28 February 2006

A typical morning in Saint-Aignan

Last night the weather report on France 2 television said we were going to have snow here (and in Paris) beginning at about 3:00 a.m. When I got up at 7:00 or so, there was no snow. The sky was gray and there was a gusty wind, but that was all.

At about 10:00, I left home to go run some errands in Saint-Aignan and across the river in Noyers. Saint-Aignan is all of two miles from the house. When I got there, the street that forks off the river road and leads to central Saint-Aignan was barricaded. There were several EDF (Électricité de France) and GDF (Gaz de France) trucks in the intersection, along with one firetruck and a Gendarmerie vehicle.

People were hanging out their windows watching the scene in the street below, which I couldn't see. I noticed one of my neighbors, Ludovic, who works for the municipality, out directing traffic, and waved at him. There was a woman out taking pictures of the curb and roadway, where they seemed to be digging a trench. I could see the flash of her camera. There were big metal barricades closing off the streets. I still don't know what was going on, but it was big excitement for Saint-Aignan.

We had big snowflakes for a few minutes this afternoon.

I drove on along the river, hoping to take the next road into town. It's just a couple of blocks, but it too was blocked off -- by a Gendarmerie vehicle. The gendarme himself was standing there to make sure nobody tried to turn onto that street. I saw a parking space on the opposite side of the road, but I was afraid to try to take it by driving in from the wrong direction or making a U-turn, because the gendarme might give me a ticket.

Last Saturday I heard a song on the radio that said:

Quand un gendarme rit,
Dans la gendarmerie,
Tous les gendarmes rient,
Dans la gendarmerie...

The third street into town was clear. It's a very narrow lane between two buildings, but just a couple of hundred meters in there is a small parking lot. Luckily, there was a space free. It was only a short walk up to the pharmacy and the optical shop, where I had business to do.

The pharmacy was relatively crowded, but there are five or six employees in the shop so I didn't have to wait long. I said bonjour to the blonde woman there who is always friendly and smiling. I didn't see Madame Smith, the pharmacist whose husband is Scottish and who usually comes out and shakes my hand in greeting when I enter the shop.

After a minute, one of the three men who work there, the short young one, waited on me. I was picking up monthly prescriptions for myself and Walt, so there was a list of them. (Getting old is hell.) I waited for a while, and I noticed the pharmacist searching shelf after shelf in the back of the store, behind the counter. He finally went to the computer and looked something up. Then he came over and told me that one of my medications was out of stock. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll go to the pharmacy down the street and get some for you. I won't be long."

I told him I had an errand to run across the street, so I would go get that done and come right back. That was fine.

The boutique across the street from the pharmacy is an optical shop. My favorite pair of glasses was giving me trouble. The right lens kept falling out when I was cleaning it. I tried to tighten the screw myself so that it would stay in, but to no avail. When I walked into the shop, the optician on duty was waiting on a woman who was getting glasses for her son, who lives in the Alps, from what I gathered.

He had put his glasses in his pants pocket when he went out skiing and had somehow broken them, she said. He sent them to his mother, who took them to be repaired. She chatted with the optician, telling her how her house was lonely now because her son was in school in the Alps and her husband was off on an extended business trip. Her only company was her cat, and it wasn't a very good conversationalist. As the two women chatted, the optician carefully packed the repaired glasses into a box and started to tape it up, but the woman said no, I have a note I wrote to my son that I want to put in the box. So she reopened it, took the glasses back out, waited while the customer carefully folded her note to fit, and the put everything back in the box. The note needed to go on the bottom, she pointed out.

After she put about 25 pieces of tape on the box to seal it well, she told the customer woman that she should send it via Colissimo at the post office. That would be the fastest way, even though the post office would not guarantee next-day delivery. That was a thing of the past, she said. But it was the best she could do. If you go to the post office right now, she said, your son might have his glasses back by Thursday. Oh no, I don't have the address with me, the woman said. I have to go home to get it first. I'll try to get back to the post office later, or tomorrow.

Time was passing very slowly, I thought.

We got our usual light dusting of snow on the back yard.

The next customer was an older man who was a little confused by the whole process of dealing with an optician, I thought. He went and sat at the little table where the optician has her computer and the tools she uses to fit glasses. He handed her his prescription.

Do you have your social security card with you? she asked. He seemed confused again. What's that? You know, the little green card. Let me look, he said. He pulled a bunch of cards and papers out of his wallet, but the optician said none of them was the card she needed. You know, your carte vitale, she said. That's what they call the card you present at the pharmacy or the doctor's here so that you don't have to pay. It's all covered by the national healthcare system.

Oh that, he said. I think it's in here with the medications I just picked up at the pharmacy across the street. I sat listening and looking out the window at the street scene. There was a steady stream of passers-by, many of them entering or leaving the pharmacy. A woman pulled up in a navy blue Renault and parked it on the street right in front of the pharmacy's side door. She turned on her emergency flashers and got out. Oh, she's going to pick up a prescription, I thought, and she'll be right out. Instead, she locked the car and headed off down the street on foot, disappearing from view. Her car was parked on a corner, blocking not only the door to the pharmacy but also making it hard for other cars to turn the corner onto the main shopping street. All the streets are very narrow.

The social security card conundrum was nearly worked out by now. It turned out the man didn't have a carte vitale from the national healthcare system but had some other piece of paper, proof that he had special insurance of some kind. The optician seemed satisfied. Let me see your glasses, she said. He took them off and showed them to her. One of the ear pieces was broken off toward the back. It was the plastic piece that sits on your ear that was gone. Did you eat it? she asked. He chuckled and said no, he had dropped his glasses and stepped on. It was broken, so he threw it away.

Meanwhile, another car pulled up and parked on the optician's side of the street. It was a red Peugeot, and between it and the Renault there was a very narrow passageway for cars that wanted to turn onto the side street. Several did, but they had to go very slowly and carefully. The woman in the red Peugeot, in her 60s like the other woman, stayed in her car. She was talking on her cell phone. It's against the law to talk on a phone while you're driving in France, so often you see people pulled off on the side of the road or street, sometimes in the most awkward locations, gabbing on the phone. This woman didn't seem to notice that she was creating a hindrance.

The man in the shop said he needed new lenses because he couldn't see well out of the corners of his lenses unless he moved his head to one side or the other. The optician explained that they were progressive lenses, and that they had "blind spots" in them. You have to turn your head to look through the right part of the lens if you want to see clearly, she said. You can't see through the blind spots, the corners. The man explained that his neck was chronically stiff and that he couldn't turn his head that easily. She said she understood that, and was sorry, but that he would just have to turn his whole upper body to get a clear view through the glasses since that was the case. "Il faut jouer de la hanche," she said. They laughed. Or, she said, you could get two pairs of glasses, one for seeing close up and one for seeing far away. But then you'd have to keep switching from one pair of glasses to the other, and that's got its disadvantages too. He said he'd stick with the progressives.

She asked him if he wanted new frames or wanted the old ones repaired. He wanted new ones. Can I keep the old ones? he asked. Of course, she said. They are yours -- you paid for them.

Storm clouds this afternoon

Whew. I was still waiting, and I was wondering if I would get back to the pharmacy to pick up my medecines before it closed for lunch. The woman in the red Peugeot drove away, so traffic started flowing more easily again. I was surprised at the number of cars. Many businesses are closed on Mondays, so I guess Tuesday mornings are especially busy. The navy blue Renault still sat there, blocking the entrance to the pharmacy, with its emergency flashers flashing.

The optician had the man try on three different glasses frames. He put on the first ones, and said he couldn't see very well with them. She explained that there were no lenses in the frames. Just see how they feel on your face, and look in the mirror to see if you like the way they look. Oh, he said, OK. He didn't like the first frames. He liked the second ones better; they were bigger. He asked if she had anything that would keep the wind out of his eyes. She said no, those would be goggles and we don't sell those. He said he bent his glasses at the nosepiece so that the lenses would be closer to his eyes, and that helped a little, but the wind still blew in his eyes. That was a really bad thing to do, the optician said, because you are changing the angle between the lenses and your eyes when you bend the glasses. You can't see as well if you do that. It was quite a discussion.

The navy blue Renault was suddenly gone. It had started snowing. The man was satisfied with the frames he found. I'll call you when your glasses are ready, the optician told him. Call between noon and 2:00, he said, because that's the only time I'm home. For an old codger, he gets out a lot, I guess. OK, I will for sure, the optician said. And the charge will be 646 euros. Wow, I thought, that's a lot. I thought the man had insurance. Whatever. None of my business.

The man wanted to pay immediately. It took a minute before the optician could get him to understand that he would pay later, when he picked up the glasses.

It was finally my turn. It went pretty fast. The optician repaired my glasses so that the right lens doesn't fall out any more. We chatted for a minute. There were no customers after me. She didn't charge me anything. I got the feeling that things were starting to move along again, and the slow-motion scene was over.

I went back to the pharmacy and got my prescriptions. It all went off without a hitch. Then I walked the two or three blocks back to the car, through the mix of snow and rain. The town seemed very gray and dreary, though the shops were brightly lit.

I drove the mile or mile-and-a-half over to Intermarché to exchange a couple of pairs of jeans I had bought last Thursday or Friday. I needed a larger size. Yeah, I know, I should just lose weight. These were the right size, though. It's just that French clothes are cut very tight. I'm not kidding.

First I stopped to put diesel fuel in the car at Intermarché's self-service gas pumps. I stepped out of the car and was blasted by a strong gust of wind carrying a mix of rain and snow. Forget that, I said. I'll fill up later. I got back behind the wheel and drove on over to the supermarket.

I anticipated the worst at Intermarché. The store changed management over the weekend. It was closed on Monday for inventory. It re-opened this morning under the new regime, with one big change: it no longer closes from 12:15 until 2:30 for lunch. SuperU, the big supermarket in Saint-Aignan, had gone over to a journée continue -- staying open all day, through lunch -- a few months ago. I guess Intermarché had to do the same to stay competitive. Things here are changing, and I'm not sure it's for the better. What will the employees do without a two-hour lunch break? Next thing you know they'll open a MacDonald's and everybody will be having fast food for lunch instead of a leisurely, proper meal. More's the pity. I kind of like the idea that all the employees had a home-cooked lunch every day, with their children and grandparents. I guess I'm just starry-eyed.

Exchanging the jeans turned out to be no trouble. They had been on sale last week -- two pairs for €25, which seemed like a good deal. Despite my fears, they were still on sale for that price, and they still had a good selection. I easily found what I needed. I also did some grocery shopping. When I left the store, it was snowing even harder, and the wind, as we say in North Carolina, was blowing a gale.

So it was a pretty good morning, even through the part that seemed to go in slow motion. When I drove back across the bridge into Saint-Aignan, all the electric company and gas company and fire brigade and gendarme vehicles were gone. Everything had settled back down to its normal look and pace. And the jeans fit perfectly. I had to wait to try them on at home because there are no changing rooms at Intermarché.

A little pork loin roast and a big bowl of French succotash

I made succotash for lunch. I don't know exactly what made me think of it. I guess I was looking at cans of vegetables in the pantry this morning, wondering what would go with the little pork roast I had in the fridge, when I noticed cans of corn, tomatoes, and flagelot beans. Flageolets are sort of like baby lima beans (or butter beans if you're from the South). The succotash turned out to be pretty good, considering it was all canned vegetables.

25 February 2006

Scaling back and facing the realities

It was a good thing we had planned to have a garage sale and get rid of some clutter. A garage sale was something we had never done before, and Walt especially wasn't enthusiastic about the idea. Two things happened, however, to confirm for us that paring down our belongings was a good idea at this point.

We "opened for business" at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. By 2:00 p.m.
we had sold or given away a lot of stuff. We took in just over $1000 that day.

First, the real estate agent that we had listed with came over and looked around. She knew the house, but she hadn’t seen it in several years. We had had a new kitchen put in, a new wooden deck built out back, and new windows put in front and back. We had also had a lot of painting done, and we had taken out old carpeting to reveal nice hardwood floors that, while more than 30 years old, looked brand new. The roof was new as well.

Jan, our real estate agent, inspected the house and declared that we had some things that would be fine for the showings she had planned. She said she didn’t need to do a radical makeover or a complete staging, as was often done then (and probably still is). However, we had about twice as much stuff in the house as she wanted to see. Take out a lot of it, even if you just store it in the garage for the time being, she said. Get rid of all these big plants. They hide the corners and make the rooms look small. (I was shocked when she said that. I thought the plants really dressed the place up.) Put in a smaller dining room table so that the dining area feels more spacious. Move the pieces of furniture in the family room sitting area closer together so that the room looks bigger. And so on.

Just a sampling of all the stuff we needed to get rid of. We gave a lot of it
away that day, selling things for a nickel here and a dime there.

The next thing that happened was that we contacted a moving company and inquired about having our belongings moved to France. We needed to know how much such a move would cost, how long it would take, and what kinds of customs regulations we would have to deal with. Friends of ours who had moved from California to New Zealand a couple of years earlier recommended a company, and we made the phone call.

The moving company sent over a man to do an inventory of our house. He walked through all the rooms with a checklist on a clipboard and talked to us about our furniture, clothes, linens, and kitchen equipment. We followed him around and pointed out all the things we would not be moving — some pieces of furniture and rugs that we no longer wanted or that we thought would not fit in the house at La Renaudière.

We had, effectively, two living rooms in the San Francisco house, and there was only one living room in the house in France. We ended up not moving any big armchairs or sofas; we gave them away. I think we sold only one armchair. We would also leave behind most of the electronics in the house — four television sets, three VCRs, three full stereo systems, etc., that we had accumulated over 20 years of living together, most of which were getting pretty old — and all the kitchen appliances, which would be sold with the house. France has 220-volt current, and all the 110V American appliances would be a headache over there.

I also needed to sell my car. It didn't sell that day.

After the inventory was done, the moving man went back to his office and did all his calculations. He reported that we had about 10% too much stuff to fit into a 20-foot container, but not nearly enough to fill a 40-foot container. As a result, he said, we needed to pare down by about 10%. He also said that on moving day we would be able to prioritize and hold back certain items until the last minute, when we would see whether they would maybe fit in the container. That way, we could be sure we packed the things we really wanted to keep and left the rest behind.

We got more serious about the garage sale then. We had to be ruthless about getting rid of things. One of my rules became the do-we-use-it criterion. Even if we really like it, unless it has true sentimental value, and unless we use it frequently and couldn’t easily replace it, it had to go. We could sell it in the garage sale (or at least try), give it to good friends or family, or donate it to charity.

Back in the 1980s, a cousin in North Carolina
had given the cuttings from which this plant grew.

I decided to get rid of hundreds of books, about 400 old vinyl LP record albums, and nearly all of the hundreds of 3½” floppy disks and more than 600 audio cassettes that we had accumulated over the years.

Some of my record albums dated back to the 1960s, but they had to go. I filled the trunk of the car with boxes full of them and drove around to several old record stores in San Francisco to see if anybody would buy them or take them as a donation, but it turned out to be a mostly wasted effort. The used record dealers in Haight-Ashbury were not impressed. None of the ablums was in mint condition — they had been played too often on old record players in the dorm back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was no market for them, I was told repeatedly.

I gave boxes and boxes of French books from my college and graduate student days to the libraries at San Francisco City College and the Lycée Français de San Francisco. Other books went to City College, the Salvation Army, or Good Will, along a lot of stuff that didn’t get sold or given away during the garage sale. We ended up having charitable companies come with trucks and take away pieces of furniture that we couldn't sell or give away otherwise. Friends rented a truck and came to get a refrigerator we had put in the back of the garage when we had our kitchen redone.

Here are a jade plant and a schefflera that I hated to part with.
San Francisco was great for plants. They could stay outside year-round
because the weather was never really hot and never really cold.

It was amazing to realize how much stuff we had but didn't need. I guess our life had gotten out of control, to an extent. What I most regretted having to get rid of, when all was said and done, was all our big houseplants. We had had some of them since the 1980s. They had moved across the country with us when we left Washington DC for San Francisco in 1986.

That earlier move had been so different. We had rented a truck in Washington and packed it full of everything we could fit into it. We didn’t have so much furniture back then, and we didn’t have computers and all the computer paraphernalia that we had accumulated, including a couple of desks and desk chairs. We had fewer books and fewer stereos and TVs back then, not to mention fewer clothes.

For the move to California, we rented a trailer so that we could haul my car to California behind the truck. We had earlier driven to California with a car top carrier on Walt’s car and left the car and the carrier full of stuff there with friends. We flew back. This time, we put my car on the rented trailer and filled it with plants. It became a rolling greenhouse for the transcontinental journey. The plants were declared healthy by the authorities at the California border near Tahoe and we and the plants rolled on down to the SF Bay Area.

Some of our plants had survived the 1986 move from DC to SF, or their
parents had. They all had to go because we couldn't move them to France.

This time, we wondered if we really were going to sell the house quickly and for a good price. Everything depended on that. If we didn’t sell it and ended up having to forfeit the deposit we had put down on the house in France, we would still feel good about having gotten rid of a lot of stuff that we didn’t really need. But not the plants. I would miss those, especially if we ended up not moving. I ended up selling most of them for a dollar or two. I just wanted them to go to good homes.

The other big headache, in a sense, was the dog. What if we couldn’t get permission to move Collette to France? We were not willing to leave her behind. If Collette couldn’t move to France, neither could we. She was already 11 years old, so we would just have to wait a few more years until she passed on if she couldn’t move with us. Then we could relocate. I started doing research on the Internet and making phone calls to see what restrictions France placed on the importation of domestic animals.

Walt and Collette in the empty San Francisco house, March 2003.

Meanwhile, I was going to have to sacrifice myself and go back to France in early February. We had decided to incorporate ourselves in order to buy the house there. That way, we would sidestep all the strict French inheritance laws, under which you are not allowed to leave your property to anybody but immediate family when you die. We agreed that if one of us died, we each wanted the other to own the house free and clear. And one of us needed to go to France to sign papers setting up the société civile immobilière, or real estate corporation, to make that possible. That was me. Walt would stay in San Francisco and continue getting our house ready for the first public viewing, which the realtor scheduled for about February 15. He was still employed at that point, actually.

We hadn't yet agreed on an asking price.

Also, we were starting to research the requirements for getting long-stay visas for France. We didn’t want to end up as illegal immigrants if we really did move.

It all depended on selling the house for the right price and at the right time. And on getting visas for ourselves and the dog. If we found that we couldn't sell the SF house for a good price, we still might have time to arrange financing for the house at La Renaudière before April 15. Or request an extension. Time would tell.

It's still winter

I started this winter telling myself that the cold weather here in Saint-Aignan really only lasts a couple of months. It won't be long at all. And in late October we had some days when the temperature hit 26ºC -- that's about 80ºF. But November came in cold, and December very cold. We are now finishing our fourth month of cold weather. So much for my optimism.

Sunset at La Renaudière, 24 February 2006

Trees and other plants are starting to bud out, though. I noticed yesterday that the roses around our house have new red growth on them. And old faithful, the helibore or winter rose has bloomed, despite the fact that I dug it up and planted it in a pot last spring. I didn't expect it to flower this winter.

How to fight off the winter chill? Hot food, of course. Earlier this week, we made a quiche. I had a couple of slices of ham and some sauteed mushrooms left from last weekend's pizzas, and I had some comté cheese and some eggs. Walt made his good pie shell. With a big green salad, the quiche was perfect.

Ham, mushrooms, and grated cheese in a pre-baked pie crust.
Just pour on beaten eggs and bake.

Hot from the oven and ready to eat.

24 February 2006

Deciding to sell

To start reading this series of postings from the beginning,
click here and
then click Next at the end of each installment.

When we got back to San Francisco, I could take it easy — I was unemployed. It was December 15, and the only things I had to do were to help decide whether to cancel the house purchase contract in France and to think about looking for a new job. Walt was working as a consultant for a public transportation consulting group, so he had plenty to do. He liked his work and, especially, the people he worked with. His “office” was his computer room in the house and he did a lot of his work via e-mail. It was a nice situation.

How would you like to live at the bottom of this hill in San Francisco?
What if the brakes on one of these vehicles failed?

After three or four days of just letting the whole French house-hunting experience sink in, we came to the conlusion that we weren’t going to back out of the deal — we were going to put down a deposit on the house at La Renaudière. Even if I decided to go back to work in California (and there wasn’t much I could do about that immediately, since Christmas is a terrible time to look for work), we thought we could pull together the necessary funds to buy it. We could always go there on vacations, as often as possible, and fix the place up over time.

Late that week, I went to the bank and asked to have the deposit money wired to the real estate agency in Montrichard. Mr. Bourdais had given me his bank information for that purpose. I remember I was upset at how “bad” the exchange rate was at that point.

The back yard at our house in San Francisco

The previous spring, we had been able to buy euros for $0.87 when we were spending two weeks in Paris. That meant that a €30 meal in a restaurant only cost about $25. We got a big discount on everything, we felt, and our dollars went a long way. Paris prices seemed very reasonable by San Francisco standards.

The dollar and the euro reached parity in December 2002. That made it easy for us to evaluate French house prices, because the price in euros was the same as the price in dollars. However, the dollar continued slipping. It seems funny now, when a euro costs about $1.20, that I was upset because I had to pay the bank’s exchange rate of $1.06 per euro when I sent the deposit money. On $10,000, for example, that’s $600 extra. And then there was a $90 fee on top of that for processing the transfer.

I clenched my teeth and sent off the money. I told Walt that even if we ended up losing that money — if we canceled the deal and forfeited the deposit — it would have been worth it and, in the grand scheme of things, our lives would not be fundamentally altered. It was a risk we needed to take, in other words.

So it was done and we were that much farther along in the process.

A Sunday afternoon open house in our neighborhood in San Francisco

One of the things I used to enjoy doing every weekend in San Francisco was going to open houses in our neighborhood to see what houses were selling for and what you would get for your money. I don’t know how it works in other places, but in SF a lot of houses for sale are open for viewing by prospective buyers, not to mention neighbors and the simply curious, on Sunday afternoons. Some Sundays I would do a walking tour of the neighborhood to see houses, and on some Sundays I would get in the car and expand my viewing area some.

At an open house, a real estate agent is there to keep an eye on things and give out information. The people who live in the house are never there, or only very rarely. I don’t know if having open houses on weekends is standard practice in other parts of the U.S. Here in the Loire Valley, there are no open houses that I’m aware of. And often, when you go with an real estate agent to see a house for sale, the owners are at home. For me, that makes in harder to get a feel for the place. The owners are busy trying to show off the features they think are most attractive — “Look at this beautiful shag carpet — it’s like new!” — and the potential buyer has to be careful what he or she says, for fear of hurting somebody’s feelings.

Another house in our San Francisco neighborhood

One Sunday, right after I had sent the deposit off to France to hold the house we thought we might buy, I went out to open houses one more time. Probably, in the back of my mind, I had the idea of comparing the houses I would see with the one we were living in, and figuring out what our house might sell for. I went to see a house on Diamond Heights Boulevard. It was located just a few hundred meters from the end of Congo Street, which we lived on, and just where Elm Street turns into Diamond Heights Boulevard.

It was a very nice house, quite spacious, and the asking price was pretty high, I thought. But real estate was booming in San Francisco in late 2002 and early 2003. What did I know? More importantly, I was the only visitor at the open house at that particular moment, and I had a chance to spend some time talking to the agent who was in charge. She was a Scottish woman and she was easy to talk to. I ended up telling her that I was thinking about selling my house and was wondering what price I should ask for it.

Lower Diamond Heights Boulevard in San Francisco

That was the beginning, I guess, of the end of living in San Francisco. The agent said she would be glad to come look at my house in Janurary and give me her opinion about an asking price.

The idea was taking shape in our minds. It still seemed like an audacious thing to do -- sell the house (or “cash out,” as Californians called it) and move away.

For Christmas, some of our best friends in California, people we had spent holidays with since 1986, came to our house for a gift exchange and a good dinner. It’s funny, I don't have any pictures from that particular Christmas. I don’t know why.

Meanwhile, Walt and I decided to have some work done in the house in January, figuring that having everything clean and spiffed up would make the place easier to sell if we decided to sell it. If we decided not to sell it, it would be nice to have everything clean and spiffed up anyway. We ended up having the master bedroom and bathroom painted, and we had a neglected area of the downstairs family room fixed up and painted too. We put in some new light fixtures and some new bathroom faucets. We started cleaning up and cleaning out in a serious way and decided to have a garage sale to get rid of a bunch of junk that we really didn’t need any more. Our friend Sue offered to help us with the garage sale.

The garage sale with Walt and our friend Sue

In January, the Scottish real estate agent and a colleague of hers came to the house and gave us an evaluation. They were enthusiastic about the opportunity to sell the house. But we needed to get more opinions. I met another real estate agent at another open house around that time and asked her to come over and give us her opinion too. Then we decided to call the agent who had helped us buy the place in 1995 to get her professional opinion. We trusted her, but we weren't sure she would be enthusiastic about selling our 1960s-style house. We thought she was more interested in older houses.

Of the three agents, representing three different companies, we ended up choosing the agent who had helped us buy the house in the first place. She worked for a local real estate company, one that specialized in San Francisco houses. I liked the Scottish agent, but she was really focused on and experienced in the San Mateo area, 20 miles south of San Francsico. And the other agent we had talked to worked for a big national company — we didn't get the impression that she or that company had a good grasp of the realities of San Francisco houses and prices.

One of the things we had to do was prune the tree in front of our house

So we had decided to put our house on the market. We told the realty company what we thought it was worth, but they wanted us to ask less. They said finding the right price was the key to a successful sale. The price had to be realistic, and be low enough to inspire potential buyers to make an offer. The longer a house stayed on the market, they said, the lower the final price would be. It was important to sell it fast. In the market at that time, many houses were selling for prices above the asking price. If you could get buyers to start bidding on the house, you were likely to get the best offers.

Meanwhile, one of us needed to go back to France to sign some papers required for the purchase. Since I was unemployed, I volunteered.

23 February 2006

Back to California

I want to continue my postings about leaving California (click here to start at the beginning of the series) and moving to France. To recap, we had first decided to explore the possibilities by searching real estate ads on the Internet. Then after a month or two of Internet research, we made what was to be an exploratory trip to France in December 2002 to see what the realities were on the ground. We chose the Loire Valley because we had spent a couple of recent vacations in Vouvray and enjoyed the area. We thought the climate would be a good one for us.

Our exploratory trip ended up with us signing an agreement to buy a house near Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. I for one had never imagined such a thing might happen so fast. But we liked the house, and especially its location and setting. And the price was right, by California standards.

Our last day in Amboise, where we had begun our house-hunting trip, was a December Friday. It was cold and drizzly in the morning, but the sun came out in the afternoon and I took some pictures in Montrichard. We checked in with the real estate agency, I remember, and with the bank where we had opened an account, to make sure everything was on track and that we had signed and gathered up all the necessary papers. We were scheduled to fly back to San Francisco on Sunday after a 24-hour stay in Paris.

We had a week to reflect on our decision to purchase a house. If we changed our minds, we would send a registered letter postmarked by December 20 to notify the real estate. French law mandates this grace period. If we decided to go ahead with the purchase, we would send the real estate agent a deposit. We really had nothing to lose at that point.

I asked the realtor, M. Bourdais, how long it would take to close the sale, if we decided to proceed. He said it was partly up to us. When would we like to schedule the closing? He suggested March 1. That seemed too fast. I suggested April 1.

Signs marking the road that leads up to La Renaudière, our hamlet

“I don’t know if you are aware of it, but April 1 in France is a day on which people play jokes on each other,” he said, unaware that in the U.S. we also observe April Fool’s Day. He suggested that wouldn’t be an appropriate closing date. What about April 15? We agreed that would work. I didn’t want to appear to be delaying, but I wanted Walt and me to have time to figure out what we were actually going to do.

We had signed a paper saying that we did not plan to take out a mortgage in France to pay for the house. Not being able to qualify for a mortgage in France would release us from the contract and we would get our deposit back, but we still didn't want a French mortgage. It seemed like an unnecessary complication. That meant we would need to borrow the money in the U.S. to cover the cost. Or sell our house in San Francisco. We had not yet decided to take that drastic step. If we sent in a deposit and then decided to cancel the deal, we would forfeit the deposit.

The road that descends from La Renaudière back to the highway

I remember that we drove back over to Saint-Aignan to take one last look at the house late Friday afternoon. It was nearly dark (that is, about 5:30 p.m. at that time of year) when we got there. I took a few pictures. We went and saw the château and church in Saint-Aignan. There were banks of floodlights illuminating both buildings, and the sight was impressive. We again had good feelings about the location.

Adrienne and Jean, the owners of the gîte where we were staying, invited us over for dinner that Friday night. Jean made a Vietnamese rice dish, and we ate well and stayed late -- too late, considering that we had to drive to Paris first thing the next morning. We were still suffering from jet lag and the cold weather. Walt was still coughing. Our heads were still spinning.

The Paris of so many dreams -- luxury and fine food on the rue Cler

We had been very coy with Adrienne and Jean earlier in the week. They were curious to find out what châteaux and other sights we had been seeing, and whether we were having a good time. They assumed the purpose of our trip was tourism. I had put them off until Wednesday or Thursday, but then I finally told them we had been spending our time looking at houses with a real estate agent.

They were surprised, of course, but also fascinated to learn that Americans would actually want to come and live in France. We’ve had that reaction from a lot of people here. Until relatively recently, French people dreamed of going to America. And many still do -- don’t get me wrong. But I think there is less enthusiasm for America now than there used to be.

I must have taken this through the glass front of a café

Adrienne and Jean asked us to come have breakfast with them in the morning before we left for Paris. We did. We enjoyed their hospitality and their company. They were our first friends in the area, in fact.

We drove to Paris but I don’t remember the day very clearly. I have pictures, so I know we took a walk along the river from near the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre and on to Châtelet. It was still cold and gray. I usually have a pretty good memory for food and restaurants, but what and where we ate on that Saturday is a blur.

Walking along the Seine: the Assemblée Nationale

I just talked to Walt about it. He remembers going to a pharmacy near our hotel, Le Muguet in the 7th arrondissement, when we arrived in Paris that Saturday and finally getting some medecine for his sinus irritation. I don't know why we hadn't gone to a pharmacy earlier. He had been miserable all week and hadn’t slept much during the whole time we were in the Loire Valley. Maybe we just weren't thinking clearly.

\View from the window of our room at the Hôtel du Muguet in the 7th

Talking it over, we now remember that we didn’t have dinner reservations anywhere for that Saturday night. We can’t remember if we ate lunch. But when dinnertime came, we were hungry, so we went to a big café at Ecole Militaire near the Hôtel du Muguet to get something. It’s called La Terrasse.

Graffitti in Paris: historical revisionism?

Walt says he had mussels for dinner. I think I had some oysters, but I don’t know what else. La Terrasse is a fine place but the food is not memorable, I guess. The next day we headed out to Charles de Gaulle airport and flew back to San Francisco to continue thinking it all over.

21 February 2006

21 February 2006

Météo France, the national weather service, predicted snow for this morning. I just looked outdoors — no snow yet. And the temperature on our outdoor thermometer is +2.6ºC. I don't think it's cold enough to snow. I suppose the temperature could drop this morning.

It's February, which mean that the cyclamens are blooming in the back yard. The next flowers we see will be primroses but we see no signs of them yet. Here are the cyclamens, which are wild ones with very small pink flowers.

Cyclamen leaves are pretty and almost outshine the flowers.

* * *

My hospitalized friend is scheduled to be released to a clinic tomorrow, Wednesday. She'll spend a month there. As far as I know, tests haven't found anything seriously wrong with her since the attack she had in my car on the way to Blois. My friend Chris P. told me there is such a thing as a stroke that goes away -- a "transient ischemic attack" or TIA. The symptoms listed here correspond to what I saw happen to my friend (thanks for the link, Chris):
  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
The only difference between a stroke and a TIA is that the symptoms of a TIA are temporary and leave no lasting damage, according to the site. But they need to be treated immediately. Luckily, we were not far from the hospital when it happened.

* * *

Yesterday it rained most of the day but Sunday afternoon was nice (after a rainy morning). And there were no hunters out back. Maybe hunting season is winding down. Collette and I went out for our usual walk in the vineyard. The poor old dog was not moving very fast. I think she might have another arthritis attack coming on. Last night, she fell off the foot of the bed in the dark. She didn't hurt herself. Her night vision is also not what it used to be.

The wall of the old vineyard-workers' shed on the gravel road out back.
It has grape vines trained up on its walls — table grapes, I believe.

One of the nicest aspects of living here is being on the edge of the vineyards and on a road with no traffic on it (because the pavement ends right behind our property). Collette never has to be on the leash any more, the way she had to be when we lived in Sunnyvale and then in San Francisco.

The gravel road through the vines with the house in the distance.

Sunday afternoon the temperature was close to 50ºF and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds for a few minutes. Something unusual happened: I crossed paths with a man I didn't know who was also taking a walk out there. Usually there's nobody on the road, unless workers are out pruning the vines.

Farther from the house, puddles on the road and a cloudy sky.

The dog loves to walk down the rows between the grapevines. She seems to think it's fun to take a row parallel to the one I'm on and watch to see if we end up at about the same place at the end. We do.

La Renaudière in the distance, beyond the bare winter vines.

Some people reading this might think: "Can't this guy take pictures of something else?" But no, this is where I spend my time. I have to keep practicing with my new camera, don't I?

Evidence of recent rains.

We have finally had some rain, but still not enough. Most of France has been in drought conditions for at least a year now. Many départements (i.e. counties) had water restrictions last summer and fall. In our département, Loir-et-Cher, we weren't under restrictions, while neighboring departments were. I think it's because we don't have a big city in the département — the largest is Blois, with about 75,000 inhabitants. The more people there are, the more water gets used. Cities in neighboring départements — Tours, Bourges, Orléans — are two or three times as big as Blois.

* * *

As I type I'm listening to a program about genealogy on France Inter radio. One of the genealogists just said that 50% of the French people are thought to be descended from Charlemagne. Is that possible?

Charles I, who became known as Charlemagne, was king of the Franks from 768 to 814 A.D., and Emperor of the Western Empire for the last 15 of those years. His mother was Berthe au Grand Pied — Bertha with the Big Foot, an allusion to her having one foot bigger than the other, according to legend -- and his eldest son was Pépin, who was known as Le Bossu — The Humpback.

Maybe I'm descended from Charlemagne! My first name is Charles. Charlemagne's dynasty was called the Carolingians, and I'm from Carolina. Hmmm.

18 February 2006

A brush with death

There are subjects I don't feel very comfortable writing about on a blog. Mostly, they have to do with the people here around Saint-Aignan who have befriended or, in some ways, adopted us. Their privacy needs to be respected, but our interactions with them and the gradual unveiling of their lives before our very eyes make for some of the most interesting moments we spend here. Many of the people we have gotten to know best are 20 or more years older than I am.

But the fact is that all these things that happen to them become part of my life too, and I want to write about them. When we decided to leave California and the stressful commuting and long work days, we didn't know what life would be like out in the country in France. We are finding that out now. In California, we each belonged to a work community. And we had a small circle of friends in common. But they were nearly all people our age. Now it's different.

The past week has been almost too full of events. After a very quiet period since Christmas, through January and part of February, I feel as if I got sucked into a whirlwind. It all started Friday before last, when I was scheduled to drive a friend up to Blois for a routine medical test. The friend is in her mid-70s, and she hadn't been feeling quite right for a few months — hence the test. The morning I picked her up she had had a bad dizzy spell and some nausea, she said.

In the car on the way to Blois, she had a more serious malaise of some kind. It seemed pretty bad -- she couldn't see or talk or even move much, although she never lost consciousness. It was hard to understand her, and I didn't see any option but to keep driving toward the hospital. I ended up taking her directly to the emergency room, where nurses and orderlies came out with a gurney and took her away. That hadn't been the plan at all. After a couple of hours of waiting I was told by a young doctor that my friend was very seriously ill.

« C'est très grave, et je ne sais pas comment ça va se passer dans les heures à venir », he said. It's very serious and I don't know what the immediate outcome will be. I asked: "Do you mean she might die?" He said that was a distinct possibility — « ses jours sont en danger. » She was paralyzed and couldn't talk. She couldn't swallow or even breathe very well, the doctor said. That was what was worrying him most.

I was stunned. I had to call my friend's partner to tell him what had happened, because he knows her children and sister. I don't. He was at work. He said he would race to the hospital. Then I went back and stood in the hospital hallway outside my friend's room, in a daze. Suddenly I heard her cry out: « J'ai froid. J'ai très froid. » I'm cold. I'm freezing cold. I ran to her bedside, and she was definitely talking. And shivering.

I went and found a nurse, who went to get the doctor. When he arrived, he was amazed. "You can talk? And you are moving your hands!" He said he had never seen anything like it. She wasn't paralyzed after all. Her partner arrived a few minutes later, and the doctor confirmed to him what had happened. I thought the man might think I was crazy for having alarmed him with stories of her paralysis and imminent death when I called him on the telephone.

We made a trip to Blois on Monday to visit her and were encouraged when we found her sitting in a chair and talking. Her doctors wanted to do a series of tests — an MRI, an electroencephalogram — over the course of the week to try to determine what had happened.

She told me I had saved her life — but the doctors deserve the credit for that of course. She said it was when I had looked into her eyes that Friday afternoon, as she lay there paralyzed, and said « Ma pauvre amie, je ne sais pas ce qu'on va faire maintenant » — my poor friend, what are we going to do now? — that she realized she absolutely had to be able to talk. I had seen the look of panic in her eyes. She wasn't ready to die. Then she started feeling chilled through and through, and she was sure that was death coming on. So she managed to cry out « J'ai froid! »

She is still in the hospital today, but she is able to talk and walk. It was quite a scare for me, but even more for her. She will soon be released to spend a month in a clinic, where she will have on-site medical personnel to look after her. She is under doctor's orders to rest, though it won't be easy because she's a very energetic person when she feels good.

* * *

I hadn't really recovered from the stress of all that when it came time to drive to Paris on Wednesday. We had been looking forward to the trip, and we had an American friend visiting Paris that we wanted to see. We in fact had a good day shopping, going to see a film, and then going out to dinner. But we didn't leave Paris until midnight, and we drove through windy and rainy weather until 3:30 a.m. to get home that night. It was exhausting, I realize now.

Friday night we were invited over by some new British friends who live in Saint-Aignan. Others there for the evening included a young Frenchman who lived in England for six years and a woman who was born in Texas but has lived most of her life in France. Both of them speak French and English. However, one person who was there speaks French but no English, and one speaks English but no French. So we had a bilingual evening with some good food and drink. We got home late again. I'm still resting up.

* * *

Ready for the oven...

Yesterday Walt and I made pizzas for lunch. We put ham, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, tomato sauce, and sauteed mushrooms on crust that Walt makes from scratch. They turned out really good. Walt has pretty much perfected his pizza crust now. It's light and bready, with just the right amount of crunch.

...and ready to cut and eat

I don't know about you, but I find good hot food to be of great comfort on dreary, gray winter days like these.

16 February 2006

That Paris trip

Montparnasse, 6:00 p.m. — not Saint-Aignan!

We left for Paris in rain at 10:00 a.m. but it stopped just as we drove into Paris at about 1:00 p.m. We had lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant in the 13th arrondissement and went shopping at Tang Frères supermarket as planned. We even had time to go do a little errand over in the 5th on the rue des Écoles before heading over to Montparnasse to see the movie at 4:00. All that worked out as planned too. We parked in an underground garage at the Gare Montparnasse (10 euros for three hours).

All these films were playing

We picked our American friend Mimi up at her hotel in the Marais at 7:00 -- believe it or not, we found a parking space there, just across the street from her hotel, with no trouble. It was a small space, but the little Peugeot fit in just fine, and it was even legal. Mimi was surprised that we were driving; she said she thought we were brave. We don't mind driving in Paris, though parking isn't always easy.

The Tour Montparnasse

It had started pouring rain in Paris about 6:00 p.m., just as we got out of the movie theatre. We got in the car and drove over to have dinner at a restaurant called Le Petit Prince de Paris, over in the 5th not far from the Sorbonne and the Panthéon. We'd been there once before on friends' recommendation, and we wanted to go again. It wasn't a mistake.

I had a salad of mixed greens with thin slices of duck breast and foie gras in it. And then I had rognons de veau aux champignons à la crème (veal kidneys with mushrooms in a cream sauce) as my main course. Walt had bow-tie pasta with escargots as his first course, and broiled sea bass filets as the main dish. The wine was a 2003 Petites Roches Chinon red from Charles Joguet's winery, which we visited last October. It was very nice, I thought.

Montparnasse street scene at nightfall

We ended up leaving Paris at midnight and driving back to Saint-Aignan on little country roads. It was still pouring rain when we left Paris, but it let up some when we were about an hour out of town, near Milly-la-Forêt. We drove down through Bellegarde (nice château) and Orléans.

At that point we thought better of driving through the forests of Sologne, where there are of course a lot of trees as well as a lot of wild animals along the roads. There had been strong winds and there were small tree branches down on the pavement even in the towns. I thought the forest might be worse. We drove on to Blois along the Loire and then south from there to Saint-Aignan. The only animals we saw were some rabbits and a couple of big white owls. We got home at 3:30 a.m.

15 February 2006

Today's picture: Pork roast & vegetables

Start the pork roast in a hot oven. When it's browned, turn the oven down to low and pour a cup or two of well-flavored broth (chicken, turkey, or vegetable) into the pan. Let it cook for at least two hours. Three is better.

Meanwhile, peel the vegetables (here, carrots, turnips, celery root, and potatoes) and cook them one kind at a time in broth until they are done. Remove them and set them aside.

When the roast is done, put vegetables all around it, make sure there's some broth in the bottom of the dish, and baste everything. There will be some fat floating on the broth, and that's a good thing. Put the dish in a very hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until the broth is boiling and the vegetables are browned a little on top.

14 February 2006

Driving to Paris

Paris cobblestones

It's supposed to rain tomorrow, but temperatures are in the upper 40s F (between 5º and 10ºC) so we don't have to worry about snow or ice. We'll be leaving for Paris at about 10:00 a.m. and hope to be in the city by 1:00 p.m. Rain means the speed limit is 110 kph (66 mph) rather than the normal 130 kph (78 mph) on the autoroute, which is a toll road. I think we'll take the toll road, even though the toll is more than $20.00 US one way for the 125-mile trip, because we don't want to spend the whole day on the road.

J'écris ce blog en anglais parce que je pense que la plupart des gens qui le lisent sont des anglophones, et puis l'anglais est ma langue maternelle. Mais je connais maintenant au moins trois francophones qui eux aussi le regardent -- une amie en Normandie que je connais, grâce à l'Internet, depuis cinq ans ; une Parisienne que je ne connais pas (encore?) mais qui est l'amie d'amis américains à moi ; et un ex-Parisien désormais installé à la campagne, un vieil ami que je n'ai pas vu depuis 25 ans... Je vous salue. Bon, je continue en anglais.

Our first stop will be the big Tang Frères Asian supermarket near the Porte d'Italie to get some imported grocery products -- spices, sauces, noodles, dried mushrooms, etc., that we like to use to make Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese food. Or maybe we'll go get some dim sum for lunch first, and then do the shopping. The area between and around the Porte d'Italie and the Place d'Italie in the 13th arrondissement of Paris is a neighborhood full of Asian restaurants and shops. There aren't really any places near Saint-Aignan where you can get such products and ingredients.

Paris traffic on a December evening

The next stop is the movies. We want to see Brokeback Mountain (called Le Secret de Brokeback Mountain in French) and we want to see it in English. There is one cinema in Saint-Aignan, and I don't believe it shows any films in what is called version originale -- the original language. Everything is dubbed into French. Walt just told me he looked on the Internet to see if the movie is playing in English in Tours, but he hasn't been able to find it. In Tours, too, the movie is dubbed into French.

A Paris intersection with a car careening through

Right now, we think we might have waited too long. All the movie listings for Paris that we can find on the Internet show Brokeback Mountain's run ending today. It opened January 18, and it might be closing Febuary 14. It's hard for me to believe that it won't still be playing in at least one movie theater in Paris, though. There are hundreds of them. We'll buy a Pariscope as soon as we get to the city -- it's a little guide that lists all the movies and plays and exhibits in the city. It comes out on Wednesdays, and new films start showing on Wednesdays in Paris as well.

After the movie, we are meeting an American friend at her hotel in the Marais neighborhood and then going out to dinner in a nice restaurant in the Latin Quarter. I'll probably write more about that when I'm back in front of my computer on Thursday.

A Paris café at dusk in winter

After dinner, probably around 11:00 p.m., we'll get in the car and drive back to Saint-Aignan. We won't take the toll road -- there's no need, because there's no traffic on the other roads at that hour, and we won't be in any particular hurry. I'll drive and listen to the radio, and take my time. We'll take the Nationale 20 highway from south of Paris down to Orléans, and then cut across the old province known as the Sologne to get to Saint-Aignan.

The only thing we'll have to worry about is wildlife. We'll be on little country roads. After midnight in the forests of Sologne, there are lot of deer, foxes, big owls, and even wild boars out, and they can of course cross the highway just when you least expect them. Last year, on our way back from Paris on a similar trip, an adult boar with four little ones crossed right in front of us. We had to stop the car and let them pass -- we were that close.

12 February 2006

Where do we sign?

If you want to read this series of postings in chronological order, start here: Quitting California. Click Next at the bottom of each posting to jump to the next one in the series. This is installment number seven.

That Thursday December 12, 2002, after a very busy Wednesday during which we saw at least seven houses near Montrichard and in Amboise, I think we must have had the morning off. It gave us time to think about the house at La Renaudière, which we were scheduled to see again in the afternoon.

There were no horses on the property at La Renaudière except this poster
pasted onto a door in the entryway. We remember Monsieur Ed with fondness.

At 2:30 we met Bourdais at his office and drove with him back toward Saint-Aignan. We went directly to the house, and we must have spent two hours walking around the yard, opening all the shutters on all the windows, and exploring the house from the ground floor up to the attic. Bourdais stayed with us all that time. He let us look around and talk about what we were seeing without butting in or giving us a lot of opinions. He was there to answer questions.

The house seen from the back of the back yard.
We use this open area for our vegetable garden.

At the time, we were in awe of the size of the yard. After nearly 15 years of living in apartments in Paris, Washington DC, and San Francisco, and then eight years in a San Francisco townhouse with a tiny back garden, it was amazing to be able to be so far from the house while still being on the property.

The house had been empty for two or three years and there was an alarm.
This sign in a garage window warned burglars and vandals to beware.

The yard doesn’t seem as big any more, and a lot of people around here have a lot more land than we do, but we realize we are lucky. When Walt was taking driving lessons (that's another story) last summer, he was talking with his teacher and a fellow student, who were both French. They asked him if he had bought an old farmhouse to renovate. They were trying to figure out why he was in France, I’m sure. He said no, his was a fairly new house that only needed updating and it was on only half an acre of land. They rolled their eyes and laughed and said, ONLY half an acre? That was a lot to them.

There are two rows of grape vines in the back yard.
These are table grapes, not wine grapes, we were told.

When we finished our tour of the house and yard and were ready to leave, Bourdais said he had asked his office staff to draw up all the papers for us to sign to begin the buying process. Were we ready? I was surprised, and told him I didn’t know if we wanted to take that next step yet. But you are going back to California this weekend, aren’t you? When will you sign if you don’t sign now?

The front of the house, with green tarps covering the front deck.

He explained that under French law we had a week during which we could change our minds (la période de rétractation) after signing the agreement to buy (le compromis de vente). When you get back to California, think it over. If you change your mind and don’t want to buy the house, send me a registered letter postmarked by Friday, December 20. That seemed reasonable. After all, he wasn't asking us to shell out any money on the spot.

The neighbors across the street have a couple of acres of land.
It's like living across the street from a park.

It just dawned on me that the next day was Friday the Thirteenth. That turned out not to matter, fortunately.

If you don’t change your mind, Bourdais said, send me a deposit by bank-to-bank wire transfer. He gave me a piece of paper that had on it all the information about his escrow account that an American bank would need to process the wire transfer.

The living room is a nice big space with big windows.

Escrow is an interesting word. In French, Bourdais called the equivalent account his compte séquestre. The money is sequestered until all agreements are finalized. I told him that the American term for that was escrow, trying to make sure I understood the process. He blanched, and I realized he had understood the French word escroc, which means crook. Un escroc (the final C is silent, so it’s pronounced sort of like escrow) is a swindler or con man. It took a minute to straighten that one out. He thought for a second that I was accusing him of being dishonest.

After a sudden shower during our December inspection tour, we saw
this rainbow from an upstairs window. We took it as a good omen.

So the impossible had happened. We went back to his office and signed the papers. In four days, we had bought a house in France, and at a very good price. We had arrived with very low expectations, and it had all worked out very smoothly. The only question we asked ourselves was: what are we going to do now?