Seven years ago, Francophile Debs Hubbard and her husband Richard bought a property in Bordeaux and moved there with their two children. Today they run a luxury gite, offering self-catering holidays for families. We found out what life is really like as an expat gite-owner in France.
What did you do before you had children?
Ah, back in the day, when I had time… I’m not quite sure what I did with all that time exactly! Seriously though, I had my children in my 20s, so my career hadn’t really taken off before their arrival. I went to university and then was a full-time army wife, dutifully following my husband around the globe.
How did your career change after becoming a mum?
Once I had children my being a dutiful army wife met rather an abrupt end as I ran home to live near my mum. I was a qualified chartered surveyor, so managed to find work locally, surveying, that fitted in, by and large, around the children. Child care was juggled between my mum and great nurseries, though nothing really compensates for the guilt of a working mother, I think.
What made you decide to move to France and run a gite?
A combination of several factors – foremost being wanting more family time. I have always had a love affair with France since being a schoolgirl having been introduced to French on an exchange trip. Also, it is in my blood to run holiday accommodation – I am now the third generation of my family to do so, and was brought up in the business. I remember, as a small child, the madness of changeover days.
Every time we went away on holiday we really tried to find the best accommodation we could, as our time was so precious, but were forever disappointed. Had no one ever travelled with children we wondered? Running a gite had always been in the pipeline for us – but we made it our mission to do it better than everyone else.
Imagine a holiday home where your shopping was already put away for you. All the baby stuff you needed (way more than a high chair – think blackout blinds, loo steps, sippy cups etc) was already there so you actually had some luggage space left for you ! Not to mention proper hairdryers with nozzles next to mirrors, fluffy towels (even pool towels), vineyard views, a fenced, heated private swimming pool, and to top it all off a lovely swim spa and hot tub so you can recharge your batteries.
Having a degree in estate management and being a building professional (I worked as a surveyor for several years) means I have lots of experience, and I went into the whole thing with my eyes wide open. (All those TV programmes encouraging people to run off to the sun depicting a life sat lounging around the pool with a glass of wine in hand have a lot to answer for!)
Regarding timing – I don’t think one ever has enough money or finds the perfect time, be it to have children, change job etc. The moment we decided to actually go for it was the day my eldest son came home from school and declared he couldn’t remember what his father looked like anymore (being in the Army, he was always away on foreign postings). At which point our youngest piped up that he wasn’t really sure what a daddy was! From then on, plans were made!
How did you find your French home?
Working in property I was pretty realistic as to what was actually available and at what price. (I’ve come across plenty of people who describe their ideal property as being ‘rural, with far-reaching views, no near neighbours yet within walking distance of all amenities’, a combination that clearly doesn’t exist !)
A couple of trips (minus the kids) allowed us to focus on finding the perfect place. We knew while we did want the views and large grounds, we also didn’t want to be in the middle of nowhere – so good access to towns/airports etc was really important. The condition of the property was probably less of a problem to us than most, as that could be changed, whereas the location couldn’t be. We managed to reduce our selection down to about two real contenders, based on very stringent criteria.
What’s your average day like?
I’m not sure I have an average day anymore! That isn’t to say that I don’t have mundane tasks to do – they follow you anywhere in the world. Arranging insurance, doing tax returns, getting shopping and attending parents’ evenings are still there, they’re just done in another language now.
On average day I tend to get up fairly early, usually around 6am and will check for emails first thing. Once the children are up I then become mum again and do breakfasts/the school run (which admittedly is a joy – no jostling for spaces outside the school etc). Back home I walk the dogs around the vines, then s0 a couple of hours gardening – we have 11 acres so there’s always something to mow, prune or rake.
At lunchtime, (which is at 12 o’clock sharp in France) we have become quite French in that we stop for lunch. ‘Quiet’ activities then follow – ie sit at the computer answering emails, advertising, tweaking the website etc.
This will then be followed by more manual labour. I have become quite an expert tiler (wouldn’t make a hand model now though, I’m afraid) as there really always is tiling to be done. Painting usually figures somewhere in a day along with dealing with workmen and sourcing things for the gite.
Before you know it, it is time for the school run again, thankfully to be soon followed by wine o’clock. Living literally surrounded by Bordeaux vineyards allows for fine wines to be enjoyed all year round, which is ideal for an exhausted mother at the end of a busy day!
How have your children adjusted to living in France?
Our 10 year old just got on with it – I do think that ability to adjust is more personality-based than age-based. Also, boys can be quite basic and kicking a football around/sporty stuff just works in any language. Surprisingly, our 3 year old resisted the move strongl, and punished me by howling every single day for a year going to school.
It was a very stressful time for all of us. Pre-school or ‘Maternelle’ as it is called, is free for over-twos and most children go full-time. And obviously, being an English-speaking household we were keen for the children to learn French as soon as possible. However, one day, he just suddenly accepted the move and was happy from that point on. Just like a light switch going on.
These days they are as French as their friends (though still proudly declare themselves to be English)! In fact, I’m not sure they would survive in the English school system now after having lived in France for so long.
How do you find life as an expat?
I absolutely love living in France as I am a true Francophile. We tend not to do the whole expat thing. Though there is a very big expat community in Dordogneshire, we’re generally too busy and exhausted.
Our friends are of various nationalities, certainly not chosen by language spoken – but just other families that we get on with. I would say that I now feel more at home in France than in the UK. I find people more patient and polite here. It’s the norm if the cashier has an extended chat with someone at the till – you just wait. People still say hello when they enter a shop, too. And road-rage is practically non-existent as people are just a bit better behaved than in big cities! Life in France just agrees with me.
What have been your biggest challenges in moving to France and running a gite?
Finding out where to buy things and getting a good team of reliable workmen has been quite tough – along with sourcing things. Everything from washing machines to beautiful bedlinen has to be bought for the gite, and this never ends as we constantly renew and replace to keep the gite beautiful. But while finding plasterboard may be a chore, I do love all things French, especially nice cushions, tablecloths and the like, so it’s not all bad!
It’s always a challenge to find reliable service providers for the gite. We love to be able to offer lots of extras such as catering, bike hire or babysitting, for instance, so we have become quite a whizz at tracking these down.
Changeover days (and the preceeding days) are always tiring – not least because of all the gardening, laundry and cleaning, but also we offer a free shopping service to our guests. Having travelled many a time with young children, I know it’s not much fun being faced with the idea of grocery shopping when you’ve just arrived in a hot country. This is why we offer to do our guests’ shopping so at least they can turn up to find the wine chilling in the fridge and the nappies ready in the bathroom. Invaluable!
While we obviously miss our families, they do manage to come and visit quite frequently as we’re handily placed for Bergerac and Bordeaux airports, and there’s a good choice of cheap flights which they take full advantage of. My brother, who is a wine buff, loves going to St Emilion (only 30 mins away) or wandering around our local chateaux wine tasting – they always love an appreciative audience too!
One aspect of French life is both the best and worst thing about the lifestyle here. The French put a great emphasis on family life and gastronomie – enjoying life as opposed to constantly chasing the profit. This leads to a departure from work for a leisurely 2-3 hour lunch, as well as most of the month of August. This is a wonderfully relaxed attitude to life to life in general. Unfortunately if you need an emergency piece of plumbing equipment at 11.50am, or in the middle of August, don’t be surprised if you are told to return at 3pm, or in September!
And what have you found surprisingly easy?
Driving on the’ wrong’ side of the road and the language – I am fairly fluent now. I arrived with a decent GCSE kind of standard and I think having that base and the determination to learn makes all the difference.
What do you do on your time off?
Running a gite, for us, is a full-time job and all-year round – be it cleaning, gardening, tiling, admin… it never stops! It can be quite difficult to find time to do non-gite related activities, as there is always something to do. I have no idea how anyone can keep on top of their gite when they live in the UK and just have a manager popping in every now and then.
Still, we have to be quite strict allocating specific family days and go, say, to Bordeaux ice skating or go-karting or just for a lovely meal. The children have become petit gastronomes. They really do love their food now and wouldn’t be seen dead in McDonalds.
What advice would you give someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Learn the language and don’t even consider the move if you don’t really love the country you are moving to and aren’t prepared to get your hands dirty – on a daily basis!
You can find out more about Deb’s luxury gite (and see more tempting photos!) on her website.