Brits, property in France, and cloud cuckoo land...

In search of a more 'luxuriant' quality of life, à la française

Over more than a couple of decades of living in France, I've regularly come across an assortment of visitors from overseas, seemingly secure in their professional and family lives back home, yet who continually daydream of an idyllic existence in their personal Shangri-Las.

Some throw caution to the winds and gleefully hurdle the fence in search of the long sought-after superior lifestyle - later to find that the grass on the other side, at closer sight, is not as green as they had once hoped. Of these wannabe expats, quite a number opt for the warmer climes of the sunny south of France where the grass, come early summer, is in need of copious quantities of water and much care and attention. How many lush "pelouses anglais" - little green corners of England pictured alongside those idyllic dream homes - eventually end up as dusty, parched, patches of brown?

Every now and again I would bump into a Brit, or an American, perhaps a Dutchman on vacation, whose brief taste of an alternative modus vivendi seems to provoke an immediate transformation from mature, cautious adult, into wet-behind-the-ears ingénue. In conversation, certain prompts – such as “opening a guest house”, “taking a crash course in French”, etc. - trigger my standard response, where I mainly try to highlight the obstacles that lie in wait for the unwary. A few listen; others nod, glassy-eyed, or stare into space dismissively; disasters waiting to happen.

Now that might sound a bit patronising, but I hope it doesn’t come across that way whenever I find myself chatting over a beer with would-be expats. I'm really concerned. My view is that genuine tales of woe and catastrophe, warts ‘n all, based on first-hand knowledge and experience, might occasionally make people sit back, do a double-take. If however they prefer to believe that purveyors of 'doom and gloom' such as yours truly haven’t a clue what they’re talking about, that’s fine too. Their prerogative! But at least I’ve tried. ‘Greenness’ isn’t just about the hue of the grass on the other side of that fence...

Flashback to Provence … 2003

Less than half a mile away from our southern French home (close neighbours in backwater Provencal terms), down in the valley next to the main road, a large delapidated property had been on the market for years; seemingly unsaleable, and for very good reason. Most potential buyers visit properties during holiday periods, and down in Provence this usually meant Easter at the earliest, through to September. Unbeknown to us however, prospective purchasers had turned up during a pleasantly warm and sunny first week of March; the deal was done, and they were away home.

A school inspector, and a head teacher. Erudite, well-travelled, self-assured. A decent, but hardly inexhaustible, retirement nest egg. Impulse buyers of "a property of historical importance with immense potential”, according to the estate agent-ese. Visions of early retirement. However, overconfidence and that reluctance to communicate – the latter sometimes born of an excessive British need to ‘respect’ personal space (ie keep out of mine) – had led them to commit one basic and extremely expensive error (with several more to follow)...

They didn’t know the area, yet all they had to do is ask around, and they would have learnt that our Franco-British family, long-term French residents, lived a short distance up the road. In no time at all, had they called by, they would have discovered precisely why a “propriété d'importance historique avec plein de potentiel” had been up for sale for so long. Provencal valleys, away from the coast, and before the tourists arrive late spring, are peaceful, ‘idyllic’. Sitting on the shady terrace of a beautiful old property during a pre-purchase visit, boiling up water on their camper stove for a cuppa, nothing but the distant gurgling of the Ouveze river to accompany their reverie, and rational thought can go straight out of the blue-shuttered windows. The French sellers were already counting their wads of recently-introduced euros.

Their first mistake? No, not especially the usual underestimation of costs, or over-stretching of limited resources, financial or physical. Nor homesickness for friends or family. Or foolish escapism. Lack of planning and research? Yes, in a way. In this case the problem was, quite simply… noise.

Noise? In a remote foothill of theMont Ventoux in Provence, miles from the nearest village? Surely not. It was so quiet on that morning in early March, you could hear a single flower fall from the surrounding cluster of lime-blossom trees. Contracts were promptly signed, out-of-town architects engaged, and two months later the sale was completed.

I first heard the rumours in the village of Malaucène, sipping my expresso outside the PMU café first thing one morning in early July. News was spreading fast on the local grapevine that some foreign ‘dupes’ had paid a fortune for the place, but perhaps out of deference to my origins, bar talk in my presence omitted to mention that they were Brits. On my way back home carrying warm baguettes, I noticed a car drawn up outside ‘the old ruin’. Curious, I wandered up the drive, to discover a forlorn-looking couple, staring into the valley.

Their dream home was less than 50 metres away from the main Malaucene to Vaison-la-Romaine road. Since Peter Mayle’s “A Year In Provence” had prompted a major shortage in ‘des res’ availability in the next valley on the way to the coast (the Luberon), the Ouveze Valley had become the latest target for foreign property investors, speculators and retirees. The summertime stream of traffic, that once burbled along this forgotten Provencal back road, had swollen into a raging torrent in the space of a decade. Steep valley sides bounced the sound back and forth, vibration from lorries shook the ancient house to its foundations, threatening the integrity of its crumbling walls.

They were desperate. Within twenty-four hours of arriving they were already considering cutting their losses, and selling up. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the 200,000+ pounds investment they had made was way, way over the real value of the property, and they wouldn’t resell it for half the price.

How could these obviously intelligent people make such a fundamental error? Lack of research, yes, but ably assisted by that rather Anglo Saxon brash superciliousness that does tend to irritate Latin sensibilities! No need to seek out advice from the natives eh, particularly when you come from a successful career background, where the environment tends to fall into place around you. (Little Englander micro settlements are beginning to attract some resentment on the other side of the Channel, where a noisy minority of long-term Brit residents make hardly any effort to adapt to the French way of life. So they are fair game, as the indigenous population sees it!)

All they had to do, on their first visit earlier that year, was ask around. Had they dropped by for a cup of tea at our place just up the hill, rather than brew up on their Camping Gaz, it could have saved them a fortune. Too late now… Still, give them their due – within a week of our first meeting they had decided to hang on in there. Architects re-commissioned, a massive earth-moving project undertaken to ‘sound-proof’ the property, high walls built, the beautiful view hidden. And despite a six foot high earth and rock barrier erected by several JCB's, with the renovation work well under way, at certain times of the day you still had to speak up to make yourself heard over the traffic on the main road!

The next example of misplaced British bulldog attitude wasn't long coming. Despite the deeds clearly indicating the presence of a right of way very close to the property, and our advice that there was nothing whatsoever they could do about it, lawyers were engaged, appeals sent to mayors, regional planners, in fact any French civil servant vaguely involved in such matters (and French civil servants considerably outdo the British both in numbers and pointless ineffectual officialdom). A thick chain and huge padlock put in place on several occasions, in an attempt to barricade the track, was immediately bulldozed out of the way by the local farmers. Lawyers letters were posted, and ignored. Thousands more euros were spent, and eventually wasted. Just as we'd explained to them at the outset. A 300 year-old right of way would never be removed on the say-so of bumptious, inconvenienced Brits.

It had been a while since I was last down in Provence, not since the latter part of the previous year, in fact. Thought I would call in on our near neighbours to see how things were progressing…

Imagine my consternation when I walked up the winding gravel drive, turning the corner where the huge old farm should have loomed large, to see... nothing!

Incredibly the whole edifice had been demolished, razed to the ground. Apparently the restoration work was proving to be far more onerous, both in financial and technical terms, than anticipated. On the (verbal) advice, allegedly (according to locals 'in the know') of their 'maître d'oeuvre' (site foreman), they'd apparently decided to bulldoze the entire place to the ground, and start again from scratch. Overlooking one 'minor' detail…

In France, where buildings on agricultural land are concerned, planning permission is extremely difficult to obtain. Somewhat easier for the farmers of course, but that's the system, and you have to live with it. What you don't do is pre-empt the decision of the DDE (French authorities dealing with planning nationally, as opposed to the local mairie (town hall), and who have to rubber stamp all building projects), and ask for planning permission retrospectively...

Once razed to the ground, the DDE immediately slapped a building prohibition notice on the land. The reply to the request to build an entirely new property in place of the old one, was that by illegally demolishing the building, the owners had caused the land to revert to agricultural use only. Planning permission is illegal for residential properties on agricultural green belt land. For a dwelling of any kind. The application was therefore refused outright!!! The French had no qualms about their rigid stance - and I sympathise to an extent. The property could have been tastefully refurbished. It was of a similar age to our own place, and represented more than a semi-ruin to those families that had lived in the valley for generations. In their eyes, the arrogant English had got their just desserts...

Hate to say it, but... if only they'd asked!!

So for years to follow, there was nothing but a hole in the ground, despite regular new applications for planning permission. Multiple attempts were made by the Brits to persuade the authorities to recant, with each new proposal outdoing the former. The most ridiculous involved a 25 room hotel, with a spa fed by sulphurous water from a local spring (on our land!), a restaurant, swimming pool, gym. But the local mayor, even if only of a glorified village of some 3,000 people, is no country bumpkin. He suspected that the more probable goal was simply to rebuild the main house, and then... what odds such an ambitious and risky project ever being completed?

One of the most expensive fields per square metre you’ll find, then. Probably well over £300,000 spent in total. Empty, except for rusting wire mesh in abandoned foundation trenches, and a crumbling stone wall.


The dénouement...

Over my regular morning expresso in the Malaucène PMU Café du Cours, another snippet of gossip last month. The Brits had finally capitulated. The hole in the ground, plus 2 hectares of adjoining agricultural land, was on the market.

For 10,000 euros, ie roughly 9,000 pounds sterling.

Two local farmers are now fighting over the spoils. With two outbuildings still intact on the land, those with agriculteur status can quite easily get planning permission for conversion to gîtes, or a small villa. A really good deal for the winner, and it's not as if they will be outbidding each other, to the benefit of the Brits. The price remains fixed at 10,000 euros, with the final purchaser decided 'on merit' by the French equivalent of a green belt land commission.

Caveat emptor, would-be expats...

Global travel on the cheap?

Take your pick... 'CouchSurfing', 'HelpXing', 'WWOOFing'; three web-based cheap travel networks, rapidly gaining in popularity. Three systems, broadly similar principles - two key parts of the operation. The traveller.... and the new ingredient, the non-commercial host. And no financial payment involved for services rendered on either side.

CouchSurfing might seem rather passé, going by the name alone... conjuring up images of the 60s/70s, with today's young explorers crashing on mattresses on the floors of aging former hippies, turned guilty, middle-class, property-owning capitalists. Except that the current crop of twenty-something travellers is more likely to ask if the guest room has an ensuite bathroom, and is there wifi for their iPhone/iPad? Ok that's a slight exaggeration, but you know, "young people today, yada yada...."

But the couchsurfing system seems to work well. Unlike the more rural and isolated locations for the HelpX and WWOOFING hosts, couch owners are mostly based in towns and cities, ideal for those travellers looking to 'do' a country such as France as represented by the Rive Gauche in Paris, rather than a remote smallholding in the Provençal backwaters, a good hour's ride by goat to the nearest outpost of civilisation.

"WWOOFERS" on the other hand head for the latter, especially the bio, 'compost toilet' variety. In exchange for lodgings, organically grown salads and recycled urine, they work a few hours a day.

HelpX has a broader appeal; even if most properties are based out of town, it is far less picky about a host's ability to grow a phosphate-free lettuce. Which is rather fortunate for me, as my eco-credentials are still at the 'vague-good-intentions' stage. So, since my enforced return to France (much as I remain quite fond of the place I can't wait to escape the zoo and head back to the greener jungle on the Thai side of the fence) ... I've been a regular host for all manner of aliens from around the world, otherwise known as 'HelpXers'. Despite initial reservations, a year into the experiment, it's a thumbs-up from me.

There have been a few 'interesting experiences' along the way. Not least, the Brit with psychopathic tendencies who had threatened his previous host and family at the dinner table, waving a kitchen knife around as he ranted about the gun he kept in his cab. We were the next lucky recipient of his charms, getting phone calls late at night threatening to kill us all after he had been asked to leave for grabbing a (female) helper by the throat, and throwing her around.

... Or 'John', the spaced-out English guy who would begin a task, and an hour later could be found in precisely the same position as you left him, oblivious to the passage of time. Cannabis plants from dropped seeds later sprouted all over the place. Stoned crickets committed suicide in the pool. The dog ate one, and spent half the night howling at the moon. 'John' recently asked to come back. We declined...

Or the well-intentioned French girl, tasked with digging over a flower bed, who later came back for instructions on how to use a garden fork - she hadn't realised that you couldn't force it into the rather stony ground using the strength of arm muscles alone, that a strategically placed foot was needed. On the other hand, she was excellent at adorning the sun loungers by the swimming pool...

Overall though, a big majority of HelpXers have been great workers, excellent company, both useful and fun to have around. Although a majority are in their 20s, there's a not insignificant number of travellers of retirement age who, despite advancing years, are generally knowledgeable, hard-working and efficient. Which is more than can be said for a big percentage of the 20-somethings, sadly. Not through lack of enthusiasm by any means; the problem is they simply lack, in many cases, the know-how. Or any know-how, come to that. Including knowing how to wash up, or clean their rooms and bed linen before they move on. Ah, kids today...

Another group might be termed the 'mid-life crisis' travellers. No stereotype is possible for these HelpXers; you simply never know quite what to expect. And not knowing what to expect is perhaps the major problem with all such travel systems. Despite some in-built safeguards, there are ways to circumvent these, both for the less desirable and even occasionally dangerous traveller, and the unscrupulous host, determined to milk the system for all it's worth, to the point of exploitation. Both are in a very small minority, but they nonetheless exist. Stories are not exactly rare of hosts, with or without partners, trying to persuade the mainly female travellers into carrying out more personal tasks around the property... in the laundry room, barn; they're not usually too fussy. A recent piece of gossip around the dinner table was about two swinger hosts, who dedicated far more time and energy to the attempt to persuade visiting couples into the hot tub, rather than repairing their dilapidated home and overgrown gardens. Or the Dutch château-owners, where the husband regaled the captive audience with his constantly evolving list of conspiracy theories, mainly linked to the activities of the aliens apparently hiding out at the centre of the Earth. That wouldn't be so bad, if he didn't also promise HelpXers prior to their arrival, enticed by the charms of a mediaeval French castle, a room in the château; when in fact all they got was a shared tent in a field, a cold water shower, and nothing but soup to eat every day. Our latest guests here at L'Eau Salée even tried walking to the nearest village 12 kilometres away during their stay at the château to supplement their diet, only to be berated by the lady of the house on their return for their ungrateful attitude. Escape from the French equivalent of Colditz was the sole option, with an early morning unannounced departure via an expensive taxi drive to the nearest station.

Still, it would be unfair to leave you with the wrong impression. Most travellers - and hosts - sing its praises. Most of the young and old seeing the world via HelpX - even if a few of the former are more of a hindrance than a help! - are delightful, open-minded people, sociable, and pleasant to have around.

Is it a truly worldwide organisation, as claimed? While most hosts are based in the English-speaking West, there are stays available pretty much anywhere in Europe, and a growing number of hosts in countries across all the continents such as Moldova, Fiji, El Salvador, even Jordon (sic). Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, for fans of South-East Asia, are also on the list. China has thirteen.

So if that travel bug hits you, and funds are short, or the idea of staying with local people with real knowledge of their country or adopted home appeals to you... this is a serious alternative - and it works.

Girls wanted ...

Girls wanted... by expat. Well that's a pretty familiar theme in Thailand of course, but one apparently bewildered farang is in need of a whole bundle of Thai girls; at least according to this appeal he's placed on the internet:
"Could anybody give me any pointers of how to recruit Bar Staff from Isaan please....?

Got brand new Bar Beer in Walking Street, Pattaya but desperately need some Bar Girls, Go Go girls & cayote Dancers.. Bar very busy but just not enough ladies...

Many thanks"
Which kind of leads one to wondering how he ended up with a bar in the first place, if he didn't know how to recruit 'staff'!

Regular patrons of a certain kind of Thai bar will have a rough idea of the system involved. There's the grapevine of course, whereby a busy, well located bar with the right quality and quantity of customers will always act as a magnet for the girls. The word soon gets around. Also important is the boss, and the money. The basic retainer isn't much, but the bosses offering a stingy two or three thousand baht a month as a retainer will only get away with that if the bar is has a regular stream of generous customers. The boss needs to show respect for his girls - they're not tied to working for him by an official contract. They can, and do, leave on a whim. The tips are important - some bars offer as little as 20B a lady drink, ie 20%. (Seems counter-productive to me - after all, a customer in the know would rather give a girl a 100B tip than buy her five drinks for 500B so she can earn the same thing).

Then when times are hard, and the girls difficult to find, some owners will be out in the villages on a direct recruitment drive. Or at least their Thai partners will be. I've always wondered how that works... I mean, can you imagine the conversation? There must be an particularly Thai way of asking tactfully "Excuse me, we are looking for go-go dancers and bar girls, and are willing to pay families XXX if they'll sell them to us". Which is pretty much what it boils down to, after all.

As for the Thai partners, their attitude towards the girls is important too - firm but fair, in the traditional mamasan fashion. In Chiang Mai I've heard tales of one Thai part-owner helping herself to the tips from the jar on the bar when the farang husband's back was turned. Needless to say, it wasn't a happy establishment, and struggled along mostly making a loss.

So back to the novice Pattaya bar owner, and his desperate search for ladies. One wonders who his Thai partners are, assuming he has one or more that are active in the business. Has he found a bar girl himself as a companion, somewhat inexperienced in the business? Or did he first arrive with this kind of attitude, as posted on another website by a different farang?:
"I recently discovered your website which I found interesting.

I was particularly interested in the section regarding starting up a business in Thailand, and with the greatest respect I don't believe that you have a clue what you are talking about.

I am a UK citizen (British), recently retired, and although I have only been to Thailand a couple of times I really love the country.

I have no Thai wife/girlfriend/lover - whatever.

I plan to move to the country soon and start up my own business - deep sea fishing in Phuket, which is my passion.

And let me tell you something my friend(s). I will run MY business, on MY terms, MY way, and I will NOT allow ANY Thai, no matter how "well-connected" he may be, to f**k me around.
I will NOT pay any "tea money" to anyone. I will hire who I want, on my terms, and I will run my business in accordance with strict Western values.

I could not give a rat's arse who I p*** off - I will NOT be intimidated by some Asian upstart pr**k.
In short, these people will march to the sound of MY drum. If they don't like it - tough.

These people need to be put in their place, and your pusillanamous attitude - "oh, it's THEIR country, we have to let them do things THEIR way," p***es me off.

Well I will NOT do things THEIR way. I will do things MY way. I will run MY company for Western tourists, and I couldn't give a flying f**k what any Thai arsehole has to say about it.


name removed"
When I first saw this I thought it had to be a wind-up. After all, no one could be that naive, could they? But who knows, one comes across enough cocky Westerners who treat the Thais as if they are some kind of ignorant sub-species. They'll learn - and quite probably the hard way. So how long is this guy going to last in Thailand I wonder! Place your bets...

Some readers will recall my posting this blog a while back. It is 100 per cent accurate. How many naive Westerners lose their shirts, and more, thinking they can run a business in LOS in the same way as they would in the US or in Europe?