What would you picture if asked to imagine what life would be like living in France? I bet it includes at least some of the following: long, lazy summers cycling round picturesque villages, looking the part in a Breton striped top and a beret. Or drinking rose by day by the pool of a grand château and red wine by night on a candle-lit terrace accompanied by an abundance of fine cheese and cured meats. Maybe dining out every night in a local café enjoying a diet of onion soup and escargot. Here, we will examine if the realities of expat life in France can live up to the idylls of British imagination.
Long summers at the château?
The thing about France is that it’s really quite big, about twice the size of the UK. If you think about the difference in weather between the frozen north of Britain and the home counties, then you will begin to understand that long, lazy summers are not universal in France.
France is actually subject to several micro climates that can be really distinct. For example, summers can be hot but winters harsh in the Burgundy-Franche-Comte region in the North East, whereas much of Brittany and Normandy can be mild all year round but experience a lot of rainfall.
It is not just the inconvenience of being unable to enjoy that outdoor pool in the winter months; the seasonal difference in the pace of life can come as quite a shock to us Brits. Some regions of rural France can experience winters so harsh that life really slows down, roads become impassable, cafes close for the off season, and it can feel quite isolated.
The key here is to thoroughly research the climate in any region that you’re considering settling in. If long, hot summers are a must for you, then areas such as the Mediterranean coast are likely to be your cup of tea. Equally, if the thought of shops and cafes closing for the winter fills you with dread then consider advantages of a slightly larger town or small city might better suit your needs (though property prices can be higher, more on that later).
Whilst a harsh winter in a quiet town might not appeal to everyone, there are some definite advantages. Picture hunkering down in a beautiful cottage with an open fire, a cellar full of the very, very reasonably priced wine available in France. Wouldn’t you rather be wintering in a sleepy French village, nestled in the romantic rolling countryside under a blanket of snow, than a grey English commuter town?
Speaking the language of love
Learning a new language may seem like a daunting challenge, but it is important to have a grasp on at least the basics if you’re thinking of moving to France.
If you want to emerge yourself in the culture, then it is advisable to learn some beforehand, and even if you’re looking to move to a community with a large population of expats, then you will still need a handle on the native tongue to help navigate the famous red tape of the French administrative system.
But don’t worry if you aren’t fluent from the get-go, the stereotype of the grumpy Frenchman resenting tourists simply isn’t true. The locals will appreciate you trying; often a simple ‘bonjour’ will spark goodwill between you and your new neighbours.
Whilst taking on a new language may seem like a big ask, you needn’t worry. There are many wonderful modern resources to help you on your way – smartphones apps like duo lingo let you learn on the go and at your own pace. Though if a good old-fashioned ‘learn to speak’ CD is more your thing then that’s fine, too! It doesn’t matter how you learn, but it will help you if you make a start before you move, especially if you are dreaming of rural France.
When you make the leap of living abroad, finding a local language class, or even hiring a local tutor, can be a wonderful way to make new friends and settle into the community. There is also the bonus of keeping your brain young. Numerous studies have shown that learning a second language, at any time in life, is beneficial for your brain function and can help improve your memory.
Buying property in France
Programs like channel 4s ‘Escape to the Château’ may be equally inspiring and intimidating for anyone thinking of following the dream of buying a crumbling French property and restoring it to a mansion fit for a king. Buying a decrepit property for a pittance and renovating is a classic scenario for Brits dreaming of living in France, an Englishman’s home may be his castle, but that doesn’t mean you have to take on a literal castle.
With many young French migrating towards the towns and cities, there is still a wealth of easier to manage sized farmhouses and smaller properties in the countryside up for sale that have fallen into disrepair, but that could be your dream home with a bit of elbow grease.
If DIY isn’t in your wheelhouse, remember that buying a “doer upper” isn’t your only option. Whilst it might be a cost-effective way to buy property in France, it is not the only way. Properties in rural France that are ready to move straight into are still significantly lower priced than the equivalent in the UK. Though it is worth bearing in mind that the closer you get to the major towns and cities, the higher property prices can be. The same rings true for areas that are particularly popular with the British, such as the Dordogne region, affectionately nicknamed Dordogneshire by the locals.
So, is living in France the right move for you?
Living abroad is a big lifestyle decision, but the diversity to be found throughout the regions of France means that there is likely to be just the right place for you. The key is to do your research, visit towns in the off season, talk to local expats, and that way you won’t get any nasty shocks and can enjoy all that France has to offer.
If you’d like to find out more about how to get started with living in France, download our guide about Moving to France.