Of course this wasn't a spur of the moment decision, the couple had harboured the dream for many years and they had designed their annual holidays to research various countries and locations.
Margaret explains – "It is impossible to say exactly what the trigger was, we just woke up one morning and decided the time was right. We had decided on France, as logic had prevailed over romance – we had visited many beautiful places, but at the end of the day many were just holiday destinations – not somewhere we could live 24/7. In France we had a rudimentary knowledge of the language, it is a first-world country and it is easily accessible".
2003 and 2004 saw the couple trawling the internet and taking short vacations to various towns and cities throughout France. It was a wonderful, but frustrating time:- arriving in a new place that their research had shown to be favourable, but not then finding a spark that told them "yes, this is the place".
Peter explained "our criteria were pretty simple:- we wanted to be by the sea, so it was the Med or the Atlantic. Initially we had favoured the Med but it was doing nothing for us, so we came down to Biarritz – there were direct flights and it was as far South as we could get. We first came at Christmas time and the weather was awful; cold wet and windy- and the Hotel wasn't much better! But we felt something; maybe it was the Christmas swimmers in Biarritz who, after their swim, lit a huge fire on the beach and danced around it in bathing suits drinking champagne, or the café in Saint Jean de Luz where the locals had an impromptu singsong on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Anyway we returned 2 months later to have another look and we were hooked!! The exact moment was sitting outside a little café in the mountain village of Sare, listening to a stillness that was interrupted only by the tinkling of sheep's bells in the distance, we knew we had found our dream".
We had a plan, we had assessed our strengths and weaknesses about working in France.Seven months later the couple arrived in France "we were so excited" recalls Margaret "the boat docked at 7am and we headed for the nearest café for croissants, but of course it was Sunday and we learnt our first lesson about France – Nothing is open early in a Sunday (if open at all) and our dream first breakfast ended up a tepid McDonalds coffee"
Notwithstanding this first setback, hours of internet research soon started paying dividends – they had a leased apartment waiting for them on the beach at Labenne Ocean and soon set about earning a living.
"We had a plan" they explained "we had assessed our strengths and weaknesses about working in France – language was always going to be a problem – but we needed to create an income. We had noticed that there were very few internet cafes in the area, and those that existed were basically out of date with regard to the hardware & software they offered. It transpired that France had been using the Minitel system for many years, so the use of the internet for the multitude of transactions we had become accustomed to in Ireland was only just beginning to take hold in France – the banks only started going on-line in 2002. We seized the opportunity, bought a leasehold on a shop in Saint Jean de Luz and opened our doors for business in May 2005".
But this was only part 1 of the plan "the shop is fantastic" they continued "besides earning us an income it has integrated us into the community. We have made friends and business acquaintances directly from our day-to-day dealings. Margaret started her "Irish Coffee mornings" whereby she brought together a number of local women to meet and talk on a weekly basis. Margaret explains "I noticed very quickly that quite a number of our customers were looking for both a social outlet and an opportunity to improve their English language skills – the coffee mornings fitted the bill perfectly for all concerned; totally informal and is now really just a bunch of friends meeting regularly for a chat"
Even through the success of the shop the couple still harboured dreams to create something more – "We always knew it would be property related, but it was finding the right angle, something a bit different to the mainstream was the challenge.
Apart from the obvious cultural & social differences, plus being apart from family & Irish friends we have enjoyed the challenges, we love the lifestyle, the country and the weather.Through our experiences of buying and leasing property we knew first-hand the difficulties for non French speaking people to unravel the great mysteries of the French system and the Agence Immobilier so we knew that help in this field was a good starting point. We also knew from experience that trying to actually locate properties on the Internet was difficult. Most of the International sites, though in English, just carry links to French Estate agents' sites and hence the language problem kicks in again.
There are innumerable other problems facing the Expat. – even with a basic knowledge of French it is often difficult to find the right department and person to talk to when organising your social services benefits, health insurance, banks, professional advice, water, gas, electricity & telephone. With no knowledge of the language it is nigh-on impossible.
For the majority of people buying in France is the realisation of a life's dream; it is supposed to be a time of enjoyment and anticipation, new horizons for them and their families.
But, unfortunately, this is not always the case. Statistics tell us that moving house can be one of the most stressful occasions of our lives; moving to a foreign country with limited knowledge of the language can only add to that stress – imagine, for example, needing to transfer part, or all of your life's savings from a UK sterling account to a French euro account. The cheapest option is to use an agent for the conversion, and if you have never done this before it entails trusting some faceless agency with all your money and waiting for it to arrive safely in France!!
With all this in mind Peter and Margaret opened their "Friends in France" business. Their first clients were Peter's parents, relocating from Birmingham and, through their website, quickly started to increase their client base. Initially they worked alongside the local estate agents but found this problematic so soon began to use only private sales as 60% of French property is sold privately and it allows more flexibility for negotiation with the vendor. 2008 brings the next phase of their project – "The problems faced by people relocating to the Biarritz area are obviously not unique" explains Peter "So we are now looking for people throughout France who, like us, have the interest and ability to help relocate others. We have no doubt that by increasing the scope of the business onto a national basis can only make it more attractive for buyers and sellers alike, and if, like us, you enjoy helping people realise their dreams it is a rewarding way to earn a living"
So the big question – are they living the dream? Unequivocally yes they respond – "Apart from the obvious cultural & social differences, plus being apart from family & Irish friends we have enjoyed the challenges, we love the lifestyle, the country and the weather, but above all we have loved the people that we have met; the local Basque & French, the Expat and the worldwide visitors to our shop. So whatever happens in the future this experience has greatly enriched our lives, it has made us stronger as a couple depending so much on each-other as we do, and we have proved to our family, our friends and mostly ourselves that what we are doing is not as crazy as everyone once thought – it is a wonderful lifestyle option – and there are many, many, others living the same type of dream.
If you would like to contact Peter & Margaret about any aspect of their lives in France or discuss their Friends in France business their email is email@example.com and the website is www.friendsinfrance.com
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Peter and Margaret Stephenson left their comfortable Irish lifestyle in September 2004 to search for their dream life in the sun. Leaving in wake good jobs, their beautiful...