Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Problems in Paradise.

For anyone living in France and relying on an income from the UK these have been hard times. Sterling has taken a real bashing over the past eighteen months and even though France has been relatively lucky in avoiding the worst effects of recession it has not been immune to inflation. Add these two facts together, and you have some pretty unhappy expats.

Judging by recent postings on expat forums it would seem that there is a steady stream of disillusioned Brits selling up and heading home. Every day, it seems there are small ads. offering left hand drive cars with low mileage, nearly-new white goods, and of course houses, some renovated, some in the process of.

There are as I see it three main reasons for abandoning the dream.
For the under-fifties who have relocated here and need to earn a living the sheer practicalities of the idea are a nightmare. One of the big dreams has been running a B&B (chambre d’hôte)or renovating tumble-down barns into gites, two enterprises that are reasonably easy to set up in Britain. Not so in France.

Many expats come with a trade - electricians, builders, and plumbers – again a pretty straight forward occupation to persue in the UK. But to start any sort of business in France is an obstacle course in which (especially if your French is a bit basic) the participants are blindfolded and handcuffed.

And it doesn’t matter how small your enterprise is going to be. I met a young couple last year who had jumped through every hoop the Chambre de Metiers could produce in an attempt to sell Asian food and spices on a few local markets. It was hardly on a global scale and after a few months of struggling they felt defeated and deflated. They were regretfully returning to the UK, but with the vow, like General Macarthur, to return, albeit when they were closer to retirement. The rules and regs. have been loosened a little in the last couple of years, with the creation of the Auto-entrepreneur scheme specifically for small, one- man businesses. But its still a little shop of horrors.Some returning expats can become a bit paranoid and actually believe that the French have it in for Brits wanting to earn a living in their country, but they forget that French entrepreneurs have to go through the same struggle.

The over-fifties may not have the this problem, as by and large they tend to be early-retired with a good pension pot, or investments, or older retirees with a state pension and perhaps a small private pension. But it’s this latter group that have been suffering from the strength of the euro, so this is one of the major reasons for returning to the UK.

Another common thread for the over-fifties is family ties, and in particular grandchildren.Even with technology such as Skype, and webcams, many retirees (I have to say it’s usually grandmas) genuinely miss seeing their grandchildren on a regular basis. Those cheap air-fares that convinced us that friends and relatives could pop over for long weekends don’t seem that cheap when you come to the ‘pay now’ bit the online booking form. How did a 99p one-way ticket suddenly turn into the £130 debited to your bank card for a return for two adults? With mortgages to pay, rising prices and limited holiday allowance, sons and daughters just can’t afford to hop over with the grandchildren more than once a year.

Well, you might say, what’s wrong with older grand-kids coming over for a few weeks in the summer holidays? Brilliant idea. The brutal truth is that the lovely old farmhouse you bought in the middle of no-where, which you fell in love with for its peace and tranquillity is ‘Boresville Central ’ for teenagers. Four weeks with Granny and Grandad down a country track miles away from the nearest town seems like a prison sentence.

So with regret many retirees put their idyllic hideaway on the market, and pack up their retirement dream along with their dogs, cats and memories and move back. Often they disguise their loneliness by convincing themselves that their grown up children need them for child care duties. This may seem a selfless act of parental loyalty, but I wonder how many sons and daughters may actually dread the idea of Mum and Dad moving back to a house down the road?

A harsh reality of life in rural France for many expats is loneliness. And that affects all ages. I met a charming girl a few weeks ago, who moved here about a year ago to live with her partner in the house he was renovating. The views from the garden were spectacular, a pretty little village was less than half a mile away – I would have died for the location- but they were selling the house, and everything in it, and moving back. Lack of a regular income was the main reason, but she seem to be quite relieved as she’d been so bored and lonely when her partner was out at work. He spoke good French - she didn’t - so she was completely isolated. There was no-one around that was vaguely her age even if she had been fluent in the language, and in rural areas friendships are hard to establish. In this France is no different to any British village, xenophobia flourishes in backwaters.

Sometimes we need a good listener, either to help solve a problem, or just to have a moan to, and being so many miles away from close family can turn minor niggle into a full blown crisis. Fortunately help is at hand. There’s an excellent English speaking organisation, run by volunteers who understand the problems of life in a different country and culture. It’s similar to the Samaritans in that there is a dedicated phone line with listeners on hand to do just that … listen. They are specially trained and entirely non-judgemental, so in fact for some it’s much better than talking a problem over with a friend. How many of our friends can really be relied upon not to criticise or offer well-meaning, but wrong advise?

Their website is www.soshelpline.org (there's a link in the right hand column of this blog) and the phones are manned from 3pm to 11pm. And if you’ve time on your hands you can volunteer to train as a listener. If you don’t feel you could do that, there’s lots of other ways to help – from distributing publicity, to organising a fund raising event like a book sale or a coffee morning.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Au Revoir Cup Cakes, Bonjour Macarons

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of cup cakes. I guess I’m too old.

In my day cupcakes were known as fairy cakes, the staple of childhood birthday parties (together with those disgusting rice krispie/chocolate things). My dear old Mum, she of the culinary disasters, never really got the hang of cake decorating, and anything involving icing was sure to end in tears. So my birthday offerings were neither tasty nor artistic. From memory, the cake bit was dry and the topping was a drizzle of icing with a scattering of hundreds and thousands which had been applied before the icing had started to set, so consequently the hundreds and thousands either dissolved into a lurid splodge of purple, yellow, pink and blue, or they slid gently off the top of the cake and collected in a pool around the rim of the paper case. Needless to say, there were always dozens of them left over at the end of the party, even though Mum had shovelled as many as decently possible into goodie bags for the departing guests. I guess most of them finished up in the dustbin or on the bird table. There were quite a lot of bird mortalities in our street just after my birthday.

The modern day ones, on which small fortunes have been made, are almost as bad. Mum’s lack of decoration was distinctly minimalist compared to these overblown works of confectionary. I regard any highly decorated cake with suspicion as they rarely live up to their promise, and those who were falling over themselves to be seen as cupcake connoisseurs are now admitting that most of them were dry and flavourless, and horror of horrors – laden with empty calories. If you’re going to be reckless with the calories at least get some satisfaction from it, I say. I’d opt for some Belgian chocolate, a slice of ‘Death by Chocolate’ cake, or a ‘proper’ dry martini (as made by a barman in Zaragossa in Northern Spain, but that’s another story)

Now it’s macarons that are the latest trendy confection. Not macaroons, they’re those big, flat almondy things which come with their own rice paper liner. Macarons are much more subtle.

So if cupcakes are passé, here come the macarons, little jewel-like delights of pastel coloured meringue sandwiched together with a rich butter cream filling.

Macarons have been around for years in France, although the word is derived from the Italian word maccarone. It’s reputed that they were introduced to France by Catherine de Medici following her marriage to the French king, Henri II in 1553. Mind you, so much in France has been attributed to Catherine de Medici it’s probably yet another myth.

Unlike macaroons, the macaron is small, neat and incredibly difficult to make at home. The finished result must be uniform, as they are going to be sandwiched together, and have a smooth shallow-domed top ( no peaky bits) It all sounds too tricky, unless you’re really skilled in the art of meringue making.

The fillings are divine. Anything from the traditional chocolate, coffee and raspberry (appropriately coloured meringue to match he flavouring) to pistachio, chestnut, orange blossom, mango, bergamot – new flavours seem to be added every day.

If you’d like to know more, visit the website of one of the best macaron makers in France .. www.laduree.fr. They have shops in Paris and many other French cities, as well as Dublin and London (Harrods). The website should really come with a warning: ‘Macarons can become addictive’.