Wednesday, January 31, 2007

We Look Twice at an Old Hotel

Doug writes:
Pictured above is Lizzie, our estate agent. When we visit a French home for sale, it is different from an American house showing in that the homeowners are generally present and proudly showing off their property. During the course of the showing, when the owners realize we don't speak a bit of French, they ask Lizzie about us, she says, "They are American, and they detest George Bush." The French folks smile and nod their heads, agreeing that we are indeed sane and reputable people.
I've also included a photo of one of the places we've looked at in Chalabre. It is a former hotel annex, where the 'Hotel de France" a few doors down, sent either their overflow or the folks who didn't want to pay top dollar. There are about three rooms on each floor, so nine rooms and about that many bathrooms and toilets. Plus retail space on the ground floor and a terrace out back. It was way out of our price range, but gave us a moment of thought. We could rent out the shop to the present owners, a Dutch gay couple who sell antiques (brocoante), and rent a few rooms to some of the indigent in Chalabre and defer the purchase price somewhat. It's in a wonderful location in central Chalabre, across from a bar and restaurant. We'll probably pass on this one, but it would certainly be interesting.
The other photo is the approach to a town called Revel. Everywhere in this neck of the woods, where there is a straight stretch of road, there are the obligitory plane trees. In the summer it is like driving through a leafy green tunnel.
More soon.

Monday, January 29, 2007

M. ou Mme. Dwight Reid: It's Official

Click on Photos to Enlarge.
There was a brief moment sitting at the Credit Agricole Bank in Chalabre this morning that I doubted whether we could pull off getting a French bank account. First of all, our interpreter Lizzie, aka our estate agent, called to say that her car wouldn't start and we should proceed without her. That in itself was rather limiting, but Leticia at the bank was gracious and had obviously been through this before. I was sure our documentation was in order: birth and marriage certificates, 3 months statements from prior electric, water, gas, sewer, bank, and investments. All this to apparently prove that we do indeed live where we say we live in the States. The stumbling block was that I chose to keep my maiden name when Doug and I married. This is not the French way. They do not have a way to accommodate two names on the ownership of the checking account, and the French man always is listed first. No ifs, ands, or buts. Well, I insisted on maintaining my existence and was assured that my name as "Nancy Reid Procter" will be on the checks, but had to compromise on the statement address. Rome wasn't built in a day, eh? Am I saying that the French have a thing or two to learn from us Americans...........
We have spent hours just driving from village to village, taking in the landscape and attempting to assess those places where we would like to live. Unlike the States, where miles of Wal-Mart, Costco, and Home Depot obstruct and interrupt our vision on the outskirts of towns, France is definitely more civilized. Rows of hundreds of the London Plane tree line narrow roads entering villages, providing needed shade in summer and a bit of a windbreak otherwise. In the center of villages the plane trees (platanus x acerifolia) has been planted for centuries in Europe because of its tolerance to pollution. 45,000 of these trees were planted along the Canal du Midi, connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and dating back to the 17th century. They provided essential shade and erosion control. The London plane tree is a hybridized version of the western plane trees, commonly known as the American Sycamore (platanus occidentalis), one of my favorites because we had one in my front yard growing up in Indiana. Since the plane tree spreads its branches rather broadly, it is necessary to restrict their growth in the center of villages. This process is called "pollarding", and results in prolific growth out of the bolls that are produced by cutting off all the limbs during the middle of winter. For those of us who appreciate natural unmanaged forests, aka Yellowstone National Park, this is quite a stretch. So all of this is helping me to understand other cultures. And they are not all about me.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mirepoix Canal House

Nancy writes: Perhaps it is because the French have been inhabiting their land for hundreds of years that property boundaries have taken some very bizarre and creative twists. This is a village house in Mirepoix on the canal. You don't open the country kitchen doors and liesurely walk down to the canal. No, you open the kitchen doors and if you dared to take a step, you would be in the canal. It is not a navigable canal, but a generous waterway nevertheless. The remaining property boundaries are exactly the footprint of the village house, not a milimeter more. The way that some people have skirted around not having any "terra firma" is to convert the top floor into a rooftop terrace, and those that we have seen are ingenious. The really fabulous ones may incorporate an outdoor kitchen and may well be oriented with spectacular views of the Pyrenees. They are not always permissible, especially in any village that have historical covenants. It seems more that it is something that is negotiated between the local Mairie, the Notaire, the immobilier and the lucky buyer.
We have also learned that it may well take four or five months to complete a sale, and that the best case scenario will be about two months. We have heard numerous nightmare stories about couples who have split up and selling their house, only to now not agree on the paperwork. One party wants to stick it to the other and refuses to sign, meanwhile the buyers have already moved in and are living in limbo for months on end.
As we look at these properties, we begin to prioritize.
Whereas there are many many people who
live in village houses that have no "piece of
outside", I guess our American values are rising to the surface because I can't imagine not sitting somewhere outside, on a terrase or garden, feeling an afternoon breeze, sipping wine, eating olives and bread and dream of chatting with the neighbors.

Attractions of the Arige

Here are the Pyrenees off in the distance, and some pictures of Mirepoix. The market square with its cover are center stage and the entire square has covered sidewalks. The architecture dates to 1200 and features the carved wooden gargoyles over the shop windows. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Doug writes:
We've been asked what drew us to this area, what the weather is like and how is our French coming along. I'm adding the photographs to help me explain the attraction to the area. With the rolling foothills covered with trees, it's reminisicent of Vermont and with the Pyrenees in the background, Montana. It's one of the least populated places in France with plenty of open space, farmland, cows, wild boars running around, yet it has many beautiful towns. It just felt good when we arrived in May, plus, we found we could afford some property here, unlike Provence or the Dordonge. Secondly, we ran into some wonderful people and it just seemed like there was no reason to go further afield.

The weather has been cold. We left cold, sunny Moab hearing about the unseasonably warm weather in southern France and the 71 degree days. We arrived to cold, gray skies, clouds everywhere and drifts from a recent blizzard. But it has cleared off and become sunny. Yet it remains colder than normal, or so we understand.

Our French? We haven't had much time to practice. Our estate agent, our hosts who have just gone back to England this morning, and most of the people we've met are British. And Nancy is American, so I'm only speaking English. Our French is not good but we have the company of others who are learning the language and are encouraged by their progress. I will say that we have learned enough to get the things we need at stores and restaurants. The test will come when we need to converse about plumbing, or carpentry or somesuch with a Frenchman who speaks no l'anglais.

Some of you have emailed us asking whether to comment directly on the blog or by email. The choice is yours, but if you post onto the blog, then everyone gets to join in on the 'conversation'. And don't worry about never having blogged before---we were total neophytes before jumping into this little venture. Now, off to Montseguer, the hotbed of history of the Cathars!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Settling In

Hailing from Flockton, West Yorkshire, England, Alan and Eileen are our most gracious hosts at 5 Rue de Four in Leran. We met them at the l'Impasse du Temple Chambre d'Hote last May and we would convene every morning and evening over croissants or drinks and recount our repsective days' events. Alan and Eileen were ready to pounce, and bought a place in France, and we are indeed grateful that they did. Last night they hosted a dinner party and introduced us to a few of their friends.

During the day our estate agent Lizzie took us out to begin the search. There is no such thing as an "apples to oranges" comparison here. We looked at a village house situated over the Credit Agricole Bank in Chalabre dating back to 1735, with exquisite original woodwork and tile. For sale are the top two floors. It has the original woodwork and the parquet and tile floors. What seems most unusual here in France, is that there appears to absolutely no attempt to de-clutter or clean up anything in order to show a home. No baking bread, made up beds or flowers in the vase. In fact, it's almost the opposite. The place was home to an amazing amount of junk, dinner leftovers, dirty clothes, etc. Its a possibility but it was very hard to see the potential through all the clutter.

And we looked at a portion of an estate now broken up into several units of manageable size. The place is a shell, gutted but with electricity, however has no water in or sewage out at this point. A beautiful space outdoors for a garden and terrace. The place, again, has much potential, but would be smallish.

We also saw the exteriors of several places which we will see in the following days. We have many things to see and we have just begun. Between travel, dining with Alan and Eileen, and trying to shake off jet lag, we haven't had much time to keep you informed. The Simmons leave tomorrow for England and it will settle down a bit so we should have more time to post some photos of what we are seeing. We should also have some time to sight see and will report on that as well. Right now we're off to the Saturday Chalabre market, then meeting Lizzie for some house showings. Ta ta for now.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Three planes, 18 hours...........we're here

Nancy writes:

We have arrived in Leran, our house-hunting headquarters for the coming month. We missed the blizzard of a few days ago, but remnants of several feet-high snow drifts remain along the edges of the roads. The skies were clearing as we drove towards the Pyrenees and the fields were strikingly green for late January. Our rental car turned out not to be a Twingo but instead a Renault Elf. We laugh about whether good old boy Americans would ever be caught dead driving some of the names of cars here....I mean, Doug driving an "Elf"...go figure. We stopped in Mirepoix to see if our immobilier Lizzie's was around but she was nowhere to be had, so called Alan and Eileen to give them a heads-up of our impending arrival. They welcomed us into their Leran home and we have an entire floor to ourselves, and after Sunday when they leave we will have the entire house. We met them at the B&B last spring when they were shopping for their piece of paradise. Since their purchase, they have been coming from Britain about once a month and loving every minute here. They said they know more people here than back home in their village. Lizzie called to invite us all for a drink and "natter" this evening and has arranged some house showings for tomorrow, so the search has begun dear friends.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Map to Set the Stage...

Click on the map and it will enlarge. Scroll down. Just north of Andorra, and just a little north of the 86 in the blue dot, you will find Mirepoix and Chalabre. This is the area we are looking in.

From Whence Comes "North of Andorra"???

One evening in the spring of 2001 we were sitting in a gloomy pension somewhere in France pouring over the map and wondering where to head next. Doug started telling me a story he read as a child about peasants leading their burdened donkeys over the narrow mountain passes in the Pyrenees from Spain into the postage-stamp country of Andorra. I immediately began to visualize a romantic scene of local villagers heading to market, carrying their copper pots, woolen blankets and baskets of fruit on their loyal beasts of burden. We left for Andorra the next morning after coffee, gaining elevation steadily through a lush picturesque valley towards the striking Rockies-like peaks. Traffic increased, slapped-together imitation chateaus appeared on the horizon, and the pastoral landscape gave way to a mega-ski station! Plus, Andorra is a duty free country, so you can ski and shop til you drop. Cigarettes, liquor, gambling, skiing, satisfaction for every vice. Driving through Andorra was more than enough for me. All the peasants were long gone, their donkeys traded for Hummers. But if you go to a map and find Andorra along the Spain - France border, move your finger just slightly to the north, that's where we'll be looking for our fixer-upper. Just north of Andorra, you see.

Ou est la Banque, s'il vous plait?

Doug writes:

Today is Monday, the day before we leave for France. The goals for today are to get our gear packed, and to figure out how this blogging thing works before we get over there and have to pay for internet time.

We've got a few goals once we are there. One, of course is to find a house we can afford and that will suit our needs. Secondly, after we have found the house we intend to buy we need to open a French checking account. We knew this was going to be difficult, because we understand a French resident must accompany you to the bank and vouch for you. Our real estate agent, Lizzie, a Brit living in France, said she would accompany us, problem solved. That didn't seem to be a major obstacle and actually helps resolve the language issue. But, she e-mailed us the other day and told us to bring a few other things for our visit to the bank beside the funds: our birth certificates; our marriage certificate, our passports, recent bank statements and copies of utility bills that are less that three months old. Needless to say, this is quite a departure from opening an American checking account where all one needs is an ID and a couple of bucks. I'm not sure what the difference is............but we have been warned, never, ever, ever bounce a check in France. OK. We promise. But let me ask you know where your passport, marriage certificate and birth certificate are? Neither did we.

Apparently, as we have been learning, all payments associated with the house are made by the bank. Mortgage, water, sewer, gas, electricity, (and to use a French term) et cetera (or is that Latin?).

Saturday, January 20, 2007

No O'Malley, No Cabin, So Why Not France?

This is my first post and I wanted to include pictures of our faithful dog O'Malley and our Montana cabin---neither of which are part of our lives anymore. Age caught up with O'Malley and we put him down in August, but not without spreading some of his ashes around the old tipi site. After much deliberation, we sold the cabin in October, but held onto our Montana residency long enough to see Senator Conrad Burns kicked out of office. We are taking the funds and heading to France Tuesday in search of "un maison a amenager" or a house that will need some TLC. As the US dollar continues to dwindle in the face of the strengthening Euro, I fear that our prospect of a fixer-upper is daily becoming more of a ruin and we better act fast.