January 07, 2008


Hi, and welcome to this blog.

So, what's with this "Back to the UK!" business? Let's go back in time to 1983, at which point I was 15 years old and living with my parents in a place just outside Winchester called Oliver's Battery. Several factors prompted the decision to uproot from the UK and settle in France, so in July that year I travelled with my sister (I have 3 sisters who were all adults and had left home by then) to stay for a few months, while my parents were sorting out the last details of the removal, with friends of the family, whose daughter we'd taken in out of the rain for a few days while we were living in Cornwall 5 or 6 years earlier. They followed me over in October the same year, by which time I was already attending a French school.

I think the whole experience was extremely positive on the one side: I had to learn a new language because the French taught in British schools and the French spoken in everyday life in France are, to all intents and purposes, two different languages. I also had to get used to a new way of life, learn to stand up to the French bureaucracy (those who complain about the bureaucracy in the UK should spend a few years in France) and start making a living there once I'd left school. On the other hand, it did wrench me away from my friends and family.

In 1987, nearly at the age of 20 having had to overcome the language barrier and re-take school years a couple of times, I obtained my "Baccalauréat". There are various types of Baccalauréat, most specialising in one particular field, and a few (like the one I took) that are still rather general and considered more valuable for further education. I did attend a technical college for a few months between Autumn 1987 and February 1988 but became too bothered by the differences between the UK and the French education systems, finding myself going over stuff I'd learned years ago in the UK and not learning anything about electronics that I hadn't already found out for myself earlier in childhood. I therefore dropped out of college and started working, doing all kinds of low-skilled jobs until I landed a job teaching mature students about computing. That job fell through after a couple of months and in about 1997 I even found myself being called in as a witness in a court case in which the defendent was my former employer, who had been employing people undeclared and of which the then manager had run away with the treasury!

In 1989 I landed a job that was right up my alley, repairing small computers, video and CCTV equipment. The job was great and I was given responsibility almost straight away. I held that job down until the end of 1994, by which time the 2 associates owning the joint were spending most of their time firing at each other with me in the crossfire. I left that place on December 12th 1994, and on the 14th I started work with a professional photographic laboratory in Marseille, running and developing their new desktop publishing department.

That job started out fine, too, but gradually deteriorated over time as the lab was sold out to a Paris-based chain of labs and management was taken over bit by bit by the Parisians. So, in early 1999 I started thinking of moving on and decided in fact to return to the UK. I spent a couple of weeks' holiday based with a friend in Manchester in February that year but failed to secure anything viable as far as housing and work were concerned, so I had to return to the lab in Marseille, rather depressed in fact.

Then there was a chance meeting with fellow expat Chris Cartwright, who lived at the time in a place just outside the town of Chinon in central France. I moved in with him later that year and we stayed in that house until early 2004. Apart from the fact that it was on the banks of the River Vienne, which tended to burst its banks regularly, meaning that we had to go shopping by boat when that happened, the place was idyllic. It was out in the countryside, nice and secluded, yet broadband Internet was available (essential!).

Shortly thereafter I started looking for work in the area and came eventually to the conclusion that I wasn't going to work unless it was for myself. Then started a 27-month battle with the bureaucracy (that I wouldn't have won without the help of the British Embassy) to secure a residence permit. Ten years earler I had been misinformed by the police in the town where I lived at the time, and told that as an EU citizen I no longer needed a residence permit. It turns out that I did. In late 1999, France was about the only EU country still requiring a residence permit of EU citizens. Anyway, once that problem was solved in early 2002, I was able to set up shop as a self-employed Unix systems administrator and start trading.

The flooding and the mere fact that any shopping, how ever trivial, meant taking the car annoyed Chris more than it did me, and the rent was pretty expensive, too, so we had to move out. We moved out from there between January and March 2004 (the river flooding for 6 weeks during that period certainly didn't help) and into a smaller place that was right in the town centre.

The town is picturesque, even if the narrow, medieval streets either side of which the tall houses sometimes almost touch at the top can make one rather claustrophobic, and the flat itself is very pleasant except for one detail. The flat in question is the main flat in the building, and there are about 8 low-cost studios and flats behind it, which attract a sometimes rather colourful clientèle. We shared the same entrance and corridor with the other people, who would often come home in various states of intoxication in the early hours of the morning and make enough noise to make dead bodies pray for earplugs. Plus the kind of people attracted to that kind of price range accomodation is invariably a rowdy bunch with no manners and an aggressive attitude... One incident in the Summer of 2006 involving one of these rowdy tenants is, I think, what made something snap inside me, and by August 2007 I just couldn't bear the place any more.

Not only that, but I also realized that there was no way I was going to be able to expand my business the way I wanted to in France because of the endless miles of red tape and the exorbitant taxes. Also, quite simply, I think I just felt homesick in a way even if the UK has changed dramatically since I last lived here.

In September and October 2007 I flew several times from Tours (nearest airport to Chinon) to Manchester in order to meet with a friend here in Horwich, which is a few miles to the West of Bolton, itself just Northwest of Manchester. We hit it off and have been sharing this house since late October 2007.

I am now doing the same job, working as a self-employed Unix sysadmin here in the UK, which is where I've come to realize that I've wanted to be for the past decade, hence the "Back to the UK!" after more than 24 years in France.


Pamela said...

Thank you for letting me read this part of your life! I still hope to meet you some day IRL for a glass of wine. Not in France anymore, but we like England too! :-)


G. Stewart said...

Thanks for the kind words, Pamela. I too hope we can get together for a drink. Don't forget I still intend to travel to the Netherlands one day!