Wednesday, January 18, 2017

TRUFFLE MARKET IN PICS - JANUARY, 2017

First, the guy with The Nose checks out what the harvesters bring. They shake hands. They discuss. The aroma when one of the harvesters opened his container and presented his goods to The Nose, plus the fact that very little trimming of his harvested truffles was required, caused Cathey to choose him as our target.
Preparing for inspection...
Each and every truffle is inspected individually. The Nose slices off a small bit. The guy on the right assists.
The Nose takes a sniff.
Sniffing is serious stuff.


Our friend Nicola confirms with The Nose, it's all about the aroma. Little else matters.
Those that pass inspection are weighed and recorded to add to the report of the national harvest. Those that fail are put aside. There is no discussion. The Nose has the final word. Those that pass are put in a sealed sack to prevent hanky-panky.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the market you can buy a half dozen eggs sealed with a bit of truffle for 13.50 euros.
Or you can buy a jug of quite fine local whiskey for 50 euros. Other items for sale include little treelets that will grow into the type that harbor truffles, truffle infused butter and brie, saffron products, and an importer of beers - including Coors Light.
At the appointed hour, the scales come out and the sealed sacks are opened.
The crowd waits behind a rope line for one of the chevaliers to fire off a blank, the rope line drops, and we all rush to our chosen harvester to get the best ones on offer.
Our truffle, about two-thirds the size of a medium egg, cost 23 euros. In the States it would easily bring four times as much.
Cathey shaved it all. No saving it. Buy it and use it.
I prefer mine with eggs and a bit of Toulouse sausage.
Cathey prefers hers with simple, fresh pasta.
And so it goes in the community hall of the town of Villeneuve Minervois until the next market there in early February. We may choose to go. If not, see you next year.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

BREAKING NEWS - US ELECTION HACKER REVEALED

US President-elect Donald Trump revealed today that E.T. had hacked the US elections. And yes, the goal was to get Trump elected.

"E.T. is smart," said Trump. "He knew that I was the only President who could keep the world safe from the aliens who President Whitmore first defeated in 1996."

When a reporter suggested that E.T. and Independence Day were works of fiction, Trump was obstinate.

"Vladimir Putin has assured me that Independence Day was a documentary. And he showed me E.T.'s long-form birth certificate," Trump continued. "Who are you going to believe, a West Coast liberal like  Spielberg or a patriotic American like Vlad?"


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

DEFEATING THE RIGHT - A EUROPEAN LESSON

Third parties have not had much success in the United States lately. Perot threw enough money at the Presidency to make things interesting in 1992. And Nader proved that a cranky gadfly could attract enough votes to be troublesome in 2000, maybe even influencing the result. But in a year when the nominees of both major American political parties were as popular as Aedes mosquitoes, the performance of the Bobbsey Twins (Green Stein and Libertarian Johnson) may have set third party politics back for years to come. They were terrible spokespeople for their causes.

Europeans, on the other hand, are quite familiar with multi-party elections leading to multi-party governments. In Iceland, the party that came in third in the national elections has been asked to form a government because the two parties that received more votes couldn't get it done. And I can't wait to see how Iceland's Pirate Party governs. (You can't make this stuff up.) But when I talk about a lesson that the American Left can learn from the Europeans, shouting Aaaaarh and raising the Skull & Crossbones is not what I had in mind. I had in mind the manner in which the French kept Marine Le Pen's far right National Front out of major regional offices recently.

CAVEAT: Be aware that I'm relatively new to the study of French politics, I'm therefore by no means an ultimate authority, and that I get most of my information from English language sites.

How was the party of the Far Right in France thwarted? The opposition Left quite openly decided to make sacrifices for the sake of the country. Novel concept.

France periodically holds elections that determine the legislative and executive bodies in its thirteen regions. Initial balloting determines which parties reach a threshold that makes them eligible to participate in a runoff. There were three main parties jockeying for power after the first round of voting in the most recent regionals - the Left (Socialist), the Center-Right (Republican), and the Far Right (National Front). In that first round, Marine Le Pen's National Front was a big winner. To be clear, they only received 28% of the total vote, but that was a record for the party and in two regions in particular they were almost certain to win in a three-party race for control.

What did the Socialists do? They decided not to run candidates in the two regions that threatened a National Front victory.

What was the outcome? The Republicans won both regions, the only two regions in which the National Front polled more than 40% of the vote in the runoff, enough to have won if the Socialists had participated.

In other words, the Socialists blocked the Far Right from taking regional power by ceding those regions without a fight to the Republicans, regions in which they would have lost anyway. So instead of five Socialist regions, six Republican regions, and two National Front regions, France now has five Socialist and eight Republican regions. Hardly a big win for the Socialists but an important denial of a power base to the National Front if your politics are left of center.

How does such a strategy convert to the American two party system? Oddly enough, we have a model - the Tea Party and the Republicans. For all of the huffing and puffing and primary challenges pitting the Tea Party against Establishment Republicans, in the vast number of cases once the primaries are over, the Republicans unite. They decide that their internecine squabbles pale beside a possible victory by the Left. On the other hand, it is clear that when Democrats suffer divisive primaries, the losers tend to vote for third parties or stay home. How do we know this? Look at the numbers.

In recent contested Presidential elections - I don't consider Bush v Kerry contested in any real sense - Democrats won by a popular vote margin of from 500,000 to 9,000,000 votes.  The lower winning margins, Gore and Hillary, came in elections during which the Democrats experienced considerable pushback from the Progressive wing of their party - Nader and Sanders. And Gore and Hillary lost in the Electoral College. The circumstances were different but the result was the same. On election day, the bitter battles over policy purity had taken their toll. The Democratic Party did not unite. George W. became President and Trump will become President. And any Democrat who thinks that those results were reasonable and proper for America is a nihilist, not a Democrat.

But winning the popular vote means nothing if you don't win the electoral vote, you say? OK. Take five of the major Rust Belt states, where this year's Presidential election might indeed have been lost by the Democrats. It is true that Republicans gained a few hundred thousand votes over 2012. But it is also true that Democrats lost nearly 1,500,000 votes in those states. Something over 1,000,000 voters who had voted Democratic in 2012 either stayed home or voted third party in just those five states.

Were either Gore or Hillary perfect candidates. Of course not. But might Gore have listened to his intelligence briefings and prevented 9/11? Had 9/11 happened, would Gore have broken the Middle East by taking his eye off Bin Laden and going after Saddam's nonexistent WMDs? Is Trump the President we need to replace Scalia and 100 federal judges, putting any number of our freedoms at risk, the freedoms that those folks who stayed home on election day probably cherish even more than those who voted?

Although both the Socialists and the Republicans will continue to struggle for the hearts and minds of the French electorate, both parties also had the ultimate welfare of their people at heart at election time. Why don't we Democrats?

Can't we all just get along?








Tuesday, December 20, 2016

FRENCH VISA AND HEALTH INSURANCE FOR AMERICANS

The most expensive item in an American family's budget may be health insurance. But many Americans have no understanding of the true cost of their insurance because it's included in their employment package. Folks simply don't think about how much their employer may be reducing their salaries when factoring in insurance costs.

Before I retired, my employer paid for my health insurance but I had to pay to insure my wife. The cost, taken out of my every paycheck, came to about $6,000 annually. And even with insurance, there were co-pays and other out of pocket expenses. We were reasonably healthy (and still are, knock wood), but we each take a few common prescription medications - for blood pressure and cholesterol and the like, nothing exotic or costly. Even so, with regular visits to the doctor, periodic lab work, the drugs, and the occasional illness or injury, we normally spent an additional several thousand dollars annually in the States over and above the cost of the insurance.

The French do not recognize the American public health insurance plan for retired seniors known as Medicare. There is no reciprocal agreement between our governments. This becomes a problem for Americans when applying for a long-stay visa leading to a permanent residency in France. We must demonstrate that we won't be a burden on the French social system and therefore, before the French embassy or consulate that covers our particular region of the United States will approve our visa request, we must demonstrate among other things that we have a certain level of health insurance. Coverage must equal at least 30,000 euros without a deductible and must include repatriation. A coverage letter (and not just an insurance card) must be presented at the time of application in the US naming the insured(s), length of coverage, amount of coverage, and so on.

Rules change periodically. I am not a professional in the field. This post simply reflects my personal experiences. Research for yourself. Ask questions.

You can buy two types of health insurance to meet the requirements for a long-stay visa. Full coverage health insurance, similar to that which most folks have in the States, or travel insurance.

A number of internationally recognized companies offer full service health insurance for expat Americans in France. AXA, Cigna, Bupa, and BC/BS are well known companies offering plans to Americans but there are a raft of others. Their plans are structured similar to the way that plans are structured in the States with different levels of coverage, different deductibles and co-pays, and different riders and optional benefits. Health status will be questioned and certain pre-existing conditions and prescriptions may be excluded. Coverage may exclude the USA/North America or be world-wide. There may be age limitations. Evaluating plans is not simple stuff...not quite rocket science but not easily understood at first glance. Apples to oranges to pecans in many cases.

Travel insurance from companies like UnitedHealthcare Global and Seven Corners is simple by comparison. You don't pay very much money and you don't get very much coverage. Because it's travel insurance, lost luggage and trip interruption may be covered. But you are moving to France, not spending two weeks on a barge on the Loire, so that's not a very big deal. What can be a big deal is that pre-existing conditions are almost never covered. Your everyday meds are not covered. Regular checkups are not covered. Fall down the stairs and break your leg? Covered. Get caught in the rain and contract pneumonia? Covered. But for most folks who are not accident prone and who have the good sense to stay inside when it's raining, travel insurance will seldom come into play. You'll be paying full retail for your healthcare without much of a backstop.

The cost differential between full-service insurance and travel insurance is significant. For one year of coverage, a couple that we know who are just past retirement age has recently been quoted $3,000 for travel insurance for their first year in France, $25,000 for full-service. Not a typo. $25,000 for two people for health insurance for one year. After the sticker shock wears off, how do you make your choice?

Here's how we helped our friends choose.

1. We took a list of their prescription meds to our local pharmacy in France and asked for the cost of a one month's supply of all of the meds on the list. At full retail without insurance, the extensive list came to about $200 per month - $2,400 per year.

2. I recently had a minor surgical procedure in France. Nothing life threatening but I had an MRI, spent one night in the hospital, had lab work done, had to pay a surgeon and an anesthesiologist, had an EKG and other tests, and had a follow-up visit with the surgeon for a minor in-office procedure without anesthesia. Total at retail? Under $3,000.

3. If I'm not mistaken, at the first of the year the full price for a simple visit to a general practitioner to have prescriptions renewed and a quick checkup will rise to about $27.50. Visits to specialists run from about $100 to $150. As an example, a recent series of visits to a podiatrist for my wife to be fitted for shoe inserts cost us about $115. That amount fully included the cost of the inserts plus an initial visit to measure for the them, a second visit to fit them, a third visit to check on an area of chafing, and a fourth visit to fit some extra padding.

In the end, our friends agreed that there was no reason to pay $25,000 when the cost of care is so reasonable here. If a new illness was discovered during their initial year, not a pre-existing condition, the travel insurance would cover them. Otherwise, it seemed that saving over $20,000 would more than provide a buffer for the actual cost of care that they were likely to incur that travel insurance would not cover.

So our friends bought travel insurance from a reputable company and will apply for residency as soon as they arrive. Once granted residency, they will apply for their cartes vitale. But that's a story for another day.

I repeat, rules change periodically. I am not a professional in the field. This post simply reflects my personal experiences. Research for yourself. Ask questions.



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

TIPS NOT IN THE GUIDES FOR US EXPATS IN FRANCE

You're thinking of spending some time in France, either buying a holiday home or moving over full time. You've read a few books. You've bookmarked a few websites. You're proud of yourself. You are well prepared.

Not...

Important things, things that you need to know in order to live your life, do not appear in any guidebook. But saddle up, friends. I'm here to fill in the blanks.

1. They bake great bread here in France. Abundant variety. Baguettes warm every morning in every town. The breakfast croissants and pain au chocolat are buttery/flaky wonderful. Specialty loaves abound and each deserves serious consideration. But it's what you won't find that's frustrating. You won't find a decent bagel. You won't find even a half-decent bagel. (They say bagel bakeries have opened in Paris. I can offer no proof.) You won't find a properly cheap, squishy hot dog roll in which to put the Nathan's hot dog that you won't find here, either. So be prepared. Once your delight at all of the new breads that you have at your disposal has waned, you'll be left with a longing for that loaf of Wonder Bread that you thought that you could do without.

2. While we're on the subject of food, Americans can say good-bye to roast beef. French beef is not feed lot beef, at least not in the well-marbled, juicy, and tender sense to which Americans are accustomed. Chewy and not cut for roasting. Cooked hams for holidays? Nowhere to be found. Whole turkeys? Only for Christmas. Our Thanksgiving turkey has to be special ordered and costs the equivalent of $6.00 a pound or so. And not only is there no Wonder Bread, there's no bologna to fry either. Heinz yellow mustard? Yes. Bologna? No. But believe it or not, there are compensations. The lamb tastes like lamb should taste. The pork tastes like pork should taste. BACON! And there's duck confit, duck breast seared on the grill, and for those who can live with the backstories, foie gras from heaven and veal in all of its incarnations. Did I mention BACON!

3. OK. Enough about food. Lets talk about right angles. You know what right angles are. They are the angles at which walls meet other walls, floors, and ceilings. Except in France. Oh, I suppose that new builds are squared up. But who wants a new build in an historic village with a 1,000 year-old church? You want history. You want stone. And stone walls seldom meet tile floors at right angles. And stone walls bulge at such odd angles that putting up a shelf can be a real adventure. In fact, just drilling into a stone wall to set one hook to hang a picture can lead to disaster. So if you do buy a stone house, buy a really good drill with a percussion setting. If you don't know what that means, don't buy a stone house. If you do know what a percussion setting is, here's another tip. When you're drilling into that stone wall, through paint and plaster and God knows what else, start up your vacuum cleaner and hold the wand under the hole as you are drilling it. The vacuum will suck up the dust and you won't have a mess to clean up.

4. You can't buy aspirin the the supermarket in France. But you can get a prescription for aspirin and the French healthcare system will reimburse you. So see a doctor and get a prescription. I have. Even so, every time family comes to visit us from the States, I have them bring a big bottle of low-dose. We ask family to bring Lactaid, too. I once asked a pharmacist how the French deal with being lactose intolerant. She said,"They don't eat cheese." Word. Make a list of the OTC and prescription drugs that you require to get through the day, vitamins and supplements included, then find out if they are readily available, or available at all, before heading for this side of the Pond.

5. Quality clothing and shoes are expensive in France. Very expensive. While living in the States, I did most of my clothes shopping online on sites like LL Bean and Cabela's. So now, when I need jeans or mocs, I have them sent to a family member to bring over when they next visit. (Are you detecting the trend? Turn family members into shipping agents. There's a rationale that might just convince them. If they bring you stuff from the States in their luggage, they'll have room to take back presents when they head back home.) But there's also a French answer for the discerning shopper. Nationwide, pre-planned, deep discount sales. In 2017, winter clothing will go on sale from January 11 through February 21. No foolin'. It's on the national calendar. 30% - 50% discounts are the norm. 70% discounts are not uncommon as the sales wind down. Stores are not allowed to bring in stock specifically for the sales so you get the stuff that they normally keep in stock. (Wink, wink...) Summer sales run in June and July. That's when I buy $40 sandals for $18. And we all wear sandals here. Please, no socks...

6. Quick takes:
  • Bring more than one pair of really good walking shoes. If you're not walking everywhere, whether in the cities or the countryside. you're not making the most of it. Great walking tours and walking trails everywhere. Take advantage.
  • Sort out your electronics. Find out about SIM cards for your phone. Make certain that your chargers work on the more robust European voltage. And one size does not fit all. British plugs are different from French. Don't think you'll find adapters and chargers after you get here. You won't.
  • Wine can cost anywhere from the equivalent of $1.50 to $100 a bottle and more. Forget the price. Try them all. Ask questions. Buy what you like best and can afford. We seldom pay more than $10 a bottle for wine to serve to company and we've had some true connoisseurs at our table, enjoying every sip.
  • Oil changes for your car cost $80 or more. There are no discount, in-and-out, cheap alternatives. Do it yourself or pay the freight.
Finally, don't listen to advice. It's France. Experience it for yourself. There's no place quite like it.

(This post was published with some edits as a guest blog on the site www.renestance.com)




Thursday, December 1, 2016

OPEN LETTER TO MY REPUBLICAN FRIENDS




Dear Republicans,
Although no longer resident in the United States, my wife and I follow the news closely. We do so by faithfully scanning internet sites that aggregate news and opinion. We believe that this gives us a broad view of current events from a variety of perspectives since Flipboard, for instance, draws from sites as diverse as Fox News and Huffington Post, CNN and Al Jazeera and Business Insider and Forbes. And every November, we vote.

My point? I’m at arm’s length from the hurly-burly of the 24-hour news cycle but I’m still a reasonably knowledgeable news junkie. I am aware of the outlier sites, the ‘alt right’ and ‘progressive’ sites that claim to be presenting the real skinny on current events. I just don’t pay them much mind. Take my opinions for what they are worth but understand that they are the product of serious thought and not from having drunk someone else’s Kool-Aid. 

Trump is my President just as GWB was my President and Obama was yours. I say this even though Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 both lost the popular vote. I say this not because I think that Trump’s election win was illegitimate. I say this because I am tired of hearing Republicans talking about the will of the people. As of today, 2 million more people voted for Hillary than voted for Trump. The will of the people has been thwarted by a Constitutional compromise reached over 200 years ago for reasons that had nothing to do with protecting the democratic process and a great deal to do with keeping slave-holding states in the union. 

And speaking of losing the popular vote, where is the consistency in claiming that you lost the popular vote due to massive voter fraud, then damning Stein in a series of late night tweets for calling for a recount in the closest battleground states? And speaking of late night tweets, if SNL skits and actors speaking to his Vice President from a Broadway stage enrage Trump, wait until he attends a G12 summit and real heavyweights get on his case. 

But far worse, Trump is blaming the media for ‘inciting’ protest marches. He’s called in media bigwigs to excoriate them. After using the media as a puppet to provide hundreds of millions of dollars of free publicity, the worm turns. And we know what sort of leaders around the world, as their first acts in office, attempt to cow or muzzle a free press.

Trump continues to make it known that he doesn’t want the US to be spending money to address climate change at the same time that he claims to understand the importance of the availability of clean, potable water. It’s hard to reconcile those two positions. How do you protect the southern Florida aquifer from salt water incursion without addressing rising ocean levels? How do you secure potable water for the American Southwest without doing what’s necessary to ameliorate atmospheric heating conditions that have led to severe and persistent drought? And how will Pence, a notorious denier of climate change, effect Trump’s thinking?

And how can you refuse national security briefings and tell Pakistani’s head of state over the phone that he’s a terrific guy? 

So while I am willing to give Trump a chance, I am not encouraged. He has a steep learning curve to climb. He needs to demonstrate the seriousness due the Presidency.

Let’s see if the equity markets move as high as they moved under Obama. Let’s see if the dollar strengthens against the euro even half as much as it did under Obama. Let’s see if the annual deficit is reduced by the same measure and as inexorably as it has been reduced under Obama. Let’s see if he builds a wall and makes Mexico pay for it.

And for all the fear of terrorism on our shores, let’s see if the record under Obama of fewer Americans annually dying from terrorism than dying from having appliances fall on them remains intact.

Or will Trump follow the legacies of his Republican predecessors. GWB was President when the worst recession since the Great Depression began as measured by decline in GDP. Eisenhower was President at the beginning of the second worst. Nixon was President at the beginning of the third worst. Reagan was President at the beginning of the fourth worst. Republicans all. Now Trump…

I’ll be watching. I won’t be the only one.

Affectionately,
Ira