Monthly Archive for February, 2010

Any Fool Can Be An Expat?

Many years ago I went farming and wrote about it in a couple of books, Any Fool can be a Dairy Farmer and Any Fool can be a Pig Farmer under the name of James Robertson.

When I stopped farming I was unemployable and have since earned a modest living as a jobbing writer. In the past couple of decades I have been mining a seam of Scottish history and living in Highland Perthshire. Then my marriage failed, leading to the sale of the house.

So there I was – single, on the cusp of becoming a full-blown pensioner and sans responsibility, save for a small and fluffy dog. No bits dropping off just yet and modest cash in the bank. What next? There was no need to limit horizons to Scotland or the rest of the UK.

For a start property seems too expensive, even though I was looking for little more than a draft-proof snail shell. With a decent broadband connection and a nearby airport, life can operate from anywhere. Why shouldn’t I go and live abroad? A nice bungalow in St Helena was on the web. And houses in Florida are given away with a packet of cornflakes. I have friends in South Africa. Montenegro? It had a pretty name.

Spoilt for choice

Spoilt for choice

Then I was invited to stay for a week in icy December, in southern France near Toulouse. From several sweaters to shirtsleeves instantly. It seems a jolly spot, rolling well-wooded countryside dotted with neat farms, decaying chateaux and hilltop villages.

Scotland In The Snow

Time for a change?

So how about a move to France? Communications with the UK are fast and easy. It is well known that a raised voice will compensate for any inadequacy in the language – and I am very inadequate – but I can barely grunt in any other European tongue. The food is said to be good and the climate assuredly better than the depressing sogginess of Scottish summers. The fluffy dog has already had his rabies shot.

It’s a big country, they say, but I was unwilling to spend many months looking for the perfect place in the perfect location, so I plump for the south west, where I’ve just been.

Two months later I went out again for a week’s house hunting. Coming from the ice and snow of Britain into blue sky and 15 degrees feels like liberation. The locals moan about the harsh winter; it even snowed and left roads treacherous for a day, but I’m told the fields are filled with fruit and sunflowers later on and cicadas surely sing.

I’m a bottom feeder in the housing market and some of what is on offer is pretty grim. I’m uninterested in renovating and looking for something to move into straightaway.

An air of desperation is evident amongst the sellers, particularly the Brits and particularly those whose fixed incomes cannot cope with the pound’s decline. Many seem to have lived in this country for decades and still have nothing but pidgin French. The host nation seems very tolerant of them and more so if some effort is made to speak the language. Originally such invaders were said to be unpopular but the natives have realised that the foreigners have saved and restored many of the traditional houses and injected life into local economies.

An estate agent is an estate agent. Here they must accompany you to view the property. Many of the type I am looking at are empty already. It’s a buyer’s market and many owners have become sick of waiting to sell and moved on. One can tell which properties are being sold by the Brits. Many are have their restorations unfinished because the money has run out, but they are clean and well presented.

The French ones are not like that. No fresh-baked bread smells, of roasted coffee beans for them. Mould, unwashed clothes and detritis is the norm. In the crumpled bedding one hopes that the remains of grandmere have not been forgotten. French taste is not like British taste; here wallpaper assaults the eyes and jumps off the walls to overwhelm the rooms.

A couple of laid back 30-something Brits were building a pool house where I’m staying. They and their families had been in the Dordogne for the past five years. Neither would contemplate returning to the UK. The climate is the main reason, that and the lifestyle. It’s expensive but wine is a euro a lire and baccy is cheaper, as is fuel. Make sure to bring paint with me if I move. It’s much more pricey in France. Between March and late November the central heating need not be switched on. Bliss!

The emptiness of the roads is a constant surprise. Why is a French bog called a WC – a vaysay?