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How to Retire in France

Kathleen Peddicord

"You're going to France? But you don't speak French, and you've got no friends there. How can you leave your grandchildren just when they're getting interesting? What are you thinking? You're over 70. You could get ill, and we wouldn't be there to help."

These were the barrage of hurdles launched at David and Margaret Goddard by their immediate family when they announced their decision to move to the Languedoc region of France. True, back in 2006 neither of them spoke enough French to have a conversation, but Margaret could recall enough from her school-girl days to buy the morning bread, say hello, and locate the services of a cleaner.

So what made David and Margaret swap a comfortable retirement close to family and friends for a new life in rural France?

That's always a difficult question for expat retirees to answer directly. Sometimes the motivation to retire overseas is practical, the result of a concern over the cost of retirement living "back home." However, sometimes, the reason can be less quantifiable. Perhaps it's a gut feeling that retirement isn't going as planned, that your life lacks a challenge, or that it's the start of the slippery slope to old age.

The Goddards were bored. They knew they needed a big change, and they wanted to get started making it before too much more of their lives passed them by. Before the family started making appointments to visit prospective retirement homes, David and Margaret booked their tickets and set off for an extended road trip through France.

The Goddards had been on family vacations to Nice, St. Tropez, Grasse and St. Rafael in the South of France, so that's where they started their search for where to base their new retirement lives. A chance meeting with a Dutch family introduced them to the Languedoc region. The family told the Goddards that this area, probably best known as the producer of France's lower grade vin de table, was in fact beautiful and awash with small independent growers producing delicious wines. Further, the Goddards were assured, property prices were appealingly low, certainly compared with elsewhere in France.

The Goddards adjusted their compass and struck a path due south to the Languedoc. As they toured around the region, they gradually evolved their objective. They realized that they wanted to live somewhere that felt very French, somewhere that could only be in France. They wanted blue skies but not blazing hot sunshine, and they wanted to be able to walk to a village to buy their bread and have coffee or an aperitif on the main square. Otherwise, they intended to spend their time reading, gardening, learning some French, and maybe swimming in their own outdoor pool.

The life the Goddards have been able to reinvent for themselves in Languedoc, France, is not far from that picture-perfect scene they imagined.

"We looked for a village with local shops and services in walking distance," David explains. "There are many villages in the Languedoc, but something about Cessenon-sur-Orb instantly gripped us. We also liked being 30 minutes from Béziers for the movies, theater, medical services, and airport."

The Goddards poured over the details of more than 120 properties for sale in Cessenon-sur-Orb and visited 12, before finally deciding on a 19th-century wine producer's house characterized by two vast wooden doors at street level. Behind these doors is a cavern big enough to house a cart laden with grapes or, in today's terms, big enough for two cars, bicycles, an oil tank for the central heating, and a growing collection of wine.

Eight years later, Margaret Goddard is fluent in French, a keen player of pétanque (a game similar to boules), and is a key member of the Languedoc Women's International Club. At 78, she volunteers to check on elderly expats who need a helping hand, she takes part in guided walks through the vineyards, organizes book exchanges, hosts friends and family, and spends her "free" time gardening and swimming in their salt-water pool.

David hasn't mastered French, though he studies every week and has a vocabulary that includes everything relevant to installing new bathrooms, swimming pools, and new electric wiring. David has focused his attention on something that has been a big surprise to his whole family: He has started singing again. Singing has always been in David's blood, but, throughout a long career in management, he never had the opportunity to sing a note. Now, in the depths of rural France, his deep baritone voice drifts out into the narrow lane below the house as he practices for concerts with an international choir at Capestang Cathedral, close to the Canal du Midi.

Every so often the Goddard's family makes a concerted effort to bring them back "home." Why, ask David and Margaret, would they do that? The cost of living is lower than in the U.S. Their heating costs are lower, and they don't have to drive miles through congested traffic to meet their day-to-day needs. Fresh food is better quality, wine is much cheaper, older folk are respected, the family loves to vacation at their home, and the quality of healthcare is better than they had experienced in the U.S., with no waiting time to see specialists. They even have more friends than they had in the States. What in the world would persuade them to walk away from all that? Rien, they both smile.

Hiring a femme de ménage (the cleaner) turned out to be a very clever move. Not only does she help Margaret in the house, but she's also a font of village news and gossip, a teacher of conversational French, and has even helped the couple find dependable workmen to update the house and build a swimming pool.

The Goddards regularly give thanks to the Dutch family that turned their compass from the French Riviera to the "other South of France."

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas--Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

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