Tuesday, 2 August 2016

It's over...

I’m back in France 24 days from now, but today is the end of my four month stint over here….time for some reflections as I watch St. Malo disappear into the distance.

Well, first, I was going to write that it’s time to go back to reality, but I’m not sure that’s right. There were times when I was messing about with the wiring on my second hand trailer, or wheelbarrowing five tonnes of gravel from the front to the back of the house, or mixing concrete, or struggling to work out the French for ‘spark plug wrench’, or…you get the idea…well, those times felt very real indeed. What won’t be nearly as ‘real’ will be paying £440 for a return train ticket to London next Monday, and then sitting in a stuffy office for 10 hours a day charging a client silly money to redesign and implement some processes that no-one really cares about.  I’ll say more about work in a bit.

Second, I’ve done most of the things I set out to achieve when I landed here in April. Those include: knocking the back garden into shape, getting some good cycling in (particularly a week in Normandy with Mrs M, and another week in Provence with Mendip Rouleur), and generally just feeling like I was living in France properly, as opposed to being a visitor. I haven’t made as much progress with the language as I’d have liked, but I think that’s a good thing – if I was proficient in it I genuinely think I’d never want to come back to the UK to live permanently 

Highlights – there are always moments or days that stick in the memory particularly clearly. This summer’s are going to be:
  • Most of the week cycling with Mrs M, but particularly our stop in a tiny seaside village called St. Suliac in the Rance estuary. It was chilled, beautiful, stereotypically French in a good way, and we had a lovely evening to eat outdoors with a proper mixture of locals. And then return to our idiosyncratic digs, run by the friendly but strange Rudi, International Man of Mystery, who had the disconcerting habit of appearing like a ghost wherever we were (thankfully apart from the bathroom)
  • Again, most of the week in Provence. Ascending Mont Ventoux three times in a day to join its ‘Club of Fools’ was special of course, but really, there’s nothing like a road trip with a good mate. 700 miles there, 700 miles back again, and the best part of 400 hilly cycling miles during the week. We laughed (a lot), we cried (involuntarily in the mad Ventoux winds), we got on each other’s nerves, and being politics geeks, we played Prime Minister FA Cup. Wartime Winston beat Cameron in the final btw. It was a great trip, possibly the best of the 7 or 8 we’ve done together, though that’ll be decided definitively at some future point by an edition of Monmarduman & Mendip Rouleur Cycling Trips FA Cup. J
  • A slightly surreal ride through France the morning after the EU Referendum. Surreal partly because I’d had so little sleep and so had that disconnected feeling you get when you’re sleep-deprived, partly because the result was so unexpected, and partly because everything had changed, and yet, in rural France, nothing had changed
  • The ongoing kindness of the French, this time captured by the moment at the Dechetterie (council tip) when I was unloading that week’s 200kg worth of grass cuttings from my trailer with a rake, and a Frenchman approached me to enquire why I was doing the job with such a pitiful tool, and I must borrow his specially-designed extended and 90 degree-angled fork immediately. So I did – whilst he waited patiently for 5 minutes and his grandchildren giggled at me from the car window. And it was a marvellous tool indeed, cutting the unloading time by half, so marvellous in fact I now own one, thanks again to the sterling work of Mrs M at one of the many Vide Greniers (‘Empty Lofts’, i.e. car boot sales) she finds on Sunday mornings
  • Talking of Sunday mornings, my early morning walks with the mutt that day, which more often than not turned into nature rambles; him trying to kill ‘nature’ (squirrels, hares, stoats, mink, cats), me – successfully for the most part – stopping him killing it
  • And finally, the pleasure of walking round the garden in the last few weeks, having done what needed doing. I know that’s an unspeakably middle-aged thing to write, but who doesn’t love spending time in a sunny, nice place they’ve helped make that way?

Final reflections:
  •   France is a great place in terms of overall quality-of-life, but it’s fair to say its customer service ethos lags the UK’s by a few years. That’s not to say individuals don’t try to be helpful or accommodating, but they’re often stymied by internally, rather than externally-focused systems and rules
  •  I’ve also missed friends, family and work colleagues, but I guess that’s not exactly a big revelation

So it’s back to the UK and back to full-time employment, having spent the last 32 months in self-employment. It’s not a big change in one respect – I’m going back to the firm I worked at before, and through whom I’ve done most of my self-employed stuff – but it is in another, in the sense I’ll no longer just be a gun-for-hire, but a director of the firm, required to lead client projects and bring in business.  That should be a bit daunting, but it doesn’t seem it – maybe four months of 'real life' has done the trick…
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