Over the last few years of visiting friends who have retired to France, I have been developing my own increasingly sophisticated fantasies of moving there myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I love living in Nottingham. MORI polls show that most of the people who live here would recommend the place to others, and that’s true of me too. So while it’s more or less by accident that I live here (of a small set of universities that offered the course I wanted, Nottingham was the one that combined the prestige with a beautiful campus that at the time was the halfway house between city living and the life in the country I was used to) there’s plenty that keeps me here. At Christmas, I love it when people ask for obscure CDs long after last posting rules out Amazon, and I can be pretty sure of finding it in the shops. I love being able to buy pretty much anything I need just by getting a bus into town. I love the theatres and the cinemas and the art galleries and museums, although I don’t go to any of them as often as I should. I love what as a councillor I have learned to call “my district shopping centre” where I can do all of the shopping and restauranting I need when I don’t quite fancy a trek into the city centre.
But still a secret half of me is longing for life on the other side of the channel.
The fantasy has various different phases.
1) The flat in Paris
I have very fond memories of the six months or so I lived in Paris when I was a student. All the facets of city life I enjoy at the moment I could continue. Late-nite life in the all-night cafés. A developed social life for gentlemen who, what’s the phrase, share a common interest in musical theatre and physical fitness. Absolute certainty of “haut debit” internet connections.
And, compared to, ooh, say, houses in Nottingham, modest flats in the déclassé areas of Paris are actually quite affordable.
2) The former farmhouse
The second variety of the fantasy is buying up a rural idyll somewhere in the Hexagone and soaking up the isolation. The friends I stayed with last week spent roughly in Euro what we spent in pounds for our present house. We got a 3 bed semi in the suburbs with a medium-sized garden; they got 24 acres of farmland, a small cider orchard, anything up to 11 outbuildings in various states of disrepair, resident owls, swallows, deer, and inordinate numbers of beetles, and glorious solitude when they choose it. On the other side, we have cable broadband and mains sewerage, and they have a septic tank they have yet to locate and four miles of telephone cable serving only their house that doesn’t seem to be a high priority for repair should someone accidentally fell a tree onto it.
Were I to follow this little fantasy, I’d settle down, buy milk and cheese from my neighbours, keep chickens and an eccentric number of cats, grow my own food, live simply, rising with the sun and going to bed early, etc. etc.
I never actually managed to grow and eat anything. This year, the beans refused to come up. Two years ago, given how many slug pellets I’d put on the tomatoes, I was chary of eating them. The one year I did successfully grow runner beans, I forgot to pinch out the tops, so they got all straggly and unmanageable, and I got about a plateful.
And the sad fact is there are a lot of English expats in France unable to cope with living alone in the countryside ostracised by the locals whose language they’ve made little effort to learn, but unable to move back to Blighty because the differential between property prices doesn’t work so well in the other direction when your savings are exhausted.
One feature of French living is that land is cheaper than in England, and more widely available. So building the home of your dreams from scratch is a more obtainable dream. I was hugely impressed at the ultra-sustainable housing at the Hockerton Housing Project when I visited as part of a Council report into climate change, so a frequent fantasy is of building myself a South-facing earth-sheltered dwelling that doesn’t need any heating apart from the solar hot water panels. I’d probably grow my own food here too.
Anyway, nice fantasies, but not likely to come to fruition any time soon. But more than enough to keep my mind occupied whilst my hands are mechanically operating a printing rig keeping the next 10,000 leaflets churning out.