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Why I chose... Seasonal sessions in Wales and France

Dr Zara Bieler explains how she took the decision to work as a locum GP in Wales and France for six months a year

Name Dr Zara Bieler

Title Locum GP

Location Monmouthshire-Herefordshire border, Wales, and Provence, France

Background

I started my career in molecular biology research but turned off that path to become a doctor. I finished GP training in 2003 and am now entering my 10th year as a freelance. 

Just before starting as a junior doctor, on holiday with friends in France, I met the man who was to become my husband. Back in Belfast, working as a junior house officer, I was able to structure my time to visit him for short periods and we decided to get married.

While my colleagues were applying for their second round of house jobs (FY2), I was busy searching for information on how to get a junior doctor job in France.

Two communities, two residences, two schools, two sets of walking boots

I could find no-one who had worked in France as a UK junior, although I knew the European law allowed me to do so. Eventually I went over to job-hunt in the country. After many phone calls and letters I was offered a post in orthopedics at Aix-en-Provence hospital. 

I continued my training posts in London and France and decided to make a career in general practice. My year started with six months in the town of Saint Maximin and ended in a busy multicultural practice in Wembley, north west London. I validated all my training with the UK authorities, and my 18 months in France were all accepted as good work experience.

Once I qualified, I returned to Provence to start locuming. Work was easy to find and I was relieved to be finally living in one place. My husband was busy with his vineyard and I was able to organise my time to enjoy harvest, and help him make the blending decisions on how to structure each wine.

In 2005 we sold the vineyard and bought two places: a sheep farm in Wales on the Monmouthshire-Herefordshire border, and a smaller house in Suzette. My first child was 13 months old and I wanted her to have the chance to be bilingual. We fixed up the French house during holidays and I established regular locum work in Wales during the rest of the year.

But my husband was missing his vineyard and decided to buy another one near our French home. From August to Christmas we live in France for the harvest and put the kids into the local village school, and from January to August we are back in Wales.   

Two communities, two residences, two schools, two sets of walking boots: we spend a block of time in each place so we can feel settled, but not stale. Both communities welcome us, and working in France is a fast track to not being viewed as a tourist.

Advantages

Being freelance fits me perfectly. I work for who I want, when I want. Local practices book me by email. Work is easy to find. Local practices appreciate seeing me coming back and trust me as an experienced locum. I never travel more than 30 minutes to work and traffic jams don’t exist unless I’m stuck behind a tractor.

I take a back step from medicine during the grape harvest and again for a week in mid-November. In March in the UK, I can take time to help our neighbours with the lambing or just get my head down working for the local rural practices.

I have two daughters who are bilingual and bicultural - my three year old speaks fluent franglais. I teach once a week in the village primary schools, English for the French kids and vice versa. Having a passion for languages and teaching led me to ask if I could teach on the Anglo-French Medical Society weekend course of medical French. I loved it and was able to pass on my tips and practical experience of having worked in France and learned equally from colleagues on the course.

Challenges

Language is key to the success of a decision like this, and my French consultation skills can feel rusty when starting back in France - luckily it comes back quickly. I am not bilingual and my French can raise a smile but patients and doctors have been very accepting. Occasionally I can be perplexed by the French patient’s history but with some tactical questions we get there.

I need to keep track of changes in both systems. I can look puzzled when UK colleagues spin off into the latest abbreviations. MPIG, is that a new strain of swine flu? I have to be organised with my appraisal and revalidation information as France is not currently asking for this.

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