Moving in – highs and lows

December 2021 saw a(nother) lifestyle step change. We were now the proud owners of a house with 6 ensuite double bedrooms upstairs, 4 large reception rooms, a big kitchen and utility room downstairs plus various other toilets etc. There was a lot of furniture and ‘stuff’ left by the previous owner, some of which we had agreed to stay, and quite a lot that we had to get rid of. There was also a lot of cleaning to do before we could move in properly.

My project plan had two big milestones for the B&B: open up reservations in February and open for customers from May, but before we could even start thinking about the B&B, we had to make our own accommodation clean and comfortable, so we threw ourselves into that all day, every day.

It was hard and dirty work, but we made good progress. The week before Christmas, Tom had to rush back to the UK unexpectedly, so I found myself on my own, in a freezing cold house with no central heating, still surrounded by packing cases and piles of stuff to sell / giveaway / recycle / dump etc. It wasn’t the happiest week of my life. But Tom made it back before Christmas by which time we (Clark) had the heating working and the house was starting to feel warm, clean and tidy. We gave ourselves a week off to celebrate Christmas and New Year in our new house and life felt good again.

The village was quieter by this time. The pre-christmas celebrations in the bars and restaurants resulted in a lot of the staff and customers catching COVID and most places closed for a month or so. With the winter weather upon us and little else to distract us we threw ourselves into decorating the guest bedrooms.

There were some lovely warm sunny days during the winter months and some VERY cold nights. I found it so strange that it could be minus 7 during the night and plus 17 during the afternoon. We did have a couple of weeks late Jan / early Feb where the fog rolled in, and the temperature barely got above freezing during the day. Up to our eyes in paint and plaster, most of the house was freezing cold, no sunshine, no social life…we were both getting fed up and questioning our decisions. But as February turned to March, the sun came out, temperatures went up, the village opened up, we were able to get out with our running group and sit in the sun with a drink after working on the house… we were feeling good again.

It was during those cold weeks that we booked ourselves a winter sunshine holiday for the following winter.  This coming weekend we’ll have been in France for a year. I’m sure the highs and lows will continue but one year in and I’m convinced it was one of the best decisions we have made.

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Renting, Selling and Buying Houses

During the autumn of 2021, in anticipation of the colder months ahead, we moved rentals from the beautiful old Pigeonnier in the countryside to ‘La Grange’, a recently converted apartment within easy walking distance of Eymet centre-ville . Two car journeys and we were done – we were still living a very simple life. Once again, the owners who lived next door were really helpful and very flexible as we moved towards completion dates on both the sale in the UK and the purchase in France. Ironically it was the sale of our 4-year-old town house on a new development in Framlingham that caused us the most stress, but it completed early in November giving us time to get the funds cleared and transferred across to our notaire in France ready to complete our purchase here about 4 weeks later.

We benefited from a better exchange rate than we were planning for which was a real bonus. I looked at several currency-exchange companies and, after a little negotiation, agreed a good deal with Smart Currency Exchange who were very helpful and easy to deal with. Nat West bank allowed me to remotely authorise (by fax of all things) the whole transfer in one transaction, and I kept a ‘paper-trail’ from the sale of the house to the arrival of the funds in my HSBC France bank account so that I could demonstrate to our notaire that everything was above board as a move of our principal residence.

I used a very helpful insurance broker in town here to sort out our house insurance ahead of the completion date, and after some incredibly painful (because my French was so limited and I had no confidence) phone calls, I managed to line up internetelectricitygaswater/drainagehousehold waste disposal and a truck load of firewood ready for when we moved in. As luck would have it, I was also able to arrange to have all our stuff shipped from the UK to arrive on completion day – the last delivery slot they had before Christmas / New Year.

On completion day, just under 6 months after first arriving in France, we met the estate agent and the representative for the vendor at the notaire’s office where we spent an hour or so walking through the contract step by step before signing the final Acte de Vente, and the house was ours. As we left the meeting, I notice I had a missed call from the removal company who, it turns out, were now only 15 minutes away from arriving at the house having driven down through France. Sure enough, within half an hour of getting the keys, our furniture and packing cases were being unloaded into the new house!

That was 6 months ago, and we are now into our third month running the B&B in the house. Eymet and the surrounding towns and villages are now back in full swing for the summer season with the return of the night markets and marché gourmands. Last weekend the annual Occitane Félibrée fête was held in Eymet which brought thousands of visitors into the village so there has been a real buzz about the town amplified by the 30+ degrees that we have at moment.

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Parlez-vous Français ?

I have had holidays in France for most of my life so my ‘holiday French’ was OK. Once we started planning the move out here, I started to learn again. By the time we moved, I had a basic grasp of the language, almost a year later my vocabulary, comprehension and confidence in speaking French are better, but I still have a LONG way to go. As this is another topic I am often asked about, here are some of the ‘tools’ I have used and how they worked for me.

Vocab – clearly it is harder to learn a language in my 50s than it was when I was young. C’est la vie. For me, working my way through Duolingo little by little, each day, a couple of times a day has helped with my vocabulary. It can be mind-numbingly boring and frustrating, but the repetition, the combination of hearing, writing, speaking, and translating to and from has definitely improved my vocabulary. Eventually, a new word will stick, and I can start to use it in day to day life.

Another vocab motivation was the admin for living in France such my car (e.g. impôts d’importation, contrôle technique, carte grise, entretein, remplacement de pare-brise etc.) Similarly when registering with a doctor, having a health check and blood tests, applying for carte de séjour and carte vitale, buying a house, getting services connected, applying for planning permission, buying materials, getting repairs done… all required new vocab. Each time one of these came up, I spent time thinking about the words I would need, looking them up and trying to learn them. I’d have practise conversations with myself (yes, I know!) while I was running or cycling or painting walls etc. Of course, it doesn’t always go smoothly, and I end up doing some Franglaise etc but each time some of it sticks and I get less stressed about the next time.

Understanding written French has seemed to come quite easily for me and is improving with my vocab, I can happily read ‘stuff’ now and fill in the gaps of words I don’t know yet. I believe that is quite common.

For understanding spoken French I’d completely oversimplify it with 3 scenarios: (i) French being spoken for people learning the language using slow and simple phrases. (ii) Listening to French being spoken in clear, straightforward, unhurried language without a strong dialect. (iii) Trying to tune-in / join-in to conversations between ‘locals’ talking at a normal pace using very informal language.

For (i) my favourite resource was the InnerFrench podcasts. There are lots of others out there, but for me this hit exactly the right level and I continue to work my way through them. I also bought their ‘Build a Strong Core’course shortly before we moved out which I found very helpful with stuff like pronouns that I still struggle with today. 

For (ii) I like to tune into FranceInter or RFI radio stations when I am driving, cooking, painting etc and I have found, little by little, I understand more as my brain has ‘tuned in’ to the language and as my vocab has improved. At first, I could get the general gist of some of the news stories, now I can get most of it most of the time. The music stations such as RTL2 and our local Radio4 have a good mix of French and English language music and repeating adverts are good for picking up new words etc.

For (iii) it is a much slower process for me. The more time I have spent talking to people, the more I can pick up, but this is difficult for me. I’m much better at answering the phone and asking people to slow down a little than I was, I can chat to our French clients and the locals who help me by slowing down and using simple language. I really need more immersion to improve in this area.

There are other things I have been doing which help me too like always having French subtitles on the TV, writing shopping lists in French, using French recipes when cooking etc but the thing that has made the BIGGEST difference for me has been ‘conversation exchange’. I speak to a lovely lady in the North of France for an hour week. We met via the TANDEM app. She wants to improve her (already excellent) English and I want to improve my French, so we spend an hour on Skype using both languages, catching up on the week’s news, discussing whatever happens to come to mind on the day etc. Very informal, relaxed, and unstructured but it has been so good for improving my confidence. I did the same with a few other people before we moved out here and they’ve been so helpful.

Some of my encounters in French are still very awkward and I know I still have a mountain to climb. I could be doing a lot more, but I also need to get the balance right when we have been so busy in the house and with the B&B.

À Bientôt !

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House Hunting

Picking up the timeline from when we arrived at our first rental property just under a year ago, as well as working through the admin I have been writing about, we also set about the daunting but much more fun task of choosing where we would like to live and looking at potential houses to buy.

We had a short-list of towns / villages that we wanted to check out and we visited 2 or 3 in a day, wandering around the place, getting a feel for ‘vibe’, registering with estate agents, picking up details of potential houses, stopping for lunch or a coffee or a beer and then on to the next location. Back at home later in the day, we would make some notes about our likes and dislikes and potential properties for sale nearby.

After a few weeks we had a much shorter short-list of villages (which was actually very different from what we had in mind before we came to France), and our property selection criteria were pretty clear to us by then. High on our list of villages was Eymet, which we hadn’t previously considered at all. One of the property must-haves, which wasn’t on the list when we set out, was the ability to generate some income and keep us busy.

We looked at 3 properties in Eymet that were or could be set up as a B&B. Either of the 2 great houses we looked at in the centre of the Bastide could have worked for us, but neither had the outdoor space or the flexibility inside that we wanted. The 3rd which was just outside the Bastide but still only a 5-minute walk away, had both but had other compromises that we had to think long and hard about.

Long story short, our offer on the 3rd house was accepted in late summer and with the rest of the ‘moving to France’ admin well in hand by then, there wasn’t a lot more we could do other than relax and enjoy living in France with a lot of spare time on our hands 🙂

I did a lot of running (on the not so hot days), Tom had a week back in the UK, we used the bikes for exploring closer to home, played tennis on the municipal courts, did some end-of-season grape picking, had a long weekend in Paris and really enjoyed the warm autumn days starting to plan our Chambres d’Hôtes.

It has been a very wet few days here over the weekend. Such a shame for the wedding events that our guests were attending, but it has been a welcome relief after last weekend’s heatwave, great for the garden and for my weekly longer run which was deliciously cool this week. The sunflowers in the fields are out now and the grapes, figs, walnuts etc are all swelling nicely.

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Health Care

A few people have asked me how we have got on with health care here in France, so here is my experience so far with my understanding of how things work…

To come to France, you should have adequate health insurance. For applying for a residence permit of more than 3 months, your insurance should include comprehensive cover including repatriation. After 3 months of living in France, you can apply to join the public health system – Protection Universelle Maladie (PUMA), but I had read that it can take time to process applications, so we decided to buy private health insurance for a whole year. It was expensive, but it gave us the flexibility we needed and the ability to cancel quarter by quarter.

After arriving in France, I tried to register with a doctor in Eymet, but there were already too many people on their books for the resident doctors, but I was told that if I need an appointment I was to call and they would fit in me when they could, but I couldn’t be assigned a GP.

I made my first appointment because I wanted to run in a local race. In France, for nearly all sporting activities, you need a medical certificate from a doctor saying you are fit to take part. The doctor I saw was very friendly, he asked me questions about my health, measured my weight, height and blood pressure, he examined my body and listened to my breathing. Finally, he gave me a full EKG. Everything was fine so I had the certificate I needed – valid for a year. I’d hoped my expensive private health insurance would pay for the appointment with the doctor (€40) so I scanned the invoice and sent it to them with a claim form. My claim was rejected because I arrived in France less than three months ago 🙁

After living here for 90 days, I filled out the forms to join PUMA with all the necessary documentation (of which there was a lot of course) and popped it all into the letterbox of the CPAM office in Bergerac. Two months later I received my social security number and my Carte Vitale so I happily cancelled my private health insurance. I did, however, take out a ‘mutuelle’ to top-up the public health cover.

A couple of months ago I heard there was a new doctor in town, so I have now registered with him, and I have since used my Carte Vitale + Carte Mutuelle to pay for appointments and prescriptions.

After breaking a pair of glasses, I wanted to buy a new pair, but that was not possible to do here without a prescription from a French ophthalmologist, so I made an appointment with one in Miramont-de-Guyenne. She tested my eyesight and gave me a prescription. I then visited the optician in Eymet to order new glasses. The Carte Vitale + Mutuelle paid for the sight test and significantly reduce the cost of the glasses leaving me to pay the balance.

All in all, the healthcare system seems to me be well set up, easily accessible and affordable once you are ‘in the system’, which like a lot of things here, takes time and paperwork.

Back at the B&B we’ve had a houseful this weekend and we’ve had a heatwave. With temperatures over 40C during the afternoons there were bound to be some uncomfortable nights, but we’ve learnt that by keeping shutters and windows closed during the day the house stays reasonably cool. The swimming pool has been great! We turned two rooms this morning so the washing machines are whirring away now and I’m ready for une sieste.

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