by 1st for French Property writer Alex Sutcliffe
Call it my millennial midlife crisis, but in January 2000 I sold my London flat, put my belongings into storage and arrived at a ramshackle French cottage with one suitcase, two cats and a dream of becoming a full-time writer.
The village was St Jeannet, about a half-hour’s drive from Nice airport, which has its own distinct mountain, Le Baou, towering above it. My neighbours included the eccentric, ageing British/Irish owners and a British/American couple who helped them maintain the properties and garden. A friend of theirs was arriving at the end of the week, they told me, to rent the studio apartment. I thought nothing of it at the time, but we’re still together, some 21 years later.
After three months we had to move out to allow for their spring/summer lettings, and found an apartment in the same village, on the ground floor of a villa, with a terrace, garden and lovely views. Our landlady – who, with her late husband had run a poker restaurant in Nice – was flamboyant and full of energy, all flame red hair and pink nails, despite her advancing years. While the two other tenants paid her in cash she’d stuff down her bra, I set up a direct bank transfer, and she declared that she would only ever rent to les anglais again, because of our reliability and good behaviour.
A few years later she died, having had no children and leaving no will. This meant that her ageing siblings were facing high inheritance tax bills and reluctantly decided to sell. By law, sitting tenants in France get first right of refusal, and so we found ourselves buying our very own home, for a sum significantly below its market value.
There were issues – previously we’d had to walk around the building and through our neighbours’ patio to access our flat, so we asked to build a new entrance, which involved my partner creating a stairway of 44 steps. As neighbours gathered to watch his progress – building a landing towards the bottom and a tower at the top and then joining the two – he most certainly earned their respect. Years later he converted a disused septic tank into a stunning terrace – not bad for a former pen-pusher with no previous building experience.
Our Danish neighbours invited us to manage their four-bedroom villa La Piccada for holiday rentals, as they only used it themselves for a few weeks each year. It involves us marketing and advertising the villa all year round, managing enquiries, bookings and payments, and taking care of any maintenance and upkeep issues. For the first time it was rented out all last winter, by a couple who’d chosen to escape lockdown in Scotland to ‘work from home’ in the warmth of the French sun. It proved an ideal base for their house-hunting, too, and they’ve now bought a plot of land and are keen to start their own adventure in France.
Thanks to my writing work I became a registered autoentrepreneur, or self-employed freelancer, which automatically gave me a carte vitale, meaning I benefit from the French health care system.
Brexit has undoubtedly complicated matters, but we were relieved that the application process for our ten-year Cartes de Sejour was straightforward, and it was a very proud moment when they arrived in the post. My partner, having driven for some 40 years, is now having to retake his driving test, and astonished his examiner by getting just one incorrect answer on his theory – the best score of his group.
It was when we were queueing up to get our Covid-19 vaccinations that I really felt I belonged in France, and that I am welcome and protected. We are considering applying for French nationality, and holding two passports. It’s a daunting prospect, but as we’ve come so far, why not?
My advice to anyone considering moving to France is to go for it, but do your best to integrate by learning French. I had A-Level French, but quickly started reading gossip magazines and watching French TV – I have never set up British TV in all these 21 years (but do admittedly now have Netflix). Go deliciously low-brow – start with daytime soap operas and use the subtitle option. Attending French classes too will be a great way to learn and make friends.
I would also recommend being flexible and seizing any opportunities as they arise – consider life in France an adventure, full of new experiences. Inevitably there will be ups and downs, but France is a warm and generous country, and certainly for me, it’s been a place where many wonderful things have happened.