June 4, 2010

FRANCE: Perhaps the best place in the world to live is...

LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Lifestyle / Property / June 4, 2010

It's a dream shared by many - escape the rat race for a new life abroad. Michael Wright, a Telegraph columnist, turned the fantasy into reality when he swapped London for France, and has never been happier

Since moving to France Michael Wright has acquired a wife and a dog.

By Michael Wright

My London life had become uncomfortably comfortable. Every day was pretty much the same. As I sat in my office, week after week, I didn't feel I was really learning anything anymore. I wanted to become strong and wise; to learn about animals; to plant spuds in mud. I wanted to wield manly powertools. But most of all, I wanted an adventure.

So it was that, one rain-lashed March, I found myself driving through the towns and villages of rural France, looking for an old house to buy, with a little bit of land on which to rear chickens and sheep. This weather, with hindsight, was helpful. Many people decide to move to France while enjoying wall-to-wall sunshine on an idyllic terrace, little imagining the ice-storms that lie in wait for when they move in to the leaking, creaking ruin of their dreams.

I wanted the house to be old because crumbling stone was intrinsic to my rose-tinted view of la belle vie and because I had not yet learnt the benefits of modern insulation, windows that fit and roofs that are for keeping the weather out, rather than the wildlife in.

Though I didn't want to follow the diehard Brit route of living in a caravan beside a ruin for two years, I did want to find a place with work still to be done, because my budget was modest, and because this would be part of the adventure: I would learn as I went along and the house would grow with me.

I chose France, because France is beautiful and poetic and rich as a hearty stew, and because I like the way that, in the countryside at least, day-to-day life still has an old-fashioned simplicity that we have all but lost amid the competitive bustle of Britain. In France, most people still go home for lunch, tabloid newspapers have not yet been invented and people are generally disposed to appreciate what they have, rather than resenting what they don't.

All this comes at a price, of course. The groceries are expensive, the policemen are fierce and the social security payments make your eyes water. And that's even before we've mentioned the andouillette.

My first weekend's house-hunting in the Limousin was a disaster. Most estate agents are closed from midday on Saturday, and the others expect you to make appointments for viewings, instead of simply grabbing the keys and rushing you off to visit unsuitable properties.

Later, I returned for a whole week, staying in one of those ghastly plastic hotels on the outskirts of a city, which feel as if the room will self-sluice itself the moment you leave.

I looked at many houses, and found that you can buy a lot of house for your money in France. However, a lot of these properties, so fabulous in the photos, are fearsome in the flesh. "Isolated" houses may be jammed in someone else's farmyard. And the garden may require a car journey to reach it.

Three hours after viewing the house I would eventually buy – a similar place, today, in this part of darkest Haute-Vienne would probably cost €130,000-€170,000 (£110,000-£144,000) – I signed, with trembling hand, the compromis de vente that committed me to buying it.

I felt stunned at the threshold I had crossed, just like that. Dreaming of moving to France is one thing. Actually signing on the dotted line to buy a foreign house with five acres of desolate hillside, a well, a barn, several outbuildings and an entire food chain of carnivorous beasties living in the roof, was quite another.

A few months later, I drove down to the Limousin with all my worldly goods in the back of a rented van and completed the purchase at the notaire's office. I had bought a house in darkest France. My French adventure was about to begin.

I can still remember that first evening at La Folie, as I sat with a London neighbour, drinking icy Kronenbourgs in the hot evening sun, in awe of the change that I had just wrought in my life. All around me, crickets were whirring in French and I could hear the bleating of sheep on the far side of the valley. Bats and swallows darted like minnows across a deep blue sky criss‑crossed with the vapour trails of distant travel.

It was one of those perfect epiphanies that stand out like milestones in our lives. It is when I stopped faffing around, and began to live my life.

Do I ever look back? Yes, all the time. And never with an ounce of regret.

Read Do's and Don'ts

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010