Pity poor Sting. Half a mile from his 17th century manor house in Wiltshire a small wooden fishing hut has been erected without planning permission. The singer is not so much dancing on the moon as hopping mad. He should never think about buying a place in France. For here in France people can put up huts as and when it suits them...
Pity poor Sting. Half a mile from his 17th century manor house in Wiltshire a small wooden fishing hut has been erected without planning permission. The singer is not so much dancing on the moon as hopping mad. He doesn’t want his Sunday lunch ruined by the sound of worms being impaled on hooks, and has told the local council that the hut should be demolished.
Not that he is often in Wiltshire. As a tax exile, he spends a lot of time in his pile in Tuscany. But he should never think about adding a place in France to his portfolio. For here in France people can put up huts as and when it suits them, and can fill the grounds with something even more irritating than fishermen and flies: barking dogs.
Before I go on I must discourage those of you who write me emails complaining that I only say negative things about my adopted country. I love it here. Moving here six years ago was the best thing we ever did. Not a day goes by when I don’t (at least mentally) thank my husband for coming up with the idea to up sticks and move.
The day we first saw our house was one of the happiest of my life. As we drove northwards out of the village the friend who was with us and who has lived in the region for 12 years said: “Assuming there’s nothing horrendous around the corner, this could be very, very interesting.”
Around the corner was a piece of paradise; a farmhouse on a hill in the middle of a deserted valley. There was not another house in sight. The views up to the mountains of the High Languedoc were magnificent. The olive trees shimmered in the afternoon sun. After a year of house hunting we had finally found what we were looking for.
Then a few months ago some people from the Aveyron bought a piece of land next door to us. We had been offered the land by its owner. It is about an acre and he used it as a garden. He said he wanted £60,000 for it. We took the view that for that amount of money we could buy a garden in Chelsea, so declined his generous offer.
On this piece of land is a hut, rather less attractive than the one Sting is complaining about, but I had never given it much thought. The land is classified non-constructible so no one could move in there and spoil our peace. Or so I thought.
The first thing that alerts us to our new neighbours’ presence was the fact that they filled up our bin with rubbish. One of the things they had thrown away was a box for a kettle.
“Why would they want a kettle when they don’t have any electricity?” my husband asks. There’s no fooling him.
The next thing we hear is a generator. Then we see satellite dishes and solar panels going up. One day a man from a fosse septique company stops to ask us if we know where the plot is. Suddenly there are two more huts; Sting would be apoplectic by now. These people are clearly planning to move in. And what’s even worse they are planning to move in with two barking dogs. My husband is furious and wants to report them, saying that the French have a noble tradition of denouncing their neighbours. I suggest the best way to deal with the situation is to make friends with them. So we go over with a bowl of cherries from the garden and introduce ourselves.
We can’t hear ourselves think over the din of the dogs.
“I like the tranquillity here,” says our new neighbour.
We ask him what he does for a living. Surely if he has a job he won’t be able to spend too much time here?
“I’ve taken early retirement,” he says. “I got throat cancer from smoking. My wife and I will be coming down most weeks.”
He is true to his word, spending most of the summer in his shed, rather like Stig of the Dump. Every time we stick our heads out of our front door the dogs bark. My husband decides we need to take action. To be honest we really wouldn’t have minded the huts, the satellite dishes or even someone leading a gipsy-style existence next door but the dogs have pushed us over the edge. One of the reasons we bought our house is that it is in the middle of nowhere. If we’d wanted to live close to barking dogs we would have considered any number of other options, such as a village house which is a lot easier, and cheaper, to come by.
“Take him a packet of cigarettes,” is one helpful friend’s advice. “Shoot the dogs,” suggests another. We find both of these solutions slightly harsh. Instead we send a message through the man that sold him the land saying it’s difficult for us to work or sleep with noise of the dogs and could he keep them under control. This has no effect whatsoever.
Finally we visit the mayor. He admits that the original hut is illegal, but as it’s been there for a while there’s nothing they can do. And as for the dogs, well they’re just doing their job. What is it about French people that they seem to be immune to the sound of incessantly barking dogs?
“So they can just do what they like?” asks my husband. “Ils sont chez eux,” says the mayor. Case closed as far as he is concerned.
We go to an English lawyer for help. “Land classed as non-constructible in France can be misleading as certain building will still permitted,” says Dawn Alderson, solicitor with Russell Cooke Associates. “But what actually passes will depend very much on the individual mayor.”
As the law is clearly not going to help us we decide there’s only one thing for it: make friends with the dogs. We explain to our neighbour that the dogs irritate us. He is surprisingly nice about it and suggests we take Snoopy and Unis for a walk so they get to know us. Now every time they see us they don’t bark, but wag their tails in anticipation. I suggest Sting adopts a similar approach with the fishermen.
* * *
If you’re thinking of buying a property in France you’re probably worrying about how to deal with the French bureaucracy, the language and even the French themselves. But all these pale in comparison when treading the dangerous path of dealing with the Brits already installed here.
An English friend of mine owns a village house not far from here. She told me that another Brit had recently moved next door and came round to introduce herself. “Of course I immediately loathed her,” was my friend’s reaction. You see what I mean?
But never fear; you won’t be ostracised by everyone. There is at least one group of Brits living in France who will welcome you with open arms. This is the group that has moved here purely to take advantage of the weather, the cheap wine and the house prices. They speak no French, seeing no need to. “I find jumping up and down and pointing works a treat,” a member of this group told me at a Brit barbecue I had the misfortune of attending recently.
The Best of British group as I call them live in British ghettos, surrounded by British mates, playing golf, bridge and discussing where you can buy the cheapest marmite. Their idea of a national crisis is not being able to get hold of the English newspaper. I actually know one man who spent a whole day careering around the countryside trying to find a copy of the Daily Telegraph. Get it online, was my advice. But of course he doesn’t speak enough French to get his computer connected.
These are the kinds of people who remind me of a woman I once overheard chatting to an acquaintance at the airport in Malta. They were about to board the plane and he was asking her what she had thought of the island. “It was all right,” she said. “But a bit foreign.” That’s rather like complaining Shakespeare’s Hamlet is too full of quotes.
The second group of Brits already installed here may be less welcoming, but it will depend on how entertaining you are. They are the ones who have tried to integrate into the French way of life. They speak French, their children are at school here and they probably take two hours out for lunch. They are jolly pleased with themselves and convinced they have the balance just right. I call this group the Smug Expats.
This is the group that has the ‘I didn’t come to France to hang out with other Brits’ attitude. They may say this, but 90% of their friends will be from the Home Counties and they will be able to count their French friends on one hand. Funnily enough though they will have adopted annoying French habits like kissing everyone they meet (even perfect strangers) at least three times. It’s my husband’s pet hate. “I just don’t want to get that close to middle-aged women,” he says. “And apart from anything else, it all takes too long.” He should look on the bright side, if he were French he would have to kiss the men as well.
The Smug Expats will also refuse to call the bakery anything other than the boulangerie and sign off their emails with little French-isms like à bientôt. Totally maddening. Why do we suddenly have to start writing emails in French to other English people? Did we do this while living in Blighty? I don’t think so.
This group will also see you as a bit of an arriviste (yes, I know that’s a French word, just thought I’d show you how annoying it is), demanding how long you’ve lived here and if you’re going to here full-time. If you are not going to live here all year round you will be viewed as way down in the pecking order than them, rather like a flea on the back of a water-buffalo. In fact if you don’t live here full time then you don’t really count. “There are two types of people in France,” one Smug Expat told me recently. “Those who live here all year round and those who don’t.”
The group that will really hate you, and cross the street to avoid you, is the third category. This is the group I call the Gone Totally Native. They have probably been here for more than twenty years and are more French than the French. They are of course fluent in French, probably speaking it with the local dialect. They can now hardly bear to speak English, let alone mix with other Englishmen. They don’t mind barking dogs (in fact they probably own a few), they smoke roll-ups, they drink pastis and they wear their slippers to the bar. By now they’re pretty good at boules too. Some of them have probably even run for mayor of their local town. They would love to wear a beret but are scared of being laughed at should anyone discover they actually weren’t born in a local field.
These people are so far removed from Britain they probably think Margaret Thatcher is still Prime Minister. In fact they most of them probably left Blighty to escape Margaret Thatcher. They are socialist down to their un-washed toe-nails and hate the idea of France moving anywhere near a more free-market model. They are hugely up on all things political, although of course they hate anyone that isn’t to the left of Karl Marx. They may sound unappealing (and indeed they are) but as it is election year here in 2007 you should try to befriend them. That way you will know what’s going on during the campaign and you’ll be able to impress all your new friends from category one and two by telling them all about it.
Of course there are lots of Brits living here that don’t fall into any of the above categories, like moi. The kind of expat you become will depend mainly on the company you chose to keep. I have one simple rule for life here. Talk to anyone that’s interesting but don’t become friends with anyone you wouldn’t have been friends with back home.
Just as there is no reason to avoid someone simply because they are English, there is also no reason to speak to them because you happen to be born on the same island.