Making the move to rural France can be a daunting prospect, especially with a young family. Your head is filled with fields of sunflowers, rolling hills and gorgeous scenery, but the reality is often a little different.
I know that if someone had told me when I was 30 I’d be living in a tiny commune of less than 100 people, I’d have thought they were insane.
Today’s guest Laura, has made the move and still hear to tell the tale.
Let’s wind the clock back to 2008 the year she met herhusband and realised they both had a lifelong dream to live in France. How on earth did it all come about? How did they meet?
Laura, can you tell us the full story of how you ended up living rural French life in Civray?
Long or short? We both moved to Bermuda for work in 2006 (independently of each other).
Keith had spent 10 years living in the Cayman Islands and went back to the UK for a bit. But then someone handed him an ad for a bakery manager position in Bermuda.
The guy said, “you like island life, right? Take a look at this.”
He had an interview in the UK where they talked about football and the rest is history.
He spent almost 10 years as a bakery manager at a family-owned supermarket.
He transformed a mostly pre-made frozen bake-off bakery into a freshly made onsite one.
His Hot Cross Buns were voted best on the island for years running!
After I graduated with a Master’s degree in 2002, I was constantly looking/applying for work.
I was doing very well in my freelance career in Ohio, teaching and gigging. But I always wanted to find something more than staying in Cincinnati.
I applied for a job in Bermuda then quickly forgot about it. Then months later I received a call and was asked to fly there for an in-person interview!
I thought, “what the heck?” of course I’ll have a free 4-day trip to Bermuda.
I met the teachers there and we clicked. We were all around the same age and the music school seemed like a good place to work on a beautiful island.
So I packed up and moved there in September 2006.
In May 2008 I met a butcher. We spent the summer hanging out, and he is the reason I met Keith.
They had worked together and shared an apartment at one point, too. I decided the butcher and I didn’t have much in common and went off on a European trip with a friend.
When I returned to teaching in September, I thought about Keith and invited him to a gig I was doing with a local rock band.
Basically, that was it.
From our first conversation, we talked about living in France.
We started seeing each other a lot and by Christmas, he met my parents and sister when they came to visit. (I wasn’t sure about him meeting them, but as they only visited once a year I figured they may as well!)
Our first trip together was to visit his very good friends who both happened to live in France.
Keith was saving his money to buy a cheap property near one of his friends. And at the time, he could just move, with no paperwork or hassle at all.
I didn’t know how I was going to get there but was very interested in trying to find out how to do it!
On our French trip, we decided we were going to get serious . From then on it was planning a wedding, bringing our lives together, and eventually moving to France.
We ended up taking the plunge in 2015 when our son was 2 years old. We left our salaried, well-paying jobs, for a life in France!
Leaving a well paid job for a life in France!
We started in Brittany, staying at Keith’s friend’s cottage in June, and worked our way further South by mid-summer.
We stopped in the Charente to view properties and the house we ended up buying was the 6th one we saw.
We couldn’t find anything further South that fit what we wanted. We were hoping to open a small B&B and be able to move in without too much renovation on our living space.
We made an offer and moved into our home in January 2016.
So Laura we have something in common, we both play stringed instruments and are classical musicians. I was at the Royal College of Music and I believe you were a teacher at the Bermuda School of Music in Bermuda.
And in fact, you still play here in SW France for weddings. What a great job.
Tell us more about the weddings you do and the places you’ve played here in France.
Originally, I figured that marketing myself to play weddings would be relatively easy. I could get a bit of work the first year or two that we were here.
It turned out to be a much longer road of networking than I thought!
Now 7 years later my summer calendar is busy, but the first few years were definitely slow. Then Covid hit and that also was a gap of a full 2 seasons!
I met a cellist (who happened to be selling houses here!) when we were house hunting in the Charente. And we’ve ended up doing most events together as a duo.
I organise solo, duo, trio or string quartet and have a really great group of colleagues to play with now after those first quiet years.
We have played at some stunning chateaux all over Nouvelle Aquitaine!
What about your favourite wedding you’ve played at here in France?
It’s really hard to choose one! I have to say a “pinch me” moment was playing in the cathedral in Cognac.
After our exit music, the church bells rang. The acoustics inside the church are incredible!
Another funny memory is when I played for my friend’s daughter’s wedding, also in a church. I was playing a lovely slow piece and then heard something…it was the priest who had decided to tap lightly on a drum (!) while I was playing…and not in time with me at all.
I asked my friend after the service if she knew he was going to do that. They were all very surprised that he wanted to “jazz” up my solo, I guess!
Laura, playing violin and viola isn’t the only string to your bow though, is it? (Please excuse the pun I just couldn’t help it). You also have a bed & breakfast, are an artisan baker and own Le Café Civray.
I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Talk us through your myriad of businesses here in rural France and how you make it all work.
Well, as anyone reading this who moved here without a job knows, sometimes you have to do a bunch of things to try and make it work.
Eventually, it becomes more clear how to focus your energy.
We had a B&B and offered baking classes at our home from 2016-2019. During that time I was pregnant with our 2nd. And I was marketing weddings and private lessons, and really working hard to improve my French.
In 2019 I had the opportunity to go back to my old job in Bermuda, without my family. It was difficult but also allowed what happened next to work out better for us!
We all went to Bermuda in 2019 for a brief moment. Keith also accepted a job at a different company from his previous job.
We were both working 6 days a week. He was working nights, and he quickly realised that we could figure out something else in France.
January 2020 was pivotal for our family.
We arrived back in France and put the kids back into their school after only a few months away. Keith thought he had a job lined up in the UK where he would commute back and forth.
It turns out that him going to the UK would have been a total disaster.
He quickly came back after less than a week and a non-interview, and we went back to the drawing board about what he would do.
In February, we found out through my contacts that Donna at Le Café Civray was looking for someone to take over the business.
Le Café Civray had been a local “English cafe” for at least 7-8 years.
We got very excited about the idea of working outside of our home and using the skills we both have to run a small business that was already known in the community.
We signed the lease and took the keys at the beginning of March 2020…and we started living the rural French life in Civray.
3 years later, we’re still enjoying our small business.
It’s been quite a roller coaster between COVID, Keith’s health issues in 2022, and my accepting a temporary contract at the local école de musique just to get a foot in the door.
We’ve had to be very, very flexible and so have our customers.
It has been so amazing to have support despite all our challenges.
What are some of your favourite things about Civray and where should people go?
We love Civray. So much so that we are actively looking to buy a house in Civray and sell our home near Champagne Mouton after 7 years.
We feel it’s time to be within walking distance of our work and all the amenities that Civray has to offer as a small town.
There are several good restaurants in Civray. And a lovely little bar on the same road as our café that we hope to visit more often when we move. There are nice walks by the river, and an overall more vibrant feel, especially on market days.
In the summer it’s great to visit the Tuesday market in Civray.
In the winter we love to go to the cinema. They play all sorts of movies and often have films in English.
We will really look forward to going to the pool, there is a fitness centre and quite a few classes on offer.
Our son is part of the US Civray basketball club which is one of the many clubs and associations in the town.
And what about bringing up children in rural France? What are some of the pros and cons you’ve faced?
Our children have been in the same small village school since they were 3 years old. For their primary years, I think this has been ideal.
The classes are not too large (varying from 15-20 kids at most) and the teachers are caring. The next stage for our son will be more challenging, I think. He starts collège (age 11) and that will be quite a change.
WHAT ARE THE SCHOOLS LIKE IN FRANCE >>>
There are definite cons to the system here.
Our oldest likes structure and following rules, which fits in well with the rigid French system (so far).
For children who have any kind of special needs, such as ASD or ADHD, in my experience, the teachers here are not as well-informed with current methods as they are in the UK or US.
We have opted to have both kids in outside activities to supplement school.
They are both with the école de musique, as there is no music or creative arts in their school (well, very minimal.) Their music teachers have been really positive and encouraging.
We also have them work with an English tutor once a week, which has given them a strong foundation in reading and writing English.
Let’s talk about navigating the waters of French bureaucracy. What have you found the most challenging about running a business here?
Well…where to start with this one! As a musician, in the US if you’re a musician you’re usually a teacher, too. Most of my musician friends do a combination of teaching and performing.
Here, the lines are more defined and you don’t cross from one area to another as easily.
So, the reason this relates to French bureaucracy is that you have to find ways to make something work within their confines.
For example, I’m registered to teach music but I also was able to find a way to register to play for events and weddings within the micro-entrepreneur system.
As far as Le Café Civray goes, again, it’s not always straightforward.
Luckily we’ve always had good advisors who gave advice on how to make something work within the self-employment structure.
We are a micro-entreprise, and I’m listed as a conjoint collaborateur for the business.
Now, this is good news in that I can work with Keith, no problem.
The bad news? Nothing goes towards my pension and technically I work for free. (I like to use this joke with him too often, I think!)
So when people have said, “oh, why don’t you hire staff” or “why aren’t you open every day?” There are reasons why we’ve kept the business only with us and not added more people.
Keith spent his time in Bermuda training bakers and staff. It was a stressful part of his life, and he said the wasn’t willing to do that again.
And on the flip side, what do you love the most about the lifestyle we have here in France?
We love the work/life balance that is understood much more by the French people than in the US or UK.
We want to enjoy time with family and friends, be with our children as they grow, and live a simple life.
There is less materialism, especially in the countryside, and kids tend to stay kids for longer.
What would be the best piece of advice you could give a couple wanting to follow in your footsteps and move to France?
Learn French. When you’ve learned it, study some more. Really! It takes years of effort to improve and feel comfortable.
You’ll set yourself apart from many others who live here for years with a very low level of French and have limited themselves. It will help your life here immensely if you’re able to communicate in all sorts of situations.
The other piece of advice is to be flexible. I never thought after 7 years here that we would be doing what we are doing. Or considering downsizing to live in a village. But here we are, and we’re in a good place after several years of instability and stress!
Where can we find Le Café Civray & what are the opening hours?
Le Café Civray is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9 am-2 pm. Mondays are French Conversation Class and Wednesdays are Baking Classes with Keith.
24 rue du commerce, 86400 Civray, next to Renaissance Hair and Beauty Salon.
More information about Laura and her music can be found on her website:
She plays concerts regularly around Poitiers, and the next concerts are in March with Ensemble Josquin des Pres.