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Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 11:35 GMT
Expat e-mail: France
Danae and Roger at the Agen Stroke Club. Photos copyright of Thierry Randonnet
After 30 years abroad, Danae and Roger Penn had planned to retire in Devon. But necessity forced them to move to the French town of Condom instead, as Danae tells in our series on expatriate readers of BBC News Online.

We've retired to south-west France with no regrets and no culture shock. My husband is a stroke victim and the warmer, drier climate and efficient medical care are very good for him.

His stroke left him partially paralyzed and in considerable spasticity pain - we believe because of poor treatment he got on the NHS. Frankly we don't want to return to Britain - even for a short visit.

Map of their move
The pair moved to Woluwe in 1973, and to Condom in 2000
Condom is about 520 miles from Hadlow
What Danae misses most is Marks & Spencer
Originally we had planned to retire to north Devon from where we had been living in Belgium, but Roger's stroke during a trip home changed our plans.

I was well aware of the state of the NHS when I went to the hospital to be with him after his stroke.

He was lying miserably in a noisy, dirty, mixed dormitory, being fed by a tube up his nose. He was receiving very little physiotherapy treatment, even though the sooner that starts, the greater the possibility that the stroke victim will be able to walk again.

Once we returned to Belgium, it took four months for Roger to recover enough to return home, after which he had an hour's physio every day. We realised that I would have to give my job up to look after him full-time.

Search for sun

We needed to find somewhere with a warm, dry, sunny climate. Tenerife was an option, but too far away.

Roger and his physiotherapist, photo copyright of Thierry Randonnet
Roger has to undergo regular physio sessions
Then Roger got out a map of France and pointed to Gascony. Using our habitual method of conversation - that is, a laborious session of 20 questions - I found out from my geographer husband the reason for his choice: it has by far the best winter climate in France.

We started house-hunting and a local solicitor immediately found the right house for us: large, modern, well-built, with a big garden, surrounded by fields of vines and sunflowers.

Soon we had signed the compromis de vente - agreement of sale - for a house costing less than a small cottage in Devon.

Roger, Danae and Lester the cat,  photo copyright of Thierry Randonnet
Roger, 79, Danae, 61, and Lester the cat
So in August 2000, all our worldly goods were driven across France whilst Roger and I and Lester, our Siamese-Burmese cat, flew from Brussels to Toulouse to be met in the sunshine by a marvellous taxi ambulance service, and driven rejoicing to our new house.

Unfortunately, we had an early opportunity to test French hospitals because Roger developed deep vein thrombosis. Like Belgium, general wards in France have an en-suite bathroom and a maximum of two beds, and we found the staff competent and kind, treating their patients with dignity and professionalism.

What's in a name?

In spite of its funny name, Condom is an attractive small market town, full of elegant old buildings. It lives (rather precariously) off the Armagnac trade and has few tourists except for pilgrims walking through on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Mayor of Condom with road sign that is continually ripped off as a souvenir
The town shares its name with the English word for "un preservatif"
House prices are very reasonable and the whole area is rural and unpolluted. The local people are extremely kind and friendly. Wherever two or three Gascons are gathered together, there is animated conversation - even in the middle of supermarket car parks! - and we have had a tremendous amount of help from all our neighbours.

We can buy English newspapers in Condom but don't need to because BBC News and Sport Online are so good. Roger can keep in touch with British football (he is a life-long supporter of Charlton Athletic), and we can buy English books and clothes easily and quickly online.

During the long summer we are out-of-doors all day, and if we need to seek some shade, we have a choice of trees: apricot, cypress, eucalyptus, oleander, palm... It's a good life.

Our advice to older people worried about affordable healthcare in the UK is to emigrate to a country with a better system. There are plenty to choose from, not just France.

Every Tuesday we bring you the story of a Briton who has upped sticks and moved abroad. Do you live far from home? Tell us your experiences, using the form below.

I spent 3 years in Germany, 5 in Hong Kong and 2 in Canada. The thing that surprises me the most is how friendly expats are to each other - clubs, dinner parties and chatting casually to acquaintances - whilst in the UK we just stay in, watch Eastenders and forget all about each other. Maybe it's the weather.
Garry Owen, Weston super Mare

I've lived in France for 25 years, first in Brittany, then in Paris for the past 13 years. I teach English in a school. I love the French lifestyle, the food, the wine and the cocktail parties! I gave birth in a French hospital and can confirm that their health service is the best in the world. Our standard of living is better over here. I do miss English television - French television is bad.
Christine Bell, Paris

Although no government will officially admit to it, but it's the prices and low salaries that drives Brits out of Britain. I just bought a beautiful 1,700 sft detached brand-new house in southern Miami for less than 130,000. My weekly shopping bill is half of what I used to pay in England, and I can buy a brand-new car for less than 13,000 (I will not even mention the price of gas). Medical services are much more expensive, but at least I do get good care for the money.
Jurgen W Schulze, US

Several years ago I met, and eventually married, a fantastic Tasmanian girl. Since 1996 we have been living in Cheshire. It's a great place, but I'm keen to move to Hobart for the usual reasons: cheaper & better housing, a slower pace of life etc. Can I persuade my wife to move? No way. She loves Manchester, finds the people friendly and fun and enjoys the more diverse community. The moral: anywhere has its pros & cons, and life is what you make of it.
Giles Fielding, UK

We moved back to the UK in '97 having lived outside Paris for 2 years and previously in Italy and Holland. We're still in culture shock. Almost nothing about the UK is better than France (or Italy or Holland for that matter... except maybe TV quality and what a thing to be best at!). What worries me about this mass exodus to France is how long the French will put up with it? The newcomers are buying all the nice houses as townies have in rural England.
Mark Lewis, Caterham

Last year I was paying 100 a week for a room in a run-down house in West London and was hating my work as a journalist. Now I'm teaching English and pay just 125 a month for a beautiful flat in Budapest. My standard of living is definitely better, although that's not true for everyone here. It is a real culture shock (their language is impossible) but I've met so many new people and seen so many things. No two days are the same.
Jonathan Hibberd, Budapest, Hungary

Life in France is great. My girlfriend just gave birth in a French hospital and the services are fantastic. The lifestyle is laid back and in the countryside, where we are, is like a cross between Ireland and Cornwall. The bureaucracy is terrible, as are the public services, but you get used to it. The French secretly love the English, but they will rarely admit it - they think we are charming!
David Raleigh, Fouras

As a recent arrival in France, where I moved from New York, I am astounded by these comments. In the Pays de Gex at least, there is almost no infrastructure. You need a second life to deal with French bureaucrats and do everyday chores (like food shopping) and iron lungs to cope with the omnipresent smoke (not least in restaurants, where you are fortunate if you can see your food).
Malcolm Latimer, Divonne-les-Bains

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26 Jan 03 | Country profiles
03 Feb 03 | Health
11 Jul 00 | Business
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