Sholu Pande has lived in many places and worked in a number of fields before settling in France. Sholu and her husband Mark bought their French house in a beautiful village in southwest France in 2004 and are running a bed and breakfast as well as painting holidays, gourmet breaks and day trips into the stunning Pyrenees and rolling hills of the Gers, the Tuscany of France. Recession and all, Sholu and Mark still love their life in France and are keen to help others find the lifestyle they are looking for. Sholu writes the blog www.bonne-la-vie.com
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: London, England
Q: Where are you living now?
A: In a village close to Lourdes and Tarbes in southwest France
Q: How long have you lived here?
A: On and off since 2004
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: Yes, husband and daughter
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: A long story… like so many English, we were initially just looking for a holiday home. What we found was something a bit more substantial, a house with business potential. After my husband was made redundant, the school I was working at was taken over by a corporation, and I knew that my fate was heading the same way. I re-trained as a language teacher – a more tradable skill than finding a job in marketing in a country whose language you do not speak totally fluently – and we went to Asia for a couple of years before moving here.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city, how’s the quality of life?
A: What can I say? France has topped the poll of the best place to live by International Living Magazine five times in a row. Not just because it ticks all the boxes for healthcare, safety, culture, climate, etc, but because of something you cannot measure in statistics – the bon-vivant lifestyle, where time is made for the important things in life: friends, family, good food and wine. And that is what we were looking for.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Of course, there are always negatives. The bureaucracy is tiresome, and it can get a bit dull in the country in winter when nothing is open. I miss the corner shops in London, open 24/7, the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4), and eating out in the evening for no reason – not a great tradition here the way it is in England.
Q: Is Lourdes safe?
A: Petty crime does exist – pickpockets, car theft etc, but I haven’t heard of many (non-domestic) violent crimes.
Q: What’s the cost of living in France compared to the UK? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: France was considerably cheaper in 2004, but now this is not the case. No great surprise that accommodation still remains more affordable than in London, but petrol is now more expensive and supermarket food is at least as dear, the markets are more expensive. Electricity prices are high, but diesel prices remain low, and of course, wine is a total bargain.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: We have many expat friends, of course, but we deliberately stayed a little remote from the ‘English circle’, i.e. English who only socialise with each other. We have made friends with locals, and they are genuinely interested in what we do and look out for us.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: For me it was, but I am a positive and social person, so it comes easy. Expats who are not happy complain about France, tend to compare everything negatively to their home country, and often have a colonial attitude.
About working in France
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: Being European, no.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in France, is there plenty of work?
A: No, there is high unemployment in France, and jobs are often given to friends of friends.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: It is totally different. Firstly, there is a 35-hour week here! Secondly, everything shuts for lunch from 12 to 2 and people usually go home to eat. In other words, lunch isn’t some nominal break, it is something almost sacred. And, in the evening, everyone goes home on time. On a personal level, the pay is poor, but I have great colleagues and one of the, if not the, most caring bosses I have ever had.
Family and children in France
Q: Did your children settle in easily?
A: It took a year, but then she was very happy.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: I can’t really comment on the French school system, as we chose the international school route and the International Baccalaureate qualification. I think the state schools are pretty even in their quality, though, with language teaching being uniformly poor (as I see from my students) and very little support for special needs in mainstream schools. Special-needs children attend dedicated schools.
Q: How would you rate healthcare in France?
A: Generally, very good. Just try not to get ill in August or between Christmas and New Year, as there is no one there. Well, a bit of an exaggeration, but there is a grain of truth.
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Preparation is the key, both mentally and skills-wise. Mentally, accept that your new country has different strengths and weaknesses from your own and that adjusting, feeling bad and homesick for a while, is no reflection on you. It is normal! Skills-wise, try to learn the language and obtain other marketable skills that your new country will need if you want to get involved in local life. If you are a trailing spouse, you will need the support of the expat community to settle in, but how much you get to know the ‘real’ France is up to how much effort you are willing to invest. Try to stay for a whole year in your new country without rushing home, hard though it may seem at times, and it will pay off in how quickly and successfully you and your family adjust.
~Interviewed January 2010