We’ve all heard about the joys, the wonders, and the benefits of living in the countryside and particularly in the South of France: the clean air, the abundant warm and sunny days, the cheap delicious wine, the long lunches surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, the fresh local produce and open air markets, the list goes on and on. But if you are looking into living here long term you’ll probably want to know about the down sides too, and better yet, how to avoid them (if possible). My observations and list of negative aspects to living here certainly do not compare to the much longer list of positives and the blessed aspects and are of course relative because they are my personal views based on my own experience of living in this region (PACA) for the last 15 years as an “etrangere.” It should also be noted too that my views stem from being of several nationalities and cultures (American, Japanese, and British)as well as from my age: I am currently 49 years old and live with my French husband and our children who are 9 and 13 years old.
No.1 Lack of jobs. The biggest downside to living in rural Southern France is the lack of jobs available. And the unemployment rates here are very high. In the PACA region the average is currently around 12 to 14 per cent. In Cotignac the rate is as high as 16 per cent according to JDN’s Emploi et chômage
So if you think you’ll find a job easily here, think again. Unless you are willing to commute long distances and drive over 3 hours every day (to larger cities like Marseille, Toulon, or Nice) you may well find yourself jobless or taking on remenial jobs in the service industry (restaurants and cleaning for example). If you have a teaching qualification English is always popular but public school posts are extremely difficult to come by and private lessons are not so popular for many here who do not make much more than the SMIC (minimum wage) of just over 1,000 euros per month. You would be in luck, however, if your full time job requires that you simply have an internet connection. However this too can cause some problems if you are dependent on high speed connection as most rural villages here are not equipped yet. The current president Macron has pledged to make all of France connected to high speed by the year 2022. On the otherhand if you like the idea of running a holiday villas rental service/agency, there is always room for that. But it’s no easy business to be in. More on that later in another article.
No. 2 Nothing ever gets done on time. Building work, paper work, dealing with businesses, etc, can test your patience here in the South of France. If you come from the big cities of the West like I did, you’ll find this one especially mind boggling and very frustrating. Getting an immediate response is so rare when it does happen it will make your entire year and you’ll be giddy with happiness. No joke: plumbers, electricians, builders, bankers, painters, etc, seem to have little competition here and often appear aloof and authoritative when you meet them. The French culture has been shaped also by Socialism and we need to remember that the business relations culture also reflects the political ideals. The notion of “customer is king” simply does not exist here. So if you find a good worker, you’ll want to not only keep their contact details to yourself but will find yourself “kissing the ground they walk on” and doing just about anything to keep them reponsive to your calls. It will be you that ends up meeting them at their convenience and not yours. You’ll need to adjust your schedules to fit them in when they say they’ll come ’round.
No. 3 The Small village gossip syndrome. Rural French villages are often small. Cotignac’s current population is 2, 336. Over 60 per cent of the population is above retirement age (65 plus). The active population is around 730. So we’re a small active community. Which means everyone knows everyone’s business, generally speaking. Unless you are anti-social, you will be seen and noticed which means people will talk about you. If someone got married, had a baby, had an accident, gotten divorced, or – and here’s the worst – caused a scandal involving breakups of families, you’ll hear about it. If you caused the scandal, you’ll be shamed. So if you’re addicted to drama, it’s best to stay in a large city where anonymity may save some face. In the small villages (and this is probably true anywhere in the world) life can feel a little suffocating when someone asks you about your friends’ recent car accident or someone else’s husband running off with the babysitter or why you think so-and-so jumped off a bridge. And that is if the stories are even true. Sometimes rumours spread that destroy reputations and cause people to move to another village or as far as another country. Of course this happens everywhere but in a village where you hear about it so often it feels like it’s constant. So a good rule of thumb to follow is that if you don’t want people to know about something just don’t talk about it – to anyone.
No. 4 You need a car. If you’re like me and need to feed a family you’ll need to stock up on groceries which means driving to the supermarkets. The closest to Cotignac is the SPAR on the route de Brignoles. But that is still 4 kilometres away from the village centre. There is a small convenience store on the Cours but you don’t want to carry heavy bags back up a hill every other day (although there is a delivery service if you call ahead). So a minimum-weekly-visit to the larger supermarkets (like E.Leclerc, Intermaché, Hyper U or Casino) needs driving to. The largest shopping mall is in Brignoles (20 kms) and for a big selection or department store you’ll need to go as far as Toulon La Valette (63 kms). Public transportation to these places are poorly scheduled and slow. If you like your life to be surrounded by conveniences and you do not like to drive, a rural village in Southern France is not the place for you. On the other hand the internet is a great place to shop and just about anyone can receive just about anything by post these days. And this has been a god-send to me!
No. 5 Winters are cold. Now, if you come from places like Canada, Scandinavia, or anywhere north of France you’ll laugh at this but it’s not so much the temperatures here that get cold (Cotignac can get as low as minus 8 degrees) but the majority of houses that are ill equipped to keep you warm enough in them. Many houses are not sufficiently insulated and often electric heaters do not provide enough relief or consume so much that electric bills become no longer affordable. Oil is another popular method of radiator heating but unless the house is new or has been properly restored and updated to modern standards (most old village houses are over 300 years old) it can also be cost prohibitive. Newer houses could be equipped with heat pumps (minimum 15K euros) or with considerable investment geothermal energy can be tapped but this is reserved for those with very big budgets. Many people use wood burning stoves here which can heat small spaces well but needs constant attention (and clean up once a day). You’ll also need to order your wood which gets delivered but then dumped in a big mountain in front of your doorstep and if that’s blocking traffic in anyway you’ll have to very quickly stack it in a safe dry place so let’s hope you have the stamina and energy! Heating is needed from around the end of October to end of April and maybe longer if your house is not South-facing.
No. 6 Most shops are closed Mondays, Wednesday afternoons and Sundays. They are also more often closed for lunch between 12 and 3 or even 4pm during their open days. Sometimes it seems nothing is open on Mondays; not banks, not restaurants, not even hairdressers. And that’s just routine around here. The only really safe days to go shopping in the village are Tuesdays (it’s also our market day) and Thursdays. It’s worse in the Winter time and some shops and restaurants close their doors for the entire season.
No. 7 Locals are hard to get to know. I found that it took me about an average of 18 months before I finally got invited over to dinner at my first local friend’s house. Rural French people just take a long time to get to know. They are very discrete and not trusting at first but with perseverance and grit, you’ll be accepted into their hearts. Once they let you in, they tend to be very loyal and warm and will be there to help when you need them the most. And that is something worth its weight in gold and something you cannot live without here in the countryside. If you get invited over to a local French couples’ or family meal, don’t forget to bring them a nice bottle of wine (make it one of quality, nothing cheap) and expect to spend a good 4 hours chatting while dining slowly. Invitation meals are never rushed.
No. 8 Participate in associations. Local associations provide entertainment throughout the year for any village in France but they are also an important source of information and social gatherings for networking. It’s through an association that you’ll meet people on the local council, the mayor, and the various individuals that make the village work all year ’round. Cotignac has a larger than average number of associations that keep locals and tourists busy all year by organising events such as concerts, theatre productions, festivals (the Quince festival in October for example), Christmas markets, feasts, parties, balls, artist expositions, museums, cinema, music lessons, sports activities and popular events like the annual Trail Race in June. Participating in an association is easy. Just contact the president of the association of your choice and let them know you wish to participate. There is a list of associations for Cotignac here. You will be invited to their next meeting and participate in the organisation of their next event. And you’ll make lots of new friends in the process. The downside of this though is that you really do need to commit your time and energy and participate with the association for the entire year at the least. You’ll be frowned upon if you give up mid-way. And remember you’ll be talked about so you need to stay on your best behaviour!
Having said all that, I still love it here and would not dream of living anywhere else.