“I wonder if punters don’t just want to read about the romantic Peter Mayle/Place in the Sun fantasy?” remarked a literary agent to me when I was writing A House at the End of the Track. I’m happy to say I’m proving him wrong. Apparently the book is sparking people’s dreams to move to France as well as giving a new perspective on the dream’s reality.
That word ‘dream’ crops up all the time, not least in the property websites and the big shows that sell France. I’d talked to people in the Ariège who’d ‘discovered’ the region whilst talking to an estate agent at one of the France Shows at Olympia. With a free day in London that coincided with the France Show 2019, I went along to see how ‘the dream’ is presented vis à vis practical considerations.
From the magazine racks stacked with French Property News that proclaim Technicolour DREAMS, to the giant images of lavender among the stalls of French properties, food and wine, you step straight into an environment of the dream as pull factor for both holidaymakers and prospective migrants.
At least the FNP magazine balances the dream with reality, as this month’s practical articles deal with issues such as destructive termites and English cowboy builders. And plenty of assistance was on offer at the show, from English-speaking bank accounts in France to insurance and language learning, including an enjoyable session from Arnaud’s Language Kitchen.
So perhaps we should think less in terms of a dream, with its connotations of fantasy, and more about, well, an aspiration or ambition, perhaps. And what’s wrong with calling it a plan? When researching A House at the End of the Track I’d been surprised by those who’d bought a house in the Ariège on a whim. Sometimes they’d gone into an estate agents’ on holiday and come out with a house. Others simply wanted more space than they could afford in the UK and had looked to France, despite having never visited the country.
The whole idea of “moving to France for a better life” was a generic phenomenon that sometimes blurred the distinctiveness of place. To some incomers, Ariège could have been anywhere in France, as long as it had the right house. The country itself was sometimes an amorphous backdrop, affordable “France”, a commodity that people didn’t always examine beyond its ability to offer the right house at the right price. It seemed too easy to come to the Ariège inhabiting an idea rather than a place, and when the idea became the place, it was not always what people had imagined or intended.
A House at the End of the Track.
So it was good to see plenty of services to help people make a more informed decision, like the ‘hands-on orientation of life’ offered by re-nesting experts Renestance – you get yourself to somewhere like Montpellier or Beziers and they’ll show you the ropes as well as the properties. That word ‘dream’ is right there in their branding of a French Lifestyle Dream, but at least they’re looking beyond the house to the life that comes with it.
The demographic wandering around the France Show was surprisingly varied, and not a majority white, middle class, thinking-about-retirement slice of middle England that some have declared it to be. Plenty of people were approaching retirement though, perhaps looking for a challenge or wanting to avoid that ‘digging in to die’ feeling that one of my interviewees described to me.
I steered clear of the food and drink stalls, shocking one stallholder when I told her I’m not a foodie. “Why not?” she shrieked. I avoided the can-can dancers too, and instead listened to writer Anthony Peregrine contrasting Lancashire with the Languedoc. I don’t suppose anyone was surprised to hear about Montpellier’s lack of drunks on a Saturday night compared with Morecambe. The audience of dreamers would undoubtedly have found his humorous and affectionate view of life in France quite encouraging, although Peregrine has also written ambivalently about The English re-colonisation of south-west France for the Daily Telegraph .
A Saturday night in Montpellier…
Back into Dream territory and the audience sat up alert for Janine Marsh’s description of her life as an expat in rural northern France. Forget the lack of weekend drunks in Montpellier compared with Morecambe – we know that! – people want to hear about how easily they can make the dream come true. According to Janine, as long as you’re prepared to work hard and watch a lot of YouTube tutorials, you can transform a French wreck into a house. I guess that was what some people had come to hear, but I hope they realise that French Building Regulations are not the same as ours.
Like any dream, it’s vulnerable: to the economy, to exchange rates, to illness, to unexpected termite infestations, to lower-than-expected bookings for your gîte and to the uncertainty of political developments such as Brexit. But despite these factors, in that grim cavern of Olympia, in a city that’s trying to keep its doors open while all around they’re slamming shut, the dream to escape to sunflowers and lavender is very much alive. If the idea of rosé on the patio is your dream, then good luck, and I don’t blame you one bit.