Bon Courage, Les Anglais by Peter and Christine Wakefield
An everyday story of (expat) country folk
Since Peter Mayle set the ball rolling there's grown up a large literature of British expat accounts of life in France. Many of these are so much pastis-flavoured mush, useless to anyone thinking of trying to realise a Chardonnay dream. In Bon Courage, Les Anglais: Tales of the Uninitiated in Rural France (UK: PublishNation) Peter and Christine Wakefield have produced something really worth reading and that in less than a hundred pages.
The Wakefields had holidayed in France and decided to try living here. They then embarked on "intensive research". Eventually they opted for Bénévent in Limousin where they found a property which almost immediately won their hearts. It was in poor condition and so needed extensive renovation which they tackled with energy and enthusiasm. They couldn't guess, though, that this would have very unwelcome consequences and this aspect of their story should give some pause to any prudent intending settler in rural France.
The book's an easy read – its clear and graceful style owing much, Peter Wakefield admits, to his attendance at a writers' course in the UK. We get a chronological account of the couple's nearly five years in the Limousin interspersed with much practical advice. If you're refurbishing an old house like theirs, for example, if possible it's a good idea to buy paint in the UK as the French product is thinner and needs multiple coats. A lot of attention is given to heating and such topics on how to choose bois de chauffage and the right way to stack logs.
Although the Wakefields loved their time in the Limousin countryside they are very clear about the downside, and this applies equally to our own region. Winter is not like summer. By November "the streets, once so vibrant, so full of colour, are often empty and grey while the cold and wet days can leave everyone trapped indoors for long periods". Luckily, the Wakefields quickly developed a very good relationship with the locals and how they did this offers a case study of how to achieve that. They recall their neighbours as offering them "support, care and real love". Incidentally, this relationship was helped by their dogs who turned out to be "a sure-fine way of getting to know people".
So, you might say, why did Peter and Christine decide to leave their "special piece of paradise"? The reason offers an important lesson. For the start they threw themselves into the task of renovation and repair ranging from simple paint jobs to the major undertaking of restorative surgery on a dysfunctional septic tank. Eventually they found themselves – worn out by too much DIY – unable to cope any longer with rural life and compelled, with immense reluctance, to return to the UK to be close to their children. I spoke to Peter Wakefield down the line at his new home at Rednal near Birmingham. Was re-entry into UK life easy? "I 'm afraid not. We miss so much from our time in the Limousin: the people, the conviviality, the French food and, very much, the wonderful medical care we enjoyed. All I regret is doing too much DIY."