We arrived during one of the coldest winters in Southwest France for over a decade. This was not our choice. Working with the limitations of the 2020 Covid restrictions and lockdowns, we had managed to book a removals firm and grab 10 days in August to move most of our belongings from England to France during one of the rare travel windows. We needed to get ourselves installed in France before midnight 31st Dec 2020 to benefit from the EU membership we’d grown up with allowing EU citizens the right to live, work and receive healthcare in any EU member state. We had decided to get as much as we could over to the French house during this period so that if Covid restrictions looked as if they would close borders again once we were back in UK, one of us could rush over to France to ensure one of us was legally resident by the end of the year. Having a partially equipped house would mean we could fly at short notice without worrying if there was furniture or saucepans etc on arrival. Flying rather than driving meant there would be no car in France - just a bike to get to the nearest supermarket. I was due to be redundant from my job of 15 years in Dec 2020 which would free me to come to live in France so that I could claim residency under the old rules for us both. We felt pushed into this extreme decision because post Brexit, from 1st Jan 2021 the rules for healthcare and levels of earnings changed and we simply would not be able to afford to live in France. That’s why it was so critical for one of us to make the deadline and be in France before the end of the year. If you’re wealthy you can still come and live in France but for us the dream would have died and we would have had to sell.
We had spent a lovely few hot days in France, painting, decorating and unpacking but the holiday was over and we were driving north, heading for Calais when an 11pm news flash alerted us that in 24 hours a new travel restriction would require arrivals into UK from France to quarantine for 10 days. Our booked return on Eurotunnel would be 7 hours after this new restriction. We scrambled to get on any earlier crossing and eventually made it back on a ferry from Dunkirk paying 3 times more than normal but arriving just in time to avoid quarantine. This was essential. If we’d had to quarantine we would have missed our civil partnership ceremony. I had been trying to get this booked since the law changed in UK in late 2019 allowing heterosexual sexual couples the same rights as homosexual couples to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage. A civil partnership is a legal recognition of a partnership of equals with no religious or gender inferences. We both had many reasons for preferring this option. At first it wasn’t possible to book because not all registrars had quite caught up with the new legalities. Then it was impossible because of Covid closing the registrars offices. I tried for weeks to get a booking and eventually got a date in September. We could see a second Covid wave was likely and had been worried it would close the registry offices again. Post Brexit your partner/spouse could join you in France and still benefit from the same pre-Brexit EU benefits. We have been together for 14 years and were planning a civil partnership as soon as the law changed but now it had developed another imperative because of the creeping awareness that the Brexit deal was going to be hard and harsh.
The ceremony was lovely. We were only allowed two witnesses (Covid rules) and so we had both his sons. (The youngest had turned 18 only a few weeks earlier making him eligible to be a witness for us.) The weather was kind too, staying warm and dry all morning. We posed for photos near Bath Abbey then because of restrictions again, limiting numbers of people indoors to 6, we returned home for a light lunch with the boys and opening of cards from friends and family. The clouds gathered in the afternoon and sent the first rain for weeks.
Sure enough, as expected the second Covid wave arrived and things closed again. Restrictions came back into place and it looked as if all our planning was going to fall apart. One of us had to get to France before 31st Dec but the borders were closed. We watched every news bulletin and followed the daily Covid numbers. Our situation was rocky but it was nothing to those unable to be with loved ones or those losing their fight with Covid. What a hideous, cruel thing Covid is.
Well into December, the UK government started coming under pressure to ease restrictions for Christmas. They decided to allow travel without needing a special reason and allowed people to travel beyond UK. In France infections were low and around 10th Dec we booked a crossing on Eurotunnel for 19th Dec and crossed our fingers.
15th December was my last official day at work and my boss and team organised the best zoom send off anyone could wish for! It was funny and moving. I was going to miss my old team. The entire company had been bought out a year earlier and all 4,500 of us were being made redundant. There had been many zoom good-byes in these strange Covid times for those who had left earlier in the year. We had always been a close knit team, friends as well as colleagues. It felt strange not to have our usual night out events to wish one of our number well and embarrass them with tales we’d remember and which they wished we hadn’t! No hugs, no face to face just a computer screen with all the warmth and laughter we could generate from our various dining room tables or home office bedrooms.
Post Brexit, UK would be treated as a third country and electrical or white goods would be subject to import taxes so we packed our small camper van with electric blenders, computers, DVD players, TV’s, printers and anything and everything I would need and which would be tricky to move post Brexit. There was barely room for Buster in his wee basket!
Going through passport control and customs at Folkestone prior to boarding the Eurotunnel is always exciting. This sunny, dry afternoon it also brought the most enormous sense of relief. The intense stress of the previous months had felt like a physical lead weight that you woke up to fresh each morning. Your mind was filled with thoughts of what might go wrong that day. What new Covid restrictions might come into play? Will the French close their border just as UK is opening theirs? Have I got all my own paperwork and enough worming tablets for the dog? Can I cram my favourite frying pan into the camper van? Did I pack enough socket adapters until we get the house re-wired? Have we got breakdown cover and more importantly - the number to call if we break down? Have I closed down this or that account or informed the NHS I’m leaving their jurisdiction? Can I still operate my Etsy shop with its UK identifier from France? Did I return all the forms for the accountant to set me up as self employed or the insurance documents, or my private health care until the French accept me into their system? It had been endless, relentless and at times crushing. In an hour’s time we would arrive on French soil and simply by arriving, I would meet the criteria to be a legal resident. Just by being there on 19th December, 12 days before the deadline, I would keep my old EU benefits and be eligible to apply for residency. This was the adventure. This was everything we had been planning for the past 5-6 years. This would be when we’d find out if the past 5 years of French language tuition had been worth it! This was also when sh*t got real. My partner would get me installed, stay a couple of weeks and then have to return to UK for work. We were working on a couple of plans to get him to France permanently but knew that might be 18 months away. We had explored him working remotely from France for a UK employer but that had failed. It sounds like an easy and obvious solution - until you try to make it happen and the barriers of taxation and French social charges shut off that option. I was drained by it all, fresh out of creative ideas, missing the work, colleagues and certainty I’d known and was low on optimism. I would be staying, on my own, with Buster, without a car, in an old, idiosyncratic house surrounded by an interior of the darkest nicotine brown staining every wall and an acre of overgrown garden. I was going to have to dig a little deeper for a little longer.
Temperatures overnight were regularly down to -7° -8°. When we woke up in the morning the skies were bright and clear but the ground was hard with frost on the trees and the plants all crispy white. The log burner in the house had been condemned as both dangerous and illegally located (too close to our roof and our neighbours front door). There was an ancient central heating system running off oil but it had not been used or serviced for several years and the pumps, gauges and pipework looked intimidatingly confusing. So for three months we relied on 2 electric heaters, hot water bottles and physical work to stay warm. I prepared all-in-one slow cooker meals each morning while the weak sun offered some thermal gain through the large kitchen windows making it possible to spend more than a few minutes in there. In the evening, I would run into the now freezing cold kitchen, grab the slow cook pot and speed back into the living room where we huddled around a warming chilli, hot water bottles on our laps and the heater as close as the flex would allow. We gradually unpacked and found out where the few electricity sockets were and generally learned how this old house worked.
I learned how to shop in the French supermarkets, finding the right flours for baking for example. In UK you buy plain, self-raising or strong flours. Here the flour options are T45 or T55 and then they go up the numbers to about T120. For cake baking there is a special flour with a raising agent included. To bake bread you use T55 (I think!) but I'm still finding my way through this particular mystery. Now, after a few months of living here I no longer feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I’m beginning to recognise brands and names. It's taking me a little while but I can now go straight to the washing up liquid and buy with confidence.
Before himself left we had a storm. It lasted about 15 minutes and started with a strange high wind blown sound in the air high above. The trees swayed and billowed. The satellite dish we rely on for the comforts of familiar British TV moved off course. A tree branch over the road fell onto the phone line bringing internet into the house. The trees were moving wildly and I suggested to Himself he might want to move our camper van a short distance away to a safer area. We heard the sickening creak and crack of a tree uprooted from the ground. He drove as I stood watching to see which way the tree would inevitably fall. We were lucky. It fell away from Him, the van and the house, otherwise it would have crushed him and them.
We added “tree surgeon” to our list of things to do. For various dull, frustrating reasons both our internet and satellite dish have remained damaged and offering variable, unreliable service. It hasn’t been for want to trying to get both finally resolved but things happen differently here and move slower. You have to slow down too, move from the fast lane to the slow lane and appreciate what does work.
The harsh winter gave way to spring. It’s been wet, stormy, bright and hot in various measures. The grass, weeds and foliage grew a foot in 3 days. The wisteria keeps threatening to grow all over the front gates and wall me in as happens in fairy tales. Woodpeckers, swifts, nut-hatches, sparrows, chaffinches, tree-creepers, swallows, black caps, green finches, starlings, wag-tails, great tits, blackbirds, robins, blue tits, red squirrels, black squirrels and foxes all visit our garden. Black kites and buzzards surf the thermals in a field opposite. I’ve felt very welcome by our lovely neighbours, the shop keepers in the village and Pierre in the wine shop who speaks fluent English. He refuses to allow me to speak English to him however, so I’ve got quite good at French wine chat.
Himself returned for a short time as soon he was double vaccinated and as the spring restrictions lifted. We’ve got to know Americans, Canadians and other Brits who live nearby. Our common language makes this easy and there’s a natural appetite to reach out, share experiences and make friends. We’ve been for apero’s at friends’ houses, walked Buster by the river, explored on our bikes, swum in the lakes, arranged for our heating to be serviced ready for winter, scheduled the house re-wiring with Rudolph from the next village and started making plans for the future.