What's it like to give up your job, rent out your home, move to France and start a new life? Louise Hurren kept a diary in 2002, the year she, her partner and their son changed their lives radically.
As a thirty-something PR professional working for a successful London agency, I was happy enough on the outside, but beneath the surface I was fretting. I couldn't see myself travelling to the office and living in a two-bedroom flat for the rest of my life, but we couldn't afford to do much else.
My partner James shared my frustration. Our son Barnaby was coming up for his first birthday, and we wanted a better quality of life for him -- and for us.
James is a self-employed musician who performs regularly in different European cities, and on one occasion when he played in Montpellier, I went along for the ride. We sat on a sunny cafe terrace and daydreamed about moving to France. It certainly seemed an attractive idea, but there were plenty of practical concerns. Could we afford to live there, and where, exactly? How would we earn our living? What would we do with our London flat? Should we buy in France, or rent first? I spoke fluent French, but how would James and Barnaby cope? Then there was childcare, schooling and healthcare to consider. We agreed that some in-depth research was needed before we got too carried away -- and so began eight months of careful planning.
January - Back to work after the Christmas break. Weather is freezing cold and London Underground fares go up (again). We make a New Year's resolution; if all goes to plan, we start a new life in France in 2002. Time for a serious recce at the Vive La France show (a mine of information about travel, property and la vie en France). Collect hundreds of maps, brochures and guides, and pore over them every night. Realise that France is a very large country, and that we need to focus our plans on one area. The Euro becomes legal tender in France this month; we imagine what it'll be like to switch to a new currency.
February - Buy Living France and any other France-related magazines I can find. Read Living and Working in France from cover to cover. Feel like I'm mugging up for an exam; France has become my specialist subject. Pick up the odd copy of Le Monde and try to get a feel for French current affairs. Jacques Chirac announces he'll run for President in the elections to be held later this year. I've always found politics desperately dull, but somehow this feels different.
March - Sign up for a local evening class in business French (my French degree was a long time ago, and suddenly I feel less confident); persuade James (not much of a linguist) to start French conversation classes. Join the French Cultural Institute and sit through numerous films en version originale, which does wonders for my spoken French. Contact the Live France Group (a property search agency based in France) and a few other leads re. work, and cross my fingers (moving without having a job to go to seems foolhardy). Big news at home: the Queen Mother dies and a nation mourns. Wonder what it'll be like to live in a country where they don't have a royal family (any more).
April - Fly to Montpellier and spend long weekend looking into housing, job opportunities, schools and the like (the tourist information bureau and the Chambre de Commerce are really helpful). Buy local newspaper Le Midi Libre to check out job ads; pick up free estate agents magazines and fantasise about fabulous country houses. National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen comes second in first round of presidential elections; the results are announced early evening as I sit in a restaurant eating supper. Shock all round -- a woman on the next table starts to cry. Next morning the media goes into overdrive and street protests are organised across France. Start to wonder if we really do want to move to France after all.
May - Big sigh of relief - Chirac is elected President. Good news on the job front -- Live France Group want to meet up. Start to go through the loft, cupboards and garden shed; local charity shop gets huge donation of old clothes, books and bric-a-brac. Rent out storage space for those things that we can't bear to throw away. UK newspapers full of grim news - fifth major rail accident in five years; it feels like the public transport system is falling apart. Spend hours online visiting regional tourist board sites, estate agents' sites and the Living France forum, gleaning useful info.
June - Set date to move (end of August), so it's now three months and counting. Hand in my notice, James breaks the news to his business partner and we tell parents and friends - it all starts to feel official. Time to tackle long-overdue DIY and repairs so we can rent out the flat. Get quotes from removal firms and try to figure out how many square feet of space we'll need to book. Book the car ferry, plus a couchette on the RailEurope train that'll take us plus car from Calais to Narbonne (can't face the drive with small child in tow). The Queen's Golden Jubilee comes and goes -- too busy with own plans to pay much attention.
July - Dig out our passports, birth certificates, Barnaby's medical notes, car insurance, driving licences, E111 forms and a hundred other bits of paper that we need to make the move. Finding a place to rent in France is proving difficult. Contact local estate agents who are completely disinterested; either they have nothing on their books, or they're very sniffy and want to see proof of income (tricky) before they'll forward any details. Try the internet and word of mouth with little joy. Start to worry, then discover French Locations listings -- a variety of property to rent across France. Problem solved.
August - Put an ad in Loot, show our flat to lots of prospective tenants and finally manage to find someone who seems just right. Then they pull out two weeks before we're due to leave. Start to pull out hair. Find new tenant, hold breath and cross fingers. Have an emotional leaving do with work mates and organise a final get-together with friends and family - a big picnic in our local park; it rains, of course, and we all get wet. Still, mustn't grumble, there's major flooding in central and eastern Europe right now.
September - Our new life in France starts here! Crossing the Channel was easy, compared to the boring bureaucracy we're now faced with. Deal with EDF/GDF and France Telecom, our local Mairie (we're not married so apparently we have to get a Certificat de Concubinage), the Prefecture (for Carte de Sejour applications), the Chambre de Commerce (to register as self-employed), URSSAF (to start paying social security contributions), the Caisse d'Allocation Familiale (child benefit), the Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie (for medical cover and the very useful Carte Vitale), health insurance providers (for complementaire top-up cover) -- and that's just the start of it. After all this, we need a drink. Fortunately the vendange has just started in our village (we've moved to the heart of wine country, in Languedoc-Roussillon).
October - Juggling work (a whole new game, now I'm a self-employed marketing consultant), childcare and the challenge of setting up home in a new country is driving us nuts. Look for childcare options (it seems that the Mairie is the place to go with any questions about day-to-day life) and find that there's not much choice. Weather turns very wet and windy; neighbouring departement is on flood warning. The roof of our rented maison de village leaks in five places, the heating is minimal and there's no outside space for Barnaby to play. Spend hours searching Pages Jaunes (French Yellow Pages) website to find man to mend roof. Try to stay positive but I'm feeling lonely and very isolated. Perhaps moving from London to small village (population 1,025, now 1,028) was a step too far. Oh dear.
November - Decide that for sanity's sake, we need to live in a larger community with more services and cultural life. Time to go house hunting (again). Find it's easier to deal with local estate agents face to face, and even view a few properties, but there's still very little on the market to rent. Finally manage to move (second time in two months) to large village near Montpellier. Everything feels better; realise that the reality of rural life wasn't right for us. Enrol Barnaby at the creche, after usual amount of paperwork (we have to provide evidence of our income, a justificatif de domicile i.e. proof of residence -- namely a recent EDF/GDF bill - plus the famous certificat de concubinage, and confirmation that he's had all his jabs, thanks to NHS Child Health record book). James signs up for more French lessons and I tackle our tax papers (yawn).
December - Our first Christmas in France - oysters, champagne, and lots of local produce. Our village holds a very colourful Christmas market, and le Pere Noel comes to town. Spend New Year's Eve with new clients guzzling fantastic French food and wine. On New Year's Day we walk along the beach near Perpignan, basking in the sunshine and reflecting on how far we've come in a year. Bonne Annee indeed!
May 2003 - We've been living in France for eight months now. Overall, the move has been positive - benefits include a better quality of life, warmer climate, greener surroundings, good healthcare and an exciting new culture. We're now planning to sell up in the UK and buy a permanent home in l'Herault with the proceeds.
The downside has been the paperwork and bureaucracy (don't underestimate it -- seriously challenging, even if you're a fluent French speaker). It's important to think long and hard about where you want to live -- rural life is not for everyone, as we soon discovered. Accept that it'll take a while to get to know people, and that it pays to make a concerted effort to learn French. Be clear about how you're going to support yourself in France, what the employment opportunities might be, and how much money you'll need to live on (life does seem cheaper here, but our outgoings are far less, our lifestyle has changed radically and I've taken a drastic cut in my earnings, so it more or less balances out). Renting out our flat has helped us generate some income while testing the water; it's also not a bad idea to have a bolthole to come back to.
French Embassy (London) 020 7073 1000 www.ambafrance_uk.org
French Cultural Institute (London) 020 7073 1350
French Government Tourist Office www.francetourism.com and www.franceguide.com
French Locations 01275 856691 or email email@example.com
Live France Group +33 (0)4 68 45 69 19 www.livefrancegroup.com
Live and Work in France (Victoria Pybus), Vacation Work Publications 01865 241978
Living and Working in France (David Hampshire), Living France Bookshelf 01234 713203
Pages Jaunes www.pagesjaunes.fr
RailEurope 08705 848848 www.raileurope.co.uk