Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Between English earth and sky

Our temporary home in the country outside Reigate 
We hit another jackpot with our third house sit. We are watching three well-behaved dogs - two dachshunds and a Spaniel - for a lovely couple in Reigate, England about 20 miles outside London. The 1800s four-bedroom house has been refurbished inside and out but maintains its English country charm. We're about a mile from Reigate, an upscale community with plenty of pubs and shop.

Our charges require one long walk in the morning - in the snowfall today! - and three meals a day. They're a fun group and there are woods and hilly climbs to enjoy. The temperatures are forecast in the 30s (F) the rest of the week with more snow. We'll still get out to see the sights, and come back to a nice wood fire in the hearth.

The flight from Montpellier to Gatwick Airport was about 1 1/2 hours. Paulita swore I said "merci" twice after arriving. I'm sure to say "cheers!" on our return to France in three weeks. Our first stop there will be two days at a beachfront apartment on the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, then two days in Paris to pick up a friend from Columbus before returning to base camp in Aix-en-Provence.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Market day

Like most French towns, Quillan has an open-air market where vendors sell fresh food, clothing, books, even tools and furniture. It's one of the country's attractions for us. Quillan's second of the week was today. After Paulita's run and my walk up the hiking path and back, we strolled down to the market. We weren't planning to buy a lot of stuff. We had food for lunch at our apartment and had cancelled dinner reservations  at ''the best'' restaurant in town, a meal likely to cost 75 euro (About $80) or more.

Today's market/patisserie haul. (Wine excluded.)
Then we came upon the vendor selling rotisserie chicken. That would make a fine lunch and we could save the cold cuts we planned to have  for later. 8 euros for the chicken to go along with a can of beans I had bought at the grocery. Then a woman selling cheese called Paulita over to try a sample. It was good and would go well with the chicken. 3 euros. We decided to buy two apples for hiking snacks. Another 1,5 euro. A tomato would go well with the sandwiches we make sometime. Way less than a euro. A Lebanese couple was selling treats they bake. Loved the samples. 2 euros for a variety pack we could take on a hike.

On the way home we stopped at the patisserie for a baguette of Qullianaise, a local specialty bread. On the shelf were an eclair cafe and a "cookie maison"  that needed homes. 4 euros.

The lunch was good and we'll have either leftover chicken or sandwiches for dinner. That's if we have dinner. Two meals a day (including pastries for breakfast) usually is enough for us, especially being in retirement/vacation mode.

We'll try the expensive restaurant tomorrow for lunch.

The lesson here is always bring a bag to the market, even if you don't plan to buy a thing.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Reality check

I had high hopes for the four-bedroom house that was for sale at an affordable price in Quillan. West-facing for afternoon sun, on a quiet plaza and with a balcony off the bedroom. It was perfect -- on the outside.

Inside it was large, having been a former cafe. There were huge wooden beams and new double-glazed windows.

However, every room needed major work. All the walls showed signs of water damage, the floor underlayment was soft and the electrics questionable. The upstairs WC needed a bath/shower unit. The kitchen would have to be gutted and maybe relocated. If we had double the funds in our bank account, and I had 10 fewer years on the age clock, then maybe. But then I wouldn't be retired and in France, Paulita noted.

The experience prompted us to reconsider our original idea to rent for a while. That would give us more time to house hunt, and to be flexible if we decide to return home to the U.S. in December because we miss the kids and family, or that living abroad just doesn't suit us. So far we feel like we're on vacation, and the goal is still to eventually find a home here.

Paulita got on the phone to arrange to see a few apartments. Once again, her French language skills were impressive. We have two showings on Monday before leaving to spend a week in Pezenas, the other village we're considering. One is on a quiet plaza near the village church and the other on a narrow street near the Aude River that flows through town.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Donut test II and Valentine's Day

If you recall, the first French donut I tried, in Aix-en-Provence, didn't impress. So, i tried one at a patisserie in Qullian. I must say, this donut ranked with the best in the U.S. It was a pastry dough with dark chocolate icing. Of course, the dessert wine acsentuated the flavor.

We also spent time with Australian friends Dennis and Jenny, who took us on a tour of the hidden shops and restaurants/bars they frequent. They also showed us homes that were for sale and some details about the places and why they were for sale. The market is suppressed because Brits, a big part of the buyers, were waiting for the pound to strengthen against the euro. There's also the fear of what happens if they leave the European Union and its benefits.

This four-bedroom place was the most expressive with a pricetag around $100,000. We plan to meet with an immoblier (real estate agent) to take a look inside this and other homes.  Word is you immediately offer 10 percent less and negotiate further. Less expensive houses, down to the five figures, are also candidates. We will visit Pezenas to the northeast closer to the Mediterranean, where homes are likely more expensive, so it's good to know Quillan is more affordable. The village has a market twice a week and really comes alive in the spring and summer with bike races, concerts and festivals. We agree that living here, with the mountains and the fast-running Aude River, would would be a healthy lifestyle. A doctor once encouraged me to have 5 ounces of red wine a day for a healthy heart. I tend to overmedicate at times.

It's been a nice Valentine's Day. No flowers, gifts or expensive meals. Just a married couple of 27 years spending the day walking around what might be our future home, looking at potential homes and feeling that we might spend our lives here. As with every day, there's a stop at the patisserie-boulangerie for pastries and a baguette.

Sentier de Capio

I add a rock to the cairn atop Sentier de Capio.

We did another 1,200 hike today, this time up 2,100 foot Sentier de Capio, another mountain that surrounds Quillan. Unlike yesterday’s straight-up climb, Capio’s was a more gentle slope but lots of boulders near the top. Again, we had to decipher the trail blazes that kept changing colors because several trails were using the same paths.
This was the trail we couldn’t finish last year when we got lost in the village of Ginoles. Since then they’ve added more directional signs.

 Quillan seen from our walk up the mountain.
Wikiloc helped keep us on the right paths, even though it disagreed with the signage at times.
Today’s forecast is for rain, possible snow, all day. Our hike might be postponed until tomorrow.
Happy Valentine’s Day. We plan to spend it looking at a potential house in Quillan and lunch at a restaurant recommended to us. Certainly, chocolate and wine will be involved.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The mountains call

Quillan, France surrounded by hills and mountains.
To loosely quote famed naturalist John Muir, "the mountains of Quillan, France, are calling and we must go." We arrived Sunday in the small village located about 60 miles north of Spain. It's nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which is why it's one of two locations under consideration for our new home.

Of course, we had to strike out on one of those hills on Monday, 1,200 feet up Pic de Bitrague. It wasn't the highest climb but several sections were extremely steep grades. Our effort was rewarded with some great views. The most amazing was a golden eagle that swooped up from below us not 10 feet away. He made wide circles to return and ride the updraft next to the sheer face. He kept that up until it started to snow, actually tiny beads of hail.

Paulita celebrating at the summit, 2,116 feet above sea level.
There are dozens of hikes of  varying difficulty close to Quillan. Trailheads and paths aren't as well marked as in the U.S. We used an app called wikiloc to follow the trail. Even then the app seemed confused, telling us we were straying but then  immediately saying we were on the right path.

We need to work in a couple of more hikes while we're here this week because in June we're walking sections of the El Camino de Santiago in France, part of The Way, the pilgrimage trails to the cathedral in Galicia in northwestern Spain. True to European hiking culture, we're staying at lodges instead of camping out.

The mountains and its proximity to Spain make Quillan a contender. Next week we'll spend in Pezenas, a larger village farther north and closer to the Med. We hope to pick the winner in April.

Customer service Part II

I neglected to mention another merchant in the previous post. While shopping for a hat and haircut, we had left my computer at a shop in Cognac for repairs. It was stuck in tablet mode so the keyboard didn't work. After a few hours we returned. The technician had tried several fixes but none worked. Because he  wasn't confident of his English to correctly follow some of the prompts, he charged us a whopping zero euros because he couldn't fix it. In the U.S. it would cost $70 just to have someone look at the thing.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Customer service

I was reminded yesterday of the focus French merchants put on service.

The winning hat.
Paulita and I walked by a clothing store in Cognac that sold Scottish sweaters, warm jackets -- and hats, Stetson hats. I half-heartedly mentioned after passing the store on a previous trip that I thought the hats were cool. "Try one on," Paulita said. Inside, the lone worker, probably the owner, was assisting an elderly couple with a pair of pants. We exchanged bonjours but she continued laser focused on the couple over a pair of pants for the gentleman, who was going back and forth about whether to buy the pants. The owner didn't break away to make sure we stayed put. "We just wait our turn," Paulita explained. So we had fun trying on hats. After 10 or so minutes the couple decided and the purchase was made. Other French customers came in.  An American, I didn't expect the same attention the elderly French couple received. I was wrong. She told the new customers bonjour and came over to us. She spent time explaining the hats' properties, checking sizes (I'm a 61, extra large, or as Paulita put it in French to the woman, "He has a very big head.") The owner had me try on several styles. She and Paulita gave their assessments. With a wince, frown or nod the owner made her opinion clear. It came down to two. I let the owner in on the final vote. She and Paulita picked the one you see here. (It has hidden ear flaps!). At the register the owner  demonstrated how  the hat was "crushable" by rolling it up, then fluffing it and forming the creases. She even rushed to hold the door for us when we left.

With a new hat I, of course, needed a hair cut. We saw a shop, Hollywood Coiff. Only 10 euro, or about $12.50. We went inside, passing through the curtain of beads ala 1970s. The other customers were young guys getting side shaves with mops on top and razor edgings. The stylist was a young guy flashing the razor, both electric and straight varieties. I expected blood spatter at the speed he was going. My turn came and wondered if he would be repulsed by gray hair.
Awaiting the outcome. I have no idea why the drape has a clear plastic insert.
After instructions in French by Paulita (Close on the sides and leave a little more on top) he happily went to work. The guy must have three hands because he was armed with a razor, brush and scissors. I left myself and my arteries in his hands and relaxed like I usually do when I'm in the barber chair. Then out came the straight razor. The guy expertly wielded the blade to trim the edges of my beard. At the end it was one of the best cuts I've had. We handed him a 50 euro bill. He had the next customer, obviously an acquaintance at least, go get change. The guy came back with two 20s and a 10. Paulita handed the stylist a 20 euro bill expecting change for a tip. OK, I thought, the guy will feign not having change so he'll take the 20. "No," he said, he didn't have change for that and took the 10 euro. Like most French business people, he didn't expect a tip, even for 100 percent.

I'd like to say you're in the hands of honorable merchants focused on your needs in France. We'll see if that holds true elsewhere.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Doggy bags and DUIs

If you've visited France over the years you've noticed some cultural changes. If you're coming here for the first time, you should be aware of what's  changed and what's stayed the same.

What's different:
 McDonald's has been here for years but Starbucks is a recent addition of  American cuisine. Neither is as good as in the U.S.

Salad is now served at the beginning of a meal. It was always reserved for after the main course and before the cheese and/or dessert.

A 2016 law said restaurants must provide doggy bags because restaurants threw away 7 million tons of food a year. One critic said the French would never do it because it seemed crude and "American." We asked for one when Paulita had a cold and couldn't finish her meal. The server seemed happy to oblige.

Plastic bags were outlawed in 2016. You must carry your own bag into a grocery (Super U, Intermarche, Casino) buy one there, or carry your purchase out in your hands.

More joggers and they're wearing luminescent clothing. People used to look askance at joggers like they were running from police. French drivers generally are courteous to pedestrians but still be alert at crossings.

We were walking. No driving involved here Monsieur Officer.
Speaking of police, France lowered its DUI limit to .05 a few years ago. And French cops do random roadside checks. If you blow a .025 to .04, or have a blood alcohol of .05 to .08 the penalty is a three-year license suspension and a 135 euro fine for the first offense. Above .08 in your blood, you face up to 2 years in prison, a 4,500 euro fine and three-year license suspension.

What's  the same::
Businesses close between noon and 2:00 so workers can spend time with family and friends at lunch. They work longer hours to make up for it. A friend said workers on her house finished lunch in 20 minutes but sat around to talk for another hour and 40 minutes to smoke cigarettes and talk when they could have gone back to work and gone home early.

Restaurants close after the lunch seating and reopen around 7 or later for dinner. However there are brasseries, bars and street food vendors (actually storefront stalls) that serve food. There's also are a emporter places selling pizza and other foods to go.

Always check beforehand whether an office is open. We found out that the tourism office in Cognac is closed Tuesday afternoons. No idea why that particular time.

Tipping at restaurants. Leave a one or two euro tip for good service if you want, but servers are paid a living wage, unlike in the U.S. They don't expect a tip but appreciate it. Don't  put the tip on your credit card; tipping is cash only. You can also compliment the owner or manager for exceptional food and service, or the chef if you see him/her, but don't  hunt them down.

You won't get coffee or tea until after dessert, unless you order the gourmand sampler, which gives you a small espresso with dessert.

You must go to the pharmacie (marked by green, often flashing, neon crosses) for any common health or medical need such as vitamins or Advil.

Buy bread daily.  The French don't usually have packaged slice bread that will keep for a week or longer.

And don't look for milk in the cooler. It's on a nonrefrigerated shelf. The ultra-high temperature (UHT) milk is heated to 275 degrees and sold in sterile cartons that don't need refrigeration. It can keep for six months and tastes fine.

Feel free to add to either category, or correct any error you see. Thanks!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Heard it was a good game

I was all set to watch New England lose. I had my peanuts, small can of Coke and satellite TV. The dogs we're house-sitting were nestled asleep in their beds. Just go to France Channel 9 and, voila!, there would be Super Bowl LII, I was told.

Instead, I got this:

I'm in France, rural France. It's midnight (we're six hours ahead of the U.S.) I'm not about to mess with our host's satellite hookups. There are no bars nearby and if there were they'd be showing highlights of the Six Nations Rugby Championship, not American football. I'm not a big NFL fan and I can barely sit still through an entire game, but after a month here I was looking forward to good old American sports TV. Inane conversations among broadcasters, unending replays and maybe a witty commercial or two  (Liked the NY Giants' play on Dirty Dancing).

It's not much to ask since we spend most days outdoors exercising the dogs, or reading books, visiting fantastic cities like Bordeaux, and having great meals.
The old city gate of Bordeaux.
The only TV we watch here are Netflix shows like The Outlander, Grace and Frankie and Designated Survivor and maybe some BBC and CNN news. Sometimes we go days without staring at the screen and haven't suffered withdrawal symptoms.
Goat-cheese salad.

The Super Bowl was the first test of no-TV life for me. No, I had no desire to watch the State of the Union. I can do this. We won't have a TV in our new home. French TV is pretty bad anyway, based on what I've seen and been told. We'll rely on tablet or computers to view selected shows.

But I would like to have seen the Eagles prove that Tom Brady, although a great player, was human.

Sunday, February 4, 2018


Vibrac, France, Feb. 4, 2018
Our home for three weeks.
I'm standing at a window in an old stone and tile roof house looking out over a canal and farmland. It once was home to a lock keeper, who opened and closed heavy metal gates, lowering and raising the water level for boats to pass through on the Charente River. It's not my house. My wife, Paulita, and I are house-sitting for a British couple on holiday. One month ago we landed in Paris, not for a vacation, but to begin a life as ex-pats in France. 

We traveled often to France, where Paulita spent the summer before grad school as an au pair. Every few years we visited the family and she mentioned how nice it would be to move to France. I would nod and not give it serious thought. That changed two years ago when I turned 60. I loved my job as a reporter at The Columbus Dispatch and my colleagues. But I had vowed not to wait until 65 to enjoy the rest of my life. Neither my father nor his brothers saw 80 years old. I would retire on Dec. 22, 2017, the day before I turned 62 and became eligible for my company pension.

My desk at The Columbus Dispatch, where I spent
 the last 19 years of a 40-year journalism career.
I had thought retirement would involve a condo in the Columbus area and world travels. That was one option we discussed. We would be close to our three adult children, able to help them in person instead of consoling or counseling them over Skype or FaceTime. We also would be close to Grandview Heights, the small city where we lived just outside downtown Columbus. We loved walking the half mile to Grandview's main street full of restaurant, shops and the Grandview Grind where Paulita wrote several novels. Our children had attended the city school district where the total enrollment hovers around 1,000 students. France would put us 10 hours and 4,000 miles away from all of that. But if  we could leave with our children, now in their 20s, fairly secure in jobs and apartments, we'd take a shot at adventure.

Clockwise from me at the top: Tucker, Paulita, Spencer and Grace.
"So you're abandoning us," the youngest, Tucker said. With his dry wit it's sometimes difficult to tell whether he's joking. I assumed he wasn't. In a sense, he was correct. But our leaving might help them become more self-sufficient, we told ourselves. And we expected all of them to visit us in France. Tucker came around and said he would make a long visit this spring or summer. Grace, our oldest, loved our plan. A europhile herself, she has dreams of graduate school in Scotland. Our older son, Spencer, said it was cool that we were chasing our dream.

The housing market in Grandview was ridiculously hot last spring, but we didn't jump in until August. After one failed offer we closed on a second full price offer on Dec. 8. We had two days to remove the last items from the house. We pulled away at 11:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the new owners took possession. A healthy profit from the home sale means we won't need a mortgage in France, With that, and my 401(k) and pension converted into investments and Paulita continuing to teach her college English classes online, our bankers declared our France dream possible. A European health insurance policy would cost us less than $1,000 total.

Trying to look French.
After Christmas in Florida with the kids and Paulita's parents, we left Paris on Jan. 3, landing the next day. The first three days were spent on  a second honeymoon in Paris. I never tire of visiting that beautiful city. There's always something new o explore.

After Paris, we began the first of three house-sitting jobs for Brits who have re-invaded western France with their strong pound sterling. They were looking for people to care for their homes and, more importantly, their pets while they went on holiday.
Paulita with Toby, one of our charges.
With the house-sitting jobs and times spent at friend's homes we'll have paid for only two weeks at an Airbnb by mid-March, when we begin house-hunting in earnest. We've decided to rent for a year. That way we we'll have time to thoroughly vet properties and also give the dollar time to hopefully strengthen against the euro. And if we decide the expat life isn't for us, it will be easier to return home.

So stop back and see how we do for at least the next year. You'll read about house sits, French traffic, dining and social quirks (compared to our American quirks), the difference between bollocks and bullshit and my efforts to adapt to French culture and language.

À bientot,