Keep your head if you move to France

Any resemblance to any living person is purely coincidental. That said, the events and principal characters are real.

About the author

John Bottrill Ph.D. is a former professor - author of learned papers in Psychology and several books.
Apart from writing and genealogical research, he enjoys renovating houses, furniture and paintings.  He currently lives in Spain with his partner and a naughty cat, called Porage.

Information about living in Spain can be found at
Historical information about the Boterel family (the original spelling!) can be found at  and

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or distributed without permission, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.

© 2013 Copyright  John Bottrill  


          We finally bought a place in France.   It wasn't too difficult; in fact it was good fun.   Houses are still relatively cheap, but they're going up slowly as more and more Brits move over the Channel.   Property isn't suffering like it is in Britain, and it's a good bet.    Our place is worth about €60,000: in Sussex it would be €260,000.

          We started off as green as anyone else, liking the idea of living in France and wondering what to do next.   Like everyone else, we learned as we went along that the three questions you must answer before you make a pig's ear of everything are:

                    what do you want the property for - retirement, a holiday home, an income producer?

                    what area do you want it in - near Britain for easy access, in the South for sun etc?

                    what's the most you can afford?

You can't really separate them completely:  they're all reflections of the bigger question -

                    why France anyway?

          This isn't a practical, how-to-do-it book.   It's a glimpse of how we did it, the mistakes we made, and some no-holds-barred comments on life in la belle France.   There are things you should know ..........


1.  A TRIP TO CALAIS.   A coach trip - Arthur's stories - job advert. – DOT, the headmaster - Rouen traffic – a car with an interior exhaust - a place to rent – Madame and the donkey.

2.  PROPERTY HUNTING.   How to find property - various finds - notaries and estate agents - fees - purchase and pitfalls - do's and don't's - Code Napoléon – B+B in winter - French attitude to property.

3.  THE IMPOSSIBLE DOT.   Training course - Madame again - our farm -  a party with dream interpretation - Arthur and DOT - trouble on the métro - more Arthur stories - teaching at home.

4.  YOUNG MEN.   Need for young men - adverts. - interviews - more Madame - moving stuff over - Customs - winter and its problems.

5.  CATS.   Abandoned kittens - a litter in the hayloft - Madame meets her match - finding homes.

6.  DRIVING IN FRANCE.  Car dealers - a trade-in and a crooked dealer - free ferry crossing - it must be a diesel - Citroën - dealers again - car insurance - 5-star for €15 - mechanics, dealers, and scrapyards.

7.  REBUILDING.   Water - electricity –skidding down the lane - building permits - the rates - estimates - mud - the quality of dung - heating systems - septic tanks - baths and taps - circuits – rhw terrace - a pond.

8.  DOUDOU.   Farm auction - le chien enchainé‚ – an auction – a pervert cat - R.S.P.C.A. and kennels - Doudou disgraces himself - dog training - a pregnancy.

9.  LIVING IN FRANCE.  Advantages and disadvantages - food - wine - beer - telephone - T.V. - satellite programmes - residence permits - medical card - banks - tax - employed/self-employed/unemployed - job centres - tourist offices - chemists, doctors and dentists – arsenic

10.  M.O.T's.   Disposing of the pickup - no need for car tax or M.O.T. - British plates - a fruitless M.O.T. - a rough crossing - another fruitless M.O.T. - car dealers again - free replacement parts from Citroën - more on car insurance - a write-off.

11. BRITONS ABROAD.   The way to do it - local v. expatriate labour - health cover - social security - French bureaucracy - finding a job - your qualifications - you must speak French - getting paid for taking language courses - setting one up - jobs.

12.  A TRIP DOWN SOUTH.   How to learn French – the labour exchange – how to sell your house – a look round the South.

13.  THE LAST DAYS.   No income, so we sell - bureaucracy - entertaining purchasers - culinary disaster - exploring France - job applications. - learning French - job abroad for Mike - farewell party - the real Madame – goodbye to our pets - banking the proceeds - moving again.


          It all started with a trip to Calais - Mike, myself, and Arthur, one of our more outrageous friends.   It was one of those day coach-trips over and back to go shopping.   The coach from Leicester was full and we wouldn't be back till 11pm.   It promised to be a long day, and possibly a bit of a drag.   As it was, the only drag was Arthur's - a sort of infinite red thing wound round the neck, knitted he thought from some left-over socks after the war.   Outrageous as usual, he soon had the coach in stitches.   We heard the pipe story.

          "Before the war, I had a woman admirer."   We looked disbelieving.   "Don't be nasty - it's happened to all of us, I expect."   He ogled a young man, who retired in confusion.   "Anyway, she bought me a pipe - to make a man of me, I imagine, ho - ho," nudge, dig.   When I was going off to war, she insisted on a photo being taken.   So I played my part - pipe to the side, arms crossed, legs splayed butch as you like, ha - ha - ha.   But the photographer had other ideas - he insisted on the pipe being to the front.   It was ridiculous.   I mean when she got the print, all you could see was this enormous pipe bowl, and two little eyes peering over it.   Ha - ha - ha, how absurd."

          The coach was late at Dover and we missed the boat.   So there wasn't as much time in France as we'd expected.   The hypermarket was the essential for most people of course, but that left little time over for the meal we'd been hoping for.   We wandered down the main street of Calais, Arthur looking with interest at all the menus, and finally settled for a toasted sandwich and chips.   A disconsolate Arthur sat on the boat waving a baguette at other startled people, drinking his wine, and holding forth.

          "Not what I'd expected.   Not at all.   I remember Calais before the war.   We often used to go.   I thought I might have revisited a few of my old haunts.   I remember once" (the coach group gathered round to listen) "we were on a bus passing through Calais.   The bus stopped and mother noticed a stall selling hot crabs.   'Get off and buy some crabs, Arthur,' she said.   'We can have them later.'   So I got off, and ended up with a paper bag dripping crab juice.   The crabs were quite hot, I remember, and I had to keep juggling them.   Ho - ho - ho.  

Mother was making frantic gestures at me through the window.   So were other passengers - I thought they were amused, so I put it on a bit.   What she was trying to tell me was that the bus was going, and it did.   So I chased it, clutching my bag.   Ha - ha - ha.   But the bag must have got soaked through.   It burst and the crabs dropped to the ground.   I didn't know whether to chase the bus or pick up the crabs.   Mother saved the day by shouting in her best French, ‘Stop the bus - my son's dropped his crabs.'   The bus stopped and everyone got out to see what this strange English boy was doing.   There I was clutching these crabs and the remains of the bag to my pullover.   It was most embarrassing.   Mother was cross, and my clothes smelled of crab for the rest of the day," he chuckled.

          Back at Dover we all struggled through the customs hall with our customs haul.   "Will they want to search the bags?" Arthur wondered.

          "Possibly.   They may even go for a strip search."

          "A strip search?" his eyes grew round.   "Well they won't find much, ha - ha - ha," nudge, dig.   The customs men stared at us disbelievingly.   Arthur tossed his infinite red thing at them, and scurried through the green exit.

          The coach got back to Leicester at 11.30 and the driver unloaded the beer etc. everyone had bought.   But he'd stopped outside a night club.   Various youths came out and couldn't believe their eyes.   It was their lucky day - mound of beer being pawed over chaotically.   They joined in.   You can imagine the rest.   We took Arthur home by car.   He was tired but full of memories.   "I used to like France.   I was there for a while after the war, you know - in Rouen.   You'd like it - it's a lovely city, or was.   Have you ever been?   Oh you should.   I'll come."

* * *

          So, when I saw an ad. in "The Guardian" wanting teachers of English for Rouen, I actually read it.   And I thought, "why not France?"   Because I hate teaching English is why not.   Still, we could live in France for a while and look round, and get paid for it.   And we'd just finished rebuilding our riverside cottage in the Midlands, and were wondering what to do next.   Britain was going down the tubes at the time so I rang, got an interview, and found myself turning up in Rouen for a three day training course at their expense.

          Rouen's a very picturesque town on the Seine.   It's like Chester or Ludlow, only more so, and so centralised it's a paradise for tourists on foot, as I was.   The hotel they put us up in was old - perhaps fifteenth century - and typically French.   All the walls, ceilings, beams and interesting features were covered in a lively fabric wallpaper.   The spiral stairs were of highly polished wood, but they'd sunk and all pitched outward.   Even during the day you had to be careful.   The nightlights were on a pushbutton system, and invariably went off before you reached the next level.   I had a room next to the stairs and could usually tell if it was a new guest on the stairs.   And I couldn't study in the evening because the room lighting was too dim.

          The school was on the heights overlooking the city, and the climb was unbelievable.   Even the young teachers had to stop halfway.   And since the school stopped for the usual French lunch period (12 – 2pm) and there was no eatery nearby, it meant you had to go down into Rouen and then allow half an hour to climb back again.   That first morning we were all late - we underestimated the hill.   A beaming D.O.T. (Dennis O'Toole), the director, greeted us as only he could.   "Glad you could make it.   Did you walk?   Do you good.   Get you into condition.   Look at me," he slapped his middle.   "Fit as a fiddle.   You'll soon get used to it."   We never did, and he never did it himself.

          What a man he was!   He took the first hour of the orientation course, speaking tautly through clenched teeth.   We sat through it, hoping to learn something about the job.   "Good morning.   My name's Dennis O'Toole.   I'm the school director - one of the directors of the company too.   You'll hear about me from the other teachers - they call me 'DOT.'   I expect you'd like me to tell you something about myself - my background - how I came to be where I am.   I was a headmaster for twelve years, and a rather successful one I might add."   His gimlet glasses bored into each of us in turn.   The young ones wilted visibly.   I sat up interestedly - it might be fun after all.

          He resumed.   "I heard about this company - it needed to expand - needed an administrator.   So I put some money in and became a director.   We mean to be not only the biggest, but also the best."   His beady eye swept the room again.   Pencils poised to take notes remained poised.

          "I'm not married," he went on, warming to his favourite subject.   "Never really had the time.   But I have a family," he sought to reassure us.   "I've lived in different parts of the world, and I generally adopt somebody."   Our eyes grew round.   Why was he telling us this?   Did he.......?

          Opinion was in fact divided about his 'interests.'   The secretary, a shapely young Frenchwoman, was certain he fancied her.   "I can feel 'im look at my legs.   Yes, I am sure 'e looks up my legs."   Since her skirt ended 12" above her knees, it didn't surprise me.   One attractive young man confided in me late one night.   "DOT was telling me about his sons.   I adopt young men," he told me.   "I might adopt you."  

          The young man looked furtive when he told me.   "Do you think he meant it?   I don't have much experience at that kind of thing, but I have had heterosexual experience," he added hopefully.   But I wasn't going to get drawn in.   I think he'd drawn the wrong conclusions anyway.   At that moment there was a despairing cry as a new guest disappeared down the slippery stairs, so that put an end to the conversation.

          Almost everyone hated DOT, except me.   But then they had to toe the line - they all needed the job;  I didn't.   Besides, they were all young people;  he and I were the same age.   Having learned of my background as a psychologist, he once confided in me, "You know, I've never got close to any of my staff.   Why do you think that is?"

          Equally confidentially I told him, "Well you know, I think they're scared of you."

          "Oh really?"   DOT brightened visibly.   "Do you think so?"

          "Well, you can be rather terrifying, you know."

          "Can I really?   Yes, I suppose I can.   I never thought of myself that way.   Perhaps you're right.   I'm very glad we had this talk."   I had made his day.

* * *

          The job turned out to involve travelling to different companies to teach selected staff in situ.   There were very few company cars - could any of us bring our own?   That suited me - I wanted to look round France anyway.   So I went back to Leicester and bought a lemon - a Fiesta, no longer festive.   I hadn't much time, and there wasn't much choice.   Still I should have known better.   The vendor must have seen me coming.   It didn't pull very well, but the man explained the engine was cold.   Why did I fall for it?   It was dreadful - it never overtook anything.   Worse - there was a constant smell of sulphur dioxide from the exhaust.   When it got too bad, we opened the windows.   That helped, but you got wet if it rained.

          Still, it got me back to Rouen, and I started out early that first day of teaching.   Just as well.   I'd been warned about Rouen's traffic, but wasn't really prepared for it.   For years I'd avoided rush hour traffic and towns, and now here I was on a clogged motorway.   The car filled slowly with sulphur dioxide, and my head started aching.   At a standstill, I opened all the windows and the sulphur dioxide cleared - to be replaced by the oxides of nitrogen and carbon from other cars.   I couldn't win.   Other drivers nodded sympathetically, or was it the haze?

          I found the factory and reeled in.   The classroom was some way from the admin. block, so I walked to clear my head.   It was a chemical company and there were more strange odours in the air but, after that dreadful journey, I didn't care.   Outside the classroom was a large pipe carrying something caustic - I never did find out what.   As I tottered past, it dripped.   Bang! the chemical reacted with the earth, and a grey cloud rose.   First the car, now this.   Was there no end to it?   Distinctly shaken, I lurched into the first lesson, and it went fine.   The room was cold in the morning, but became unbearably hot in the afternoon.   Still, I had to keep the windows shut, or suffer the periodic grey cloud.   Was it worth it?   In fact it wasn't a bad factory.   Some were better, some worse.   But oh! the traffic.   How long could I stand it?

          Not long.   And to make matters worse I couldn't find anywhere to live.   The other young teachers found digs, but Mike and I needed a house or a flat.   We were offered one in a mediaeval building in the heart of the city.   No garden, but there were parks nearby, and it was very central.   But parking? - forget it.   Rouen is a mediaeval city, and built for mediaeval traffic.   The Fiesta would probably have qualified, but it never got the chance.  

The streets where parking was permitted seemed to be permanently occupied.   There was no way I was going to fight my way back through the rush hour traffic, only to have to drive round and round the centre of town looking for a space like everyone else.   No.   Then we were offered a gȋte south of the city, not too far from the factories I was teaching in, and therefore not too much traffic.   But it was poky and expensive and wouldn't do.   Meanwhile, we were homeless and each night had to find a B+B and then a restaurant.   The older teachers suggested the ‘Pot of Poo.’   It turned out to be a Moroccan restaurant actually called ‘La Poule au Pot.’   La poule au pot is the name of a dish served to Henry IV – not one of France’s best dishes – chicken with far too many root vegetables.

          So I resigned.   DOT was shocked.   "My dear chap!   I'd no idea.   You can't go on like that.   I live in a very comfortable flat in a small town.   Just the sort of thing for you.   Oh, Mike too?   Hm, let me see.   There's a sort of flat in the attic here.   I think the servants used it in the old days.   Why don't you stay there for a couple of weeks and look round a bit more, and of course you can go on teaching.   It's not much, of course."

          It wasn't.   That dreadful flat - why did I agree?   There were no curtains, very little furniture, no bathroom, and it wasn't insulated.   And the noise!   I'd never have believed anywhere could be so noisy.   The building was on a main road out of Rouen - a great commercial location.   But it was near the top of a long hill, and all (and I do mean all) the traffic was growling by the time it got there and changed gear.   Except for bicycles - they didn't growl, though I never saw one go past.   There was a cemetery halfway up the hill - possibly populated by misguided cyclists who hadn't made it.   

The classrooms downstairs weren't so bad, but all the noise rose.   The flat was like a drum, and I was inside!   You try preparing lessons inside a drum after a daily asphyxiation.   It just wasn't civilised.   In desperation I rang an estate agent who had a property about which we were making interested noises.   I regretted we couldn't proceed unless she could possibly.........   She could!   There was a house for rent, furnished, œ300 a month, but miles from Rouen.   No way was I going to travel two hours a day.

          I gave DOT the bad news.   He frowned and pierced me with his gimlet gaze.   I pierced him back.   "My dear chap," he blurted, "you mustn't leave.   I need you.   I have good feedback about you.   How can I help?"   I doubted that he could.   He gave the matter some thought.  "Of course, you realise what this means?   It means you can't go on teaching where you are.   As a matter of fact, it works out quite well.   We have another contract near the house you mention.   It's so far from here, nobody likes going.   So it would be very convenient for us if you took it over.   And for you too," he added as an afterthought.   And so it turned out.

          We duly turned up at the house to be interviewed by Madame.   It was miles away in a little village - no traffic, open views, a large, newish bungalow, and comfortably furnished.   She must have watched the Fiesta chugging up the drive, because she opened the door in her best 'grande dame' manner.   We got that heavy feeling you get when you've eaten too much of my bread pudding, or when you want something badly but realise you probably won't get it.   But she seemed to like the idea of renting to an Englishman, and a teacher to boot.   But wouldn't she expect wives to do the housework?   Apparently she didn't - just one of the vagaries of the English.   Wouldn't she be reluctant to let her beautiful four-bedroomed home to two men?   No, no - we could just close off any rooms we didn't want, and it would save on the heat.

          She was vague about who would actually pay for the electricity and gas, and we didn't like to push too hard in case we lost this wonderful place.   And the inventory she'd prepared was a bit vague too.   It was often wrong.   Things were put in which weren't there ("Oh yes, now I remember - I let my sister have that."), or weren't put in when they were.   We counted all the baking tins and napkins, but the bedrooms were just waved through.   No matter, we'd sign.   But Madame didn't seem to realise the inventory should be signed by both sides and in two copies.   She was pleased to have gone through it, and gave us the only copy - unsigned.

          Dear Madame!   We learned later she'd always been the same.   From time to time she'd appear for the rent or with a bill she thought we should pay.   You could dispute anything not right and she'd give way gracefully, and come back with another figure plucked out of thin air.  It was easier just to pay.   It wasn't that she was money-minded, just French - she never missed a trick.

Once, after we'd finally left, we went to visit her.   She produced an electricity bill which she thought covered the last part of our stay.   I'd started making out the cheque, when Mike pointed out the bill was actually for her flat in Beauvais, and not for the house.   She was bewildered - she would certainly check.   She did, but was never completely convinced.   And even after that she'd occasionally ring up about some bill or other.   You couldn't help liking her though - completely dotty, as all old ladies of la grande bourgeoisie should be.

          The house had three bedrooms, a study, two bathrooms, an upstairs flat, a large garden, and a donkey called 'Capucine.'   She was unkempt and neglected.   "She's not a very nice donkey," ventured Madame.   My experience of them was limited, but I could see her point.   Capucine would come charging over when you came home, but only because she wanted a titbit.   I was a bit wary of her, though.  

Two years previously I'd had a bad experience in Wales.   A donkey had come over to the fence, so I stroked it and offered it some grass.   I don't know if it was an anti-English protest, but it suddenly lurched forward and pulled out a chunk of my beard.   I jumped back, shocked, and felt for a bald patch - it was there, but no blood!   The donkey jumped back, shocked, with my beard sticking out of its mouth.   It was a standoff - what to do?   I comforted my denuded chin; the animal investigated its find.   But the chunk wasn't long enough to chew, so it dropped it and went off.   I rescued the missing bit, but for what?   The beard eventually grew back to my surprise.   But now I felt I should treat this new donkey with prudence.

          So it was usually left to Mike to feed Capucine.   Madame was very practical about it.   Every Tuesday she would arrive with a bag of stale bread.   Perhaps she felt a certain responsibility, or perhaps she just wanted to get rid of her stale bread.   At any rate the routine never varied.   She drove up, we hid, Capucine got excited.   Then Madame would stand sufficiently far away to avoid any Welsh trouble, and throw the bread at Capucine.   The poor beast always looked bewildered, but munched a couple of bits, coughed, and made a bee-line for her water trough.   Then Madame would look inquiringly at the house, and we had to decide whether we'd noticed her or not.

          The house really was a superb find - large, well-furnished, and with all conveniences - even a donkey, though she wasn't very convenient.   It had been built some twenty years before by Madame's husband when he retired from the colonial service.   We never met him, but there were photos of them both around the house.   During the initial tour of the house, Madame pointed out his picture.   "And this one here," she hesitated, "is a portrait of a lady."   We realised later that the Princess Margaret figure was in fact a young Madame, looking very competent in a 1950's hairstyle, insofar as that's possible.

          Monsieur, it turned out, had been killed in a car accident down the road.   No one ever gave us any details of the accident, and there were no inveighings against anyone else.   We assume therefore that he'd probably been driving too fast, like most French do.   One day in a desk drawer we found a couple of photos of him.   At first we didn't recognise him - we were so shocked.   I've never seen anything like it.   They showed him after the accident in his coffin.   But worse - he hadn't been cleaned up!   The blood and wounds on his face were clearly visible.   It was utterly gruesome, and of course thereafter we showed them to all our visitors.

          Since the accident Madame had lost interest in living there - understandable of course.   She had a half-Chinese boy living with her, whom she'd adopted in Gabon.   But the place was really too much for her.   "I rattle around in it just like a pea," she confided.   My eyes grew round.   So she'd found a small flat in Amiens, and proposed to live on the rent the house provided.   She couldn't bear to let go completely though.

          "If you go away for a few days, you will close all the shutters and padlock the drive gates, won't you," she urged.   We did of course, but just to please her.   With all the junk mail sticking out of the letter box by the front gate when we came back, we might as well have put up a notice "Empty house - burglars this way."   We rarely heard of break-ins in the area, which was just as well since some of the things in the house were antiques.   There was besides a collection of lapis lazuli in a cabinet on our first visit.   Madame thought it prudent to safeguard it, so she took it out of the locked cabinet, and left it in an unlocked drawer.   Dear Madame!