Sometimes families move for good.
They fall in love with their new life and whilst it will never be their homeland, and a part of them will always feel more comfortable there, their new life fulfills their expectations and they successfully integrate into their new life. I’ve seen this happen many times and I’m often wowed by this ability to adopt a new world. I often wonder though, when do you stop seeing yourself as an expat and start seeing yourself as an immigrant who has moved for good?
1)Why did you move to France, originally?
My husband and I had always had dreams of living abroad ever since our first holiday together in Crete back in 1985. We wanted to find somewhere our children could grow up in a safer and more relaxed environment, be self-sufficient and have a more natural lifestyle. We had originally planned to move to Crete but by the time we were in a position to go it was not practical to move there with our eldest son who was fourteen at the time and at a crucial point in his education. We then decided on South West France, as we found the pace of life relaxed, the countryside beautiful and the weather much better than the UK. It seemed to fit the bill and so we set about finding the right home.
2) Can you recall the time before you left England, and what your concerns about moving were? What did you think your biggest challenges would be?
There were so many concerns really. The language and how would the children settle – we had three children at the time, in addition to our eldest son, we had two other sons aged ten and two. I also discovered I was pregnant with our forth child two weeks before we were due to move and so that was a big worry as to how I would cope with that and all that goes with it. My husband was going to continue working as a freelance lecturer in the UK to begin with, so I knew I’d be on my own a lot of the time and that worried me.
3)What did you think you would miss most about England, apart from family?
To be honest I didn’t really think about. It was such a gradual process, something we’d been planning for years. Also we had such a difficult and stressful time selling our house I really thought we’d never get there, so when we did eventually complete on the house it was such a relief I couldn’t quite believe it was actually happening.
4) Have you been surprised by what you really have missed about England?
I had prepared myself that I would feel homesick, but actually I never really have. The only times I’ve felt pang of wanting to be back in England was when my neice got married and all my family were there except me. That was hard. Other than that though for many years I didn’t really miss anything other than friends, family and Tescos of course! We were so busy just coping with new babies (number five followed a couple of years after number four) that I didn’t really have time to think about anything else. Its only now, after nearly eight years of living in France, that I am starting to appreciate the good things about the UK – things like the education system and (even though we used to moan about it a lot) the health system. It’s things like being able to complain in English, or make an insurance claim or when something goes wrong with your telephone or electric – customer service is virtually non existent here. We had to wait 3 months before we had a telephoned installed.
5) Do you see your old age in France or in England, and was moving a ‘for life’ decision or ‘for a while’ decision?
I don’t really know where I will be in my old age – it seems such a long way off and there is so much living left to do. Our move was a ‘for life’ decision and I don’t expect we’ll ever move back to the UK, but never say never. I love living in France, there are lots of good things about our life here, but I’m not sure we’ll stay here forever – there’s a big wide world out there, and I don’t rule out moving further South one day.
6) Aside from the weather, what positives about life in France can you tell us about and were the challenges the same as you envisaged or not?
Well actually the weather is not as good as we’d expected. The summer is great and we get far more sunshine here than in the UK, but the winters are bitter cold. Often down to –15 at night. Our house is big and draughty and the winters, although quite short, feel like an eternity at the time. Every year when winter arrives we start to think of moving somewhere hotter, but then summer comes (usually in about May) and the winters are forgotten until December.
That said, there are lots of great things about France. It’s far more family orientated – children are included in everything and there are lots of events for the family throughout the year. It’s much safer here for our kids to play and there is much less of the thug mentality you see in the UK. The youth are polite and respectful and there isn’t so much of a problem with drugs here, and children seem to stay younger longer!
We eat more healthily now as there aren’t so many processed foods in the supermarkets and no takeaways nearby, and everyone grows their own veg and makes their own soups, jams and pickles. Our neighbours are so friendly and welcoming – we hardly ever saw our neighbours in the UK
7) What surprises have you had – good and bad – setting up your new home in France?
We hadn’t realised quite how seasonal it is here. Our original plan was to be largely self-sufficient and live off the rent of our holiday apartments. However, we really couldn’t make enough money from that to feed our ever growing family. Also, much of the early years I was either pregnant, breastfeeding or changing nappies, so I wasn’t able to do all the decorating and help with the land I’d intended to do. We had to think of other ways of making money and so we decided to start a Landscape Gardening Business and then a few years later we decided to start a Garden Centre from scratch – that was really hard work and still is.
We hadn’t realised just how expensive it is here to be self-employed, and with Cotisations (like National Insurance Contributions) being 45% of everything you earn –you have to earn an awful lot to get a decent living. You don’t move to France to make money! We came here for a more relaxed lifestyle and whilst we probably work just as hard, if not harder than we did in the UK, our quality of life here is much better (at least that’s what I keep telling myself).
I was also pleasantly surprised at how well the children have adapted to school and the language – they are all fluent of course whereas I don’t think I ever will be.
8) If you experienced conflict between you and your spouse about moving, or aspects of resettling, how easy did you find it to resolve them?
Although it was probably more my husband’s dream to move abroad in the first place (I was actually quite happy with my old life), it was a joint decision in the end to come and luckily we both feel the same about living here. It helps of course that we are from the same culture and had been together for nearly 20 years when we moved here, and we can sympathise with each other when we come across cultural difficulties. We had also been through many difficulties together in the UK and so we have a very solid relationship. The only difference between us really is that I like to go back to visit friends and family and my husband has no desire to go to the UK ever again.
I do miss family, but we have such a big family here in France we are very self-sufficient and I’m too busy to think about anything else, and I’m also fortunate that my parents moved out here a couple of years after us and live just 15 minutes up the road.
9) When you think of home, which country comes to mind now?
This is my home, it’s where we’re living, it’s where my children are (mostly) and it’s where I’m happiest.
But, I am British (probably more so than I’d actually realised) and part of me will always feel most comfortable there. When I go back to visit within 5 minutes it’s as if I’ve never left. I could very easily slip back into my old life, I love the novelty of everyone speaking English in the supermarkets etc, but I’m always happy to come home to France too. Going back to the UK occasionally helps me to remember the reasons I left in the first place and how lucky I am to be living in such a beautiful place.
10) In what ways do you think your family life, and your relationship/marriage, has become stronger after undertaking this adventure?
We already had a strong marriage and family unit before moving here and it’s just as well because I think we would have found it difficult to cope with everything if we hadn’t. I won’t say it’s been easy, but I’ve never got to the point where I’d pack up and leave (at least if I have, the thought has never stayed with me for that long). We’re both very different and have different coping mechanisms, but it helps knowing that we’ve been through worse and come out the other side. I can’t envisage anything parting us now and I think living abroad has made me realise that as long as we’re together we could live almost anywhere.
Nikki and her family sound very well settled in their new life in the South of France, do you think this is an example of an expat story or an immigration story? And when do you cross the line between one status and another? Is it a ‘cultural fit’ thing? Or is it the length of time in the country? I’d be really interested to know what you think below in the comments pane.