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Wallabies retire to France

Wednesday November 29, 2006

Ray Johnstone

?Why do you English always have your photograph taken next to the road sign outside Condom??

One of my petanque partners asks me this question ? it?s one I?ve been asked umpteen times. And for the umpteenth time I try to explain that we?re not Poms but Australians, and that because of our common language the French tend to lump all Anglo-Saxons together simply as ?les Anglais?. So convincing them that Australians are not really English is difficult enough, but answering Pierre?s often-asked question about Condom is just about impossible. And explaining the connection we English-speakers see between a contraceptive and the pretty Gascon town named after the Duc de Condom is quite beyond me.

Having said that though, someone in Condom does pander to our peculiar penchant for sexual double entendres, and you can now buy a range of tacky postcards in the town. One shows the beautiful Gothic cathedral with a condom shrouding the spire and another has Dartangnon (friend to the Three Musketeers) wearing a condom rather than a cape.

Flying the empty nest

The main reason we moved abroad was to escape the ?empty nest syndrome? we saw so much of amongst our friends. When I retired, I was determined that the week?s highlight would not be going shopping or waiting for the grandchildren outside their schools (or waiting for grandchildren to be born). That?s all some over 60s seem to do these days. And we didn?t want to waste our time in supermarkets arguing over whether the no-brand tinned tomatoes are better value than the labelled tomatoes. So we opted for something more challenging. We set our sights on France.

When we told our kids and friends in Australia what our retirement plans were, they thought we?d gone mad.

First we flew from Melbourne to London, bought a campervan, and 17,000 kilometres and seven months later, we?re now firmly established in a village house in la France profonde. (My wife, whose French is very good, says that roughly translated this means ?beyond the black stump?. But I simply translate it as Paradise.)

Savoire faire

Forget all those horror stories about French bureaucracy and the dangers of buying a house in France. The system may be different, but it works. All you need is patience. And it?s very unlikely that you?ll ever be gazumped.

But there?s no doubt that the plethora of popular TV programmes that show how easy it is to relocate to another country border on being immoral. If you?re thinking about it, simply take off those rose-tinted holiday glasses, sharpen your pencil and be scrupulously honest when you?re doing your sums. The only serious problem we?ve encountered is that it?s very hard to get the cricket scores in the local newspaper.

So now we live in Mézin ? a small hilltop village in southwest France where, from a nearby hill, you can see the Pyrenees in the distance. Although tiny, Mézin is famous for three things: Armand Fallieres, a former president, was born here; it was once France?s biggest cork manufacturer; and the locals produce the best Armagnac in the world. (More about Armagnac later.)

Doing the sums

But our idea of retiring abroad posed an important question: could we afford to take the plunge? Australia, unlike the UK, means-tests pensions and it didn?t take long to work out that we were not eligible for anything. So did we have enough to just pack up and go?

At the risk of sounding over-philosophical, does one ever have enough? Probably not, but this has to be weighed against how much time we?ve got left, and only the Grim Reaper knows that. The sooner you die, the less money you need. It?s a bit of a game really, but the stakes are high, and you have to be realistic and unsentimental when making your decision about when to retire.

Surrounded by sunflowers

We decided to hedge our bets and run an art school and a self-catering gite business in the summer months. This strategy has two benefits. It helps us spread the jam a little thicker on our bread and it provides an interest. Anglo-Saxons can?t live in total isolation and remain sane. They need the stimulation of English speaking company from time to time no matter how well integrated they are in the French community.

The locals have taken to calling our house Chez les Walibies, but its real name is La Petite Galerie. It really is a very old building, and I love to tell our Australian guests that when Captain Cook set sail for Australia it was already 400 years old. There?s a magnificent romanesque pillar in the cellar ? and because Mézin was once a fortified village, there?s also a well under the house ? in case of a siege. Which was quite often the case ? and usually by the English. But today we?re surrounded by nothing but sunflowers.

After lunch you can hear the crack of iron balls in the village square. The daily game of petanque has started, and I?ve become one of the old codgers who play every afternoon.

For those nearing or in retirement, a move to another country can be an exciting and stimulating chapter in your life. For others it?s a disastrous mistake. Some new expatriates have a wonderful time during the first few months of moving in and carrying out renovations to the property they?ve acquired, but when the novelty wears off they die of boredom.

But if you do your research objectively, if you?re sure you want a radical change, and if you?re prepared to give up what?s familiar to you, moving abroad can be truly exhilarating.

Recipe for a happy ending

Our transition from Down Under to France has been a wonderful experience. Every day is an adventure and there?s a surprise around every corner. And the best thing about living in this little-known corner of France is that after seven years the villagers have finally accepted us as Mézinaises. So we now call Mézin home.

Oh yes, what about that Armagnac? Well, it?s the world?s heavenliest after-dinner liqueur and here?s a great dessert recipe using it:

  • Use your favourite recipe to make plain vanilla ice-cream for six (cheats can simply rush into a supermarket and buy a tub of quality commercial vanilla ice-cream).
  • Coarsely chop eight Pruneaux d?Agen (cheats use any old prunes).
  • Soak them in Armagnac for a few hours (cheats can just use brandy).
  • Mix all ingredients together and freeze before serving (and when you serve, make sure you get the biggest helping).

The dessert with genuine ingredients guarantees direct entry into taste heaven. The cheat?s version is simply wonderful.

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