If you can’t say it, sing it!

In the third of our ‘Behind the Scenes’ series, we’d like you to meet John and Sandi who have Brexit to thank for their French adventure.

John gives us the background to what became a race against time and an urgent call to our team at French Connections HCB.

“My company is involved in transport and geothermal energy and we could see that there would be restrictions on growth in post-Brexit UK. We also personally felt passionately that we were European citizens. France offered a great opportunity, because of deregulation of its rail sector and the growth of the geothermal sector there. Also, having even a nascent presence within the EU opens up opportunities for the business. At the moment I am the only employee in France, but we are actively exploring expansion here.”

Having left the decision very late, John and Sandi were galvanised into action. “We just thought ‘Let’s go for it! It’s now or never.’ We researched what needed to be done to move to France under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. There was a hard stop as everything had to be completed by the Brexit deadline of 31 December and it was already late October! Running a company, I was used to dealing with the EU, including their processes and all the ‘paperasse’ so I could work out how to do it. But with so much to do and work to manage, I couldn’t afford the time.”

With the clock ticking against them, John was thorough in his search for somebody trustworthy, reliable and competent to help them.

“I joined all the relevant Facebook groups and saw a number of references to French Connections HCB, so I asked around, sent PMs and discovered that they had a good reputation. I contacted them and they were super helpful, very transparent about pricing.”

John is honest about his thought process.

“Yes, I could have got it done for less. There were one-man-bands who would offer to hold your hand and do it for you, but I couldn’t afford to take the risk. I needed a professional outfit, so I did my due diligence and French Connections HCB came out on top on performance and price. Also, I just liked talking to them.”

During their initial introductory consultation, John and Sandi opted for the two services that were essential ahead of the Brexit deadline.

“The residency application came first, then Social Security. Those were the two main things we needed help with urgently.”

To apply for a residency in France, you need an address. John shares the story of how they solved that problem.

“In my real life outside of work, I play Blues guitar and sing. I’ve been coming for many years to the Cognac Blues Passions Festival, which has a jam stage. I would play there every year, so that was the place we always came for our holiday.”

One of John and Sandi’s friends had a little summer holiday home in a small village near Matha in the Charente Maritime. “It’s a tiny commune, very quiet, and there was a chap who lived opposite in the Maison de Maître and he had a gîte available. We needed somewhere to live and he was willing to rent it to us and was very helpful.”

The story gets even better when John and Sandi started looking around for a place to buy.

“We moved in early December 2020 and the gite had no heating (which we had been warned about by the owner). It was bitterly cold, so we bought oil heaters and managed to avoid freezing to death while we drove in ever expanding circles looking for a home. We knew our landlord’s place was for sale, but we had visions of being able to walk to a bar and boulangerie which was not an option from there. However, the kindness of the local people, the quiet charm of the village and the elegance of the house and gardens slowly worked their magic on us. We bought the house and now we live in a classic Charentais Maison de Maître! It can be very depressing looking for a place to live in the cold, but if you find somewhere that you like in winter, then you are just going to love it in summer!”

The cold wasn’t the only thing John and Sandi had to contend with.

“Of course, we were in lockdown at points throughout that winter. They were tricky times for moving home and country. Both of us in our 60s and neither of us speaking any French really. We had to learn fast, and we made that a priority.”

18 months later, John and Sandi are well and truly settled in their new life and are thinking of applying for citizenship further down the track.

“We will be doing that, but we are focusing on language at the moment. It’s very important and it’s something that people who might be thinking of moving here should know. We didn’t want to just be the English ‘expats’ who come over here and only hang out with the English. We are not ‘expats’, we are Brexit Refugees. Immigrants! Of course, it’s harder to learn when you’re older, but I read Le Monde in the morning, Sandi does 2 hours a day at least and reads simple French books and we have language classes each week, face to face and online. Top tip: the best online tool is Lingopie which teaches languages using real TV shows and movies. They also do excellent online one-to-one lessons.”

John and Sandi also came up with another fun and unusual way to hone their language skills. “We joined a local French association, which is just French people singing classic French chansons, and that is really helping with pronunciation. They are also great company in the bar afterwards!”

Joining the Association has led to John to add some classic French songs to his Blues guitar repertoire. “There are two exquisite French classics that I only heard recently, “Je l’aime à mourir’ and ‘San Francisco’. I’m learning those in French with the help of friends at the Association. My goal is to perform them in French soon.”

Quite apart from the singing, the Association has been a great way for John and Sandi to make new friends in the local community.

“We have apéro evenings which are always convivial occasions! I use Google translate sometimes, but it’s at the point now where I can hold a basic conversation – even if I sound like ‘un enfant de deux ans’ It’s fun and the group is patient and appreciative of our efforts. They see our move as a really brave thing to do, but we are having the best time.”

As well as the initial residency visa and carte Vitale, John also asked for our help with car registration.

“We brought our own car over. It was very new, so it was easy to get the Certificate of Conformity ourselves (although it took over a month). We had a few shocks though. One of the things I didn’t realise was that you can’t continue an HP agreement if you move to France, so we had to find the money to pay it off.”

So how do John and Sandi view their French adventure so far?

“Overall it has been an excellent experience. The decision to work with French Connections HCB made all the difference. If you are doing it yourself, you need to take a deep breath and work on the basis that there is always a process in France. It might be slow and it might be complicated and involved, but you have to make sure you do everything correctly. Do your research, ask questions, understand that it’s going to be slow. But for anything that’s absolutely critical, like car registration or carte de séjour, use a professional like French Connections because you can’t afford to get these things wrong.”

While there are obvious differences between the French and UK systems, John doesn’t see that as a disadvantage.

“Yes, the French have a bureaucracy, but it works. And I’d rather have a bureaucracy that works than one that’s a light touch but doesn’t work. Yes, you’ll pay a bit more tax, but you can see what you’re paying for. There is still a concept of ‘the social good’ in the community. In our commune, the Mayor is God – but he’s also just the guy who lives down the road and can be called anytime to advise or help. To me, that’s gold dust.”

To sum up, we asked him how he would describe French Connections HCB to somebody who had never heard of us.

“First class. The key thing is communication. If I email, I get a response. If there’s an issue, it is dealt with promptly. The team is proactive. CPAM (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie) had mislaid a couple of elements whilst we were back in the UK dealing with family matters. Luckily for us, Laurie from French Connections was handling everything for us. She chased it up with CPAM, chased us up and sorted everything out instead of just sitting back and waiting for us to deal with it. In short, I’d say French Connections is really good value for money. You get what you pay for every time.”

People like John and Sandi are the reason French Connections HCB and our sister company in Italy exist. We have helped hundreds of clients with every aspect of moving to France, from visas and banking to buying a house or registering a car.

We have also just launched an exciting new Subscription Service, created specifically to take care of all the everyday fiddly bits, such as connecting water, opening gas or electricity accounts, getting mobile phone contracts, signing up to a local doctor or dentist and so much more. A subscription of 89 euros a month gives you unlimited access to our resources. Whatever you need, we’ll do it, and you can opt out at any time.

If you would like to talk to us about any of our services, simply book a free initial 15-minute consultation to see how we can help. We look forward to talking to you.

Kind regards,

French Connections HCB Team

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