My flight into Egypt

Thousands of Britons are relocating abroad, with France our favoured destination. But after three disastrous attempts to move there, Robert Twigger is heading for a more exotic alternative
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The Independent Online

I once tried to buy a village in the Tarn region of France for £100,000. This was in 1995. I found ten fellow dreamers, and we made great plans for the ten houses available. One house, though, was bigger and had olives and grapes growing in the garden. Everyone wanted this house. Soon the biggest problem became deciding who really deserved it. In the end the problem solved itself - another buyer snapped up the village whilst we dithered

I once tried to buy a village in the Tarn region of France for £100,000. This was in 1995. I found ten fellow dreamers, and we made great plans for the ten houses available. One house, though, was bigger and had olives and grapes growing in the garden. Everyone wanted this house. Soon the biggest problem became deciding who really deserved it. In the end the problem solved itself - another buyer snapped up the village whilst we dithered

As advertisers know, it isn't things in themselves that attract us, but the zone of possibility they inhabit. A man buys an expensive 4WD vehicle rather than an adventure holiday because the 4WD gets him into the zone of many possible adventures, rather than one real adventure. Where you live could be a huge zone of possibility. I write travel books. When I'm not travelling I could live anywhere. So why am I stuck in England? Surely I can find a better zone of possibility than the M40 corridor with its easy access to Bicester retail village and Legoland? I've got a better excuse than most: if where I live is inspiring, I can earn more. A Year in Provence sells better than a year in Swindon. So I owe it to my family to live abroad. But where?

For a long time it had to be France. My wife is Egyptian and they have a thing about France too. For me it was connected to teenage memories of Pschitt lemonade bottles, "flipper", Gauloises and mobylettes with the engine on the front wheel, an indelible mix of romance and nostalgia, a pure zone of possibility. But finally I realise I'm beaten. Now I'm shifting my gaze. In October, inshallah, we will be moving to Egypt.

It wasn't always so. I've tried hard to realise that dream of French living, preferably involving an agricultural product of some kind - olives, or grapes, or, er, olives and grapes. With such vagueness in mind I applied for a special grant allowing a 2 per cent interest loan if one bought a farm in France and was under 35. I was in it with two friends. My wife-to-be had a job in London and refused to join in. Our plan was to start an Aikido farm providing residential Aikido courses as well as a little non-specific farming involving olives and grapes. We crossed the channel, aiming to team up with a top French Aikido teacher who lived in Valbonne, possibly one of the most expensive villages in the Riviera. Very close to Cannes, it's the kind of place famous Hollywood directors decamp to for a little atmosphere during the film festival. We had some money but it was quickly running out. The cheapest accommodation was house-sitting the bijou apartment of a Japanese airhostess. We had to take her huge mastiff for walks twice a day and rebuild her loft as "rent". When we found a farm it was a tumbled down ruin on a stony hillside. Then we were hit by the forms we needed to fill in to get our loan. It seems feeble to be ultimately defeated by bureaucracy, but there were mitigating factors. Some examples: constantly being mock-mounted by the mastiff whilst we tried to sip drinks on the roof terrace undermined our confidence, crashing into the back of the top teacher's car in a rainstorm in Nice, being evicted from the airhostess's house for poor building work and being reduced to camping on a traffic island on the busiest intersection south of Grasse. All night the thundering lorries raked our tent with their lights, veering off at the last minute, filling me with fear that a 12-wheeler might just keep on trucking right over our fragile Captain Scott-like dwelling. France 1, Escapist Dreamer 0.

The next attempt was a few years later. It was to be the most serious stab of all. The idea was ridiculously simple. I was writing a book but why did I have to do it in a cramped flat in South London? We could hire a people carrier, me, the wife who refused to join me on the earlier debacle and our 8-month-old son. We would drive aimlessly around southern France, staying with friends, or at cheap hotels. Moreover, I could write during the day, whilst looking for a place to call home.

It was the spring weekend that the clocks went back, or forward, something I always rely on other people or the radio to tell me. But we were isolated auto-nomads listening to our favourite cassettes, so we didn't realise we were an hour late for everything.

The people carrier proved a bit expensive so I settled for a Peugeot 106. Instead of grandiose notions of parking the people carrier at the places on Michelin maps with the outstanding view symbol, opening the sliding door and tip-tapping at the lap top whilst imbibing the panorama, we slogged over curiously cold mountain passes anxious for a cosy hotel room. My son cried a lot and didn't like the nomadic aspect of nomadism at all.

The time lag disoriented me. Shops seemed to shut before noon. I grew sullen at hotels for stopping breakfast an hour early. Friends were slightly peeved when we breezed in a little late. I mean we thought we were a little late, so add that to the additional hour and we were very late. But no one said anything.

We had very high hopes of finding a place near Coursay, a stunning village on a hill top about an hour from Toulouse. Or two hours in our case.

"The road you come in on is said to be the most beautiful drive in the world," Michael had said over the phone. Not just France - the world. I could feel The Zone beckoning. Michael was the son of a family friend. He had a French wife and kids and did web design. He seemed to have landed slap bang in the middle of The Zone. Coursay had everything - a fantastic square, a fabulous four-storey house that Michael had converted himself from a £20,000 ruin, a tiny café across from his house where we drank endless cognacs and coffee on a tab. Even being two hours late for lunch hadn't caused more than a rather muted reception for our proffered bottle of wine (for some reason all the shops were shut when we tried to buy it).

All was sunny and wonderful until I saw the placards around the town square. For there, in big letters, on plastic sealed signs screwed to the generic barn doors with "Interdit" signs you see in such squares, my friend Michael and his wife were accused of corruption, nepotism, intriguing, dishonesty and lying. Michael had an enemy, who had gone public. His next door neighbour. This man, a Belgian property developer had devoted his twilight years to destroying Michael's life, simply because Michael had built a terrace, well within the law, which overlooked the neighbour's terrace. After blackening Michael's name at every bar, the man had put up the libellous posters. Then when Michael went to court and won, the evil Belgian had appealed. And so it went on.

While we were there the Belgian placed a life-size bust of King Leopold II, the man who raped the Congo, on his terrace to glare down on my friend and his family. One day the Belgian carefully broke eggs and put flour on the statue and called the police, claiming Michael had done it. My friend says even the police viewed him with suspicion, right until the moment he pointed out no one can throw an egg 15 yards so that it lands with an unbroken yoke.

It was a joke, but a sinister one. The posters were having an effect and now people in the village were saying no smoke without fire. The appeals were expensive and went on for ages. My friend was growing a stiff upper lip and refused to tear the posters down, "It's what the bastard wants me to do". And in between viewing the hate posters Michael showed me dream properties under £10,000 - our initial reason for coming to the village. Cheap but not cheerful, the place was a nightmare. Until Michael arrived, this Belgian was the outsider. Now Michael was the town scapegoat. As we passed villagers, I'd whisper to him, "friend or foe?" because they always were one or the other.

When we arrived at the airport we were still an hour late and the plane had just taken off. France 2, Dreamer 0.

But it wasn't just these nasty experiences, France was losing its romantic edge. There were roundabouts instead of endless long roads, toast in hotels instead of croissant. Citroen DSs and 2CVs were gone, and even those delivery vans that look as if they're made from corrugated iron were getting scarcer. And house prices! Forget a village for a 100K, now that won't get you a villa.

There were other countries. Other places to escape to. Spain was tempting. Everyone said Barcelona was best but even before I hit the famed downtown area I got lost for hours in a tunnel system somewhere out near the docks. I got in the wrong lane and a psychopath in a Seat started honking, flashing and waving a crazed fist at me. Then, just when I thought I'd made it out of the tunnel system and lost my tormentor, I'd be popping down into another interminable underground hole and he'd be right there, coming alongside waving his hairy forearm like Kenneth Noye on the M25 at midnight. No thanks.

There was always Cyprus, or Beirut, or Melbourne - the world's a pretty big place when you try to make it your oyster. But the main problem with the rest of the world is that it just hasn't got enough of whatever it is that France has, or used to have.

Romance perhaps? Then one day, when I mentioned a hazy plan to do a book about the desert, my wife suggested Egypt. After all, the world's largest desert borders the Cairo suburb where my wife's family lives. In fact Carrefour, the French hypermarket chain has just encroached a bit more on the desert by building their first Egyptian outlet. At this stage my wife needed as much persuading as I did. When we next visited the country we made a trip to the vast hanger-like interior and, yes, it had that genuine French supermarché smell.

I already loved the madness of Egypt and the humour of the people, there was plenty to write about, but when you're searching for The Zone you consider other things. Lower costs equals more possibilities. France was too expensive, which was one reason why it was no longer in The Zone. Egypt was cheap, that was important. A three-bedroom flat in the downtown area could be had for £15K. No matter that lead levels in the air were between 5 and 25 times the WHO recommended minimum. Virgil drank from a lead mug (the poet, not the one in Thunderbirds) and he lived until he was ... 51. Suddenly the suburbs looked more attractive, still cheap, and close to the Nile. No matter that public spaces have all been privatised - if you want what an English park offers you have to join a club (which isn't too expensive). The best clubs had waiting lists, but a handy relative could get us to the top of the list. Slowly, potential problems seemed to dissolve.

I had to admit that a part of the attraction of Egypt was the way good connections could overcome bureaucracy and inefficiency. Buying a second-hand car in Spain involves assembling 13 separate pieces of paper. But with a well-connected family in Egypt, the officials are related to you. They want to help, not hinder. And then there's baksheesh, which is appalling, until with a few well-aimed banknotes you make an intractable problem disappear for ever.

There were also schools to consider. In Egypt, state schools are effectively privatised since the teachers refuse to impart crucial exam information unless the children pay extra for it. Private schools are at least more honest about it. Things suddenly looked very good when we found the marvellous British School in Maadi which somehow combines the charm of an English country primary school with being in one of the biggest cities in the world.

My wife was convinced but I needed more evidence. Of romance perhaps. One day I set off at about 6am, walking along the Nile, making the most of the pre-rush hour calm. On the river I saw a two masted sandal, a huge commercial boat with sails and no engine. I walked fast along the river, past the intricate market gardens on the bank of the Nile that make English allotments look stiff and unimaginative, I tried to keep pace with the boat that was beating against the current but it slowly drew away, sailing with its cargo to Africa. The great lateen sails were enough to convince me, filled as they were with the same constant breeze that had taken the Pharaohs up to Thebes.

This place was The Zone alright. At that moment it was perfect. Perhaps in October we'll have changed our minds, but somehow I don't think so.

Robert Twigger is the author of 'Angry White Pyjamas' and 'Being A Man'. Next year his book about crossing the Rocky Mountains in a birchbark canoe will be published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson

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