Monthly Archives: May 2012

Finding Housing Means Beating My Head Against A Wall

No — haven’t dropped off the face of the planet, but I have been firmly beating my head against a wall whilst trying to find us a place to live for a minimum of a year or so when we will qualify for a French mortgage or we find some cheap-as-chips property to buy for cash and subsequently renovate (while living in construction rubble — again!.

It’s a VERY good thing that I am feeling all bright and perky and healthy right now because I think I would have gone back to bed this morning and pulled the covers over my head otherwise. And I’m trying to deal with this 90% on my own since the darling Mark is off at work every day and it wouldn’t help him one little bit to cope with that PLUS this.

We didn’t get the house we interviewed for on Saturday. The owner rented to another French woman and in case you mistakenly think that I am feeling persecuted or discriminated against — no, I am not. It’s just one of those things and I’m not feeling dramatic about it.

This picture below is the view through each of the three French doors onto the balcony, the scene that would have been presented to us each day. It was a perfectly splendid large house and it even had the lock-up garage Mark needed and a separate office-library for me in addition to the 2 bedrooms, large kitchen, and large living and dining room. We had already begun to mentally envision where we would place the furniture and hang the artwork that is on the way from Australia. Now THAT was certainly a mistake we won’t make again!

View from the balcony of the house we did NOT get in St. Girons, Midi-Pyrenees, France

We are having a nightmare trying to find someone who will rent to us here. We don’t have French tax returns for the past year and even with sparkling references, they want a guarantor who will declare that they will be responsible for our rent for three flipping years!

Our friend Becky (whose husband Matt my husband subcontracts for) went with me to make the rounds of all the agencies in St. Girons on Friday and I saw her face when the agent told her that and then she turned and translated it to me. I immediately told her that there was no way I would ever place them in that situation and she said, “We just couldn’t!”

Even the private owners here are asking for the same things —
1. Proof of income (we have that)
2. Proof of local bank (we have that)
3. Bank statements to show solvency (we have that)
4. References from past landlords (we have that)
5. Copies of passports and French residency (we have that)
6. Tax returns from France for a minimum of one year (we do NOT have that!)
7. A guarantor who will promise to pay our rent for up to THREE years (we certainly do NOT have that!)

Understandably, people who are landlords need to protect their interests and the housing market here is quite protective of the rights of tenants. So it is nigh onto impossible to get a renter OUT once you have them in. For those reasons, property owners are very, very conservative. Having owned a small portfolio of property when we lived in the USA, I can see it from both sides of the fence and am completely sympathetic to the position of the landlord as well as our own. But this is, at the moment, very difficult.

I was all chipper this morning and I thought that perhaps the Universe was trying to tell me that it wasn’t that particular house that would be right for us. But the rental apartments or houses are disappearing as fast as they are online and they have that full list of requirements that we can’t meet. I have been on the phone since 9:30 this morning calling property owners who had listed their mobile numbers on the listings. I’ve even had Becks and our other friend Caty calling around for me since they’ve lived here for years and their French is better than mine. The results thus far are a firm brick wall!

I’ll figure it out even if we have to go and rent some caravan for a year. Ah well — back to the online listings since the agencies are now a solid no-go zone. It certainly is NOT as straightforward as England, Australia, or the USA by any stretch of the imagination! Who knew??? (sigh!)

A Glimpse of Cycling Heaven in the Midi-Pyrenees

Almost a year ago, Mark got a chance to fulfil a long-held dream and go to see the Tour de France during one of the stages in Normandy. Little did we know back then that we would end up living in France and Mark would get to immerse himself in Cycling Heaven here in Europe.

It has been a rainy weekend — gray, yucky, not a good set of circumstances for walking around with expensive camera gear — so we’ve just stayed snuggled up in the house. And Mark has been rather run down with a bad case of bronchitis that, in spite of the meds that our new doctor gave him, he’s fighting to shake off.

But what excitement there was in his voice when he got up from watching a movie yesterday afternoon because he heard a lot of honking and noise coming through our teeny-tiny-village and then I hear him say excitedly, “Here they come!” Something made me grab my camera as I raced to the kitchen window at the front of the house and arrived just as the first cyclists were going by.

Here come the lead cyclists as they race through Engomer in the Midi-Pyrenees of France

Zoom! The cluster of men on bicycles was a blur — literally! You can see the sign on the other side of the road that states Salle des Fetes and Tennis Court quite clearly, but the cyclists themselves were a true example of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ action.

A blur of cyclists pass the front of our house in the Midi-Pyrenees of France

They were followed by more police and ambulance services and several support vehicles with spare bikes on top. Then the clump of people and vehicles in this organised racing event wove their way through the valley and were gone in less than a minute.

We’re just entering the beginning of the cycling season and there will be a lot more such events, not to mention the Tour de France, in the coming months. What fun this is for a diehard cycle nut like my darling husband!

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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Moving Overseas Means Even MORE Paperwork!

Just when I thought I had completed the last of the paperwork, just when I thought I had no more PDF documents or blank forms to fill out, along comes the insurance forms this morning. I have had to print out our 16 page inventory and I have to place a value on EVERY single thing that I want to insure! And we have somewhere between 750-850 books in those cartons, and I have to give a specific count.

Creating an insurance inventory and assigning a value for EVERY item we own!

Not only that, I have to list how MANY pair of trousers Mark has, how many dresses and shoes and cardigans I have, how many dishes and pots and pans — well, you get the drift. And if I fail to list them, then they aren’t insured!

In another period of my life when I was in my 20s, I was a military wife and I learned how to pack according to military standards. That meant that every box had to be numbered and every single item in every box had to be listed on the master inventory forms. In this post 9-11 world, that has proven to be handy as we moved around the world a few times and our goods sailed through Customs quite easily because I had such a detailed list. The customs agents in Australia had a friendly laugh at just how many books there were in our household goods.

But I have to say that this is the most detailed inventory I have ever had to fill out for an insurance policy. And I have to determine what is the value for each item if I had to purchase them again on this side of the world.

If you don’t hear from me for several days, you’ll know why!

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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When In France, Patience Pays

Deciding to stop travelling, pick one country out of several options, and settle in the south of France has been an interesting proposition on a variety of levels — so I thought I would share a bit of that with you. The Midi-Pyrenees is a stunning part of this beautiful country and after much consideration, we believe that we have made a good choice. So we’re taking that leap of faith and staying!

St. Girons from the Avenue Francois Camel bridge

If you read the previous post, you will know that I have some additional freedom again now that I have my own little Peugeot to zip around in. However, it took TWO DAYS of hanging on the phone, leaving the car firmly parked because it was uninsured, and then wading through my kinda-sorta ok-ish French to get a new insurance policy. But as of Saturday afternoon, that’s all sorted and I’ve been out and about already doing essential errands and tracking down the correct government offices for each task.

A bit of freedom courtesy of a new-old Peugeot for Deborah

Yes, the updates on the site have been a bit thin for the last couple of weeks, but we’re fine and still doing the settling-in thing. That means lots and lots of paperwork from government departments that never seems to end. Mark’s life is a bit more straightforward than mine is right now — he gets up in the morning and goes off to work at various astonishingly scenic places as he renovates French houses. I am here in my home office, making endless copies, sourcing more government information, sending flurries of emails, and then waiting, waiting, waiting for things to get done by whatever French government department I am currently dealing with.

Getting registered in the health care system is still ongoing and that has, I must admit, been ridiculously time consuming. But I feel confident that my own paperwork will be completed this week. And I’ll be very happy once I see two copies of the laminated Carte Vitale, the essential item that gives us full access to all of the French healthcare system.

Things came to a grinding halt recently when I had to get an official French form to then obtain an official French translation of our birth certificates from English into French — and then the official French translation form had to be stamped and signed by an official French Civil Authority in a government office. That finally happened yesterday, but not easily!

After getting the translation completed last week, I took all of the correct paperwork to the Marie (the mayor’s office) in St. Girons yesterday and was directed to the office for Civil Registry. There I found a woman behind a desk with rather a lot of stamps and pens on her desk. Good — I must be at the correct place — right? Perhaps not since she looked rather alarmed when she realised that I wanted her to put her stamp on the official translation of (shock-gasp!) a British birth certificate and an American birth certificate. Seriously, she looked at me like the sky was falling!

Shaking her head and repeating, “Non, non, non!” several times, she pulled out an instruction sheet for what she could sign off on and waved one finger at it saying that her office was for people from France, not “etrangers” — strangers (which is what they actually do call anyone who isn’t French). I just stood there and waited with a calm expression. She went off in a huff to talk to the woman in the office next door, her supervisor, and came back with a very thin smile on her face. She had just been corrected by the supervisor (lovely woman!) who told her that since we were registered to live and work in France, she was required to copy and stamp all of our documents.

Kachink-kachink went the stamps, 2 on each form plus a date and signature, and finally I was handed 8 “official French” forms. I kept a pleasant look on my face, thanked her very sincerely, and suppressed the urge to dance down the hall outside her office and whoop out loud once I reached the parking lot!

I have no idea why, but for some reason I have rather a lot of patience with this unfolding process. Maybe it’s because this place feels so right. And for a change, Mark isn’t neutral, he really LOVES it (in all capital letters!) here in this part of France! That’s an important change because he’s always liked the places where we lived in the past two decades in Australia, England, and even those brief few years in the USA — but he hasn’t LOVED them. Nice, eh?

Getting new passwords for our online account required a trip to the bank to meet with our account manager — and as I was walking through St. Girons yesterday, I was smiling. It was interesting to see how many people turned and smiled back because I was walking around feeling like a lightbulb was on inside my face. St. Girons is just lovely in that picturesque faded-French-beauty way that makes my heart happy. The photo below is of Rue Gambetta and my bank is underneath those arches at the end of the curve, just before the parking lot in the square beyond. Now seriously, if you looked at your local business district each day and saw this kind of charming view, wouldn’t it make your own heart sing?
The curve of Rue Gambetta in St. Girons in the Midi-Pyrenees, France
In the larger view, we are both quite happy that we waited, that we had patience about making a decision about where to stop and where to settle down again. We enjoyed our time over the last 18 months immensely as we travelled and worked in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, and France. And we met lovely people in each and every place that would have introduced us to the right people, helped us with our language issues in the non-English countries, and generally assisted us in negotiating through the ever-present paperwork in the EU.

The place that we have finally chosen, France, seems to be particularly attached to ‘les papiers’ and, in direct contrast to the way things are done in the UK or Australia, online processing of forms is practically non-existent. So everything moves at a snail’s pace. If you do choose France, you must know that ahead of time and accommodate yourself to their pace

Time to stop for today and get back to work. My next challenge is getting quotes to have our household goods delivered to us here in France. We had the very happy news from our shipping company in Australia that they had mistakenly quoted us for a larger amount than we actually had in storage. Once they picked it up last Friday from our storage unit, compacted it, and measured it on Monday, they sent us the actual figure which was approximately one third less than what the quote was based on. So we are saving a little bit of money off the sticker-shock prices that we were dealing with up until yesterday. Our boxes will arrive in the UK in a few months and then be trucked down here to France, a process that is (rather oddly!) cheaper than having them sent directly to France or even to Spain which is only one hour south of us.

Ah well — c’est la vie!

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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The Peugeot Paperwork Pause

Waiting, waiting, waiting. (sigh!)

So I bought a new-old little Peugeot 306 today from a friend of a friend here in the Midi-Pyrenees. Yes, it has a few dings in the doors from encounters in the local parking lots, but it’s an appropriately inexpensive option for our frugal lifestyle — a very basic little getting-around vehicle that I hope will serve me well over the next few months as we get sorted out here and I begin to look for a more permanent place to live.

The front of the new-old Peugeot 306


The back of the new-old Peugeot 306

That should all be quite straightforward — right? Trust me, there is never, ever, ever anything straightforward in France if it involves paperwork. I have been on the phone and online for over 5 hours at this point just trying to get insurance for it that doesn’t cost half of the total value of the car per year in premiums!!!

Our insurance agency that has our previous policy is headquartered in the outskirts of Paris and they take a lunchtime break on Friday that lasts from noon until — wait for it — four in the afternoon. And THEN they re-open for business. It took me ever so long to get anyone to even answer the phone, then I hung online for almost half an hour, and then they gave me a list of documents to scan and attch to emails. I had to send 6 different emails with one piddly attachment (at a greatly reduced pixel size, I might add) on each one.

So here I am now now — waiting, waiting, waiting to hear back.

If it goes smoothly, I will be driving the new wee beastie this weekend. If not (mustn’t even think that!), it will be Monday before I can get on the road. Let’s see, how many really rude French expletives can I think of to mutter as I walk around the house? (sigh!)

P.S. It’s 7 hours later and after 6 PM now — so I guess I won’t be out and about this weekend. And did I fail to mention the mini-heatwave? That certainly wasn’t helpful today either!

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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Temporarily Tangled and Tied Up

Temporarily Tangled — by power cords and computer cables — and Tied Up (and then some!) with migrating files, photos, and software from one computer to another.

It became apparent in the last few months that since I was now doing so much stock photography and freelance writing, my MacBook Pro was groaning under the weight of the files. Doing back-ups to passport drives and online storage sites had become scarily essential as a measure of protection against losing all of that work.

Apple MacBook Pro on my coffee table 'desk'

I’ve been looking for another MacBook Pro so that I had redundancy, and one night (when I should have been asleep!), I was online on Ebay and I saw a brand-new listing from a small company in the UK that was an authorised Applecare agency. They had an identical MacBook Pro to the one I already had, but this one that was listed had a terrabyte of memory instead of 500GB — and the RAM was also double at 8GB instead of my current 4GB. It had a brand new hard drive so I wasn’t buying someone else’s computer full of ‘fluff’ and old hidden files. They had also placed the latest version of Apple’s OS system Lion on there and it was loaded with almost every single piece of editing and office software I used on a daily basis.

I hit BUY NOW as fast as my little fingers could fly and the lovely little computer arrived yesterday. Hooray! And it was half price compared to a brand-new-from-the-Apple-store one that only had 4 GB of RAM and 500GB of memory. Can you hear me saying a huge WOO-HOO!

The only thing that I had to download new copies of were my iWatermark program for placing my copyright on my photos, another copy of Adobe Lightroom (and since I had purchased mine in Australia and registered, I just migrated the passwords & serials over), and the MacKeeper program to keep everything clean and running smoothly. I also added Skype and I thought I was ready to send my photo and document files over. Nope!

My older Macbook Pro is running on the OS Snow Leopard and the new one is on Lion. Add to that, the software for some of my other programs were all previous versions. Soooooooo — the Migration Assistance program that was running in both computers, which actually did recognise both computers this morning, would not play nice and let me transfer files. I wasn’t asking it to send Applications, Downloads, Users — just documents and media files. Nope — not cooperating.

So it looks like a huge portion of my weekend is going to be spent transferring files via my passport drives and fingers crossed that I’ll be back at the beginning of the week to put NEW PHOTOS and posts online for you. Then I have a bit of a learning curve since my new operating system is different and has new features — and so do the new versions of Lightroom and Photoshop.

Wish me luck!

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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How’s That For A Drive To Work In France?

Seriously, if you have to drive from one village to another to go to work, isn’t that a pretty splendid view? This is what Mark sees as he toodles on down the road out of our village of Engomer and on toward Castillon.

Driving to work in the Midi-Pyrenees of France

And once he gets up into the remote high spots where some of the clients live, this is the kind of thing he sees as he works on house renovations.

Horse coming over the hill in the snow-topped Midi-Pyrenees in France

These photos were all taken by Mark at various job sites and yes, I am certainly glad that I bought him a decent Nikon camera before we left Australia. Not only is his photography getting better and better, I am spared the knuckle-gripping drive up to these places on one lane mountain roads which are apparently not much better than a dirt track in some places. Remind me to tell you the ‘stuck in the mud — I’ll be late for dinner’ story sometime soon!

If you look closely, you can see that each of these three white cows has a new baby up in that springtime meadow. Is it any wonder that Mark really loves going to work each day since we moved here a few weeks ago?

Spring calves with their mothers in a mountain meadow. Midi-Pyrenees in France.

Finally, in a dramatic example of size and scale from another job site that Mark is working on, those tiny little buildings that you see about 3/4 of the way down the picture in the center are actually 2 or 3 story houses.

A lesson in size and scale in the Midi-Pyrenees of France


©Deborah Harmes and ©Mark Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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