How did this wild adventure start?
Having talked about a more authentic, shared life together during holidays walking the grand randonnees, in September 2017 we finally realised our dream, upped sticks and moved to Brittany, Western France to start a new adventure. The first thing to say is obvious: when dreams become reality they are no longer dreams; and this is where our story begins.
The project: to set up and launch a residential centre for training courses, workshops and retreats in the peaceful and inspiring surroundings of rural France.
Part 1 of the Story – Months 1 – 4
Starting as we meant to go on, and in my case with 30 years’ experience of giving intercultural integration advice, we were determined not to fall into the trap of relying on a support network offered by other Britanniques….no! We were going to integrate right from the beginning!!!! We set about asking for advice where the French go: at the mairie, the CCI (Chamber of Commerce) and of course in the bakery and tabac.
Observation 1: the advice and insights given by others who have done the same thing is invaluable, but especially in the form of person-to-person contact. There is very useful objective advice online, but internet forums are generally to be avoided!
Step 1: moving in….
Early indications: deliveries have to be guided in by phone. Mostly they have satnav but this is not to be trusted. We found that about 3 conversations were necessary for every delivery. Where does that figure on Hofstede?? Problem: I thought I spoke French, mais non! The phone was impossible. Every response was met with what seemed like a whole life story while I was still deconstructing the first greeting. I was also frankly out of the habit of answering the phone and talking to a person rather than a robot…
“Please, what is the context??” I plead, trying to figure out yet again who this was and, even more challenging, where they were – since we didn’t know the geography any better than them!! In our area houses do not have names, so nobody knows where to direct a delivery if you have just moved here, because they don’t know you… Oh and dont’ worry about why that package arrives and leaves not from the post office but the coin fumeur (…..smokers’ corner) tabac in the next village….
Observation 2: so we need to be known!!!! …Start with the “weak ties”…neighbours, baker, newsagent…..
Step 2 Get registered…Grappling with bureaucracy, processes and “the system.” As we intend to be fully integrated into the community, working and living for the majority of the year in our little village, we need to set up our official support network. The problem is that when we ask the locals, they give us the answer but they don’t realise that we are the equivalent of David Bowie in the Man Who Fell to Earth…We don’t know the background, we haven’t grown up with the way the system is organised; so each meeting is positive, friendly and helpful, but we still come away with a feeling of mild panic that we still don’t really understand what is going on because we can’t put the “whys” with the “whats”. We feel as if we are getting almost nowhere fairly slowly, but I still have total faith that suddenly, like climbing a mountain, we will reach the top, having matriculated and received notification of our taxable status.
The result is that we go to all the offices we are directed to but often in the wrong order. After every meeting with another very helpful civil servant we come out encouraged and optimistic, but still not quite sure if anything has moved on. Problem: if you don’t know the system you can’t tell if we are progressing. Observation: wow it cannot be exaggerated how disorientating it feels to arrive in the new system. After 4 months we’re not yet registered with health and social care but we think we have managed to register the business and we have definitely managed to register the car…born in Italy, raised in UK and naturalised in Franc.
We meet the mayor and get to know the staff at the mairie, which has lists and records of everything and everyone in the commune and is the go-to place for everything: getting planning permission; inviting international visitors who need visas; forming a club; contributing to the newsletter; picking up bin bags. Here you can’t be invisible and you are instantly accountable. Next, off to the bank to open an account – armed for the second meeting (the first meeting appeared to be relationship building) with proofs of address/ residence/birth/ proof of income. The application process is personal: “Madam has travelled a lot” and is all done with the utmost courtesy and friendliness despite the fact that our financial investment is minimal to tiny.
What a huge learning curve – fascinating, mentally tiring and baffling… but soooo interesting, frustrating – and sometimes bizarre. As an intercultural professional I am genuinely interested in the underlying, the abstract, the philosophy… how come everything is so different?….
What do I love about France so far?…the focus on people; the fact that you can be neither unaccountable nor invisible – the close relationship with the commune . our mayor sees to that – you are acknowledged (“weak ties”) everywhere you go, and after around 4 months we are starting to get more than a “bonjour”……petit a petit…… I love the fact that everything is discussed before anything is done – then it is done with absolutely no nonsense, and the person who has done whatever it is, is automatically accountable for their actions… and there is a kindness and a sensitivity both to the human condition and to beauty and art. Oh yes and although we are STILL finding the 2 hour lunch break annoying because for 30 years we have been programmed that that is when you pop out to get things…… I really appreciate that all working people have 2 hours a day where they mostly eat together, talk together and bond…….. And the space around us, and the lack of M6 motorway (or any) traffic.
What I don’t like? Probably all of the above on a bad day!!!!
Until the next time,
About the Author – Daphne Laing is a language and intercultural training specialist now based in France with a long career in training and academia. During the 1990s she worked in Executive training at Regent Executive and Lydbury English Centre before joining Higher Education where she headed up the Centre for Language and Communication Training during the halcyon years of Internationalisation in UK. During that time she was involved in several EC funded projects to that end as well as partnership development activity in places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Burma and China. Her practice is deeply rooted in observation and discovery and on encouraging personal reflection and growth. She is now working as an independent consultant and trainer and is setting up an inspirational residential centre for education and personal development events and courses in Pen Ar Bed (top/head/centre of the world in Breton) in Western France.