Well, I’m 17 years older. And I don’t want to think about how old I will be in 17 years’ time. So let’s look back instead and think about what’s changed here since 1997. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day we moved into our house and the SF and I celebrated with a glass (or two) and mused on our time here.
Of course, there have been wide-ranging changes at a national level since 1997. For example: the decline of the far left and the rise of the far right; the changing face of and regard for the role of the President; and the recognition that France can’t continue to support such an eye-watering national debt. But I’ll focus on those changes that have impinged most directly on us.
When you live here permanently, some of the changes are imperceptible until you think about it. It’s like looking in the mirror and then at an earlier photo (not recommended).
Most noteworthy is the number of non-French who now live in this region. When we first moved here there were far fewer. La vie française down here has a lot to recommend it. It’s a beautiful area; you can get a much nicer house for your money than in most of the UK; and, although the climate is not as good as some estate agents would have you believe, it’s generally better than further north.
You hear a few grumbles from the French. But, to be fair to them, they are mostly welcoming and helpful, to the point that the signs in the local Leclerc supermarket are in English as well as French.
I don’t intend to spark off a debate about whether this is a good thing or not. We are bound to have changed things, both for better and for worse.
This has definitely got worse over 17 years. However, compared to car-bound southern England, driving in our area is still a dream.
The opening of the A20 motorway is partly responsible. While it’s slashed journey times to Paris, it has also increased traffic on the feeder roads. Our local village has a trunk road slicing through the middle, which has become noticeably busier with lorries. And you take your life in your hands when crossing the road. Mostly, though, French drivers have become more prudent and there are far fewer road deaths.
Parking in some towns and villages, which were not designed for cars, has become a nightmare, especially in the summer when the local population swells. Formerly free car parks are now payant. But one thing hasn’t changed: during the 12pm-2pm lunch break, parking is usually free.
- Opening hours
At first, we were constantly caught out by shop and office opening hours. The two-hour lunch break was still sacrosanct. We would arrive at ten to twelve at the supermarket only to realise that we wouldn’t get round in time.
In a lot of ways this was more healthy than the 24/7 culture. But it began to change after a couple of years. First, France Telecom in Montauban stayed open over lunchtime. Then the supermarkets and some other shops stayed open. La crise has led more of them to stay open, in the hope of attracting lunchtime custom.
When we moved here, the currency was the franc. Luckily, during the process of buying the house, sterling strengthened by 33% against the franc. And conversion was easy because you just multiplied the pounds by 10 to get the francs.
Along came the euro on 1st January 2002 and things started to get a bit more complicated. To get back to francs required a calculator, since the exchange rate was 1 euro = 6.55957 francs.
It was bad enough for us but even worse for our elderly neighbours, who have never really come to terms with the new currency. In fact, they had never come to terms with the value of the “new” franc, either, which was introduced in 1960 and was worth 100 of the “old” franc. They still spoke in millions of francs, which puzzled us for a while until we worked out why.
Going into the euro at the exchange rate they did may not have been the best thing for the French economy. But don’t get me started on that.
- Social change
As the older generation disappears, a way of life that persisted for centuries is going with them. They remember the days when ploughing was still done with oxen, haymaking had yet to be fully mechanised and people rarely strayed more than a few kilometres from home.
Some colourful local characters who were still alive when we arrived are no more. I wrote about them in earlier posts, A Dying Breed and A Local Eccentric. They lived simply, sometimes in conditions we would describe as basic, and did without modern conveniences such as televisions and computers – and sometimes bathrooms. Mains water was not installed in our area until the 1960s.
While I don’t want to romanticise past times, the changes have accelerated in the past two decades, due to globalisation and the development of the internet and electronic communications.
Nonetheless, French people are very attached to their roots. They might spend their professional lives in a big city but they tend to come back to retire. How long even that continues remains to be seen.
There are bound to be other changes, but these are the ones that sprang to mind. And, for a future post, perhaps I should look at what hasn’t changed.
If you live in France, what’s changed since you moved here?
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