We returned last Sunday from a two-week whistle-stop tour around southern England, starting in Dorset then making our way through Somerset, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Bath, London and ending on a high with a surprise party in Brighton.
We arrived back at the Barn almost a year to the day since we moved here, so it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on our first 12 months in France, what have learned and the things we miss.
On March 27 last year, a Sunday, we arrived late at night, frazzled and just about awake thanks to overdosing on Pro-Plus and home-made 85% chocolate fudge. Early on Monday morning an engineer arrived from France Telecom and explained through our sleep-deprived haze that there were no spare telephone lines in our hamlet, so we would have to wait three weeks for a telephone and internet connection. In fact we waited two months, which were the hardest so far and taught us early on to predict the unpredictable.
Since then we have had many peaks and troughs, one notable low point being when the huge barn door (15 feet of galvanised steel) fell on our car and smashed the rear windscreen – but luckily nothing else. The endless French bureaucracy has furnished us with numerous ‘déja vu’ moments. Every time we see the horizon coming into view, we find out that we have to go through a similar process yet again for another reason. So just when we could see the end to getting the car and the Land Rover registered, we were told that the trailer has to be registered – and insured – separately here in France. Which means more form-filling and paying through the nose to the manufacturers for the ‘certificat de confirmité’ required by the French authorities.
Of course everyone warned us about French bureaucracy before we came but you can never really be prepared for it. The French are resigned to it and accept that a certain proportion of one’s life will be spent dealing with paperwork.
Our friend Mana, who uses her brilliant skill at unpicking the bureaucratic labyrinth to the benefit of her English friends, told me about another friend of hers who had had enough of it all one drunken night and burned all his papers. It took him years to climb out of the hole he had dug in one moment of libertarian madness. So in one year we have just about learnt to live with French bureaucracy and to do as the French do: bend the rules a little bit.
High points have included getting our first job, an oak garage near Ribérac which we put up in November; having our planning permission dropped off by the Mayor on Boxing Day – and New Year’s Eve, where we danced the night away to lively folk music and made some lovely new friends. Last year felt like such an uphill struggle at times that one reliable consolation was the ‘potager’ (vegetable garden), which provided us with little successes in the form of tomatoes, ‘haricots verts’ (French beans) and courgettes.
I spent most of our two weeks in England telling anyone who would listen that we have really started to settle in here, that the timber framing business is getting off to a good start and that we are finally making progress on the Barn conversion project.
Yet when we got back last week, it struck me that we still have a long way to go. Seeing our old friends back in England highlighted the fact that even the good friends we have made here hardly know us. With friendship there is nothing to do but wait for it to grow and keep feeding and tending it, like the seeds in our previously uncultivated garden.
The thing I miss most from England is that sense of having common ground with other people and understanding the cultural and political references that pepper casual conversation. I am still reading Private Eye – a subscription which a friend gave as a great birthday present last year – and Charlie Hebdo, France’s equivalent, is still full of cultural references that elude me.
You might remember Charlie Hebdo as the satirical magazine whose offices were firebombed last year after a spoof edition ‘edited’ by the Prophet Muhammad. The tragic events in Toulouse have brought the French Muslim experience into sharp relief again. So many live in impoverished ‘banlieues’ (suburbs), cut off from mainstream life and are ripe for ‘radicalisation’.
It was strange hearing about this while we were away. I was preoccupied by what was happening in our adopted home but also felt ‘chez moi’ walking in the rolling hills around Stroud, drinking a good organic beer or having lunch at Canteen on Stokes Croft. Yet on our return last week Mana congratulated us on our efforts to ‘integrate’ and said that very few English folk are like us, which made us feel good – and like we might just feel at home five years from now.