Skip to main content

FRANCE PAGE THROUGH SUMMER 2017

FRANCE PAGE #2

Canal du Midi near Capestang

To keep things reasonably easy to navigate, I'm closing this page and starting another: FRANCE PAGE: FALL 2017 AND BEYOND. And three of my former blogs are now archived. For archived French posts, go HERE. My new observations on life in France will still be introduced on the main page of France, Food, Scooters and More and repeated on the new page moving forward.

******

CROIX DE JUILLET WALK AROUND QUARANTE REDUX: NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN

There's a new sheriff in town!

His name is Bill. And he's from Texas! Walk Meister Roger has motored off into the sunset. But fear not. The walkers of Quarante have a new Meister. Bill has made certain that we don't skip a beat.

How about doing the Croix de Juillet again?

So off we went. The route was slightly different, a bit easier and a bit shorter, but still clocking in at close to five miles. I only took pictures that show the difference. You can see our full previous Croix de Juillet walk HERE.

New Sub Meister?

Start at the co-op as usual.
But this time take the paved road all the way to the top. Walking trails are marked in blue.
Autocross grounds.
More red dirt.
Co-op falls behind quickly when the way is paved.
But along the vines as ever.
Fancy that! A road sign to point the way.
And there it is.
And there we are.
Still color in the vines.
A bit hazy.
A bit of rain, not too heavy, and the color might get more intense. It's been SO dry.
Back to the co-op.
Many townspeople have small garden plots among the vines just outside of the village. This old gent's plot showed recent end-of-season work - planting late lettuce and hanging on to that one, last tomato...



******

COUMIAC, CESSENON SUR ORB: 8.3KM WALK WITH PICS

How did exercise become so popular? It seems that more and more folks in Quarante have heard of our little walking group and want to participate. So when Walk Meister Roger announced the latest in the series, nine people signed up. Since a tenth would bike from Quarante to meet the group as the walk finished, joining us in Cessenon sur Orb for coffee (or beer for 7 of the 10 of us, as it turned out), we had to decide whether just two or maybe three cars were in order.

Transportation arrangements settled, we left for Cessenon on a brisk October morning. The weather and the walking warmed us quickly, though, as one by one jackets and fleece and long-sleeved shirts were shed. Check out the BLUE sky. By the end, the beers (and the coffee) in the little bar/cafe in the center of Cessenon were most welcome. Between the beverages and the pain au chocolat picked up from the bakery across the street, we'd squandered any weight-loss benefits that the walk may have provided. But the sun and the scenery and the companionship were well worth the time spent and the effort.

You can learn more about the walk entitled Coumiac HERE. Enjoy the pics.

Nine walkers, two cars.

Parking facing the Orb across from Cessenon's center.

Off we go.

It looks like we're headed into the woods.

The Orb flows and murmurs off to our left.

Wait a minute. Flat and headed to a suburban development?

Yep. A very suburban development, French style.

OK. Out into the vines.

Flat but getting scenic.

Another stone wall for my collection.

Interesting rock. We need our resident geologist John. But he's back home in the Lake Country.

Color in the vines persists.

Still flat.

Still flat

Still flat...but starting to get some scenery now.

Could this be a hill?

Finally, the view begins to open up.

That's the Orb down there

I wish that I was a better photographer with a better camera to show you that single, yellow-leafed tree on the distant ridge.

Can you see the drip irrigation hose running just under the leaves?

Here's a better shot of it. Why irrigate vines already harvested? The drought?



More walls. Well maintained. Maybe for terracing?

There's town. Roger's leadership justified.

Bathtub in a driveway picture. Why not?

The bells of Cessenon struck noon as we arrived back in town.

The view of the Orb from Cessenon's iron bridge as we crossed to make our way to the bar downtown.

******

LA CAYLA, PIERRERUE: 4.7 MILE WALK WITH PICS

Pierrerue in Herault (to distinguish it from its slightly more populous namesake in Provence) sits just east of St. Chinian and is a quiet little commune of just over 200 souls that's not on the road to anywhere in particular. Quarante Walk Meister Roger recently proposed a morning walk called La Cayla that begins in Pierrerue. Six of us agreed to go. On second thought...

In truth, the walk was quite scenic with broad vistas opening up at every turn. And the vines sporting their autumn colors provided considerable eye candy. But Roger hadn't taken this particular walk in a while, didn't remember it well, and so the adventures began. First of all, clearly the folks who rate these walks for difficulty have a different idea of the meaning of the word facile (easy) than I do. Continuous, oft times steep and rocky changes of elevation do not make for an easy, two-hour stroll. Considering that wrong turns and bad choices led to an extra mile to the advertised 4.7, facile went out the window. And the trail was poorly marked and poorly maintained with greenery encroaching, washouts, and unstable scree. But we survived.

Normally, I would link to one of the sites that has a map of the walk. Oddly enough, I couldn't find a map of the walk either under the name La Cayla or the name of the village even though a plaque at the start of the trail in town clearly invites walkers. Given that the trail has been so poorly maintained, perhaps it's no longer considered an official walk and has been removed from most sites. That would explain a lot.

Enjoy the pics.
Starting the walk at the edge of town. First GPS check. A sign of things to come.
Uphill from the first.
But the vistas open up right from the start. And then there's the lion to look at.
I told you. A lion...
The path was not always so broad.
Crosses are simply a part of the scenery in this part of the world. It's not always easy to find out their significance..
I haven't yet looked up the history...
Unlike the US Northeast, road work halts in summer. Too hot. Picks up in the fall.
Ominous sign, consulting the GPS. In this case, we'd hardly left town.
Red dirt and the smell of evergreens reminds me of Georgia.
The colors of the changing vines assures me that I am NOT in Georgia.
We encountered an unusual number of isolated country estates.
And the views...
We don't often see this type of hardwood leaf display.
You just have to stop and look.
Stay right there. I want to take a picture.
How's this?
In some cases, the trail practically disappeared.
How did this get up here?
On an overcast day, the sun lights up St. Chinian in the distance.
When we hit a stretch of paved road, we tend to scatter.
Off the road again. And eventually, off the beaten track. Off the track entirely, truth be told.
Wonderful color!

More for the stone wall collection.
Green tops, color at the bottom. Rows and rows like that. Odd...
When you are at the level of the phone towers, you're about as high as it gets. And at this point, a mutiny! The GPS and the map proved useless. We could see the town and that's where we were headed. Roger admitted defeat.
Those greenhouses in the center are a great place to buy plants for the garden. That's town just below.
Back into town. They got ahead of us again.

 

Three of us detoured through the center of town. Actually, a commune - bigger than a hamlet, smaller than a village.

******

LES BARRALETS, ASSIGNAN: 6.5KM WALK WITH PICS

Roger, Quarante's Walk Meister, will be headed back home to the UK soon. Truth be told, as summer gives way to fall and winter approaches, walks to the tops of local ridges can become quite windy and cold. Not yet, though. Yes, there's a chill in the air and the breeze can be a bit more biting than refreshing. But there are still plenty of days when a good stretching of the legs while taking in a panoramic view is proper exercise.

We've walked a loop around Assignan before. This route differs. Shorter. Rockier. And a bit closed in. But the view opens up nicely at the top. You can learn more about this walk HERE. Enjoy the pics.

From parking in a picnic grove, the path begins by tunneling through greenery.
It doesn't have the open views of some walks in the beginning.
But it does open out occasionally.
Well marked. That's the symbol for mountain bike trails.
Rocky, rocky soil. Rocky, rocky path.
The Troops
Our Meister
The higher that you go, the wider the vista.
Rocks cleared from fields and vineyards may be just piled up, may become walls, or may be used to construct huts called capitales.
Cheap cameras don't do the view justice.
You just have to stop and look.
No, not art. Just a mistake.
Hunters' blinds. Deer? Boar? Hare?
Pretty late season bloomer.

Civilization!
A fenced, tiny pond with benches on the side of the pavement. Sit and watch the ripples. Nothing else going on.
Maybe the ruins of an old windmill...
Why not stop for coffee? We've earned it.

******

CROIX DE JUILLET: WALK WITH PICS SEPTEMBER 2017

I walk. I sit in my den for way too many hours doing such things as writing this blog. So I walk. When I'm by myself, I take a simple, 5 kilometer walk around the village. Downhill on the way out. A steep return at the very end.

Friend Roger is a Brit with a holiday house down the hill from us in Quarante. He walks. In England, he organizes walks. Walks to and from favorite pubs. Multi-day walks. He has all the equipment - good shoes, a little backpack gadget with a bladder that holds water (he says) and a hose that snakes over his shoulder for hydration, a little GPS into which he downloads directions for each walk. Roger has become Quarante's official Walk Meister.

The first time that I walked with Roger, my short, relatively flat walks hadn't put me in proper shape. After three or four miles, I began to cramp up. I learned later that there were thoughts of getting the car for me. But I persevered and have since shaped up.

This is our second walk along the trail known as Croix de Juillet - The Cross of July. Pictures follow. Legend has it that the simple cross was erected atop a Roman column as a focal point for 14th Century locals to come to pray for rain during periods of drought. Whatever the truth of it, the walk is quite scenic, 5.4 miles according to Roger's GPS, with changes in elevation of a couple of hundred meters.

Enjoy the pics.

The walk begins at the wine co-op. Grape growers who don't produce their own wine sell to the co-op where vinification takes place. There's storage for many hundreds of thousands of liters of wine. In fact, if you have bought generic Bordeaux table wine, odds are that you've tasted the wine of the Languedoc mixed in. It's shipped to Bordeaux in tanker trucks.
With the co-op behind us, we head down a newly graded and stoned path leading out of town.
Up the first hill trailing Roger, Bill, and Evelyn. Note the changing skies.
The harvest has begun but we found many hectares that hadn't been touched. An early frost and a dry summer have made for a yield 20% below normal with small grapes. Some say that leads to concentrated flavor and a good vintage. Can't say. The science goes back 2,000 years and I haven't studied it.
A New Jersey boy like me knows that where there are fields in rocky soil, there are stone walls.
Some stone walls are not maintained as well as others.
Looking back at Quarante. And yes, our house is readily spied. Note the smoke.
Bad fire in Lezignan, a town about 20 kilometers away.
The Cross of July. Unfortunately, untrimmed trees have grown up to block the once panoramic view.
But there are places at the top where the vistas open up.
Walls and vines all along the way. Note that the walk takes us along dirt paths and, occasionally, paved roads.
Folks have to have access to their vines.
One thing that a boy from the Northeast US might miss is the changing of color in the autumn.
But grape leaves turn color, too. Different varieties turn different colors. Very satisfying.
Without thick gloves and a sturdy bag, we left collecting prickly pears for another day.
Another cross on the way down. Not certain of the derivation.
Date 1831? Maybe 1837?
Definitely on the downhill now but Quarante still a ways away.
Back to the co-op. Almost home.

Learn more about this walk, map included, HERE. Sorry. In French. They tend to speak French in France. Just sayin'...

******

 IN MY FRENCH HOUSE LIVES A FRENCH CAT


Give Sylvie a basket to snooze in and she's happy, particularly if the basket had just held fresh-picked tomatoes and is surrounded by fruit, herbs from the garden, wine, and a cook book.

It's time to put up a bunch of our cat pics.

Our dear Chloe (l.) and Mimi came to France with us but it didn't work out for them.

When Mimi left, a neighbor said that Chloe needed a sister, hence Sylvie.

When Chloe passed, Sylvie was alone. But not for long.
Illiah is a purebred little Parisienne.

Maybe not sisters, but first cousins...

On the ramparts

The family that sleeps together...

The higher the perch, the better Sylvie likes it.

You can't see me. Can you?

HERE is one of a series of articles on the trials and tribulations of bringing Mimi and Chloe to France.

******

THE TOP OF QUARANTE

I often tell people that I live at the top of the village of Quarante. During my (almost daily) walk the other day, I realized that's an exact description. The church steeple is to the right. City hall is to the left partially covered by a tree. And that's us in the red circle in the middle. Always a bit of a breeze. The swifts keep the bugs under control. Nice view from my office window that directly faces the camera. Definitely at the top.


You can follow my walk as shown in a post from last spring HERE.

 ******

THREE YEARS IN FRANCE - AN AMERICAN EXPAT'S REFLECTIONS

Have you wondered what it might be like to pick up and move to another country? Americans are lured to retirement havens in Mexico, Costa Rica, or Panama. They say that Eastern Europe is beautiful, safer than the evening news might suggest, and relatively inexpensive. Southeast Asia is hot, but it's cheap. Remember, though. I'm not talking about investigating a vacation home, time share, or other form of shared ownership. I'm talking about a permanent, sell out and ship the furniture sort of  move. For most Americans, the thought has never crossed their minds.

Think about it. Think about moving from one state to another, from one town to another, even from one neighborhood across town. Add the need to learn a new language - if you aren't multilingual already. Add the need to deal in a new currency and the need to learn the ins and outs of currency exchange. Add metric measurements. And a new healthcare system. And a new bureaucracy to navigate.

Daunting? You betcha!

Rewards? You betcha!

We  have moved to the Languedoc in the  south of France, the largest vineyard in the world, producing one-third of all French wine and more wine than is produced in all of the United States. Drive down any road and signs for local wineries abound. In three years, we have not visited one-tenth of the tasting rooms within an hour's drive. Our new favorite rosé comes from a domain just down the road. Sweet and fresh and four euros (about $4.50) a bottle!

Along with the wine comes the food. We eat seasonally, veggies and fruits from local farms as much as possible. Grown for taste, not for the ability to be shipped across a continent. Do you remember the kids licking the wallpaper in Wilder's Willie Wonka? "The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!" I say that a lot. And you haven't really tasted a strawberry until you've had one fresh from Fanny's farm. (Fanny has a stand in our market square every Wednesday and Saturday and only sells her own produce. When strawberries are in season, best stop by early or you'll miss out.)

OK. French beef sucks. Range fed, not from from a feedlot. So almost game meat. But the lamb and the duck and the pork and the poultry...magnifique.

The Impressionists painted here for a reason. The light here seems to emanate from the landscape, not reflect off it. The scenery can be breathtaking. On our ride to the nearest supermarket, on a clear day you can see the Pyrenees over 100 kilometers away. Nearly every geography known to man is at hand...except desert. And North Africa is just a ferry ride away.

It's not all sunshine and lemonade, though. French bureaucracy can be frustrating in the extreme. They've had centuries to refine it. Although the winding, two-lane blacktops between villages are generally well-maintained, they also carry slow-moving tractors, wide-bodied recreational vehicles, and bicyclists in packs. Passing can be a hair-raising experience. And whether you like it or not, you still have to vacuum and do laundry.

But the rewards exceed the inconveniences. Perhaps the greatest reward involves being insulated from what's going on in the United States at this very moment - the seemingly intractable discussion on how to deliver quality healthcare to the greatest number of Americans possible. Viewed from the outside, it is a painful discussion to witness. Viewed from France, the discussion is incomprehensible. What could possibly be the problem with providing universal healthcare? Let's look at the objections that I've heard from my friends in the US.

Americans have the right to decline healthcare coverage. Not if the cost of their care when they do get sick is added to my healthcare bill, they don't. Not if the cost of their absentee days at work is added to the cost of the products that I buy or the services that I need, they don't. It's true that Americans have the right to be stupid. Just not at my expense. I'd rather participate in paying for the health of stupid people than paying for the costs of their illnesses.

Doctors will leave if you control their fees. We live in a rural village of about 1,500 people. We  have a fine GP and there are several GPs practicing in the next village over just a few kilometers away. We have had no trouble making appointments with all sorts of specialists - rheumatologist, ophthalmologist, podiatrist, surgeon. If there's a shortage, we don't see it. And because our GP's fees are controlled, she doesn't employ a receptionist or nurse. She answers the phone and schedules her appointments. Herself. Walks into the waiting room and invites us back to the examination room. Herself. Takes our blood pressure. Herself. Apparently, it's not a big deal. UPDATE: Our doctor has hired a part-time secretary to answer the phone and make appointments. Perhaps the 2€ increase awarded to GPs recently helped.

Healthcare will be rationed. A good friend has been treated for two cancers, her husband has just had two stents placed and is scheduled for coronary valve repair/replacement. Their combined age is over 150 years. We've never had to wait unduly for treatment, never been denied treatment, and we don't know anyone who has been. Insurance companies ration healthcare, not the French. (I know. You've read about Trump and the Pope and the baby on life support. You may disagree with the European Court's decision that keeping an infant of life support when his rare genetic disease offers no hope of a recovery and amounts to cruelty, but the issue was never cost of care.)

Pharmaceutical companies will stop doing R&D if you control prices. Take away their marketing budgets and their lobbying budgets and there's your research money. Nine of the ten top US pharmas spend more annually on marketing than on developing new drugs.

The system is unsustainable financially. Healthcare in France is not free. We pay a percentage of our worldwide income for coverage in the French single-payer system, a fair percentage in my opinion. Each year, our tax returns are used to calculate our payment for the following year. (We pay income taxes to the US and the French get a copy that is submitted along with our French return. By treaty, because we pay the US income tax, we don't pay income tax France. But we do pay the 'social charge' that gets us our healthcare.)

Insurance companies will go out of business. Some of the largest insurers in the world are based in Europe. The French single-payer system takes care of from 60% to 75% of the average cost of care. You can pay the rest out of pocket. But must folks buy supplemental insurance. We have purchased insurance that covers the costs of a hospitalization only and we had many insurers to choose from. UPDATE: Working with our bank - which is more like a credit union because we have to buy shares in order to open an account - we now have more comprehensive 'top up' insurance that will pay for 100% of scripts, doctors, and most other related healthcare items for the same price as our previous hospitalization-only policy. We'll see how well that works.

So I guess that the Constitution really IS a suicide pact. Because the only reason not to go to Medicare For All is to preserve the 'free market' in health care that leads to lower life expectancy, greater infant mortality, and greater child mortality. God forbid that we should value the lives of babies and children over the for-profit healthcare system that costs us twice as much per capita as the French system, shortens our lives, and kills our children.

Let me be clear. We love America. We were fortunate to have been born in such a place and at such a time when plain folks like us could make the decision to live anywhere in the world that suited us. So we chose a place where the weather is kind to our aging bones, where there are new places to explore, new people to meet. Why shouldn't we? Proud Americans can and should live where they choose.

But being proud Americans doesn't mean that our vision isn't clear, that we don't want the best for our country and its people. That's what America does, creates the best way to do things or adopts a better way if shown. That's what has made America strong and that's what can keep America strong.

As a post that falls into a couple of different categories, you can read more about my political views HERE and more about my thoughts about life in France HERE.

******

MUSEE DES AUGUSTINS, TOULOUSE: A FEW PICS

Toulouse is a wonderfully pedestrian-friendly city. We parked the car on Monday afternoon and didn't fire it up again until Thursday morning. In between, we walked everywhere. One easy walk from our hotel in the center of town led us to the Musee des Augustins. Well, actually, two walks led us there. The first time, we discovered that the museum closed on Tuesdays. In any event, we finally made it through the door and spent several thoroughly enjoyable hours. I didn't take many pics. I'm particularly sorry that I didn't document the lovely central courtyard. But here is a sampling of what's in store should you visit. See if you can spot Mitch McConnell...













******

 ABBEY FONTFROIDE: CONTEMPLATING THE NATURE OF NATURE

 

It's a quiet day at Abbey Fontfroide. No special events. No crowds. I sit on a bench in the rose garden, many varieties in full flower even this early in the season. A gentle breeze whispers through the foliage, surrounding me with the perfume of a thousand blooms. Birdsong erupts, fades, erupts again. I can imagine an acolyte in this very spot a thousand years ago, more isolated from the rest of the world than a modern man can imagine, seeking spiritual guidance.

My head tells me that this confluence of sight, sound, and smell is the result of geological forces, of mutation and evolution, random acts of chemistry. My heart urges me to be thankful. My head asks, "Thankful to whom?" My heart refuses to continue the conversation.

******

 APRIL IN OCCITANIE - BAH! HUMBUG!

It's April in Occitanie.The sun is shining. The birds are singing. The days are warm, but not too warm. The nights are cool and just right for sleeping. The vines are bursting with every tone of green in Nature's palette. Renewal is in the air.

If the above sounds like the lead paragraph of a travel brochure, it should. Because every single one of you who has moved here or who vacations here has offered similar sentiments on a postcard to friends back home or on a Facebook post or in a phone conversation with those poor souls stuck in the final gasps of a New England or North Country winter.

Shame on you. Why not tell the truth instead? I'm here to help. The following are five reasons that those folks stuck back home should be thankful that they're there and you're here.

Knees and Toes: As soon as the weather warms past freezing, northern European men visiting Occitanie villages and towns take the opportunity to show off knees and toes that they've kept hidden for months, kept hidden for good reason. There is nothing quite so off-putting to the visual cortex as a pair of knobby knees as white and lumpy as feta. And no prune is quite as wrinkled as ten sandal-clad toes newly liberated but not yet properly trimmed for public viewing.

The Flight of the Parking Spaces: At about the same time that children in Occitanie go on summer break, so do the parking spaces in their villages. I don't know where those parking spaces go on holiday. Perhaps the aforementioned New England or North Country. But wherever it is that they go, they won't be returning for three or four months at least. And so we circle and circle, eventually parking around the corner and down the block from our usual space, pushing an unsuspecting neighbor out to the very edge of town. Cascade effect.

Camper Vans, Hikers & Bicyclists: Discover the excitement of coming upon a clutch of bicyclists while rounding a blind curve, a pack of hikers in the carriageway just as you top the crest of a hill. This is precisely what Occitanie's narrow, two-lane winding roads were not designed for. And don't forget the ubiquitous slow-moving,  juice-spilling tractors in the fall. In fact, the only time that one can count on the twisting, turning road ahead being clear of pokey traffic is in the winter...when there's no particular place that you want to go anyway.

Grocery Lines:Who in their right mind loads a grocery store shopping cart with twelve bottles of cheap wine, twenty-four bottles of water, thirty-six bottles of beer, forty-eight frozen canapes, four bananas, three rotisserie chickens, two heads of lettuce (two salades for the already initiated), and a tub of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia? Could it be the same guy with the knobby knees whose camper van took up two spaces parked in the back of the store lot overnight? And when do you think that he'll remember that he needs to weigh those bananas in the produce department before he gets to the cashier?

Restaurant Reservations: In February, French restaurateurs are happy to see you. They're closed for supper on Sunday, are closed Monday,and Tuesday, and they don't serve lunch on Wednesday. But when they're open, they appreciate your business. Then comes tourist season. All bets are off. That table by the garden that was yours on Saturday night all winter long whether or not you remembered to call for a reservation? It's booked through September. And you wouldn't want to sit there anyway. It's right next to where the jazz combo sets up. Try again next winter.

Snarky? You bet. But underneath this crusty exterior beats a heart that's...crusty.  Deal with it.

******  

CAT'S LOVE SPRING IN OCCITANIE...




 ******

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.

 ******

 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.

 ******

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)

******

ALQUEZAR, SPAIN - VACATION COMMENTS AND PICS

Built by Moors as a fortress in defense of a nearby town, what became the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria in 1099 dominates the skyline of the village of Alquezar. The year-round population of just a few hundred swells ten-fold during high season due to Alquezar's majestic views, interesting architecture, the surrounding national park, and the many nearby opportunities for adventure travel. Cathey and I chose to visit during October, a quiet time that would have been just a touch quieter if there hadn't been a cadre of youth on the streets freed by mid-term break from their Spanish schools. Not many, and not too rowdy, but just enough to add a bit of color.

We chose the scenic route to Alquezar from our home in Quarante, heading for Toulouse and then turning southwest and climbing over the Pyrenees. Even with a six-page printout of directions from the Michelin website, we strayed off our route more than once and, when the road turned into what amounted to a paved cow path, we found it necessary to inquire of a family having lunch on their patio if we were indeed on the right road. To our surprise, we were. On arriving, we found parking toward the top of the village, located our Hotel Castillo on a quiet side street below, then struggled with our luggage. After we spent a couple of days learning the layout, we realized that we could have driven to the hotel's front door. I'm glad that we didn't try that initially, though. Tiny streets with dead ends, not wide enough for cars traveling in different directions to pass, can make for nervous driving especially if you're not certain of your directions.

The Hotel Castillo was perfect. Quiet. Great view from our room. Perfect little breakfast. Check out their website HERE for more info. But a slight caveat. The photographer who took the pictures of the rooms really knew his/her stuff. Our room was adequate to be sure but not as spacious as the website made it appear.

Since high season had passed, not all restaurants were open during our Monday through Thursday stay. But we found the available choices perfectly satisfactory. The norm seemed to be a simple, three-course lunch or dinner, wine included, for 14 euros - interesting starts, grilled meat (beef, rabbit, lamb, chicken, sausage) and frites for a main, and an assortment of sweets for dessert. All good. I'll be putting up reviews on this blog over the next several days.

We didn't raft or canoe or hike the gorge. Our days were quite simple. We enjoyed our breakfast, walked around the village - more hiking than strolling given the changes in elevation, found a place for lunch, returned to the room for an afternoon nap, then chose our dinner stop. Simple, quiet days. Eye candy and good food. A vacation.

So...here are the pics. Enjoy.

One of the better roads through the Pyrenees.
For those of you familiar with the Languedoc, think of Alquezar as a fully realized Minerve with better restaurants.
Our room named Blancal..
Night time view of the Collegiate Church from our room's balcony.
View of the gorge of the Rio Vero. We didn't take advantage of the many goat tracks leading down from the village.
Whenever I enter a new church, I light candles for Florence and, more recently, Mae Brown. This was a new experience, though. Put 20 centimes in a slot and an electric candle lights up for an allotted period of time. It's probably cheaper than tapers for the church but I prefer real flame.

Huge altar piece covered in gold leaf. Truly impressive.

Wall paintings - I don't know if they qualify as frescoes - surround an upper gallery.
Everybody who has seen it wants this letterbox.

Stairs everywhere.

Everywhere...
I'll be doing a restaurant review but I just had to give a shout out to L'Artica. Great for a late morning cup of coffee and a tasty, hearty lunch. Staff pleasant and attentive. And, of course, the view.

******

WHAT DO YOU MISS MOST ABOUT LIVING IN FRANCE?

The conversation is predictable. It begins when we say, "We live in France now."

Full time?

Yes.

Really? All the time?

Yes.

Why?

Well, during our active retirement years we wanted to visit friends in England and travel in Europe. Why not live here?

How did you pick France?

Long story. (Pour wine and tell story. It's HERE on the blog.)

Are you going to become French citizens?

No. Residents but not citizens.

Does it cost more than living in the States?

Not really. Depends on how you live. And the dollar is quite strong these days. Viva Brexit!

Do you speak the language?

Well enough to get by and we're getting better all the time.

And then, at some point during the conversation, "What do you miss most?"

The stock answer is, "We miss friends and family the most." But you can see the real answer for yourselves when you see the picture of what Cathey brought back from the States for me in her suitcase last week.

******

 ABBAYE DE FONTFROID - SPRING PLANT SALE

Every spring, the Abbaye de Fontfroid outside of Narbonne holds a plant sale. Beautiful stuff. Every vendor brings quality goodies for your garden. And that's not to mention the woodworkers, metal smiths, jewelers, tool makers, and a host of others vying for your discretionary spending euros. It was not the most pleasant of spring days on 30 April this year. Cool and breezy with not much sun. But there was plenty of eye candy. And Cathey found two fine pink rose bushes to buy for the terrace. Here are some plant pics with some pics taken previously of the Abbaye mixed in. Enjoy.














******

YOU KNOW THAT IT'S APRIL IN THE LANGUEDOC WHEN...

...a familiar but foreign species makes its annual appearance, Latin name Caravanus Horribilus. They appear suddenly the first of April, grazing in a frustratingly leisurely fashion on the highways and byways of the Languedoc with little care for whether or not they are interrupting local migratory patterns. In the evening, they may retire to corrals reserved for them throughout the countryside but they are just as likely to consume multiple parking spaces in your village square. Speaking of consumption, their diet consists of copious amounts of petrol as evidenced by their bilious effluvia. The Caravanus Horribilus season lasts for five or six months, just until autumn when, as they are about to disappear, they are replaced on the roadways by their sister species Vendange Humongous.

Often found in the interior of the Caravanus Horribilus or somewhere nearby, in an apparent display of Darwnian symbiosis, lives the Grocerious Abundancia. They exit their lairs on Saturday mornings and clog the lanes of the cashiers in the local Carrefours, Intermarches, and other hunting grounds. They are enormously successful hunters, as the volume of their prey attests. But they forget to have their prey weighed while still in the wild, delaying more considerate hunters. They speak in strange tongues. And they rid the pampas of any excess wine or beer that might be extant. This last may have something to do with the dodgy manner in which the Caravanus Horribilus maneuvers.



Hikers appear. They are old and they are young. The backpacks of the young ones often weigh more than they do because they are living rough and have prepared for their every camping need with expensive, micro-miniaturized, eco-friendly, carbon-neutral gear. The old ones have belly packs, spend their nights in chambres d'hote, have personal support teams driving rented vehicles, and have booked a masseuse for the afternoon. Either way, one has to be careful. The hikers find the narrowest back roads to travel, often in packs, and even the French frown on knocking one into a ditch with your Citroen.


You learn how many different shades there are of the color Green. Even in the Languedoc, the
winters are characterized by brownish hues. As April approaches and vineyards, fields, and gardens are freshly tilled, the browns seem even more dominant. But then, not quite all at once but in a very short time, spring comes along. The days become tantalizingly longer and warmer. The breezes don't bite quite as badly. And Green happens. The Impressionists chose to paint here for a reason.


There are a variety of other indications that the worm of winter is turning. Asparagus. Iris. Mediterranean beaches beckon. Mountain lakes become destinations. But flavorful fresh food, beautiful fragrant flowers, and scenic geography are so ubiquitous in this corner of the world as to border on the mundane. It's the frustrations that mark the seasons. Forget the Zika virus and the Aedes mosquito. When will they development a safe, biodegradable repellent for the Caravanus Horribilus?

Strawberries on the terrace. That's really all that you need to know about April in the Languedoc.

Strawberries on the terrace. 

 ******

LAUNDRY IN PARADISE

If you had to cite one, single, horrendous consequence of Adam and Eve's misadventure with an apple in the Garden of Eden, it would have to be laundry.

You'd rather that humans had not discovered sex? You would deny yourself the great privilege and joy of raising a child? Granted, both activities can get messy. And smelly. But who would care about the muss and the fuss if the result wasn't a load of messy, smelly laundry?

And guess what. If you live in France, you'll have to do laundry. Yes. Even in the south of France, where the sun shines 300 days a year, stuff gets dirty.


And not just clothes get dirty in France. Floors need to be swept, mopped, and/or vacuumed. Dinner dishes need washing. And speaking of dirty dishes, where do you suppose that food in France comes from? Do you think that it grows on trees? Uh...well...some of it does. But most of us need to go to market at some point, whether the market in the village square or the Carrefour supermarket. And if it's the Carrefour, that probably means getting in the car. And if you own a car, it is bound to break down. And even if you do the work on it yourself, your clothes will get dirty. And you know what that means.

Laundry.

Lately, I've been reading any number of blog posts and newsletter articles that have bemoaned one aspect or another of life in France. More precisely, living in France. These writings are not the work of tourists. The authors are expats living in France permanently. They grumble. Their roofs leak. Insects invade. Machinery balks. Intransigent bureaucrats frustrate them. One recent essayist living in a rural village expressed disappointment that so few neighbors spoke English, that so many neighbors hunted to put food on the table.

The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a tagline. Who are these people? "They have the greeting cards with the couples on the front. They photograph them. These hazy focus people. They’re always having picnics. There’s always a tree, a pond… who are these people? I don’t know them. I don’t want them on my card either."

Living in France is not a greeting card. It's not a vacation. Living in France is living. It's sitting for an hour on a cracked, vinyl-covered chair in a waiting room until the mechanic comes out and tells you that it will take several days and 900 euros to fix your car. It's having a strong north wind lift up the slates on the roof and let rainwater pour in through the cracks. It's having the sewer in the street back up and having the utility company say that it's your responsibility while your plumber insists that it's theirs.

Living in France means doing the laundry.

****** 

QUARANTE - COUNTRYSIDE WALK

For years, I played full court, 5 on 5 basketball at the YMCA in Allentown at least three times a week with guys that were younger and better players than I was. They pushed me. I was in shape.

I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now.

Wait a minute. Reverse that.

Now, I walk. Promenade. Just a few times a week. Maybe 5 kilometers or so at a clip. I use about three different routes. They all start with a long downhill stretch. If you live within steps of the church at the top of a French village built on a hill, you don't have a choice. And that means that the return trip ends with an uphill slog. Depending on the route, a rather steep uphill slog. I suppose that's the way that it should be...end the workout with one last push.

Here are the pics. Enjoy.

First, check out the blooming succulent on our window ledge.



Then down the Rue des Bichettes. The blue door on the left is to our cave (pronounced cahve), our dirt-floor cellar.
Still heading down hill.
We've hit the main road. Still down hill.
The local cooperative winery. Grape growers who aren't vintners bring in their harvest in September and October.
Just past the cooperative, the views open up. This is rural France. My trail runs along that tree line.
Still within the town limits, a grower of saffron.
And we've left town. Note the abbey's spire at the top of the village. Our house is just a few steps away.
The creek is called Le Quarante. 
On the road out of town, an abandoned vineyard on one side...
And on the other side of the road, new vines.
Le Terminus is a fine local restaurant in the old, converted train station between Quarante and sister town Cruzy.
Suitable for weddings and bar mitzvahs. And the public walking path begins in the parking lot.
Bicycles and walkers only, please.
With gates to enforce the ban on motorized vehicles.
The back side of the co-op. Freshly cultivated vineyard in the foreground prepping for spring.
The horses weren't at the fence checking me out. Maybe next time.
One of two trees that came down across the path during recent storms.
Starting to cloud over. And there's the steeple that I came from and am headed back to.
I almost forget to check out the view behind me.
Some folks live along the trail. Cabbage garden kept going right through the winter.
The trail hits a local road and jogs left.
But I head right, back to town.
Not bluebonnets, but pretty...
Almost as though cultivated, this field will be a carpet of red poppies in just a few weeks.
Into town along the back of the co-op.
The end in sight.

 ******

FRANCE - BIG SKY COUNTRY

Texans talk about Big Sky. The flat, monotonous landscape lends itself to far seeing, to eyes lifted to points above the horizon. But just as the land is monotonous, the sky is ever changing, a vast roiling palette. Impressive.

I had no idea that the sky in the south of France would display the same attention-grabbing variety. Frankly, the realization snuck up on me. One day, months into our stay, driving with wife Cathey along a familiar roadway, I realized that I looked forward to a point where the road opened up to the sky, to looking up, to seeing what the Languedoc sky had to offer.

And so, I began to take better note of the sky outside my office window. I had chosen the top-floor room for my office specifically because of the view. But once ensconced, I took that view for granted. No more. You see a sample of those views below. Pictures worth a thousand words...










******

 CAR REPAIRS THE FRENCH WAY - PART 1

My working theory concerning private personal vehicular transportation of the four-wheeled variety is that cars are composed of bodywork surrounding disposable drive trains. Specifically, if the body parts of a car are in good order, without rust or corrosion, you can always replace the mechanical parts. Think about it. A rebuilt engine and transmission might cost a considerable wad of money to purchase and install but usually less than buying new and you come away with warranties and extra years of hassle-free driving.

It's the way I've rolled for years. Seldom have I given up on a vehicle that had less than 250,000 miles (400,000 km) on the clock. But that's in the United States. That's where I had a mechanic in my home town that I knew and trusted on speed dial. That's when both Cathey and I worked, so we had two cars...plus my scooter.

This is France. There isn't a mechanic in our little village and I have yet to form a relationship with one anywhere else. We're retired so we only maintain one car. I've yet to buy a scooter. So when the clutch blew out on our 1999 Citroen Xantia, life became more than a bit complicated.

Fortunately, I was only a couple of blocks from home. I managed to get the car off of the road and I walked home. We're insured through AXA, home, supplemental health (to pick up the percentage that the French system doesn't pay for inpatient hospital care), and auto. The auto insurance includes roadside assistance. I called. As I usually do as a matter of course, I apologized for my poor French. 

"Vous etes Anglais?" asked the operator. 

"Americain," I said.

And in a few moments, I was transferred to an English speaking agent. Score one for AXA. I told the agent who I was, where I was, and what the problem was. After verifying my creds, and a couple of minutes on hold, I was advised that I had a 45 minute wait for a tow. Not bad. Within about twenty minutes, I received a call from the driver. He was on his way. Not bad. And in another twenty minutes, the rollback came into view. Forty minutes all told. Not bad at all.

The driver was competent and businesslike. My car was up on the bed of the rollback quickly. No fuss. No muss. Now came the big question: Where did I want to go? As I said, I don't have a regular mechanic. The nearest full-service garage is about 5 kilometers away at La Croissade (The Crossroad), where two relatively busy secondary roads meet. So we went.

"15 days!"

That's how long it would take to schedule a clutch replacement. No chance for anything sooner. Shoot. The driver asked if he should call his people. I was leery. His people were Garage Bernard & Fils, a Citroen dealer. That was a plus. But a friend had warned me against them. In his experience, they found things to service that didn't need servicing.

What alternative did I have? 

None.

The driver called. 

"They can start work next Wednesday." Less than a week. OK.

So the driver dropped me off back in Quarante and I waved good-bye to Xandy (my nickname for my Xantia). In spite of letting me down, I'm still very fond of Xandy. When we bought her, she had 135,000 kilometers on the odometer. We only paid 2,500 euros. In the 20 months or so since, we've logged another 30,000 kilometers, hassle free. Not a hiccup of any consequence. Yes, we had to spend some money on the air conditioning. And yes, we had a problem with the electric window on the driver's side. But neither of those were what I would call a running problem. We could work through them. So we really can't complain.

Just wait...

Stay tuned for Part Two: Houston, We Have a Problem.

 

******

CAR REPAIRS - PART 2

The clutch had been making a slight whirring noise for a while. Slowly but surely it became more noticeable. No oily spots under the parking space or other signs and portents. Just a little bit of a noise.

(For the children in the audience, the clutch is the device that you use to change gears in a car with a manual transmission.)

And then the noise took a quantifiable leap in intensity on the way out of town one day.

And then on the way back into town that day, the clutch went all the way down to the floor and wouldn't come back up.

As we left our 1999 Citroen Xantia named Xandy in Part 1 of our story, she was on a rollback headed for Garage Bernard & Fils in the town of St. Chinian. This was on a Friday. I had been promised that the work would begin the following Wednesday, important to keep in mind because the reason that Xandy was in St. Chinian in the first place was because the garage at La Croissade had said that the work could not be scheduled for 15 days. I take some blame for the delay. I have yet to create the kind of relationship one needs with one's mechanic when owning an older, well-worn vehicle.

And now the story becomes decidedly French.

Those of you who follow these ramblings know that I do not generally subscribe to the theory that all things French are overly complicated, take too much time, lack Anglo get up and go, and are in general too prone to obfuscation and delay. I have generally found the French to be timely and responsive.

Generally.

Until now.

Wednesday came. Wednesday went. On Thursday, I wrote an email. When will the work begin? On Friday, I received a reply. No subject line. No text. Just an attachment, an estimate. Just over 900 euros. I have some familiarity with the cost of full clutch replacements having driven standard transmission vehicles for decades and having a propensity for driving them into the ground. So, given the 20% VAT, and given the fact that Bernard & Fils is a Citroen dealer and not an independent garage, 900 euros was not outrageous.

A trip to an interesting website that provides estimates on mechanical work based on make and model added to my belief in the reasonableness of the estimate. Click HERE to check it out.

I emailed back, authorizing the work.

The weekend came and went. On Monday, I called. Call back Wednesday. On Wednesday, I called. We're having trouble getting a part. Maybe Friday. On Friday, I called. Next week.

By the time that the following Monday rolled around, we were past 15 days. But the work had begun. Hope springs eternal. A friend agreed to drive me to St. Chinian to meet face-to-face with Bernard or his Fils. When we arrived, I didn't ask questions. I just walked into the service area behind the office, spotted Xandy on a lift in the back with two mechanics on the job, and walked on over. In a minute, an older gent appeared. Bernard? Fils? In any event, he seemed to know his stuff. An internet parts distributor had sent the wrong part, wasting time. But that had been corrected and the car would be ready tomorrow. Probably in the morning. Call first.

After further pleasantries, we left. The next morning, I called. Not yet, but soon. Come at 4:00 PM.

I came at 4:00. Xandy was ready. I paid. The mechanic who handed me the key let me know that the suspension could use replacement. Yes, Xandy has always been a bit bouncy. But we'll see in a couple of months when the controle technique (biannual safety inspection) is due.

I drove away. All in working order. Perhaps a bit more free play in the clutch than I'm used to. I might adjust. Otherwise, mission accomplished...the French way.

 ******

HOW FRENCH BUREAUCRACY WORKS...REALLY


I am fond of saying that the French didn't invent bureaucracy but they did refine bureaucracy to a high art. And indeed, although the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay is credited with having coined the word, pejoratively at the very outset, there is convincing proof that bureaucracies predated the current French version by millennia. Why are our most common examples of ancient scratchings on clay tablets lists of mercantile goods or stockpiles in royal coffers if not for the overriding need of humankind to keep official records as though they had value in and of themselves?

We all hate paperwork. I get it. Damn those bureaucrats, keeping us buried in piles of paper so that they can draw a pay check. Petty. They find reasons to deny our most reasonable requests. Their rules are arcane, defying understanding. How wonderful life would be without those officious paper pushers.

You are wrong. Bureaucrats are your friends. Yes. I repeat. Bureaucrats are your friends. You just haven't been viewing them through the proper lens.

You see, you have the idea that bureaucracies are created to throw obstacles in the paths of the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Not true. Not at all. Rather, bureaucracies exist to confer power on the petty bureaucrat. That's the real secret. And though that sounds dangerous, think about it. The petty bureaucrat is so well versed in the confusing, often contradictory jumble of rules and regulations that they are charged to enforce that they know how to create any result, circumvent any prohibition. Approve any request.

Approve any request?

Yes. Approve any request. They just need a reason.

How does that work, you ask?

Well, 50 years ago in Mexico, it meant keeping a wad of money folded into your passport. If you had a problem with a functionary of the Mexican government, you would first be asked for that passport. You would hand it over, wad and all. It would be returned, intact but lighter. Papers stamped. Problem solved.

That was then. In Mexico. This is now. In France. I wouldn't try bribery. Nope. As tempting as it might be, I wouldn't. Here's what I would do, what I have done. I would contact a professional, someone with experience dealing with the bureaucracy/bureaucrat in question.

Money changes hands, it's true. But we're talking fee for service in the professional sense. Not bribery.

Case in point:

We are Americans. We don't have an EU passport, any EU identification cards, or any other form of paperwork that would ease us into the French social system. Our one saving grace is that we are of full retirement age. (Saving grace? Being old? Ah, well...) In theory, all that we had to do was to fill out the paperwork, make an appointment, and we'd be on our way. And how many times have you heard that? Rather, how many times have you heard the horror stories of dossiers thick and overflowing, of requests for more documentation and more documentation and more? And after not months but years, the desired result is still somewhere over the horizon? How many times?

We chose a difference route. We have an English-speaking French accountant - Sarah Vedrenne of AdviceFrance. We began using her when we bought our holiday house in 2005 and rented it out when we weren't using it. There's history there. so we called Sarah and asked her to assist us with our titres de sejour and our registration with CPAM. Sarah had us round to her office in her home up above Pezenas. She gave us a list of documents to bring including those that required an official translation. When we arrived, we reviewed the documentation piece by piece. We reviewed our American tax forms. We discussed what qualified as French income and what did not. Sarah made photocopies. We called the sub-prefecture and made an appointment. On the day, Sarah met us in the waiting room.

Now comes the good part.

When our names were called, Sarah greeted our examiner with a smile and a handshake. They had danced this dance before. Sarah not only had every document required but she had them arranged in the order in which the examiner asked for them. Question asked. Question answered. No muss. No fuss. No searching through files for that one particular, elusive piece of paper. Our two dossiers were opened, completed, and approved in less time than it took the single woman before us to complete her interview. Smooth as silk.

Having been approved for our titres de sejour, Sarah immediately filed with CPAM. Yes, a round or two of additional documentation was required. And yes, once approved we had to file a raft of paperwork to get refunds for our expenses back to the date of application. But less than six months after that application, our bank account was enriched by several hundred euros, the amount that CPAM covers for visits to the doctor and for our prescription meds.

Could we have done it by ourselves for ourselves? I have no doubt. Would it have gone as smoothly? Not likely. Was it worth Sarah's fee? Every penny.

One last point. While most English speakers that we know use Sarah, and while most are well satisfied as are we, there are some who are not so enamored. That's fine. This post is not intended as an endorsement of AdviceFrance. Rather, it is meant to point to a path that cuts through the bureaucracy, a path that has proven successful for us and many others, a path that starts with hiring a guide. Your choice of guides is your choice.

Dress with respect, office casual. Smile. Be polite.

Hire a guide.

******

I AM OLD

Quiet.

Peace and quiet.

Our little town of Quarante, with its 1,500 or so inhabitants, typifies serenity and tranquility almost to the point of narcolepsy. And in truth, I like it that way.


That's not to say that folks in Quarante don't know how to have fun. On Bastille Day, they rev up the municipal band in front of the Town Hall, we march through the village to the school's soccer stadium, and we enjoy a quite respectable fireworks display.

We run the bulls in Quarante. The boys run behind, exhibiting their bravery by grabbing a tail or a horn. (Sorry, PETA. They do.) The girls stand on the sidelines, giggling and applauding. (Sorry, Gloria Steinem. They do.) And the rest of us shake our heads, smile, and head for the bar for another glass of wine. (Not sorry in the least...)

No, when it's time for a fete, the folks in Quarante know how to party. But in the main, day to day
and week to week, with the exception of the occasional bothersome, waspish sounding two-stroke scooter piloted by a youthful Formula 1 wannabe, at night the cats don't mewl, the dogs don't ruff, and even the crickets stay respectfully muted. For a city person, such an overwhelming lack of background noise can be a bit unnerving. But I was raised on a dirt road in the country. A car driving past the house at night was an unusual event. So the nighttime quiet of Quarante is the quiet of my youth.

My youth...

I remember my youth. I do. I remember fun. I remember being the one tasked to buy the beer because I looked old enough and had a reliable car. I remember late nights in secluded turn-offs, hanging with friends around a makeshift campfire, listening to a transistor radio, swaying to the music, trying desperately to get to a base, any base. But I am old now. I have more hair on my chin than on the top of my head. And I need my sleep.

I try to be a good guy. I do. So when I walked past my neighbor's house at 8:00 PM the other night on my way to picking up a pizza for dinner, I said that I didn't mind that, in the absence of his mother, the young man (Late teens? Early 20s?) had invited a dozen or so of his friends over for a bit of music and youthful horseplay. By 10:00 PM, the party was really rolling. By midnight, it hadn't even begun to slow down. At 1:30 AM, I gave in.

I pulled on pants and shoes, walked next door, and banged on the slightly open door. My young neighbor eventually appeared.

"Ca suffit," I said. That's enough. And he was good about it. He apologized. The music stopped. and although occasional bursts of youthful laughter still leaked through closed doors and shutters, I was able to get to sleep.

I am old.

How do I know that my youth is all spent?
Well, my get up and go has got up and went,
But in spite of it all I am able to grin.
When I think of the places my get up has been.
                                            ~ Denny Davis

******

THE FRENCH DENTIST - FIRST VISITS

Making judgements based on anecdotal experience can be dangerous, terribly misleading, particularly given only one data set. But considering how similar our first visit to a French dentist was to our regular visits to our French general practitioner, we feel confident that our experience was not an outlier. My French or expat friends are invited to tell me if I've misjudged.

Cathey broke a tooth some time ago. She didn't have pain and decided to wait until we received our carte vitale, our French public healthcare card, before visiting a dentist. We'd try out the recommendation of our friends Simon and Julia. Two women, one relatively young, one somewhat older, had a dental clinic in Capestang a few kilometers away. They had both studied in the US, so their English was probably better than our French. Cathey decided that we'd go after Thanksgiving. No, after Christmas. No, after the New Year.

And of course by about the second week of January, the tooth that hadn't hurt decided that enough was enough and began to throb.

I arranged our appointment in person. As is the case with our GP, the dentists' office had no reception desk. No assistants bustled about. When the phone rang, the dentists themselves answered. I simply walked in the door after pushing the doorbell that announced my presence, sat in the waiting room, and waited. When the older of the two dentists came to usher in the next patient, I walked up, introduced myself, used Simon and Julia's name (acknowledged by the dentist with a smile), and told my story. Dr. Doucet-Pellequer excused herself, walked back to her office, and came back with her appointment book. We settled on a date a few days later.

We arrived at the appointed time, pressed the buzzer, took our seats, and were ushered into the treatment room by Dr. Doucet-Pellequer herself spot on the appointed hour. The room had all of the familiar bells and whistles - the patient's chair with the dentist's stool and tray of instruments beside it on the right and a sink for rinses on the left. An x-ray machine hung against the wall. The back wall contained a long counter and a series of drawers and cabinets. But there was more. The room was at least four times the size of our American dentist's treatment rooms, perhaps even bigger, several hundred square feet. The dentist's desk with two visitor's chairs in front occupied one corner of the room next to the sliding glass doors that led to an extensive, sunny patio. In the opposite corner from the desk, a little play area for children featured a tiny table and chairs, games, and puzzles.

We explained Cathey's problem, handing Dr. Doucet-Pellequer the little packet of x-rays that our dentist in the States had given us. She held the x-rays up to the light, nodded her head, then laid them down on her desk and invited Cathey to the chair. First, a quick exam. Then an x-ray. No lead apron. No hiding in the next room. Just pulling the cord with the trigger to the far side of the room and pressing the button. As she put the cord away, rehung the machine, and walked over to her desk, I realized that the x-ray had appeared on her computer monitor, larger than life and hi-res. Far out.

Yes, the tooth was deeply cracked. The suggestion was to drill out the nerve and place a pin in the cavity that would eventually anchor a crown. No crown yet, not even a temporary. Let's see if the remainder of the tooth is stable with no more cracking. Come back in about ten days. A couple of shots of anesthetic a bit of drilling later...job done.

She slipped our carte vitale into the little machine that reads its chip, asked about our mutuelle, and we set our next appointment. (A mutuelle is top-up insurance kind of like a Medicare supplement that picks up the difference between what the public system pays for and the actual cost. We don't have one that covers dental, just a catastrophic hospital policy.)

Ten days later, Cathey received a composite crown, swiftly done without fuss or fanfare. The permanent crown? No rush. Come back in six months or more as long as everything feels right.

The bill? $110. French healthcare picked up $75. We paid $35 out of pocket. It is incomprehensible that the American system sucks up twice as much money per capita for healthcare as the European-style, single-payer system. The Constitution is not and should not be a suicide pact. When it comes to healthcare, that's exactly what it has become.

******

ANOTHER FRENCH COMMEMORATION - NORTH AFRICA

Again, folks gathered in Quarante's place de la mairie (town hall square). Again, flags waved, flowers were offered, and speeches given. This time, the dead that were honored were those who died in French North Africa - Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Perhaps, when our American culture is as old as the French, we'll have as many occasions to honor dead soldiers.








******

POPPY AND EARLY CHRISTMAS FAIR 2015 ORNAISONS

It was a beautiful day for a drive in the country, so off we went to the small village of Ornaisons. LFN (Little Fat Norm) is a nonprofit organization for expats, Brits mostly, living mainly in and around our corner of southwest France who raise money in support of The Royal British Legion and otherwise gallivant and gambol about the landscape. In this case, LFN took over the Salle Polyvalente (community room) in Ornaisons, offered food including full English breakfasts and fish and chips, and made available both rummage items and crafty things for sale. So we bought our poppies - the price of admission, and we bought some stocking stuffers, and we bought curry leaves from the spice people, and we picked up a couple of paperbacks because you just have to feel a book in your hands every once in a while regardless of how convenient your Kindle is.

A good time was had by all.

Just one of those beautiful, blue sky days...

Can you read them? Fajita Mix. Chipotle Rub. Whoda thunk it?

Stocking stuffers hidden from the children...

******

CHATEAU LES CARRASSES 2015 AUTUMN CRAFT MARKET

Just down the road from us is the Disneyesque Château Les Carrasses. It's a hotel - and several rooms have their own lap pools. It's a restaurant, trying to be a gourmet stop and almost succeeding. And there are always events. On this late September Sunday, we attended the autumn craft market. Shiny, sweet smelling, hand-made crafty things to see and to buy. Worth a stroll for an hour or so on the way to the Med and seafood for lunch.















******

BASTILLE DAY 2015 - QUARANTE LAYING OF THE WREATH

The Mayor and two ladies of the village laid the wreath, recorded patriotic music played, the Mayor gave a speech, and then wine was served in the community chapel.

Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!





 ******

CHATEAU DE SERIEGE - OPEN HOUSE 

Cathey and I have been driving past the Chateau de Seriege since we first arrived in Quarante in the spring of 2014. A bit south of Quarante and roughly between Quarante and Cruzy, the chateau had clearly been at the hub of significant family holdings, including vineyards. But as we were to learn, although the wine making has continued unabated, probably since the 16th Century, the chateau itself was a later construct that had fallen prey to the ravages of time. Indeed, if I translate the history correctly, the chateau's construction, begun in the 19th Century by the Andoque family who bought the lordship of Seriege in 1775, was never truly completed.

But you can research the history of every such structure in the Languedoc for years and never know the true story. As they say, history is written by the victors. (Well, as Winston Churchill is supposed to have said. It's hard to imagine that Caesar didn't at least think something like that, if not actually say it. But I digress.) And since the Andoque family has been prominent in the region for 500 years, they can be considered victors.

Fast forward to modern times. The French government offers grants to rehabilitate facades of such buildings as the chateau. For months, the vans of the workmen parked on the lawn. Windows were replaced, the facade cleaned. Eventually, an open house was announced to show off the work on the interior. It's not done yet, just the first floor and bits here and there. But they are now open for events and meetings under the auspices of the current Mme. d'Andoque whose husband oversees the vinification.

So, available for weddings and bar mitzvahs, I give you the Chateau de Seriege.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANNUAL MAY MASSIF CENTRAL PLANT SALE AT THE ABBEY FONTFROID

Every spring, the Abbey Fontfroide outside of Narbonne holds a plant sale dedicated to plants that are native to or will survive well in the Massif Central, that upland region of plateaus and smaller mountains leading up to the Pyrenees to its southwest and the Alps to the north and east. The Abbey is a wonderful setting and the quality of the plants is outstanding. For the gardener, this is not to be missed. Even if you don't buy, you'll learn what can be done to beautify your garden or your terrace.

 

 FRIDAY FLOWER MARKET, BEZIERS - APRIL 2015







SNOW IN THE LANGUEDOC: IT DOES, YOU KNOW


 One of the reasons that we moved to the south of France was Cathey's vow, "I will never shovel snow again." Well, we won't have to shovel but it was a bit of a shock to wake up to a dusting of the white stuff.  It's the first week of February, after all. The temperature has seldom dipped below freezing and this is the first hint off wintry precipitation. So I suppose that we can't complain. However Sylvie, less than a year old, was befuddled. And once a flake landed on her nose, she wanted nothing more to do with the stuff except at a distance.


An hour after these pictures were taken, the snow was gone. Melted. As one friend in the States put it, the beauty of snow without the shoveling.

 

FRENCH BLACK WINTER TRUFFLES


 

Every day, a link to Languedoc Living appears in my Inbox, providing a useful compendium in English of news, event listings, and feature articles concentrating on our region but including a taste of the rest of France, Europe, and the world. I give the site a thorough look as often as time permits. Recently, I learned that the season for truffle fairs had arrived. Is it any surprise that my wife Cathey knew this? The surprise, I suppose, is that I realized that Cathey would be interested and that I proposed without any prodding that we pay a visit the truffle fair in Villeneuve Minervois, a small town in the foothills of the Massif Central about an hour north and west of us here in Quarante.


We arrived at the salle polyvalente (community room) at about 10am. Just about every village has one of these multi-purpose spaces. Villeneuve Minervois’ sports a kitchen and a stage at the edges of a basketball court downstairs and what appeared to be classrooms/meeting rooms upstairs. A market was already in full swing. Tables displaying wine, artisan whisky, saffron and saffron-infused products, truffle-infused butter and brie, artisan chocolate and cheeses and sausages, and knives and other gadgets with points and edges were arranged in an outward-facing square on the floor of the court. After a quick circuit and tastings, we had purchased two bottles of sparkling Limoux wine and a couple of hunks of chocolate, both white and dark, both with bits of raspberries. I thoroughly enjoyed my sip of Black Mountain, very smooth artisan whiskey. No sale, though. I’m a bourbon man myself.

But the reason for the festivities are the truffles. I won’t bother defining what truffles are or describing their culinary importance. If you don’t know, you can look it up. I will simply say two things: that we are talking here about the French black winter truffle, tuber mélanosporum, and that if you enjoy mushrooms, truffles are kind of like mushrooms to the nth degree. Truffles are a gourmet’s delight. At a cooking demonstration under a small tent with perhaps 50 chairs lined up, the audience was standing room only.


The truffle foragers arrive with their musky little treasures in baskets, in glass jars, or in plastic containers. They present their finds to an examiner stationed by the entrance, in this case a youngish man casually dressed in jeans, and his female assistant. They represent the French Department of Agriculture as well as the local Brotherhood of the Truffle. The examiner assesses every single truffle, sharp knife in hand, trimming them as needed, carefully shaving and smelling. If the truffle passes muster, it goes in a bin on the examiner’s scale. If it doesn’t, it’s added to a pile of rejects under the examiner’s table. There may be some discussion concerning a rejection, but the discussion is always civil and the examiner’s judgment is final. The assistant writes down the forager’s name by hand in a simple, lined notebook and, when the examiner is finished, writes down the combined weight of the forager’s approved truffles. The truffles are then placed in a cloth bag, tied securely, sealed, and handed back to the forager.

The foragers took their approved hauls to a long table at one end of the hall, separated from the crowd by a waist-high rope. A gent with a rifle, one of the Brothers, patrolled the stage above. When all of the day’s truffles had been examined, very close to the appointed hour of 11am, the examiner walked down the line to each forager’s station, cutting open the seals of the cloth bags and pouring the contents into whatever display container that the forager had set up. Some of the forager’s displays were quite fancy. Some foragers simply used the plastic containers that their truffles had arrived in. Every station had its own scale. When the examiner had opened and poured out the last bag, and without any warning, the Brother on the stage fired off a loud blank. (I hope that it was a blank.) The rope dropped. The stampede began.


I knew then why there had been such a crowd around the examiner’s station by the door. Folks who were intent on buying were scoping out the batches that they thought looked the best, watching and listening to the examiner. So when the rope dropped, they hustled to purchase the truffles that they’d targeted. We weren’t so focused. We simply walked up to the lady at one end of the table with just a dozen or so mostly small truffles sitting on the lid of a plastic container, watched the two ladies ahead of us pick up and smell each and every one of her truffles before purchasing two, then repeated the exercise for ourselves, picking out one small truffle of 14 grams that she put in a little cellophane bag for us. 11 Euros. That’s right. 11 Euros for a fresh French winter truffle weighing one-half ounce. We were amazed. We would have paid at least four times as much in the States, probably more. At that price, we could afford another. We were more discriminating. We walked down the table slowly, eying each display.  We liked that of a forager displaying deep black truffles in a cute little basket lined with red fabric. We picked out another truffle. 16 grams. 12 Euros. Damn.


When we got them home, Cathey put the truffles on a paper towel inside a Mason jar and put them in the fridge. We’ll be shopping for fresh-made pasta. Cathey will make a simple sauce and shave bits of truffle on top. Perhaps an omelet? Yum…

One final note. Cathey rhapsodized over the smell of truffles that she said pervaded the salle polyvalente. I frankly didn’t notice it. But when friends popped by our house the day after the fair for a visit to set a luncheon date in order to introduce us to their favorite local restaurant, Cathey brought out the jar and opened it to give them a whiff. And from the other end of the table the fragrance of the truffles wafted over to me. Unmistakable.
ELECTRICITY IN FRANCE: IT'S DIFFERENT

Moving across the Pond from the United States to France is easier than it sounds. And harder.

Language has to be the most difficult adjustment for those not already fluent. (Speaking English slowly and loudly really doesn't work. Trust me.) You need a basic vocabulary and an ability to speak to the present, the past, and the future. It's true that most of the French in the region have some English given that it's taught in the schools and that Brits have settled here in considerable numbers. But I didn't come here to make France more like America. They already have Kentucky Fried and Subway. I came here to learn. That includes the language.

Once you have the language basics in hand, you can conduct the business of day-to-day life surprisingly easily. I do all of my banking online as I do most of my bill paying. Most every retail establishment, including the post office, accepts credit cards. At restaurants, they can even come to your table with a little wireless device that reads your chip. We do keep a little cash on hand for our fresh bread at the bakery every other day and for Fanny, the local farmer who sets up her produce stand in the church square twice a week. We get our cash from the ATM in the next village over. But otherwise, our commerce is all electronic and works as well as it should.

Which brings us, boys and girls, to our lesson for today. Finally. Electricity. It's different.

If you've traveled at all, you know that electrical service is fundamentally different in Europe. Not only are French outlets configured differently than American outlets, but French outlets deliver 230 volts as opposed to the 120 volt American supply. Thus most American appliances will not work in France, will in fact overload dangerously. Exceptions can include such items as the power supplies for laptops and chargers for cell phones and tablets. Always check to make certain. Find the small print on the device or its power supply. American chargers that will accept the more robust European current will have something like Input: AC 100V - 240V printed on themWith the use of an adaptor, not a voltage converter that actually steps down the voltage but a device that simply configures the plug so that it will fit into the wall socket, you can use that device in France. And keep in mind, if you are going to travel to other European countries, that French sockets are configured differently from those of the rest of Europe. One size does not fit all.

In addition to a supply of adaptors for my laptop and those of our chargers that would accept French current, we brought a high-end voltage converter to France with us. Somewhat smaller than a bread box and heavy as lead, the converter steps the 230 volt supply down to 110 volts, allowing my wife Cathey to plug in various of her American kitchen appliances that she would otherwise have had to replace. The cost of replacing her KitchenAid alone would have been several times the cost of the converter.

So, we're set to go. We have an account with EDF, the major supplier that serves Quarante. I'd prefer a local co-op like we had in Cazouls, but we'll see. I pay EDF an estimated bill monthly, drawn automatically from our bank account and, in another six months or so they'll read the meter again and we'll settle up. We haven't had problems until recently. Lights, washer, dryer, fans in the summer, all OK. So far, so good.

But...

When we turned on our oil-filled electric radiators in mid December, the main breaker tripped and we lost all power. Here's the deal. Every room in the house has its own individually thermostatically controlled radiator with some fancy programming available. You can turn the radiator on or off manually and you can set the temperature up or down manually. Or you can use one of four 'Eco'
presets: heat for a couple of hours in the morning, heat for a few hours in the evening, heat both morning and evening but not in the middle of the day or at night, or heat right through from morning to evening but not at night. Of course, none of that matters if you can't turn on multiple radiators at once without tripping the main. We can't turn on multiple radiators at once without tripping the main.

I checked our EDF contract. In France, you don't simply pay for the electricity that you use. First, you decide how much electricity that you think that you will draw and pay an annual fee for the right to draw that much. Without going into too much detail, I discovered that our contract was for less than would be recommended for a house of our size with electric heat, hot water, and laundry. So when we turned on the radiators in several rooms at once, the main breaker determined that we were drawing more electricity than we were entitled to draw and shut us down.

After determining through trial and error just how much electricity we could afford to pull and therefore how warm we could be without tripping the main, I went to the EDF office in Narbonne and contracted for a higher level of draw. By appointment two days later, an EDF worker came by the house. He inspected our equipment and decided that the outside feed and the main breaker leading into our relatively new interior breaker panel wouldn't handle the extra power. They would need to be replaced. There would be an extra cost. He took pictures with his phone and promised to get back to us. This was on December 17th. I asked if we might have the better service by Christmas. He gave a very French shrug of the shoulders and noted that the holidays were coming up. Who could tell?

Three weeks later, well past the holidays, having heard not a peep from EDF, I called EDF's English language customer service help line. Even though my French is reasonably sufficient for face-to-face conversations, telephone conversations are difficult. I can't see the other person. I can't use my hands. I don't seem to have time enough to think of what I want to say. So I called the English language number. I talked to a nice, thoroughly unhelpful fellow. Unfortunately, technical services is different from customer service. And this particular guy in customer service didn't particularly want to talk to the folks at technical services. And the folks at technical services don't speak English.  So back I went to the Narbonne office.

There, the young lady was most helpful. Once she understood the depth (shallowness) of my language skills, she promised me that she would speak doucement (slowly). She pulled up our file. She called technical services. She waited patiently on hold. She were connected. She explained our problem. She took notes. I picked up a bit of what she was saying. They knew who we were. They had our file. They would call us at home after lunch. They would speak doucement.

We went home and waited for the call that never came. Instead, Miles called. You remember Miles. Franglo Fix It. He had set up our EDF account for us before we arrived and they still had his phone number attached to the account. Apparently, the call from the Narbonne office had stirred up the ant hill. Check your email, Mies said. And I did. And there was the devis (estimate) from the technical guys at EDF. 514.14 Euros. Print, sign and mail back the contract. Pay by credit card online. So I did and I did.

I'm a little concerned that I wasn't provided with a receipt for my online payment. And we haven't been given a date for the work to be done. So stay tuned. I'm going to post this and update later.

Electricity certainly is difference in France.

EDIT: The guys from EDF have come and gone. No nonsense, hardworking guys who came to do a job and did the job. Installed a new branch feed and remote meter reader outside and a new meter, breaker, and other bits inside. Made a mess and were good about cleaning it up. I'll need to build a cabinet to hide the workings but I was planning on doing that anyway and I'm glad that I didn't get to it before this work had to be done. All of the heaters are up and running. So far, so good. We'll see how long it will take to warm the house up to a comfortable temperature and keep it there. The only problem I can foresee is that the meter won't be read for several months. We may be in for a shock. Maybe one more edit in spring?

ALL SAINTS DAY IN THE QUARANTE CEMETERY

In the United States, October 31st is Halloween. Period. France is among those countries that have a different take on this time of year. October 31st is All Souls Day and November 1st is All Saints Day. Folks remember those who have passed. Each little village has its own cemetery and each cemetery is refreshed and renewed. Imagine an entire town getting a new coat of paint. That's the way the cemetery looked as every piece of marble appeared to have been washed and polished. That's not to say that the French haven't started to adopt the whole costume-wearing, Trick or Treating routine. But it's going slowly and that's fine with us.

Cathey and I visited the cemetery in Quarante today. We were going to visit yesterday but as we were leaving the house and walking by the abbey, we noticed a funeral taking place. We didn't want our curiosity and picture taking to intrude. Hence, I post today.












In the United States, October 31st is Halloween. Period. France is among those countries that have a different take on this time of year. October 31st is All Souls Day and November 1st is All Saints Day. Folks remember those who have passed. Each little village has its own cemetery and each cemetery is refreshed and renewed. Imagine an entire town getting a new coat of paint. That's the way the cemetery looked as every piece of marble appeared to have been washed and polished. That's not to say that the French haven't started to adopt the whole costume-wearing, Trick or Treating routine. But it's going slowly and that's fine with us.

Cathey and I visited the cemetery in Quarante today. We were going to visit yesterday but as we were leaving the house and walking by the abbey, we noticed a funeral taking place. We didn't want our curiosity and picture taking to intrude. Hence, I post today.











VENDANGE IN THE LANGUEDOC:
EXPANDED PICTURES AND DESCRIPTION

If you've never spent significant time in a grape-growing region like Languedoc-Roussillon, you can’t understand the way in which the vendange, the harvest, pervades local life when the end of summer rolls around. And there are few regions quite like the Languedoc. Depending on who does the counting, France and Italy run a close race for the country that produces the most wine by volume in the world and the Languedoc produces the most wine by volume in France. From our house in Quarante, we can drive for dozens of miles (or kilometers, if you prefer) in any direction and pass vineyard upon vineyard stretching literally from horizon to horizon.

To put it in proper perspective, California’s Napa Valley hosts about 45,000 acres of vineyards as compared to 700,000 acres in the Languedoc. That’s as if every patch of ground in Rhode Island was vineyards, wall to wall. Again depending on your source, that comes to from two to four times the acreage reported to be under cultivation in Bordeaux.

There was a time when the red table wine consumed daily throughout most of Europe came from this corner of southwest France. But times changed. Palates improved as did the quality and cost of transportation of reds from places like Australia and South America and the US. The Languedoc struggled. But French viticulture is a proud science and vignerons (winemakers) are proud of their art. The Languedoc is rebounding and its wines are now taking their place alongside the best in the world.

The struggles experienced by the wine culture in the Languedoc not only has led to improvement of the product but has also led to diversification. Tourists have discovered that the Languedoc is less crowded, less expensive, but just as beautiful as nearby, trendy Provence and the locals have decided that tourist dollars spend as easily as the proceeds from their wine. And tourism can be linked to viticulture to include vineyard tours, tastings, and the like.

So, yes. The vendange in the Languedoc is a very big deal, both a blessing and a curse. 

As summer ends and fall approaches, the very air becomes electric. Every morning, you awake expecting to hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the stickiness, get bitten by the yellow jackets, get stacked up in traffic, and in general curse up one side and down the other because the vendange has begun. The first grapes that are ready to be harvested are the whites, the chardonnay. If you know your local viticulture, you may even be able to predict which vineyards will be ready first. But in short order, everyone will know. The vintners, who have been going to their vineyards earlier and earlier in the morning, finally decide that the time has come.


The big, honking mechanical harvesters hit the road. Cars and trucks jam the verges of the vineyards that are to be picked by hand. Tractors with trailers that are numbered to identify to which section of which vineyard their contents belong make their stately way to the co-ops, leaving trails of grape juice at every curve along the two-lane blacktops that they travel.

 

They dump their loads and they go back for more.





And if you have to be anywhere during the vendange, you'd better add a half hour to your travel time. At the end of the day, the tractors bring their trailers to washing stations. The gutters run with more of the juice, keeping the ready supply of buzzing, biting insects happy.

And who knew that grapes in bulk could smell that strongly from that far away?


That's not an oil refinery. That's just one of dozens of local co-ops, one in nearly every small town. 
But it's worth it. It's worth the trouble. Because soon, not too soon but soon, we'll be sitting on the terrace. enjoying the sun, eating the cheese, and drinking the end result, the wine.

It's the south of France. Life is good... 


QUARANTE SUMMER FETE 2014

During the penultimate August weekend, our Grand Rue was cordoned off and the Summer Fete commenced. 50 stalls displayed wares ranging from wine and local comestibles to jewelry, linens, metalwork, and art. Kids could ride ponies up and down the street and street performers strutted their stuff. On Saturday evening, diners on paella were serenaded by a band consisting of a female singer, a trumpet, an accordion, and drums. At full dark, fire handlers twirled flaming batons, some with fireworks exploding from the ends. In the States, there would have been six fire engines and an ambulance on hand. We didn't even see a fire extinguisher.

The local dress shop sponsored a fashion show attended by half the town. The kids in the video doing the Blues Brothers schtick were eight or ten years old and got a rousing standing ovation.






RUNNING OF THE BULLS - QUARANTE 2014

I'm not hip to all of the history and tradition, but it seems that the running of bulls through public streets goes back hundreds of years and is connected to transporting the bulls to the bullrings for the fights. These days, though bullfighting is generally frowned upon and is much less common than has previously been the case, tightly controlled bull runs still take place through many small Spanish and southern French towns. Quarante is one of those towns.
Folks have been working along the main street (Grand Rue) and in the church plaza for the past week, setting up the barricades, bandstands, and other facilities. Our usual parking places have been blocked off. The morning of the run, our little pedestrian street, which comes out behind the long bar that had been set up to serve the alcohol and food, was also blocked off so that we had to take the long way around to the square.

Folks assembled at about 11:00 am. Soon, a band began to play.





Around noon, the horsemen and women assembled in front of the band for a sort of benediction. And then the fun began. Teenage boys ran behind the horses trying to catch the bulls as well as the eyes of the coveys of teenage girls who stood tittering on the sidelines. All very politically incorrect. All just a hoot and a half. We refuse to judge. We just enjoyed.









RESTAURANT EDIT

I've recently visited two restaurants that deserve mention. You can read the original list on my archived France Blog HERE.

Abbaye Sylva Plana: Cute tapas place attached to a winery on the outskirts of Laurens. Modern décor. Good food. Reasonable prices for the quality except for the wine. (Restaurant wine in bottles is always too expensive given that perfectly acceptable wine is sold in supermarkets for 3 Euros or so. Rant over.) Cathey had the tapas menu, choice of three – a mini Mason jar with a seafood soup that was pure New Orleans crawfishy, marinated mushrooms, and peppers stuffed with the best bacalao that Cathey has ever tasted. I had a superb duck breast and finished with a nasty chocolate lava cake with whipped cream. Worth a visit if it's lunchtime and you're in the area.

Auberge de St.Martin: Fine dining on a tree-shaded patio or in a formal dining room in Beaufort outside of Olonzac. We were treated for lunch by Simon and Julia along with their Australian friends from Capestang. Beautiful setting. Comprehensive menu. Most of the party chose the Menu Terroir at 23 Euros – choice of sardines or soup, trout or lamb, and a hefty variety of interesting desserts. Cathey chose the Menu du Jour, sardines to start prepared differently than ours followed by stuffed artichokes covered with foie gras. All started with a tiny sip of fishy fish soup for an amusee. Every dish prepared and presented impeccably. Much of the cooking done on an open fire fueled by the wood of grape vines. A destination restaurant to which we'll return.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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 i…

BURGER KING, NARBONNE: RESTAURANT REVIEW (GOD FORGIVE ME)

After 48 years, The Southern Woman That I Married can still surprise me.

We went shopping the other day. You see, we're at the beginning of the French winter sales. Yes, stores here have sales all of the time, but I'm talking about THE SALES. Twice each year, once in winter and once in summer, every store holds sales. It's an official thing. There's a national start date (although it may vary a bit from region to region), a national end date, and stores are not permitted to bring in stock just for THE SALES. So these are true clearances. Discounts can be 70% or more. Serious savings.

Yes, I know. Controlled capitalism. How could it possibly work? Hint: It works because everybody buys into it, even the capitalists.


The day before we hit the shops, Cathey said,"Let's have lunch at Burger King." Be aware that Cathey has been trying to find a decent hamburger ever since we arrived in France. We've tried Buffalo Grill. We've ordered a burger at one o…