French Country Retirement

From High Stress In The UK To The Bliss Of French Country Living–One Family’s Retire Overseas Adventure

In 2006, two generations of the Mulcare family decided to leap off the work treadmill in the UK and follow their dream of living, working, and retiring in France.

Until this point, the younger generation–James Mulcare, his wife Ruth, and James’ sister Louise–were all working in full-time stressful jobs in Britain. James was a real estate asset and fund manager; Ruth was a PR consultant, and Louise was a sales manager with Mercedes Benz.

James and Louise’s parents had just retired from a successful law practice and bed-and-breakfast business. It was the older generation that launched the search for a new place for the whole family to relocate and start a new life.

They knew they wanted to be in France. But where would suit everyone? After traveling the length of the Pyrenees, they came across Cauterets; a lively all-year-round Pyrenees town with fabulous skiing in the winter and endless outdoor activities in the spring, summer, and autumn.

Today, the Mulcare family has transitioned from their stressful life in the UK to a new French country life running seven self-catering holiday apartments. Euro-Correspondent Lucy Culpepper interviewed them this week about their adventures…

LC: How long did it take the whole family to pack up and move after making the decision that Cauterets was the right place?

JM: It took us a year to leave the UK. We all had houses to sell, resignations to work out, and possessions to pack up and store.

LC: Did you make any special preparations before you moved?

JM: We all took French lessons, even Alex, my nephew, who was 5. My sister, Louise, took an accountancy course. We made several trips to Cauterets to start the procedure of registering us in France, though most of that could only be done once we had arrived and had a permanent address.

LC: Did you rent in Cauterets before you found the right property?

JM: Our parents bought a large property in Cauterets that we all moved into while we looked for properties of our own. We had made several visits to the town before moving here to get to know all the property agents and to begin the search for the property that would become our business.

LC: How long did it take to find the right properties?

JM: It took a year to find our own homes. Living in our parents’ house during this time was challenging, as we were all used to our own lifestyles. My search was particularly urgent; my wife Ruth gave birth to our first child one week after moving into our own home!

LC: And the business property? How did you find that?

JM: It was a long search, resulting in a very good knowledge of all the property agents in Cauterets and visits to many sites. But we knew what we wanted so we kept looking until we found the property that fit all our criteria.

LC: Did you have to do much work on the property?

JM: It was a massive renovation project that included the complete transformation of the internal layout, full re-wiring, new plumbing, and redecoration. We completely transformed the building from a dilapidated 19th-century bakery to six self-catering apartments and a Welcome Room. Each apartment, except the studio, has its own terrace overlooking the Gave de Cauterets River. We also bought and completely renovated an apartment in the building next door to us.

LC: Were you involved with the renovations or did you manage from a distance?

JM: I was on site, project managing, every day. We were working with a diverse range of artisans who needed day-to-day directing to keep to the design and time schedule. I also did a lot of work myself.

LC: How would you describe the result?

JM: We now have seven stylish apartments (LC: they really are very stylish!). They are decorated in a contemporary style, but we have maintained the original character of the building, including the original bread ovens in the Welcome Room.

LC: How have you found setting up a business in France?

JM: There’s a lot of paperwork in this country, so having good relationships with your bank and your accountant is crucial. We found a fantastic banking advisor in the town who helped set up all the financial side of the business. She introduced us to an accountant, who also speaks English (though we speak to him in French now!). He set up the correct business structure for us.

LC: Apart from the famous paperwork, what else is different about doing business in France?

JM: We have found that everything takes longer than at home. This is understandable, as we’ve been dealing with a new system in a new language. Finding good contacts and building a rapport with the local community has been essential. The business culture is very different. E-mail is not the norm; faxing still rules in certain areas! Pre-planning has been critical, as many items for the building renovation were not kept in stock.

LC: Do you feel you have integrated and been accepted in the community?

JM: Everyone here in Cauterets has been friendly and welcoming. At the beginning, our language skills were basic. We took weekly conversation classes and tried to speak French to the locals instead of relying on their English. Having my nephew at the local school was a great way of meeting people, and now we have our 2-year-old in the local crèche – that has really helped us become part of the community. Louise, my sister, went one step further and married a Frenchman from a town nearby – that has really improved her French skills!

LC: What are the main benefits of living in France?

JM: The elusive work-life balance is more attainable here. Although we have swapped some problems and challenges from the UK for new ones in France, overall the pros vastly outweigh the cons. The lifestyle in Cauterets is based around the mountains. The life of a claustrophobic London office job has long disappeared. Our passions and hobbies, like skiing and trekking, have now become our work. More emphasis is placed on family life and outdoor activities; the pace of life is much slower here than in the UK, where everything is open for business seven days a week all day long.

LC: What’s your typical workday?

JM: I run the day-to-day business with Louise. She works in the mornings on accounts, reservations, and admin and is then free to collect her son from school (something she wasn’t able to do as a sales manager for Mercedes Benz).

I work in the afternoons also on reservations, inquiries, and arranging activities for our guests. Every day, from 4 to 6 p.m., I serve locally baked cakes, tea, and coffee to our guests in the Welcome Room. It’s the perfect time to chat and socialize and help our guests make the most of their vacation.

LC: Do you miss anything about your life in the UK?

JM: Marmite and a proper pint of beer! We also miss friends and family and the ease of conversation and comprehension.

LC: Has Cauterets lived up to your family’s expectations?

JM: We enjoy every season here. In winter, the skiing is in full swing, and the mountains become a winter wonderland. In spring, the lower valleys open up for walking. There are beautiful mountain flowers, spectacular waterfalls, and white-water rafting. In summer, the long spells of glorious weather allow us to make the most of all the outdoor sports and the fantastic hiking in the National Park. Then, in autumn, it’s cooler but warm enough to camp and go on long quiet treks.

It’s a year-round playground, which is great for business.

Kathleen Peddicord

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