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 was to encounter them both in the first few years of my new life in France. Design and printing budgets were often the first to get cut and hit the industry hard. In addition, technology was changing and the increase in use of the internet by companies was affecting things too.
On reflection one of the biggest things to leave behind were not just family and friends, but the whole network of my existence to that point in life.
The day started early that morning in June. I remember that very long day driving to Ashford and picking up the train with the car for the tunnel crossing, loaded with my computers and fragile equipment, while everything else had set off the day before in a huge lorry.
However, I think it was a day or two after actually arriving at the house here in rural France, 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 and 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 and within the first few days we had been invited to apero’s by neighbours and introduced to some of the villagers. I had been to evening classes to learn some basic French and had an idea that I could speak a limited amount of French. Oh, how quickly that was proved to be very wrong, but not in a bad way. I discovered very quickly that by making an effort to talk French, even if poorly, it was met with a certain amount of respect. Even though I had probably pronounced words with a very English accent. However, and more importantly to me, I also found that it usually made them laugh. I of course joined them in the joke, but 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 encounter with my neighbours. While sitting having a lunch of charcuterie, bread, salad and wine, a kitten arrived by our feet and began to play. Being the silly softies for cats it was given some tit bits which it happily devoured. Shorty after I noticed that far down the garden two men were walking in the garden. Curious to know who they were and what they were doing in my garden, I strolled down, and when close enough to them attempted to talk with them. I was told that “they were looking for a kitten and had I seen it”.
They followed me back to house and were delighted to retrieve the kitten. Little did I know what a good friend my neighbour was to become that year. It began with another 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 has gone 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 but had managed to get early retirement and also enjoyed and spoke quite good English. She had grown up on a farm a little further South from our homes and the couple were about 80% self sufficient with their animals and vegetables. And of course the wine flowed in large volumes on these occasions. A typical apero:- probably 2 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 petroleum.
The friendship developed during the first year and I found myself around a dining table of up to 12 French people for a meal, mainly at weekends. But not strictly confined to weekends. 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 the 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 them, as they didn’t have a very good opinion of English food. So, when I dished up some very tasty meals they were not only surprised but also very complimentary. I think 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. The wife was somewhere about 75 or 78 and prepared and cooked a 7 course meal for 10 people. I have to say that it really was very good. We had some wild boar that had been in a marinade and was superb. The French have a much different view on drinking wine with a meal than the English. They usually have a pretty good bottle and serve quite small glasses that you are supposed to savour with the food. You can imagine just how hard that 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…