Saturday, January 28, 2012

cheese (or, 450 reasons to love France)

OK, so I've counted and we currently have nine sorts of cheese in the fridge, or ten, if you count cottage cheese as cheese. We've got our regular staples:
1. parmasan
2. feta
3. gouda - I am Dutch, after all!
4. camembert - impossible to live without, according to Jean-Marc

And then we have a selection that I picked up on the way home from our snowshoeing trip in the Jura mountains:
Clockwise from the top, we have:
5. aged bleu de Gex
6. tomme de Jura
7. aged morbier (with ash running down the middle)
8. chèvre with truffle oil
9. brebis (sheep milk) with piment d'espelette or espelette pepper, from the Basque region

Our boss had organized a cheese-tasting at a famous fromager's shop in Gex, a city at the base of the Jura mountains. A fromager is someone who not only sells cheese, but ages it himself - sometimes for years and years - before selling it in his shop. France has over 450 kinds of cheese, which means there is more than one for every day of the year! This particular store had over 300 varieties to choose from and I thought it quite impressive to find a shop with two-thirds of the country's cheese selection in stock.

We tasted a number of regional cheeses and in the end we all bought some to take home as a souvenir. When we got back in the car after stopping at a rest stop for a coffee on the way home, the smell was something else (!), but we soon got used to it. Sometimes you have to suffer in order to enjoy the finer things in life!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

a surprise trip

A week ago, everybody at work was asked to reserve the following Monday - Wednesday, nights included, without being told why. Then at the end of the week, we received an email asking us to be prepared with a packed lunch for Monday, three days' worth of clothing, a swimsuit and clothes suitable for snow. The plan was to leave Monday morning at around 10 or 11am and come back Wednesday night around 10pm.

So Monday came around and the six of us got into two cars and we started heading south. After eating our packed lunch at a rest stop, we started driving east towards Switzerland. We drove past Geneva (or at least 14 km away from Geneva) and started going up some mountains in the Jura region. We ended up checking into a hotel in the town of Lamoura, which is a small winter sport centre with access to downhill and cross country skiing, as well as snowshoeing, and discovered that we each had rooms overlooking the snowy countryside (and not the road out front!). After dropping our things off in our rooms, we set off to rent our snowshoes for our stay and we then took advantage of the remaining daylight hours to get a bit of snowshoeing in.
The hotel had a wooden chalet feel and it was demi-pension, so breakfast and supper were included. The first evening before supper, we gathered for aperitifs in one of the hotel rooms and enjoyed 2 bottles of champagne that my boss had brought along. The second evening we had 2 bottles of red wine and we played Time's Up in teams of two (it's a game where you have to try and get your partner to guess a word, either using long explanations, just one word or mimes).

During our stay, we had two full days of snowshoeing and we explored a lot of the trails that are scattered around the ski hills, snowshoeing about 10 - 12 km per day. From time to time we would come across chalets where it was possible to have a mulled wine or cup of cocoa, and on both days, we packed a picnic and enjoyed our lunch in the snow. We lucked out with the weather because it was nothing but blue sky and sunshine. Just have a look!

Did I mention that our office dog, Eclipse, came along too? She *loved* the snow and spent her time fetching snowballs, some of which were much larger than her head!
On the way home we stopped at another mountain peak and went to a restaurant for some tea. The sky was clear and there was a panoramic view of the Alps across the valley. We could even see Mont Blanc. It's the biggest one there in the middle.
Further down the hill we stopped at a fromagerie to buy some local cheese before going home (I'll write more about that in a future post).

We arrived home in one piece on Wednesday night. It was nice to have time to bond with my work mates and just have fun together without thinking about work. I think that was the point!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

paperasse part two

(another catchup session)
This is an ongoing theme here! Paperasse, or paperwork, is really stress-inducing in France and every time there is reason to change or update papers, just the thought is enough to create a knot in my stomach. SO! Second move in a year? No problem. I told myself I could do this.

carte grise
The carte grise is the car ownership paper that needs to be kept up-to-date in terms of current address. If you don’t do it after a month of moving and are caught, you can get fined and lose points off your licence (but for some reason, the licence doesn’t need to be updated!). Changing your address on your carte grise means a trip to the préfecture or sous-préfectures and proving your new address with a utility bill.

So we drove 15km into Avallon with our rental agreement in hand and went to the sous-préfecture to change our carte grise. Of course once we got there, we learned that a rental agreement is not proof enough of an address (ANYBODY could make up any old rental agreement) and since I had taken time off work to do this transaction, I drove back home to get the paperwork needed. They wanted an electricity bill (and those couldn’t be made up in photoshop?) but I was hesitant to use our electricity bill because we have three (yes, that’s 3) street names on our bill. Why? Good question! It has to do with the street changing names over the years and nobody being willing to accept the correct address. So I brought the bill, along with a stack of other papers showing the correct street name, back to the sous-préfecture and they were able to process the address change for both of us, although we did have to prove we were married – because the bill was in Jean-Marc’s name – and I needed to insist on keeping my own name for the new sticker. Sixty kilometres later, we were both done.

Back in Canada we don’t have anything like a carte grise, but it seems to me that when I moved I was able to change my driver’s licence online in a matter of minutes and that was that.

Changing your address with a bank also requires sending by mail (not fax, not email) proof of address, along with an accompanying letter requesting the change. I sent off the request along with the rental agreement, but – you guessed it! – that was not the right thing to send off. The letter was returned and I was asked to send the valid proof and so I sent off the electricity bill with the three street names, explained the situation, and I threw in a few other bills, just for good measure.

The change was made, but just for one of the two accounts I had requested, so I had to call the bank and request the change for the second account. They gave me the song and dance about sending proof and I said that it had already been sent in. The decidedly unhelpful and unfriendly person at the other end of the line finally understood the situation and begrudgingly agreed to change the second account’s address. Just today I received the bank statement from this account through redirected mail, so the change didn’t actually get done. Somehow I'm not surprised. I’ve written yet another letter requesting the change again, and I’m sending it with a stack of justificatifs de domicile. Third time lucky?

I also needed to change my address with my Canadian banks. I called and spoke to cheery, helpful people who were willing to change my address and take my word for it (after I correctly answered the security questions, of course!). I did both Canadian banks in under 5 minutes.

carte de séjour
After being the proud owner of my carte de séjour for six months, it was time to put in a request for a new card. I went to the town hall and made my request and the secretary thought that the card should come sooner than last year’s, which took almost seven months to arrive. To my surprise, after only two months, I was summoned with Jean-Marc to the préfecture in the big city of Auxerre, which is 50 km away. I thought maybe we would have an interview to make sure that we are really married and together, but we just needed to sign a declaration together, stating that we are living together. We drove 100 km to do that? Couldn't we have done that in front of the mayor at the town hall? They said that the card should arrive in a month. Imagine my surprise when I found out that my card had arrived at the town hall just before Christmas! I was told to buy fiscal stamps to the tune of 104€ (their way of collecting the payment) in Avallon and present them at the mairie to get my card.

We went to the place where you buy fiscal stamps and when I told them the amounts (one for 85€ and one for 19€) they were confused. There are various sorts of stamps for various sorts of transactions (passport, citizenship cards, driving fines etc.) and they are all at specific prices. They didn’t want to sell me the wrong kind of stamps because getting a refund is a chore (oh really?) and the stamps were changing at the end of the year. I thought that it was a prudent suggestion and I decided to check in with the village secretary first thing Monday morning.

First thing Monday morning I called only to find that the town hall was closed between the 19th and the 29th! So this little new card had to wait until 2012 to be paid for and picked up. I went in yesterday with my stamps, but the person at the desk wasn't the regular secretary and she had no idea where my card might be. Call me crazy, but I think that a filing cabinet would be a handy thing to have in an office, as opposed to binders and files stacked in boxes! That way the cards could be found under 'C' for cartes. Filing cabinets are so not French.

Why do taxes, fees and fines need to be paid for with fiscal stamps in this day and age? Why couldn’t I just write a cheque, pay in cash or – and I know I’m going out on a limb here – pay by debit card? 

Sometimes I really miss simplicity.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

our house

Ok, so after all this talk about the new house, I bet you would like to see and hear more about it! I was actually wanting to get the house in better shape (painted and more furnished) before taking photos, but that’s what I thought about the last place we lived and, well, that day never came. So here we go, here’s our house! I’ll take more photos when the weather is a bit better, so you can see it with the sun shining out front or in our courtyard.
This is our entrance. There are actually two front doors: a mostly glass one (that was perhaps a store-front door?) and a newly-installed wooden one that was a result of the village's architectural demands. In the summer, we keep the glass door open, so that the wooden one is visible to the public. The bonus of having two front doors is the sound and heat insulation that it provides. The things on the walls are various cards, photos and posters that we have displayed on fishing line that is tightly attached to two hooks.

Beside the entrance is our living room, whose windows look right on the sidewalk outside. The the floor on this level is cement tiling that was typical in the 50s in France. See those two chairs? 5€ at a charity shop!

This is a close up of our front window, which is not at all typically French and more like something you might find in Holland or England!

After the living room, you pass through a hallway that has stairs going up to the other floors as well as the first separate toilet. There is a French door (with glass panes) and then you are in the dining room.
The dining room has three windowed doors that open to outside and it also has a fireplace. The curtains belong to the landlord, just in case you were wondering what was going on there.

This room is actually big enough to be a sort of family room, with dining and living areas, but we don't have the furniture for that quite yet. So in the meantime it's just our little table in this big room, along with a bookshelf.

After the dining room, off to the right, there is a door that leads to the kitchen, which is divided into two parts: upper and lower.
This is the upper part (looking dark, but it's actually quite bright), with a sink and counter with cupboards on one side, 
and a fridge and more cupboards and countertop on the other side. I should mention that this is virtually unheard of in France, especially in rentals. As I mentioned before, normally all you get in a kitchen is a sink and one cupboard underneath. The rest is up to you!

And then there is the lower bit with a second sink.

They left us the stove and everything!

I found this old mailbox at a charity shop and decided that it would be a good bread box. What's funny is that it has the number nine on it and I bought back when were were living in Savennières. Our current house number? Nine!

Going upstairs, there are two rooms: the office and our bedroom, with an adjoining bathroom. Oh, and a walk-in closet!
This is the office, which is a huge room with two windows and enough space to have another guest room. I'll post pictures once it's more put together.

This is our bedroom, with windows looking east, over our backyard. We even have a nice view of the countryside and a neighbouring hilltop village. The bathroom is accessible from the bedroom and the hallway.

Up one more flight of stairs and you have a furnished bedroom (no pictures for the moment, I'm afraid - it's been too dark) and a swank guest bathroom that has a skylight and a sitting tub with shower.

As I mentioned, once the weather is a bit brighter, I will take more photos of the inside and add some exterior photos, so you can see what it's like. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Christmas spirit

Last year was a really crafty Christmas and this year was much less so, but we still got around to a few things. Jean-Marc had the idea of slicing a birch branch into little pucks and then painting them with various colours to make our tree decorations. My only contribution was putting fishing line through the little holes and hanging them in the tree.

While he was busy painting, I decided to take advantage of the paint on the table and paint some Christmas cards to send to friends and family. To be honest, I initially wasn’t very inspired but then what seemed like a disaster on the paper turned into inspiration and I ended up making a wee stack of cards to send off. No photos, though, but some of you will have received them in the mail!

village Christmas gathering
Jean-Marc has been calling up various people in an effort to find work, and one of his recent calls to a local landscaper resulted in an invitation to the village Christmas gathering. Not a job, but a good opportunity to meet more of the locals!

So on the 22nd, we gathered at the bottom of the hill along with all the families and Père Noël, who was ringing his sheep bell. We climbed the hill up to the town hall’s party room, where there were treats for everyone and Père Noël gave out presents to all the village kids (apparently all bought by the village!). We talked to a few people and then I ended up chatting to the woman next to me. At first I heard her daughter singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with an excellent accent and I commented on how good her English was. The woman replied that they spoke English at home and then we discovered that we’re both from Vancouver and that she went to the high school that is just a few blocks from where I lived for 15 years! Not only that, but she is a classical music agent who is self-employed. The similarities were kind of astonishing, considering we are both living in a tiny village of 400 people, but it was a nice meeting and I’m looking forward to getting to know her better.

Christmas with the family
Officially, I don't have any paid holidays for the first year of work, after which time I get five weeks, but since we had been working long hours and we went away on tour for 10 days, I was able to take the week between Christmas and New Year's off. So we loaded up the car with Christmas presents and Domino the cat and headed off to the in-laws for the holidays. We ended up spending six nights there and had a nice time together with family and friends (the infamous 9-hour dinner friends). This was the first time since I took my job eight months ago that I had proper time off, so it was very welcome! The only bémol (downside or "flat") was that the family got the stomach flu one by one. We thought we had resisted it, but by the time we drove home, Jean-Marc wasn't feeling so great and the next day I was in the same boat. New Year's eve was a bit of a bust as a result - not that we had much planned - but it gave me a head start on my dietary resolutions!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

the move

(This is one of the catch-up installments of what's been going on for the last few months.)

Moving. We had just moved in October 2010 and so the idea of packing up and moving across the country in September 2011 was not something that we were particularly looking forward to. I had looked into hiring a professional moving company, but the cost was too prohibitive, so we decided to rent a 20 cubic metre truck and do it all ourselves.

Step 1: rent the truck
I knew this wouldn’t be straightforward. The plan was for me to rent the truck, drive it across the country, load up next day, drive back to Vézelay, unpack and then return the truck on the third day.

I showed up to rent the truck early in the morning. I had anticipated the problem with my driver’s licence; since my French licence was less than one year old, technically I wasn't allowed to rent or drive trucks, so I thought ahead and brought a statement showing the original date of my first licence in Canada. The woman at the counter accepted this and I thought it would be smooth sailing from there on. Then she asked me for a large deposit that she would take out on my debit card. It was more money than I had in my account and I knew that I couldn’t pay for it. After a phone call to my bank and a chat with the store manager we worked something out. Phew! I wasn’t sure what I was going to do otherwise. The good thing about France is that even when the answer is "no" you can usually find a solution and get to "yes" after a bit of negotiation. 

Step 2: drive across the country (500ish km)
This part was relatively easy, but in a 20 cubic metre truck, there was a little more to have to pay attention to (the vacuum effect of bigger trucks, for example).

Step 3: start loading up
Jean-Marc had the unpleasant task of packing up the majority of our belongings in my absence and so when I arrived with the truck we were able to immediately start loading up after making a short trip to the charity store with the things we wanted to get rid of. A friend and neighbour came to help us for a bit, which was a pleasant surprise and a big help. We ended up saving the rest until the next morning.

Step 4: finish loading up, drive across country and fully unload
This was the toughest day! We got up early and kept on packing until about 1pm. Originally we wanted to also do a full cleaning before leaving, but we opted to leave that until our état des lieux (final inspection) which wasn’t for a few more weeks. We had lunch at the local café and then headed out on the road. I drove the truck and Jean-Marc drove his car with Domino at his side. We arrived around 8pm and ended up unloading until after midnight, with just a brief break for a slice of pizza. The truck was due the following morning at 8:30am, so we put our mattress on the floor (the box spring was too large to get up the stairs) and slept as much as we could.

Step 5: return truck and get settled in
We were able to return the truck on time AND with no damage, so it all turned out all right in the end! 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the move was that Pôle Emploi (unemployment agency) paid for all the moving expenses, including gas, toll highways, truck rental, phone and electricity set-up charges, the legal lease-signing fees, AND the return trip that Jean-Marc needed to do for the final clean-up and inspection a few weeks later. When I sent in the paperwork along with all the receipts, I was fully expecting a wait of at least a few months (I did wait seven months for my carte de séjour, remember) but I received the cheque within two weeks. What? Thank you, France!