Note on a Life in France by Vic Bromley

We had been coming to France for years – and gradually getting to know a little about that country.

Our first visit was in 1960 when, having motored in our Triumph TR3 from Luanshya in Northern Rhodesia through the Sahara desert, we landed in Marseilles. From there we drove through France to Calais, fell in love with the country and crossed to the UK.

While I worked in London for Chevron from 1973 we decided to change from dinghies to sailing boats and spent most of our holidays sailing across to France. We sailed along the Normandy coast, the Channels Islands, and the north and south coasts of Brittany really enjoying the lovely coastline and the warmer weather.

A few weeks ago we spent an enjoyable day visiting the Chateau Hunaudaye in northern Brittany.

It is an attractive fortified castle built about 1220 and life in Feudal times was well displayed.

The Chateau had had some unpleasant owners in times past. Geffroi Tournemine pillaged and robbed the neighbouring town of Plancoèt stealing the sacred vessels from the chapel. Pierre Tournemine kidnapped the local Bishop for ransom in 1386 and murdered his own wife, stepfather and brother.

The castle became an object of terror, no one daring to venture into the neighbourhood.

The large hall where the people ate their meals is still in good condition.

The Seigneur sat at the head of the table and lesser mortals sat on either side in order of reducing rank. However all were fed, even visitors.

In feudal times the Seigneur had the power of life and death over all those in his control and the individuals who lived on his land recompensed him in one way or another. They were required to fight for him in times of war.

The “Droit du Seigneur” was also descriptively explained – the lord had the right to sleep with a virgin before her marriage. (There is no evidence that this used to happen).

Life in France is very different now.

The Seigneur’s still have their titles but they are meaningless. They are also known as “Monsieur” or “Madame” as is everybody else. From time to time we meet 2 friends who are Count and Countess. We know them by their Christian names and they receive no different treatment from anyone else. It is well known that they are rich and have inherited a considerable amount of property and land. Our French neighbours give them the same respect that they give anybody else. We notice no class barrier here while we felt there was one of some sort in England. I think Honours Lists, the Monarchy, the House of Lords and personal snobbery keep it going.

The effects of the French Revolution seem to be much in evidence in France and “liberty, equality, fraternity” seems more important than in the U.K.

Disputes result in public protests and the police do not play a domineering role. We signed a petition against an Incineration Plant being built in nearby Plouray. The Police were in attendance to stop the traffic and permit the protesters to have an enjoyable and leisurely march through the streets. The right to “object by striking” is important. I think that Mrs Thatcher’s policy with the miners would not have been accepted in France.

I retired from Chevron in July 1987.

We set off in our sailing boat “Fulmar Fever” at the end of October, just after the hurricane, to travel to the Mediterranean via the French canals. The end of train journeys from Guildford to London and the slower pace of life were agreeable.

I had enjoyed life in England and found my job demanding, absorbing and interesting.

However, I was delighted to end the experience of arriving at Waterloo Station after a long days work to find the train Time Table Board empty because of “Leaves on the Line”, etc.

We arrived in Sete on the Med in February 1988 having travelled slowly and enjoyably through France. The kindness of the people along the canals and in shops on route impressed us. We loved the varied countryside and found many areas of interest along the way.

We spent nearly 3 years sailing in the Med.

A fire on our boat in the south of the Peloponnese resulted in severe repair costs which made it impracticable to continue down the Red Sea as we had intended. In April 1990 I joined Chevron again under contract for 2 years in London helping to check the design of the Alba North Sea platform. We made up our minds at that time to either move to Cyprus or France. The increased population and busy roads in England were unacceptable after the relaxed life we had spent in the Mediterranean.

In July 1991 we spent a holiday in France to look for somewhere to live.

We visited the Charante near La Rochelle but found nothing suitable. Pat loves undulating countryside with trees and the “marais” (swamp area) although attractive did not suit her. On our way back to England she suddenly announced for the first time that she had an advertisement for a home in Brittany that she had cut out of the Sunday Times. We went to look at the house. It was in a hamlet with only 5 other homes at least 100 metres from each other surrounded by fields. The asphalted road in front of the property was once the main road. It had been modified some years previously and was now used only to provide access to the house. We immediately fell in love with the surrounding quiet and lovely countryside with few cars on the roads.

We visited the Notaire without appointment and he called in the Owners. A price and a completion date were agreed within 2 hours. We paid the required 10% non- returnable deposit to seal the deal. We returned on the agreed date in September to pay the balance of the cost. We were astounded at how smoothly the purchase had been completed remembering problems in England with previous house purchases and gazumping difficulties.

The nearest village, Tregornan looked attractive with hydrangeas on the sides of the through road. It is 1 kilometre south, while Glomel, the small communal town, is 5 kilometres by road in the opposite direction. The main shopping centre Rostrenen is 12 kilometres away by car while the larger town, Carhaix, is 18 kilometres. They provide most of our requirements but Lorient, a big city, is about 45 minutes drive.

Farmer Dominique Le Cras and his wife Julienne are our nearest neighbours who have about 40 milking cows. We could not wish to live close to kinder people.

My work on the design of Alba was completed in May 1992.

In the early 1990’s when we first came to live here few shop assistants spoke English.

I found them to be very helpful if you could find one. (Economising on labour happens in most supermarkets).

I speak French but obviously not like a Frenchman. I had some difficulty purchasing the materials needed for the work on the house. I knew the words but getting the pronunciation right took time.

I typed out all requirements in French and learned to ask for a “devis” (estimate of cost).

I would arrange for the materials to be delivered and could either pay the driver or visit the store to pay after delivery even though I had no account and they had little knowledge of me.

The situation has changed a lot as shop assistants now try to speak to you in English even when you ask to speak French.

We started changing the house in August 1992.

A lot of work had to be done to make it suitable to be our home.

It is a typical Breton construction built in 1910. The outside walls are about 90 centimetres thick, the outside face consisting of large, cut, sandstone blocks. The inner face of the walls is also of large stones and the gap between outer and inner stones is filled with sand and other material. The walls provide excellent insulation keeping the house reasonably warm in winter and cool in summer. .

I have been responsible for constructing several types of building as a civil/structural engineer and decided to do all the design/planning and labour myself with Pat’s assistance. Our work on the house was not completed until year 2000. A Shopsmith woodworking machine I had bought served as a power saw, drilling machine, lathe, router etc. and enabled me to do all the jobs with timber.

All outside doors had rotten sections and were not weatherproof. New oak or chestnut doors and frames were made and fixed.

New raised wooden floors were installed over insulation on top of the existing tiles fixed on the concrete floor.

A pine staircase was made and fitted to replace a steep ladder giving the only access to the upper floor.

New plasterboard or wooden panels over insulation were required on all downstairs internal walls.

New oak cupboards were made and installed for the combined dining room kitchen.

Upstairs partitions were flimsy and were replaced with timber framing, insulation and plasterboard.

The roof trusses were in reasonable condition except for two main rafters that were severely cracked. They were strengthened and repaired.

The roof slates were supported by nails that were badly corroded. Regularly slates would come sliding down the roof and had to be replaced to keep the house watertight. In 1999 the roofing materials except the supporting timbers were renewed using stainless steel hooked nails. We paid an excellent French roofer to fix the slates to nearly half the roof and I did the rest.

The small triangular windows in the roof were obviously inadequate. They were replaced with new large dormer type windows made of chestnut.

We had electrical problems almost from the time of our arrival. When raining the power would go and I would find the fuse wire had blown. The whole house was rewired and the wiring was checked by the authority responsible.

I had brought central heating radiators from England. I soon learnt how to braze the copper pipes. Unfortunately I discovered only by trial and error that the diameter of the piping in the UK did not match that in France. French pipes are thicker and 1 millimetre different in diameter, causing problems with the UK radiator connections. New pipes for the central heating and for the hot water were installed. Pat never liked the job of brazer’s assistant being convinced I was going to set the house on fire. Somehow we managed not to do so.

The attractive large sandstone blocks in the walls needed pointing. Fortunately we found a friend who had been a builder in England who did this job very well.

We bought and installed a gas central heating /hot water supply boiler. After installation I had to have it certified so I consulted the Yellow Pages, chose the largest advertisement for a Chauffagiste, in Rostrenen, and made an arrangement for him to visit our house and inspect the boiler and pipe work. He agreed to do this and demanded quite a large cheque as he said he had to obtain the necessary documentation. I explained we would have guests for Xmas in about 6 weeks time and we would like the work completed before their arrival. Christmas came and went but we saw no sign of him. We told Marie-Noelle, another neighbour, and Dominique about our experience with the Chauffagiste. They asked for his name without saying they would do anything to help. A few days later they brought back my cheque and explained that I had chosen an alcoholic. They arranged for an efficient man to do the work which was completed in the New Year.

Our sailing friends Arthur and Dorothy from Canada came to stay with us over that Christmas New Year period at the end of 1992. We had spent a lot of time with them sailing in the Mediterranean.

We were all invited to our neighbour Marie-Noelle for the evening of 24 December “Reveillon.” We expected it was for drinks after dinner.

We had a fair sized meal first before leaving to walk to her house. We were somewhat shaken to find we were joining in a large feast of oysters and sea food, rabbit main course, cheese and salad, dessert etc. with excellent wine to help digestion. Each person sang a song or entertained in some way after the meal. We decided to sing “Away in a Manger” but one of our group changed to “Hark the Herald Angels sing” after the first verse producing much laughter. Walking home at about 3 the following morning took some effort.

Arthur spent a lot of his time with us chopping wood to keep our 2 fire places working. Dorothy and Arthur slept upstairs in an area closed off by cardboard boxes filled with our unpacked belongings as all the flimsy fibre board partitions had been removed and new walls had not yet been built. At that time there was only one bathroom downstairs.

We moved our boat from Cap d’Agde on the Med to Brittany in May, June, July 1993 travelling through the Canal du Midi to avoid the longer journey going via the Straits of Gibraltar.

The canal was one of the first major man-built waterways in Europe. It is very attractive with plain trees planted along the banks and there were nightingales singing night after night.

The canal was constructed at King Louis 14th’s instruction about 1660. At that time France had to pay the King of Spain to use the Straits of Gibraltar for its shipping and King Louis wished to avoid doing this. The journey by boat took over a month. The engineer chosen to build the canal was given 3,360,000 livres but it cost about 20,000,000. He made a good job, ran out of money and went bankrupt. I gather he received no sympathy from King Louis. Evidently things have not changed much for engineers.

In Toulouse in the canal our boat got stuck under each of 16 bridges where the sand had accumulated. This was in spite of being told by the authorities that there was sufficient water depth for our draught of 1.6 metres.

We were caught in a gale in the Gironde estuary after passing Bordeaux. We tied up to a jetty held in place by pylons close to the shore but it was most uncomfortable. A kind fisherman in a small boat came alongside and gave us a bag of prawns he had caught. He advised us to go behind an island a short distance further on where we could find shelter until the wind abated. This we did and were able to wait in comfort. We proceeded into the Bay of Biscay and up the French coast stopping at some of the islands on our way to Benodet on the south coast of Brittany.

We have always enjoyed travelling, generally by car or on our boat.

Living in France makes journeys to other countries in Europe easier and cheaper as the cost of crossing the Channel is eliminated and distance is reduced. The Euro also makes travel much easier. Before its arrival we found we had many coins in currencies we might not use for some time or ever.

We have towed our caravan to Spain (several times), Portugal, Morocco, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Croatia. We do only about 300 kilometres a day travelling at a modest pace, enjoying seeing places on the route.

On the island of Kryk in Croatia we went to a restaurant for an evening meal. Half way through the meal we realised that we had no Croatian money. Visions of washing up dishes to pay for our dinner occurred to us. However, I nervously asked the lady if she would accept Euros. She seemed quite happy to do so.

The roads and public utilities in France are kept in good condition.

A continuous program of constructing new or replacement roads is undertaken resulting in easy fast journeys over long distances. The Auto routes are excellent although we do notice the cost of travelling on them. Their use is generally not necessary as the Route Nationale roads provide good fast travelling but they pass through towns making the journey slower. The “Aire’s” are generally delightful where facilities are provided to have a rest, picnic or restaurant meal. As a result we have enjoyed journeys to many parts of France. It is a vast country with a wide variety of differing landscapes some dramatic, high mountains, beautiful buildings in interesting towns, items of historical interest, etc.

We find the French municipal camp sites compare well with those in other countries. They are generally clean, tidy and pleasant and less expensive than outside France.

Life here has become a lot more expensive since the latter part of 2008.

Fuel costs for travelling have increased significantly. A litre of diesel cost about 70 centimes in 2007 but is now about 50 % more. The charges for a mechanics labour at the garage we use have increased from 38 to 58 euro’s per hour. Food costs have gone up a lot as well. Most fruit used to be less than a euro per kilogram but prices are now generally double that amount. Normal weekly food shopping costs about 150 euro’s for the two of us at the supermarket whereas 2 years ago 100 euro’s would settle our bill.

Our biggest problem is that pensions come from the U.K. and are paid in pounds. The value of a pound is now about 1.1 euro’s while it used to be about 1.5. Costs have increased but income has reduced.

We have made many friends here, some French, but most of them English or other immigrants, who have come to live in Brittany.

Our neighbours have helped us beyond any normal expectation. They frequently give us eggs from their fowls or fruit and vegetables that they have grown and are always ready to help us with any problems we might refer to them.

Properties here were much cheaper a few years ago than in England. However, with the reducing value of the pound the situation seems to have changed. Some of the arrivals have decided to return to the UK. The selling price of property has reduced since the financial problem and they do not find it too easy to sell.

Pat started a “Dinner Club” about 12 years ago.

Anybody can join but the club has few French members. Generally three couples meet for lunch or dinner at the hostess’s house. She provides the main course with wine and aperitif while another couple brings the starter and wine, the 3rd couple brings cheese and dessert. People travel up to 100 kilometres and come from a wide spread area in Brittany.

Pat has also started 2 Art Clubs, the first of which she ran for about 8 years.

She is also a Member of the Board of AIKB, a charitable organisation to help the integration of immigrants into the French system. They assist people who come to live here, possibly not speaking French, and require advice about how to become established. AIKB officials will phone local authorities to organise things like electricity or telephone connections, help with French Tax, and give information about local matters. They organise and run classes to teach French. They arrange visits at least once a month for their members to places of interest such as Chateaus and historical places or fine gardens. The outings often include lunch – sometimes a picnic or restaurant. They also arrange Fêtes where we might enjoy some pig or sheep roasted on a spit.

We have been on several planned trips to sample wine- Loire, Beaujolais region, Bordeaux etc. Members of the dinner club group travel independently by car to producing vineyards that provide free wine tasting. We stay in hotels in the area chosen. One generally ends up by buying many bottles.

We find great pleasure in spending time on the coast of Brittany.

We bought a house about the same distance from the North, West or South Coast, each about one and a half hours away.

There is a fine walk along the coast all around Brittany. Many people enjoy the scenery, fine views and beaches and people are very friendly. Every one says “Bonjour” in passing.

Last Sunday we were near Le Pouldu on the south coast having a picnic. An elderly passing Frenchman stopped to have a chat. He asked Pat (men always seem to prefer talking to her!) “What is the difference between an accident and a catastrophe? The answer he gave her was- When your mother in law falls into the sea it is an accident. When somebody goes to rescue her it is a catastrophe.”

The medical situation here is excellent.

Before leaving England I had a prostate problem. Chevron provided membership of BUPA and I visited a Harley Street specialist. His queue was long and I was not impressed with his service. The delay to have the operation was considerable.

Other medical people in England that I had consulted had generally been satisfactory or better.

After arrival in France I spoke to my doctor about the prostate problem. He did an examination and sent me for X-rays and tests. One I especially remember consisted of spending a “penny” into a large jar while an attractive young lady photographed the progress and recorded the details. Apart from the thrill it seemed to me to be a far more scientific method than the one used in Harley Street where the main criteria seemed to be if one could hit the back of the toilet.

After the tests in France I was asked when I would like to enter hospital for the operation. I had my own room with telephone, television, bathroom, a glass of wine at lunchtime and the operation was completely successful.

I had an operation for piles in Guildford while still at work in the 1970’s. It was also completely successful but I was in a dormitory of about 10 people and it was not nearly as pleasant.

Generally the first 70% of medical expenses are paid by Social Security, a government organisation. We have a medical insurance which pays almost all the remaining costs (including dental). Social Security pays 100% for critical things like cancer, severe heart problems etc. I understand they settle the bill in full for people on low income.

A great advantage here is the medical card one is given which has included in its chip medical details and will one day have medical history.

One has to pay for all items such as visits to the doctor. You will be reimbursed eventually by Social Security if it is a justified expense.

We miss the enjoyable times we had in England going to concerts such as the Proms at the Albert Hall, Musical or Play, Shakespeare at the Globe or Stratford upon Avon.

However I prefer having no necessity to wear ties, suits or dinner jackets which was a frequent requirement when we lived there. I can live in a more relaxed fashion now with those types of clothes all nearly destroyed by the moths!

Pat says it is wonderful to be able to walk outside in the peace of the night and see the sky glistening with millions of stars, even better on a romantic full moonlit night.

The only sounds to be heard are the occasional hoot of the owl or the cry of a fox cub.

The atmosphere is very peaceful. The worst noise is probably the farm tractor. Traffic is increasing from year to year but roads are not yet nearly as crowded as they are in the UK.


What an interesting corner we have found

What a pleasant land to go to ground

To live – to eat – to sup – befriend

In France’s jewel – we gratefully bend.

To live – amongst the pastures pure

To eat – flavours fit for many a cure

To sup – ah! delicious wine abound

And what delightful friends are found.

It is as if we have crossed a bridge

Back toward a bygone ridge

For life is caught at a different pace

And pleasure lies in having space.

By Tricia Ley