Au revoir to all that: After five years in France, a family tell why they're glad to be back in Britain
Last updated at 10:35 PM on 29th September 2009
Stories Five years ago, 47-year-old Melanie Jones and her husband Robert, 50, a production buyer in the film industry, moved with their children from Virginia Water, Surrey, to south-west France.
Today, the Mail publishes extracts from Melanie's journal, in which she paints a hilarious picture of the realities of life across the Channel - and explains why they came back to the UK...
THE BIG DECISION
What would you say if I told you I'd found a way for you to take half the year off and have no mortgage and no school fees to pay?' I ask my husband one spring evening in 2003 as we sit in the kitchen at home in Virginia Water.
'How?' he asks. 'We move to France. I speak French so that's not a problem. Simple.'
Home sweet home: Melanie Jones with daughter Emily back in the UK
And so begin our plans to leave behind the rat race, the long working hours for Robert, and the private school fees for our two children, Ciaran and Emily, then aged nine and seven, and 'Live the Dream' in France.
Well actually that's not quite true. Robert's answer is a resounding 'No'. But after a campaign of persuasion, he's won round. Finding the perfect house proves more difficult. We're gazumped on the first, and the second falls through after the vendor ingeniously suggests that we buy the house - and that she continues to live in it.
In desperation, I arrange another trip, this time to the Tarn et Garonne, Midi Pyrenees. It is December 2003 and the region is shrouded in thick fog as we - literally - stumble across Le Mas ('the farmhouse'), our new home in France. It is half the price of our British home and set in stunning, rolling countryside.
THE DREAM HOME
We move in on April Fools' Day 2004. An omen if ever there was one. The previous owners were artists and every spare inch of the walls was covered with paintings, and the rooms were filled with furniture.
Now, though, it's stark and empty, and something of a shock. Le Mas is a crumbling 200-year-old farmhouse with a kitchen so old you'd probably have to carbon-date it.
Said kitchen lacks one important element ... an oven. Who on earth designs a kitchen without an oven? Instead, I find one in the barn next to the house.
Our lovely ensuite bathroom, of similar age to the kitchen, is a former pigsty complete with 14 single-glazed windows and no ventilation. The first rainfall brings out the buckets, to stem the flow of water through the roof and chimney.
A quick check under the roof tiles - no, of course we didn't look there before we bought it - reveals a startling lack of insulation and, boy, do we pay for that. When winter arrives we burn through £1,800 of gas in three months. On the plus side, the constant rain fills the swimming pool, which the vendor had neglected to mention was leaking into the ground.
Maybe it was the fog when we visited, but it all needs far more work than we anticipated. Clearly, Robert, who will commute back to the UK to work, won't be retiring any time soon.
THE SCALES FALL FROM OUR EYES
Reality dawns gradually about life in France. (No Damascene epiphany for me.)
Is it the weather that is glorious in the summer but cold and very wet in the winter? Or is it the boredom? Outside the tourist season, most places are closed for months on end.
Dream home? The Jones' house in Tarn et Garonne, Midi Pyrenees
One evening in November 2004, I meet a friend for a child-free night out, and drive around for two hours looking for somewhere that's open. Eventually we give up and pass a jolly evening chatting in a car park.
And if my life is boring, spare a thought for the children. No modern shops, no cinema for miles. And as for their state primary school: the education system, so vaunted, turns out to be very much based on rote learning (my son describes it as 'death by worksheet').
While I make some wonderful friends, I start to hanker for shops that sell things I actually want to buy, and leisure activities other than line-dancing. Seriously. The French are obsessed with it. And I'm sick of restaurant menus that consist of nothing more than duck breast, duck legs, duck throats and the odd duck casserole.
On top of that is the cost. Living in France has proven to be far more expensive than we anticipated so Robert is away working more and more. Life is becoming the same old slog I'd tried to escape. And while a nation's quirks are charming when you're visiting, they become less so when it's a day-to-day reality.
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE
It is December 2006, and at La Poste I reach the counter and hand over my small but significant pile of identical Christmas cards. The lady has a face like a slapped haddock, which should have been my cue that I'm in for a rough ride.
'Pour le Royaume Uni,' I smile. For the United Kingdom.
The lady behind the counter picks up an envelope, examines it, turns it over and sideways and over again.
'Mais Madame, je crois qu'ils sont trop petit.' But Madame, I think they are too small.
Too small for what? Does she think that maybe I'm being a bit tight and should have brought some big expensive ones?
'Comment?' Say what? 'On a une taille minimum pour les cartes de voeux.' It seems La Poste has a minimum envelope size that they will accept for posting. Suddenly, my small but beautifully chic cards, pre-bought in the UK, are not such a great idea after all.
'Alors, je vais vérifier. Jean-Christophe, tu as un règle?' Jean-Christophe, have you got a ruler?
'Jean-Marc, t'as un règle?.'
'Moi non plus.'
I fish in my bag, rifle through the general detritus and there, hiding in the corner, is a paper tape-measure that has been there since my last trip to IKEA.
Ne regrette rien: Melanie tried really hard to be a good 'expat'
She looks at me as if I've handed her a snotty tissue and then reluctantly takes it between her well-manicured fingernails. Carefully she measures my cards.
'Ca marche,' she announces. Hooray, my cards can go! A good ten minutes have now passed and the queue behind me is starting to grow.
'Il y a combien, Madame?' How many are there, Madame?
'Thirty-two,' I reply. She opens her book of stamps. 'Mais, j'ai que huit,' she huffs. I only have eight.
KNICKERS TO DECORUM
The summer of 2007: it's 32 degrees in the shade and I have to mow the lawn of our gite before the new guests arrive. Even in a thin cotton sundress I feel like an explorer lost in the middle of the desert, so I do what anyone would do: take my dress off and mow in my knickers. No problem - there's another hour before the guests arrive.
Wrong. They arrive an hour early to find me prancing round the garden in my undies. Red faces all round, not that you'd notice as I've been beetroot for the past hour anyway.
We're in hiding. In the cupboard under the stairs. Why? We're hiding from possibly the most annoying child in the world, who's staying in our gite for two weeks - and today is only the first day.
Why is it that some guests assume that not only have they booked your cottage, but they've also taken an option on your life?
The five-year-old has spent most of the afternoon knocking on the door - eight times in five minutes. Where's the dog? Can I take her for a walk? Where's the lead? That cat scratched me. The dog won't come out of the bushes. You still haven't got me the lead... and on and on and on.
A STRIKING PROBLEM
Now don't get me wrong, I love my children dearly but ... isn't the point of having school-age children that they actually go to school?
My son's school has this lovely system whereby the teachers don't have to confirm whether or not they are going on strike until 8.45am on the day of the strike.
Fine, but school starts at 8.30am. So what do you do? Get them up with the lark and stick them on the school bus, only to get the call at 8.46am to say that all their teachers are striking and could I come and pick them up please. This involves a round-trip of 30 miles in the gas guzzling Grand Voyager - I told you it was rural round here.
I'm so glad I pay French taxes because this has enabled the local council to carry out an inquiry into the state of toilets in the local schools.
Questions were asked, facilities visited and the results finally published: young children are afraid of falling down the hole-in-the-ground toilets.
I could have told them that for free. The town council has promised to remove all these toilets from schools and replace them with the more common 'sit upons'.
From here on, generations of English exchange students will no longer be able to chortle to each other and say, 'You won't catch me using that thing'. A piece of French life gone for ever.
THE BRITS ABROAD
There are three different groups of Brits living in France. First are the BATs (British And Twisted) of whom I am proud to say I am one. For it is far preferable to be a BAT than a BAC (British And Clueless).
The BACs insist on being called 'expats' rather than immigrants because, of course, immigrants are one of the reasons they left the UK. And in order to be an immigrant you have to be Eastern European or an Arab.
Naturally, being BACs, they didn't realise that they are moving to a country with a much higher immigrant population that the UK, and that they will now become immigrants themselves.
British and clueless: If the typical expat can buy themselves an old 2CV and live on two euros and an old bottle top, they are in raptures
They also miss the point that having contributed almost nothing in taxes to the French Government, they will hitherto be referred to by the locals as 'bloody immigrants, abusing our healthcare system'.
BACs generally moved to France to buy a bigger house for less money. They are usually to be found wrapped around a carafe of red wine, talking in loud voices about being 'integrated'. They consider themselves to be integrated because they know the name of their neighbour.
Like minor aristocracy who are more royal than the Royals, they are more French than the French, happily drinking coffee out of wine glasses. They are also known to favour outdoor urination because 'that's what the French do'.
If they can buy themselves an old 2CV and live on two euros and an old bottle top, they are in raptures. They are generally considered figures of fun by the French and are pathologically incapable of saying anything positive about the UK.
BACs should not be confused with BBs, or Bubble Brits, who exist in their English enclaves, happily admit to their inability to conquer the language, and generally do no harm. They are largely a genial group.
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE!
Heading home one night, we stop off for a cup of hot chocolate. The cafe is full so we sit outside and enjoy a bit of French cafe life - looking out on leaden skies and torrential rain.
'Il pleut comme les vaches qui pissent,' comments my daughter drily. (It's raining like p*****g cows!) Remind me again why we decided to bring our children up in France?
Now, we all know that there's nothing the French, those guardians of culinary excellence, can't stick in a jar or a can. But who'd have thought that a tin of couscous could turn you into some sort of French suicide bomber?
Apparently, certain cans of couscous in our local supermarket have been discovered to exhibit a 'phenomène de bombage' - what a lovely expression.
On opening, it's been reported the contents can shoot out, narrowly avoiding taking your eye out and liberally plastering your kitchen in coucous royale with chicken and spicy sausage. As a precaution, the manufacturer has recalled 80,000 cans. Only in France.
It is 2008 and, having finally given up on our foreign idyll, the house goes up for sale.
And stays up for sale. Maybe it's got something to with the rather charming details, as published on the website of a supposedly bilingual estate agency.
'Pretty ensemble of properties of the stone well hidden near the end of a step through a road with little or no passage traffic.'
And the grounds? 'The business possesses equally two swimming pools and of about 1 hectare of gardens enclosed with two other distinct parcels of land close by ideal for holding up a horse or two'.
Holding up a horse or two? Hmm, well I suppose you could prop up quite a few if you felt like it.
It continued: 'This bedroom has a gudgeon partition wall of the dining room and if desired could be open to provide a huge dining room kitchen.'
A gudgeon? A fish. Now that's what I call a feature wall...
It is September 5, 2009, and the house, still unsold, has been rented out for three years. We are going home.
'Please don't let that be our removals lorry,' I whisper, as I watch a very small box van winding up the hill toward the house. It is. Conclusive proof there is no God.
We arrived in France, flush with money from the sale of our house in Surrey, our worldly goods packed and boxed by an international mover. Nearly five years later, we are leaving with hardly a penny to our name and what worldly goods we are taking will be moved by 'Man and Van' sourced from the internet.
So what is it to be? Life in France or life in the UK?
I have tried really hard to be a good 'expat' but, after five years abroad, I realise what a great place, despite everything, the UK is and the opportunities that exist for my children here.
I'm sure those of you desperate to leave will think I'm bonkers, but don't forget I was you five years ago. Sometimes it takes time away to make you realise what you ha
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