French life: blog & experiences

French life - experiences and challenges of living in expat France!

If you are an expat in France (or elsewhere) there is a good chance that you have heard of QROPS (pronounced Kew-rops). The letters stand for Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme and it is a way for ex-UK residents (or soon to be ex-UK residents)  to transfer their pension fund outside the UK tax system.

Some financial advisors will explain to you that these are the best think since sliced bread, but endowment policies in the 1980′s have made me rather cynical about claims made by financial advisors…

Of course, anything below is supposed to be generally informative and get you thinking about the options available, but is in no way to be seen as financial advice either for or against investing in a QROPS.

Since we are going through it ourselves (as parents, who are quite involved in the process!)  I thought it might be useful to explain what happens when your teenager wants to learn to drive in France. It’s interesting because it is quite a different process to the one in most other countries – I’ll let you decide which is the better…

Patience

The first thing you need is patience, because the whole process takes around 18 months from start to finish. A student needs to be at least 16 years old before they can start to learn to drive in France.

One of the harder aspects of running francethisway involves putting on a pair of sunglasses, turning up the air-conditioning in the car, and whistling along the motorways to visit sun-baked resorts and villages, preferably with loud music on the stereo. I call it work although to an outsider it might not always look like it.

The autoroutes are usually pretty empty, especially outside July and August, so it’s quite tempting to go a teeny bit above the speed limit – a temptation I try to resist since paying speeding fines after being caught by a speed camera is not very amusing. Or cheap.

If truth be told running gites is about the easiest job you can have, once they are up and running. OK there is the occasional bit of urgent maintenance when a fridge breaks down, a child drops an ice-cream on the settee or a snake falls in the swimming pool but generally these incidents are quite painless and easily dealt with.

More demanding visitors also seem to prefer it if the property has been cleaned a bit before they arrive, but that is only every Saturday and the rest of the time the owner can sit there sipping vin rouge and watching the Tour de France on the TV.

But the weather this month, which has been the worst May I can remember, reminded me of the other pressure that gite owners are under…

I should think about 99% of UK expats moving to France end up in the countryside, usually surrounded by lovely views and in beautiful period houses packed full of traditional features – rotten window frames, lead pipes, termites and so on. Not surprising since it is the space and lack of crowding that is a significant part of the appeal of moving to France in the first place.

On the other hand, as far as I can tell larger French towns have been largely spared the arrival of the Brits (working for big business and staying in a company expense flat in the centre of Paris doesn’t count!)

As soon as spring arrives here in south-west France we start to see the happy sight of young couples taking cycling holidays together, a perfect way to explore the countryside, chat peacefully and to commune with nature – or so you might think.

The reality is almost always slightly different…instead of the couple cycling along together, chattering and listening to the birdsong, and for reasons that are slightly unclear, men always seem to feel the need to cycle at least 10 metres in front of their partners, and often several hundred metres ahead.

Only a few days now until d-day (déménagement day – moving day). when we head for the big city – well Bergerac, which is only a big city if you compare it with the field where we live at the moment, but exciting nonetheless.

Selling gites and moving to a normal house certainly focusses the mind on what you need to keep, and I can’t even begin to describe how much unnecessary stuff we have accumuated over the years, just because we have plenty of space for it.

Old building materials (left over plaster board, dried up bags of cement, half used tins of paint etc) fill the sheds, along with 101 other things that ‘might be useful one day’ – but of course weren’t.

Well, that’s already four days that we’ve lived in the French town of Bergerac and the number of cardboard boxes surrounding us is starting to recede! Can’t say we’ve spent much time strolling along the river or around the old town quite yet though!

The move itself went relatively smoothly although signing on both the sale of the old house and the purchase of the new house on the same day was not much fun – each process involves spending about two hours in the notaires while they read an incessant number of pages about the historical owners of the property and other uninteresting matters.

Here’s a couple of things for you to think about when you are getting work done on your second home in France…

1 Bills in France should be in French

One thing we didn’t realise until we were having a meeting to discuss any ‘plus-value’ (capital gains) tax that might be payable on our property sale is that all bills need to be in French in order to qualify. A couple of bills we had that were in English – despite being from correctly qualified and registered builders – were tossed aside as worthless.

Pretty obvious really, but in fact lots of English builders working in France send out their devis (quotes) and bills in English, for obvious reasons.

So anyway, just remember that if you might ever need the bills in the future, either for tax purposes or for any other reason make sure you have a proper and valid copy in French.

As D-Day for our house move gets ever closer, one of the challenges facing us is that we are moving from three houses (our own house plus two gites) to a single house, and we have a large number of things we have accumulated over the years and will no longer need.

For example, we have four dining tables (and about 20 dining chairs); three barbecues; eight sofas, six picnic tables etc. and not surprisingly our new house will look like a furniture shop if we take it all with us…

So we have been delving into the wonderful world of selling things second-hand in France, with at least a reasonable degree of success. It turns out that quite a few people furnish their houses and gites with perfectly reasonable furnishings by buying second-hand furniture and goods, and at a fraction of the cost of buying now.

...and why is Scotland the friendliest country in Europe while the rest of us are rude and arrogant!

You have probably noticed that when you start typing a search into google it suggests the words that you are about to type. These suggested words (called 'autocomplete') are based on many thousands of queries by other users, and are the most popular 'endings' to the phrase you have started to type.

I have been asked to review a book called ‘Wild Swimming France’. Happily it was a pleasure.

Without spoiling the conclusion I can tell you straight away that is going to be an indispensable addition to the books I take with me when I go away, and you should rush out straightaway and buy it – it is an excellent book crammed with great ways to have a good time during your visit to France.

Having just spent a very pleasant week in and around Menton it is clear that some places are lovely at one time of the year - but at other times would be intolerably crowded, a traffic and parking nightmare, or have weather that would keep you inside all week.

But lots of people need or prefer to visit France outside the high season, and I'm sure there is somewhere for all times of the year. Here are my suggestions:

In these troubled times any talk of selling up and moving to France has reduced quite a lot. Apart from anything else it is now impossible to buy a studio flat in England for £50k, sell it a month later for £250k, and hope to live for ever on the profits in some quiet part of the French countryside.

But there are still compelling reasons to have a life-changing experience and come and join us in the sunshine…

1) Quality of life

Lots of expats have a good quality of life but not enough money. Now that most Brits don’t have enough money either (a situation that seems unlikely to improve dramatically in the coming months) all that is left is the comparison of quality of life. Would you choose commuting to work on a crowded train to work long hours in an office or living somewhere nice and working from home? [...short pause while I take a stroll in the December sunshine...] Not a difficult decision I think.

Ok it doesn't sound like a particularly sensible question in the middle of November with a recession setting in (again) but our website statistics show that lots of people are asking that exact question.

Perhaps it is winter setting in that reminds people that they quite like the sunshine? Perhaps the recent TV programmes about expat life in the Dordogne have reminded people that actually expats in France don't have it so bad? Or perhaps the 'grass still looks greener' in France than in the UK...

There are a couple of things we expats get used to that people in Blighty might not be aware of - and I don't just mean sunshine and alcohol poisoning.

There is a great invention called the BBC iplayer that lets viewers watch programmes on their computer when they want and where they want, or to listen to radio programmes they missed. Pretty cool?

It’s nearly Christmas so time for something light-hearted – a selection of famous French quotes – and some less famous quotes. Enjoy, and let me know any well known or amusing ones that have been missed…

“France has more need of me than I have need of France”

Napoleon

The big dilemma in our lives at the moment is helping older daughter decide where to go to university, and so far we've not been much use.

The first decision is whether England or France is the 'best' option and there doesn't seem to be an easy answer...each have their own merits, and expats with university level children all have a different story to tell. Whatever the reasons, a great deal of expat children return to the UK to go to university.

I've tried to list the advantages of each below, as I understand them. Since these are based as much on gossip and hearsay as factual information, all useful input and guidance is very welcome, especially where what I've been told is completely wrong!

I've written about our experiences with schools in France several times - and can repeat that our experiences are mostly favourable. It is sometimes suggested that personal development is stifled in French schools, and the teaching is too rigid and old-fashioned, but this hasn't been our personal experience.

Expat children will often have different school experiences than French children in the same school for various reasons, including language and integration problems, and problems with the higher levels of discipline imposed. These issues will be greater for older (say, 10 years old or more) children arriving in a French school. Different nationalities also have different expectations of what a school should try to achieve.

When we bought our house in south-west France nine years ago people seemed to talk of little else but termites and the dangers they presented to house and home.

Tales abounded of armies of termites creeping underground and devouring everything in their way, with a special preference for house foundations and woodwork. It was said they would eat a house (or at least the timbers within a house) from the inside out, so that the unfortunate owner wouldn’t even realise their was a problem until a strong wind came along and blew their house away, it now having less strength than a pile of dust.

Since they live in happy communities of 200,000 termites you’d think they’d be hard to miss, but they are very good at playing hide-and-seek, and might be five metres below ground until they discover your property and come running up for lunch.

The French, as all expats quickly come to realise, like to make anything to do with paperwork more complicated than it need be, and whether it's a Taxe d'Habitation bill, an invoice from URSSAF, or a payslip from an employer the main goal is to make sure that you haven't got any idea how the amount was calculated. I suppose this reduces the chances that you will grumble.

A recent example was our income tax bill, which had loads of numbers on it, some of them even the same as we had put on our tax return, and then a tax charge at the bottom and a figure for 'revenu fiscal de reference' (annual income), neither of which bears any recognisable relationship to the numbers shown above them.

(subtitle: installing Freesat in France without getting hot and bothered…)

After eight years eight months and 27 days of living in France we have given in and installed English TV. It would have been a few months sooner but I’m pretty slow at getting on with things, especially when I don’t know what I’m doing.

A sign that I often pass near our house is marked ‘Accotements dangereux’ and is accompanied by a big orange exclamation mark. The road ahead is perfectly straight and usually completely clear. What, if any, evasive action would you take if you were on the road?

The answer of course, for everyone, is ‘none whatsoever’ – especially for us English who will typically have no idea what ‘accotements’ might mean or why they might be dangerous.

In fact it means ‘dangerous edges or ridges’ in the road. In this case they are almost invisible as you drive along at 90 kmh, until one side of your car suddenly plunges off one of the  ‘edges or ridges’ and you hit your head on the windscreen – or fall off your bike…

I thought I'd best issue a note of warning to owners of gites and holiday rentals in France today, pointing out a little bureaucratic requirement that might have passed you by - and will perhaps end up costing you money if you do nothing.

I have no idea how many people know about the rule, but better to be sure...

February is always the least exciting month in our year. If it's going to be cold, or wet, or both, at some point in the year it is usually in February. As if to prove the point, this week has been too cold for cycling, which means I've been stomping around the house looking grumpy, while Mrs B has been gazing miserably at the garden from the window and wishing digging and weeding were possible. Well, each to our own.

The main excitement we have in February - and it's the same every year - is the lengthy debate we have with our central heating engineers. Mostly this 'debate' consists of them telling me I have a super modern efficient heating system, and me getting irate and saying that 'it's a shame we can't control the temperature then, if it's such a great system'.

One of the challenges of living in one country and having money in another is the need to send money between countries at the best possible rate - both best exchange rate and lowest bank or transfer charges.

This problem affects many Brits in France who are, for example, buying property in France with the proceeds of a UK sale, receiving a pension paid in the UK, or receiving other income in the UK (eg very often people pay for their holidays in our gites in pounds rather than euros, which we then need to transfer to France).

Here is the translated transcript of a phonecall I just had from URSSAF, the body responsible for collecting social contributions in France.

URSSAF: Hello Boris, can you tell me why you have sent us a cheque for 2540 euros?

Me: Because you sent me a bill for 2540 euros and you charge me penalties if I don’t pay you

URSSAF: I see. Do you know what it relates to?

A new and startling insurance quirk has been brought to our attention, relating to UK registered cars that are kept and run in France.

People living in France but driving UK registered cars are supposed to get them re-registered in France – but many don’t bother. There are certainly plenty of expats living around here that have been driving UK cars for a long time, presumably to avoid the hassle of re-registration.

The number has increased recently since quite a few expats have also been returning to the UK this year just to buy a car and bring it out to France, since apparently second-hand cars are much cheaper in the UK at the moment.

Eymet is a very pleasant bastide town near Bergerac, worth a visit if you are in the region to explore the 13th century arcaded houses around the main square and to amble along the river.

It’s not exceptional compared with other similar towns in the Dordogne department, which has many stunning medieval towns and villages, but somehow the town has attracted a reputation that means that Eymet has a constant stream of journalists and reporters, and a fame that exceeds its size and importance – it is known as being the town full of English.

Not unfairly perhaps, because the town does have a lot of English families, along with an English cricket club, an English tea-shop…

If a UK newspaper wants a story about expat invasions, happy expats, miserable expats, rising house prices in France, falling house prices in France, or anything else that concerns the expat community they send a couple of reporters off to Eymet.

This week we celebrate the 200,000 kilometres of our 8 year old Renault Megane Scenic, with the real and imminent prospect that we do actually need to replace it, and soon.

It’s had a good run – including a rather dramatic leap across a ditch about 5 years ago when Mrs B drove too fast around a wet corner  – but cold damp mornings are a bit too much of a challenge for it now – it really prefers not to start, which is a problem when you do school- run lift-shares…

It is about seven years since I paid any attention to cars, and now we need to buy one. The research has begun, and we’ve visited a few garages to see what’s available. Things are complicated by the financial crisis, and the very real possibility that car prices are going to fall a great deal in the next 12 months. Unfortunately we can’t put it off any longer. Grrrr.

The internet is littered with guides and information for ‘home business ideas’,  ‘work at home mums’, and ‘making millions of pounds on the internet’. The general principle is that starting with little except a bright idea and a little enthusiasm you can become very rich with very little effort.

Most share the common features that:

(a) they won’t work

(b) you will have to pay something up-front to discover it won’t work…typically they start something like:

‘Just $20 a month will give you access to our secret forum where hundreds of people just like you talk about how they earn gazillions of pounds a day before breakfast’…often accompanied by a picture of someone smiling happily in front of a big house.

Given that summer is here at last...I thought I'd take a look at the best ways of heating your house in France. Better late than never, and it might just help reduce the cost of fuel / oil next year - which I'd guess won't be any less than it is now. There are now several more environmentally friendly alternatives for heating a property, which may also be cheaper, though until now I've been unconvinced. In this post I talk about pompes a chaleur - heat pumps.

Pompe a chaleur

The pompe a chaleur (heat pump) is a system that extracts the energy in the air or soil and uses it to heat your home. The version of the pompe a chaleur - from now on referred to as a PAC - that uses the energy ever present in the soil is commonly called a geothermal system (discussed separately below). The PAC system can be linked to your existing central heating system to provide the hot water to heat your home, or can be used to heat air which is passed around your home.

I recently heard a story from another gite owner about someone who visits them each year from the UK, and pays excess baggage charges on their flight so that they can bring a few tins of baked beans and tinned tomatoes with them. Since this excess baggage costs eight euros a kilo, that would mean their tinned tomatoes end up costing as much as a tins of confit de canard. Just in case you are reading this, I can confirm that you can buy tinned tomatoes in France.

Baked beans I’m not sure about, but the ‘haricot beans in tomato sauce’ are sort of similar.

Before I tell you where to find free gite advertising I'll mention some of the problems that gite owners face when trying to get customers in their properties, and holiday rental listing sites in general.

One of the big challenges of owning gites and rental properties is knowing where to advertise a property. A lot of rental sites charge £100-£200 for a one year listing - so getting listed in a few can work out pretty expensive.

I thought it might be useful to explain how expats in France make ends meet. Just possibly this will give you an idea of how you could earn money as an expat and enable you to make the big leap yourself.

I am not concerned here with expats who work in France as an employee of an international company and just happen to be based in France for a couple of years, but with those of us who have to scrape together our own income just using our wits. I have also ignored criminal activities although I believe they can be quite lucrative.

What is the difference between family life in France and family life elsewhere, I sometimes get asked. Well in truth, much less than you would think.

Eating habits and mealtimes are more formal in France, and it is much more common for families to eat together. But, it is also common for a television to be on in the corner, so the notion of quality time and family bonding is not quite as convincing as you might think.

Food is generally seen as more important, and alcohol as less important, than it in the UK. To explain a bit - there is more focus on the quality of food and drink in France, and less on the quantity.

Two proper sit-down meals a day is a bare minimum - grabbing a quick sandwich is an alien concept, certainly outside the big cities. But that doesn't leave the French with a terrible obesity problem - quite the opposite. Perhaps two good, balanced, meals and a glass of Bordeaux is less fattening than two burgers, a bag of crisps, a mars bar and three pints of lager. I can't be sure because I'm not an expert in foody things but it seems possible.

We quite often get asked about French schools and how schools in France compare with those elsewhere. Although I've written a general guide elsewhere on the site (see French schools) a few recent conversations with teachers have given us new food for thought. This has included teachers with experience of schools in both the UK and in France.

Now, we've been out of the UK for a few years so have no personal experience of how it has changed during that time. But we talk to a lot of people who stay here, often teachers, so have a reasonable understanding of what has been going on.

We've had a bit of a French time of it recently, lots of Peter Mayle moments, which is always good. Yesterday we went to a French neighbours house for a grand outdoor buffet with lots of good people, food and wine; today the local hunt boss came round with a man with a gun to help sort out our rabbit problem; and on Sunday I'll be perhaps the first ever English person to ride in one of the local cycling club 'events'. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

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