Life in a new country: the ups and downs of being an expat.

April 25, 2012 5:40 pm

When Peter Mayle spent his famous “Year in Provence” he seemed to get lots done, have a great time, and integrate in the community in just a few short months. Quite an achievement, but a question that crops up quite often is ‘How long does it really take to adjust to living in France’? There is no answer of course, except perhaps ‘Much longer than you would think…’ or ‘Almost certainly longer than Peter Mayle took’. Over the 4 years I’ve been here I’ve come to realise that it takes most people years rather than weeks and months, and perhaps 3 or 4 years would be about average. But why so long? And is there a way to speed things up a bit?

Year 1: entering the twilight zone

The general pattern is that people often spend the first year or so just sorting out building works (getting quotes, accepting quotes and waiting for someone to turn up…), starting a business or working out how to earn money, and generally getting used to the French way of doing things. You will probably be too busy to get stressed about things! Typically lots of family come visiting during the first year as well, which takes up lots of time and slows down the process of adjusting.

I moved to France in 2008, after I had finished University. We had always holidayed in the South of France, all through my childhood but we had gone to the Cote d’Azur. The Languedoc Roussillon was an unexplored area for us. My late Dad had always dreamed of retiring here and sadly he never got to live out that wish, but we decided to grab the bull by the horns and move out here! We stayed with my Mum’s partner at the time who had bought a home near Carcassonne, which is famous for its Medieval city, and is visited by thousands of people every year. It was great to have the chance to really look around before we bought a property. I would definitely recommend renting a property first to give you time to explore the area before you buy. So many people come here and rush into buying a property and find that it wasn’t the right choice for them.


The Medieval city in Carcassonne

We chose a renovation project ( yes, we are a bit mad!), which was in a village called Moussoulens, about 15 minutes drive from Carcassonne. We didn’t want to be too far from town but we also wanted countryside around us as we have 4 dogs ( 3 adopted from the local dog refuge, the S.P.A), so wanted nice walks nearby. Our village is great, with a small shop, boulangerie, post office and restaurant. The locals have been extremely welcoming so we were very lucky.

A view Moussoulens over the vines

The property we chose was actually 2 village houses, attached via a conservatory. One was habitable but needed new electrics, bathroom, kitchen, so we got the builders in and moved into the property in 2009. Then we looked to renovating the second property which is now my house. Quite the adventure…..


Year two: getting down to business

Year two is perhaps time to start learning French properly and to start finding customers for your business. Both are as hard as each other! It doesn’t matter whether you are an architect or a builder, a gite owner or an accountant; both French language skills and business skills are going to be useful. We spent 2010-2011 renovating our second home. This was a big project as, for the past few years, this property had been used to house animals, so you can imagine the state it was in. Here are a few before and after photos to give you an idea of the work we had to do!

Before and after shot of my Lounge

We were extremely lucky and managed to find a brilliant builder who was very creative with the layout of the property. The house was originally built in 1874 and the walls are made of stone and are about 3ft thick! So there wasn’t much scope for knocking walls down etc. To keep the cost down, I helped out on a daily basis, so I am now proud to say that if you need someone to fit light switches, sockets, build kitchens and put furniture together, I am your woman!! During this time, we got to know a lot of the local expats. It’s extremely important to make an effort to speak French daily, and we use our local village shop and boulangerie as often as possible, but it’s also nice to have English speaking friends too. We have met a lot of great people, some of whom have sadly gone back to the UK, but we’re determined to make a go of it here, so we will solider on, no matter what obstacles have been put in our way ( mostly endless paperwork!!).


Year Three: back to reality

Assuming you have staggered through these first two ‘unusual’ years and you have some sort of income things should now start to become more routine. Family and friends still come over from the UK but not constantly, and your business should be generating some kind of income. Now is a good time to set aside the occasional lunchtime in your favourite restaurant to remind yourself why you came to France in the first place! Note: although many expats arrive in France committed to ‘only speaking to French people’ and avoiding expat communities like the plague, experience shows that very few stick to this ‘ideal’, for lots of different reasons. Typically this will happen by year 2 or 3…! With both properties in a habitable state, we needed to start bringing some money in. We couldn’t live off my Mum’s pension forever, so I decided to market my Mum’s house as a gite. We have been very lucky as we have had regular bookings both this year and last year, so we will hopefully continue to have a successful gite business for the next few years.

Our ‘gite’

Earlier this year I decided to start a new project and set up a business for expats in the area. It’s called Brits in Carcassonne and it’s for anybody in the Languedoc Roussillon who is feeling lonely and would like to meet some fellow expats. I have a Blog which I add to on a daily basis, a Forum for members to chat together and regular events, including a Coffee morning, Walking group and Carcassonne cake club. The website is doing really well and I’m enjoying sharing my expat experiences.

Aromatherapy event                                        Cake made by a member of our Cake Club


Most of the people we know, like ourselves, had to renovate a property, and also needed to scrape together a living for themselves, which is both time-consuming and hard work. We are trying to take time to go and explore the towns around us, there are still so many places we haven’t been to! We are here for the long-term and have no plans to move back to the UK. Sometimes it’s difficult, but in the end, it’s worth it! If you moved to a new country,settled in, renovated a property and started a successful business in three months I’d love to hear about it, and perhaps learn where we went wrong!

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