A bit of a surreal set of circumstances to find oneself in, but as you may have seen on Instagram I am confined to my French home for fifteen days as part of the French government’s approach to tackling the COVID-19 coronavirus.
My husband and I are both fortunate enough to be able to work from home during this period and we have plenty of food, wine (!!) and toilet roll (!!!) thanks to our routine of shopping once a month. Perhaps through frugality – not wanting to spend at shops each week, nor on the not insignificant amount of fuel our very uneconomical car uses to get there and back – we are the original doomsday preppers (which if you haven’t watched on Netflix or elsewhere, I highly recommend, taken with a pinch of salt…)
So I’m sitting here in our newly painted kitchen on day two of this enforced nationwide rest, and looking for ways to spend my day. We had a conversation this morning about how useful it would have been to have had our chickens by now – reader, full disclosure: we don’t yet have them because we have not wanted to get up on the cold, dark mornings to let them out – now, as we keenly monitor our egg supply, we’re regretting not acting sooner.
This led me onto thinking of what other kinds of smallholding-type activities we could begin during this period, and an obvious one for us was always going to be to have a good go at filling the potager.
Thankfully, I had already bought our seed potatoes for this year and they were sitting unloved in our chaufferie room, so I have released them into their trays for chitting – not that they much need it, some are ready to walk! So a task for me will be getting them into the ground. If you too are looking for some tips on growing some veg to occupy yourself through this unsettling time ça tombe bien because I currently have an article in Living France Magazine April 2020 edition which describes this very thing. If you see it, do let me know what you think of it and my fetching leopard print gardening gloves…
Inside the house, I am thinking it’s time to tackle last year’s glut of pears, apples, peaches and grapes which are patiently waiting in our chaufferie room freezers for me to get a wriggle on. At some point last year I borrowed a beautiful book from our village library called “Retrouver le goût de la nature. 140 recettes de campagne” by Camille Le Foll. It has so many sweet traditional French recipes to try, many of which use foraged items from the abundant French countryside. Plus it’s in French, so a good opportunity to practice your vocabulary. It’s a really tactile book, with a woven cover and various types of paper stock inside, the photography is fantastic. I really could not recommend it more as a gift, or for yourself since we will all be looking for ways to occupy ourselves or our families. I’m very grateful that my husband bought me a copy for Christmas, as I had to give up renewing it at our local library and depriving our neighbours of its loveliness.
Aside from recipe trawling, I’ll be reading my own copy of Living France in the garden – with a gin and tonic before too long I would hazard – and will maybe even venture out with Margot for a government-sanctioned walk using one of my Attestation de déplacement forms (I’ll include a link below in case you too need it). I hope you’re all keeping well and virus-free wherever you are, and if you’re in confinement like us please do share how you’re spending your time in the comments. I feel as though by day eleven I’m going to need some ideas!
Yesterday we enjoyed a day off the usual painting and organising to appreciate the new Halles which have been opened recently in Limoges. The works to restore the building have taken months – and it only recently re-opened at the end of 2019.
The building is gorgeous, with some of the vintage tiles depicting flowers and farm animals preserved high up near to the roof on the exterior, and the carpentry which has been undertaken on the inside is breathtaking. It reminds me of a very nice, new and clean Isambard Kingdom Brunel design, which I should be familiar with after our time in Bristol looking out over Clifton suspension bridge from our kitchen window.
As lunchtime approached we were fortunate to get a last-minute reservation at a local restaurant called Caseus, it’s just to the right of the entrance to the church Saint–Michel-des-Lions in a sweet little fountain decorated square – if you’re in the vicinity I highly recommend it. The focus of the menu is cheese, in all forms, and all its melted glory and if you’re lucky enough to be seated downstairs as the four of us (plus Margot) were, you’ll be treated to a crypt-like experience (though admittedly a clean one, and conspicuously absent are the dead people) underneath the main restaurant. It was incredibly cosy and SO FRENCH. I feel a bit Rick Stein saying that, but I have a feeling you’ll know what I mean.
Now, Sunday, its back to the organising, and we have just finished unpacking the office. Well, 95% of it. There are some things which have no home and some things which I refuse to find a home for. But it will all settle eventually.
Oh, and the eagle-eyed amongst you will see that I broke my dry-January promise. Red wine and cheese are too good to pass up! Your sympathy please?!
When my now-husband and I woke up in a corporate rate hotel room on 24th June 2016 before going to work in our past lives as mobile IT consultants (this isn’t as salacious as it sounds, we were already living together and engaged…) little could we have known that this moment in history would set us on a journey which would change our lives to a completely unrecognisable degree.
I have always been a francophile. I’ve loved France ever since childhood. I visited Brittany with my secondary school when I was about eleven years old, and I just knew that I was supposed to be in this place where the people valued bread as much as I did. My husband, not so much. He did visit France as a child but only fell in love with it (and the bread) on a holiday to Paris early in our relationship. We talked about moving to France one day when the timing was “right”.
The referendum result was a shock. I remember being stood in my pyjamas in that hotel room, watching the result on TV open-mouthed. I was dumbfounded. So was G. I felt a deep sense of sorrow at the result for much wider reasons simply than the knowledge that British people would lose freedom of movement within the EU, but given our hopes to live in France one day, I eventually became acutely aware of the limits this would put on our dream. Still, life carried on for a while. I quit my career of more than a decade in IT with no love lost and transitioned into working self-employed as a talking therapist which I’d been training to do for years.
I can’t remember when it was exactly, but I think it must have been early 2017 when we started to have doubts that Theresa May was going to secure a deal with the EU leaders. We became worried that if we didn’t get to France soon, we wouldn’t be able to go at all.
I should say now – I am a very impulsive person, and this is somewhat dangerously supported by an innate belief that I can do anything (within reason) if I just try hard enough (thanks Mum and Dad!).
G and I decided that we would move to France. We had been taking numerous short breaks to the Cote d’Azur for a few years, and naively thought it was an option. Of course, dear reader, it was not. One only has to have an ounce of sense to realise that somewhere so adored by thousands of tourists each year would also fetch a hefty price-tag if one were so inclined to make it their home. We worked out we could just about afford a studio with a balcony somewhere near-ish the sea. With my beloved cats and a growing interest in gardening fuelled by a modicum of success growing things in our respectably sized garden in Bristol, this was not going to cut the mustard, no matter how lovely the beaches of Nice were.
We decided to start researching location options – it needed to be somewhere which had decent connections to the west country in the UK so that we could still visit our family, and they, us – and crucially it needed to be cheap. My husband had tired of the corporate rubbish he’d been putting up with for decades, and so he was happy with the prospect of changing vocation for something completely different. I was faced with closing two successful businesses that after a few years of incredibly hard work, were enjoying a modicum of success. The bottom line was, whilst we knew that we would have the proceeds of our house sale in Bristol, it was heavily mortgaged. Plus we had no idea how we would make money in France. But remember that – perhaps borderline pathological – impulsivity I mentioned? It could not be quelled.
So, we decided to choose an adventure – even though the risk of failure was high. Minimising the spend on the place we would live seemed a sensible option, after all, we bargained that if we couldn’t find work, we’d have time on our hands to renovate it (I’m just taking a moment here to laugh out loud and cast an eye around this undecorated office…). Never underestimate the abilities of a unique blend of millennial and IT graduate to do some sterling internet research – so within a week, we had narrowed down the area upon which we would focus our house hunting to the Limousin.
The Limousin is quite like Devon, where I am from. There’s a lot of green. Things are often green because there’s a lot of water falling out of the sky, so I kind of knew what to expect in our new area. But I could not have known just how difficult and exhilarating this past year would be in terms of adjusting to a whole new country’s culture and language.
This blog is full of my writing about specific events, shopping opportunities, how to save euros with informed spending – and it also talks honestly about how hard moving to another country is. We are now immigrants, and from my previous place of privilege as a person who spoke the language of the country I lived in as my native tongue, I did not appreciate how incredibly hard it is to integrate into a country where you haven’t the faintest clue what banal things people on the street or in the post office are saying to you. If you meet someone in your home country working in a job that requires them to speak a second language, I implore you to take the time to watch in awe as that person’s brain works 50% faster than yours at any given moment, because the task of in-the-moment translation is HARD.
We started French lessons within a fortnight of moving here, and I already had an okay amount of French from Alliance Française classes in Bristol and Exeter, as well as a solid A* at GCSE (I talk less about how I dropped out of A-Level at college… ahem). If you’re moving to another country and looking for a top tip – this is the one – learn the language of the culture you are joining. It will help with EVERYTHING. Yes, it costs money and potentially your ego, but it is priceless to be able to connect with others when you are so far from the places, people and things you knew before.
We took two viewing trips to find our house. We probably only saw a dozen houses total. If you read our story in French Property News magazine earlier this year then you’ll know all about our cancelled flights and the mad dash across the country to view the places we had deemed to have potential. The fact that I’m sitting in the house we should never have viewed since we missed the appointment and the French agent decided to show us around on a Sunday (!!!) only solidifies for me that this place is the right one for us.
I suppose I’m writing this post as a response to those who have contacted me since the most recent election in the UK, those who are scared that they too might miss out on living their own adventure. I’m very conscious that my husband and I were lucky that his children are adults and that we don’t have any, so we didn’t have to make heart-wrenching decisions to divide families where people were still growing up, but we did move away from people that we love very much. We left behind family and friends, careers and businesses, and a property in an affluent city. We withdrew every asset we had in the UK and gambled on France. We are still gambling on France. I can’t say it has been easy, it unequivocably has not been. But I don’t regret it. And I do feel as though I am really living, not just existing. Not dreaming of “one day” when the timing is right. It never will be. I’m proud to say that I live here for many reasons, and one of them is knowing the courageous journey that we (and so many people that we meet here) went on to begin this chapter of our lives.
Plus, being this impulsive, it’s certainly never dull.
Despite the French cost of living being slightly higher – in my opinion – than the UK, there remain many bargains to be had, even here in the rural Limousin countryside.
Finding the places which could offer us good prices for the things which we were used to finding for less has been part of the work of our first year in France. Learning not to “just nip down” to our local Briconautes for screws or a piece of pipe when its a 30km round trip and when you get there the thing has a 50% chance of being in stock, and a 50% chance of costing twice what you’d anticipated was a lesson to learn early on.
As I’ve mentioned before on the blog and in my French Property News articles – one of the keys to saving money on “things” is planning. Knowing in advance that you will need something is the key to identifying it at a better price somewhere along the line before you become desperate for it.
Sometimes this works out well and is seasonal, in October’s French Property News I wrote about winter money-saving – but that work really starts at the end of the last winter. Think of it like buying your Christmas presents in the January sales – you know you’ll need something later on so why wait until a deadline forces you to pay more for a thing than you would like?
This rule is harder to apply to the things we don’t need (like wood for fuel) but want (like pretty old french plates for… eating my bread and cheese from?!). And in my experience, these temptations come up more often than a cheap piece of fencing or bargain paint. Just such an occasion caught me unawares on Friday when after my husband met with a new stockist for his artisan jewellery in the Charente, we popped into Emmaus87 on our way home.
If you haven’t been to an Emmaus before, they are a chain of charity shops and warehouses across France and also other countries (I distinctly remember one on Bedminster Parade in Bristol which was an absolute tardis) – you can check out their cause and find your nearest branch in France here. Our closest branch is a large warehouse just outside of Limoges in 87 where you can find an enormous collection of furniture, clothing, electronics, ceramics, tools and collectables at excellent prices.
Ignoring my own rules about being prepared, we turned up sans measurements for the new kitchen island which we are going to build, and so despite there being some very well matched work surfaces in stock, we couldn’t commit to buying the wrong thing. Instead I focused my efforts on some inexpensive homewares (I have been planning to recover some cushions for AGES and now have wayyy more material than I need, it’s nearly time to get the sewing machine out I think….) and G managed to find his perfect toaster from Moulinex (toast is as important to him as I am) so it was a cheap and cheerful afternoon of rummaging.
I’d love to hear about your own Emmaus adventures and your biggest savings. Ours was a sofa bed in excellent condition which we managed to catch on a weekend where all sofas were discounted by 50% – we ended up paying 30€ for it, and are still, some months later, rather smug. If you’ve outdone that (and I’m sure plenty have) do let me know in the comments!
It’s occurred to me that I haven’t written a blog post since June, and while normally I might feel guilty about that – I think I have extenuating circumstances this time.
This summer I have married the person who makes me the most happy, and as a result I am supremely content with my lot. I’ve taken some time to enjoy that experience and also to work through one of my worst experiences, which was to lose my beloved Ginger cat who was hit by a car while I was away on my first visit to the UK since moving to France.
It’s taken a while to get used to both of these very different life events, and I now feel ready to get back into my writing and drag you all along for the ride as I scour France for bargains and ways of approaching the necessities of life here in the beautiful French countryside with a strong frugal slant.
So I’m planning on some posts which I hope will be useful to those who are navigating some of the same administration as we have – including a post dedicated to “How to get married in France cheaply” and ways to save money when going though the French administrative process for the marriage of British citizens.
It’s September tomorrow, and I have already started to notice the leaves turning – on our weekly drive to the reclamation yard this morning we noticed leaves falling, and I am reminded that this time last year we were beginning to look for houses here in the Limousin. I can’t believe so much time has passed, and while I have a list as long as both of my arms of things which need to be done on the house and ideas for businesses or ways to make more money working remotely, I am conscious that we have already done so much. We have moved our entire lives to France, we have both started new businesses in our second language, we have made lots of lovely friends and learned so much French (though there is always room for improvement…!).
We have made a neglected house livable and even decorated half of the rooms (well, don’t look at the skirting boards, they are outstanding). We have taken care of some serious landscaping jobs in our garden and somewhere in there managed to get married and submit our carte de sejour applications (though who knows what good they will do in all this whirling uncertainty of Brexit).
So you can expect lots more words from me in the very near future, as I get back into work in time for la rentrée, but of course if you’ve been missing my updates there is always a steady stream of pictures over on my Instagram account @frugalfrance – or, if you’re interested, my Facebook group The Noz Appreciation Society, feel free to join us as we take pictures of our #Nozwins and generally get overexcited about cheap beer and condiments…