Ciara Kenny

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Non, je ne regrette rien

Wages are low in France, but the food is great, wine is cheap, and we have beaches and ski slopes on our doorstep, writes KAREN O’REILLY

Tue, Dec 11, 2012, 09:48


Wages are low in France, but the food is great, wine is cheap, and we have beaches and ski slopes on our doorstep, writes KAREN O’REILLY

Karen O'Reilly with her daughter Alannah on the ski slopes near Perpignan

With an estimated 16,000 Irish people living there and many many more with holiday homes there, La Belle France remains a strong attraction for the Irish. We moved here 10 years ago after falling in love with the Languedoc Roussillon on a skiing visit to my sister Suzanne, who was already living there.

After training as an accountant with BDO Simpson Xavier in Limerick, I spent four fantastic years in Australia as the head accountant for Estée Lauder in Sydney. I got a taste of the good weather and the lifestyle that matched it and so when I came back to “settle down” in Limerick, I found it difficult.

I managed to get a great job in Pat Keogh’s as Financial Controller which I really enjoyed but the travel bug had caught and after a skiing weekend visiting my sister Suzanne in Perpignan in the South of France, I was hooked.

The ski slopes are only a half an hour from Perpignan and so we spent a couple of fantastic days skiing and then exploring the town, eating outside in t-shirts, sunbathing on nearby beaches ( in January!) walking in the mountains, going to the fab restaurants and trying out the local wines. Suzanne was just about to set up her own business as a real estate agent and needed a partner so I didn’t need to be asked twice. I went back to Ireland, handed in my notice, dusted off my backpack and headed back to France.

With no kids at the time, it was an easy move and I hit the ground running, starting work the very afternoon I arrived. We ran a very successful property company for seven years called Bidsinfrance and were insanely busy. The market began to dry up in 2008 and so we set up a private tour company TheFrenchTourCo but alas, French bureaucracy decided to shut it down.

At the moment, I am involved in other projects while my partner, Brian Harrington, also from Limerick, runs his thriving building business with a French and expat clientele.

Brian could not even say “bonjour” when he arrived in France and being a rather sociable chap, this really bothered him. He went to Perpignan university and did an intensive six month course and is now practically fluent.

I had a fairly good command of French coming here so it was relatively easier for me on that front. We made a conscious effort to get to know French people and never subscribed to SKY for the Irish channels and so were forced to watch French television, which was good for us. Now, our friends are half French and half expat.

Ten years and two children later, France has been good to us. Having our children has certainly been a very positive experience here and the treatment was second to none. The hospital was like a five star hotel, with a fold out bed for one’s partner – Brian stayed with me every night in the clinic. The food was superb (rabbit in mustard sauce with all the trimmings stands out) and I lounged in a spacious room with a lovely en-suite to myself. My second born was a natural breach birth with no complications. France has the best healthcare in the world according to the World Health Organisation – another very good reason to live here.

Karen's children Dylan and Alannah

The kids are now seven and five and both go to local French public schools. The system is completely different here – children start school at 8.30am and finish at 5pm. Practically, it is brilliant for working parents, as there is also a free child minding facility available until 6.30.

There are canteen facilities in every school and because you are in France, you get a two hour lunch break. The kids (they start la maternelle or pre-school at age 2) all have a four course lunch, with starters, mains, fruit or cheese and dessert.

The kids are exposed to all kinds of different foods, with themed days where they have Indian, Chinese or Irish dishes, for example. The menus are even printed on the local paper so you can see what they are having every day, which goes to show just how important food is here in France.

Where we are living is particularly lovely, as we get over 320 days of sunshine, have beaches on our doorstep and ski slopes a short drive away. I swim in a public outdoor pool every week, the local markets are amazing, my kids are happy and the wine is cheap.

But it isn’t perfect. If you are thinking of making the move here, you should bear in mind that the average wage per household in the Pyrenees Orientales where I live is just €18,000 a year. You are not going to get rich in France. Taxes and social charges are also high. At the height of the property boom when we were earning good money, we were paying 75 per cent of our income in taxes.

The great thing is we can be back in Ireland in two hours. we probably see more of our family living here than if we were living in Ireland, as they visit us and stay with us for a couple of weeks at a time. We do miss Ireland from time to time especially our extended family and “the craic” but it is over 14 years since I’ve lived there so we probably have a rose tinted nostalgic view of the ole sod.

All in all, la vie est belle here in France.

Karen O’Reilly is currently writing a book with her sister and also blogs at