I’m moving from France to the Gulf

After eight eventful years, Helena Frith Powell is bidding France au revoir

Regular readers of this column will recall that we moved to France on a whim. My husband had met a couple who lived in the Languedoc on a boat in Thailand, and he insisted that we move there so he could write a book about the place. At the turn of the millennium, this seemed an exciting thing to do, even though it turned out that just about everybody else had had the same idea. On the grounds that if he could write a book, anybody could, I too decided to write one – then three more.

We bought a lovely five-bedroom farmhouse on the top of a hill, with views of vineyards, for the price of a modest flat in London. I gave birth to two children in Béziers and learnt to speak, if not always understand, French. Our life is secure and happy, we have made lots of friends and even my eldest daughter complains only intermittently.

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when my husband came back from one of his bike rides to announce that he had accepted a new job. In Abu Dhabi. I assumed he was referring to a neighbouring village, which has a similar name.

“We will have to move,” he said. “Why can’t you just drive there every day?” I wondered.

“Because it is in the Persian Gulf, down the road from Dubai.”

Then the newspaper he is planning to work for telephoned and offered me a job. I decided to accept – and, since I could not find anyone willing to tend the children, I told them they could come too. They seem to like the idea.

“Is there lots of shopping?” asked Olivia, 9. “Is it sunny?” said Bea, 7. “What’s a camel?” wondered Leo, 5.

Next, we had to break the news to our friends and neighbours. It has been interesting to see the expats and locals react so differently. Most of the British seem genuinely upset we are leaving; some have been surprised, others have taken it as a personal insult. The Languedoc is God’s own country, they say, and no good will come from living in a desert.

The French, however, are unanimous in their reaction. They look at us with a mixture of pride and envy, then say: “Well done! We would get out if we could.” When I told the owner of my favourite shop, Crémerie Clerc, in Péze-nas, that we were leaving, his reaction was even more extreme. “Find me a shop in Abu Dhabi and I will join you,” he said. My tennis coach was equally keen. “Find me some clients and I’ll be out quicker than your topspin forehand,” he said. And that’s pretty quick, even though I say so myself.

For there are two sides to France – the side seen by the traveller or retiree, and the one where people live and try to make a living. We are all familiar with the tourist’s view: long roads lined with plane trees, little bars and restaurants, picnics with camembert and rosé by a limpid river, sandy beaches, snowy mountains, beautiful churches and cities full of cycle lanes and museums and cafes for watching girls go by.

Living and trying to earn a living in France, however, exposes you to other aspects of the country: the workers who strike when you want to go on holiday; the teachers who strike when you want to work; the artisans who turn up to look at a job, say “Je ferai le maximum”, then disappear, never to be seen again.

Then there is the bureaucracy. Our French friends assumed we were living outside the system, like outlaws, and envied us for it. In fact, we decided it was only fair to get involved and contribute, particularly as our children were being educated by the French state. Because of the five children we have between us, we did not have to pay excessive taxes. The French fiscal authorities are smarter than others. They know most people will lie about their earnings, so they don’t bother to question them. Instead, they rake off a substantial chunk of anything that enters your bank account and call it social charges.

In our case, social-security payments and the like are handled by Agessa, the writer’s guild. I can only describe our relationship with the organisation as fraught. The day I realised we would no longer have to deal with it was as memorable as the one when I got the keys to my first flat. It would be too tedious to relate all the correspondence with its offices, but the way our relationship ended sums it up. We had two payments outstanding, so I sent in cheques for the full amounts. They cashed one of them, but sent back the other with a letter explaining that I had not followed the correct procedure. Then I got a letter telling me they were taking me to court for nonpayment. French bureaucracy is like the Hotel California: you can check out, but you can never leave.

Some suggest that it is better to have social charges than the social costs we read about in the papers, such as teen-agers being knifed on a regular basis in south London. France has fantastic medical services, great roads, a rail network that works and many other benefits, including a sense of community. All this, however, has to be paid for.

The other day, I ran into a American winemaker in her mid-forties, who moved to the Languedoc a decade ago. She is the only expatriate to echo our French friends. “We’d leave if we could,” she said. “It’s no surprise so many young French people live in London. All we are doing here is working for the state.”

Living in France is magnificent. I love the courtesy of the people, their respect for each other and the fact that they know how to live. I like the way they make time for a decent lunch and care about what they eat and where it comes from. We are keeping our house (which, I’m pleased to say, has more than tripled in value), and I am sure we will return to live here. It would be nice to think that Nicolas Sarkozy will have reformed the sclerotic bureaucracy by the time we do, but somehow I doubt it.

I have enjoyed both writing this column and reading the correspondence it has provoked. I have made some good friends over the past eight years. Funnily enough, the angriest letters came from Brits furious that I dared to criticise France, rather like their reaction on hearing we’re leaving. Yet, as I tell them, there would be little point in a column dedicated solely to how marvellous life is here. Which it is, in so many ways. I’m sure I will miss it terribly.

10 thoughts on “I’m moving from France to the Gulf

  1. So sorry to learn of your decision. You have your reasons. But I can’t see you fitting in with the nouveau riche expats in a land bereft of culture. I can’t name a single artist, composer, cathedral, gastronomic dish, historical figure, distinguished wine, scholar, scientist or even media magnate who emanated from Abu Dhabi. And as for les fromages..well, best not go there!
    I have enjoyed all your columns, read your books, and feel some considerable affinity with you and your family as I am half Italian and cherish my heritage and Italian genes like you would not believe. I almost feel you and your husband by moving to Abu Dhabi are betraying everything the educated cultured middle class stands for, you might as well go the whole hog and go to the Costas or Florida. All the concrete without the sand.

    Hopefully you will soon tire of the heat, the sand and the people and return to civilisation in the Languedoc! I will read your future missives with interest Helena!
    Ciao for now I guess! Salute e buona fortuna!

  2. Thanks Paul, I agree it will be more like Florida than Florence, but it will be an adventure and a very different civilisation. I’ll keep you posted!

  3. I hope you enjoy Abu Dhabi.
    I read more, More France Please with great interest (and this article too) and I must say a little dismay. I’d be curious to know if you think things are any better in Italy- the way you describe the taxation and bureacracy is enough to turn anyone off living in France.

  4. Hello Ingrid
    I think both places have advantages and disadvantages. The downside with France if you’re trying to make a go of your own business is of course the taxation, but if you’re working for a company then you will be fine. I love both countries but find Italy rather crowded. Also it will depend on which language you are more comfortable in.
    Best of luck

  5. hi Helena,
    I am very happy you are moving there. Do you know why? Because I am sure that you will write a book about the women there, and I already am looking forward reading it!!!
    Good luck!

    PS dont you think it will be impossibly hot there? I live in Cyprus and the summer gets up to 40. In doubai it is up to 50!!!

    Please, write the book faster!!!

  6. I read Paul Stanyer’s comments with interest:

    ‘I can’t name a single artist, composer, cathedral, gastronomic dish, historical figure, distinguished wine, scholar, scientist or even media magnate who emanated from Abu Dhabi’.

    You comments could equally apply to France of the last fifty years and that is the big problem here – decay, lack of innovation, lethargy etc. I am lucky because I can live here (pezenas) and earn my money elsewhere but it would be unbearable to be ‘tied’ as the middle-aged french in the Languedoc clearly feel they are. Reminded of the Rafarrin quote to Blair a few years ago: ‘You are giving us your old and we are giving you our young’.

    HFP is making a good move in some ways. New world rather than old and are the Arab states not the cradle of civilisation? Plenty of pan-Arab exploration to be done with an open mind.

  7. I have just moved to Gard 3 months ago after 5 years in Dubai and 14 years as an expat (18 months of which was in Abu Dhabi). There is good fodder for a book in this expat haven of fairweather expats ….the BA crew do not call it the Ibiza of the Middle East for nothing! Interesting to hear your comments about the reactions of your friends when you told them you were leaving……when we told firends and acqaintances that we were leaving Dubai most of them said they would leave Dubai in a heartbeat if they could find a good job in Europe or if they were financially able to close their company and retire to France. That being said Abu Dhabi is a different place to Dubai and it has retained many of its values. With the European expat community being much smaller it is not as impersonal. As a fan of your books I am looking forward to reading your take on the UAE. Good luck.

  8. Helena

    Good luck in the Gulf, I lived there for 5 yeas in the 80’s and even though I had a good time whilst I was there, 5 yeas was enough. In the intervening time things will have moved on, but it only seems underline my abiding view that the whole place is just so false. There is a history to the place there and even some culture if you are prepared to look for it, but in the end the gulf was, and to my mind still is, all about decadence and money.

    I moved to the Charente (well my family did) 18 months ago and are thoroughly enjoying it, and when I have finished paying for all the building work needed on our Chambres d’hotes I shall hopefully be joining them full time instead of just weekends. I know where I would much rather be, and it is not Abu Dhabi

    Good luck, I think your going to need it

    I look forward to reading about my old home soon..



    PS just read your book More More France Please, the latest version, which is an excellent read and I could releate to many things in it, but you really need to sort out the proof readers, there are so many gramatical errors in it, I guess where things have been updated and altered, which somewhat spoilt the flow of the read.

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