This week’s League of Expat Writers is from France.
Hello, I’m Stephanie – and yes, I’m a lady with llamas!
I live in Creuse with husband Chris, children Benjamin, Caitlin and Ruadhri and an ever growing assortment of animals, which include, of course, llamas. We have eight llamas and six alpacas, although if things go to plan, that number will increase this year with the arrival of some cria – i.e. babies. We also have hens, ducks and turkeys, guinea-pigs, rabbits, cats, goats and a dog – and an awful lot of carp as we run a carp fishery and holiday gite alongside our llama trekking business. We have a 75-acre slice of beautiful rural Creuse with fields, lakes and woods. It’s amazing!
According to Eurostat in 2010, 5.8% of the French population can be classified as foreigners i.e. ex-pats. And the ones we bump into regularly come in various categories:
There are the retirees.
Some of these become very involved in local life, whereas others maintain a distance, enjoying the climate and the food and the vastly superior healthcare rather than their neighbours. They’re generally here for the duration, although we’ve known a few who have moved back to be closer to grandchildren, or further away to be in an even hotter climate.
Then there are the workers.
These are the people who, like us, come to Francewith the plan and usually the means to make a living here. Some succeed, others don’t. Many of the latter stick it out for two to three years, but then give up and go home, due to lack of funds or sheer frustration. Scratching a living is damned hard work. The three year mark seems to be a noticeable cut-off point. If you can get past that, it’s looking promising. The crucial thing is to budget for everything taking way longer than you think to get up and running. And despite being successful, yet other ex-pats are drawn back to the country they left through homesickness or guilt when their children haven’t adapted well.
Finally, there are the hopeless optimists who come to France with no real idea of what they’re going to do, but simply know that they want to change their lives for the better.
Don’t roll your eyes. Such a flexible I’ll-try-anything attitude is, I think, the key to survival as an ex-pat. You have to live off your wits. We have changed direction several times since we moved here.
Generally, though, kids flourish when the family moves abroad.
They soak in the culture and the language, and make loads of new friends. Before you know it, they’re bilingual. Living with bilingual kids is cool. To see them switch effortlessly from one language to another is incredible and impressive. And yet to them it’s the norm. The Frenchisms begin – saying an English word with a French accent, simply forgetting the English equivalent of something, choosing to read a French book rather than an English one and occasionally not being able to translate a phrase into English because, well, it’s simply too French. There isn’t an English version they can think of to explain it. I feel quite left out when that happens. There’s a whole layer of Frenchness I’ll never be party to. However, whilst French may win in some fields, my kids certainly vastly prefer English TV and the qwerty computer keyboard. Azerty just doesn’t cut it.
Chris and I are the pioneers. The ones who made the leap of faith and took the risk.
We’ve brought our kids here and seen them turn French to a degree we never will. It’s the ex-pat factor. We’ll never truly fit in here. We’ll never be as comfortably French as the children are. And anyway, when you’ve lived thirty years in one country, fifteen in another and then moved to a third, there are aspects of those past lives you don’t want to lose. But you take on new aspects that change you. You’ll never be the same. Even if we were to go back to Ireland, we wouldn’t feel at home there. France and our experiences here have infiltrated us and made us different. We’ve evolved in one direction, while our old country has gone another. Because people detect we’re English from our accent when we speak French, they often ask us if we miss England. I tell them I don’t know England any more. I left it in 1992 and I’ve never wanted to go back. We explain that we came here from Ireland. Well, do we miss Ireland? Do we go back there for holidays? I shrug. What on earth would we do that for? Been there, done that, moved on.
I’m at home being a European in France.
It’s tough, it’s challenging, it’s stressful, that’s all true. It’s taking every ounce of our energy and a lot of self-discipline and sacrifice to keep our heads above water. But it’s worth it and it’s working.