THE SAGA OF THE VILLAGE BOULANGERIE

Standard

 

bread-sign-2

OCTOBER 2018

In France, the neighborhood boulangerie (bakery) is a tradition. Every French village with a population of 1000 or more has at least one boulangerie. Smaller villages that cannot support their own boulangerie usually have a “dépôt de pain” (bread depot) in the local café or general store. Even smaller remote villages and hamlets have a bread truck which passes by several times a week with fresh baguettes.

The local boulangerie is the center of daily life. Each morning you go out in search of your fresh baguette, which must be consumed that day. By the second day, it is only good for toast, or to make croutons. For a weekend treat, it is common to pick up some croissants or pains au chocolat. For special occasions or when you have “invités” for dinner, you might choose a freshly baked tarte or beautifully decorated gateau.

Every boulangerie has its own version of the traditional baguette with its own special name. Our favorite bakery calls its baguette “l’authentique.” Other “artisanal” breads, such as peasant bread, nut, olive and raisin bread, quiches, sandwiches and fougasses (breads made with olive oil) are usually on offer. A “boulangerie pâtisserie” sells a full range of “viennoiseries” (breakfast pastries like croissants and pains au chocolat) and “pâtisseries” including eclairs, cookies, cakes and tartes. Sometimes you can also buy jams, candies and ice cream novelties.

boulangerie_1

Everyone goes to the boulangerie. It is the most reliable source of local gossip and current events…”Have you heard that Monsieur Untel had to go the hospital last night?”” “The family in the big house by the church is back from vacation”. “The Martins have just put their house up for sale” . . . You can’t keep — or keep from hearing — secrets when you go to buy your bread. The baker’s wife will always know if you are having a dinner party or special event or if you have been out of town or sick.

When you need advice on where to go for the best hairdresser, the most reliable dry cleaners, the freshest tomatoes, the best source of black truffles, you ask the baker’s wife, who is usually the person behind the counter. We have found gardeners, house cleaners and local producers of melons. In the boulangerie you find out who has just died or who is getting married. There are notices posted for upcoming concerts, wine tastings and dance lessons. Babysitters, handymen and caretakers advertise their services on little handwritten pieces of paper next to the counter.

Sooner or later, you run into everyone in the local boulangerie. It is a great meeting place. The line-up is longest first thing in the morning when the bread is just out of the oven and there is the best choice of baguettes, with light, medium and dark baked crusts. Just before noon there is also a mad dash for baguettes right before the boulangerie closes for lunch. One time I got to the boulangerie late and all that was left were “baguettes congelées ” (frozen bread from the day before.) The disappointment is overwhelming when you get there too late and your favorite “croissants aux amandes” are all gone. Your day is never quite the same.

When we first moved to France a few years ago, we would go to the boulangerie every morning for fresh baguette, a pain aux raisins and a croissant aux amandes or some other luscious treat. After two weeks, we had overdosed on all this pastry and started a healthier breakfast routine of oatmeal, fruit and yogurt. We have adhered to this ever since. These days we only eat baguettes and croissants when we have house guests or dinner parties.

bread-sign

The French are very particular about their bread. Everyone has a strong opinion about his favorite bakery. A considerable amount of time is spent at dinner parties discussing the bread variations and pastry options at competing boulangeries. We have switched our allegiance three times since moving to France. We too have become very exacting. It is a problem when your favorite boulangerie is closed for vacation and you have to resort to plan B. One time we ran into this problem when we were preparing for a dinner party. We had to buy our bread at a bakery we had never tried before. The bread was tasteless and squishy. We were so embarrassed to have served it to guests.

The baguette is part of the traditional triumvirate: bread, cheese and wine. Bread is served at every meal. A hunk of baguette makes a great sponge to soak up whatever sauce is left on your plate at the end of the meal. Bread is always served with cheese. Butter is never put on the table with bread. A typical after school snack for French children is a “tartine” (a slice of baguette with a bar of chocolate.)

The test of a truly good baguette is that it can stand on its own with nothing on it. The aroma of freshly baked bread is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures. One time we tried an artisanal bread in a special boulangerie in the Luberon. The baguette was so amazing that by the time we were leaving the parking lot, we had already consumed half of it and we had to run back in to buy another loaf.

The traditional baguette is considered a necessity and the price was regulated for many years. Today there is so much competition that the prices have remained low. We generally pay between .90 and 1.10€ for a baguette, which we consider to be one of the best bargains in France. Now it is popular for a boulangerie to offer a “formule” at a special price of 3€ for four baguettes. If we are having house guests or a dinner party, we usually buy the “formule” and freeze the leftover bread to use for toast.

When we first bought our house over twenty years ago, we were impressed that our village boulangerie offered not only wonderful breads and pastries, but also an impressive array of artisanal chocolates. We found out that the baker’s son was in culinary training, specializing in making chocolates. Eventually he became a “maître chocolatier” and moved on to build his career. One day our baker retired and turned the operation over to a younger couple. The boulangerie was never the same. Then on one fateful day in December 2016, the bakery closed without notice. The baker and his family had snuck off in the dead of night, leaving the boulangerie in a terrible state. The elderly ladies who have always lived in the village were in tears. We had become a village without a boulangerie. It was a local scandal.

The week after the boulangerie closed, our little grocery store became a “dépôt de pain” and fresh baguettes and croissants were delivered there daily from a neighboring village. This was critical to the elderly people in the village who did not have cars and therefore had no access to daily baguettes. It was considered a stopgap measure until another baker was found and our boulangerie reopened.

The next year there was a rumor that the retired baker, who owned the building, was in negotiations with a man from Marseille who was interested in taking over the business. This was immediately considered suspect because he “wasn’t from around here” and because there were rumors of drug-related Mafia connections. The prospect of a boulangerie front for a dope ring in our village became the source of much gossip.

After several months, the negotiations fell through and the villagers began to give up hope. People became used to buying their baguettes elsewhere. Then one day we noticed a sign outside of town that said “Prochainement Boulangerie Pâtisserie Ici à Vacqueyras” (In the near future a bakery/pastry shop will be opening here.) The town was abuzz with excitement. Speculation about the new bakery became the hot topic of conversation. Rumors were running rampant. Who was the new baker? Where was he coming from? What were his plans for the new business?

This went on for several months. “Prochainement” is a very vague term that can mean just about anything. Then one day when I was in the Presse buying a magazine, the proprietor (a very reliable source on local gossip) told me there was an opening date for the new boulangerie. We started to see signs of new life in the old location. Pretty new signs were going up and workmen were scurrying back and forth, doing painting, plumbing and electrical work. The excitement was mounting as the opening date was approaching.

We had to pack up and prepare for our departure to Mexico before the new village boulangerie opened. Next year when we return to France, we will be able to walk around the corner and pick up our fresh baguettes whenever we want. And our village will once again be complete.

bread-V

Advertisements

HEATWAVE IN PROVENCE

Standard

beach

AUGUST 2018
Ah, summer in Provence. This is what we had dreamed about when we were still working away in San Francisco, where summers meant fog, wind and cold. Summers where you could not go out without a sweatshirt. I would sit at my computer in the financial district, looking out at the leaden sky  and dream of balmy evenings in Provence, sipping chilled rosé and listening to the cicadas. In San Francisco, we had always felt cheated because we never had a real summer.

Now we are in our fifth summer in Provence and it is HOT. This is the first major “canicule” (heat wave) in years. Measures are being taken to avoid the disastrous effects of the major heat waves of 2003 and 2006, when 15,000 and 7000 people, respectively, perished due to heat-related causes. There is an official heat wave policy broadcast on TV and radio and published in newspapers. The country has been placed on “vigilance orange” (high alert code orange.)

It is August, the official month of vacation. Traffic on the national highways has reached code black (the worst), tempers are flaring and beaches are jammed. Rest homes are required to have air-conditioning, hospitals have ramped up their capacity to accept victims of heat stroke, and pharmacies are stocked with special medications. People are advised to keep a bottle of water with them at all times. Stores are running out of portable fans.

In our little village, things are eerily quiet. People venture out only when necessary. They buy their baguettes, fruits and vegetables, and of course, this being France, cans of tobacco, first thing in the morning when the stores open. Then everyone lies low. Even the usual noise of the tractors and trucks has subsided. The streets are deserted during the heat of the day, except for an occasional unknowing tourist who has come here to buy wine.

This reminds us of our first summer in Provence in 1993 when we were the only people on the streets at midday. We would visit villages and not see a soul. The shutters of the houses were all closed and there were no cars on the roads. Paul, ever the history buff,  theorized that the villages had been abandoned after World War II. Then we noticed the food smells and heard the sound of cutlery on plates. We finally understood that the locals were all indoors enjoying a satisfying lunch. Only ignorant tourists would be wandering outdoors in such weather.

Things move very slowly here in summer. No one is on the street during the heat of the day. We don’t feel like doing anything too strenuous. We have adopted the languid routine of the long summer days in Provence: we wake up early and take a quick dip in our small but refreshing pool. We then head out for our hour-long walk in the vineyards. Along the way we practice verb conjugations — in both French and Spanish — and collect river rocks for our garden.

pool

The biggest treat of the day is when we return all hot and sweaty and plunge  back into the pool. After cooling off, we have a light breakfast on the terrace. We are now ready to start the projects of the day. Paul works on small “bricolage” house repairs or plays his guitar. I run to the local grocery store to replenish our daily supplies, go to the “presse” to buy a newspaper, then return to plan the evening’s activities, our future social calendar and make travel arrangements. We prepare for Spanish lessons which we take twice a week by Skype from our tutor in Mexico, Lisa, and for our weekly French lessons here with our adorable Sonia.

Our days are long and lazy. We don’t feel like exerting much energy. We only venture out during the day if we absolutely have to. We spend most of the time in our courtyard “outdoor room” we have created with our wall of bamboo, rock garden, huge parasol and lounge furniture. I plunge in the pool at least once an hour to cool off, and then spend the entire day wearing a wet bikini, while I read novels in French. We keep our house shutters partway closed in typical local fashion and have our ceiling fans running on high. We have never used so much sunscreen. I keep a tube of “Jambes Légères” (Light Legs) in the refrigerator, so I can cool my legs off at the end of the day.

In this heat don’t feel like myself. I have no appetite and little energy. We have a salad everyday for lunch, not because we are really hungry, but just out of habit. We drink liters of water and eat mounds of golden Cavaillon melons and juicy watermelon. I am so bloated and waterlogged that I am starting to feel like a beach ball with a pair of eyes. The thought of wearing anything more than a wispy sundress that barely grazes my body and a pair of flip flops is unthinkable.

beachball

We have become very nocturnal creatures. The balmy evenings are the payoff after enduring the scorching heat of the day. It stays light out until at least ten. We go out every single night, to a party, a concert, an apéro or dinner with friends. Sunsets are spectacular. The air is warm, the breeze is gentle and the cicadas are chirping at full-blast. The night skies are full of stars. We stay up late.

We have had two weeks of blazing sun, daily temperatures above 90 and no rain. Yesterday the thermometer hit 38 (101 F.) The “canicule” has officially lasted from July 24 to August 8. This has been the country’s second hottest summer ever recorded.

As I write this, we are aboard the TGV high speed train headed for Paris. As the train races through the countryside, the sky darkens and the storm clouds open up. The rain pelts against the windows, obscuring the landscape. The temperature has dropped dramatically. I am wearing jeans, a long sleeved shirt and a scarf for the first time in weeks. My appetite has returned and I am looking forward to a hot lunch and a glass of red wine. I feel like walking for miles and looking at the new fall fashions in the shop windows. It is August 9th and the heat wave of 2018 is officially over.

OUR EXPAT LIFE, FIVE YEARS LATER

Standard

October, 2018

When we were working full tilt in San Francisco, we used to dream about someday living in France. I used to keep a photograph of our Provençal village and a sachet of lavender on my desk. When I felt stressed, I would take a whiff of my little sachet and instantly be transported to another world. Our other world.

It has now been almost five years since we ended our jobs, sold our home, packed our clothes, books, artworks and music gear in a shipping container, and became full-fledged expats in France. We were ready for something different. So we took a chance. We had no idea what to expect, but we knew it would never be boring.

It has taken me years to fully grasp just how great a toll my career had taken on me. I never realized until recently just how burned out I had become. I used to suffer from stomach aches, coughing fits and middle of the night panic attacks. I routinely lost my voice at work. Every night when I got home, I would pour myself a big glass of red wine before I had even taken off my coat. Then I had Paul crack my back that was out of whack from the stress of the day.

I found that my job became increasingly difficult as clients became ever more demanding and impatient. I remember that I would email a client a proposal that I had spent an hour meticulously researching and composing, only to receive an email reply within a matter of minutes asking “what about this, what about that.” So I would then have to research plans B and C and then wait to see if there would be a request for a plan D. And maybe this would result in a sale. But this happened perhaps 10% of the time.

Mine was not a warm and fuzzy workplace. Office intrigues, endless management changes, increased sales quotas, robotic scripting, deadlines, random call monitoring by anonymous third party entities, sales figures, phone “stats” and revenue dollar production published weekly, clients clamoring for discounts and price matches. We had it all. It was always all about the numbers. I never knew what was waiting on the line when I answered the phone. Someone else’s problem became my problem. I felt like I was drowning and could never catch up, no matter how hard I tried. I made money in sales, but I paid a very high price.

rat-in-a-wheel

The last few years of our working life in San Francisco, we rarely went out during the week. Our friends were all too tired to have dinner parties. Everyone was so busy and over extended that we would go for weeks without seeing some of our friends. Weekends were full of chores, errands and preparations for the work week ahead. On Friday nights our entertainment was binge watching three episodes of “Breaking Bad.” Our quality of life had deteriorated. When both our jobs ended coincidentally and our offices closed, we knew that it was time to make a move.

Here we are, almost five years later, living as expats. Work seems like a distant memory. Yet our days are busier than ever. The freedom is exhilarating. The novelty has never worn off. Everyday we look at each other and ask ourselves “how did we get here?” We realize we are free to do whatever we want. We can choose the people we want to spend time with. Clients are a thing of the past. We have learned to push our limits, to live outside our comfort zone. We don’t always know exactly what is going on around us. But that seems to be part of the fun.

Sometimes, it feels like we are floating on the surface of things. We have not yet learned all the social codes of our adopted country. The locals know “we are not from around here” and they give us a pass if we do or say something a bit unconventional or inappropriate. We tend to be too informal and are quick to start up conversations on a first name basis. But people generally seem to like that we are so “open” and that we smile and laugh a lot. They are intrigued by us and don’t quite understand why we chose to live here. “You left San Francisco to come HERE??” is a question we are frequently asked. The idea of leaving everything behind and starting over in a new culture is inconceivable to most of the French people we meet.

Living in a different culture where we have to speak a new language is a never ending challenge. Having studied French literature at the university level, I have always been comfortable reading and writing French.Now my conversational ability has increased to the point where I can say just about anything I need to say in French, but I don’t always say it perfectly, I don’t necessarily say it quite the way a native speaker would say it, and I can’t seem to shake my American accent. I lack the shared history, the cultural references, the childhood experiences and schooling. Sometimes I am completely stumped by the French sense of humor.

I used to harbor illusions of speaking with the fluency of a native, but I realize now that this will never be the case. I used to be offended when I spoke in proper French and was answered in English. Now I have learned to accept it. Usually, they just want to show that they too speak another language. I find that if I just persist in speaking French, they ultimately give in and speak French with me because my French is almost always better than their English. I will always be a foreigner who speaks French well. Now I realize that this is quite enough.

Paul has made amazing progress with his French. He had a negative experience studying French in high school with poor teachers, and when we arrived in France he had to tackle the language, starting with the basic grammar. He plunged in with a monthlong intensive course, eight hours a day, all in French. Then we began weekly lessons with a private tutor. Once Paul realized how rewarding it was to be able to participate in conversations, he was highly motivated and made huge strides. Now we have dinner parties all in French. When you can hold your own in rapid-fire conversations with a table full of animated French guests, you know you have arrived.

We know now that learning to speak a foreign language well is the work of a lifetime. The only easy way is to be a baby in France. Otherwise, it is just a lot of hard work. And “fluency” can mean a lot of things and exist on many levels. It is not just a matter of living in the foreign speaking environment and somehow “soaking up” the language. You need to study grammar in order to speak in complete sentences. You need the cultural references, the knowledge of local history, the familiarity with slang and common expressions in order to understand what people are talking about.

We have learned that the French love Americans. When they hear us speaking French with a foreign accent, they are not sure where we are from. Holland, England, Scandinavia? They are always happy when they find out we are from the States. And when we tell them we are from San Francisco, they are thrilled. Inevitably they have a cousin or uncle who lives in Santa Rosa or Walnut Creek. Maybe we know him? They tell us about their trip to Hollywood, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. We have helped plan motorcycle trips on Route 66 and given advice on driving down the coast on Highway 1.

Sometimes we ask local people what they like about Americans. They love our movies, television programs, music, casual fashions, technology, burgers, cowboys and the Wild West. They love our big cars, big houses, king size beds, and the wide open spaces they see in movies. They love our huge refrigerators which they call “frigos américains” and our open plan kitchens which are “cuisines américaines.” They admire our marketing, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. They have felt an affinity with us since our participation in World War II. We were stunned to discover that they love our American accents. French kids all want to learn to speak English like an American.

We have never once felt unwelcome in France. The common misconception in the States is that the French don’t like Americans is a mystery to us. We have asked our French friends about this and they are always shocked to hear that so many Americans truly believe this. It seems that most French people living in the provinces are not terribly fond of Parisians, who are considered difficult and sometimes condescending. But they don’t feel this way about Americans. We try to be good representatives of the States. Living abroad has given us a more global perspective. We realize that we will always be outsiders, with all the advantages and challenges that entails.

People are frequently amused by us. Once, at a dinner party when we were talking about food (always a popular topic), we mentioned that we often have just a bowl of soup for lunch. Everyone stared at us in disbelief and burst out laughing. Apparently this is just not done. Another time, when I was talking about the problem of so many people working under the table, I referred to this as “travailler dans le noir” instead of saying “travailler au noir.” I had said “working in the dark” instead of “working in the black.” This prompted a joke about sex. Another time, I tried to compliment my optician by saying that she was “une vraie professionnelle” instead of saying “c’est un travail très professionnel.” I had called her a prostitute instead of saying that she had done her job well!

There are so many things that we love about being in France: the daily visit to the boulangerie for a fresh baguette, long walks through the vineyards, the way a cafe waiter can open a bottle onehanded on his shoulder, the dappled light on little country roads lined with ancient plane trees, the effortless chic of young French women in big cities, the gracious way that strangers automatically greet each other when they enter a shop, the cafe culture, the weekly Provençal market.

We are impressed with the focus on the “patrimoine” (heritage) of France. We love knowing that no matter where you go in France, you can always count on getting a good meal. The French countryside is breathtakingly beautiful and pristine. Big commercial centers are grouped together just outside of cities rather than spoiling the landscape with billboards, gas stations and strip malls. We love exploring all the villages near us. Each one is unique and worth a look. Sometimes we turn down a country road just because we have never been there before.

Of course, there are always challenges and frustrations. We have had to work at finding people with common interests and building a community of friends. The French tend to be much more reserved and are somewhat taken aback when we invite them to dinner at our house with other people they don’t know. Our intention was never to insulate ourselves in an enclave of expats. We have formed great relationships with French, Belgian, Dutch, German, English and Canadian friends. I maintain three lists of friends we can invite for dinner parties: French speaking, English speaking, and those who speak both. There is an additional list of people who are more “open,” meaning that we can invite them to socialize with people they don’t know. We love to mix up nationalities because it provides for more stimulating conversations.

img_0221-1

Paul has found it difficult to find other musicians who understand American music and can play it with a reasonable level of competency. The French love American music, but often don’t feel the rhythms and often do “yogurt singing,” meaning that they sing phonetically without understanding the meaning – understandable, as they are singing in a foreign language.

Paul always comments that audiences here often don’t grasp the concept of “swing” and they clap “on the one” as if it were a march or a waltz (the emphasis in most blues and jazz music is on the second and fourth beats, not the first and thirds…). Audiences here can be tough. Some simply don’t get the music because it is so foreign to what they know. They tend to sit with their hands in their laps and don’t often react or get up and dance.

*****

We have never quite gotten on the right daily schedule in France. The French have their café au lait and croissant early morning. By noon they are famished and ready to eat a serious meal for lunch. Supper is usually a simpler affair unless there are guests for dinner. The most important meal of the week is Sunday lunch, which often includes family and friends. Our problem is that we eat oatmeal for breakfast and are not ready for a big lunch at noon. This can be problematic if we are out and about, because we have to get to a restaurant before 2pm, otherwise, we are out of luck. Outside of the big cities, there is no service after that until places open again for dinner at 7:30 or 8pm. Stores close, usually from noon till 3, and nothing is open on Sunday, other than boulangeries and markets where you can shop just in the morning for the important provisions for Sunday lunch.

The French have a different sense of time.
After having spent years in the frenzy of corporate America, we have had trouble adjusting to a different set of expectations. People may not respond to emails for days, or sometimes, weeks. There is simply not the same sense of urgency. Sometimes shops and offices are closed without any notice. An office worker might go on a leave of absence and not turn his files over to anyone else. It is common for drivers to stop in the middle of the street while they run an errand, leaving a back-up of cars to wait until they return. The lady in the boulangerie takes the time to inquire about health problems and to discuss the latest local scandal, while the line of customers gets longer and longer. People never seem impatient. This is just the way it is.

Sometimes, we find ourselves frustrated by the lack of resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit. Locals are simply not used to “thinking outside the box.” Traditions and customs must be observed. They have always done it this way, so this is the way it is done. For instance, everyone goes on vacation in August, even owners and employees of ice cream shops.

Communications
Often, assumptions are made, but not communicated. Local organizations put on events, but fail to promote them. Sometimes they make up posters or send out emails but fail to include important details such as the date, time and place of the event. The local newspapers publish information about events only after they have taken place.

Money
The French are very discrete about money and success. Maybe it is the concept of “liberté égalité fraternité.” Maybe it is the strength of the Communist party, the robust network of social services, or the cherished right to strike. Everyone should be at about the same level. If you rise significantly above the rest, you are somewhat suspect. It is considered to be in bad taste to show off. People drive Renaults or Peugeots. The only Ferraris and Jaguars you see here either belong to foreigners, Parisians or people from the Côte d’Azur. Homes are comfortable and well-maintained, but never extravagant.

Living in French
We try our best to be respectful of local customs and to just fit in. We never complain about anything. We have adopted the custom of “
bisous,” greeting friends with the customary three cheek kisses. We politely inquire into their health and wait patiently while they describe their medical problems in great detail. We now think in centigrade, kilos and euros. I read Le Monde and the Vaucluse Matin newspapers on a daily basis. We have learned to keep our voices down in restaurants. I have started ironing our napkins, tea towels and pillowcases. (A major concession for me.) We now serve our dinners course by course, with a pause in between. We have become knowledgeable about Côtes du Rhone wines. We are proud to be residents of France.

We are somewhat amused when our American friends ask us “but what do you DO in France?” On a typical day when we are not traveling, we get up by 8am and take a long walk through the vineyards. After we return, all hot and sweaty, we plunge into our pool. After having breakfast on the terrace, we are ready for the activities of the day.

Twice a week we take Spanish lessons and once a week we work with our French tutor. Paul practices his guitar every single day while I read voraciously in French. Paul works on house projects, while I work on planning excursions and trips. Our bucket list seems to get longer, not shorter, the more we travel and realize how much we have yet to see. We devote a considerable amount of time to building our community of friends.

Many hours are spent each week in the pursuit, preparation and consumption of food. Almost every evening we either go out or invite friends for apéro or dinner which last for hours. We try to go to as many concerts, art exhibits and festivals as we can.

 

happening

Living abroad has sharpened our focus on the things that really matter to us. We have learned a lot about ourselves. The acquisition of stuff is not important. Stuff has decreasing value. What matters to us are our experiences, our travels, our friends and family. We take chances. We risk rejection and embarrassment. We don’t fret over decisions. Even if an experience does not turn out to be fabulous, at least we will have given it a try. We have chosen this life and we made it happen. We are not here by default.

parade

We have learned that our travel needs are few. Our lightweight travel bags are always packed and ready to go. We can take off on a moment’s notice with our passports, credit cards and a bottle of hot sauce. There is so much on our calendar that we have to plan far ahead. We try to take advantage of every opportunity and we almost always say yes when opportunities present themselves. We savor each day and relish the unexpected. We have never for one moment regretted our decision to become expats.

Soon, we will be headed to San Miguel de Allende for the winter, New York for Christmas and New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Next summer’s destinations (tentatively) include Corfu, Berlin, Croatia and Venice for the Biennale. It is always a difficult decision to leave on summer trips because we love staying in our house in Provence. Our biggest problem is that we cannot be in two places at once. Try as we might, we simply cannot do it all. But we’ll keep trying...

A GLIMPSE OF TWO LIVES

Standard

Since we bought our house in San Miguel de Allende last year, we now divide our time between two lives, our life in French in Vacqueyras and our life in Spanish in Mexico. They are both unique and wonderful in their own way.

Our general plan is to spend 4 or 5 months in the winter in Mexico, and the “season” in Provence, which usually means from April to October. The rest of the time we plan to be traveling to the destinations on our bucket list. This is challenging because we love both our homes, and meanwhile our bucket list seems to be growing.

Daily life in both places is very personal. We know our neighbors, chat with our shopkeepers, joke about our foreign language challenges, and bump into friends wherever we go. Routine transactions are on a human scale. I found a couple of images that typify this.

During our extensive house renovations this winter in San Miguel, we had dozens of workers in and out of our house. They showed up at the stroke of 8 every morning and worked very long days. Without exception, they were polite, respectful and took great pride in their work. One worker in particular stood out in my mind.

miguel

Miguel is a master craftsman with cement. He makes the craft appear effortless. While he was working his magic with our new “ox eye” windows made of the local orange cantera stone, I snapped a photo of him in action. He was always smiling. He went way above and beyond what was required, just because it was the right thing to do. He did things without our asking. And he was mentoring a teenager who was learning the craft for the first time. It was a pleasure to watch him work. For us, this is typical of the dedicated, skilled, hardworking artisans in Mexico.

When we returned to Provence after being gone for five months, we were concerned when we drove up to our house only to find the front door open. Then we saw Christina, our neighbor, who was furiously cleaning the house before our arrival. She treated the house like it was her own, taking meticulous care of everything. The interior of the refrigerator sparkled and the house plants were thriving.

A stack of mail was on the desk. On top was a lavender envelope containing a “Happy New Year” card that had been postmarked on January 18. (The French do not send Christmas cards. They send New Years cards all during the month of January. In fact, it is considered bad luck to send a card before January 1.) This particular card was addressed to “Susie & Paul, Américains en Vacqueyras.” There was no street address and the postal code contained only the first two digits, which indicate the “département.” Along the side was a note “Je n’ai pas l’adresse–svp aidez-moi, merci.” (I don’t have the address–help me please.” And the letter was delivered. Someone took the time to figure it out.

cards

We love San Miguel de Allende and we love Vacqueyras. We realize every single day how lucky we are to have found them and to be able to build very unique lives here. Life is simpler and more personal. In an uncertain world, it is reassuring to know that such experiences are possible.

Our biggest problem is that we can’t be in two places at once. And it is a good problem to have.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU BUY A SCULPTURE IN PROVENCE

Standard

JUNE 2017

It began just like any other day. It was a typical warm, sunny morning in June. Our good friend Eric from New Orleans was spending a week with us, and we were out on an excursion to show him some of the more picturesque perched villages in our region. We had visited Gigondas, Séguret and the medieval part of Vaison-la-Romaine. Next, we drove up to the village of Faucon.

It was time for lunch (always a high point of our day), so we decided to try the “boulangerie café” in the town square. After a delicious lunch of savory tarts, salad and a crisp chilled rosé, I went to inspect the posters next to the café entrance while the boys paid the bill. It is very common in Provence for wineries and galleries to put posters in prominent spots, such as roundabouts, tourist offices and bars, to advertise upcoming events. Since I am the official keeper of the social calendar in our household, I pay close attention to this so as not to miss anything of major importance.

IMG_2058

I noticed an announcement of an exhibit of stone sculptures in a nearby village that had just opened the day before. We had been looking around for some kind of sculpture for our garden and I kind of liked the images on the poster. The expo was just a few kilometers away so we drove over to have a look.

We met the sculptor and spent about an hour talking with him and examining all his beautiful pieces on display. They were made of Belgian “blue stone” and I loved the clean lines, textures and elegance of the works. We left without buying anything, but I had already made up my mind to buy one of his pieces. I was just not sure which one.

IMG_8389

After leaving the exhibit, we took a scenic drive through the beautiful countryside to give our friend Eric a chance to take photos. The area was alive with the colors of wildflowers. We stopped to take photos of the hillsides covered in brilliant yellow broom. In the distance we could see what appeared to be an old chateau on a hilltop. It looked to be inhabited. We were intrigued, so we drove up to take a closer look. We noticed some cars parked next to the drawbridge. I thought that it must surely be inhabited by some movie star or famous musician. We looked but did not recognize the name on the mailbox. “Cool place!” we thought, and drove home.

IMG_2082

By the following week, I had made up my mind as to which sculpture I wanted. I called the chambre d’hôtes and made an appointment to come by later that week to pick it up. When we did, we got to talking with Benoit, the owner of the place. We ended up spending a couple of hours chatting with him, sharing a delicious bottle of rosé, and playing with one of the cutest Jack Russell terriers we had ever met. Benoit told us about a friend of his who had been working for the past 18 years reconstructing an ancient chateau nearby. We mentioned the intriguing chateau we had seen the previous week, and he said, “That’s the one!” He asked if we would like to visit it, and as we always do in such situations we said “Oui, bien sûr!” (Yes, of course!) Paul might have said “Hell, yeah!”

By the time we made our way up the hill, Benoit’s friend was already waiting for us by the drawbridge. He was very friendly and eager to give us a full tour of the chateau. We discovered that he had bought the property twenty years ago. At that time, it was nothing more than a pile of rocks. He had spent the past two decades building this unbelievable chateau ON HIS OWN.

He and his wife lived for many years in a camping car while he was doing the early construction. First, he scoured the surrounding hillsides to find the same type of stone  used in the original medieval chateau. Then he methodically did all the stone construction, iron work, wood carving, electricity, plumbing, finish work and architectural and interior design. We saw room after room with unusual features. Some rooms had the feel of the Middle Ages. Others were totally modern. We explored several spiral staircases, an elevator, and several balconies on different levels with spectacular views overlooking the valley below, we felt like we were in an airplane.

IMG_2155

After our tour, the owner and his charming wife invited us to stay for “apéro.” (The fact that we had already enjoyed one “apéro” that afternoon with the owner of the chambre d’hôtes did not, of course, deter us.) Our host slid open the huge windows that disappeared into the thick stone walls, and we gasped as we saw a spectacular infinity pool clinging to the hillside. For the next hour or so we sipped more chilled rosé while chatting about life in a Provençal chateau and taking in the incredible view. Paul noticed a guitar leaning against the wall and treated us to a couple of songs.

A week later, we received an invitation to a special “soirée” at the chateau to inaugurate the brand new pizza oven that had just been completed. When we arrived, we discovered that it was also a birthday party for Benoit and that the other guests were all family and old friends. As the only newcomers, we were honored to be included in such an intimate soirée. Between the fifteen of us, we ate twenty pizzas, six different desserts, and consumed an untold number of bottles of wine.

After dinner, Paul played his guitar and sang some of his favorite songs. We all sang “Happy Birthday” in two languages. A full moon lit up the sky. The evening was magical.

IMG_2287

Our sculpture looks beautiful in our garden. It is just what I wanted. But we ended up with much more.

IMG_2176

WHY WE LOVE SUMMER IN PROVENCE

Standard

NOVEMBER 2017

 

Back when we we were working full tilt in San Francisco and could visit France for only three weeks a year, we heard from friends living in Provence that summer was so hectic, with “trop de fêtes, de visites et d’invités.” Translated into English, this means “too many parties, sightseeing excursions and houseguests.” We thought this was so funny and could not believe that living full time in Provence could ever be considered hectic. Now we know better.

IMG_4798

Any time of year is wonderful in Provence, but summer has always been my favorite season. Summer here means long, balmy evenings, bottles of chilled rosé, lots of fruits and vegetables, festivals, beach days, dips in the pool, and unbelievably beautiful scenery. It is the time for espadrilles, floppy sun hats, bikinis, straw bags with pompoms, frivolous sandals and strappy sundresses. Here are just a few reasons why we love summer in Provence.

IMG_4760

THE RHYTHM OF LIFE.
The days are wonderfully long. We naturally wake up around 7 in the morning when the sun starts streaming in the window. We love to go out early for a brisk walk around the “garrigues” (the vineyards.) Each day we vary our route a bit to see what we can discover. We check on the changes in the vines and see which winery dogs come out to bark at us. When we are walking through the stony fields, I like to collect smooth round stones for our garden. Once we return home, all hot and sweaty, we plunge in our pool for our first swim of the day. The cool water in the fresh morning air feels like paradise. After our breakfast on the terrace, we are ready for the day.

field

Each day brings a new discovery. We set off in a different direction to visit an art exhibit, a new restaurant, an outdoor market, a beach or just down a road we have never been before. As the temperature heats up, our pace slows down and we take time to savor the moment.

In the evening we get together with friends for “apéro” (cocktail hour.) This is a sacred French tradition that is supposed to be good for your health. I read in a magazine article that a daily apéro creates endorphins, boosts cognitive function and lowers the risk of heart disease. There must be something to this. We have never felt better!

Summer evenings in Provence are magical. In the peak of summer it doesn’t get dark until after 10pm. The skies are clear and full of stars. We get together with friends for a barbecue, a “moules frites” (mussels and French fries), a paella night or an outdoor concert. There is much laughter, wine tasting and intense discussions of food. We rarely get to bed before 1am.

moules

SUMMER CREATURES
Summer in Provence officially starts when the cicadas start singing. This year it began on June 12. We were out for our morning walk and all of a sudden, there they were. Sometimes when it gets really hot, the noise of the cicadas is so loud that it is hard to carry on a normal conversation. According to our friend Jean-Claude, the male cicadas need a minimum temperature of 26 degrees Celsius in order for their sexual organs to function. The hotter it gets, the more urgently they rub their legs together to attract females. Summer in Provence is very sensual!

Over the years we have found an interesting variety of creatures in our garden and inside our house. We have had lizards and geckos climbing the walls, a huge toad ensconced outside our front door, butterflies and bees in the lavender, scorpions (harmless) in our laundry room, a bird that managed to fly down our chimney and get stuckin the fireplace, a bat wedged in the front grill of our car, dead snakes (also harmless even when alive) in the path to the vines, and giant flying beetles that buzz so loudly they sound like an electrical problem. Other local beasts include foxes and of course — les sangliers.

sanglier

Over a period of several weeks, we saw that a frog was visiting our pool every night to lay her eggs in the water. We once discovered a nest the size of a tennis ball on the underside of a big wooden beam in one of the bedrooms. When Paul cut it off, we saw that it contained a very strange (but fortunately, dead) larva of some sort.

The most beautiful creatures we have seen are the big shiny rhinoceros beetles that are attracted to the plastic lily pad in our pool. For a couple of weeks we found a dead rhinoceros beetle every morning. We would move the beetles to the edge of the pool, and just a few moments later, they would disappear. And just this morning, we found a mushroom growing inside on the wall in the vaulted cave beneath our house. Every day there is a surprise.

bug-in-pool

COLORS, SOUNDS, TASTES
The light has a special quality in Provence. Colors are more vibrant. The skies are bigger. The countryside changes on a daily basis. In early spring, the hillsides are covered with bright yellow broom. Cherry trees are in bloom. The grapevines start to sprout new buds. In May the fields are full of wild red poppies. June is the month for strawberries. In July it is cherry time. The lavender fields are at their peak. Then the peaches, apricots and juicy Cavaillon melons are ready to eat. Huge baskets of bright petunias and geraniums are draped from light poles and the gardens in roundabouts are in full bloom. We pass by endless stretches of bright yellow sunflowers that are at their peak in August. The scenery changes, but it all looks like a postcard.

IMG_2083

The outdoor markets are a feast for the senses, bursting with plump tomatoes, mounds of green beans, peppers, courgettes, ropes of garlic, pots of fresh basil, cheeses of every description, fresh seafood nestled on a bed of ice, lavender soaps and sachets, olives, oils, spices, baguettes, brightly colored baskets and tablecloths made of Provençal fabrics.

We can tell the time of day by the sounds we hear. We wake up to the sound of the village bell which starts to strike the hour at 8 in the morning and then strikes again two minutes later so that the people working in the fields can stop to count the rings. In the morning we hear the tractors heading to the fields and the clinking of wine bottles in the wineries. At noon everything stops and everyone heads to lunch. Sometimes it is so quiet that the only thing we hear is the sound of cutlery on plates.

Our village is very traditional. Weekdays are bustling, and weekends are quiet. People go hiking, biking or head to the beach. We can sit in our garden and the only sounds we hear are the tinkling of the water in the fountain, the flapping of birds’ wings as they fly by, and the rustling of the wind in the trees.

We spend a lot of time in the pursuit, preparation and consumption of food. We go shopping just about every day to find the freshest ingredients. We invite friends for lunch or apéro or dinner. Meals go on for hours. We pour considerable amounts of crisp summer rosés, and we eat simple “salades niçoises,” followed by huge platters of cheese, crusty baguettes and fresh fruit salads tossed with sweet muscat wine from Beaumes-de-Venise or in this case a variety of wines from Vacqueyras.

food-wine

FESTIVALS
We love all the summer festivals. The only frustration is that there is so much happening at the same time that we cannot possibly do it all. Everything starts in mid-June and ends by “la rentrée” in early September. Each town and village has a tourist office stocked with brochures about local festivities. Posters are mounted on light poles at roundabouts and town squares, inviting us to “Venez nombreux” (come and be numerous.) Our calendar is so full that we have to plan far ahead to squeeze in as much as we can.

IMG_2423

One of the biggest festivals is “la Fête de la Musique” on the first day of summer. Everyone is invited to play music—any kind of music—all over France. This year Paul’s group BLUESVILLE played in one of the most beautiful villages of Provence, Villedieu. We also visited the tiny village of Lagarde Pareol which sponsored free music in people’s homes and courtyards and in streets throughout the town. Dozens of bands played and there was music everywhere.

All towns and villages have a summer “Fête Votive,” which is the annual celebration of the town. In Vacqueyras this goes on for four days and includes a giant “soirée soupe au pistou” (big vegetable soup night) complete with the “Gros show” of Richard Gardet and his orchestra and dancing girls who change costumes half a dozen times during the show. There is a “concours de boules” (pétanque contest), a foot race, wine tasting, a giant loto, an afternoon of card games under the plane trees, and carnival rides for little kids. This year for the first time they featured a “soirée mousse” where a machine shot out soap suds into the crowd and a DJ played blaring music while people danced and threw suds at each other.

IMG_2406

We have been to special festivals dedicated to lavender, garlic, rosé wine, cherries, honey and olive oil. We have been to the big theatre festival in Avignon, jazz concerts in the vines, cinema under the stars, “soirées food truck” in the town square, art walks and open studios, opera in the Roman theatre of Orange, and the “night of Bacchus” wine tasting in the Roman ruins of Vaison-la-Romaine. We have attended multiple performances at the giant theatre festival in Avignon, concerts in the spectacular setting of the “Theatre de la Mer” on the Mediterannean, and we even went to an “Abrivado,” a running of the bulls from the Camargue. One of our favorite evenings was “la carawine” dinner prepared in the vines at the little winery of Mas Pouperas. But the highlight of every summer is always the “Fête des Vins” luncheon for 800 people under the plane trees of Vacqueyras on July 14th.

IMG_2364

THE HUMAN ELEMENT
By far, one of the most important parts of life in Provence is the people. Daily life here is very personal. We know our neighbors and everyone in our village either knows us or knows of us. We have a bit of a special status here — we are “les Américains de Vacqueyras,” the only Americans living here. We cannot walk through the village without running into people we know and stopping to have a chat.

We try to shop in local markets and shops because we want to support the local businesses and make sure they don’t go away. We know the shopkeepers by name and ask about their families, their vacations and their home improvement projects. We know the mayor and all the people who work in the town hall, the post office and the library. We visit the local doctor every three months to renew our medications and talk about our travels. We party with our dentist at the wine festival. We invite our plumber and his wife for apéro on the terrace. Our insurance agent gives us restaurant tips. We invited our produce lady and her husband for Thanksgiving dinner. We do “Bisous” (cheek kisses) with our garbage men.

I recently witnessed a scene in our local produce store that summed up what life is like here. An old lady was buying vegetables for a special dish she wanted to make. Celine, the shopkeeper, ran through all the ingredients to make sure the lady had everything she needed for the recipe. Other patrons in the store helped her find things and put them in her straw shopping basket. The old lady handed then Celine her checkbook and asked her to fill out the check for the correct amount. Paul carried out all the groceries and loaded them in the back of her car. She drove off smiling and ready to cook. And that is life in Provence.

A TALE OF TIMBRES FISCAUX

Standard

NOVEMBER 2017

Dealing with the fabled French bureaucracy sometimes requires a fair bit of paperwork,  research, and patience. To become legal permanent residents of France, we were required to obtain “titres de séjour” (long-stay visas.) This was a laborious process which was begun in San Francisco several months before our moving to France. We had to compile a thick dossier with all our personal documents, birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, proof of medical insurance, notarized letters stating that we promised not to work for money in France, proof of resources, photos, and, of course, a sizable contribution to the French immigration office.

Upon arrival in France, we had to present ourselves to the medical authorities for our chest X-rays and complete medical exams. We then completed the process with a personal interview at the préfecture in Avignon. It was a proud day when we finally received our flashy pink and purple “titres de séjour,” decorated with stars, a raging bull and the official gold stamp of the République Française. The only negative was that in official photos in France you are not allowed to smile, wear earrings, glasses, or have your hair in front of your ears. So we both looked like prison inmates in our photos. But we were allowed to live in France for a year!

But now we are “in the system.” We are required to renew our “titres de séjour” annually for each of the first five years of living in France. After we have reached the five year mark, we will be able to apply for visas that will allow us to stay in France for ten years, and we will have the option of applying for French passports. But for now we adhere to the program of annual renewals.

For each of the past three years, the visa renewal process has gone quite smoothly. We have found that, if we follow the rules precisely, we have no problems. In the fall we make an appointment at the préfecture in Avignon to renew our visas. We are given the application forms and an appointment time to return in a couple of months. When we return for the appointment in January, we are always prepared with our completed applications, photos, passports, proof of residency and resources, and our “titres de séjour” which are about to expire. We are then given our “récépissés” (temporary visa extensions) which are valid until we return to France after our long winter travels.

Upon our return to France in the springtime, we would then return to the préfecture in Avignon to complete the renewal process. We would first go to a special window to purchase our “timbres fiscaux,” then paper clip them to our “récépissés,” go back to the immigration department, take a number, wait for our number to be called, and then have our final meeting with an immigration agent who would review the entire dossier, take our “timbres fiscaux,” glue them on to an official document, and then finally present us with our brand new long-stay visas which would be valid for the year. The whole thing was a bit laborious and time-consuming, but always went smoothly as long as we did what we were told.

This year things changed. They decided to stop selling “timbres fiscaux” in the Préfecture d’Avignon. “Timbres fiscaux” (tax stamps) are a form of currency used in France to pay for all kinds of administrative services—visa and passport fees, taxes, fines, and official documents such as contracts and certificates of marriage, cohabitation, birth and death. Apparently the first timbres fiscaux date back to the 17th century and in 1791 the official form of the timbre fiscal was adopted. This being France, known for its love of tradition and all things official, “timbres fiscaux” live on into the 21st century in the same form.

I remember when I was a child my mother received “S & H green stamps” every time she bought groceries. We had little booklets where we diligently pasted the stamps until we filled up enough booklets so we could buy an item we wanted from the S & H catalogue. The “timbres fiscaux” in France look exactly like S & H green stamps. They are brightly colored with official images, have perforated edges, and glue on the back.

timbres_fiscaux

In previous centuries, “timbres fiscaux” made sense. They were actually glued on to the visas, passports, contracts, receipts and official certificates. Then the appropriate authority would put his official seal on top of the stamps and finish it off with an elegant signature.

Now that we are well into the 21st century, “timbres fiscaux” would appear to have outlived their usefulness. There does not seem to be any good reason why you would need to change your money into another currency in order to do your official business. Even Club Med has gotten rid of the pop beads that you used to have to purchase from the “gentils organisateurs” in order to pay for your drinks. Everyone now has a credit or debit card to cover such expenses. However, this is France, where tradition is revered. Things change slowly.

club-beads-008cp

We knew that things had changed this year when we had our rendezvous with the immigration agent in January. There was a sign posted in the préfecture stating that from now on, “timbres fiscaux” could only be purchased in tax offices and certain “bureaux de tabac.” So as soon as we returned from our travels in early May, we went to the tax office in Carpentras, the closest major town to our home, in order to obtain our tax stamps before returning to the préfecture in Avignon.

Much to our dismay, we discovered that only CERTAIN tax offices sell timbres fiscaux, and the office in Carpentras was not one of the them. We inquired as to where we could go to purchase the stamps, and we were directed to the bureau de tabac called “Le Chiquito,” located near the roundabout after the big parking lot where the weekly market is held. Thus began an odyssey of visits to various bureaux de tabac.

The “bureau de tabac” is an institution in France. Translated literally as “tobacco office,” it is a shop that is licensed to sell tobacco products and accessories. In order to increase their revenues, they generally sell LOTO tickets, newspapers and magazines. You can always find them because they display a long red and white “tabac” sign commonly known as the “carotte.”

tabac-sign

Some bureaux de tabac supplement their revenues by selling timbres fiscaux. This is entirely at their discretion. They are not required to do so, and there is apparently no official listing of bureaux de tabac that have chosen to offer this service. Like many other things in France, it is a hit-or-miss proposition and requires a personal visit.

We arrived at Le Chiquito in late morning. The employee shook his head when we asked about buying 500 euros worth of timbres fiscaux. The stamps are issued in denominations of one, two, five, ten, twenty and fifty euros. Most official documents require fifty euros or less. Asking for 500 euros is an extraordinary request. Bureaux de tabac generally do not stock such a large sum. We were told that they should be receiving a new shipment later that day, and that we should come back after 3pm.

Late that afternoon we dutifully returned to Le Chiquito to purchase our timbres fiscaux. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the shipment had not arrived. We were told “maybe tomorrow.”

We really wanted to get this over with, so we decided to try our luck with another bureau de tabac. We went from one shop to another in search of our timbres fiscaux. However, everyone shook his head in reply to our request. They simply do not stock such a large sum.

Driving home from Carpentras, Paul was fuming. How could this country be locked into this antiquated system!? Why can’t they just take a credit card like everybody else? Then it occurred to him, that of course, they probably sell them online, just like buying tickets to an event! Of course! They must be available online!

That evening, we searched online and immediately the official website and indeed found an option to buy timbres fiscaux. Yes! France is a modern 21st century country after all! How silly of us to doubt that! We found several pages where one could purchase and print timbres fiscaux for a variety of things. We found a page for residence visas but that the button for visa renewals did not function. We then tried the button for first-time visas, and the amount shown was exactly what we needed—250 euros per person. Since it was the correct amount, we figured that this was it. We paid for two visas with our credit card and printed out our timbres fiscaux. Easy!

The next morning, we drove back to the préfecture in Avignon to pick up our visas. We presented our documents and our timbres fiscaux to the immigration agent. She stared at them incredulously as though she had never seen such a thing before. Then she excused herself, telling us that she “had to go talk to her boss.” We felt like we were going to be punished for our bad behavior.

After a few minutes, the head of the immigration department came out to speak with us. He said that this office was not yet accepting any timbres fiscaux that had been printed out by a computer. In addition, the stamps we had purchased were ONLY valid as payment for a first-time visa or an official medical examination. Even though the amount was correct, they were, under no circumstances, accepted for visa renewals. He told us that the only recourse was to purchase another set of timbres fiscaux at the tax office in Avignon, return to the préfecture with the correct stamps, then request a refund for the stamps we had already bought on line. And, yes, this would require us to pay twice.

IMG_1823

We raced over to the tax office before they closed for lunch. Unfortunately, this very day happened to be the deadline for people to pay their income tax, and the office was complete bedlam. While Paul hovered in an illegal parking space with the car, I fought my way through the crowd in the tax office and finally managed to speak with the most unpleasant person I have ever encountered in France. He did me a magnanimous favor by agreeing to accept my credit card to purchase 500 euros worth of timbres fiscaux.

Unfortunately, the préfecture is not open for visa service in the afternoon. We would need to come back yet again.

The next morning we drove back to Avignon yet again to see if we could finally complete the visa process. We spoke with another immigration agent and presented her with the entire file and our two sets of timbres fiscaux. She told us that she could not help us and that we would have to wait to speak with the “chef” of the office. We were told to step aside so that she could assist other visa applicants. We felt like we were real problem clients, waiting by the side of the counter for ten or fifteen minutes.

Finally the same bureau chief came out to speak with us. We went over the complete saga yet again. He politely, but firmly, explained that we would need to photocopy all the documentation and send the whole thing off to the OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration) in Marseille and wait “two or three months” for a refund. He typed out an official letter of “attestation,” verifying that we had paid twice and were deserving of a refund. We were now out 1000 euros, but at least we had our new visas!

The next day I wrote a letter to the OFII and photocopied every shred of evidence we had pertaining to the timbres fiscaux purchase. I explained the situation in great detail and requested that the refund be made back to our credit card which had been used for the purchase (actually, for both purchases.)

Since there was a “fermeture exceptionnelle” (unusual closure) in our little post office in Vacqueyras, we had to drive to a post office in a neighboring town to mail our documents by “recommandé avec accusé de réception” (LRAR), which in English is registered mail with proof of receipt. This required a payment of 5 euros 60 centimes. So by this time we had invested a total of 1005 euros 60 centimes, in addition to all our fuel costs for various trips back and forth to Avignon, Carpentras, Aubignan and Beaumes-de-Venise.

Two weeks later we were excited to receive a letter from the OFII in Marseille. We hoped that this would be a quick resolution to our problem. To our dismay, we discovered that the letter was a simple acknowledgement of the receipt of our request. We were further informed that it was impossible to refund money to a credit card. We were instructed to supply a copy of our RIB (relevé d’identité bancaire) with our bank information in France for further processing. OK.

Since they had provided no file number to our case, I had to once again photocopy all the documents, write another letter, and send all our bank information. We waited a month. Nothing. I wrote a third letter, photocopied all the supporting documents including a RIB and mailed everything off to the OFII by LRAR, incurring another fee of 5 euros 60 centimes.

Another two months and no further communication. Each morning I eagerly checked our bank account to see if a deposit had been made. Each afternoon I looked in the mailbox, expecting a reply from the OFII.  Nothing.

I finally decided to call the OFII in Marseille to check on our status. Since we hadn’t received a file number for our case, I carefully wrote a succinct summary of the situation so I would be well prepared once I got somebody on the phone. I called the number and listened to a recording that gives their office hours, waiting for an option to speak to an agent, but the phone clicked off. I called again and was again cut off. I called multiple times over the next two days and each time was cut off. THEY DO NOT ANSWER THE PHONE!

We discussed this situation with some French friends and they suggested that we might make a trip to the OFII office in Marseille so that we could speak directly to someone . A personal visit is often the only way that things get done in France. However, this would be a three hour round-trip journey, so we were hoping we would not have to resort to this.

At this point we are not hopeful for a resolution anytime soon. It is almost August, which means that all the French “fonctionnaires” (government employees) will be going on vacation. Things simply don’t get done during the month of August.

Our file will undoubtedly languish on some bureaucrat’s desk until after “la rentrée” in September when everyone goes back to school and work and things get back to normal. In the fall it will be time to visit the préfecture and schedule our appointment for next year’s visas. And it will be time to start the process all over again!

EPILOGUE
We eventually did get the situation resolved in late September. Left with no other recourse, we contacted Visa and disputed the original charge. A week later, the credit showed up on our account. We have no idea how Visa managed to get through to the French immigration office since we could not communicate with them, but we are happy they did!

Vive la France!