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.