Greener Grass ... Cautionary Tales for Budding Expats

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

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

Some threw caution to the winds and gaily hurdled the fence in search of a perceived superior lifestyle - only to find that the grass on the other side, at closer sight, was not as green as they had once hoped. Of these quite a number opted for the warmer climes of the sunny south of France where the grass, come late spring, 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 ended 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 seemed to provoke an immediate transformation from mature, cautious adult, into wet-behind-the-ears ingénue. In conversation, certain prompts – such as “opening a guesthouse”, “crash courses in French”, etc - triggered what eventually become my standard response, where I mainly tried to highlight those obstacles that lie in wait for the unwary. A few listened; others nodded, glassy-eyed, or stared into space dismissively; disasters waiting to happen.

Now that might sound a bit patronising, but it didn’t really come out that way whenever I found myself chatting over a beer with would-be expats. My view was 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 preferred to believe that such purveyors of doom and gloom haven’t a clue what they’re talking about, that’s fine too. Their prerogative! But at least I’d tried. ‘Greenness’ isn’t just about the hue of the grass on the other side of that fence...

click on this pic to see full-size photoTerrace of the Tonneau Bar, Bourg Saint Maurice in the French Alps

Bourg St Maurice, Savoie, France – summer 2006

I had been sitting, quietly melting, at an outside table in front of the Tonneau bar in Bourg Saint Maurice (high up the Tarentaise Valley in the Savoie Alps), my home through the winter months and a week or two during the summer. Ten lazy minutes sipping a ‘perroquet’– a liberal measure of Pastis, a splash of verdant mint cordial, lots of water and ice (whoever decided to baptise this drink must only have come across green parrots…). Desperately trying to close my ears to the loud conversation at the next table… “mortgage” … “bridging loan” … “rent out rooms” … “take French lessons” … “get a seasonal job to tide us over”

It was far too hot to move, so retreat was out of the question. Escape however was on the minds of this youngish (mid-thirties?) couple, whose plans seemed to have reached an advanced state in the time it took to get though a couple of kir aperitifs. They were on the point of abandoning their comfortable middle-class, middle income, middle England lifestyles, to make an offer on a tumbledown property at some obscure location in the Tarentaise hills behind Bourg Saint Maurice, having been given the estate agent tour that morning. A number of small children milled around, bored and fractious, while oblivious parents hatched their plans. One tousle-haired, freckled, three-foot-nothing bruiser knocked my camera bag over, looked at me defiantly, and then turned away without a word to kick his sister in the shin. “Watch what you’re doing!” from mum, who barely looked in my direction. The lack of an apology was hardly encouraging, but I used the diversion to introduce myself. Once past the usual barrier of British suspicion (why is he talking to us? – he must want something), it turned into a version of the same old story, with its undercurrent of naive optimism. Stress, rat race, climate, get away from it all, we’ve always loved France, love the lifestyle, skiing, mountain air... Etc. It was close to forty degrees celsius in the shade, and I fought back a sudden urge to utter a cranky comment along the lines of the advisability of getting heads examined. They seemed pleasant enough, so I felt duty bound to at least try. Teachers both, they reminded me of an English couple I’d met a few years ago while living further south, in a secluded corner of the Vaucluse. More gullible, more ‘hoodwinkable’, perhaps – if that’s possible…

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, an immense ruin 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 general practitioner, and a deputy head teacher. Erudite, well-travelled, self-assured. Well-funded. Impulse buyers of an old farm with “immense potential”. Visions of early retirement. Yet over-confidence and that reluctance to communicate – the latter born perhaps of the excessive British need to ‘respect’ personal space (ie keep out of mine) – had led them to commit one basic and extremely expensive error (there were others to come... so read on!).

They didn’t know the area, yet all they had to do is ask and they would have learnt that our Franco-British family, long-term French residents, lived just up the road. In no time at all, had they called by, they would have discovered precisely why a “propriété 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 terrace 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 logical thought processes can take a distant back seat. The French sellers were already counting their wads of recently-introduced euros.

The oversight? No, not the usual underestimation of costs, or over-stretching of limited resources, financial or physical. Not homesickness for friends or family. No foolish escapism, nor wearing of rose-tinted glasses involved. Lack of planning and research? Yes, in a way. In this case the problem was, quite simply… noise.

Noise? In a remote foothill of the pre-Alpes in Provence, miles from the nearest village? Surely not. It was so quiet on that morning in early March, you could hear a single feuille fall from the forest of fig trees. Contracts were signed, architects engaged, and two months later the sale was completed.

click on pic to see full-size photoOur home just up the hill... away from the noise of traffic

The first I heard of all this was in the village of Malaucene, sat 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 no doubt 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 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 the few walls that remained standing.

They were desperate. Within twenty-four hours of arriving they were considering cutting their losses, and selling up. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the 200,000 pound investment they had made was way, way over the real value of the property, and they wouldn’t resell it for a third of that 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 cultures 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 were commissioned, a massive earth-moving project undertaken to ‘sound-proof’ the property, high walls built, the beautiful view hidden. And despite all that, with the renovation work well under way, at certain times of the day you still had to speak up to make yourself heard! (All’s well that ends well … or is it? Don’t forget to read the post scriptum for the punch line!)

Meanwhile, back in Bourg Saint Maurice...

A photo taken from the skiable side of the Tarentaise, facing north from the resort of Les Arcs. The ski chalet that was to be the young couple's pride and joy was halfway up the mountains on the far side, with not a ski lift within at least an hour's drive...

At the Tonneau Bar, having finished an abbreviated version of the Provencal anecdote, I watched the faces of the would-be ski chalet owners. I had yet to tell them that the Alpine property with which they had fallen in love was located at least an hour from the nearest ski area - a long, winding drive down one side (the wrong side) of the valley, back up the other - and which would have been completely inaccessible should it ever have the temerity to actually snow, given the remoteness. But then one of the mini bruisers succeeded in getting the attention he craved by dropping his glace italienne on the ground, and the moment was gone. The resultant wail matched the decibel level of a whole valley-full of HGVs, so I made my excuses and left.

Super U Bourg Saint Maurice Super U, Bourg Saint Maurice 7 pm - arrived just time to get in some essential shopping at the Super U supermarket. A quick dash around the aisles, followed by an athletic exit (the French are not slow to shut up shop – the door shutters were already two-thirds to the ground at 7.29 pm, shoppers having to hurriedly limbo dance their way underneath to avoid decapitation). A small crowd was gathering outside, and I quickly recognised the bruiser, complete with replacement glace italienne. I was spotted. A harassed mum - resemblance to bruiser now unmistakable - demanded to know why the supermarket was shutting so early. My mildly sarcastic explanation, that Tescos had yet to invest in an 24 hour a day, 365 days a year outlet at the top end of the Tarentaise valley, was completely wasted. Where on earth was she expected to buy something for tea, she protested loudly to the entire car park. Reinforcements arrived in the shape of a portly gent, port-hued from the exertion of climbing out from within his air-conditioned Discovery. Loud indignation, British-style, was targeted my way. Apparently I had been appointed honorary Frog and Super U representative. Sarcasm got the better of me once again. I suggested he take it up with the town’s Mayor, and left; followed by incredulous stares...

(Mayors in France have considerable, elastic, and occasionally indefinable powers, but when trying to enlist their assistance, it pays to keep on their good side. Something an American citizen might have done well to remember last summer, I recalled, as I zigzagged from tree shadow to tree shadow on the way back to the car. Back in Provence amusement was tinged with more than a little disdain around the bars of a small village, when a newly installed citizen of the USA phoned the town hall to demand immediate action against the ‘menace’ that was threatening the area. The Axis of Evil, it turned out, took the form of a coalition force of cricket and cicada, which in concert were conspiring to turn the lives of the American couple into a nightmare. “Not so much as a wink of sleep in a week”, was the complaint, with the cicadae quietening down during the evening only for the crickets to take over for the night shift. When – unsurprisingly – the token summer holiday Town Hall staff failed to take any action, a recorded delivery letter, written in deadly earnest, promptly followed. The Town Hall, insisted the American, had no option but to have the entire area surrounding his new residence treated with insecticide. They had a pest control officer, did they not? But sorry - I digress...)

Stories of this nature are by no means one-offs, and when they emerged I made an extra effort to eradicate any hint of accent from my French, to perfect the Gallic shrug, and practice a few beginner-level Latin gesticulations in front of a mirror. It never really worked. Even after twenty years of immersion I remain a dyed-in-the-wool rosbif, identifiable as an Ingleesh at a hundred paces – and therefore in the eyes of the French, a member of this arrogant race of Anglo-Saxons that thinks it can do as it pleases, anywhere in the world. Still, as an adopted Frog, with children more French than British, they did try to make a few allowances for me. Regrettably though, due to the behaviour of so many Brits abroad, those respectful expats that adapt to their new country, rather than expect it to conform to their own ideals, are merely seen as the exceptions that prove the rule.

So when meeting budding expats in France, I continue to attempt to sow a few ‘weeds’ of doubt in the impeccable, bowling green lawns of certain Englishmen’s dream castles abroad, and hide in shame when I hear the latest story of misbehaviour and stupidity on the part of more new arrivals from across the Channel…

A brief post scriptum... Back in Provence

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!

click on pic to see full-size photoA year later... no doubt the most expensive field of lavender in France, per square metre...

Incredibly the whole edifice had been demolished, razed to the ground. On the advice, allegedly (according to locals 'in the know') of their 'maître d'oeuvre' (site foreman), they apparently decided to knock it down and start 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 preempt 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)...

Once razed to the ground, the DDE apparently found, in reply to the request to build an entirely new property in place of the old one, that 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 have no qualms about their rigid stance - and I do sympathise. The demolished 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...

click on pic to see full-size photoGenerations of history, from the era of Napoleon and the French Revolution

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

To this day, there is nothing but a hole in the ground, despite renewed applications for planning permission. One of the most expensive fields per square metre you’ll find.

Photos below - click on thumbnails

The picture above left (1) shows the one remaining piece of wall. Above centre (2), the site where the farm originally stood. Above right (3), original planning permission for "rehabilitation".

Below, the trenches cut and ready for the reinforced concrete foundations to be poured....

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1 comment:

Humpbuckle Hylton said...

Much truth in this. We have had to learn many lessons the hard way since moving to France (although none as expensive as those described here, thankfully).

One of the problems is approaching the right Ex-pat for help - as we have heard tales of ex-pat builders round our way who are quite happy to rip off their fellow countrymen!

There is also the feeling that you don't want to hang about with Les (anglais) and so there can be a tendency to avoid talking with ex-pats, and thereby missing out on their wisdom.

And of course, no-one wants people to piss on their parade, either, so ex-pats who "tell it how it is" are often perceived as moaning...