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Today I'm reviewing Heads Above Water by Stephanie Dagg. She's another lucky ex-pat who moved her family to France, something I'd love to do, but I'm waiting until the kids are all grown.
Stephanie and her husband had been living in Ireland and had three kids, a teenager, an 11-year-old and a 4-year-old, when they bought a ruin of a house in the center of France.Their goal was to run a gîte with fishing lakes where people can catch and release fish, apparently that's a thing. They also added llamas, goats and chickens to their farm.
Although I wouldn't imagine farming fish or llamas, I loved the details that Stephanie goes into on how they chose their fish for the pond and how the fish were delivered and transferred. I was breathing hard by the end of all that exertion. The llama purchases were funny as Stephanie and her husband Chris figured out how to keep the four male llamas within their fencing, and inevitably some escaped.
One of the highlights of living in central France is watching the birds that migrate in the spring and fall. I loved Stephanie's description of the European Grey cranes flying overhead.
We heard them before we saw them. It was a puzzling, whooping sort of noise.... Then sharp-eyed Caiti spotted a thin, grey line in the sky that was making the sound. We watched entranced as it straggled into better view, a higgledy-piggledy arrowhead of large, calling birds. Wave after wave, each one several hundred strong, swept over us during the rest of the afternoon.I can imagine standing there and hearing those birds calling from the sky above.
There's lots of French bureaucracy as they try to get permission for all the improvements on the farm. Stephanie is honest about the amount of work involved in trying to accomplish the most minor changes to the farm, but it never seems like France bashing. Their love for their new country and the lifestyle is apparent throughout the book.
I loved reading about how the kids become more French, attending French school and eating extravagant French meals for lunch. I would love to have my 4-year-old instructing me in the art of French meals. Stephanie included part of what her teenager Benj wrote about his new French school:
When you arrive in the morning you can be mobbed by your friends, who you kiss on the cheek or shake hands with, as gender dictates. Then go to locker, grab books and off to class...then to social minefield -- Lunch! So far we've had rabbit, trout, omelettes, steak, mussels and cheeseburgers. Ok, bar possibly the junk food, can many people admit to eating those for school dinner? We're treated like royalty. Even the appetisers and desserts are good.This family definitely is more rugged than I ever hope to be. The house didn't even have a working bathroom. That's a non-starter for me. The minimum requirement will be a working bathroom.
But they, and their kids, who are very different from my kids, started with an outdoor solar shower. They put a composting toilet in the indoor bathroom, planning to later use it outdoors for the visiting fishermen, women...
That would not quite cut it at my house either.
I found the book and the adventure a lot of fun. The amount of work was incredible. I think they must be making a go of the farm now since the author has a blog and writes about her continuing adventures in France. She's also working on a sequel to this memoir, which I'll look forward to reading.
I found the writing straight forward and descriptive. She definitely took me on a French adventure. This is perfect for anyone who wants to create their own France homestead, or for those who just enjoy reading about others who do.
Synopsis from the author:
Heads Above Water: Staying Afloat in France is the story of our first couple of years as expats in France. And yes, there are lots of books about living in France out there already. But a lot of these are the short-term adventures of single people or retired couples or tourists. Moving abroad for good with a family and without a pension is a whole new ball game. That’s what makes Heads Above Water different. It’s about us, a family with three children, who stick the hardships out and make things start to work. It’s about actually making a living in a new country and dealing with the sort of rules and regulations that only the French could think of. It’s realistic, honest and gritty – but also fun, lively and very entertaining, and, I hope, ultimately inspiring.
ABOUT THE AUTHORI’m Stephanie Dagg, married to Chris for 27 years and mum to Benj (22), Caiti (19) and Ruadhri (12). We live on a 75 acre farm in rural Creuse with llamas, alpacas, pigs, sheep, poultry and three lakes full of carp. We run a fishery and gite, and also a llama trekking business. We moved here in 2006 from Ireland, where we’d lived for 15 years. Before that we lived in England. You can follow our French adventures athttp://www.bloginfrance.com.
I’m an English graduate (Somerville College, Oxford) and Publishing Studies postgraduate (Stirling). I began a career in publishing in 1985 as a desk editor with Hodder and Stoughton, then I deviated from the path to become a sales rep for a couple of years for some academic presses and then an accountant. This is what meeting and marrying a guy who has a job in Newcastle does for you! Anyway, in 1992 I got back on track by becoming a freelance editor and indexer, working from home part-time around the kids. The same year we moved to Ireland.
I began to write stories for Benj, and then Caiti, and I won second prize in a contest in a magazine with one of my tales. That prompted me to begin contacting publishers. I got plenty of rejections but finally hit the right place at the right time with Mentor Press and O’Brien Press in Ireland in 1998. For the next eight years I wrote prolifically and spent many happy hours visiting schools and libraries to do workshops with kids.
Then we moved to France and I stopped writing for a while due to sheer exhaustion! Renovating a 200 year old farm that is falling apart takes a lot of effort, and so does running two businesses (running a holiday cottage and fishing lakes, and freelance editing). Life is interesting and full of challenges and we’re so glad we took the plunge and moved to France.
I have Twitter accounts @llamamum @bookeditorsteph and facebook https://www.facebook.com/