Hard to believe but its been over a year now since I piled everything into a van with my mate Bill and set off from Wandsworth for Beaumont-du-Périgord. Then 6 weeks later sort of did the same thing but not so seamlessly with Kate ‘s stuff when her Mini was broken into and a lot of stuff, personal and valuable, was stolen on our drive down to Beaumont. Almost a year to the date of that ghastly memory we received a call from the police station in the small town that we are trying to forget the name of south of Poitier to tell us that some of our things had been recovered and the culprit was now in prison awaiting trial for serial thievery of people’s personal possessions. Luckily Kate recovered her more prized personal possessions and a Dyson vacuum cleaner as well as her lap top remarkably. My clothes were nowhere to be seen and now we have to start the process of erasing the memories of having been robbed all over again. It’s only stuff and we were grateful to get the most important personal things back.
Our first weeks here were spent in a cabin on a local campsite followed by a very cold snap in a nearby gite whilst we commuted back and forth to the house to get a working loo, shower room and kitchen going. We then properly moved in in mid November. In some ways we don’t seem to have made much progress being constantly confronted by the serial shortage of skilled builders in regional France. That combined with the word ‘non’ have created a bit of a road block on the road to renovation. And with winter now here again the priority has become heating the part of the house where we actually live so we have just had a pellet burner for the lounge and a wood burner for the kitchen installed. If we can insulate underneath the floorboards in the lounge then we will have a more energy efficient winter than we did last winter. With only 2 bedrooms a lounge and kitchen the oil bill for 12 months was about €2000. Plus electricity and water and wood for the fire. A modern insulated energy efficient house is beginning to sound very appealing.
The summer was unbearably hot and that now seems a distant dream as thoughts back then of the cost of a swimming pool have long since been replaced by thoughts of raging hot wood burners. Evidently we need to get on the pool case in January but it will be hard to imagine what those 40 degree July days were actually like in the midst of winter. If only the lively summer days and nights could be spread evenly through the year then the Dordogne would be just about right for 12 months. The Monday night markets with great live music. Festivals. Busy food markets. Outdoor concerts. All of these things just seem to come to a grinding halt around mid September. The weather stayed lovely of course yet the steady stream of visitors gradually reduced to a trickle. I think we could be quite popular next year if we get some sort of pool installed.
My parking has gotten steadily worse over 12 months and who knows maybe even my driving on these speedy country roads which are largely empty apart from the white van 3 inches behind your rear bumper. I’ve definitely kissed a whole load more men which is sort of worrying but vaguely reassuring at the same time. I know I have filled in a lot of forms and haven’t always known what they were for. Buying a car, getting it insured and re-registering it was an experience in itself especially when it was for a huge Renault Espace that I never thought I would ever own unless I had a family of 6. Kate’s Mini is sitting forlornly outside with a broken roof and a flat battery but we need to recharge our French admin batteries to get it changed over to the French system from the UK. All in good time. Ditto the Suzuki motorbike but there’s only so much French admin you can deal with in a year. Our run-ins with the tax office over the summer took a lot out of us and yet here we are at the beginning of another calendar year and the prospect of another tax return.
All this whilst we view Brexit from the outside, or is it the inside. From a commercial perspective I can now see first hand the differences between the UK and French economies and this has definitely re-shaped my views on the whole Brexit question. Wow this French economy has issues. It seems to squirm along at the speed of a wounded escargot and with no hope in sight. Certainly for rural areas. No-one can employ anyone. If their status is ‘auto entrepreneur’, and everyone has to have a status in this left of socialist country, then you are not even allowed to employ anyone. Hence when business expands no-one can expand their businesses to match for fear of being unable to slim down when business slims down. A far cry from the UK and the proliferation of web sites that you can visit to get tilers, plasterers and plumbers from Latvia or Lithuania. As George Dubya Bush once famously said ‘The French don’t have a word for entrepreneur’ but then he was never a great linguist. As I write the country is partially crippled by the ongoing wave of strikes against the pension reform system that Macron is trying to implement – as did Sarkozy until the exact same strikes occurred. It looks to me like the government want to delay the retirement age from 62 to 64 and maybe reduce pension payments according to your (government) position. Really? I’m 62 and can’t even conceive of retiring. This is one lucky country if you have the right job (for the government) but in the private sector I don’t know one single business that employs anyone who is not a family member. How can the economy grow on that basis?
Things aren’t often open here. And when they are they often close for a ‘fermeture exceptionelle’. Normally on a Friday in the summer when the temperature is high enough. But its also great that you can’t go out a and buy a new sofa on a public holiday because everything is firmly shut – as they are after lunch time on a Sunday and some businesses won’t re-open until the Tuesday so you have to be organised with your shopping. That has been surprisingly expensive at our local supermarket and we all try and support our local markets but they can also be expensive. We actually have a bank manager who we speak to most weeks about something or another. You’re not allowed to withdraw endless cash in France so there’s a limit on that per month. And there’s a limit on what you can spend using your bank card for some reason so the conversations are quite frequent as a result!
So as long as you realise that everything stops for lunch and no-one is in a hurry then life in rural France is a joy. It’s very personal – you have to get to know the mayor – and you probably shouldn’t employ an army of Latvians at any time if you want to remain popular. All mail (letters that is) seem to arrive eventually no matter what address is written on the letter and everybody sees an awful lot of everybody. There are plenty of expat Brits in the Dordogne, many of whom are escaping something or Brexit, as indeed maybe we are. And there are plenty of expats who don’t or don’t need to speak French. This creates a slight divide between the French and the Brits but that might also be because many French in this region would rather be speaking Occitaine than French possibly.
So plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose perhaps. When you look at the luxury products that France creates and exports this is a country that is the envy of many other countries but that envy probably doesn’t extend to the workings of the economy in rural France. Perhaps the country is split into urban, coastal, mountain and countryside – in that order – and all have separate non related economies. Brexit arrives in its first phase at the end of this month so 2020 could be a year of unravelling the special relationship between France and the UK – although I hope not. Perhaps out future here is a little less certain as a result but it would be hard to imagine rural France working without the Brits living and visiting here. The whole concept of a second home is absent from the rising generations mindset. Why would they bother when they can’t even afford a first home and can travel where and when they like using airbnb. This will lead to an even greater rise in the availability of remote renovation house projects unless the French have a change of heart and would prefer to live in run down romantic piles in the middle of nowhere.
But we love France: the sense of community, the lack of commercialism, the work/life balance even the crazy drivers. It is a spectacular and varied country that focusses on many of the good things in life which are not always attainable through extra working hours in the week or heaven forbid working until you’re 64!