Monthly Archives: April 2012

Life In A Tiny French Village

Perhaps I should title this article “Life In A Tiny French Village — For Now”?
 

The Midi-Pyrenees village of Engomer


 
We arrived in the Midi-Pyrenees almost 4 weeks ago and have settled — temporarily — into a house that we are renting in a small village. It’s a pretty little bend in the road, I won’t deny that. But this particular village is so small that there isn’t even a village shop or bakery or any kind of amenities.
 

River bend in the village of Engomer in the Midi-Pyrenees in France


 
Pretty and quaint is all well and good, but you know a place is wee-tiny when the post office is only open a few hours in the morning, and only for 4 days during each week. The woman who runs the place was actually quite put out that I wanted stamps for cards and letters to Australia and the USA instead of to other locations in France. Sheesh!
 

Village post office in Engomer & it is only open 4 mornings a week!


 
The picture below is of our way-too-large house as seen across the village tennis courts. We rented this house sight unseen at the recommendation of a friend here since she knew we’d be arriving with no place to live and no time to search because Mark would be starting work a mere few days later. It’s charming and fully furnished, but thank heavens we have a month to month option!
 

Our rented house seen across the village tennis court


 
For those of you who have followed my writing for years and were familiar with our darling little eco-cottage back in Australia, you will know that a big barn of a place like this is not really our style. The ground floor of this house is as large as our entire little house back in Australia! We are firm believers in a frugal lifestyle with low energy consumption, and this house may be charming, but it certainly won’t be energy efficient. If we want to splash out a bit, we’d rather invest in a new piece of computer or camera or sports equipment — not an electric or fuel oil bill!

A plan is being formulated. Twenty minutes from here is the larger town of St. Girons and that is where I plan to aim my search. We are going to look for a house with a much smaller footprint and a lock-up garage for Mark’s tools and supplies. We are putting the wheels in motion for our household goods to be shipped from Australia as soon as the shipping company can pick everything up within the next week or so.

We had hoped to manage with only one vehicle. But Mark needs the van every day for work and there is no public transport in this tiny spot. In a similar way to our life in Australia, the distances between each village or town means that we are going to be forced to purchase a small car for me. We may have that sorted out in the next couple of weeks and then I can begin the search for another house to rent.

St. Girons is a lovely and old-fashioned market town, but it has quite a lot of amenities. There are narrow streets and tall old houses pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, market squares, and lots of cafes and pretty little shops. It’s the kind of place where you can get out and walk to the shops, the hairdresser, the bookstore, or to a cafe for lunch or dinner with friends. How fab would that be!

As always, I will keep my readers apprised of our progress as things unfold. And thanks for all of the charming off-site notes that you have sent to me privately expressing your happiness about our adventure in resettling in a new country.

Finally, enjoy a slideshow of more village scenes including two shots of the snow covered mountains as seen through our livingroom window.
 


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Piles of Paper For A New Life In The South Of France

In a previous post — Giving France A Chance — I discussed the small mountain of paperwork required for me, the non EU citizen of the two of us, to get residency in France. That all went swimmingly and I am now in possession of my Carte de Sejour — the French residency card (with all registry numbers removed) that you see below.
 

French residency card


 
That was so smooth that I was positive and upbeat about the speed of all other French paperwork requirements. Ahem! (cough-cough!) I now have to downgrade that optimism quite a bit.

I am quite pleased that Mark has happily settled into his new work routine and he happily buzzes off down the road with a smile on his face to work each day in one stunning mountain location or another (photos of those in posts in the coming week!!), but I do get stuck with the drudge work of ‘les papiers’ and that isn’t exactly thrilling.

The next bit of plastic that you are meant to have with you here in France is the Carte Vitale — another credit card style card with your photo on it that gives you access to the French health care system. This is one of the big pluses for people who want to change their lifestyle and move to a very civilised and amenity-abundant country in Europe — the quality of the health care system which always ranks either #1 or #2 in the world. For a very tiny co-payment of about €24, you can see the doctor of your choice who will then refer you on to specialists as needed. And there is an income-tiered system in place that also means that in some cases, you pay nothing whatsoever for doctors, medicines, or hospital stays.

The first stage is receiving your Attestation which shows that you are actively registered in the health system and have the right to use the subsidised French medical care. Mark qualified on the very first day that he registered as an Auto Entrepreneur in the building trades — a freelance, self-employed building tradesman who either sub-contracts his skills to other builders or works independently on individual commissions.

Part of that registration included selecting your mandatory insurance agency — the people you pay your quarterly contributions to and they, in turn, maintain all of your records and assure that you get the full French social benefits including health care. We chose RAM which is under the umbrella of the RSI — the insurance branch for people who work as Auto Entrepreneurs or Artisans.

Having Mark instantly covered was all well and good, but getting me covered has been another kettle of fish altogether! We’ve frankly been agog at how complicated it is and we still haven’t resolved everything.

We had a time delay in receiving some of our mail from Normandy, but once everything arrived we went promptly to the office in St. Girons where everyone had told us to go and register. And from doing my research online about the paperwork required, we went armed with originals of everything from Mark’s work registry to my residency card, our original birth certificates, our marriage license, our proof of solvency, copies of our lease and mobile phone bills to show where we lived, and other assorted documents with photocopies galore of all of that.

The French just love paper copies! They do not reside in the digital world yet (I am quite serious about that statement!) and you go up a notch or three in their eyes if you arrive for an appointment with your own photocopies so they don’t have to be bothered walking to the machine.

Into the office we went, down we sat, and Madame behind the desk immediately began shaking her head back and forth saying, “Non, non, non! RSI! RSI!” as she pointed to the header on one of our documents. What she was referring to was the name of the umbrella agency that covers Mark’s particular employment subset and we had mistakenly gone to the office that oversaw people who received regular salaries (not the self-employed) or who were on government subsidies.

That was certainly a wasted afternoon off of work for Mark! And we were just beginning to understand how many different offices of government there are in France for every single aspect of life.

NONE of it is centralised and, in our opinion, it makes for rather a lot of chaos. Trust me, it isn’t just ex-pats who move here who think this either. We’ve met French people who think that it all needs to be sorted out, centralised, and made a bit more uniform instead of having changeable and varying requirements according to what region of France you are living in or even what district of a region you reside in.

The rules and regulations are not uniformly applied from area to area and things can either go as smooth as silk like they did in Normandy, or they can be a quagmire like the situations that several online friends I have in Paris have revealed. We seem to be a bit in-between those two extremes here in the Midi-Pyrenees.

Our next trip was an hour drive in each direction to the large and traffic-clogged city of Toulouse for an appointment at our insurance coverage company RAM. Did I mention that outside of Paris, people do not routinely speak any English at all? Thus we are not only climbing mountains, we are dragging our French speaking skills up by our fingernails as we maneuver through government offices!

The lovely woman at the RAM office was soothing and gently (but all in French!) gave us the shocker that I had to get our birth certificates translated into an official French document which then had to be notarised or stamped as official by some government agency BEFORE we could submit them, along with a list of other paperwork, to a SECOND French government office to get the ball rolling for our French health care cards. Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhh!!!!

That is my task this week while Mark goes off to work every day. I have to get translations on an official government form and then find someone at the local Marie (mayor’s office) or the Sub-Prefecture (local branch of government for this section of the Midi-Pyrenees) to stamp it as a genuine and acceptable translation. Then and only then can we send another wad of paperwork off by courier to at least get the paper Attestation for me. And then and only then will we be allowed to have the form in our hot little hands to attach our passport sized photos to, send them off to yet another government agency, and wait for an average of 3-4 months for their return.

Do I sound like I’m having fun right now? (sigh!)

Note to self — it’s a learning curve in every new country. Patience, patience, patience…

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Springtime In The Midi-Pyrenees In France

Yes, it may be a very soggy and gray April, but the trees are simply awash with blooms here in the Midi-Pyrenees. Shades of pink, white, purple, and yellow are right outside the window of our new house in the Ariege. But wait — what is that other thing lurking in the weather outside? Snow??? Rather a lot of snow???
 

View from bedroom window of spring in bloom


 
It began to rain quite hard a few days ago, then the rain turned to hail, and within an hour the mountains that ring our village were practically invisible. I was in the midst of editing photos and the idea of dashing into some warm clothes and driving up the mountains side did not, quite frankly, send a thrill of anticipation up my spine.

But Mark was quite keen to go and see the snow that was probably a mere half an hour from our doorstep, so with a kiss on his dear face, I watched (quite amused!) as he headed off for a wee adventure. And when he returned a mere hour later, he had very red cheeks and a huge smile on his face! He did mention when he saw these pictures that he wished he had not been wearing canvas shoes up there!
 

Mark's fresh footprints in the mid-April snow


 
Let me just mention one thing straight away — these are not black and white photos! These are the actual photos that Mark took with a small Lumix camera up on the mountain road. The colour palette is actually that grey, black, and white due to the lighting conditions as the snow was falling.
 

An April 'Winter Wonderland' in the Midi-Pyrenees of France


 

April snow half way up a mountaintop in the Midi-Pyrenees


 
We have a lovely little van — NOT a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. So I think he was bloody lucky to have gotten safely up and back down the mountain in that snowstorm. And Mark admitted that he had a few tense moments when he had to seek out a gravel edge to get traction.
 

Spring snowfall in the Midi-Pyrenees


 
Yes — we do live in the south of France now and we are less than an hour from the border of Spain! But (as we are learning from our growing circle of friends and acquaintances here in the Ariege), the Midi=Pyrenees has a most unpredictable spring season and as recently as two years ago, it snowed here during the second week of May. Ummmm — this was all rather unexpected!
 

Spring snowfall in the Midi-Pyrenees


 
If you look at those pictures from a few days ago in Mimizan and Samatan as we drove south from Normandy to this new region, it was quite hot and sunny. And has it been like that since we arrived in the south of France? Nope! We had to order a partial tank of heating oil this week because we had three straight nights of sub-or-right-at-zero temps. Sheesh!!!

I’ll send some more pictures this week so you can see the simply stunning region were we now live. It feels simply splendid here and we might actually be stopping permanently and resettling. Come back soon for more glimpses of life in the (ever-changing!) south of France!

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Photo Of The Day from France: Dog On The Loose!

Advertising art and funny signs have always caught my attention and this one was no exception. Dog On The Loose!
 

Attention!! Dog On The Loose!


 
What the Google translate site actually says is a bit too literal — “Attention!! Dog freedom. If it shows you throw on the floor and wait for help. If it fails: courage.”

But surely you get the drift — Attention!! Dog on the loose. If it appears and comes after you, throw it down and call out for help. But if no one comes to help — have COURAGE!

***NOTE***
My friend Polly who is a language teacher up in Normandy has given me an even more clear translation. Thanks, Polly!

“Dog on the loose. If he appears throw yourself on the ground wait for help. If help doesn’t arrive, good luck!”

 

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Diagonally Across Southern France

Leaving the French Atlantic seacoast town of Mimizan, we scanned the map that was proposed by the sat-nav system and decided on an alternative route. Instead of sticking to the motorways which were fast and efficient, we would go cross country in a diagonal route and travel almost exclusively on small roads through rural villages and regional towns. What a wonderful decision that was!

Travelling deeper and deeper into the countryside and moving ever southward, the changes in architectural style were immediately apparent. The deep gray and dark gold stone buildings of Normandy were giving way to more and more buildings that were stucco rendered. And by the time we were a few hours from our final destination, we remarked again and again that one valley looked like a slice of Tuscany and then next one after that looked like a piece of Spain. This was a very different sort of appearance to the traditional towns further north and the scenery was stunning on that bright and sunny day.

All-day-long availability of meals in France is simply impossible and there is a small window of opportunity for eating at lunch time that lasts for approximately 2 hours. Knowing that we had entered that window of time, we stopped in Sabres for a multi-course plat du jour which included the main course (a large piece of medium-rare steak, sauted vegetables, and frites), a glass of red wine, a desert of our choice (creme brulee), and finally an expresso. Yum!
 

Saturday plat du jour lunch break in Sabres, France


 
Driving for several more hours, we next stopped for a beer at a sidewalk cafe in the pretty market town of Samatan in the Gers region of the Midi-Pyrenees. This is the starting point for Stage 15 of the 2012 Tour de France.
 

Streetfront in Samatan, France


 
The sun was hot against our skin, the ice-cold beer was incredibly refreshing, and the street scene around us had a distinctly Mediterranean feel.
 

Fountain in the town square in Samatan, France


 
The building below was distinctly Italianate in both style and colour.
 

Italianate building facade in Samatan, France


 
The strangely warm weather had brought out pedestrians clad in thin, cool clothing, cyclists, and people driving with the top down in their convertible sports cars. This was our last stop as we drove and within a few hours, we were entering the outskirts of St. Girons in the Ariege district of the Midi-Pyrenees and heading toward our newly rented house.
 

Classic open-top sportcar (convertible) on the streets of Samatan, France


 
Stay tuned — the upcoming posts will be slices of life from our new home in the south of France.
 

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The French Atlantic Coast at Mimizan

Ten months? How can ten months have passed since our last trip to the Atlantic seacoast in Mimizan, France?

We detoured away from the logical and time saving straight-down-the-middle path from North to South as we drove from Normandy to the Midi-Pyrenees and veered off for a last look at the ocean for awhile. The peaks of the Pyrenees were soon to be a daily part of our view and we both loved the dramatic crashing waves of the Atlantic seaside.

Arriving mid-afternoon, we went straight to the beach which was a mere block and a half walk from our hotel. The sky was glorious, the beach was almost deserted, and the waves were crashing beautifully onto the beach.
 

Plage Cormorans (Cormorans Beach) Entrance to the Atlantic seacoast at Mimizan, France


 
The weather was equally beautiful the following morning as Mark headed to the windy beachfront to have a quick Tai Chi session on the beach and say goodbye to the seaside for awhile.
 
***NOTE*** I have re-edited this article, removed the link to YouTube, and have reloaded all of the photos in a new slideshow that is larger, cleaner, and much more crisp! The quality of the digital images in the YouTube slideshow was very disappointing, so I think that I shall limit my usage of that site to the occasional video upload. I would rather not present work to the world that is almost right instead of genuinely good. So in that vein of maintaining quality control, I have spent the last 2 full days researching and testing various programs before I was happy with this one. Thanks for bearing with me during the fine-tuning process.
 


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A Night In Nantes

A night in Nantes was part of our three day drive through France, but since it was simply a stopover and there was no time for exploration, we mainly saw the inside of our apartment hotel and the restaurant where we ate a rather bland but far-too-salty faux-Italian dinner.
 

Italian dining 'experience' in Nantes, France


 
But what WAS a humorous side note was the discovery of a popular Thursday night hang-out in the “Atlantis” area of Nantes — a huge restaurant and bar complex complete with a nightclub area, a large pool hall, and a massive bowling alley — all under one massive roof! And I have just realised that I will need to add search-engine ‘tags’ to this story that cover music, entertainment, food and drink, humour, and sports. Cool!
 

Moody blue cocktail bar in Nantes, France


 

Cocktail hour in Nantes, France with Salsa classes in the background


 

Pool tables at the Bowl Center in Nantes, France


 
We’ve lived and worked in various parts of France, mainly Normandy, for 9 months out of our 16 months on the road. Traditional cafes and bistros have been a familiar part of each segment of the four places we have lived in Normandy. But frankly, this glossy and contemporary style of venue was a side of French social life that we had never seen. The crowds inside the bars, restaurants, and the bowling alley itself were a range of ages from twenties through fifties and it was a relaxed and happy bunch.
 

Bowling in Nantes, France


 

Bodega Bar inside the Bowling Center at Nantes, France


 
Mark told me to “look to the right” as we strode up the polished concrete ramp to the slightly elevated 2nd level and we saw a clump of people following along with a dance instructor. Dance classes, too? I thought it was some kind of country line dancing, but it soon became apparent from the swishing of the hips that we were watching something with a distinctly South American feel. We had arrived on Salsa Night!
 

Small poster for free salsa classes on Thursday nights in Nantes, France


 
I asked Mark to go back out to the car and get one of the cameras and while he was gone, a handsome 50-ish Frenchman came up and asked me if I would like to dance. Let’s be honest, I’m improving a bit every week, but my fractured French is still rather pathetic. However, I managed to reply, “Non, merci. Mon mari est avec l’automobile et il retournez dans cinq minutes!” (No thank you. My husband is out at the car and he’ll be back in five minutes.) And then I stood there feeling quite flustered because it had been awhile since someone tried to pick me up! He smiled broadly when he heard my accent, nodded sweetly, and said goodbye. Whew!

Just thought you’d like a wee glimpse into a bit of suburban French night life. And up next? On to the Atlantic seaside!

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