Twelve years ago, almost exactly as I write this, I was asking myself the same question. Twelve years ago it rained incessantly, the house was knee-deep in boxes, builders and and barely-concealed bitterness. The roof leaked, the fire smoked like
Twelve years ago, almost exactly as I write this, I was asking myself the same question. Twelve years ago it rained incessantly, the house was knee-deep in boxes, builders and and barely-concealed bitterness. The roof leaked, the fire smoked like a kipper factory, any scavenged firewood was damp, the electricity supply wasn't strong enough for the cooker we'd brought from Scotland and blew constantly. An early thunderstorm savaged the computer motherboard, we lurched blindfold with ignorance from one branch of the French adminstration to another, from the Mairie to the Sous-préfecture, from the France Télécom office to the customs, from the health and social security offices to an obscure entity called the Département des Mines necessary for re-registration of the car, always with one document short that somehow they'd failed to tell us about the last time we called in, whole dossiers of papers which had taken weeks to amass mysteriously went missing, my daughter wept with desolation on her 21st the day after our arrival . . .
. . . but I once came across a short story by, I think – if any reader knows better, please tell me – by Emile Zola, about someone, maybe Zola himself, who found himself on a bus sitting next to an elderly woman who started to tell him about her sons, one of whom had been gored to death by a bull: Zola tut-tutted in sympathy. Another had been swept away in a flood, never to be seen again: Zola agreed that it was very sad. A third had fallen to his death from a hot-air balloon: Zola was conscious that the rest of the bus was now listening fascinated to this catalogue of woe, and by the time the fates of a fourth (decapitated by a madman), fifth (swallowed a tarantula in a green salad),sixth (mobbed by weasels) and seventh (accidentally transfixed by a circus knife-thrower) had been described, the other passengers were rolling about helpless with laughter, into which the old woman, at first uncomprehending, eventually joined. Mankind can only take so much tragedy: pile it on and it turns into comedy under its own weight, and there's nothing as infectious as mirth.
So I'm not going to brighten your day with other things that went wrong. It's enough to say that the whole business took a great deal of strength of character to see through. Eventually it stopped raining, the builders left, the car acquired French plates, we fell to talking less and less about the best routes to the Channel and the most attractive ferry fares, I found work of a kind, or it found me, which fast-tracked me into the French social security and tax systems, and the most fruitful entrée into local society came through joining a choir in the nearest town.
But why? Here's the pre-move shortlist, not in any particular order:
1. Need for a complete change of life
2. Well-lubricated lunches, copious but simple, in the sun
3. No further requirement to be in the office every morning at 8.30
4. Slower, more civilised pace of life, more time to stand and stare
5. Unblinkered love of southern France, though not necessarily of the entire French nation.
6. Gardens where more would grow than a few wizened potatoes or gale-deformed cabbages (we lived in North-East Scotland)
7. Warmer climate, no more endless sniffing from November to April
8. No further requirement to wear more than shorts and T-shirt and occasional pullover
9. Closeness of Mediterranean, Spain, Italy, Switzerland etc.
10. Some financial ease after selling dear and buying cheap: interest rates in 1990/91 frolicked about at 14%. You could see why it's called interest.
And comments, with hindsight: (Sorry if this means flicking the screen up and down.)
1. Well, maybe. More like mid-life crisis and temporary aberration of otherwise sound judgement. You just just have to follow where your less base instincts lead and make the best of the consequences.
2. Oh yes! Let's hear it for that crusty bread, the olives, the cheese, the succulent tomatoes, the sausage, the peaches, the local rouge, mmm! - but you'd better write off the rest of the day.
3. Yes, fantastic. You always knew you were born for better things. This is true freedom.
4. Twaddle. It's just as hectic as it ever was. As in most rural areas of southern Europe, there are many elderly people about. We're joining them, by degrees. Maybe this gives an illusion of slowness, as the tortoise said in the lift.
5. The buzz wears off eventually. Most French people of our acquaintance are charming, neighbourly and helpful. You have to go halfway and maybe a bit more to meet them: they don't start waving the Union Jack and singing Rule! Britannia as soon as you arrive. It's two-way traffic.
6. Oh! The strawberries! And the aubergines and the haricot beans and the tomatoes and the peppers and the courgettes and the melons . . .
7. What's a handkerchief?
8. I wouldn't mind putting a tie on now and again, if I could remember how to do the knot.
9. Barcelona's about 3½ hours away. A very sophisticated city. We can go there for lunch and be back in good time for the evening apéritif.
10. Ah, the crunch. 14% was a fool's paradise. You're lucky to get 3½% now. In fact everything's changed: southern French house prices are four or five times what they were back in 1991.
But still the Brits come. I asked our local estate agent, a formidable lady who once won an award from one of the UK francophile magazines for excellence and for the fantastic speed at which she drove round the mountain hairpin bends – I asked her what percentage of her sales this year had been to Brits. She doesn't always distinguish very easily between Brits, Dutch, Germans, Irish, Scandinavians and the occasional American, but lumped together they accounted for about 90%, she said. The French just can't afford the prices incomers are prepared to pay.
If I were French I think I'd have something to say about that.