We’ve been thinking of moving abroad for years. One of mine and my wife’s first dates, we were sat in a bar in Newcastle talking about moving to Australia!!! France seriously first caught our attention though in 2010. I had a crazy idea (one of many in my life!!) to rent a 37 foot Winnebago, take 3 months off work, take the kids out of school and drive across America. My wife was up for it, we bought some books on touring around America and set to working out how we would do it and what it might cost us.
“But you said France”, I hear you ask!! Yep, carry on reading…..!!
First step on any road trip after you sort out the location is to sort the vehicle out, and this is where the American road trip ended!! Doing it in anything smaller than a full size, extendable, 37 foot Winnebago just wouldn’t have done justice to the massive trip I had planned, but when I saw the HUGE costs (which increase for every state you pass through), I closed down that plan before it had even got started.
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Top Tip — for anyone wanting to do an American Road trip in a winnebago, there is a more cost efficient way to do it, but at the time we weren’t prepared to take the risk. Essentially you buy a van at your starting point (other makes than winnebago are also good, but probably not as much fun!) and agree a sale price with ‘someone’ at your end point, based on an assumed number of miles added to the clock during your trip and an assumed condition upon arrival. That takes a major capital outlay to buy the van (which we didn’t have), and assumes you have no accidents en route (which we couldn’t guarantee given I’d never driven anything bigger than a car before) and that the buyer at the other end of the journey lives up to the agreement (which they are not forced to do). For these reasons it made us reluctant to go through with it, but, if this is for you, do it, enjoy it, and send me the pics of how you got on :)
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Moving on with the story…..
With this minor set-back out of the way, we looked a bit closer to home. We’d always fancied going to France, and the South of France in particular appealed to us because of the 300+ days a year sunshine, Mediterranean beaches and sleepy village lifestyle! It seemed like a decent idea, we would still go for 3 months, still take the kids out of school and take a sabbatical off work, but we would rent a villa to use as our base, and just do lots of tourist stuff. Also we really just wanted to live there for a while, to see what we thought about living in another country. To live like locals, not like tourists. Call it a dry run for a future change of lifestyle!!
We decided that if we were doing this, as it was going to be the most adventurous thing we had ever done in our lives, we wanted it to be special. We didn’t just want to rent a gite in someone’s back garden (not that there’s anything wrong with that, we’ve done that plenty of times since), rather we wanted a big villa of our own, with a nice garden, a private pool and room for friends and family to come and stay with us. The whole 9 yards!
We’d already decided that the South of France was our destination because of the 300+ days a year sunshine, so this introduced 2 choices straight away. Cote d’Azur, or Languedoc.
Cote d’Azur, if you’ve never heard of it, is home to Nice, Cannes, Saint-Tropez and some little place called Monaco!! Much as we wanted a special holiday, we had a budget to stick to, so that ruled out Cote d’Azur straight away!!
Languedoc it was to be then :) Or to give it it’s full title, Languedoc-Roussillon!
Now the Languedoc is a huge region made up of 5 departments. It goes all the way across the bottom coast of France and inland a fair bit, all the way from Nimes and Avignon to the East, to the Spanish border on the West. It includes major cities like Montpellier (its capital), Carcassonne (home of the world heritage site concentric circle castle) and Perpignan (once home to the Majorcan Kings). It is the gateway to the Pyrenees, has a rich history dating back to when it was not part of France up to the 13th Century, when it was home to some rather brutal killings at the hand of the Catholic church, who decided it would be a good idea to wipe out all the ‘heretics’ and make it all catholic, like the rest of France. Go anywhere round the Western end of the Languedoc and you will see plenty of amazing Cathar castles well worthy of a day trip. The street signs there even have the Cathar spelling of some towns, and older folks from time to time still speak Occitan (the Cathar language) in preference to French. So you can imagine, all these things made for an intriguing area in which to base ourselves for our 3 month stay.
So, how to decide where to live?!
Well, if you break it down it’s a fairly straight forward process. Just ask yourself a bunch of questions, get the answers, and there you go!! Something like this took place, between me and my wife some time in the Autumn (I think) of 2010….
Me: “So we don’t want to be near the posh side then?” (translation — ‘posh side’ = Cote d’Azur)
My wife: “Nope, too expensive, too commercial, too many English, not French enough”
Me: “OK, and we don’t want to be near the coast, coz we prefer inland these days and, well, the mountains are cooler?”
My wife: “Yep, defo”
<<short break while we got the map out, topped up our wine glasses (French, of course!), worked out where both Perpignan and Carcassonne were, and mulled it over for a bit>>
Me: “Cool, so let’s try and find somewhere in the middle of Perpignan and Carcassonne then, near the foothills of the Pyrenees if poss”
My wife: “How about this place, Quillan, looks nice and French, small, not too commercialised, they have some bars and restaurants and a few shops, cafe’s etc.”
Me: “And it’s only about an hour from Carcassonne and the same from Perpignan too, nice one”
<cue me and my wife scouring owners direct, holiday lettings etc until we found our perfect villa, which we then negotiated a price for, and rented it out for the following April, May and June>>.
Now at this point we hadn’t exactly got permission to take all that time off work, so there was a step which came before the booking which was a bit less enjoyable and wasn’t wine induced!
If this were a movie the next section would be a flash-back!
I have suffered from bad stress reactions a few times in my later adult life. The first time I was signed off work on long term sick was for 6 weeks. It was a combination of factors, with one very small straw which broke a rather large camel’s back. I also got a bad bout of stress in 2010, around about the time we started looking at a change of lifestyle and considered moving abroad, to somewhere slightly more relaxed than ‘million-miles-per-hour-Britain’!
I knew that I wasn’t cut out for the 9–5 corporate life that so many people aspire to. The work I did was depressing, so political, I was treat like a pawn in a big game and whilst I was fairly well paid and got some decent projects to work on, it all left me with a very dissatisfied taste in my mouth.
I know now that I hadn’t been mentally right for some time. I don’t fully remember what the catalyst was that pushed me over the edge, but at some time in the autumn of 2010 I went to speak to my boss and told him I couldn’t go on as I was doing, I had to get out and that my doctor had signed me off on long term sick with a stress reaction for a month.
Bombshell dropped, I said my goodbyes and went home. I have no memory of the period while I was stressed, what I did, where I went. But I do remember not being able to go out of the house very much, not feeling very sociable, I even think the Doctor prescribed me some medication to try and sort my head out.
The month passed by and I was close to returning to work. During the time off I had a lot of time to think about my life, talk to my wife about what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go and how we might set about making a fundamental change to our lifestyle so we could escape our rather negative version of the ‘rat race’ and all the stress it was inflicting on us.
Years later and I am now firmly of the opinion that I was meant to be stressed then and there, that the stress reaction was my mind and body’s way of giving me a chance to take stock and re-evaluate my/our life and work out the path we wanted to take.
After I was feeling better and the Doctor allowed me to go back to work, I decided to try and negotiate a 3 month sabbatical from work the following April, May and June. There is a little known EU Directive for parents of children under 6 (or at least, there was at the time!!), which allowed parents to take up to 13 weeks unpaid leave of absence to look after their children. My employers agreed to let me take all my 25 days annual leave in 2011 in one go, and tag onto the end of it a bunch of unpaid time, up to a maximum of 13 weeks total time off work. They kept my job open for me, agreed to have me back at the end of the 3 months and wished me well with my sabbatical.
I have my ex-boss, G, to thank for talking his/our boss into letting me take this time off. If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am today - sat in South West France writing this blog in my home office where I now work every day. I’m looking out of the windows of our new home which overlooks the small rural french town we are lucky enough to call home, where my bilingual kids go to school and my ex-pharmacist wife now teaches Yoga. We do our best to make sure we don’t take any of this for granted, ever. Also I often remind myself that none of this would not have been possible had I not been stressed back in 2010 and managed to subsequently negotiate ‘that agreement’ for a 3-month sabbatical with my ex-boss. So, thanks Big G, really it is appreciated, a lot. I owe you one, big style!
April 2011 quickly came round, we packed up the car, locked up the house and left for a 3 month adventure we would never forget. We did a tonne of stuff I will write about in another book, we explored, we lived, we made friends, and overall, we fell in love with France. To the extent that we tried to buy a house there and then. It fell through for a variety of reasons and we returned to England to our old lives (which was weird I can tell you), but the seed had been sown, we knew that one day we wanted to go back to live in France for good.
Little did we know at the time just how long it would take us to get here, and how hard, expensive (and rewarding) that journey would be!!
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……more next week, thanks for reading.
Phil / Foggy