MOVING TO FRANCE - FROM THE DECISION TO THE MOVE

If you want to travel during your retirement, and where you want to do your traveling is Europe, why not live there? That's how Cathey and I came to the decision to become expats. I've discussed the process in some detail over the past couple of years. I've arranged all of the pertinent the posts on this page, in chronological order, oldest first, for easier reading. I've edited a bit for clarity and to update. You'll find discussions of arranging a mortgage, transporting our cats, health insurance, international shipping, and more. Questions or comments? All the way at the bottom of the page.
  
ON BECOMING AN EXPAT: The Beginning

From infancy through young adulthood, I lived just west of the center line of the Great Northeast Corridor of the United States, that stretch of a few hundred miles along the Atlantic coast that starts in Boston, cuts through New York and Philadelphia, and terminates in northern Virginia just past Washington, DC. I LIVED there. It wasn't just my home. I never strayed. I knew nothing of the rest of the civilized world except for what I heard and read, saw on the television or in the movies.

In the first place, our family never traveled much when I was a kid. Dad's lunch counter required his attention seven days a week. When we did vacation, we went down the shore, the Jersey shore if you didn't get the idiom. I don't remember a single night in a strange bed that wasn't in a relative's house or down the shore.

And the personal histories of my family discouraged any incentive to travel in order to return to the lands of my genealogical roots. My paternal grandmother Dora and her brother Sam told stories of waves of antisemitism culminating in pogroms in their native Ukraine, of risking lives to rescue the Torah from burning synagogues, of walking with all of their belongings in pillowcases to Milan in order to take steerage to the New World. We never knew any of Dora's five husbands, the last a cousin so we can assume that his story matches hers.

Mom's Russian progenitors apparently lived more comfortable lives. Bankers led the family. Still, they were Jewish bankers. Some chose to remain, the 'home' base for a family network that facilitated its members' desires to emigrate, not unlike today's new Americans. Gino, our favorite pizza guy when I was a kid, told of how his family in Italy put together the money to send him to New York. A cousin took Gino in, taught him the business, and put up the money for Gino to open a shop in Flemington, in what was then rural Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Gino brought over other cousins to help in the shop. Business boomed. Gino opened a second shop, staffed by the cousins he had trained, allowing for additional cousins to be brought over. That's how Grandma Rose's family operated.

Nothing in these stories created a desire in me to retrace the steps of ancestors who left their native lands so willingly.

Then one day in 1970, I climbed into my VW Beetle and embarked on a road trip sufficiently epic to merit a Ken Keyseyish novel if only I had the talent.  My intention was to travel to Atlanta to visit a friend, then on to Dallas to visit a cousin. I had no plans beyond that. But in Dallas I met Cathey, who was born in New Orleans and raised in three different Texas cities, who attended college in Mexico and did the backpacking-in-Europe scene years before. I was to spend the next forty years (and counting) with Cathey. On that one trip, I left Dallas for Indianapolis, returned to Dallas with one of Cathey's sisters, drove to New York with Cathey, to Boston and back to New York with another friend, with Cathey and friends to Chicago and San Fransisco, to Los Angeles and back to Dallas. After a side trip to New Orleans, Cathey and I found our way home, to my home, then our own first home together in northern New Jersey.

I'd been bitten by the wanderlust bug and Cathey was a carrier. With such a start, how could I not consider the unthinkable, the idea that living out my life within a few miles of my birth would not satisfy my soul?

BECOMING AN EXPAT: Making the Decision

In 1998, Cathey and I began thinking seriously about our retirement. What did we want to do during our active retirement years? Travel. Where did we want to travel? Europe. Why not live there?

That’s the flip, short-hand way that I explain the decision that led us to purchasing our vacation home in the south of France as a start on moving there permanently. The deeper reasoning was a bit more complicated than that and we’ve had to re-examine our decision at various points along the way. Perhaps it’s time to update the discussion of our making the decision to live as expats.

Before meeting Cathey, my travel had been confined exclusively to the East Coast megalopolis – Boston to the north, D.C. to the south, and not very far inland. My family never ventured outside the region while I was growing up. I don’t remember my grandmother, who lived next door to us, ever leaving town during the last fifteen years or so of her life. Dad and Nana had moved from the Bronx in the 1930s and, although Nana had walked out of Russia and made her way through Europe to Ellis Island 30 years previous, and although Dad had island-hopped with MacArthur and sailed around the Horn numerous times in the Merchant Marines during WWII, once they had settled on a dirt road just outside of Flemington, NJ, they stuck like glue.

Mom was even more parochial. Born and raised in Frenchtown, just down the road from Flemington but less than half its size, Mom graduated Frenchtown High, went to nursing school in Newark, and lasted only two weeks before homesickness drove her back to Frenchtown. She lived within ten miles of her four older siblings for 70 years, until the eldest brother moved into his daughter’s condo in Boca. The remaining four passed where they had been raised.

Aunt Sara was found on the floor of the kitchen in the family house in Frenchtown. She’d never left. There were whispers that she’d been the victim in a tragic love affair. To me, and later to Cathey, Sara had always been open and welcoming. We visited more often than any of the other nieces and nephews who had moved away, she always had cookies for us – store-bought chocolate chip, and if it was mealtime, maybe a bit of herring?  We liked Sara and I think that she liked us. I hope that she didn’t suffer.

Cathey’s back story is a bit different. Born in her mother’s family’s base in New Orleans, she was raised in Brownsville, San Antonio, and Dallas, Texas. Her father was in the hotel and hospitality industry and had an affection for things Mexican. As a result, Cathey spent time in Mexico with family friends, went to college in Mexico City, and had done the Icelandic Airways/backpack Europe thing that was in vogue in those days besides. She was a traveler and felt comfortable in other people’s neighborhoods.

It was pure serendipity that I met Cathey on my first trip outside of my comfort zone. We first laid eyes on each other 41 years ago at the old Dallas airport coincidentally named Love Field.

I discovered on that first trip that I enjoyed the road. It was a doozie of a trip – Flemington to Atlanta to Dallas to Indianapolis to Dallas to New York to Boston to New York to Chicago to San Francisco to Los Angeles to Dallas to New Orleans to Dallas to Flemington in a 1970 VW Beetle – brand new when the trip started. Cathey and I have been traveling ever since, around the USofA, into Mexico, out to the Caribbean, and finally to England and Europe.
 
On the way, I discovered that I enjoyed breathing different air, tasting different foods, seeing different sites, figuring out how to communicate in a language other than English. For Cathey, who’d flown on DC3s when they were brand new and all the women  – passengers and crew – wore white gloves, the idea of living an expatriate’s life was hardly a novel one. She knew many expats personally. She counted some among her best friends.

What did we want to do during our active retirement years? Travel. Where did we want to travel? Europe. Why not live there?

 RETIRING TO FRANCE PERMANENTLY – SETTING THE STAGE

The Southern Woman That I Married and I are both 63 years old. Neither of us was infected with the Protestant work ethic. Work for pay does not define us. We can fill our days without taking big chunks of time out of them to ‘earn’ a living. When we can afford to retire, we will.
We’ll be able to afford retirement in a couple of years.

As my readers are aware, we began planning for our retirement over a decade ago. What did we want to do during our retirement? Travel. Where did we want to travel? Europe. Why not live there?

After investigating likely retirement locales in newsletters, on the internet, and in person, we became captivated by the Languedoc. One morning over breakfast, on our first visit to the region, we struck up a conversation with three couples at a neighboring table in what has over time proved to be our favorite hotel/restaurant, the Hotel Residence in Nissan-lez-Enserune. They were vacationing from their homes in Provence and they confirmed what we had read. The Languedoc is less crowded than Provence, less expensive, and just as beautiful in terms of both scenery and climate.

We were convinced. We bought. We took possession of our little village house in Cazouls les Beziers on January 1, 2005. We visit once or twice a year, we rent it to vacationers when we can, and we haven’t looked back.

Now it’s time to look forward, though. In the next set of posts, I’ll be talking about our plans to put our house in Cazouls on the market during our upcoming trip over the Pond and about the rest of our plans for the next couple of years.

 RETURNING TO FRANCE PERMANENTLY – ARRANGING  REAL ESTATE SALES

Our village house in Cazouls has served us well but it is not suitable as a permanent retirement home. It has no garden; the patio is too small for comfortable, open-house, sloppy partying; and two twisty flights of stairs to the top floor is just too many for a woman with two replaced knees and a husband
who is just plain lazy. So we have three real estate transactions to accomplish in order to make our permanent move to France. We have to sell our houses in Cazouls and in the USofA and we have to buy the house in which we will live in France permanently. We’ve thought carefully about how to time these transactions, making our move as efficiently as possible. Here’s the plan. Time will tell how closely the plan mirrors reality.

First, we’ll put the Cazouls house on the market. We’ve contacted Freddy Rueda, the agent who sold us the house, and may contact one or two others as well. We have to learn a bit more about the way real estate sales happen in France. We know that there is nothing like the multi-list system that we have in the Colonies – that is, you contract with one agent who has exclusive rights to show/sell your house for a fixed period of time and then your house goes up for grabs on the multi-list and any agent who subscribes to the list can take a crack at it. As we understand it, in France your agent is your agent. No multi-list. The question is: Can you contract with more than one agent? Is it legal? Is it ethical?

And one more consideration. We have a good bit of equity in the house. How do we handle that from across the Pond? I’m reasonably certain that we could make the basics happen – pay off the mortgage and have the equity check deposited in our French checking account. But there are complicating factors. We have a tenant in the house into September. Must we wait to put the house on the market until then? Although we plan to sell the house furnished, there are items that we’d like to retain – paintings on the walls, clothing, and other personal and household items that we’d like to negotiate with a prospective buyer to store for us. Could any real estate agent, having been named as agent on a power of attorney for the purpose, be trusted to follow French law and our instructions to the letter? Would he or she act solely in our interests or be tempted to turn a quick buck?

So we’ve asked friends if they can recommend a lawyer and we’ll meet with our personal banker to discuss the matter as well.

Next steps and answers to these and other questions to follow.

EDIT: The house in Cazouls sold in a couple of weeks at the full asking price. Freddy Rueda is a pip. Yes, you can list with more than one agent. We did. But Freddy had the house up on his site immediately and was showing the house a few days after we left. Germans. Paid cash. Figures. Germans have all of the cash in Europe right now. We've since met the new owners, a pathologist and his family. Nice guy. They're tearing the house apart and remodeling. They'll enjoy the place. We did.

CREDIT LYONNAISE MORTGAGE PRE-APPROVAL

We've had a checking account with Credit Lyonnaise since 2005. We've paid all of our French bills through the account either by check or debit - mortgage (through a different bank), taxes, utilities, property management, the works. We have a Carte Bleu  (French credit card - Visa - tied to our bank account). We have a 'personal banker' with whom I can exchange emails (thanks to Google Translate). We  recently opened a savings account in which we've parked the equity from the sale of our house.

I contacted our personal banker to ask how to pre-approve a mortgage. That's how we purchased the house in Cazouls. We'd contacted Banque Patrimoine & Immobilier on the advice of an expat on one of the expat forums. We faxed and FedExed a bunch of financial information. Eventually, we were pre-approved for a mortgage of up to 100,000 euros. It made things simple when we found the house. Put the money down, inform the bank, and away we went.

Credit Lyonnaise does not work that way, I'm told. When we've found the property, we'll let the bank know. They'll decide then and only then. No pre-approval. Not terribly convenient. Oh, well. If these things were easy, we'd all be rich.

EDIT: Credit Lyonnaise crapped out. We found the house that we were looking for in Quarante, called with the particulars, and they simply disappeared. The mortgage company that the real estate agent suggested wasn't interested. We weren't looking to borrow enough to make it worth their while to write the note. In the end, we went back to BPI. Even though we had a history, our age was a problem. We had to fill out endless forms, have blood work and an EKG sent to them, and had to have our doctor fill out a four-page form that ended with the question: Will the mortgage holder live long enough to pay off the mortgage? And we had to buy mortgage insurance. But they got it done and the rate of 2.68% fixed for 15 years works very well for me.

PREPARING FOR THE TRIP

During the months leading up to our trip to the Languedoc in 2013 to purchase our retirement home, I spent hour upon hour scouring real estate websites. One site that has an extensive list of agents in the region is languedoc.angloinfo.com. I ran down the lists of agents in Herault and Aude on that site, bookmarking those who seemed to handle properties in our desired location and price range. Two sites that consolidate listings from various agents and were also helpful in building my list of bookmarks were www.french-property.com and www.frenchpropertylinks.com.

All of the sites allow you to filter by some or all of a number of parameters - price, region, number of bedrooms, square footage, land area, and more. Most sites also allow you to save your search parameters and to bookmark listings as favorites. Some sites will send an email notification if a new property is listed that meets your search parameters. I visited sites as often as three or four times a week until I had a feeling for which sites were kept up to date on a reasonably frequent basis and which remained static for weeks at a time. I dropped most of the static sites, dropped the sites that were thin in our preferred region or price range, and in the end had narrowed the list down to seven sites.

TIP: Be aware that there is no such thing as the American MLS (Multi Listing Service) in France. Small agencies stand alone. Some of the smaller agencies form networks under one name, franchises if you will. Several such appear in the list above. But even under the same franchise, agencies in one town don’t always work together with other agencies in the same franchise in the region. So the fact remains, two houses may be for sale in the same village, side by side, but if they are offered by two different agencies you may never be shown the one that’s just right for you. That’s why you have to do your due diligence.

French deal making is accomplished on a much more casual scale than in the States, at least in the Mediterranean southwest. You'd think that if an agent is in the real estate business, there is at least a casual interest in making a sale. But they do seem indifferent by American standards. I’m not a sociologist. I can’t give a well-researched, technical response to the question of why some agents may take days to answer a phone message from a prospective buyer. But that’s the case. So it simply does not make sense for you to wait until you arrive in France to begin making phone calls to set up appointments. And our experience tells us that even trying to make appointments with agents over the internet prior to visiting is a fruitless exercise. Once you arrive and attempt to confirm by phone, like as not you will be confronted by a full voice mailbox.

Our solution to this conundrum was to contract with Miles Barrington. You remember Miles, proprietor of FrangloFixIt. We emailed Miles a list of properties from our internet investigations that interested us along with the contact information for the agents and left it to Miles to arrange the viewings. In one case, the agent refused to speak to anyone but the buyer. In one case, it took several phone calls for Miles to get past a full voice mailbox. But in the end, two days after our arrival in France, after the jet lag had diminished and starting on a Monday, we were viewing properties. By the end of the first week, we’d met with every agent on our list. We'd viewed sixteen properties. We couldn’t have done it as efficiently and effectively any other way.

ARRIVING IN THE LANGUEDOC:
Always Travel with an Oyster Knife

On the Sunday morning after we arrived in Cuxac d'Aude, a little suburb of Narbonne in the Languedoc, I took a stroll around the village to see what shops might be open. In the old days, a mere eight years ago, everything was closed on Sundays. Everything. Well, everything except the bakery. Fresh bread daily is a requirement for a civilized life. But times have changed. On this particular Sunday morning I found a butcher, a little village epicerie (market), a florist, and a couple of other places ready for trade. As I came up to the main street, a man was pulling bins of oysters and mussels out of a little white van and setting up on card tables on the sidewalk! Well, Cathey needed to see this. She was born in New Orleans, you see, and one of the great pleasures of her life is slurping oysters.

What month is this? April, a month with an R. Good.

So after a quick walk around town I returned to our gite, collected Cathey, and we made a visit to the
sidewalk seafood vendor. We explained that we'd like to buy some oysters but we didn't have an oyster knife. (Unless you have a pet seagull on call, trained to open oysters for you, an oyster knife is an essential instrument to facilitate oyster slurping. I thought that we might be able to con one out of the vendor.) The vendor pointed down the block to the epicerie that I'd seen earlier and said that they would have an oyster knife. Who'd have thunk it? But it's France, after all. And there it was, on a display of little kitchen utensils, right next to the cash register. The knife was a flimsy looking thing with a pink plastic handle but we thought that we'd give it a try. Just a few euros. What did we have to lose?

We bought a kilo of oysters for six euros – eight oysters at about a dollar an oyster but what the hell - and Cathey scarfed 'em down as fast as I could open them. Faster.

Our Requirements

Cathey wants a proper kitchen, not a kitchen corner in the middle of a living/dining room. When Cathey cooks, she like as not will shoo her guests away regardless of any offers of help. A separate and distinct kitchen and a place to shoo people away to that is not accessible to the kitchen is a must. And Cathey is a power lounger. We’d need sunny outdoor space, a patio or a terrace. Add to that three bedrooms, or at least three rooms that can be used as bedrooms, and we can deal with just about anything else.

The discerning reader will have noted that I have not yet provided our budget. I hesitate to do so. Prices change with the economy. Your budget will be a function of your requirements, your income, your savings, and the market at the time. We were flexible but we were bottom fishers. My internet investigations led me to the conclusion that we could find a suitable village house, in a proper village with a bakery and an epicerie and other amenities, for $175,000 or thereabouts at the exchange rate at the time - $1.35 per Euro. Certainly at $225,000, finding the perfect place would be quite a bit easier, but we could use the extra income that the additional $50,000 in savings would produce. Furthermore, having sold our house in Cazouls in 2011 for 25% more than we paid for it, and having pulled about $75,000 equity out of the sale, the object of the exercise was to keep our savings intact, plow the equity we'd banked from the Cazouls house into the purchase, and keep our mortgage payments as low as possible. Yes, we were looking at the lower end of the market, not the rock bottom but far enough down so that we knew our choices would be limited.

But the general rules that I set forth for web searching will apply for any budget in any region.

A Definite Possibility

Katie is an Irish lass who has a husband, two kids, and a 4WD. She's lost a full stone (14 lbs.) climbing up and down stairs showing people typical French houses on three levels. She showed us three houses, all very different. Unfortunately, the house that really interested me on the website had already sold. We'd already met with several agents. We'd seen nothing that fulfilled all of our requirements. We weren't getting desperate but we were a bit edgy.

The first house Kate showed us was in the village of Magalas. We'd stayed in Magalas once when there was work being done on our house in Cazouls. Bustling and full of foreigners...meaning Brits if you're Irish. The house was unfinished, therefore cheap, and if you wanted it finished the owner would complete to your specifications. Nice idea. Wrong house. The kitchen was already in place and is just like the one in Cazouls, on a line and right smack in the middle of the living room. Cathey would have none of it.

On to the next house, I forget which village. Very odd. Rabbit warren. Rooms everywhere, sometimes requiring that you go down an outside corridor, open to the weather, to get from one room to the next. Too weird.

On to the village of Laurens, a bit north of our usual stomping grounds. At the top of the village, across from the mairie (town hall) and its little gated park with fountain, a few meters from a car park and on a pedestrian way, sat a very French house indeed. Living room, galley kitchen, dining room on the first floor. All just big enough. Two BIG bedrooms on the second floor, one with a double and a single and plenty of room besides. The bathroom was modern with a tub/shower combination. Big bedroom on the third floor opening onto a big, sunny, reasonably private terrace with a fantastic view. No garage or cellar so storage a problem but if we use the top floor bedroom for my office – a desk and and a chair and a futon – there'll be plenty of room to store stuff and I won't mind.

The price was way out of our range but Katie said that she thinks that there's lots of room to bargain and, since the owners have money and are already looking for a B&B to buy in the region, they might just bite. We thanked Katie, started our mental wheels churning. The next day, I emailed Katie and offered 25% below the asking price for the Frenchie house in Laurens. What the hell. Later that night, the phone rang. The owners of the Frenchie house in Laurens would go for our offer. Cathey and I looked at each other, nodded, and said, “Yes.”

Yes, we bought a house. WE BOUGHT A HOUSE.

The Plot Thickens

Quiet Saturday morning. Sleep late. Lazy day.

Wrong!

I did sleep a bit late. So what? We'd bought a house in France, the primary purpose for our mad dash through these last couple of weeks. We could enjoy the trip as a vacation now. There'd be some papers to sign, a mortgage broker or two to connect with. No big deal. Relax. Have a cup of coffee. Maybe visit one of our favorite wineries. Maybe go to Sete by the sea to our favorite seafood restaurant in the region to watch Cathey eat more oysters.

I'll just take a minute to open my email and see what's new.

Leave it to Freddy Rueda and his minion Berangere. You don't show up in the Languedoc from Algeria riding a bicycle and proceed to build one of the busiest real estate agencies in the region (so goes the apocryphal Freddy story) by letting a live one get away. Berangere, who'd shown us several houses, all unsuitable, on our first day of house-hunting, had sent us a listing for a house in Quarante with an asking price that starts out less than our accepted offer on the house in Laurens. Cellar for storage. Terrace next to the kitchen instead of up two flights. Salon on a different floor from the kitchen so Cathey can exile intruders while she's cooking and they won't be just around the corner. Slightly larger kitchen than the Laurens house – apparently not well equipped but at that price we can have Miles finish it off to Cathey's specifications before we take up residence. New surfaces easy to clean. It's in the same village where Miles lives. It's the next village over from Capestang where friends Simon and Julia live. Right in our wheelhouse instead of a half an hour north of our accustomed haunts as is the house in Laurens.

Who do these Frenchies think that they are, tormenting me so? Berangere wants to arrange a viewing 'next week'. But we're scheduled to meet Katie on Monday afternoon for a last look at the house in Laurens, bringing Miles along to poke and prod the place, before we sign at the notaire's office on Tuesday. A brief flurry of emails ensues. Yes, Berangere can meet us on Monday morning. Yes, Miles can be there too.

Now comes time for reflection. Is it wrong to pull the rug out from Katie in this way? Not really. Even after we sign, the French have a seven day No Harm/No Foul law. And we haven't signed yet. Why is there no picture of the bathroom in the Quarante house, of the view from the terrace? Yada, yada, yada. Blah, blah, blah. A perfectly good Saturday morning shot to hell.

The Plot Gets Thickerer

Monday. Gray day. Cool and damp. Perhaps an omen. But Cathey reminds me that on such a day we celebrated the purchase of our house in Cazouls in 2004.

We breakfasted with bits and pieces of left over ficelle and ham and hit the road to Quarante at 10 am. It's a familiar road, through Capestang and along the Canal du Midi. We remember the entrance to the village but we've always passed through. This time, we turn toward the center of the village and find a place to park past a couple of cafes up the hill near the mairie square. We're a bit early. Cathey chooses to stay warm in the car. I climb up to the mairie and over a block to the church square. There's a baker and a butcher, a pharmacy and a little grocery. It's a quieter town than Cazouls, with the main road skirting the town rather than running through it.

As I return to the car, I see Miles walking up the hill. He lives only a five minute walk away. He's a bit scruffy. Late night with an Australian mate who we run into as we climb to the mairie. The Aussie looks quite a bit better than Miles. An Aussie would.

We meet Berangere in the church square. She's brought her daughter, Gabrielle. Five years old? No sitter. We walk a block to the house, down a quiet pedestrian street that connects the church and the mairie. I suppose that you could squeeze a car through if you had to. Easy for a scooter.

The exterior of the house is not impressive. It could use a coat of plaster. So could most French village houses. But as we go inside, Cathey begins to perk up. There's a deep and wide entrance hall with a little toilet and wash basin closed in at the end. To the right is the salon, good size with a big double window to let in light. Behind the salon is a low-walled alcove with plumbing fittings. Washer and dryer? So far, so good.

Up the stairs to the kitchen/dining room. It needs work. An electric oven with an induction cooking surface has been placed against one wall along with a couple of base cabinets. First of all, Cathey needs to be able to utilize cast iron. Induction will never do. And since it's not a large space, careful planning is in order. But, since the room will only ever be used for cooking and eating, and since the salon downstairs is of sufficient size for shooed-away guests, Cathey can make it work perfectly well if Miles fits it out to her specs. It's a better space than the house in Laurens. And the best part is the huge terrace off the dining area. The view isn't exceptional but water and electricity hookups are in place. Huge. Sun most of the day. Miles is impressed. Its size and location is unusual for a house in a village center where roof terraces are the norm. Kitchen, dining and terrace all together on one level. Cathey is already hooked.

Up another flight to a hallway, a tiny shower room, and the 'master' bedroom – maybe 10' X 10' and no closet space. But there's room in the hall for an armoire if we can figure out how to get one up there. And now we see why the owner has added plumbing connections in two places on the first floor. A second shower room down there could be bigger. But if we can expand the shower stall a bit, I can live with it and so can Cathey.

Up another flight to the fourth floor. Fourth floor? Yes. Four floors. Two small bedrooms, also about 10' X 10'. One with a view to the hills and a skylight that could be my office and one for guests. And with a futon in my office, we can accommodate a crowd.

We go outside and around to the door to the cellar. A real hobbit hole but storage is storage and doesn't have to be pretty. Cathey is convinced. This is the one. She says so in front of Berangere. Well, there was no way to hide it. While Berangere goes back to her car to check on Gabrielle, we talk with Miles. The asking price is ridiculously low at $155,000 but there’s work to be done. The previous owners have stripped the house down completely, then replastered the walls and replanked the floors. The kitchen will need to be designed and refitted, there are connections in every room but no heaters, some light fixtures will have to be hung. 5,000 euros for the lot? Miles thinks that he can do it at that price with money to spare.

When Berangere returns, we offer $147,500 just to prove that we’re not rubes. We'll need to know quickly as we have an appointment with Katie in the afternoon and don't want to keep her on the hook. We haven't signed anything but we don't want to jerk her around. Freddy is out of town so Berangere will try to consummate the transaction herself. This is apparently a big deal for her. I can imagine that Freddy keeps a tight rein. She'll call as soon as she can.

We drive to Laurens to lunch at a restaurant recommended by Katie, Abbaye Sylva Plana, a cute tapas place attached to a winery. Really good food. 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. And a bottle of rose. While we dine, Berangere calls. The owner is in a meeting. She'll get back to us. A half hour later, another call. She's closed the deal... for $145,000, less than we offered! We shout into the phone, “Yes!”

As we leave to meet Katie, Katie calls.

“Was today the day that we were to meet?”

“Yes, but we have bad news. We're in Laurens now because we wanted to tell you in person. We've looked at a house that came to us over the weekend, after we talked to you, and there are ten reasons why it's a better deal.”

She took it very well. She wanted to know which town and which realtor but really seemed OK with it.

So we left Laurens, made a stop above Cazouls at Caza Viel winery, one of our favorites, to pick up a case of rose and a couple of bottles of viognier to celebrate with, and headed back to our gite in Cuxac. We exchanged some emails with Berangere to get the ball rolling. We heard from Miles about an agent that had contacted him with what sounded like a nice house at a good price but in a village without commerce. We declined. I went out in the pouring rain to pick up a baguette. Then dinner. Salad with marinated anchovies. Baked Camembert. Bits and pieces. And a bottle of rose.

WE'VE BOUGHT A HOUSE IN FRANCE.

I've said that before, haven't I?

WE'VE BOUGHT A BETTER HOUSE IN FRANCE.

QUARANTE: OUR TOWN

We take a quick trip to Quarante. On Tuesday. Cathey wants to measure for curtains. We’re a few minutes early for our meeting with Berangere. Again, Cathey waits in the car. Again, I walk over to the church square and wait on a bench.

A medium-size dog of indeterminate parentage, well groomed and with a collar, comes flying out of an alley at the far end of the square followed by a lad of about 8 or 9. They chase each other around the fountain for a few minutes, then the dog comes over to give me a sniff. The boy follows and sits on the opposite end of the fence.

Je suis Americain,” I say. “Parlez-vous Anglais? Do you speak English?”

The boy’s eyes widen. “Yes,” he says. “We study in school.”

“You speak English very well,” I say.

“Sank you.”

A young woman emerges from the alley and the boy takes off, jabbering and pointing. The woman looks over at me. I smile and wave. She smiles and waves back. Mother, son, and dog disappear down the street.

Our town.
ON TAKING OUR CATS TO FRANCE - PART 1
We will not move to France without Mimi and Chloe, our Siamese stepsisters. It would not be LIKE leaving members of our family behind. We WOULD be leaving members of our family behind. So we investigated.

There appear to be two phases to the process. First, how are we going to travel with the cats physically? Then, what happens when we show up in customs with two very tired, annoyed, and vocal felines?

This post will discuss the first question.

Let me be clear. We will not fly in the cabin with the cats in the hold. More precisely, Cathey won't fly in the cabin with the cats in the hold and I, being smarter than the average bear, agree. This limits our choice of airlines. Our usual carrier is Delta/Air France. We normally fly from JFK to Barcelona, rent a car, and drive over the border to France. Delta/Air France does allow cats in the cabin - for a fee of $200 apiece. Including that fee, two one-way tickets would amount to just under $5,000. Two round trip tickets would come to  $2,300. Big difference.

So I called Delta and asked the question: What happens if I buy a round-trip ticket and don't use the return? The answer, according to the agent with an accent neither American nor French, is that nothing will happen. We will receive a credit for the unused portion of the ticket and, after a year, the credit will disappear.

That works.

A thought occurred. We'll be flying into Spain but the cats will be residing in France. We could certainly drive across the border between the two countries without stopping, or even slowing down very much, but will that result in our cats being illegal residents of France? Perhaps it would be better to just fly into France and be done with it.

The question of price became an issue as did the fact that there are no direct flights to any city as close to our destination as Barcelona. To fly to Paris, change planes, and fly on to Montpellier would be one solution. But instead of costing us $2,300, that flight would cost closer to $3,300.

What other options were there to consider? After much internet investigation and phone calls to several different airlines, we have come up with a solution. Turkish Air. We can fly from JFK through Istanbul to Marseille, with the cats in the cabin, for a total of $1,297. One-way tickets. And our tickets would be flexible. No charge for date or flight changes. Literally cheap at twice the price.

The layover in Istanbul will add considerable time to the trip but will also give us time to figure out a way to allow the cats to release their bladders and stretch their legs.

So, unless we come up with Plan C, we'll work on the assumption that we're headed for Marseille by way of Istanbul.

ON TAKING OUR CATS TO FRANCE - PART 2

We've determined on which airline we'll be flying to which port of entry - Turkish Air through Istanbul to Marseille (See Part I). The next hurdle? Paperwork.

The website maintained by the French embassy in DC has a section on regulations regarding bringing privately-owned pets into France. It seems simple enough. Dogs, cats, and ferrets as well as hamsters, mice and other domestic pet rodents are welcome with the proper paperwork. Birds must undergo quarantine either pre- or post-entry. Here are the rules  ripped from the website and slightly modified for clarity for dogs, cats and ferrets coming to France from the US:
  • Every animal must be identified by a standard ISO 11784 or annex A ISO standard 11785 microchip or a tatoo clearly readable and applied before July, 2011. If the microchip standard is different from standard ISO 11784 or annex A ISO standard 11785, you must bring your own scanner in order to read the microchip.  
  • Every animal must have a valid rabies vaccination, even if less than 3 months old. If it is the first rabies vaccination for the pet, you must wait 21 days between the last shot of the vaccination protocol and departure.
  • An OFFICIAL health certificate.
I've capitalized OFFICIAL for a reason. There's a form. It is not enough to have our vet sign off on the health of Mimi and Chloe - our Siamese stepsisters. The official USDA vet in our home state must sign off on the health of our cats no more than 10 days from our date of departure. This creates two problems:

1. Our vet since our cats acquired us retired just seven or eight months before we're scheduled to leave. We're going to run this craziness through a vet who has never before seen us or our cats.
2. The office of the official USDA vet for Pennsylvania is in Harrisburg, the state capitol 80 miles away.

So I called the number that I had for the new vet, Dr. Leck. After explaining the situation, I was given a number to call in Harrisburg. I called the number. I was given another number to call. I called the second number and left a message. I got a callback in a surprisingly reasonable period of time. I had called the wrong number. I would be transferred to the right number. And I was. At least I think that I was. The guy who answered seemed to know what he was talking about, asked me the name of our vet and, when I told him, said that he had the name of our vet on his list and would fax him information.

I asked for and received a callback number.

A week later we took Mimi and Chloe to Dr. Leck to be examined and chipped. Painless for us all. The chip is inserted by a syringe and the cats hardly seemed to notice. They're both in good health, from teeth to tail. 

But no fax had been received.

That's why we started this process five months before we depart. There will be glitches. From what I can tell, the form that must accompany the health certificate appears to be somewhat ambiguous in the way that documents created in foreign languages can be when translated to English. But there's time.

Updates as they become available.

TRAVELING WITH OUR CATS TO FRANCE - PHASE 1: PAPERWORK

We made it! Mimi and Chloe are with us in France. Here's how it played out.

If you've read my previous posts on the subject, you are aware that there are rules to be followed when bringing domestic animals into France. They must be micro chipped. They must have all the appropriate vaccinations. They must pass a health examination within ten days of entry into France. And the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) veterinarian for your state must sign off on their paperwork within ten days of entry into France. The timing is tight. The rules as published on the French consular website can be found here.

Again, as reported previously, we forewarned our new vet, Dr. Greg Leck, months in advance. (The vet who had cared for our Siamese step-sisters since their birth having retired, apparently just to avoid this craziness.) The girls were chipped. The paperwork downloaded, printed, and discussed. Meanwhile, in order to bring the girls with us in the cabin and in order to go through French customs rather than customs in Barcelona (so that the girls would arrive as French rather than Spanish cats), we chose Turkish Airlines - JFK to Istanbul to Marseilles.

We bought soft-sided carriers, left them out and open for the girls to explore, put their favorite toys in them, and took the girls for several short rides in the carriers in hopes that would acclimate them. The girls weren't happy about it, Mimi (the elder of the two by one year) being the more vocal. She would also occasionally mark the padding with a spot of piss - just enough to let us know that she was pissed. But all in all, they dealt with the carriers well.

As our day of departure approached, things began to get tricky. Our vet had trouble connecting with the USDA vet in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capitol about 80 miles from our home in Bath. The USDA wasn't responding to voice mails or faxes. Finally, during our visit to our local vet exactly nine days before our anticipated entry into France, we asked Dr. Leck once again to try to contact the USDA. Lo and behold, contact was made. "Fax me the paperwork," said the USDA, "and I'll get back to you in five minutes."

Yeah. Right.

But that's exactly what happened. Surprise, surprise. A quick tweak, another fax, and according to the USDA we were good to go. Good to go, that is, to Harrisburg to have the paperwork signed and sealed.

Can it be done over the counter?

Yes.

What are your hours?

8 AM to 4 PM.

Great. I hopped on my Suzuki and took the 80 mile ride to Harrisburg from Bath, found the right building, took the elevator up one floor, found the right office, and walked right in. And there, at the counter, was a sign that read: By Appointment Only. Appointment Hours 9:00 - 11:00 AM, 1:00 - 3:00 PM.

Frack!

I rang the bell. I begged.

Maybe it could be done today. Maybe not. The vet is a busy man. He might not be able to fit you in.

I proposed to go to lunch for an hour, come back, and see where things stood.

I went to lunch for an hour and came back. I rang the bell. The vet appeared.

You're the one with the cats going to France?

That's me.

That'll be $38.

Done.

I'll post once more when we arrive at our house in Quarante.

 TRAVELING WITH OUR CATS TO FRANCE - DONE!

Veterinary examinations done. Paperwork done. Reservations made. All that's left is to make the trek.

Cathey and I had decided, both for our own sanity and that of the cats, to spend only one night in a hotel prior to boarding our flight for Europe. One night was the minimum given that we had to completely clean out the house before we left, mattresses and all. We'd given some thought to spending as much as a week in a hotel but decided that would be both excessively costly and excessively stressful both for us and for the cats. Camping out in a familiar place, even in a severely stripped down condition, made more sense.

The cats were a bit spooked by this time. In fact, the past few months had been quite stressful for them. They knew that something was up but they didn't know exactly what. Strange people marched in and out of the house. Furniture and furnishings disappeared at an alarming rate. And there were those frequent visits to the vet to consider. But to their credit, and perhaps to ours, our Siamese sisters didn't completely freak out. Instead of running and hiding, they clung closer and closer to us. They spent more time on my lap in those last couple of weeks than in the past couple of years.

So, on the day before our flight we watched as Dr. Clutter cleaned us out. Everything went - mattresses, box springs, sprung sofas and arm chairs, unwanted and unsaleable furniture, everything. We put the cats in their carriers, turned the key on our home of 30 years, and didn't look back. We picked up our renter - a minivan that was required due to our four full-sized suitcases, two carry on bags, and two carriers. We dropped off our cars (sold for just about their scrap value) and checked into the local Best Western, chosen because it was both close to our house and is one of the few in the Lehigh Valley that accepts pets.
On their new bed in their new
home, safe and sound

The cats checked out the room thoroughly, announced their relative displeasure, and slept tight up against us.

Our flight time was 12:50 PM, so given three hours to get to JFK (two on average but we figured a cushion) and given three hours to check in (two required but again, a cushion), we left the hotel - after a decent free breakfast - at 7:00 AM. Traffic was light so we made good time and the cats were no more upset than during the much shorter rides to the vet. We discovered, however, that if the two zipper pulls on Chloe's carrier were in just the right position, she could arch her back and pop the zipper open. No problem. Just set the zippers at the halfway point instead of all the way to one end or the other.

By the way, these are the carriers that we used. They worked well enough. Yes, we had the zipper problem. And yes, a determined cat could probably scratch through the mesh if left unattended. But all in all, we were satisfied..

At JFK, I paid a red cap way too much money to watch out for Cathey and the cats in the terminal while I returned the renter and took the tram back. After the usual long wait in line to get to the ticket counter, we discovered that the Turkish Air agent had been trained to check in cabin-riding pets but had never actually done so. She excused herself to go talk to her supervisor and, about a half-hour later, returned to tell us that we had too much luggage. Neither the website nor the reservation agents over the phone had been clear. I'd thought that we could bring both the pet carriers and our carry on bags into the cabin. Nope. We'd have to pay for the carry ons or put the pets in the hold. Pets in the hold was not an option. $320 later, we were set to go.

We made a mistake during the boarding of our flight to Istanbul. When we got to our seats, all the way in the back of the plane, window and aisle together, a mother and child were sitting in them. We showed them our tickets and they realized that they belonged in the center section. So they moved. As it turned out, one of the three seats in their section was empty. So they were able to stretch out and be comfy. We shoulda kept our mouths shut. But it worked out OK. The stewardesses and most of the passengers loved our cats. (One passenger was a grouch. "Are they good travelers," she asked dourly. "I don't know," I replied. "They never traveled before." Eyes rolled.) And the guy and his young daughter in the seats ahead of us probably made more noise than the cats. The cats themselves never got over-excited. All in all, a fairly normal overseas flight.

We deplaned last, found our way to a quiet corner of the international terminal, put on the girls' halters and leashes, and let them out under close supervision. They stuck together like glue after a quick leg stretch, had no interest in the bits of food and water that we offered, and settled down using Cathey's coat for a pillow. After a five hour wait, our flight from Istanbul to Marseilles was called. Unfortunately, no jet way. We had to take a bus and climb stairs into the cabin. Not fun with both the cats and our carry ons, but we managed.

At this point, Chloe had enough. She began rolling on her back and kicking at the carrier. Not yowling, mind you. But showing signs of panic. Shortly after takeoff we understood why. Her bladder just could not hold out any longer. So she peed...while Cathey was holding the carrier on her lap. Ugh. Not terrible UGH! But ugh just the same.

It's a short flight from Istanbul to Marseilles. We were again the last ones out. A jet way instead of a bus, thankfully. Another long line, this time at passport control. And all the while, we could smell Chloe's pee. Not UGH enough for anyone else to notice, but we could. Finally, we reached the guy in the passport control booth.

Our instructions when applying for our long-stay visa had been specific. Your passport must have two blank pages facing each other, one for the long-stay visa and one for your entry stamp. So we opened our passports to the visa page when we handed them over. The guy looked our passports over, flipped through pages, and stamped them somewhere in the back. Maybe it won't matter. (It didn't. More about the immigration form in a later post.)

We picked up a cart for our luggage, loaded up with the cats' carriers on the top, and headed for customs. Nothing to declare. Except cats. I had their paperwork out. You remember, the paperwork that cost us hundreds of dollars, a trip to Harrisburg, and several dozen gray hairs to obtain? The customs agents on duty just waved us through. I pointed to the cats. They smiled and waved us through. The folks who told us that they never had to show the paperwork were right. Would I fly without the proper paperwork? Never. But it is galling.

The ride to our house in Quarante was uneventful. The cats were more than pleased to be released from bondage when we arrived. And they spent the next few weeks taking over their new home.

For now, that's the story of their journey. Perhaps we'll talk about the acclimatizing process in future.

EDIT: All went well. The kids acclimatized beautifully. But after a couple of months, Mimi slipped out when we weren't looking and disappeared. Posters and a month of walking the streets and calling her name were to no avail. We fear that she's gone. Chloe is sad but OK. One of the neighbors, knowing that we'd lost a cat, thrust a part-Siamese kitten on us. Sylvie is a French piece of work and keeps all of us hopping.

EXPAT HEALTH INSURANCE FOR AMERICANS - PART 1

Cathey and I knew from the beginning that health insurance would be a cause for concern as we prepared to move to France. The quality of care is not the question. European healthcare outcomes lead the world. We've had personal experience and we were impressed. But in order to qualify for a long-stay visa, the first step to obtaining the permanent carte de sejour we will have to present proof at the French embassy in Washington that, among other things, we will not be a burden to the French healthcare system for the entire length of our stay unless and until we qualify for that system.

Medicare benefits do not extend beyond America's shores. We will have to buy private insurance.

The French are relatively clear about the requirements. You need proof to their specifications that you are covered for medical, evacuation and repatriation expenses to the tune of $40,000. You can read more in the health insurance section on the French consular website HERE. The article even names several companies which will provide the required proof. It all seems rather straightforward until you remember that the French are masters of bureaucracy. And Cathey and I are both 65 years old, the age at which rates for new enrollments can be crushing if available at all. Although we're in reasonable health, there will be visits to doctors. We take prescription medications - cholesterol maintenance and such.

This is serious stuff. I began my investigations.

First, I searched the companies listed on the consular website. Then, I clicked on advertisements on expat message boards, on the websites of French real estate agencies, and on travel blogs. Finally, I began to search - on three different engines - a variety of phrases: expat health insurance, expat medical insurance, health insurance France, medical insurance France, international health insurance, international medical insurance, travel health insurance, travel medical insurance...  

Instead of recounting the boring details of my landings on sites of all sorts, I'll summarize.

There appear to be two tiers of insurance coverages available. The top tier policies are similar to a decent American full-coverage policy with the addition of the evacuation and repatriation riders. You can add vision and routine dental for a price. Higher deductibles lower the premium. Pre-existing condition? Read the fine print and hope for the best. I've been quoted between $8,000 and $12,000 for the two of us for a calendar year. Too much for us. One major international agency quoted $16,000 annually with no deductible, $8,500 annually with an $8,500 deductible. I don't care if the coverage included haircuts, manicures, pedicures and high colonics on demand. Too much for us.

The second tier is where the action is. Both sliding deductibles and/or sliding lifetime limits affect premiums. While the top tier policies offer limits in the millions of dollars, second tier policy lifetime limits can be low as $50,000 or higher than a million. The deductible may be per incident rather than cumulative or there may be no deductible at all. Purchasing the policy sufficiently ahead of your departure date may buy you coverage for the relapse of a controlled pre-existing condition. Rental car insurance can be a throw-in. Read the fine print and hope for the best. We've been quoted as low as $3,200 for the two of us for a calendar year for the no-frills, basic coverage that we hope is all that we'll nee

I've narrowed the field down to three companies through my internet research, two from the French consular site and one that caught my eye as I was investigated them. I will not detail the intricacies of their policies, each to the other. I am not their agent. See for yourselves.

Travelex Travel Plus
FrontierMEDEX TravMed Choice
Seven Corners Reside Worldwide

PLEASE DON'T TAKE THIS AS AN ENDORSEMENT OF THE THREE INDIVIDUALLY OR AS A GROUP. We have made no purchases. There may be other horses in the race yet to be considered. But I'm making calls and I'll be making up my mind soon. And I'll be keeping in mind that it's the Christmas travel season and there's a good-sized storm brewing. Let's see who has the staff necessary to keep the phones answered.

When I make up my mind, I'll post again.

EXPAT HEALTH INSURANCE FOR AMERICANS - PART 2

I tried calling two of the companies on my short list of three that met the requirements for medical coverage, repatriation, and return of mortal remains for a long-stay visa to France, Travelex and FrontierMedEx.

The first time that I called MedEx, the phone rang through with no pickup and no recorded message after the machinery said that it was sending me to an agent. I hung up, tried Travelex, and was put on hold while waiting for an available agent. When the recorded voice informed me that I would be called back if I left my phone number, I did. And Travelex did call back the next day...during a business meeting. It wasn't their fault but I couldn't talk.

I was disappointed that my first two calls went unanswered until I realized that I was calling during the Christmas travel season and a winter storm was rolling through the Midwest to the East Coast, disrupting flights from Chicago to New York. That's probably a good test of the systems at their worst. But OK. I'll give them a mulligan. (For any uninitiated non-golfers, a mulligan is a free do-over.)

A few days later, I called MedEx and Seven Corners.

I'm not going to go into the details of any of the plans that we investigated from any of the companies. I'm not their agent and the details might change by the time that you read this. Check out the websites. Do your due diligence.

I was on hold for five minutes at MedEx. The gentleman that eventually took my call was polite and knowledgeable. And the MedEx plan that seemed to make the most sense for us was basic, met the requirements for a long-stay visa, a coverage letter was available for visa applications, and the price was competitive.

A human being answered the phone immediately at Seven Corners. Wow. And when I was transferred to Customer Service, another human picked up right away, a pleasant and knowledgeable woman this time. She steered me to a particular plan that I hadn't considered and emailed me a link to the brochure while we spoke. Basic. Met the requirements. A coverage letter was available. Priced competitively. So Seven Corners noses ahead solely on the basis of customer service - as limited as my experience had been. But there's a catch.

By this time, I had spent a good deal of time trolling the travel insurance review sites.Those sites led me to other insurance companies. I dabbled but wasn't seduced by any of the new entries. Check out every site that can. Do your due diligence. I liked the tone of the Travelex reviews the best. They had sold the most policies, had the most reviews, and the reviews were generally positive. And they had called me back.

I finally found the time to call Travelex. I was on hold for four minutes waiting for an available agent. Not too bad considering the season. Again, the agent was pleasant and knowledgeable. (Maybe they all share the same phone room?) Need I say it. Basic. Met the requirements. Yada, yada.

Here are my conclusions after several weeks of internet investigation and several phone calls. These are insurance companies. They pay batteries of actuaries good money to determine profit points. Any plan varying significantly in price from plans with similar coverage would have to be viewed with suspicion. In the end, the choice comes down to comparing the nuanced differences of each plan, the look of the plan's website, your telephone experience, and your opinion of the opinions of internet reviews both from 'professionals' and from policy holders. (Who's to say how professionally disinterested the aggregated review sites are?)

I chose Travelex Travel Plus. I liked the tone of the reviews. The website was simple and utilitarian. Customer service, at least when a sale was on the line, was available and responsive to my questions. Travelex Travel Plus is a primary insurance, meaning that there's no waiting to determine if Travelex is first or second in line to pay the claim. No deductible for covered losses. And rental car insurance.
 
Keep in mind, this is bare-bones insurance. Full coverage, American style health insurance for expat Americans living in Europe costs three to five times what we'll be paying for Travelex Travel Plus. But we're in good health and we plan to begin checking out the French insurance climate both public and private from inside France as soon as we arrive. We can only hope that we'll be covered sufficiently for that first year while we sort things out.

 I'll post again on the topic when there's something newsworthy to report.

EDIT: I've had a claim. Travelex does not pay for preexisting conditions that are under control by medication. As a result, we pay out of pocket for our regular doctor visits every three months to have a quick checkup and have our prescriptions for blood pressure and cholesterol medications renewed. The doctor visits are about $28 apiece retail. Our various meds come to less than $40 a month. In other words, our healthcare here without insurance is cheaper than the copays for our high-end American health insurance. However, during a recent visit, the doctor didn't like the feel of the pulse in one of my feet. That's the first time a doc has ever checked my peripheral pulse. Because I am a former smoker, she was concerned. She ordered an echo doppler. (Negative, by the way.) I didn't put in a claim for the visit to my doc, just the echo. $135. Retail. It was a new diagnosis and not preexisting. And Travelex paid it. Good communication. Check in the mail.

CHOOSING AN INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING COMPANY

As I've explained in previous posts, I have no desire to write handbooks. Nor do I wish to cause anyone to choose one product or service over another simply because my wife Cathey and I have made our choices. I'm simply telling the story of our experiences as we prepare to move from our home in the USofA to our home in France. Do your own due diligence. Don't depend on mine.

There are bunches of international shippers. You can find ads and links on expat message boards. There are portal sites that will submit your request for a quote to an array of shippers. If you know someone working in a major international corporation in your area, see if you can find out if the company has a go-to shipper.

Once we had the names of several shipping companies, even before I went to their websites, I began looking at sites that aggregate reviews of them. Let's talk about reviews for a minute.

I operate under the assumption that folks are more likely to write detailed reviews on company or aggregating websites if their experience has been unsatisfactory. You can find the same negative review on different sites if the reviewer is sufficiently pissed off. Cut and Paste facilitates shouting at the wind. Furthermore, if only 1% of the cargo that goes through the Port of New York every year is lost, damaged or delayed, that's nearly 1,000,000 tons of cargo. You're dealing with multiple complex international  systems. It's a crap shoot. Sometimes you lose.

In other words, I read as many reviews of as many companies as I can. Then I go by my gut

I decided to ask four companies for quotes. We exchanged emails. I sent lists. I got quotes. I asked questions. Three of the quotes were so close as to make no difference. Nearly identical. The fourth quote was 15% less than the others. NY International Shipping.

NY International's salesman was the most persistent, thorough communicator. He answered every email promptly and he followed up to make certain that I understood the information that he had sent. Yes. I know. A good salesman can convince you to buy a bad product. But one telephone exchange convinced me.

I asked the NY International salesman why I should trust a quote that was so obviously low. First, he asked me to hold for a few minutes to review the quote to make certain that there was no mistake. I liked that. He didn't pretend to have my quote in his head. It was a serious question and he seemed to be attempting to make certain that his answer was equally serious.  When he came back to the phone, he confirmed the number and added, among one or two other things, that they had a really good, efficient and effective agent in France who saves them money. That connected with one of the reviews of NY International that I'd read lauding their agent on the French side - good communication, solved problems...

So, at the end I settled on NY International Shipping. I'll post on this topic again as events warrant and  once the move has been accomplished.

CHOOSING AN INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING COMPANY - PART 2

Having chosen NY International Shipping as the company that we will use to ship such modest belongings as we will take with us from The States to southern France, the pace of communication has picked up a bit. Forms must be completed, a deposit paid. It’s always something, to quote Roseanne Roseannadanna. And it’s not always something pleasant.

On accepting NY International’s quote by email, I was directed the section of the company website that contained the booking form, password protected, and I was given the password. It didn't work. I called and was told to use small caps. It worked.

I filled out the booking form. At the end, a chart told me how much I would have to put down as a deposit. For the amount of my quote, NY International required a deposit of $1,500. I used the PayPal button right there on the page.

The logistics office contacted me. Forms. According to a footnote, Americans going to France are not required to fill out a customs form. I emailed and asked the question. I'm an American. I'm going to France. Do I fill out the form? The answer? Fill out the form.

I emailed the customs form. I emailed a scan of my passport. PayPal indicated that the transfer of the deposit was completed. I called to conform. There was a problem. PayPal charges a percentage. That percentage would be deducted from the $1,500.

???

I had two choices.
  1. What the hell! You put the PayPal button on your site. The site didn't say anything about deducting the fee. I want to be credited for the full amount that I sent to you.
  2. OK.
I took a beat and thought about it. I chose the latter. I wasn't happy about it. It was cheesy. If you're going to accept credit cards or PayPal, you should accept the fees. But here's my thinking. I'm looking at 1% of the total bill. Is it worth the fight, probably a losing fight, and the loss of the company's good will, such as it may be? I decided to consider the extra payment it a gratuity to the company for being the low bidder.

So, the bid led the field. Communication has been excellent. But I wish there hadn't been these little blimps and bumps.

I'll write again as the process proceeds.

CHOOSING AN INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING COMPANY - PART THREE

We've chosen New York International Shipping (NYINTSHIP) for our move to France. Reasons appear in a previous post. But basically, the decision came down to two factors, a reasonable price (including them packing our stuff instead of packing ourselves) and a couple of online reviews touting their operation in France.

I haven't been disappointed to date.

That's not to say that there haven't been glitches.

Glitch #1
Paperwork requirements are burdensome and confusing.That's not all the company's fault. We're talking an international move here. Bureaucrats want to see paper. But it's precisely for that reason that clear instructions and timely assistance is necessary. For instance, I was given a password for a secure portion of the company website from which I could download a number of documents. After much gnashing of teeth, I called the company and was informed that the password entry box only accepted small caps. Silly. And as I found out, sometimes small caps worked and sometimes they didn't. From that point on, I simply emailed  a request for a particular document. Worked well.

Glitch #2
Not a glitch, I suppose. More of a disappointment.

After the first flurry of paperwork leading to a firm quote, NYINTSHIP asked for a deposit to slide me into the schedule. I found $1,500 to be reasonable.

Do you accept PayPal?

Yes.

So I sent $1,500 through PayPal. And NYINTSHIP said that I was on the hook for the PayPal fee, about $45. Disappointing. As I've written in Part 2, I could see no sense getting stirred up about $45 on a deal this size. I need their good will more than I need the $45.

Glitch #3
Our final invoice will be about 50% more than the estimate.

I'm not complaining about this one at all. Our fault. We're taking more than we estimated at first. When you add the living room sofa to the list, the price is bound to bounce for a relatively small shipment like ours. But because the company needs weeks of lead time to schedule your pickup and shipping, unless you've solidified your plans early on and get an in-person professional estimate, you are almost bound to under estimate. I'd added 10% to my initial estimate on principle. Obviously not enough.

Our lousy winter weather caused a one-day delay in the arrival of the truck and crew. One day turned into two days. But once they arrived, the crew of four were quick, thorough and considerate. Boom. Done.

Have you ever seen a man build a box around a couch from a roll of corrugated cardboard?

Now we wait. I assume that there will be one more post in this series, the one in which I report that all went well with the shipping and delivery.

Please, Lord...

REVIEW – NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING 

For those of you who haven't been following, a brief recap is in order.

Cathey and I are moving...have moved...from the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania to Quarante in the Languedoc region of southern France. Several months before our planned move, I began researching international shipping companies online. I checked out their websites, read customer reviews, and eventually contacted several to seek quotes. In the end, I chose NewYork International Shipping for several reasons. Their reviews were no better or worse than any of the others with the exception that their agent in France was mentioned favorably in reviews a couple of times. (People either loved or hated their shippers. No middle ground.) Their quote was in line with the others that I solicited but their quote included packing our stuff for us while each of the others required us to do the packing ourselves. And NYINTSHIP (their own shorthand) answered my email and phone questions promptly and reasonably.

We scheduled the packers in for mid March. NYINTSHIP had told us that the move would take from eight to ten weeks, door to door, with the usual caveats about the vagaries of timing. Since Cathey and I had tickets for a mid April flight, we figured that living for a month without the bulk of our stuff in the States would balance out living for a month out of our suitcases in France while we waited for our stuff to arrive...hopefully in mid May.

As mid March approached, several glitches cropped up.
  • NYINTSHIP advertised that they accepted PayPal, so I sent the deposit through my PayPal account. What I hadn't been told was that the PayPal fee would be deducted. I lost about $50. I found that a bit confusing. If I'd used a credit card, they would have had to eat a fee, wouldn't they? Still, I decided that the $50 was not worth fighting over in the grand scheme of things. I needed their good will more than I needed the $50.
  • The packing and pickup was rescheduled twice. I can't really blame NYINTSHIP for that. The winter of 2013/14 in the American Northeast was the winter from Hell with significant snows every few days. I could understand the nightmare of scheduling under those circumstances.
  • The final invoice was about 50% higher than the initial quote. Again, I don't blame NYINTSHIP. I'm not a professional estimator and we decided to ship much more than we initially contemplated. We added a sofa to our relatively small load, for instance, the largest piece that we shipped by far. As a result, even though I inserted an extra 10% of wiggle room into my initial list of items to be shipped, the sticker still shocked me.
  • Communication broke down fairly rapidly after the sale was closed. I received a receipt for our deposit but I had to ask for receipts for our two subsequent payments. I had to ask for projected date of shipping and had to ask for projected date of delivery. Everyone that I spoke with was polite and responsive. Emails were answered promptly. But I had to ask.
  • Our stuff arrived on June 24th, nearly twelve weeks after pickup, outside the eight to ten week estimate. Cathey was frazzled by that time and when Cathey is frazzled, I am frazzled. But our stuff did arrive. The guys lugged it from their truck to the first or second floor as we directed. And they had to park 50 meters away from the front door because we live on a pedestrian street that trucks can't enter. We shipped 91 pieces (a sofa counts as one piece) and we received 91 pieces.
  • It's taken us a couple of days to unpack and unwrap. The Wedgwood is intact. None of the other china, pottery, or glassware arrived chipped, cracked or broken and there's plenty of china, pottery, and glassware. None of our clothing or linens have become water-stained or bug infested. The ladder back of one chair is cracked, easily glued and so far within the insurance deductible that it's not worth reporting.
Given all of that, you would think that I give New York International Shipping low marks, that I'd warn you away from them. Not so. I recommend them. I'll tell you why.

Several million containers enter and leave the Port of New York annually. Our stuff occupied a small percentage of one of those containers. The fact that any shipment at all is delivered to its proper destination thousands of miles away, reasonably intact and within a reasonable period of time, is a miracle of Biblical proportions. That shippers who handle millions of dollars worth of cargo every year should be courteous when answering the questions of a tyro like me who will make minimal use their services once in a lifetime is a second miracle. And the container in which our stuff was packed didn't fall off the deck and into the Atlantic. Miracle number three. In the face of the odds, I have nothing to complain about.

So I grade New York International Shipping a solid B.
I'd use them again.









BUYING OUR CAR IN FRANCE - MAY, 2014

I've bought a Citroen.

That sentence feels funny in my mouth, sounds strange in my ears.

I've bought a Citroen.

I never thought that I'd say those exact words.

Shortly after arriving in France in April of this year, I began looking for a car. We'd rented a Renault Picasso at the airport in Marseilles - a vehicle properly sized to handle four loaded suitcases, two loaded carry on bags, two loaded cat carriers, and two exhausted humans who wished that they were loaded. The object of the exercise was to dump the Picasso as soon as possible to prevent the rental fees from piling up.

To begin with, it's important to understand my philosophy when it comes to buying cars. I view cars as disposable drive trains encased in metal. When the body of a car is rusted out, you're cooked. But drive trains are replaceable. So while the average Joe wants to hear a prospective purchase's motor running right away, revving it up to feel the power, I begin with a careful inspection of the body work - what's showing and what's underneath. The slightest hint of rust is carefully investigated. Scrapes and scratches are OK but dents that might hasten corrosion - or effect alignment - are deal breakers.

Once I'm satisfied that the body of a vehicle will outlast the life of a pair of cheap shoes, I go on to the mechanicals. I start the vehicle up, pop the hood, listen and look. If everything seems in order, I drive. Hard. I brake. Hard. I corner. Hard. I run over a rough patch of road if I can find one. And if all of those tests are passed, I leave the car running for a while, a good long while, parked over a clean piece of tarmac to look for any leaks.

A car that makes the cut is worth haggling over.

Did I mention price? I'm a bottom fisher. I've never paid more than $3,000 for a car. I was determined not to pay more than that in France - about 2,100 euros.

My main source of research was leboncoin.fr. It's the equivalent of craigslist in France. In fact, there is a craigslist in France, but leboncoin is the more popular. You can plug in your geographical region down to your zip code or town name, maximum mileage, range of model years, gas or diesel fuel, manual or automatic transmission, and of course price range. I opted for diesel (cheaper than gas over here), manual transmission (I love 5-speeds), a maximum of 200,000 kilometers on the odometer (125,000 miles, but we're talking diesels), kept it local, and let her rip.

Yuck. Nothing worth looking at. Busted up. Needing work. Well, my Brit friends had warned me. The French think like I do. They run their cars into the ground. Used cars, therefore, are either relatively new and expensive - starting at the equivalent of about $7,000 - or are used up beaters not worth considering.

I persisted. I expanded my geographic area. I bumped the price to 3,000 euros. And I began getting results.

I found a couple of Renault Meganes, kind of like station wagons, about 10 years old and looking good. I contacted one private owner. Already sold. Miles and I then went to a used car lot. (You remember Miles - FrangloFixit.com) Their Megane had just been sold as well - we could see it being washed up - but we found a little Renault sedan that looked and ran well. Gas instead of diesel, though. Well, we'll see.

Later that same day we cruised a series of used car lots on what locals call the South Road, leading out of Beziers towards the airport. The first stop showed great promise. Several cars seemed to fit the bill. And that's where we found the Citroen - a 1999 Xantia 2.0 L HDi turbo diesel 5-door sedan with 138,000 kilometers on the clock (86,000 miles) priced at 2,500 euros. She (All of my cars are female. I can't explain it.) was hiding behind a coating of mud along the rocker panels but her body was in fine shape, a dimple here, a bit of a scrape on the rubber of a bumper there, but nothing to be concerned about. First tests passed.

I learned that Miles had a soft spot in his heart for Xantias. Back in the days when he was on the road in sales, his employer-supplied Xantias were workhorses. To paraphrase John Cameron Swayze, they took a licking and kept on ticking. (If you don't know who Swayze is, check out this Timex commercial on YouTube.) Since Miles had driven tens of thousands of kilometers a year for several years in Xantias, I let him take the first spin. He was impressed. I took the wheel. I was impressed.

The European turbo-diesel is peppy and this Xantia, although 15 years old, was no exception. The gear box was no looser than it was entitled to be given its age. The interior would clean up nicely. All seemed in order. Sold.

The lot owner was an interesting fellow, puffed out chest, rough complexion and rough features, with his wavy, greased up, jet black hair in an oddly sculpted do. He spoke no English and seemed unfazed by the tandem that Miles and I presented. Miles told him that we would buy the Xantia. He asked how much were willing to put down. Miles suggested 5 euros. He laughed. Just to show him that I was at least partially aware of the contents of the conversation, I offered 10. We settled on 500. We'd be back in a couple of days.

In France, the car is insured, not the driver, meaning that whoever drives the car is covered. But it's the owner who buys the insurance. And the rate is based on the owner's history. I had no history in France. The first rate quote I received, from the folks who insured our house, was excessive - over 600 euros for the absolute minimum coverage. My bank wouldn't even consider covering the car. At 2.0 liters, the motor was "too powerful" for someone with no history. So I've been driving for nigh onto 50 years and a standard sedan is too powerful for me? France and bureaucracy. What to do?

I admit to a mistake. I simply accepted the high rate. I only discovered later that it's common for Americans in Europe to get a Letter of Experience from their American insurance company that most French insurers will accept. With that Letter, I might have received a 'bonus' of up to 50% off. I now have the Letter and am negotiating with my French insurance company. Even with the Letter stating that in the past 10 years I have not filed a single claim, the French broker wants more - essentially the title information on my last insured vehicle. I've asked Travelers if they can find a copy of my insurance card with the VIN and other info on it. We'll see.

I picked up the car about a week after putting down the deposit. It took a few extra days to get through the CVT (the equivalent of a state inspection) because the dealer had decided to change the serpentine belt - appreciated since a worn belt is often the cause of breakdowns - and it took some time for the belt kit to arrive. In the interim, they polished and cleaned and made her look pretty.

I've been driving the Xantia for over 300 kilometers now (just under 200 miles) and it's a joy to drive. It doesn't have all of the bells and whistles of a brand new, computer-controlled piece of machinery. But all that's needed to head down the highway is available and in working order. Xandy (pronounced zan-dee) is not too big, not too small, runs through the gears nicely, has a kick when you want to pass, and looks to be frugal on fuel.

I only wish that Xandy's French owners hadn't cut out the English section of the user manual for the CD player. I understand their reasoning, but I can't seem to find one in English on line. Well, if that's my biggest concern a month from now, I'll be fine with it.

I've stopped at the mairie (city hall) and our local gendarme has taken the info necessary to have the car registered in my name - and taken 138.50 Euros as well. I brought along a copy of my passport identity page, a copy of our electric bill showing our residence address, the old registration (called the certificat d'immatriculation or carte-gris for short), and our insurance documentation. Once the new carte-gris arrives, I take it to the local brico (hardware store) where they have a machine that turns out license plates. Yep, after all that, you get your plate at the hardware store. France, ya gotta love it.

EDIT: After filling Xandy's tank immediately after purchase, I just filled it again - three weeks and 500 miles later. 42.2 MPG! Happy camper. And AXA, the company that provides the insurance on our house, accepted my Letter of Experience and I'm paying 300 Euros annually for insurance.

4 comments:

  1. Brilliant tale(s) Ira, makes for interesting reading.

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    1. Thanks. I probably should add up at the top that after two and a half years, living in this part of France has exceeded our expectations. We simply love it here and don't regret our choices for one minute!

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  2. Wow. That was quite a story that I didn't expect. We are new movers in the industry and were just browsing to see other people's experiences. Quite a journey you guys had. Thanks for posting!

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    1. Thanks. Appreciate the kind words.

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