Sean and Audra’s move from Virginia US to Fréjus in the south of France is peppered with great stories.
When Sean and Audra got married two years ago, it felt like the perfect moment to make a big change in their lives. At the time, they both had homes in Virginia. Audra had grown up there and Sean, originally from Arizona, had lived there for 20 years. They started to talk about where else in the States they might want to live, but nothing really resonated.
As Sean explains, “We lived in Virginia, which is an extraordinarily beautiful place. When we couldn’t come up with anything in the States that was better than Virginia, it really expanded our horizon.”
Sean has the advantage of holding an Irish passport, which opened some exciting doors.
“I have Irish EU citizenship by descent. I had obtained that passport as a means of travelling in parts of the world where it’s better to have an Irish passport than an American one.”
Based on that passport, Sean and Audra began to talk about what it would be like to live in Europe and, naturally, their first thoughts turned to Ireland where Sean already has family. They set off on a house-hunting trip last year but quickly met with an unexpected problem.
“Ireland has this incredible housing crisis. We were not interested in Dublin or Galway, we were looking at rural areas, but even there we had realtors telling us that it could be 1-2 years before we could find an apartment! In Dublin, people will queue up for blocks to see a 100m2 flat.”
They also thought that Ireland’s weather might be a limitation.
“Audra asked if I could think of anywhere else,” explains Sean. “Well, in my work travels I’d spent a lot of time in Europe. I told her I adore France. The country is magnificent, the people are lovely, and I’ve always had good experiences. She was intrigued, so we made a second exploratory trip, came to France and she fell in love with it. This was September of last year. The issue was resolved; we would sell our home in Virginia and move to France…”
While it’s exciting for the people making the move, it’s sometimes harder for friends and family to comprehend such a big, bold decision. Sean says their friends in the States split into two camps. “One was ‘Why would you want to move to Europe?’ and the other was ‘Could you take me with you?’. There were no grey areas! People were very intrigued and wanted to discuss it, trying to understand our motivation…”
Having made the decision, Sean and Audra started to take practical steps to make the move happen.
“The first thing we did turned out to be the most invaluable. It was buying a book that was literally titled: ‘Retire In France’. It was written by a NASA engineer who had himself retired here and it was written like an engineer’s notebook. It was a step-by-step guide and it truly was useful as neither of us really understood what was going to be involved, although the fact that I already had EU citizenship probably took about 30-40% of the steps out of there.”
Knowing what has to be done and actually doing it are two different things. Sean and Audra quickly recognized their limitations.
“The decision we made – which we have stuck by throughout this whole adventure – was to hire people who truly understood the process, instead of trying to do it ourselves. We hired an immigration attorney to handle the paperwork associated with my wife’s carte de séjour. Then we hired French Connections HCB to handle the drivers licence and the carte grise for our car. Could we have done these things ourselves? Certainly. Would it have made the process a lot less enjoyable? Absolutely!”
One key aspect of making the right contacts is that good people know other good people. Sean and Audra never had to take a risk in who they asked for help.
“It’s interesting. Every professional association I’ve made here in France has been through another firm. For example, my immigration attorney put me in touch with an insurance company, Fab French Insurance, because both Audra and I needed private health insurance until we qualified for French government health care. In the course of those discussions, Fab French recommended French Connections HCB to deal with our drivers licence and carte grise. French Connections in turn connected me to their trusted accountancy firm. It’s a wonderful little network. Once you gain entry to it, you make invaluable associations with companies that have been personally vouched for.”
Sean’s first points of contact on the friendly French Connections HCB team were Silvia and Annabelle.
“One of the first things we did was to buy a new car for my wife. That in itself is a funny story. Audra had come over to France a couple of weeks before I did. We knew we needed a car right away so, based on her experience of buying cars in the States, Audra had done loads of research and went to a dealership and said, ‘I’d like to take it for a test drive’. This was 11.20 in the morning. The gentleman at the dealership said, ‘I’m sorry, you won’t be able to take it for a test drive because you might not be back before my lunch starts’. Audra was insistent and said, ‘I have cash and I really want to buy a car’ to which the gentleman replied, ‘Then I suggest you come back at 2pm when my lunch is finished’. Needless to say, we went elsewhere!”
Audra and Sean eventually bought a car from a much more professional salesperson at the Renault dealership in Nice, went through all the paperwork and signed everything. Unfortunately, the car registration was mailed to the wrong address. Sean says it taught him that there’s a reason why the word ‘bureaucracy’ has a French root. Fortunately, good things came out of the error. As Sean explains, “In trying to get hold of the car registration for our insurance, Elizabeth at Fab French Insurance said, ‘Don’t even try to deal with this; go to French Connections HCB and see if Annabelle can help you’. So that’s what we did.”
With the car registration and carte grise seamlessly organised by Annabelle and Silvia, Sean had no hesitation in sticking with the French Connections team.
“I had such a good experience with those elements that it was an easy step to reach out to Jenya at French Connections for our healthcare, notably the CPAM registration. So at this point they have taken care of three major elements for me.”
Of course, part of the fun of moving to France is deciding where to live. Sean and Audra had a good look around before narrowing their search down to the two towns, Hyères and Fréjus.
“We started looking at apartments to rent, but there really wasn’t anything that was that intriguing to us until Audra saw a listing online for an historic apartment. She reached out to the gentleman who was leasing it and it was perfect. Originally an 1880 grand hotel that was designed and built exclusively for British tourists who would come and spend their summers here in the South of France, it was converted to private apartments in 1938 and has been maintained in impeccable condition. When the owner’s wife told us that F Scott Fitzgerald had lived here when he wrote Tender Is The Night, we were convinced this was the place for us! “
Sean and Audra moved into their new apartment and were rewarded by a wonderful surprise.
“The apartment came complete with an extraordinary community of neighbours. In the relocation book I originally purchased, the engineer author had warned that Europeans are by nature a reserved people, and that it can take a long time to break into that circle of friends. However, the welcome that we received in this community of French, Italian, Hungarian, German and Dutch residents was beyond our wildest dreams. They have opened their homes to us, invited us to dinner, taken Audra snorkelling and shopping. We were mentally prepared to do a lot of this on our own, and the joy of finding a community like this was completely unexpected.”
For Sean and Audra, their next step is to think about buying a place of their own because they need more space both to accommodate the furniture that they left behind in the US – and also Sean’s cars. Sean laughs. “While some people have children, I have three sports cars in the States. I’ve been looking to buy a private garage, like a commercial garage with three spaces and an office, something like that where I could keep those cars safely. I used to race sports cars so I have trophies, collections, I could put all that stuff in an office. That’s my passion. I absolutely love my cars – and let’s face it, this is a perfect place to drive them.”
When the time comes to import Sean’s cars, he plans to consult Richard Hammond, founder of French Connections HCB and an avid classic car collector himself. Richard has imported cars from all over the world, both for himself and for clients, so knows the process inside out.
Now settled, Sean and Audra have no regrets about their move and are keen to reassure others who might be thinking of doing the same thing.
“Before we made the move, our two biggest concerns were the language barrier and the amount of administration. We took French classes before we came, but in no way did they prepare us. It was rudimentary at best. What has been very lucky for us is the number of people, particularly in the south, who speak English. It is actually very humbling. As an American, you’re just kind of blown away by how sheltered we are in that regard. Language has not proven to be the insurmountable hurdle we thought it was going to be, but we have resolved to hire a tutor and we’re going to learn French, both as a matter of necessity and out of respect to the country we live in.”
As far as dealing with complex administrative processes, Sean will continue to hand them over to the experts.
“There is no doubt that the amount of admin here is pretty amazing and the processes are definitely not what we’re used to in the States. Our drivers licence is a good example. Virginia is one of the 14 states in the US where France allows direct exchange of drivers licences, so we didn’t have to take a test or anything like that. It all seemed quite straightforward. We gathered together the documentation for our application and when I handed the file to Annabelle she said, ‘This is perfect, you have everything you need here. You should see your new drivers licence in 6 months.’ Six months? I mean, are they hand-drawing them? I don’t want to be one of those people who says ‘In the States we do it this way’ but literally they would hand you a laminated drivers licence then and there! That’s why, recognising the complexities, I would always prioritise hiring people who understand the system.”
Sean is expansive in his appreciation of the French Connections HCB team.
“Working with French Connections HCB has been the pivotal decision in making our life complete in terms of facilitating all the things we need. It’s one thing to get here and it’s another thing to live here. French Connections is responsible for the ‘live here’ part of that. They helped take care of all those things and the people have been extraordinary. Everybody I have ever interacted with on the team has just been proactive, concerned, informative, demonstrating their expertise every day. In a service business, it’s the people who make the difference, that’s your lifeline. Whatever chemistry or magic Richard has wielded to put that team together, he has done a superb job because they really are the best. I don’t just mean the best at what they do; they are also some of the best service people I have ever worked with. French Connections HCB has exceeded every expectation.”
If you are thinking of moving to France or are already here and need help with visas, car registration, French health care or setting up a business, you can book an initial 30 minute consultation with Richard here. The consultation costs 90 euros but that amount is deducted from the first service you book with us.
We look forward to helping you find the same joy as Sean and Audra in your move to France.