A year in France

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Saturday 9th March 2013

There will be a moment on your holiday abroad this summer when you have wild fantasies of living there. Emma Lee-Potter offers a cautionary tale.
Evening Standard July 2003

With the summer holidays looming, this is the time of year when many people fantasise about leaving London and moving abroad for good. But if my family’s experience of France is anything to go by, they’re in for a rude awakening. It’s a fantastic country for holidays but living there full-time is another matter entirely.
Six years ago, sick to the back teeth of soaring crime levels and horrendous house prices, and dreaming of an exciting new life in a sunnier climate, my family uprooted to Orléans, situated on the banks of the Loire and famed for its links with Joan of Arc.
We imagined ourselves living in France forever. The streets were far cleaner than London – and much safer. We both spoke the language (well, I had done A-level French), and at two and four our children seemed the perfect ages to learn it in double-quick time.
We rented a gorgeous house, covered in wisteria and overlooking a large private garden, and enrolled Lottie at the ecole maternelle round the corner. My husband Adam got a job as finance director of a French industrial group, while I, as a writer, was able to work from home.
It seemed idyllic – but from the moment we arrived I felt hopelessly out of place. So did Lottie, who turned out to be the only non-French speaking child in her school. She found the transition from an English primary school where she could chatter away to her friends without thinking about it to a place where no one – not even the teachers – could understand what she was on about, deeply upsetting. She clung to me every time I left her.
On the plus side, she adored coming home for lunch everyday and not going to school at all on Wednesdays. But she hated having to sleep on a mat for an hour every afternoon and mastering the peculiar loopy writing all French children are taught. After two days she told us crossly: “I’ve been here for two days and I still can’t speak French.”
I was struggling, too. Even tackling the most mundane tasks made me feel like a complete imbecile. I attended an exercise class at a swanky gym and did everything wrong because I couldn’t fathom what the instructor was saying. When I tried to buy things such as a coffee grinder or Sellotape I resorted to miming.
Spontaneous conversation was out because by the time I’d worked out what to say it was five minutes too late and the discussion had moved on.
Our neighbours, while kind and welcoming, were baffled by the way we lived. They approached everything differently, from the times they put their children to bed (late) to when they booked their holidays. Instead of staggering vacations throughout the year, everyone went away in August.
By late July, all of Lottie’s class had disappeared off to the seaside. Adam’s office was empty and even the grocer had shut up shop for the month. When we told Marie Therese, our friend next door, that we had booked our grandes vacances for early September, she was perplexed.
“Oh la la,” she exclaimed. “You’ll be the only people in the entire district in August.” And she was right – apart from the tourists, the place was like a ghost town.
When I worked as a reporter for the Evening Standard several years earlier I had travelled all over the world. But I never experienced homesickness until I moved to France.
I missed family and friends so much it hurt. And I yearned for the most ridiculous things, from daily newspapers and rain to golden syrup and cheddar cheese. Charles de Gaulle once claimed there were more than 265 varieties of French cheese – and we tried lots of them, yet when I visited Paris I always came home with mature cheddar from a British speciality shop in Les Halles. Adam reckoned it was “complete sacrilege” but for me it was a link with home.
After the lush greenery of England in spring and summer, the French landscape seemed arid and parched. And although our rented house, with its countless shutters, was pretty and cool in high summer, in winter it was freezing and bleak.
Of course there were happy times. We visited the breathtaking chateaux of the Loire over and over again, marvelling at the fact that the biggest, the 44—room Chambord, was Francois I’s “little hunting lodge.” It was so enormous that the builders had to divert part of the Loire to make room for it.
Two-year-old Ned lost his London pallor and grew brown and chubby – largely due to the fact that the women at the boulangerie were entranced by his white-blond hair and fed him free pains au chocolat every morning. “That hair will keep you in your old age,” they used to tell me admiringly.
But when it came to renewing our lease after a year, we opted to return home. We had rented our house in Camberwell while we were away. Lottie could now communicate with teachers and friends and my conversation had become less stilted, but we were adamant we didn’t want to live in France full-time any more. We returned home without a backward glance and have never regretted it.
But a month ago Adam was offered a challenging new job near Lyon. “Are you all moving out there?” friends asked us. And before I could say a word, Lottie retorted firmly: “No, we are not. France is for holidays.”