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A life in France – arrival and the early years

I exchanged my life for a new one in France in 2005, I had grown tired of life in England. Things were changing and I didn’t like what I was seeing. My business in design was slipping as the economy was heading towards the two financial crises. I encountered them both in the first few years of my new life in France. Design and printing budgets were usually the first to get cut and hit the industry hard, the financial crash took it’s toll. In addition, technology was changing and the increase in use of the internet by companies was affecting the area in which I had made my living from.

On reflection, one of the biggest things to leave behind on parting from England, was not just family and friends, but a whole network of people connected to my life.

The moving day to life in France started early that morning in June, I remember a very long day driving to Ashford for the Euro tunnel crossing. Car loaded with my computers and fragile equipment while all other belongings had set off the day before in a huge lorry.

I think it was a day or two after actually arriving at the house here in rural France when the thought – “what have I done” entered my head! But the unknown is always a little disconcerting until you make the jump.

The village is quite charming albeit not huge and the house is almost in the centre of the village near a few local shops, a very small weekly market in the square by the church where the bells ring all year round on the hour and half hour.

I believe that some of the neighbours had learned that we were arriving from England. Within the first few days we had been invited to apero’s by neighbours and introduced to some of the villagers. In England, I had been to evening classes to learn some basic French and had an idea that I could speak a little French. Oh, how quickly that was proved to be so wrong, haha – but not in a bad way. I discovered very quickly that by making an effort to talk in French, even if poorly, it was met with respect, albeit I had probably pronounced words with a very English accent. More importantly to me I also found that it usually made them laugh and of course joined them in the joke. The outcome quite often was to discover that many did actually speak a little bit of English. So somehow, aided by an amount of mime on my part and dreadful pronunciation of poorly spoken French, I stumbled my way through the early stages.

Not very long after moving in, we had an unforseen introduction with our neighbours. While sitting in the garden on a sunny day having a lunch of charcuterie, salad, bread and wine, a kitten arrived by our feet and began to play. Being the silly softies for cats it was fed some tit bits which it happily devoured. Shortly after, I noticed two men in the distance were walking in the garden. Curious to know who they were and what they were doing in my garden, I strolled down to speak with them. When close enough, I attempted to question them, before I could finish my sentence they explained in French that they were looking for a kitten and had I seen it. I beckoned them to follow me back to house where they were delighted to discover the lost kitten.

Little did I know what a good friend my neighbour would soon become. It began with an invitation to an apero. An apero, short for aperitif or aperativo in Italian, is usually an early evening drink accompanied by nibbles of some description. If an Apero goes well you can find yourself being invited to stay for a meal and very soon that is exactly what happened. The couple living next to us were not particularly well off financially, but their quality of life would be the envy of many English people that I knew. They were both very warm and welcoming people, he was more artistic by nature and had lived and worked in Paris for many years and taken early retirement due to an accident. I quickly learned that he enjoyed speaking in English and loved most things English. While she had grown up on a farm a little further South from our homes. They were about 80% self sufficient with their animals and vegetables and useful neighbours abd friends to have.

A typical apero would probably start with two large glasses of Pastis with water and ice. With the meal, sufficient wine, usually red unless it was fish. Then digestifs at the end, which more often would be something called ‘l’eau de vie’ and pretty potent stuff. It is a legacy of farmers to give surplus fruit to a collective to make alcoholic drinks. A number of bottles would subsequently be available upon production. I may have some of that wrong, but it’s close enough for here. Not something you would drink a lot of, sometimes exquisite and sometimes like drinking petrol.

The friendship developed during the first year where I would find myself seated at a dining table with up to 12 French people. I recall doing a great deal of listening in that first year, glass of wine in hand and ears on alert in the hope I would understand enough to join in a conversation. A one to one situation with the person next to me had become a little easier at this point but trying to decipher 12 people talking at once was impossible and still causes me a lot of difficulty.

It wasn’t long before we returned the compliment of being invited for meals with our new friends and neighbours. It turned out to be quite nice to surprise for them, as generally the French don’t have a good opinion of English food. So, when I dished up some very tasty dishes, they were not only surprised but also very complimentary. It may have been the second Christmas here, when a lovely elderly couple invited us to join them with some family members and friends for a festive meal. Madeleine was somewhere about 75 or 78 and prepared and cooked a 7 course meal for 10 of us, it was exceptionally good! We had wild boar that was superb, it had been in a marinade for 24 hours before cooking. In the company of the French, drinking wine with the meal is a very different experince. Usually, a good quality wine and served in small glasses that you intended to sip and savour every drop as an accompaniment with your food. You can’t imagine how hard it was for me to make a tiny glass of wine last a long time, being too polite to ask for more when everyone else was content to sip their’s with ease.

to be continued…

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