A kind of retirement

Posted on: 14 December 2007 by Gareth Hargreaves

Mark Sampson reveals the highs and low of 'retiring' to France.

We came to this fair and exasperating land in September 1995. Pursued every kilometre of the way by a pantechnicon full of our belongings, we drove from Sheffield to France Profonde in a hand-me-down Golf packed with clobber, a ten-month old baby and our beloved toothless cat.

The idea was that we would try out our 'holiday home' in the Corrèze for real, so that our daughter could grow up bilingual in glorious French countryside. We would work just enough to live modestly, far from the ex-pat community and without telly, enriched by all that extra quality time for the finer things of life.  A kind of retirement, in other words.

Ha! Dizzy the cat certainly enjoyed his retirement, spent mainly on a director’s chair beside the wood-burning stove. Country living enabled us to commune with nature as never before and, within a few years, our daughter was able to switch from English to fluent French and back in a nano-second. As seasoned city dwellers, however, we had no conception of the sheer time and effort that the 'good life' actually entails.

Compounded by the demands of trying to comprehend an alien culture and to integrate into an entrenched community, the working week effectively trebled. In my days of wage slavery, at least evenings were my own – to fritter away in pursuit of interests far too diverse for the good of my goal to be a 'proper' writer.  As a self-employed 'retiree', the notion of spare time became a mirage. The guilt derived from any inactivity acts like a horseman’s whip. How could people equate retirement with boredom?

I read once that the writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, is so driven that he records and then makes up at the keyboard every minute lost to the calls of family life before calling it a day. I couldn’t even begin to log the hours lost to standard domestic duties plus the Sisyphean labours of tending too big a garden, arresting the dilapidation of our 17th century farmhouse, cutting and stacking wood, feeding logs to the insatiable stove, learning a new language, responding to the bewildering demands of l’administration francaise, cultivating embryonic friendships and just plotting strategies for keeping the wolf from our door.

The galling thing was that our fellow villagers perceived us as Donald and Ivana Trump. We were seemingly blessed with an endless supply of leisure time and a bottomless pit of money. Since I’m not the kind of real man who can ostentatiously re-point his house or build practical things with noisy power tools, they probably didn’t even notice whether I was at home slaving away over a hot computer under our draughty roof, or back in the UK earning money as a writer of training materials. (What kind of occupation is that, anyway, for any self-respecting male?)

And so chilly winters and petty jealousies spurred us to find a nice plot of land and build a cosy modern house. Which is how we come to be here, twelve years down the line, in the neighbouring department, among a more cosmopolitan community, snug in the straw-bale house that you might have seen on Grand Designs Abroad.  The privations of construction are a fading memory now. We may not have the time to use the bijou reading area we designed as a home for our books, but we have a television and a satellite dish now. Not, you understand, that we adults can afford to flop down in front of the screen – “no rest for the wicked,” as my mother would say – but we promised our daughter Doctor Who before Christmas.

There are still not enough hours in a day. I’m not complaining, mind. Compared to the teeming millions of unfortunate creatures in this unjust world, we are remarkably privileged. But retirement!? It’s a full-time job.

 

The author, Mark Sampson was born in 1954 in London and raised in Belfast.  He has lived in Southwest France since 1995. His family’s straw-bale house was featured in Grand Designs Abroad and his latest book, Essential Questions to Ask When Buying a House in France, appeared earlier this year.  He writes a fortnightly column for 50connect as an ‘ex-pat’ living in France

 

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