On your bike
It was when my husband started reading Vélo Magazine in bed that I finally realised moving to France had its drawbacks. Until then he had been an amusing person to live with, full of wit and charm, and occasional interesting conversation. Now all he talked of was pedal cadence, heart rate monitors and some bloke called Lance. Last weekend we had to leave dinner parties early so he could be up at 6am to meet his cycling cronies from the village. Jean-Claude Mas, a French wine making friend of ours accused him of becoming “too French”.
So just how far should one integrate? I know English people here that move in their own world, barely speak the language and only see other Brits. Last time I was in London I was talking to a cabbie who was about to buy a house in Limousin. “I don’t speak French,” he told me. “But the agent said that’s not required.” I suppose if you’re going to spend your life with other London cabbies it’s not.
But what is the point in moving to a place and having nothing at all to do with the people and customs? I met a woman recently who has lived here for 12 years and still can’t speak French. When I asked her how she got along, she said she spoke with her index finger. In other words she points at everything she wants. Is this sort of behaviour going to win her friends among the locals? What does it do for the reputation of the ever-increasing amount of Brits that are moving here?
In my view there are only so many Brit barbecues one can go to without losing the will to live. Is it not worth trying to make some local friends? Where I live, that means learning the language, as most of them don’t speak English. I found listening to the radio helped enormously, there are several talk-only stations like France Inter and France Culture. At first you’ll find them almost impossible to understand, but persevere. Finding a French teacher is an obvious way to learn the language, but if there isn’t one locally there may be people close by willing to swap French conversation for English. There are lots of things you can do before leaving home. The Michel Thomas Beginner’s French CDs are very popular. If you have Sky Digital you can tune into the French TV 5 on channel 825. There are lots of websites, the BBC one is easy to use and extremely good for beginners (www.bbc.co.uk/languages/french/index.shtml). The Laura K Lawless site (www.french.about.com) is great, lots of resources you can use to learn French from your armchair, a daily lesson and all for free. The Alliance Française organises courses all over the country and can be contacted at www.alliancefr.org.
Although Rupert’s cycling obsession sometimes drives me mad, it has been a very useful introduction to the village. Since we invited the cycling team for an English breakfast, they view us with renewed respect. “Anyone that can eat that stuff is a stronger man than me,” said Charlie, pointing at a pot of Marmite. The bacon sandwiches, specially imported for the occasion and served with HP sauce, were an instant hit. We were subsequently invited to the retirement party of one of Rupert’s cycling gang. Yes, everyone he cycles with, bar Lilian who is female, is retired. This may seem like a cop-out, but I tell you, these sexagenarians can whiz up a vertical hill quicker than a lot of 20 year olds I know.
The retirement party started at lunchtime and was held in Jacques’ garden, which is about 100 metres from our house. There were about 70 people there, including the cycling team and their wives. Between midday and 2pm a lot of pastis was drunk. Then it was time for lunch. Oysters and mussels were followed by plates of ham, saucisson and pâtés, then spit-roast wild boar. Ideal for me, a vegetarian who doesn’t like seafood. The children all ran around playing, the guests sat at long trestle tables eating and drinking. There were speeches and a small cabaret (mainly Charlie dressing up like a woman. They seem normal these cyclists, but eventually all that lycra goes to their head). At around 5pm we thought we could politely leave. We said our good-byes and came home for a cup of tea. At around midnight we went for a walk. There seemed to be a lot of noise coming from Jacques’ garden. At first we thought we were imagining it, but as we got closer we noticed that many of the cars that had been there at lunchtime were still there. We bumped into one reveler who told us this was perfectly normal. “We party all day and all night and then the women drive us home,” he told us. In the background we could hear Charlie singing.
An all-day all-night party may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but imagine how irritating it would be to hear it all going on next door and not be invited. My advice to that London cabbie is to learn French. And get on your bike.
An interesting way to buy a property in France is through a viagers. Basically you pay a deposit of 30 or 40% of the purchase price and an annual rent as an annuity until the seller dies. The annuity at the moment is 8.5% of the agreed purchase price a year. “The advantages for the buyer are that they can buy now before prices increase,” according to Guy Medd from Gascony Homes. “In addition, the seller has to maintain the property to an agreed standard. Finally, it is like an interest free loan once you have paid the capital up front.” The obvious disadvantage is that you’re gambling on the seller’s health. André-François Raffray probably thought he’d got the deal of the century when he signed a viagers with Jeanne Calment who was 80 at the time. He agreed to pay her $500 a month for her apartment until she died. He ended up giving her twice the market value for it before he died in 1995. She died aged 122 in two years later and still holds the record as the world’s oldest known woman.
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“Short of building a mechanised arm to collect the péage tickets on way through France to my house near Cannes, what can I do to make life easier in my right-hand drive car?” writes a reader from Tunbridge Wells. The answer is a small plastic télépéage box. You might have seen the lucky owners. They avoid all the queues and are waved through a barrier that seems to open magically with a t above it. I always thought one could only get these boxes if one were a serious commuter or professional driver. Not so. They are available from the small offices at most big motorway exits to anyone with a bank account in France and £15 a year for the administration costs. The cost of your péage travel is then deducted automatically from your bank account, and you can avoid further injury from your gear stick whilst trying to lean through car to pay the bill.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019