I’M NOT A DIARIST

Do you know that guy who pulls out his cell phone as soon as the plane stops at the gate to tell his wife that the plane has just stopped at the gate, then calls again at the baggage claim and once again in the shuttle? I’m not that guy.

Do you have a Facebook friend who describes her evening in little bytes, every detail concerning the kids, the pets, the hubby? That’s not me.

For instance, In France our breakfasts were always light…a pain au chocolat or a croissant, maybe a one-egg, herbed omelet. Occasionally, we’d add a couple of rashers of bacon. Once, we finished off a bit of merguez sausage left over from dinner the night before. And don’t forget bread fresh from the artisan patisserie, some of that fine butter from Normandy, maybe fruit jelly fresh from the farm purchased on market day in the town square. Having said that, do I really have to document the fare at every one of thirteen or fourteen breakfasts? For some, I suppose, it’s necessary information. To me, carefully chronicling such mundane occurrences smacks of egotism.

I’m just not that special.

So forget the day-after-day this is what I did and this is when I did it. From now on, I’ll write on themes. And not surprisingly, food will be one theme, as will real estate agents, satellite television, people who rented our house, and people who manage rental housing. It just makes more sense to me that way.

A TYPICAL STORY…OR NOT

Our story is a typical one.

My wife Catherine and I have always loved to travel. Ten years ago, when we first visited the Languedoc, we fell in love…in love with the weather, in love with the pace of French village life, in love with the smell of fresh bread every morning.

In love with the wine…

In 2005, we purchased a little holiday house in a small village north of Beziers. Nothing fancy. No garden or pool so no maintenance. We visited when we were able, rented it out to defray some of the expenses.  We came to think of our visits to the Languedoc not as vacations, but as coming home.

That’s why we were pleased to read in an English-language online newsletter that the French government has loosened access to the French healthcare system for early retirees. That’s important to us. If we don’t qualify, we will have to purchase private insurance at a heavy price. We’re not wealthy. Solid middle class. The cost of healthcare could negatively affect our standard of living when we retire permanently to the Languedoc in the next couple of years.

A typical story, except for one thing. We’re Americans. Yanks. From across the Pond. All of this EU stuff doesn’t apply. Not a single EU country recognizes our American Medicare health insurance for retirees. We’ve registered on the message boards. We subscribe to the newsletters. We paid dues to an association of Americans abroad. We’ve even telephoned the French embassy.

We ask the same question: How long will it take to qualify for the French healthcare system if we arrive at age 65 with a carte de sejour?

The answer? Immediately. Or 90 days. Or five years.

Don’t get me wrong. I can deal with uncertainty. I am fully aware that our fate rests in the hands of a French bureaucracy that can be as opaque as a London fog. But it’s frustrating that so much that is written in English concerning our problem, practically all that is written in English, is directed to our UK cousins and that all of the articles on websites directed to Americans are three paragraphs long and link to an international health insurance company.

Are all Americans in the Languedoc either employed or wealthy? Are there any Americans in the Languedoc at all outside of Montpelier? We occasionally hear the accent but most often in places where tourists gather.

Rant over. Are you American? Have you navigated the same problem that we are facing? Send up a smoke signal. Give us a sign.

SETTLING IN - JUNE 14

It didn’t take long. 

Cathey asked me to pick up a croissant along with the usual pain au chocolat for me and baguette at the bakery in the morning. Warm, flakey, buttery goodness. Not her style…except in France. I bought two desserts in anticipation of UK Sharon’s arrival that evening – a chocolate 'brownie' with the consistency of a super-thick mousse and a saucer-sized, sugar-coated, raspberry-filled butter cookie sandwich. Cathey wondered why I’d bought the sweets, didn’t believe that it was already Wednesday and that Sharon was due, so a 15 minute discussion ensued about what day of the week it was. 

To my discredit, I won.

We wait for the Live Box.

Our long-term tenant – we’ll call her Kerry – came by later in the morning. Neat and petite. Dark tan and blonde and Brit. She’s a very nice lady who lost her husband suddenly not long ago and is renting her villa down the road over the summer for at least three times what she’s paying us. And we've solved the problem on storage and house security. More about that in a minute.

Light lunch – charcuterie, cheese, bread, and wine again. It hasn’t gotten old yet and it won’t get old for the rest of the trip.

The ladies who have been managing the house for us, doing the turnovers and taking care of the maintenance, popped over after lunch. They’re going to be heading back to England soon. Itchy feet. Given Kerry’s long-term let and her willingness to take charge of the house, deal with the showings by the real estate agents, and even store the few small bins of items that we want to keep if the house should sell, we’re OK with it. Off they go and leave the keys.

Following Berangere’s advice to hook up with a local agent, I walk down to the agency on the main drag in Cazouls. The receptionist speaks no English. An older, put together guy with a bit of English comes out to speak to me in broken English and refers me to a younger, bearded and sandaled guy with no English in the biggest, well-appointed office in the far back. He knows the house, even showed me pictures he had on his computer from when the house was up for sale at the time that we bought it. I'd forgotten how ugly the furniture was before we recovered it. 

Talked price. Made an appointment for him to come over the next day.

Dinner of French lentils and merguez sausage. I’m normally not a consumer of legumes, but French lentils, properly prepared and spiced, ain’t pork and beans.

I left for Montpellier to pick up Sharon after dinner, taking a route that Kerry suggested…the  A75/750…new, free, but as it turned out not any faster. I arrive as the plane lands. Home on the A9 and the A75, the right way to go even if it costs five euros and change.

Kiss and hug. We exchange presents…books and tea and chocolate covered almonds with chili (Smooth on the tongue. Hot going down.)

Talk, talk, talk. It’s good to see UK Sharon again. More like family than family.

Bed late.

FIRST FULL DAY - JUNE 13

The day broke bright and sunny. Another beautiful day in Paradise. You can’t help but notice the light. This is our first time in the Languedoc in June and the sky is a delight – Mediterranean blue with wonderful cloud formations. Very much like Big Sky country in the American west. And such long days – it stays light until after 9:00 PM. And that Languedoc light has a texture all its own. It’s no wonder that great painters flocked to this part of the world.
Again, light breakfast – coffee, a pain au chocolat, a scrambled egg. Then a meeting with Berangere, the real estate agent. I would use the word gamine to describe her but I'm not certain if it carries negative connotations. She's young, slender, and dark with close-cropped, boyish dark hair and piercings not limited to one on each ear lobe. But she speaks better than passable English and is quite business-like. She took pictures. She measured with one of those laser devices. She came back in the afternoon to take pictures of the patio when the sun was high.
Berangere walked us through the paperwork. The contract would be non-exclusive. She even suggested that since her company – Freddy Rueda Sarl – specialized in foreign buyers, we might also want to contract with a local agent. The house, she explained, was well suited to a young French couple with the garage; the light, bright, open rooms; and the communicating bedrooms for the children.
We settled on a price. Considering what we paid six years ago, if we got our price we would come away with a satisfactory chunk of equity given the world-wide housing crisis. Less than we'd hoped, but satisfactory nonetheless.
I took a walk down to the mercerie to pick up the Live Box (kind of like a modem) that would hook us into the internet. I had called Orange, our telephone service provider, from the States a couple of weeks prior to our trip and requested that internet service be made available in our house. (They have an English-language line!) I answered all of their questions and was told that a Live Box would be delivered to the mercerie down the street prior to our arrival. I was told to bring identification because the Live Box would be released only to me.
The mercerie is an old-fashioned dress shop, complete with yarn and thread and ribbon and patterns and a few racks of ready-mades. Why Orange, a huge telecom company, should choose a little shop like that as the drop-off point is a mystery, but who am I to argue? The Live Box was not there. I was even allowed to go into the back room and check. So I walked back to the house and called Orange. The Live Box was sent to the house. Wait a few days.
We learned a few days later that someone had signed for and taken our Live Box. Apparently, there is a black market in unlocked Live Boxes and ours fell into the wrong hands. Orange was very nice about it, they believed that we didn’t have it, but it was several more days before a replacement made it to our door. Best laid plans! We had hoped to be on line from the first day. Instead, it was the tenth.
Lunch was comprised of the same light pickings as dinner the previous night – cheese and charcuterie and wine.
You must remember when in France that the French take lunch time very seriously. If you have not completed your business by noon, you must wait until at least 2:00 PM before commerce resumes. We waited and, after 2:00, we headed up the road a few kilometers to the vineyards of Laurent Miquel. Another tip – you will be tempted buy more wine than you can drink in a short stay. Don't. The rose doesn't improve with age.
We confined ourselves to purchasing one mixed case, four bottles of rose and two of the viognier that is the specialty of the house.
From the vineyard north of Cazouls we drove down to Nissan lez Enserune to check in with the Sans, proprietors of the Hotel Residence. I’ll talk about that meeting in a separate post.
By now it’s about 3:30 PM. We want to stop by the Caveaux St. Laurent in Capestang to purchase a case of rose. At less than 4 euros a bottle, it’s excellent sipping wine for a lazy afternoon and we’ve gone through a case or more every time that we visit. The caveaux is open in the morning, closes at noon, and doesn’t reopen until 4:00 PM. We arrived at about 3:50 and waited.
At about 3:58 a white van drove up to the door. After a moment, a man stepped out of the passenger side. He came around to the driver’s side and spoke to the driver for a moment. At precisely 4:00 PM, he turned the key in the front door, walked in, and turned on the lights.
I don’t want to suggest that I was amazed. I don’t suggest. I assert. This is the south of France. Granted, it’s not Mexico, but it IS the south of France.
To the minute!! Wow.
We bought our case, drove to Cazouls, and did a bit of shopping. We checked out the Leader Price – a kind of discount, big-box grocery store – and didn’t buy anything, picked up our provisions at the Carrefour – most importantly a duck breast with a wonderful layer of fat left on it – and headed home.
I fired up the bbq and that duck was a treat.
I spent some time messing with the television to find as many English language channels as I could for Jill, then bed early.

10 YEARS OF EXPAT LIFE: COST OF LIVING PART 1

 I retired on April 1, 2014. Cathey and I boarded a plane at JFK on April 15th with four suitcases and two cats, determined to become lifet...