Last night I was stood in the kitchen at 1am, looking out of our long windows across the valley opposite.
I am a total night-owl with longings to be a morning person, but it’s just not happening and I’m accepting that. The upside of this predisposition towards bed-avoidance means that I get to enjoy the amazingly bright starry nights here in deepest rural France. Walking the roads around here after midnight (and I would argue before midnight on occasion!) unquestionably need a torch – but the skies are often bright with constellations that I had only once seen in the UK, on a holiday to the Isle of Wight where light pollution was minimal.
Here, we have very little by way of light pollution or any pollution whatsoever that I can discern. A friend visited this week from London and we remarked on the clean-smelling air and how refreshing it was. Considering we used to live on an A-road in Bristol, and prior to that Zone 1 in London, we know a thing or two about air pollution.
Our own contribution to the demise of the ozone layer was taken out of action this week where our village mechanic deemed our car too dangerous to be driven, and so we and our friend were confined to the house for a few days. My friend was poorly, so we kept her dosed up on cold medicine, cheese and a little wine to help her through the worst of it – and the interactions with the garagiste have not been all bad. In fact, he is a very nice and accommodating young man, but just as importantly he has given my partner the opportunity to test his French on a subject we don’t often learn much about in class (yet!). G managed to book our car in to be inspected, chase up a part and book us in for repair tomorrow morning… all in very comprehendible French! This is a bit of a pivotal moment for him, as while his grammar and vocabulary are excellent, he describes listening to be difficult so conversation is understandably anxiety-inducing.
I am different, in that I love listening to French, and talking (I’m so sorry to my classmates, I really don’t shut up) but my French teacher does hold me up as someone who seems to be able to understand spoken French well, but who struggles with the fundamentals of grammar. I have to agree, however this week we have been looking at our various tenses again, and I’m hoping that by Monday not only will I be more confident in my ability to speak in complex tenses, but also that our car won’t kill us.
Anyway, a busy, unusual few days, but it’s back the usual gardening and house renovation next week, à bientôt!
I know that my Instagram feed is often full of the usual things that one might expect to be doing when living in France, but today I’m thinking of my own personal top five:
1 Eating bread and bread-based foods (seriously, carbs are life)
2 Speaking French (yes, bread even comes before this, I am addicted)
3 Drinking lovely wine for like, a euro
4 Eating all the flipping cheese in my department
5 French architecture
In my old UK-resident-francophile-from-afar life these were truly the ways that I thought that life in France would be. That I’d be wandering through flower-lined streets of typically French houses with gorgeous shutters and lavender EVERYWHERE. And I am. It’s a joy.
But I would also add five realities about living in France for the uninitiated:
1 Winter is COLD. The days may be sunny, even warm, but if there aren’t any clouds you best have some wood for a fire that night. 2 Admin is a full-time job, particularly in these interesting times of Brexit. Have lots of printer ink. 3 Food isn’t cheap. Eating fresh and seasonally will be the most frugal way to go. Or grow vegetables, as I am planning to do. 4 Housing is cheap, but purchasing a home here is different, bien sûr! In my opinion its more organised and formal, but you’ll pay for that. 5 It would be really easy to live here and almost not speak a word of French, but for me, that would negate any reason to live here whatsoever.
I often get asked things like “how much does it cost to run a two-bed house in France?” or “Can you help me to decide if this house is right for me?”. Both questions that tap into both my frugal self, and opinionated self. But I have to take a step back from that and remind those people that living here, in whatever way you choose to live, is a deeply personal experience.
Things still cost money here. Sometimes a lot, sometimes less. It depends enormously upon our living habits and how we make ourselves happy. For me, I am (clearly) pretty happy as long as there is bread, wine and cheese. I also need some nature and see wildlife, a garden to grow things and the opportunity to speak to French people. And while I LOVE our French home and everything that we are doing to renovate it, it is not the most important thing to me. Spending time with my partnet, lovely people in the village, making friends, learning a new culture and integrating as much as I possibly can are my priorities. If that means the kitchen isn’t painted until next year I can live with that.
I suppose what I’m saying is, if you want to move to France, I would examine what it is that you value. If you need to be in a place where you have all the amenities available to you at all times, then rural France is not for you. If you can’t cope with the idea that shops close for lunch, or that you have very little power when it comes to bureaucracy (cue gallic shrug) then this isn’t the place. BUT if you are willing to learn, integrate and try, can be okay with accepting that things won’t always be quick, or perfect, or cheap (!) then it might well be!
As always, if anyone wants to ask questions you are so welcome, I love interacting with my followers – but it’s just that the big questions can only be answered by you. And that’s how it should be.
We’ve now been in France for just over three months.
We are officially exercising our treaty rights (I would argue we have been since day one, but for the benefit of the unconvinced…). I’m working. More than I thought I would be. Much of my work time is the behind the scenes running of the business – the stuff that doesn’t directly earn money. Be that emailing, tracking, invoicing, researching, marketing – oh and performing. It’s a long list, but it’s great and I love it. I’m incredibly lucky to enjoy what I do and it took me a long time to get here with many a crappy job along the way.
So when I’m confronted by the list of jobs that need doing on the new house, some small like putting up a hook, right through to deciding whether or not to convert the grenier (attic) into a whole new floor with the same footprint as the house we currently live in, sometimes the list of jobs feels so long it can be paralysing.
Decisiveness has never been something I’ve struggled with (hello kneejerk reaction to Brexit and a new life in France!), and for better or worse, I am capable of decision making even under the greatest pressure. But this is different, this is like having a hundred options in a sea of decisions and knowing that no matter which one you choose, there will always be 99 more waiting for you to attend to them.
I mentioned this feeling on my Instagram feed this week and it got a big response from people who had shared the same experience upon arriving in a newly adopted country with a home in need of work. It was comforting to all be able to share our experiences and acknowledge that all the jobs will all still be there tomorrow (in a good way) and be sure that to take time for ourselves and enjoy the process is absolutely necessary.
So I’ve had a few days of luxuriating in my decision to do less, which has culminated in a VERY full Friday. I’m not sure if there’s a lesson to be learned here, but I’m definitely noticing lots of things about myself in this new life, my avoidance of certain tasks and how far I’ve come from working pretty much non-stop when we lived in Bristol being just two.
So now, time to move onto my third piece of writing for the day, and one which I thankfully have the weekend to attend to. But with a trip to the cinema and dinner at neighbours’ planned for tomorrow evening I had better get a wriggle on.
My intentions to blog earlier this month were unfortunately scuppered by developing a really bad case of la grippe (flu!), followed by my mandatory bout of bronchitis. As someone who had whooping cough as a child, I find most decent colds or flu go this way, I don’t know about anyone else…
Nonetheless, the last few weeks have been pivotal in our move – we received (most of) our items from the UK via our British delivery courier. No longer are we using the strange mid-90s furniture that we inherited when we bravely/crazily (delete as appropriate!) moved into our 1930’s traditional French home in the middle of January and the deep snow of the French winter.
We’ve spent weeks unpacking, and still have a few boxes lurking in the kitchen while we work on our storage system. Right now we have four cupboards and very limited kitchen work surface, so my partner has identified some decent looking wood that the previous owner left in the top woodshed, and he’s brought it down to make some shelves. Hopefully once this – and a few more – are made we will be free of wading through cardboard to get to the dinner table!
Outside, the good weather has returned and with it my desire to get out in the garden. One of the highlights of our furniture delivery was the receipt of all of our plants. I was really upset on the day of the move – what seems a million years ago now, but in reality, was just December 2018 – because we didn’t have enough room to bring any plants whatsoever. Our lovely Bristol neighbours very kindly agreed to look after them for us until they could be collected by the courier, and so they joined our furniture in the big delivery. Last night over a glass of wine my fiancé and I pondered the new locations for our various plants. We’ve made some decisions and I’m sure I’ll be taking some pictures later on as they go into the ground and when they come into their own in flower in a few weeks. I’m really excited about that.
For now, I’m preparing to get out to the potager – well, to first create the potager, all we have at the moment is lawn. So I’ve pegged out the space that I’m going to use (thanks for all of your input on where to put our beds on my Instagram stories!) and will get the tiller out shortly to get that lovely french soil ready for use. Wish me luck!
I know that I haven’t posted much yet, and more importantly I haven’t posted much about living frugally. But that’s about to change. The road to get here – to get to the point where we are physically resident in France – has not been easy. Any of you who follow my Instagram will know that.
So putting on my psychotherapist’s hat for a moment, if we want to know the present then we must first understand the past.
I’ve not always been brilliant with money. I came out of university with debt, student loans, and credit cards. I knew things weren’t good when I had to use a credit card to buy food. I even worked to try to earn enough to get by but it all ran out really quickly. I lived off my loan and shopped cheaply. My friends and I now joke about the dubious quality alcohol we used to drink – a poor man’s copy of Lambrini as I recall – but the truth was we couldn’t afford anything else.
Having my first job as a graduate was great and paid reasonably well, but I already had debts and was living with someone who earned a very meagre wage. I ended up subsidising our lives and somehow would always end up with nothing at the end of the month. Credit cards seemed like the obvious way to fix the situation, but of course it wasn’t.
I slowly became aware of the amount I was spending. Driving to work and back each day cost £30-£40 a week and I felt it keenly (shout out the Southampton’s traffic issues!). I was presented with an opportunity to make a change after I received a pay-out after a car-crash of around £3,000. At the time I knew that I had credit cards, a graduate overdraft and a loose understanding of how much I was spending at the time. £3,000 wasn’t going to make much of a dent in the balance, so I could decide to spend it (I wanted lots and lots of things back then, mostly from Topshop and ASOS) or I could use it to pay off some debt. To facilitate making the decision I decided to draw up a spreadsheet of all outstanding credit cards. I was horrified to learn that my grand total was around twenty-seven thousand pounds of unsecured debt. Aside from some fantastic memories of trips to America and a few places in Europe, a full wardrobe and an overfurnished home I really didn’t have anything to show for it.
Thankfully, I decided to tackle my financial denial and paid off a card. I proceeded to learn more about how to limit the expense of paying my cards off – moving to zero percent cards and doing some damage limitation on the interest. I quickly learned how addictive it is to pay off debt, to which I almost entirely credit the moneysavingexpert.com forum. If you’re in the UK, have debt and are unfamiliar, I highly recommend checking it out.
My frugality ebbed and flowed over the years, but when I decided to leave my career in IT and retrain to become a therapist I knew that I would be exchanging material comforts for psychological ones. Being self-employed added an additional strain to this adaptation and the years where my business was starting out were some of the hardest of my life. I had a large mortgage on a house that I had once intended to sublet the rooms of, however, due to some personal changes (i.e. getting into a serious relationship!), that didn’t come about. It meant finding a large mortgage payment every month along with covering bills and my newly rented office. Looking back on it now I almost wince. I remember taking a temporary role doing admin in the NHS for six weeks, and its no lie to say that I cried when I received my first incredibly meager payslip.
Fortunately necessity is the mother of invention, and I adapted my outgoings as much as I possibly could to limit the need for income. I ran an airbnb from my house. I sold things on eBay, I did small one-off jobs and opened another small business to supplement my therapeautic income. I easily worked 60 hours a week toward the end of my time in the UK. I was exhausted.
Do you remember where you were when the Brexit vote was reported? I do. I felt bereft. It was all anyone could talk about. It felt like grief, and in a way, it was. I was grieving the idea that I would never get to France. That place that I had loved but recently overlooked as I strove to make it out of the red. I certainly couldn’t afford to go on holiday there and it had grown distant in my memory. So I was poor, my country had voted (in my opinion, don’t @ me) to make itself poorer. I had ridden out the last recession in a well paid job using credit. I knew I wouldn’t be able to ride out another.
My partner is brilliant. He supports all of my crazy ventures and I feel as though he is my biggest cheerleader. But I wasn’t sure how he would feel about a suggestion to leave the UK. I knew I didn’t want any more debt, so I researched house prices in France (truth be told I had been a part-time French property tourist through various websites for years) and we worked out whether we could feasibly survive on what equity we had in the UK. It was obvious that one or both of us would need to continue to work – and I had enjoyed so much success with my psychotherapy business that I wanted to carry on whatever we chose.
Would I say that I am an impulsive person? Yes. Is my partner? Less so, but after a wine… also yes. So we made the decision that precipitated the adding of thousands of micro-tasks (and some positively maxi-tasks) to our joint to-do list. We decided to move to France. Over the coming weeks I’m going to go into the various ins and outs of that process, as well as any financial learnings which we have gained along the way – so that any of you following us might have some more insight than we did.