A question I am often asked is, “How do you make a living in France?” and for anyone even vaguely contemplating a life abroad, income is very often the number one consideration. For others who will never live here, and who may never even get to visit, how to earn a living in a foreign country is still a fascinating subject; the details of how people support themselves, and the measures they will go to in order to achieve their ambition can be the most compelling part of the adventure. It’s not always easy to work here. Some people run online businesses, others own or manage gites and chambre d’hôtes and some commute long distances. This is exactly why I was so happy to start this series about expats living in France; because everyone has their own story to tell of how they overcame the obstacles and made their dream a reality, and today I’d like to introduce you to an English couple – Jacqui and her husband Adrian.
Adrian is a freelance IT service management consultant, running courses for large companies all over Europe, but especially for UK clients. As there is less demand for training courses during the summer months when holiday-leave leads to gaps in company staffing, it means freelance trainers such as Adrian find their summers relatively free, which naturally suits them just fine. While he works away from home much of the time during the rest of the year, Jacqui has remained in France, in the department of Deux Sèvres, looking after their son, who is now 16, and in so doing has immersed herself fully into local charity work within the community. It just goes to show that where there is a will there is a way and I really hope you enjoy my chat with Jacqui today.
How long have you lived in France and why did you choose this region?
We moved here in August 2004 following quite a bit of Internet research. We needed to be somewhere with easy access back to the UK for Adrian’s work, ideally with a choice of daily flights, the TGV and the ability to drive to the south of England without needing an overnight stop. We also wanted good weather, (we were promised more sunshine south of the River Loire) and affordable property prices as sadly Provence was out of our price range. Deux Sèvres has proved to be just perfect.
Had it always been an ambition to come and live in France, fuelled by holidays in the area or was it a spur of the moment decision for a change of lifestyle?
It was something we had been thinking about seriously for about five years, although our holidays, which were usually in France, were never in Poitou-Charentes. It was an area we discovered once we started house hunting.
Did you rent when you came here or did you buy a home first and then move lock stock and barrel?
We sold our UK house, packed all our possessions and moved lock stock and barrel with a three year old and two cats.
The question everyone wants the answer to of course, did you or Adrian speak French when you moved here?
A little. As the move was something we had been seriously planning we did take private lessons for six months before moving. However, this just gave us the illusion that we could speak French. When we arrived we realised we still had much to learn.
So how did you learn to speak the language properly and how easy was it to communicate when you first arrived?
We threw ourselves into village life, which meant sitting in meetings and understanding practically nothing and contributing even less, but along with a few years of lessons, plus learning alongside Ed when he started learning to read at school we soon made progress. There is nothing quite like total immersion in daily life to make you realise you have to communicate, even if it is rather painful at first.
How different is life here to the life you led back in the UK?
About as different as it is possible to be. In the UK I commuted by train from a large town to the west of London, into the City every day. I left home before seven in the morning and rarely returned before seven in the evening. It was busy, noisy and exhausting and lacking in time, personal space and fresh air. Even after living in the same house for five years we barely knew our neighbours. We now live in a village; our house has an orchard where our ducks, chickens and goose roam free-range, we grow our own vegetables, fruits and nuts and life is full of fresh air and family time. We know our neighbours, many who have become friends and play an active role in keeping village life alive.
Do you think your values have changed along with the change of lifestyle?
Yes, we are far more conscious of where our food comes from which has led to us choosing quality over quantity and eliminating any form of food wastage. I now do a lot more cooking and preparing meals from scratch than I used to do before and by the end of autumn my freezers are full of homegrown food waiting for the winter months and with this simple act of providing good food for my family, I couldn’t be happier.
What are your favourite things about living here and is there anything you miss about home?
My favourite thing about living in France is that it has given us more family time together. Although Adrian works away from home, he rarely has to work during the summer holidays which means lots of time to enjoy our garden and days out together. Our better attitude towards food along with more time spent outdoors has meant we are fitter than we were in the UK. Our life here is also more relaxed, most of the time, which coupled with sunshine and less traffic makes me very happy. It is also nice to feel a valued member of the local community. Our family and friends are the only things I miss.
Many people when they move here, plan a life in the country in perfect isolation with chickens, growing their own vegetables and a degree of self sufficiency, how realistic do you think this dream is?
I always encourage people to follow their dreams, as you will never know if you don’t give it a try. Having said that, ducks and chickens were never in our plan when we moved here, but one morning we found a duck had moved into our orchard, so we bought him some lady companions and the chickens just seemed a natural progression. The goose was a mystery gift from a bearded man one Sunday morning in May, but when you live in a French village odd occurrences like this seem much more normal than they would otherwise. We were keen gardeners before we moved here, fell in love with the idea of having an orchard and couldn’t wait to dig a big vegetable garden. However, as much as I love growing, cooking and eating from the garden, it is a big commitment in terms of time, watering and looking after the birds. I can never keep on top of the weeds and going away during the summer would be impossible if it wasn’t for good friends who are happy to help out. It certainly isn’t the life for everyone.
You live in a village, do you think this helped you integrate with the locals and become a part of the community?
Absolutely. With village life on the doorstep it is much less isolating than if we had moved to a house in the middle of nowhere. The boulangerie is two doors away, the school bus a two-minute walk from home, so from the beginning getting out and meeting people was easy. It is much less daunting to turn up at village events if you already know a few faces.
I know you have thrown yourself into village life and local charities, please tell us all about this?
The first thing I did was become a member of the committee who puts together the monthly village magazine. I think they were keen to get an English speaker onboard so they could translate some of the more important information. However it was a while before I was up to this. When they realise you are keen to get involved you find yourself being included in meetings, asked to help at events and the next thing you know you are on committees and an active member of village life. I now help to run the village library, have a great laugh at a weekly sewing club, organise an annual picnic in the park and help to decorate the village each Christmas. I certainly don’t have time on my hands to get bored.
This in turn has led to you being voted onto the village council which I think is fabulous, so can you tell us all just what this involves?
On a basic level it involves a monthly meeting with the other councilors to decide on the budget and prioritizing what work needs doing in the village. However, as the elected English councilor my role also means being there for the other English speakers in the commune and helping them where possible with their life in France. It also means getting involved with village events like the children’s Christmas party and annual meal for the older residents and ensuring village life is as lively as possible.
As a family we cycle for fun and I know you are keen cyclists too. But you take this far more seriously than we do, on your bikes you look French, the lycra, the bright colours, the whole kit! (OK, so I am a little bit envious because we still look so English in our jeans!) So tell me, how did you get involved in cycling, did you join a local club?
A little bit like keeping chickens, we seemed to stumble into cycling and I’m so glad we did. It all started when I became friends on Facebook with an English guy who was cycling and racing with a local club and this reminded Adrian of his beloved road bike he had owned as a teenager. The next thing I know we are off on a day trip to La Rochelle to pick up a second hand road bike he had found for sale on a local free ads site. Within a few months Ed and I had also picked up second hand road bikes, Adrian had kitted us out in lycra and we were off. In a few years we have progressed from 20km afternoon rides to completing 100km in a day (my annual birthday challenge) and we have even done a cycle touring holiday of 450km in a week. We aren’t members of a club as we prefer the flexibility of doing our own thing, but we always like to have our next adventure in the planning stage.
For anyone wanting to get into the sport in France what would you recommend?
Get yourself a bike, a map, pack a picnic and get out. You don’t need to buy all the gear to start off, my first bike cost 45€ and although padded cycling shorts are necessary if you are out in the saddle all day, you can get out and enjoy being on a bike without them. Your local tourist office will be able to let you know about cycling routes in your area. France is superb when it comes to marked cycling routes that are either quiet paths away from roads, or use back roads through small villages away from the traffic of main roads. You really can discover so much more when you explore France by bike.
Have you any amusing biking tales you would like to share?
Having never owned a drop handlebar road bike as a teenager, my preference was for a bike with a wicker basket, it took me rather a long time to get used to having the brakes so far from where I positioned my hands. One day, while looking around rather than where I was going, I failed to notice Adrian had slowed down in front of me and in that moment of panic, when I could see I was going to crash, I knew reaching down for the brakes wasn’t going to happen. My only option was to throw myself off the bike and scrape my knees and knuckles on the road while Adrian looked on in confusion, wondering what on earth I was doing. He certainly found it amusing.
You have been here for quite a long time now; we all know hindsight is a great thing and that being the case, is there anything you would have done differently?
This is a difficult question as I really couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, but the only thing I can think of is if we hadn’t bought such a long and spread out house it would have been far easier to heat in the winter.
Have you adopted any traditional French habits that you never would have imagined would become a part of your routine?
My Sunday morning ritual of walking to the boulangerie, listening to the morning church bells and buying croissants that we eat with freshly brewed coffee and homemade jam. I also love the fact that on a Thursday morning we have a fruit and vegetable seller and a seafood seller who visit the village, so with my very French basket on my arm, I can buy my fresh produce without having to drive to the supermarket.
We met through blogging because you were the first person who ever gave me a ‘shout out’ on Facebook and promoted my blog for me. Since that first kind gesture of yours I have been truly overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of other bloggers. How long have you been blogging for and would you agree that it is a great community?
My first blog posts were monthly musings to update family and friends about our new life in France back in 2007. Sharing them on Facebook opened them to a wider audience and I couldn’t believe how much enjoyment people I didn’t know were getting from reading it. The positive feedback from readers and other bloggers really inspired me to keep going and it has become something I really enjoy.
You blog about your life here but you also review books about France, how did you get into this?
I’ve always been a bookworm and when I noticed other bloggers were writing about books they had read and helping to promote new books I started doing the same thing. There are so many books with a French theme, from romance novels set in Paris, to memoirs, travel memoirs and crime novels set in the French countryside I’m now never short of something different to read.
Finally, can you give some advice to anyone wanting to move to France, what they should and should not do?
Learn the language before you arrive, have a realistic plan for income and once here be brave and get out into your new community and join in. It really is the only way to feel like you belong and it is the best way to improve your French.
I would also love to know how your son likes it here; how does he find the school system and will he stay in France?
This is a difficult one to answer as Ed has only ever experienced the school system here in France so we can’t compare it with the UK one. He is happy, confident and loving the independence weekly boarding at lycée has given him, something he wouldn’t have experienced from fifteen if he had been in the UK system, and as any Mum would agree, if he is happy, I’m happy. He has always proudly maintained his Englishness and if you had asked me a year ago I would have said that further education in the UK is a real possibility. However since the UK EU referendum in June he has sadly lost some of his love for his homeland, but never say never, who knows what the future will bring.