Rural France Renovated
Opting for Variety
Not everyone wants to sunbathe on a beach for days on end in some exotic paradise. Nice to begin with perhaps, but some might find it boring after a while. If you are the sort of person that needs variety in your life, France offers everything. There are exotic beaches, mountains, rolling hills, rivers, and more, and a wealth of activities for more energetic individuals.
I've lived in France for 17 years. It's the second-largest country in Western Europe, and coming from a tiny country like the United Kingdom where space is at a premium, that's very appealing... and, of course, the weather is better.
I am not the only one who has bitten the bullet. Many British people have upped sticks and moved here, and not just Brits; there is a cosmopolitan mix of other nationalities too, including Germans, Scandinavians, Americans, and Dutch.
I live on the borders of the Charente and the Haute Vienne near the northern tip of the Dordogne in an area called the Limousin. From here I can travel back easily to the UK or drive to the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe. The temperatures for me are perfect, with hot summers and fairly mild winters, although it can get cold at times. I like it. There is clear seasonal delineation which means each season brings its own particular delights.
Stuck in a Time Warp
I arrived in France in early 2001. Since then there have been significant changes. Back then, schools were in danger of closing through a lack of pupils, and for the young French, opportunities for employment were limited. Many left school and moved to the big cities to build careers and bring up families, leaving decaying villages with dwindling populations behind them.
Rural France was struggling and stuck in a time warp some 50 years behind the modern world; charming in one way but very frustrating at times. A gust of wind would result in a power cut and there was a general lack of facilities. There were few shops locally. Those that existed had limited stock and simply closed when they felt like it. It was quite normal to shut up shop for three hours at lunchtime, and even if the notice on the door said it would reopen at 3.30 pm, there was no guarantee that it would.
There were few British in this neck of the woods at that time. I used to feel rather conspicuous. Old men in flat caps would be stationed at the edge of the village every time I went out, invariably in a group of three. They seemed never to go home. They'd choose the best strategic vantage point and stand there, nonchalantly leaning on their shovels, passing the time of day.
There were three roads out of my village but they always seemed to pick the one that I happened to be on. They'd see me coming, chugging up the hill in my tired old British banger; three pairs of beady eyes locked onto me in a combined stare that drilled into me as I passed by and bore a hole in my back as I wended my way into the distance.
A Rash of Retirees
Not long after my arrival, interest in France as a retirement destination gathered pace and people started arriving in the Limousin in significant numbers. After some initial reservation from the indigenous French about this silent invasion of foreigners, there was a perceptible change in attitude when they realised that here was an opportunity. Expats were potential customers who could make the difference between the survival of their local economy or its extinction.
A rash of 'We Speak English' signs appeared outside business premises. There was new investment. Villages and towns that had looked decidedly seedy with crumbling cement and flaking paint received much-needed facelifts, and within a few short years, there was a transformation. Roads were tarmacked and potholes filled. Existing shops were refurbished and new shops and pedestrian precincts sprang up everywhere to attract new, wealthy customers in anticipation of rich pickings. Services improved.
From Ruin to Renovation
There was some concern that foreigners were pushing up house prices to the extent that the locals couldn't afford to buy. There certainly had been a house price bubble in the early years. It had been possible to pick up a 400-year-old tumbledown barn or agricultural worker's hovel for 10,000 euros, or even less in some instances, renovate it, and sell it at a huge profit. Many people with the requisite building skills did this and made a killing.
The fact is that many French do not see property in the same way as, say, the British or the Dutch. Their culture revolves mainly around family, food and wine. Property to them is home, not an investment opportunity. The expats came and renovated buildings that the French simply weren't interested in, in some cases bringing crumbling ruins back from the brink of irreversible decay and turning them into mansions.
Many of these renovations were stunning, imaginative, and carried out to the highest standard, retaining the delightful, traditional French features of historical buildings and complementing them with the best aspects of contemporary design to create spacious country dwellings with old-world charm and all the creature comforts that one would expect in the modern world. It has been said that the expats rescued rural France's architectural 'patrimoine' (heritage) from extinction, and in my view, there is no doubt about that.
Change in the Air
Times have changed. The old men do not stand staring at the side of the road anymore. They have all disappeared. Other things have gone too. I no longer return home from a dog walk on a summer evening and hear the gentle swaying rhythm of accordion music emanating from my dear old neighbour's house. She is no longer with us. That era has passed. I don't know when it went, but one day I just noticed it had gone and something new was in the air.
Nowadays, the shops stay open for longer, and even over lunchtime sometimes! Quelle horreur! For the French to forego their once-sacred three-hour lunch break is a sure sign that things have most definitely changed. The house price bubble of recent years has burst and prices have returned to a more realistic level. Some individuals who bought property primarily as an investment missed the boat and were disappointed when they didn't make a profit. Others sold at a loss and went home. But those of us who bought our houses as a place to call home really don't care. We love it here and won't be selling any time soon anyway.
A Buyer's Market
It's currently a buyer's market. There are still plenty of derelict properties in this region in need of improvement for those who have the skills and the stamina for it, so if you want to buy something cheap to renovate, now is the time to do it. Or if you are looking for something where the work has already been done, be it a holiday home or a place to retire, there is no better time than now to find the house of your dreams at a bargain price.
For the cost of an average-sized detached house with four bedrooms in the South of England, you could pick up a fully-renovated manor house in France with multiple bedrooms, outbuildings and land, or something smaller for less than half the price. And properties here come in all shapes and sizes, some with land and some without. But rest assured that no two buildings are the same. Whether you want a little pied-à-terre in a small town with facilities on your doorstep, a tiny cottage in a rural hamlet, or a rambling country house with outbuildings on several acres of land, there is something here just waiting to be discovered.
Communication and Camaraderie
As far as the French themselves are concerned, the uncertainty and suspicion of earlier years has been replaced by a real sense of camaraderie, and our relationship with them is now one of mutual trust. Countless organisations and societies have sprung up which enable people of all nationalities to integrate with each other. There are choirs, bridge clubs, yoga, dance and keep-fit groups, ramblers' associations, and many more too numerous to mention.
And in the tiny hamlets, villages and towns where expats and French live side by side, great friendships have been forged. We might not speak the same language, but that hasn't stopped us from communicating with each other and having great fun in the process.
In the current economic climate, purchasing a property in France as an investment won't bring you huge monetary rewards, but there are some things in life that money just can't buy. If you are thinking of settling in Europe, the rewards that France can offer in terms of value for money and quality of life are significant, and the goodwill and genuine affection that exists now between the French and expat communities is something that's worth its weight in gold.
Rural France was undergoing a steady decline at the turn of the century. The combination of a new influx of money, energy and ideas, and France's ability to respond and adapt itself to change has halted that decline. As with its old buildings, France has been renovated and refurbished, retaining the essence of its ancient culture and traditions and merging them with the best aspects of life in the 21st century. The heart of the old France still beats in silent rhythm beneath the surface, but the future beckons and France goes marching on.
© 2017 Annabelle Johnson