A Quick Update on living in southwest France

We landed a couple of months ago. On the journey from Toulouse airport the countryside steadily grew less grim until we approached our destination village where the mountains were out, snow was on the ground and everything looked beautiful. Either that or we were so exhausted we stopped being critical – as Eddie Murphy once said about hunger changing perceptions, "It was the best cracker I ever ate."

The worst part of the trip: walking from one Air France terminal in Paris to another with three little kids who have not slept and whose body clock tells them it is 3am. Then having to go through security again. There was a lot of screaming, but our tolerance is better than that of the security folk. Eventually I stopped screaming.

We ended up in the "country". I didn’t realize how country this was going to be. This is a huge unexpected pleasure. The commune as a whole (the village and surrounding community) has about 350 people. There are cows and sheep outside our bedroom window. There are lots of chickens. Every drive is `dogs vs cars’ as the local mutts try to eat our wheels. We live in a converted barn. Tractors are everywhere. This is cow country. My 100% city gal wife is learning a few new things…

…like how it is to live without central heating. We arrived to snow and I had to remember how to make a fire from bits of wood. Wood is useful. As are firelighters. Many folk around here spend an inordinate amount of time gathering fallen trees, chopping them up and building great walls of seasoning timber. If you look around you will see that every house has a great wall of wood, except for ours. I had warned Jean that winter can be cold but she didn’t understand what cold meant. She wore a sweater to bed until she adjusted. The sun came out after we had been here a couple of days and the kids were running around naked outside. It was February. Our kids have anti-freeze for blood.

The school culture for little kids is hilarious. I love the morning and afternoon chat at the gate. I like writing teacher correspondence in French in the little cahier. Lucy (known here as "Lucy Jean") goes to a school that’s about 100m outside her bedroom window. Otto started school for the first time and he catches a little bus to the school down the road. All the staff are professional and care about the children like they are family. It has been a very friendly experience. After four weeks of school my son has almost stopped fighting to not get on the bus each school morning.

There are a lot of Dutch folk in the Haute-Garonne, which is fine by me. There’s a town up the road that consists of new houses for the Dutch community. They built a concrete track to the nearby market town of Samatan so they can exercise on it. It is weird, it runs along the main road and as you drive by you can see the Dutch running along it. My Dutch landlady told me all about it. There are few Americans, although we’ve heard that there’s one a few villages away. There goes the neighbourhood.

The driving is fantastic. I’m driving a Kangoo, which is French for `bouncing box’, and I still love the roads. Every drive is a joy. To put this in a little perspective, my friends claim that I was born to be driven since I scam so many rides from them. Now we fight over who gets to drive, the loser getting to mess with the TomTom GPS. I am fond of the dance that goes on when meeting a car coming the other way. Jean does most of the driving.

We tried a New Zealand voice on the TomTom (Kiwi Katrina) and I can’t deal with it. So I put Aussie Ken on and he’s great, especially when he puts on his big stage voice to say, "You have reached your destination!" Thank you, Ken! I hope the voice actor reads this one day and realizes that the effort he put in to get that phrase so dramatic was worth it.

Everything is way cheaper than we expected. Some of this is to be explained by moving to the country where food is cheaper and fashion is followed at a slower pace. The local abattoir has a shop (is this common practice at abattoirs in France?) and the meats are very good. Duck is cheap. Chicken is expensive. Good wine is two euros, but Champagne still costs. Eggs are great and seemingly all from le Gers. Neighbours give us a fair few eggs, but with five of us eating a cooked breakfast each morning we go through them fast. If/when we buy a place we’ll get some of our own. It will give Minty something to chase. And when you buy a chicken in the store it still has its head on it. You can play finger puppets with it.

As a project manager by trade I am fascinated by the bureaucracy. I’m trying out a system where I assume the employee is just trying to make life easy by not doing work and by avoiding trouble. If this is the case, the logical thing to do is to make it so that helping me is the easy path. This means that I have to be ready to make a fuss when things do not go right. For myself, I have set expectations that everything will take three visits to achieve, but so far nothing has. I’ve been learning how to complain and where to complain but I haven’t had to resort to anything like that yet.

My bank is learning that I will show up and cause stress when things don’t happen. Having awful French is an asset here. I am happy to let queues build up behind me if they aren’t helping me. There is some pleasure in watching the
teller squirm. I am also happy to return the next day for followup. I only need to do this for a bit and they’ll not forget to process my account. So far it is working. My calls are getting through and I am getting quick responses. My problems have been solved fast. I can see the look of fear when they see me in line, hoping that the other teller gets me.

Getting the residence permit has been interesting, too. The local mairie knows nothing – why should they, they are a couple of local part timers who just got elected. Europeans no longer need permits so this is something new for them. Rather than leaving this project in their hands I’ve been visiting the sous-prefecture in Saint Gaudens, the mairie in Saint Gaudens (who gave me all sorts of useful info until they found out I didn’t live there) and then I went to the
prefecture in Toulouse. With a giant line of fellow immigrants behind me I had them check my documentation and when my address was found out I made sure they gave me formal documentation on what is required and what steps the local mairie has to take, got the number for the mairie to call in case of issues and even got a prefecture stamp on the handwritten instructions so the mairie pays attention. Of course all this is going to fail the first two times and I may have to create a fuss, but I’m giving it a go.

And learning French is a blast! It is going so fast. I don’t feel shame in using `my hovercraft is full of eels’ French in front of anyone. Anyone who sees me regularly seems happy to correct my mistakes. One advantage I have is that I love rugby and this is Stade Toulousain country so there is a built in conversation topic.

Our fantastic friends have a collection of microcars/bubble cars and often take our kids for a ride around the neighbourhood. They’ve also lent us a couple of old town bikes so I’ve been going for joy rides around the village with a woohooing kid on the luggage rack.  They are simple pleasures, but having some good weather, good countryside and plenty of free time is making a fun childhood for them. The issues that will send them to a therapist will start later.


6 Responses to “A Quick Update on living in southwest France”

  1. April 19, 2009 at 12:23

    Great to hear the news of France Brent. I am thrilled for you guys to hear that life is going so well and that your guys amazing gutsy move is paying off in spades! Look forward to more missives from the French front. 🙂

  2. April 28, 2009 at 13:57

    Wow Brent, sounds like quite the adventure. That’s so awesome that you decided to just go for it. I have a great mental image of the poor bankers casting furtive glances at you as you get closer to the front of the line. Anyway, look forward to hearing more of your experiences. We’ve never been to France (well except a day trip to Colmar from Germany) but Kim and I are hoping to check it out one of these years. Take care.

  3. 3 John Bisset
    April 28, 2009 at 15:19

    Great that you are enjoying France.

  4. May 17, 2009 at 09:12

    The picture of the little red car is just a joy – what fantastic memory to have!

  5. May 20, 2009 at 02:45

    Our friend Nick has more than ten old microcars and a bunch of old British motorbikes too. Forget the kids, I love driving around in those things!

  6. 6 Colleen Healy
    June 21, 2009 at 13:14

    Love the blog. Great but simple adventure – what a wonderful combination, I bet. You capture it so well in your prose! Thanks for sharing.

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