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  1. Long reads
2 August 2004

Hot tip: learn the French for “thingumajig“

By Rosie Millard

Alan Morris, who has lived in the Dordogne for 14 years and has counted the British escapees in, and out again, describes the idea of living abroad as a fool’s paradise. “Most professional people last about two years,” he says. “It’s rare for people to make it, unless they are artisans and have some sort of local skill. Like plumbing.” Morris himself runs a local computing business. “All those terrible British TV programmes show people having an idyllic life out here. Well, not everyone speaks English, and it is very expensive. And since 9/11 and the Iraq war, the tourist market out here has totally died. People don’t understand what they are doing. I think most of them are running away from Britain more than they are running towards France.”

The prospects are tempting all the same. The UK property bonanza has given many people, particularly those who bought more than a decade ago, a serious wedge of equity. Remortgage or sell your British home, and you have enough cash to buy a big house with land in mainland Europe, and still have change for a pied-a-terre back in Blighty.

“You can buy very much better here for the same amount,” says Sheila Douglas, a Dordogne resident for 28 years. She has helped a great many expats settle down, and knows all the pitfalls. “There is a real culture shock, even though it is just over the Channel,” she says. “Everything here is different, and the Brits who come out here think that they are in the right and the French are therefore in the wrong. French property law is different, tax is different. We have to pay for healthcare. We drive on the other side of the road. We eat cheese in the middle of a meal, and shake hands at every opportunity. Even the motoring requirements are not the same. If you come out with your faithful old banger, you will run into problems. And there is 19.6 per cent VAT on everything. It’s a nasty shock. It took me at least three years to settle down.”

What about Spain? Fifty-two per cent of the foreigners who bought property last year on the Costa del Sol were British, snapping up 18,900 units. Mark Stucklin, who runs an online consultancy,, from Barcelona, suggests that “there is now such a huge variety of villas to rent down here that you can stay anywhere without the hassle of being an owner”. Though buying is tempting – between the first quarter of 2001 and the first quarter of 2004, capital values in Spain went up 59 per cent – prices have peaked, in Stucklin’s view. And the hidden costs on the Costas range from wealth tax to accountants’ fees. (If you can’t speak Spanish to your accountant, apparently, you will be at a severe disadvantage.)

Back in France, most of us at least know how to say “how do you do”, which can go far. Douglas recommends, if you really are keen on relocating, a copy of the Oxford-Duden Pictorial French and English Dictionary. According to her, this tome depicts everything that modern life can throw at you, from Philips screwdrivers to thigh bones, with the relevant word in French. “It will help you with everything from needlework to jet aircraft.”

Great. What else? “Well, when I arrived, with two small children and no French,” says Douglas, “I focused on a few things. I learned how to count to 100. I worked out how to use je, nous and vous in 20 vital verbs. And I learned the words truc, and machin, which both basically mean thingumajig. That’s really all you need.”

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