french revolutions

We're making the move back to France to open the best b&b in la france profonde


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Love It When A Plan Comes Together…

Over the next few weeks I shall mostly be a) blogging about the Tour de France 100tours100tales.wordpress.com and b) making plans for our research mission in La Belle France and c) browsing French property prawn (but when don’t I find myself spending an hour or two sighing over properties that I know I could make gorgeous with a lick of fake Farrow & Ball?)

Obviously with redundancy and tightened belts we’ll be fact finding on the cheap – no overnight stays but I’ll be contacting B&B/gite owners in the Montmorillon area to try and arrange to have a chat with them and get a flavour not just of the commercial possibilities but the lie of the land in the area. I’ll be making appointments to view (of course!) and sounding out the possibilities for doing estate agency work (did I mention I absolutely adore nebbing at houses?). And we’ll be having a holiday – visiting Snake Island and Monkey Valley and Eagle Chateau and all the other cool tourist stuff – especially Futuroscope.

I still can’t believe I lived 1 hour away from the ‘French theme park of the moving image’ and never visited. I drove a thousand times through the park itself, a collection of extraordinary buildings united loosely by the brief ‘space age as imagined in the 1970s’. I watched a Tour de France prologue there. I had summer visitors who went and raved about it, especially the evening show that featured a gigantic projection of Gene Kelly singing in the rain, his phantom tap shoes exploding fountains of water wherever they touched. So I’m stupidly excited about spending a day there (budget be damned – at least for a day).

But more, much more, I’m stupidly excited about taking our first concrete steps to shifting the big idea from page to paysage. To standing inside a building and saying ‘you know what…’ To finding the right place in just the right spot. To talking to other Brits out there about the detail stuff – the schools and the doctors and the amenities. To establish the sense of community and the place we might take in it.

So we have the tent (we’re confirmed Glampers now), the Big Idea, and the freedom (summer holidays, redundancy) – I love it when a plan comes together and I’m more excited by this plan than anything for a very long time. The feeling of knowing you’re close to sloughing off the dead dullness of the 9 to 5 in favour of a driving your own destiny is euphoric, like being just nicely pissed on the very best champagne/great G&T/Belgian beers (delete as applicable – or not), like feeling your shoulders drop and the knots in your muscles that you didn’t even know you carried unravelling. I am so incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to do this – for all the uncertainty about our financial future, I know for certain that the road ahead will take us into the heart of la France profonde, to a lovely farmhouse/townhouse/barn conversion with fake Farrow & Ball on the walls and 4 very happy and contented people waiting to greet you at the door.


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I won’t pretend that this will be an exhaustive – or even at all useful – list of things to think about if you, like us, are dreaming the big French B&B dream. You’ll have gathered by now that I tend to charge at things somewhat arse about face (business plan? What business plan?!) and am reliant on what I’ve learned in my previous life in la france profonde. But someone asked me on twitter today how I was searching for the ‘dream B&B’ and I realised it wouldn’t be daft to blog about some of our thought processes in finding the region that’s right for us.

Clearly I’m all excited about having an area to concentrate our search and it undeniably offers a great deal to potential guests. I know enough of the Vienne, if not Montmorillon itself, to know what’s on offer and that it fits really well with what we envisage developing (the ‘Big Idea‘). But I lived just up the road for 7 years – what if you have the idea but not the detailed local knowledge? I can’t promise that the following is in any way exhaustive but hopefully will offer some pointers for the start of your search:

  • What’s your USP? What do you want to offer and what market are you appealing to? If, like us, you want to appeal to a specific target audience (cyclists and their families) you need to think about the areas that are attractive. I know most hard core cyclists will focus on the Alps and the Pyrenees, but those markets are also well served. Appealing to families too – and persuading cyclists to try different trails and terrain – is part of our reason for looking at areas that offer a wider range of activities. We’re even thinking about keeping chickens just so we can offer fresh laid eggs for breakfast 😉
  • How are your language skills? A surprisingly large number of French people require overnight accommodation – only about 1/3 of b&b users are English tourists. If you don’t feel comfortable then think about running a gite instead, or focus on the traditional tourist areas – Brittany, Charentes, Dordogne, Provence.
  • Is having access to an ex-pat community important? Kind of relates to the above. For me, there are pluses and minuses – I’m comfortable enough in my language skills that I’m happy to be in an area where English isn’t widely spoken. But I also remember what a godsend knowing fellow Brits was in the weeks and months after my dad died. If you’re planning on doing renovation work you may feel happier dealing with English builders (and they’re everywhere) but check they have a SIRET number – you can be heavily fined if they don’t (and the locals may really resent you using non-French tradesmen)
  • Are you easily accessible? We’ve looked at Champagne as it’s close to the Rhone corridor for tourists heading to the sun and it’s easy to get back to the UK. The area we’re focusing on currently is close to 2 airports, the TGV and a major autoroute but it’s more of a destination than a stopping point en route to somewhere else. We’re hoping that what we’ll offer will mean that we won’t be dependent on passing trade but it’s another calculation that you need to make. Likewise if you feel you’ll need to be able to get back to the UK easily/cheaply.
  • What’s your budget? I know this is a really obvious one but We have a really limited budget (talking tiny, teeny, not really quite enough). If we didn’t the search would be a doddle and France would be our oyster. But we don’t so we’re looking at areas where the property is cheaper like Deux-Sevres/Champagne/Limousin/Berry. There are bargains to be had everywhere if you’re prepared to look hard and get your hands dirty. If money’s no object, then it’s really a case of what takes your fancy taking into account accessibility, language skills and your ‘big idea’

My advice? Think hard about your project, grab a map and some marker pens and a big roll of paper and start mapping out the areas that match your criteria. I like the following sites for browsing property porn as they have a good range of properties at all price points and, in the case of French Connections, useful property guides to each area:

Green Acres

French Property Links

1st for French Property

JB French Properties

French Property Centre

French Connections Property Buying Guide

Right Move French Properties


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Doing The Right Thing?

Yesterday, I had another run in my kid’s teacher – this time about his reading book. She told me rather tartly that he was obviously reading better at home than at school. “Obviously” I replied, dripping acid. On the way home, my son asked me if I was going to take him out of his school.

“Probably”

“Oh, OK” he replied, whirling off like a giddy whirling thing.

“I’m going to take you out of school and we’ll move to France and you can stay at home for 6 months and learn French by watching cartoons and playing with kids at the local pool”

“Yay!” he whooped.

Makes it all sound so easy, doesn’t it? Trouble is, it’s easy to make decisions for yourself as an adult – far harder when there’s a child’s future involved.

We’re all agreed that, once we make this move, there’s no going back – we simply don’t have the financial cushion to maintain a place in the UK. It’s do or die stuff which is wonderful for us, dangerous and liberating, but what about our son? Are we right to gamble everything and directly impact on the course of his life? After all, we’re asking him to make the biggest leap – into a whole new way of life, new friends, new school, new language. Is he ready?

If we could afford to move to Paris it would be (hate this phrase, forgiveness begged in advance for using it) a no brainer. He’d go in a heart beat on the expectation of being able to ride the metro – his favourite occupation bar none – day in day out. But we won’t be moving to Paris, we’ll be moving – in all probability – to a little village in the middle of nowhere without the wherewithal to put him in an international school. I’ve seen first hand what can happen to English kids in small village schools in France – books full of zeroes, being told to sit at the back and draw pictures, little or no support when struggling with the language barrier. Difficult to blame the schools – it’s hard to imagine the situation being hugely different if reversed – but it’s not a cheery prospect. Scary. As.

Of course, those kids weren’t my kid – my dreamy, imaginative, wonderful, off with the orcs and the elves 6 year old full of wit and smarts and with a vocabulary that makes me swell with pride. My kid who is being failed by 30+ class sizes and lack of attention. Who I’ve always wanted to home school but am painfully aware of the need for an only child to socialise. I worry that he’d spend his time staring out of the window in the more heavily academicised environment of a French classroom. I worry that I’d be jeopardising his abilities in two languages, setting him back because of my own gung ho stubbornness and desire to get out.

And then I look at the poems he writes, the notes he leaves me, the plasticine and lego models he crafts, the games we play and the books we read together and I wonder why I doubt his resilience, his innate intelligence, his equanimity. He cares about stuff – yesterday he asked me what I was doing to help the children who had nothing and whether we could do something on the internet? He is sensitive in the best way – not a delicate flower but emotionally astute. I know this could be an incredible opportunity for him to become truly bilingual, to grow and flourish in an environment where mum and dad have time for him, where dad doesn’t leave the house before he wakes up and comes home as he goes to bed.

I’ve been so envious of my friend L who has nothing financially and yet everything worthwhile – 3 great kids who she has had the luxury of being around every step of their childhood*. As parents we’ve missed so much of the first 6 years – I don’t want to miss out on any more. I want to step back, to be able to breathe,to relax, to watch him change and evolve, to engineer that luxury for all of us.

Moving to France is ultimately about improving quality of life for our family. I want my tow headed, chisel cheekboned boy to continue to grow taller and healthier and more confident.  To grow his own veg and swim in the local lake and ride his bike down the local lanes. And take trips to Paris to ride the metro. I’m hoping that having relaxed, contented parents will facilitate that.

There’s a lot of ‘hope’ and blind faith involved in these decisions – but sometimes you just have to work with what you’ve got.

*FEMINIST DISCLAIMER I believe that mothers  should do what’s best for them – whether that be staying at home or going back to work. Personally, I’ve grown to resent working because I feel like I missed out on a great deal. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but me and, truthfully, I never thought I’d feel like that – 30 years ago my attitude would have been quite different. I think it’s a lot to do with being an older parent, with feeling time’s winged chariot thundering at my heels, with him being the one and only.


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Location, Location, Location

The Hexagon is a vast land of opportunity, But where to look?

I like la france profonde, the areas where we Brits tend not to go because they don’t have the glamour or allure of the South, or the grandeur of the chateaux of the Loire or the majesty of the mountains where cyclists love to go and pit their wheels and lungs against the pros. I like tootling round the lanes and admiring a good woodpile and grabbing a pain rustique from the local boulangerie. Where the old  paysans hang out in their blue overalls and flat caps and their wives wear housedresses unknown in chic boutiques, whose faces translate the terrain into the maps of their own facial contours.

I like the way the pace of life creeps from day to day, month to month, season to season without changing much and then erupting into life for the annual local village fete or repas where overalls and housedresses are shed and couples two step to old French songs and kids jump and slide and aeroplane across the rough wooden boards of the stage. I’ve seen road bikes from the first Tour de France and been waltzed by a patient queue of little old farmers, eaten suckling pig and cassoulet and paella and fallen over drunk in cornfields by rivers.

I remember the afternoon we sat at long trestle tables and drank rough old local red with local dairy farmers who insisted we visit their dairy herd. They showed me how the calves would suckle on your fingers with their soft, toothless gums. The females would grow and join the herd, the males – a shoulder shrug – they were for the abbatoir. I thought of the awful days when the calves were taken from the fields, the terrible keening of the cows for their lost children. I’ve never eaten veal since.

Another evening we sat in the farmyard of a local goat’s cheese producer and ate course after course that showcased every style of chevre they produced and then there was dancing – always dancing – as an accordianist played Piaf songs and the goats bleated in bewilderment. Creeping home down the darkened lanes after just a bit too much wine – again.

I love that France and itch to share it with those that bypass on the race south.

So I’m concentrating my search on Champagne/Cote d’Or, Deux-Sevres/Vienne and the Berry region. Some have suggested LanguedocLimoux was mentioned (fond and funny memories of family holidays in Limoux – suffice to say drink was taken), others the mountains, the beauty of Annecy (that’s a lottery win). My kid is happy to move so long as we’re going to Paris (he wants to wake up with the Metro on his doorstep). I’m open to anything – all I want is warmer weather, decent wine, quiet lanes and a village fete to liven up the gentle torpor. Question is – where?