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French Leave

In 2001, just as Ireland was beginning to get rich, I had an almost premonitory feeling that it was also beginning to get into trouble.

Money was sparking intense social competition, a wild shopping spree for what often seemed like superfluous goodies, and it was also sparking a drug-fuelled crime spree that was changing the character, the very soul of the country.

On the receiving end of a few minor crimes, I began to feel gradually but increasingly alienated from the country that had educated and nurtured me, but was now morphing into a place almost unrecognisable.

There must, I thought, be somewhere else out there. Somewhere calmer, saner, slower, somewhere that's still a pleasant, peaceful place to live?

And immediately France came to mind.

A country I already knew well, its largely rural, tranquil and balanced lifestyle beckoned in a way that required little thought.

Within months, I had left my job, sold my Irish house and set up home in a tiny Normandy village, experiencing homesickness for nothing bar the people in my immediate Irish circle, the close friends who, for any emigrant, are the one thing that can't be shipped with all other precious possessions.

But we remained constantly in touch even as I set to work making new friends in Normandy. The French have a reputation for coolness, and superficially this is justified: it takes a long time to get to know them well, to get under the skin of their country and society. But I worked at it, joining clubs, teaching English, doing all the things every emigrant should do to assimilate ... and eventually it began to work.

Eventually, I got to know enough people to start living the lifestyle of the travel brochures, to start sitting out on my patio or theirs over long, languid lunches in the sun, to relax in the knowledge there was someone I could ring in an emergency, in short, to settle in.

Deep breaths were drawn, and the contrast with my previous frantic life could hardly have been greater; it was rejuvenating.

And then, after four years or more, irony struck.

A new couple moved into my village, a totally delightful, warm, wonderful couple with whom I bonded instantly, and we became great friends.

But they weren't French at all; they were English.

Suddenly, I was rediscovering the joy of speaking English, the communal reference points, the jokes that the French just don't get. It's not true that France doesn't have a sense of humour, but it is true that humour is something that defines nationality, and I strangely began to start feeling more Irish rather than more French -- which, up to then, had been the idea.

Nonetheless, I now spoke fluent French, cooked French, thought from a French angle, could no longer imagine such activities as drinking in pubs, gasped whenever I revisited Ireland to hear the swearing, gaze astonished at all the tat, the tackiness that seemed to be taking over.

Ireland now seemed to have only one topic of conversation -- property prices -- it was drinking wildly and cocaine was trendy.

On each visit I felt more foreign, on each return to France I felt more French.

Meanwhile, I was writing a book about life there. I'm not great with computers, and so my gratitude was enormous when the English couple offered help: Tim was a whizz with computers and as the book progressed he became a treasured, invaluable contributor to it.

The book, French Leave, describes life in France and how, after a decade there, I now face a decision as to whether to stay for life, or return to Ireland.

It's a difficult decision with many aspects, and so the publisher Liberties Press has set up a Facebook poll on which Irish natives and emigrants alike can vote or comment on what attractions Ireland might still offer.

On the very day the book was published, my friend Tim died of a heart attack. Which leaves me grappling with a whole new element of living in France: dying there.

Now, for the first time, I am coming to realise that where you live is less important than how you live, that it's not where you're from that matters, it's who you are -- anywhere.

Tim wasn't French, but like me he adored France and hugely enriched life there. And so, now as I write, I get to find out whether the French reciprocate our love for them, or whether in a crisis there's nothing more important than being among your old friends, with your own people, grieving in your own language?

It's a defining moment, and crucial lessons, both personal and cultural, may well be learned from it.