I am really excited today to introduce you to another British expat, Kathryn Dobson, and her family, who live in the Vienne in Central-Western France. But although they moved here for the good life and have surrounded themselves with numerous animals, their lives are far from ordinary. They live in a small chateau and own a hugely successful magazine that they publish here in France.
First of all can you tell us a little about your background and your extremely high flying career?
It really wasn’t very high flying but I was lucky to work for several American corporations who gave me a sound training in all aspects of business from sales and marketing through to logistics and change management. I also spent some time near Newcastle in the UK working for a small business so had lots of different experiences over 15 years after leaving university. We ended up living in Northumberland where Jon and I had bought our family house and just had our third daughter when, over the course of a couple of months, we both faced redundancy. At the last minute, we were offered the opportunity to move to Geneva and our life on the continent began.
When did you move to France and more importantly, why France?
We first moved to Geneva in the summer of 2002 but found the Swiss way of life very restrictive with our 3 kids (aged 5, 3 and 1) and two dogs. As Jon was now a house husband, he wanted something to do (apparently three girls under 6 all day wasn’t challenging enough!). The ‘frontalier’ had just opened up, allowing us to live in France and work in Switzerland as we were EU citizens, so we jumped and bought our first house in France. It had been a long-time dream of mine to have a ‘house with a view’ and waking up looking across to the Alps and Mont Blanc was amazing. While I went to work, Jon set about renovating; structurally the house was sound but it needed completely updating and we converted the attic too. Over the next 3 years, work demands became heavier with a lot of international travel and our family life suffered. Our middle child had been critically ill, helicoptered to intensive care, and we started to re-evaluate what we were doing. One day we woke up and decided it was time to find the fabled ‘good life’.
Why did you specifically choose the Vienne?
We knew we wanted to stay in France – the girls were at school here already and we wanted them to become bilingual and culturally flexible. Working in international businesses showed us the value of these skills that money could not buy. So we set about finding somewhere where we could afford to purchase a small holding, the summers weren’t too hot, and we could get back to the UK to see family. We started looking in the Limousin but couldn’t find anywhere that ticked all our boxes, then one day Jon rang me and told me he had found the house. As we didn’t come via the usual route from the UK and as this was before the days of social media, we didn’t realise that we had found a house in the centre of an area already popular with Brits!
So we all love to know about renovations and how we each choose our homes, did you buy a move in ready house or one that required lots of work?
Our house is officially a chateau although a very small one! It has two towers and an enormous footprint of barns. Before we arrived, it had been left empty for many years after being rented out for 25 years so everything had gone, it was just a shell.
Who did all the renovation work and how difficult was it?
Like so many renovations, it was a labour of love. We allowed ourselves two years to complete it. At first Jon came over for a week or two weeks from Geneva while I worked and looked after the kids, before we moved over lock, stock and barrel 11 years ago. We lived in one room to start with, employing local French artisans to do the stonework, plumbing and electrics. We (mostly Jon!) did pretty much everything else including putting up ceilings and plastering throughout. The joy we felt moving the bath and telly out of the kitchen still makes us laugh.
How hard has it been to adapt to rural French country life after living such a busy stressful life?
It hasn’t been hard as it was always a dream we shared. I found the solitude more difficult than Jon but we are on a main route so only 40 minutes from two cities, plus we have good internet which helped. We were able to raise our own animals and grow our own fruit and veg while the girls were young which was really important to us.
When you came here initially did you plan to retire and relax and enjoy the French life or was it always the plan to find a big project and work?
Retire?! No never, we were too young and had 3 hungry mouths to feed so we knew we had work at some point but we were lucky to have time to enjoy the kids and our situation first. I started freelancing and set up a couple of associations to keep busy and we started from there.
So how did you come to buy a magazine?
I still wonder! Like so many things, a chain of events that we couldn’t have foreseen ended up with us owning Living. Originally, we were working with some friends on launching a local newspaper and together we had taken on Living from a mutual friend. They then dropped out overnight and we were thrown in at the deep end.
Did either of you have any background in publishing?
Not at all. Funnily, Jon originally trained as a printer but that was a long time ago and he had gone on to have a career in sales. I was in marketing for much of my career so these backgrounds prepared us.
Has it been easier or harder than you thought to produce such a great magazine?
We’ve had to learn on the job, our first edition was incredibly nerve-racking. We were lucky to find some experienced professionals in the area, Roger who is our features editor lives two fields away, while our graphics team lives 20 minutes south of us. But our previous lives have served us well, Jon has been amazing at drumming up the advertising that pays for the magazine, while my background means I understand the market. We work incredibly hard and every tiny mistake that makes it into the magazine is still painful, but the fear of it not being good enough is less now. Finding the advertising to pay for the magazine is the tough part, and will continue to be given the economy, but then it is the same for all small companies in France. Running a business in France has never been easy!
Can you tell us a little about the magazine, I know it has a big readership both amongst locals and tourists and has so much useful information within.
Our goal with Living is to remind people why they are here. It is so easy to get ground down by the bureaucracy, the language barrier or all the politics today that we forget to go out and look around. Just like Our French Oasis, we want to encourage people to get out, try new things, integrate and enjoy life here. Every edition is upbeat, looking forward, featuring places that we love with beautiful photographs. We want to celebrate life here and aim to have something for everyone, young or old, working or retired, in each magazine. As it’s free, everyone can pick one up and we know we have a growing French readership too. Our recent survey suggested we have about 120,000 to 150,000 readers of the magazine while many others around the world read our online edition. Estate agents tell us that you can always tell a house owned by an English-speaking person by the stack of Living magazines on the coffee table, often going back years!
I know you are quite heavily involved helping refugees in France, can you tell us a little more about this and how any of us can help?
I first became aware of the Jungle mid 2015 when the conditions were really starting to deteriorate as more refugees arrived. I wanted to do something; for whatever reason these people were in a terrible situation between France and the UK, our two homes, and needed help. I set up a group on Facebook to see if local friends wanted to join me thinking I would drive to Calais with a trailer of donations. Then the photo of toddler Alan on the beach was circulated. Overnight we had 1500 members and we were no longer talking of just one trailer. We ended up organising van loads of donations and now are a network of individuals across France helping in a host of ways. Some are helping individual families now settling in France, others send containers of aid to Syria and elsewhere, others donate money to specific projects in Greece or further afield. Volunteers have helped in the north of France and continue to help in Paris. The group ‘France and Beyond’ now has over 2,500 members and helps people to find how they can make a difference, sharing projects and association details. Every drop of kindness Is important and our aim is to grow into an ocean. So, if you want to know how you can help, just join the group and ask.
And what about Brexit?
As a family, our EU citizenship has been invaluable and we’ve seen through our refugee work just how a united EU is important for peace. I’ve never been a political activist but felt that I needed to help the battle to protect the rights of Brits in the EU (and EU citizens in the UK) once the Leave vote came through. I offered my services to ECREU, a group of experienced lobbyists. I am their official cheerleader, promoting the group on social media to gather as many members affected by the change as we can. Numbers are important when looking to influence politicians – we now have over 6,500 members and are recognised by the government as an important resource for them.
Do you think your children have benefitted from the French school system, what are the most positive things for them about living in France?
Our aim was to make them bilingual and culturally flexible and there is no doubt this has been achieved. Through one of the associations I founded, Accents, we made sure their English was kept on a par with kids in the UK, and now 2 of the 3 have passed their Bacs, so academically the French system has worked for them. While the French education system is far from perfect, we recognised its issues early and tried to overcome them. As music and arts are lacking (especially in rural areas like ours) we were able to find an opera group locally that they would go to for 4 weeks every summer and tour with. As a result, our eldest is now studying to become a stage manager. Our middle daughter has always been academic and very ambitious and so used her languages to get into a top Dutch business school where she is now studying for an IBA with 500 other international students. One of the criteria was fluency in two languages so growing up here opened the door for her.
Lots of people dream of doing just what you have done, exchanging successful careers for the quiet life in the French countryside. What would be your advice to anyone considering such a move?
Be realistic. Renovations cost money so take care when buying. Think carefully about whether you really will enjoy this type of lifestyle, it can be hard, repetitive and constant – the dream is harder to find on a dark winter morning when the water for the horses has frozen! We haven’t had a family holiday in ten years as we have too many animals to leave. That said, the upside is that we have been at home to wave our children off every day and here when they come home, we can go for days out whenever we want to and there are so many places to go. Like everything, it does involve compromise and you have to be sure you want to live with these compromises. We’ve been through lots of ups and downs, enough to write a book, but we wouldn’t change a thing.
Finally, to really enjoy the lifestyle here what do you think are the most important things to take into consideration, and to do?
Without a doubt, learn the language; it opens so many doors. And don’t be afraid. I’m a great believer that there are more good people than bad and if they see you trying, they will step in and help. Sometimes the only barrier to success is our own confidence – step out of your comfort zone and the sense of achievement is exhilarating!
I hope you enjoyed meeting Kathryn and her family and reading a little about her life as much as I enjoyed sharing this with you. She truly is inspirational and the magazine really is a great read as well as a fabulous source of information which is why I wanted to tell you all about it because I have a feeling many of you are going to enjoy reading it, it is free, it is in English and you can find it here.