Enjoy Neighbourly Spirit

Enjoy Neighbourly Spirit

Things work differently in France; there’s no getting away from that. I suspect that differences are more pronounced in the countryside than in the cities, but nevertheless, there are significant differences.

I was aware of this when I moved here but it became more noticeable when I was renovating my home. I thought I had nothing better to do than pick up the phone, organise for a ‘general builder’ to come along and give me some quotes. What a shock I was in for. Having bought a house that had stood pretty much untouched since just after the war, there was much to do and I had envisaged in my naïve 'British' mentality, that some French jack and master of all trades would come along and conduct those works like Gareth Malone leads his singers. How wrong I was.

Being in a town (or large village to be more accurate), I had already made a point of befriending my lovely neighbour Roger. Roger, who’s now turned 80 must have been just shy of 70 at the time and it was clear from our first rencontre that he and I had one big thing in common…a love for a well chilled rosé! Many an early evening was passed that first summer when I tried to explain to Roger in my very poor French that while all his trades-folk friends seemed lovely, what I needed was someone to lead the renovation for me. “Ah, you need an architect then” he said. No, I explained, I need a builder who, either himself or his team can do plumbing, electricity, fit double glazing, strip and re-plaster walls and do all the stuff that a lovely Maison de Maitre needed doing to bring it back to its former glory. But it wasn’t to be.

This was my first real encounter with neighbourly spirit. Although I tried with all my might, there was no budging Roger’s view that what I needed was a plumber, a joiner, a plasterer (although virtually impossible to find he warned me), an electrician and a kitchen fitter. He went on to explain that while the plumber would “do” most of the bathroom and kitchen work for me, he wouldn’t even consider fitting tiles, so I’d need a maçon to do that for me. What a nightmare this was turning out to be. Don’t get me wrong, 11 years on and general building firms are starting to appear in this neck of the woods, but what was a problem for me at the time ended up as my passport to one of the strongest friendships I’ve developed, probably in my life.

To cut a long story short, Roger and his band of merry (and not so merry) ‘amis’ led me through the process of learning patience, learning to accept that things here are done differently and learning to speak French “renovation” pretty much fluently. This process also made the bond between Roger and I very strong. He’s seen me elated because end results have exceeded my expectation and in tears because things have gone horribly wrong. All along the way he’s been there for me. My French rock.

My houses (yes, I foolishly bought and renovated another after that experience) are now thankfully fully renovated and only need little things doing from time to time now. Roger is still my neighbour and he is one of my best friends. I don’t know if it’s specifically French or not, but I’ve lived in the countryside in the UK and while I was always close to my neighbours, I don’t recall having the neighbourly spirit that exists almost everywhere here.

I have keys for several houses in the village and several people have keys for mine. I regularly come home to surprise deliveries of wood, wine and vegetables that have been left at my door and when I got back from holidays recently, not only had Roger and a couple of other neighbours taken it in turn to look after my cat, but I had a baguette, a casserole and a bottle of wine in the fridge waiting for me when I got back later than planned at about 8pm.

I guess the message I’m wanting to pass on in this post to anyone reading this who’s thinking about moving to France but is worried that they might be isolated, is “think again”. If you arrive with a smile on your face, a firm yet friendly hand-shake, a bounce in your step and make an effort with the language, in my experience, your French neighbours will welcome you with open arms day-in, day-out and year-in, year-out. I for one really appreciate the neighbourly spirit that I’m surrounded by. It's entirely up to you!