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The Life of Riley?

The Life of Riley?

So you’ve achieved your long-held dream, retired or semi-retired and moved to France. Perhaps you’ve had several years of holidays here or bought your own house a while ago and had long, sunshine-filled summers together with your family? Or even perhaps invested in a renovation project and have spanned the decades slowly but surely creating your ideal home?

So here you are, living the life of Riley. Or are you? And if not, why not?

Let’s examine a few things:

In your previous life one of the very first questions you would be asked on meeting a new person would be “so what do you do?”. Your answer, whether it be housewife, househusband, head cook, bottle-washer, chauffeur or CEO of a giant corporation, that answer that you are used to giving, almost without thought, has always served to intrinsically reinforce your own self-belief; your sense of purpose and your personal value.

That doesn’t happen here or at least not in the same way. It is generally assumed, on meeting new people, that they are either retired, running a gite or b+b business or, in fact, the question doesn’t get asked at all until it may come up in general conversation.

Case history:

Some years back I had a client who had worked for over 30 years as a Paediatric Psychiatric Nurse. The stress and distress she experienced over so many years in such an environment, understandably, took its toll and she was metaphorically holding on by her fingernails for the day she and her husband could retire to their house in France.

They moved over at the end of summer 2005 and the first three months were idyllic; exactly what they had wanted and expected.

Then came several months of cold, wind and rain, rain and more rain.

Also, living as they did in a small hamlet, they hadn’t expected the whole of France to, in effect, shut down as they had never been here over winter before.

They had tried integrating with the French but the husband’s language skills were a bit lacking and he would (gently) rib her when she attempted to speak French. So she stopped speaking French. Plus, there weren’t a lot of French people around on a daily basis to whom she could speak French! There was the queue at the boulangerie first thing but then after that, they would all disappear behind their closed doors and you wouldn’t see them again until the following day, in the queue at the boulangerie!


A further difficulty was that this lady, in her own words, referred to herself as “socially gauche, with the coordination and grace of Joyce Grenfell”. She had, over the years, been happily self-deprecatory about this and her many friends and family in the UK knew her and loved her for this quirkiness. Which was fine whilst she was working in the environment she loved; confident, self-assured and in her comfort zone. But now, here she is, without that support system, ferreting around on a daily basis looking for some confirmation that she still has purpose, she still matters.

Husband (let’s call him Adam) and “Joyce” met some expat Brits and indulged in the – quite commonplace around here for new arrivals – round robins of lunch and dinner parties, happier that they were finding new friends and grateful to be included.

Until, after a while, they began to wonder why they often came away feeling a bit “detached”.

Cognitive Dissonance

The expat community in France is such that, generally, there are clusters of English people around so that, if we’re introduced to, say Couple A, Couple A will introduce them to their friends, Couple B and so on.

Couples A and B have no doubt already been through this process some time ago and have grown closer to each other because they are like-minded. Couples C and D, to whom they had been introduced some time ago but with whom they hadn’t entirely clicked, had grown apart.

Now Couples C and D are with their own friends – Couples E and F – and, although still friendly with Couples A and B, have found other couples with whom they have more in common.  And, consequently, they are happier.

So what if you are introduced to Couples A and B to begin with but you find you don’t have much in common?  What if you had met Couple C and D (or Couples K and L!) first instead and just clicked immediately?  Wouldn’t it have made you a bit happier?

This weeding out, selective process is what happens instinctively in our friendships in the UK but here, with fewer opportunities, we hang on to Couples A and B because…you can supply your own answers here I think now, can’t you?

So, despite recognising, even in a subliminal way, that the pairings aren’t great, we hang on to those relationships because they are better than not having them at all.  But is it?  Aren’t we, as a result left feeling slightly detached; slightly unfulfilled and wondering why everyone else seems to be happier with their lot?  (Or their Lot? – sorry, bad pun!)

People, it takes time for this to happen; it cannot be rushed.  And it means you have to conduct your relationships a little differently because you need to consciously think whether this person, that couple is for you, for your wife, for your husband, for your partner, a good match.  Would you want to be friends with them if you were in the UK?  This is not meant to be a harsh judgement on anyone; it is purely a question of evaluating, sifting and understanding.

It means networking, getting out there and really thinking about, often, what works for you and what doesn’t.  This is what you have naturally been doing all your life in the UK, in the workplace and at home.  That’s why your long-term friends are your long-term friends.  Isn’t it?

In the next blog I will be looking at other possible causes for your emotional unrest and why, perhaps, you are still struggling to live the Life of Riley.

Katie Gardner is a fully-qualified CBT Counsellor and 10-year expat based on the border of 47/24.

Her website can be found here: