Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Geography of France, 101

Leran appears to be in the Market gardening zone; fruits, vegetables, flowers. I can tell you I saw lots of grazing land and sunflowers seemed to be the major crop. Over near Chalabre there were apple orchards and just over the hills and down towards Limoux, you passed into a wine-growing region. France is definitely blessed with a region for growing or harvesting almost anything. Seacoasts for seafood, plenty of room to raise beef and dairy cattle, forests for lumber, mountain pastures for sheep and goats and the resulting cheeses, plains for cereal crops, olive trees for olives and oil, and of course vineyards for wine. France is about twice the size of Colorado but has a place to grow almost all major crops except rice.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some People Do Crosswords

It was a little over a year ago that we successfully returned from San Francisco with Extended Stay Visas in hand, allowing us to remain longer than 90 days in France. A few days later, Doug was driving off to Houston to load Old Smokey on the freighter to Barcelona. Both of these events required seemingly endless paperwork shuffling and numerous dangling phone calls, not to mention more than a few episodes of 'going postal'. Then we began assembling the documents required for purchase of the Leran village house. By the time we actually arrived in France, I felt like I could work at the State Department----theirs or ours.

We opted not to return to San Francisco to reapply for a Visa, and will be staying for the maximum 90 days allowed. At one point we thought about blowing off the restriction, figuring what was the worst that could happen if we overstayed our welcome? The answer apparently is to not be invited back. With the dollar succumbing to the Euro as the global currency, it unfortunately becomes more expensive for us to be there. But, and we view this as a significant but, it makes our investment all the better.

Foreign currency exchange, from US dollars to Euros, is heartbreaking. When the Euro first entered the European markets in 2001, it was on equal par to the dollar. Now, $1USD = 0.62 Euro. And that's on a good day. For instance, if we wanted to transfer $25,000 USD to France, what would actually be deposited in our French bank account would be about 15,000 Euros. The rest is history.

Realizing this evaporation of money was not a long-term solution, we set about applying for a French loan to finance our renovation. Actually the real motivation was to not lose touch with French bureaucracy, a very important aspect of French society. I had already completed (successfully I hope) all the hoop-jumping for Fergus' flight to France. He's been microchipped, re-rabied, IATA-sanctioned kennel awaiting outside, portfolio of paperwork in his personal dossier. With that done, I had no excuses to not be studying French.

The 'research' phase was rather enlightening, learning the relevant terminology and commonalities and differences to our procedures. What we were looking for was the equivalent of a home equity loan, using the Leran house as collateral, since we have no mortgage on it. It seemed simple and straight-forward to us. My first call to Frederic on the English-speaking line at our bank, Credit Agricole, clarified that only a very few French banks are authorized to process "equity release" loans. And of course, they were not one of them, so he suggested we get a mortgage. Things seemed to be moving along until one of the requirements stipulated that we submit bids for the proposed work to be done on the property, and these bids had to total the exact amount of the requested figure and be signed by a registered and licensed French contractor. Whoa! I didn't even know there was such a thing as a licensed French contractor. We figured that since we wouldn't be using one of these fictitious people anyway and we weren't there, it would be hard to get their input. I doubt that Frederic expected to hear back from us anyway.

Further Internet searching finally found the banks that, for whatever reason, were allowed to loan monies against the equity in a house and located their websites. The only reason we were focused on the equity release was reference made to "monies released without contractor bids" or architectural drawings, and that the money could be used for any purpose. So now I didn't feel like some inspector was going to come by every 15 minutes to see if we used that sheet of plaque de platre in the exact location stated. I started communicating with what appeared to be a very professional woman who led us through the application process, step-by-step-by-step-by-step. We applied for an equity release loan, a simple loan requiring fewer documents and a streamlined underwriting procedure.

For your enjoyment, I have included a list of the simple supporting documents we were required to scan and email in order to apply:

*Mortgage application form

*Copy of passports

*Birth or Marriage certificate

*Life insurance questionnaire
(Note: Life insurance is required, and when filling out my form I got a little mixed up computing my height and weight from inches/pounds to cm/kg. Doug informed me that when I listed myself at 140 cm and 285 kg, I was clocking in at 4'7" and 628 lb. I hope that didn't put me in an unfavorable light.)

*Divorce decree

*Copy of most recent paycheck stub

*Copies of last 2 years FULL tax returns

*Copy of Rental Agreement with management company (for our nightly/weekly rental)

*1099 from Rental Management Company

*Year End Investment income Statements for last 2 years

*Copies of last 3 months bank statements

*Copy of the deed to French house in Leran

*Name and contact info for keyholder of Leran house for inspector to contact

*Name and contact info of Notaire

Needless to say, I have had this year's fill of French bureaucracy. We're still waiting to hear if we qualify for the loan. If not, there's always le bras d' honneur! I need to get a better hobby.

The Dordogne, Spring 2006

In the Spring of 2006, Nancy and I made a scouting trip to France with the intention of seeing if there was anywhere in France we could afford to buy that we would also want to live. We started out in Provence and, although very beautiful, we found it to be much more expensive than we could afford. We went next to the Aude and the Ariege, found it to be much less expensive and a very livable place. Our last stop that spring was a region called the Dordogne. As it turned out, it was beautiful and very attractive, had thousands of interesting attractions, but had been discovered. It too, was way out of our price range.
I can show you some pictures of the place, however my memory is very fuzzy. The top photo was taken of the surrounding landscape from some now forgotten village (by me anyway) on a hazy, muggy day. This is one of my favorite photographs because of the soft light, muted colors and the way the landscape recedes into the distance. Second, a very colorful set of stained glass windows, perhaps in that very same town. In an age without movies, television and photography, these windows must have been an awesome vision as you stood in a darkened church.
The bottom two are in Sarlat du Caneda, one of the most beautiful villages in the Dordogne. In the upper one, Nancy waits for me to take her picture as we head into the marketplace. And the last is a photo of a beautifully painted sign advertising Regnier, a seller of beasts. Click to enlarge.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Change Afoot in French Cafes

So last century … Catherine Deneuve exhibits traditional French cafe style in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

(From the Sydney Morning Herald, January 2. 2008)

ONE of France's most iconic institutions, the smoky cafe, is set to become a hazy memory.
The extension of the country's smoking ban to bars, discotheques, restaurants, hotels, casinos and cafes on January 1 marked a momentous cultural shift in a country where thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once held court while clutching cigarettes in Left Bank cafes.
For smokers this is the most distressing part of a phased smoking ban that began last February in workplaces, schools, airports, hospitals and other "closed and covered" public places such as train stations.
But many bartenders and restaurant workers are looking forward to breathing easier and to clothes that do not stink of odours absorbed from the clouds of smoke where they work.
"The French culture associated with smoking is a 20th-century thing but we won't forget the experience," the former smoker Lisa Zane, a Chicago-born singer who lives in Paris, said at Le Fumoir
(The Smoking Den), a restaurant and bar behind the Louvre. "Smoking seems insane now; we have to adapt."
The Health Ministry says one in two smokers here dies of smoking-related illness and about 5000 non-smokers die each year from effects of passive smoking. About a quarter of France's 60 million people are smokers.
Italy, Ireland and Britain previously enforced smoking bans but it is difficult to imagine the style-conscious French bundling up in blankets to smoke on chilly restaurant terraces, like some Londoners.
Almost anywhere indoors will be off-limits for smoking, except homes, hotel rooms and sealed smoking chambers at establishments that decide to provide them.
Many restaurateurs, cafe owners and disco operators, such as Christophe Mgo, the owner of the bar Le Marigny in Paris, fear lost business.
"There will be a drop, certainly," he said. "The tobacco-bar is part of the French tradition. They will surely stay less time and they will only drink one coffee or beer, instead of two."
A national union of disco owners has said it expects a 5 to 8 per cent decline in business initially, and has urged the Government to send pamphlets to police to show "understanding" in their enforcement of the ban.
About 10,000 protesters, mainly tobacco vendors, marched across Paris in November, and the Government said it would not strictly enforce the ban until January 2.
For many French smokers, such as Daniel Marierouyer at Le Fumoir, the bitterness could could take a long time to fade. "Great idea," he said sarcastically. "I love it when things get imposed on us - buckle your seatbelt; don't smoke; you need to be healthy; you're too fat."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Parisian Phototour

These photos are of course, Paris. The last is of the famous La Porte de l'Infer by Rodin, also known as the Gates of Hell. I thought you might be getting tired of pictures of Fergus, Moab, cars and jeeps.

I'd like to claim these photos as my own but I can't. The photographer allows their use as long as he is credited and linked. So here goes: The photographer is Trey Ratcliff and his site is You can go there to see more of his travel photography. You can click to enlarge, but they don't go too much bigger.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Meanwhile, Back in France.......

We've said this before, but I'm sure you can imagine that its very difficult to do a blog about living in France when you don't live in France. It is just about two months before we leave for Montreal and thence to Paris and on to Leran. We've mined our treasure trove of photos again and again. The only thing left is to go on the internet and steal photos of France and put them on North of Andorra. We may yet come to that (in fact, it's not such a bad idea). Well, just in the nick of time, Alan and Eileen have sent some photos of Leran and Mirepoix. I'll try to interpret them as best I can.
First is a shot of a new sign in Mirepoix that I applaud. It's a sign asking dog owners to pick up their dog poo. Long overdue, highly welcome. Did the city fathers of Mirepoix know Fergus was coming?
A beautiful photo of, I think, a street light in Mirepoix in the snow. Very pretty.

Let's see.......we've got a shot of Lac Montbel looking a bit low again, but much higher than it was at times last year when it seemed almost empty. I suppose it's low because the spring thaw in the Pyrenees hadn't started. Yet, sailboats are out on the lake and there must be more than a few nice sailing days in the winter.

And a shot of the chateau in Leran through the bare trees showing more than you can usually see of the back of the building.

We're getting a little anxious to get back to France. We're ready to resume our building projects, and as quickly as possible get the deuxieme etage salle de bain finished up and ready for visitors. I'm ready for a fresh baguette from the boulangerie, a visit to the Mirepoix market and an afternoon sitting at the Leran bar sipping french wine and watching the world go by.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Fergus: Sprinkler Fighter

When I turned the water off, he went around looking for the sprinkler heads, daring them to come out again.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The April Action Car Show

I'm sure I left you with a very bad impression of Moab in my last post about the Jeep Safari. I thought that I would try to rectify that and show you one of the good car-related events that happens every year in Moab.
This is the April Action Car show which this year happens on Saturday, April 26th. The pictures above are just a small sampling of the hundreds of classic cars that arrive in Moab for the show. Some of the cars are really special, and some, very few are not so special. All of the cars are the absolute pride and joy of the owner. Most of the cars arrive on a trailer or are driven or towed from a short distance in Colorado or Utah. A very few of the cars that are entered just belong to some dude who goes back and forth to work in it and cleans out the hamburger wrappers the day of the show.
This year will be the 16th annual show and they will have street rods, muscle cars, classics, customs, tractors and trucks. Now, I'm not a car guy, but I do appreciate this show. And, yes, there is a lot of gas burned that weekend. There is an awesome parade of vehicles at the end of the show, up and down Main Street, and you think you might have been transported back in time to some dusty town in the Central Valley of California. The people are nice, family oriented folks. Not the absolute jerks of Jeep Safari. The town is crowded, but in a nice way. I especially like the restored cement truck and the flesh colored hot-rod. Enjoy the pictures and remember, you can click on them to enlarge.

Grand Opening at Leran Bar

When we left France last September, it was more than just a rumor that the Leran Bar would be closing. Nellie and Thierry had relocated to Leran from Paris (via a few other stops along the way), but apparently the lifestyle was a tad bit too tame for them. They had their eyes set on Narbonne, to the east, closer to the Mediterranean. For those of us who depended upon the Bar as our "local gathering place", the impending closure was not good news. Even though we all complained about the quality of the wine and the lack of food, we could sit outside and watch the world go by, discuss daily activities and renovation progress, and of course, politics.
So, when word filtered around that Marek and Shirley, who have a holiday home just around the corner from us, were in negotiations with Nellie and Thierry, we were encouraged. Marek's mother is French, his father is Polish, Shirley is British; and they were looking for a way to reside permanently in France. We met Marek's parents last summer when they were visiting---a most charming couple.
After what seemed like an eternity but was perhaps the "usual" for French business, a deal was finally struck, the glitches smoothed out, and the Bar finally opened on March 26. Faithful correspondent Alan Simmons rushed photos to me of the Grand Opening, but they were held up in cyberspace by Homeland Security until just the other day. We do want those of you contemplating a trip to Leran to rest easy, knowing that ringside seats will once again be available on Cours St. Jacques, where the wine being served is reportedly much better (at least as far as they can remember).
You'll recognize some of these folks from last summer's pics: Top photo (L - R): Billy, Alan, Marek (new owner), David, in "The Old Men's Corner"; 2nd photo: Marek (center), Eileen (right); 3rd photo: Marek greeting guests; 4th photo: inside the Bar.
Come join us when we're there this summer: June 15 - September 11. It's only just around the corner from 14 Rue du Four.