One of the few artefacts I have from my childhood is a composition (as they were called in those days) I wrote at primary school where I expressed the desire to live in a house in the country with roses growing over the door. I never lost that wish despite decades living in (albeit leafy) suburbia. Someone once accused me of having a romantic fantasy that would never stand the test of reality. In my heart I knew differently and I have loved every minute of our rural French life. We are surrounded by mixed agriculture, vines, prune orchards, wheat, sunflower, maize. Most days of the year something is going on and we mark the seasons by the different kinds of agricultural machinery we see passing us along the lane in front of the house. This week I took this photo from our back door of our neighbouring farmer ploughing the field next to us. He grew barley this year, so it will almost certainly be sunflowers next.
We’ve seen egrets around the area before, but usually in small numbers and never close to our house. So it was just wonderful to see this huge flock so close. In the agricultural and natural world everything stays the same as it also changes, always according to a rhythm.
Not so in the world of people. This has of course been a very strange and challenging year for us all in so many different ways. I need to go a little further back to start our own story.
When the results of the 2016 binary choice referendum were announced we were in complete shock. For us the arguments to remain within the EU, building on decades of post-war peace and prosperity, had been so compelling that it seemed inexplicable that others would come to the opposite conclusion. We have seen with sorrow how families and friendships have become divided and fractured as a result of the polarisation in the different viewpoints. For a long time we hoped that the UK would pull back from the brink. This was not to be, and history alone will determine why.
As time went on and we drew closer to the end of 2020 when the transition period will end and the full consequences will begin to become apparent with the irrevocable removal of many rights for UK citizens, we realised we were presented with another binary choice. Binary choices, black or white one or the other choices, are rare; most crossroads we come to in life offer options with different nuances and compromises.
One of the rights being removed from UK citizens is that of freedom of movement within the EU. Freedom of movement meant that we could freely come and go between our UK and French homes as our diaries and commitments dictated and allowed. This was the basis on which we made the major changes to our lives in 2014/2015 when we bought the French house. The Withdrawal Period ends on 31st December 2020. After that the UK will become a Third Country (i.e. fully outside the EU) and any UK citizen will be limited to spending 90 out of any 180 days within the Schengen area.
I finished work at the beginning of 2020, just as I broke my ankle and we then went into lockdown. Great timing! Being retired (I HATE that word …) meant that for the first time in decades I have much more time at my disposal to spend in the garden, maintaining it and further developing it. But I need to be able to be here as the garden dictates, not as the rules for Third Country Nationals dictate.
We love French rural life, with the peaceful and pretty countryside, the ancient towns and villages, the lively markets, the bars and restaurants, the more relaxed way of life. But much more than that our French dream is based on the opportunities around the much lower property values which gave us the opportunity to have the large garden that we would never have been able to afford in the UK. Although only part-time, we’ve managed to keep the garden in reasonable shape by paying a lot of money to others to maintain it while we aren’t here. We cannot afford such a high outlay now I am no longer earning.
I absolutely love the process of gardening, whether on my hands and knees weeding, standing thinking with hosepipe in hand, pruning, shovelling compost … whatever the task. I’m never happier than when I’m outside in my gardening clothes with my steel reinforced workboots on getting muddy. I garden all year, in all weathers. To ensure that the garden not only remains in good shape but also continues to be developed in line with our plans I have to be able to be here when the garden needs me, not constrained by the soon to be imposed 90/180 day rule.
As 2020 has rolled on we began to realise that we were facing a choice. Either find some other way where I could retain my freedom to come and go or give up our dream of creating a great garden. We didn’t want to end up doing what so many people in our position do, having a garden mainly laid to grass with a few shrubs and trees dotted around, and a couple of small flowerbeds next to the house. That’s a very recogniseable style out here which has its merits not least it can be easily maintained by contractors when the home owner is absent. But its not what we want to do.
After some very hard thinking, and with gratitude that we have the kind of relationship where we can discuss deep and difficult issues in a very open and mutually supportive way, we jointly came to the conclusion that one or both of us would need to become resident in France before the end of the year. R is some way off from retirement, being a few years younger than me, but is clear that he would like to look forward to retirement at our French home rather than in the UK. After the Withdrawal Period comes to an end, all rights to retaining UK healthcare and increases in state pension will be lost to anyone moving to France (and the wider EU). Establishing residency before it ends locks those rights in.
We aren’t wealthy, just very hardworking, so retention of such rights is of great importance to us. So we had to secure our future. We could either make the changes before the end of 2020 and benefit, or we could miss the boat for ever. So we discussed with our nearest and dearest (as always completely supportive) and planned to travel to France on 15 November when I would establish residency and R would stay for a while working from home as usual.
On Wednesday 28th October President Macron announced a second confinement (lockdown) for France, coming into force on Friday 30th but with a travel amnesty across the weekend to allow people to return home from their half-term holidays (typically and wonderfully pragmatic French-style). I spent a lot of time awake that night, thinking, considering, praying for guidance. Over and over I had a mental picture of my tiny little Orange Toyota Aygo driving across France. In the morning I knew (and we both agreed) what had to happen. I booked a ferry for that night and spent the rest of the day packing up all important documents and some other essentials including enough food for the journey and to last for a week after arrival. R drove me to Portsmouth as I no longer drive after dark if I can avoid it. We said goodbye at the entrance to the ferry port, not knowing how long it would be until we were physically together again. R phoned for a taxi to take him to the station for a train back home and I drove into the port, through customs, and into the queue for the ferry surrounded by SUVs and camper vans all seemingly filled with black bin liners of hastily gathered possessions. Brefugees.
That tiny little car did me proud on the journey and since, and will now become a French car once we’ve gone through the necessary administrative processes. Who would have predicted it; certainly not us just a very few weeks ago.
I’ve been here on my own in French confinement for four weeks now with another three to go, the extension having been announced a couple of days ago. French confinement is much stricter – and much more widely adhered to – than in the UK. All being well, the extended confinement will be relaxed a little on 15th December to enable R to join me for Christmas and New Year. We will be more than pleased to be reunited.
The timing was wrong for us and our family. In the four weeks I’ve been here my mother died and I “attended” her funeral online. We would have preferred to travel together and have been able to make such important decisions and life changes in a more leisurely manner rather than as a crisis. We would have preferred to spend lockdown together. But we couldn’t take the risk that I wouldn’t have been able to get here at all before the end of the year to establish legal residency and protect those important rights.
Thank goodness for digital communications, and the loving support of close family and friends. You have all been utterly invaluable and we are completely indebted to you.
And also with much gratitude for plants and gardens, balm to the soul. Or this particular soul anyway.