Expat tales France
French life is like a dream for Claire Bancks and family.
Why did you move to France?
My husband Mike is in the latter stage of completing his Master Sommelier qualification, and the examinations held in London each year are more accessible and affordable from France. Working in France's second oldest three Michelin starred restaurant allows Mike to taste and sell wines that are almost never seen in New Zealand. Mike has dual nationality (a French mother) and we wanted our daughters to experience a different culture and be able to communicate fluently with their French family.
What do you do there?
Mike is assistant Maitre d'Hotel for Les Pres d'Eugenie, owned by Michel Guerard, a culinary icon in France and internationally. I am a teacher and work at the local Centre de Loisirs, an after school/holiday centre for children aged 4 to 12 years.
What do you like or dislike about life in France?
Nothing to dislike, but some things are more difficult to adjust to here. Shops close from 12-2pm, and I still find myself dashing down to the village for a baguette at 11.59am, hoping desperately that the Boulangerie will still be open! Our village, Geaune, in the southwest, is just one and a half hours from beaches, from the Pyrenees and from Bordeaux, the largest city of the region. The climate is seasonal and spectacular all year round. Outdoor activities in the area include cycling (Tour de France) and tramping (Chemin Sainte Jacques de Compostelle).
How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand?
We find the cost of living here similar to NZ. Rent, petrol, food and activities are all comparable to our life in NZ, but we are living in a rural area, away from the big, expensive cities. We initially found some foods expensive but if you eat what the locals do, it's cheaper.
What do you do at the weekends?
Mike usually works weekends, but there is no primary school on Wednesday so then we have extra family time. In summer we head to the local lakes (with imported sand around the edges!) or just to the local swimming pool. A long lunch in another village after the morning market is a popular choice. It is too hot to go to bed before sundown so often we have apero (aperitif) or late dinners with friends. In winter, it's a quick dash to the Pyrenees for skiing and a complete change of scenery.
What do you think of the food?
Our area is renowned for its duck, beef (Blonde Aquitaine) and also Brebis (Sheep) cheese. We eat all parts of the duck here. The Fois Gras is incredible and both Maigret and Confit de Carnard have become our girls' favourite meals: one now even eats duck hearts! A local village holds an annual Soirée de Carcasse where every part of the duck is eaten. But, of course, you can't go past the traditional pates, mousses and terrines, all on a crunchy fresh baguette.
What's the best way to get around?
In the countryside it is essential to have a car: no car means no sightseeing.
What's the shopping like?
There are several bigger towns around us for shopping: Mont de Marsan, Pau and Dax, But Bordeaux is nearby and it's so enchanting walking down the cobbled streets looking in all the shop windows … dreamlike!!
What's the nightlife like?
Every weekend in summer there is a local village fete. All types of fun activities during the day generally culminate in a 10-course meal where the whole town comes together to eat and dance! A great way to see the village and meet the people. You can arrive as a couple or as a group of 10 or more. Often there is traditional band music or a raffle for local delicacies (jambon de bayonne or fois gras).
What is your favourite part of Geaune?
The people. French people living in small villages are incredibly warm and inviting, considerably different from the Parisian stereotype. Being part of a small community with its village square, its own town hall and its own mayor (who knows you by name!) is very special. Very much like the NZ communities we remember growing up in.
What time of year is best to visit?
Definitely the summer- it's the fete season! The beaches are beautiful (for swimming or surfing) and the Pyrenees area is just as spectacular in summer as in winter. However, if you are not so keen on the over 30C heat, best to avoid August, the hottest time.
What's your must-do thing for visitors?
A Course Landais, specific to south west France, is an ancient form of bullfighting (with no bloodshed). It's incredible to watch the athletes as they leap, dodge and somersault over the bull. Also, the local markets are a must. They are a special part of the French culture and it's easy to find one every day of the week.
What are your top tips for tourists?
Pay attention to where the locals go and read the local notice boards for fetes details. Biarritz is a famous beach spot nearby, but just around the corner you find St Jean de Luz or Ciboure beaches: calmer, quieter and just as beautiful.
How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?
A train from Mont de Marsan to Paris airport is about 6 hours. Or fly from Bordeaux, a one and a half hour drive from where we live.
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Sunday Star Times