and we laugh a lot. We are totally integrated with our French friends and neighbours and have stopped calling the UK “home”. That’s why I am now a true ex.pat CountryWife in France.