Living Abroad in France
True Expatriate Stories
© Terry Link, from Living Abroad in France, 1st Edition.
Used by permission of Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.
I moved to France 14 years ago, having signed the papers to buy a vacant bakery on my 50th birthday. The day of the signing was hot. It was also a holiday, and I had to take the notaire (notary) away from a family gathering because I was returning to California the next day. I signed with as much trepidation as I had experienced 30 years before in asking my girlfriend to marry me, and just as much certainty that this was what I wanted, no matter what the future held.
After seeing so many years of that future unfold, I have only two regrets: I did not make the move sooner, and I did not study more French before doing so.
The old bakery my wife and I bought and turned into a chambre d'hôtel (bed-and-breakfast) was neither the culmination of a dream nor the beginning of one. Rather, it was the next logical step in a process that began with my first trip to Europe—an eight-week trip that turned out to be little more than a tour of France. I was crazy about the country!
My wife was, too. As a partner in a cheese and wine shop, she specialized in French cheeses. Soon she left the cheese shop and opened her own charcuterie (butcher's shop), making pâtés, sausages, quiches, and salads, as well as selling cheese and wine. This endeavor required more trips to France, and when our eldest son decided to attend university in France, rather than in the United States, we easily agreed to his choice.
Eventually, together with our son and his wife, we bought a small house in a village that served the four of us as a vacation home. Working on remodeling projects in that house, with its meter-thick stone walls, was a new experience for me, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
By this time, our other children were grown, and my wife and I were ready to move to France permanently if we had some means of support. When the newspaper where I was working offered an “early retirement” buyout to older workers, we had the solution: Use the buyout money to start a bed-and-breakfast.
I enrolled in a French class five mornings a week, and we began making two-week trips looking for a suitable property. We took one of these in January to see what the winter weather was like. (My wife already knew, having spent two weeks one February on a farm learning about foie gras production.)
The building we eventually bought was sound—it had housed the ovens of an abbey, according to a map of the village from 1668. It then continued as a bakery until the late 1980s, when the owner, who had grown up in the house to become a baker like his father, retired. But it had minimal electricity and no hot water. (The communal bathhouse up the street has since been converted to a senior citizens' center.)
Thus began my real education in bricolage, the French term for do-it-yourself construction. As a learning process, it was largely enjoyable. But not all the lessons were. When my mother-in-law had a heart attack while visiting us, we received a close look at French medical care. In the end, it turned out well, but we had an anxious few weeks. Meanwhile, my father-in-law and I built a second bathroom so she would not have to climb the stairs, and they spent Christmas with us until she was able to travel.
A plan to supplement our income by renting bicycles to the general public ran afoul of French bureaucracy: We were a chambre d'hôtel, not a bicycle shop. We could rent rooms, but not bicycles, without establishing a separate business.
When our first car threw a rod and had to be scrapped, we learned just how isolated a small village can be—with no used car lots and no easy way to shop for another car—and how dependent we were upon the friends we had made.
There were numerous similar incidents, small enough in themselves, but for an immigrant beginning a new life in another country, they loomed large. After deciding to leave your native land, making the move, and getting settled, there comes a point when you begin to wonder if you have done the right thing.
For my wife and myself, our moment of realization came after a rainy winter day of fruitless shopping for furniture. The dollar had dropped from 6.25 francs (when we came to France) to 4.53 francs, it was raining, the heater in the car wasn't working, and we were cold, hungry, and tired. We started to voice our fears aloud.
Then, as we came over a rise and saw our village, we also saw a double rainbow that seemed to end there. Looking at each other, we both grinned and said, “There's our home!”
Terry Link was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up on a small farm in the Imperial Valley of California. He graduated with a journalism degree from San Francisco State University and spent 20 years working at various newspapers throughout the nation.
In 1976, Terry visited Europe for the first time. He and his wife, Lois, rented a van in Amsterdam, intending to spend the next six weeks touring Europe. They crossed the Netherlands and Belgium into France—and didn't leave until it was time to go home.
In France, they climbed the Eiffel tower with the kids, dined on trout in the Alps, were rained out on the Riviera, and drank too much in Burgundy. In short, they fell in love with the country.
Lois had a charcuterie (butcher shop) in San Francisco and foreign vacations were spent in France, sampling cheeses and wines unavailable in the U.S. and absorbing as much of the culture as possible.
When their oldest son attended the University of Toulouse, they spent most of a summer nearby, later buying a house in a small village that became a “home base” for their vacations.
In 1989, Terry and Lois decided to make their move to France permanent by opening a bed-and-breakfast. After several trips in different seasons, they found an empty building that had been a bakery for about three centuries. They bought it, renovated it, and opened their bed-and-breakfast in 1992, and it continues to flourish in 2005.