I SPENT MUCH of 2008 in France, Spain and Greece, living among British expats, some of them relatives or friends and some complete strangers, all of whom had decided over the previous two decades that they no longer wanted to live in the country of their birth. What started out as a pleasant journey of exploration and reminiscence ended in a jolting confrontation not only with the collapse of capitalism as we know it, but with a more urgent imperative to survive.
The decisions made by the people I knew were mostly based on romantic dreams they had harboured in their twenties but could only realise in middle age. The accelerant was the decade-long power of the British pound, whose strength against the euro gave owners of modest homes from all over the United Kingdom the opportunity to sell up, buy a little bit of continental Europe and live there on quite low incomes or pensions. Sterling peaked in 2000, when a euro could be bought for 58 pence, but in January 2009 the two were at parity, with the pound falling. It was a disaster the English had never imagined.
Whether Provence, the Ardèche, Tuscany, Umbria, Amalfi, the Adriatic, the Algarve or all the costas of Mediterranean Spain, ‘the Sud' has been more or less overrun by refugees from what Lawrence Durrell once vilified as Pudding Island. In the mid-1930s, Durrell removed himself forever from a life infused with the overpowering fragrance of brown Windsor soup and the dreary preoccupations of men in Fair Isle cardigans who smoked pipes by the fire and only ever left the house to go to the shed.
Durrell's discontent resonated with many who grew up in the 1960s with a frustrated feeling of entitlement to a life in the Midi, the Riviera, the Aegean or anywhere ‘away'. Many came to Australia, still the favourite destination of the evacuating Briton, but in the 1950s, aside from Durrell, the only foreigners who lived in the Sud were other writers – Somerset Maugham at Cap Ferrat, Robert Graves on Majorca – or a film-star-turned-princess like Grace Kelly in Monaco. Durrell's books – Prospero's Cell and Reflections on a Marine Venus – started the undertow of desire for the Mediterranean idyll. Without him there would be no Club Med,A Year in Provence or Mama Mia. Now three million Britons live in Europe, a third of them in Spain.
WHO WOULD HAVE guessed that in some of France's village schools, settlers from Pudding Island would one day make the native tongue the second language taught and the French a minority in their own land?
Nonetheless, I was shocked three years ago when my younger cousin David Chenery told me he was leaving his ancestral home of Combs, Stowmarket, Suffolk to live in a remote village in Burgundy – ‘for good', he said. David was not a career person; he'd done jobs in factories, retail and social work. I had never suspected he might decamp to France.
I'd told him I'd got lost looking for his house in Stowmarket, and he said that's just how he and his wife, Pauline, felt: lost in their own space. They had been walled in by glass and besser-brick warehouses and mysterious factories, and their ‘village' had morphed into that dreary light-industrial estate shown in the opening credits of The Office.
Watching from Australia, I often wondered if the ‘English village' David missed still existed outside the constructed rustic eccentricity of television series like The Vicar of Dibley, a place safely removed from city murk and yobs with seven-inch blades, where the church bell tolls the hour and cows wait patiently to be milked. Even morbid television serial-killer stories are set in quaint country locations far from Britain's urban and suburban worlds, where ambulance sirens scream constantly. Listening to David, I realised his idea of contemporary England converged with the social mayhem portrayed in The Bill.
My cousin was not brought up on fifty-year-old literature pining for the Sud but, shrewdly, he'd discovered that France in general – and Burgundy in particular – was full of half-empty villages. Pauline put it plainly: ‘I realised that to get a decent pension in Britain I would have to keep working until I was seventy-one!'
By the time it dawned on them that a house in Suffolk was worth two or three times one they could buy in rural France, the rush was peaking. They sealed a deal just in time. Two years before the credit crunch loomed they found an old stone semi in Faverolles-lès-Lucey: a medieval farm hamlet deep in rural Burgundy, with a thirteenth-century church (sans priest), wheat and barley fields, pastures full of pink and white Charolais cattle, threaded by a small but full flowing tributary of the Seine; with all the wild bird species that have disappeared from Suffolk, and spacious woods with free firewood, mushrooms and nuts, wild boar and fallow deer.
There are no shops (bread arrives daily by van) but eight kilometres away there's a butcher-charcuterie, a baker, a grocer, a doctor and pharmacy and, at the nearest real town, Chatillon-sur-Seine, growers and providores markets with sausage, cheese, meat and fish, fruits from the farms and a help-yourself bar-cum-restaurant with as much as you can eat from the cold meats and pie table (followed by a main course from the kitchen) for twelve euros a head – a mere eight quid in 2007 money. Another half-hour on the road and they can browse the wineries of Nuits St George and Beaune.
They never guessed how soon this would change, how they'd be ‘at the mercy of the exchange rate'. Even governments seemed oblivious to what was coming. The credit crunch was like global warming: plausible, even probable, but it might never happen. As recently as 2007, before ‘sub-prime' found its way into everyday speech, Gordon Brown made the astounding claim that his policies as Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer had ironed out the normal boom-bust business cycle.
Despite the tumultuous descent of the sterling last year, David and Pauline insist they will never return to England. Yes, they are living on pensions and investments from the sale of their home that are worth less than when they moved, but it's not just a matter of economics: ‘There's no respect back home,' says David. ‘It's all yob culture.'
His closest crony is a retired gendarme who is trying to interest him in the crevices of French culture. When I left, Daniel was feeding David a daily diet of Jacques Tati DVDs in return for generous slugs of good malt whisky. Body language was the key, he explained, and showed David how to bow, suck a pipe, doff his hat and jerk up and down on his heels, all in one movement in the manner of the ever-jaunty M. Hulot of the 1950s – a different time, in a different France. A few months later I rang to ask how things were going and David explained that their really good friends in Brittany had decided to sell up and go back to Pudding Island. But they couldn't find a buyer for their French house.
My next call was to have been to a friend in the Dordogne, a ‘professional' expat who had been chasing work for decades all over the world, until he was lucky enough to buy an old stone house in a ‘perfect little French village'. He was always close to the edge financially and, when he developed cancer, wrote to say there was no way he would ‘go home' now because the French medical system was, in his view, superior. He met the cost of winter heating by decamping to Spain for three months. Sadly, the French medical system failed to save him before I could see him again and hear his views on the economic catastrophe.
THE FURTHER I moved away from the lush green meadows of Faverolles, towards the crispier Mediterranean Sud, the more obvious and, in many cases more shaky, I found the British expat presence. On Spain's Costa Blanca I found friends not seen since 1991: Rip and Sally Rippingale, who live in the mountains forty kilometres inland from Alicante. They met in the late 1950s at the University of St Andrews, where they first played golf – a pastime without which they admit life would be empty in Spain. In the '70s they bought a cheap holiday home in the French Ardèche and dreamed they would one day move there for good.
Rip gave up his day job to buy and sell rustic pine furniture, and drove around France in a van picking up farmhouse chairs, tables and corner cupboards which he would strip, wax and paint with floral designs to sell in their shop in World's End, that little extension of Chelsea into Fulham. At the time of the last big economic crash, in the early 1990s – just as they were thinking of quitting and heading for the Sud – they had to sell everything, including Ardèche and their Bayswater flat, to pay off the bank. It took years to get rid of their business, so they lived on a boat on the Thames at Limehouse. Eventually they ‘sailed' through the canals of France and on to Corsica, and then transferred to the vast marina at Alicante. After a few years cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of other yachties (many of whom never went to sea) they decided it was time to move back to dry land. They never considered returning to Pudding Island. Their best option in Spain was an eyrie a thousand metres up a mountain behind the almond town of Xixona, famous for turon, nougat and all kinds of marzipan.
Their mountain ‘community' isn't old and has no name. The ‘villagers' are foreign and Spanish retirees and holiday-homers in stucco ranches scraped into raw, steep land so far from the coast that the distant sea is often invisible. In 2007, a summer wildfire swept up the hill and singed the edge of their beautiful garden; in winter, fierce winds and torrential rain keep everyone indoors. Now that the value of their investments has shrunk, they are more or less stuck in the last house below the ridge, wondering what might happen should their health fail.
They take me down to Benidorm, to see coastal overdevelopment. Twenty years ago it was a tiny village; now its Gran Hotel Bali is the tallest in Europe. There are apartments and townhouses, concrete esplanades and car parks but, early in 2008, property prices collapsed, credit disappeared and dead cranes took over the skyline. By midyear there were 650,000 unfinished or unoccupied apartments, and by year's end thousands of real-estate agents had gone out of business, industrial production had slumped, unemployment was soaring (now around 20 per cent) and the economy was heading into recession.
At the Sunday market, English couples sell off their possessions or the bric-a-brac, furniture and clothing they've bought at local auctions. One woman of about fifty, deeply tanned and overweight, wearing the minimum for decency, tells me she too is hoping her health holds out. She and her husband are living in a caravan. She would rather be in Queensland ‘but it's too far'. Would she go back to England? ‘What, and live in Grimsby? No way.' Others tell the same story. A trailer park in Benidorm still beats Birmingham. Their faith in bricks and mortar as the basis of wealth, however, has taken a fearful battering. Selling out and scuttling back to Pudding Island means taking a heavy loss.
Few understand why. Most suspect they got here by luck, and it's hard to know who to blame now it's run out. No one wants to hear about the property bubble, about how the Blair-Brown team thought shifting costs off the national budget by privatising debt – cutting taxes, reducing state services, making the user pay and plunging into private-finance initiatives – was respectable economic management. Until last year what cash people had simply bought more in France and Spain.
Rip and Sal get by – but, they say, ‘any wine that costs more than three euros is out of our range'. Doubtless there are gourmet opportunities at Xixona's weekly street market but they are content with simple local ingredients twisted into mildly eccentric recipes eaten in the living room, on the terrace or next to their modest plunge pool.
Golf has expanded with the influx of the British – there are nearly a hundred and fifty courses in Andalucía alone – and KPMG reported in 2008 that Spain was still the most favoured location for golf ‘resorts': greens, fairways and clubhouses integrated into apartment complexes, although the trend in the past year was to forget the greens and just build the apartments. The day Rip and I go around the Bonalba golf course, between Benidorm and Alicante, he points out a new development of flats lining the back nine. ‘The year they were finished they all got flooded,' he says as we zip down the fairway in his electric buggy. ‘Now they can't sell them.'
At a group lunch at the clubhouse, the conversation moves from handicaps on the green to obstacles to easy living. A retired Scottish RAF sergeant says the services and daily expenses that used to cost less than half what he paid in the UK are now much more expensive. It's well known that members shower at the club to save on their home hot-water bills. Others who speak no Spanish or have little interest in Spanish culture (aside from sun and wine) have been slowly realising that unless you've immersed yourself in the new, alien environment, the paradise you dreamed of can evaporate as soon as things go bad.
Sal Rippingale admits that she used to be more ‘involved' in public and local issues, and was active in the British Labour Party and Amnesty; now, she says, she confines her political actions to ‘getting up the noses of the British club members who want to chop off the hands of thieves'. Her other activities are swimming, crosswords and rolling her own cigarettes. Neither she nor Rip is fluent in Spanish, but with the help of an English-speaking local Rip looks after community-association business (a job he says the local Spanish won't do), writing reports, checking the water supply, and processing requests and complaints from his neighbours.
MOLIVOS IS A picturesque Greek village on the north-west corner of Lesbos, close to Turkey. I've known a few British expats there, but the eastern edge of the Aegean has never appealed to mass resettlement. Lawrence Durrell went only once. There are a few empty houses – some quite grand, others collapsing hovels, a few ‘dowry houses' waiting for a granddaughter to get married – but they are all overpriced. Homes can be picked up cheaply in less fashionable villages, but these villages are often remote and most likely entirely Greek. There are a few Pudding Islanders, like Jeff and Belinda Paffet, who have bought a cottage in Vafios, high up in the lee of Mt Lepetymnos, but they don't mix with the other English couple in the village and are learning Greek.
Ten years ago they came for a holiday with their sixteen-year-old daughter, Naomi. When they were due to return, she announced she wanted to work on as a waitress. They agreed, but at the end of the summer she told them she wanted to stay – and live with her Greek lover, Vangelis, a restaurant manager seven years her senior. Jeff and Belinda were shocked but trusted her (and him) enough to go along with it. Belinda insists their decision to buy in Vafios was not to ‘follow Naomi' but to leave England, a desire intensified by disenchantment with the Labour government.
Naomi speaks Greek fluently, and with Vangelis (who is equally proficient in English) started a travel business they hoped would survive the slump in tourism. Their relationship did not. Naomi's waiting table again, but the Paffets are not going back to Pudding Island. ‘This,' insists Belinda ‘is home.'
Lesbos is the eastern edge of Europe. The shoreline that runs east of Molivos is backed by scrubby valleys, rocky headlands; the beaches are longer, wider and stonier, less populated, treeless. This is the coast closest to Turkey, which is about eight nautical miles away. There are a few low-rise hotels, studio apartments and single-storey summerhouses. I stayed for a fortnight with my wife, Jane, between the resort and a small market garden farm worked by an Albanian family who can't make enough money and are going home. Back among the trees there's an English couple in a bungalow. They claim to have stayed here every year for three decades, but have no plans to move in permanently. The farm and the hotel are both bordered by a road which runs along the water's edge and a stretch of narrow unshaded shingle with a beachcomber's shack. Adonis has been living there for years, oblivious to sunbakers plodding by.
On the night of 11 August 2008, just before midnight, a storm breaks, thunderheads crackle around the mountains for hours and the gentle hiss of a steady downpour ends just before dawn. By the late afternoon, as we sit drinking tea, gazing at the farm, the beach, the sea and Turkey, there is no sign of the turbulence. The storm has cleared the air, so minarets, villages and small resorts are quite distinct. At around half past five we hear voices calling, a plaintiff aaayyaaayy sound repeated slowly by two or three people, together and separately. It reminds us of a sports chant, but it seems to be coming from Turkey, and there, about a kilometre out, something different is in the water: a group of people standing in an orange inflatable dinghy. About fifteen or twenty of them, crying out in relays for attention. The onshore breeze is bringing them slowly towards us, but without engine power or paddles they are afraid the dinghy might founder and so, I guess, they are calling out to the people on the beach to start up one of the idle runabouts on the shingle and come and rescue them.
We run down to the water's edge but our enterprise is thwarted as the high-powered Molivos coastguard powerboat races around the headland. In about ten minutes it has brought the dinghy alongside, taken the men and women aboard and swiftly set off west around the coast to the main port of Mytilene with the group huddled on the foredeck. Mytilene has a notorious overcrowded detention centre, as do several Greek islands along the coast of Turkey.
Afghanis, Iraqis and even Somalis frequently land here at night – Adonis found a body in his nets a couple of years ago – but rarely do they arrive in broad daylight. I can only guess that this group was held up on the Turkish side by the storm. Nobody will tell you how they make their journeys – across Iran perhaps, or from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and Saudi Arabia – but despite the hardships of the journey they keep on coming. I think of Michael Winterbottom's In This World, about a pair of brothers on the hair-raising journey by truck from Pakistan to London.
In 2008, 150,000 ‘illegals' landed in Greece; around twelve million now live in Europe. Most who arrive on Lesbos have no qualms about Pudding Island. They want to get ‘to England' and on the Turkish side of the strait there's a busy cottage industry selling dinghies – for as much as a few thousand euros – to people looking for landfall a few nautical miles away in the nearest part of the continent.
Needless to say, refugees from the Middle East and Africa who make it are not looking for a Greek island paradise. Their desire to move into Europe is a bit different from my adolescent yearnings for a sybaritic life in the Sud. They want the ‘West', and if that means a job in far north Scotland, so be it. While the International Labour Organization says tens of millions of jobs will disappear worldwide by the end of the year, talk of hard times in ‘the global economy' means nothing in Afghanistan and Somalia.
The ironies are stark. While economic refugees have been clamouring to be let in, three million Britons moved offshore to enjoy the benefits of a strong pound – or to get away from immigrants – in European villages partially deserted by people fleeing poverty. Whatever else the tough times bring, the movement of people will not be deterred by collapsing home prices in Slough.
European migration information: EU MEP report drafted by Italian MEP Giusto Catania see:
Greece: Kathimerini (Greek daily May 20)