Saturday, February 11, 2012

Le Valeur d’un Voleur--the Value of a Thief

Three weeks ago, my family and I returned home from our first-ever ski trip to the Alps to find that our house had been broken into and robbed. Not just robbed, ransacked. A back window was kicked in, the latch broken, all of our locked cabinets were jimmied, scraped and scratched, closets emptied, and items strung all over the place.

Upon walking into the house and seeing a window open, my first reaction was shock. Then I saw the damage and didn’t know quite what to think. I wanted to protect my kids, even though my rational mind knew that there was no way someone was still in the house. But they didn’t need to see the house torn apart like that; they didn’t need to be scared of something that they couldn’t fully comprehend.

I took the kids to our neighbor’s house and put the little one down for a nap while we called the police, and the owner of the house. Eventually both came over to do a survey of stolen items and damage.

For anyone who has had his or her home broken into, you can understand the feeling of violation we were feeling. I was afraid to be alone in the house, and jumpy when I heard sounds during the night.

I went to our insurance company to report the stolen items and damage done to the window, cupboards, and outside lighting—the thief had cut the wires to our automatic lights. I was in for another unpleasant surprise: it was our insurance, not the proprietors, who were expected to pay for the fixes to the house, which meant that we had to pay the deductible. Talk about adding insult to injury! When we rented the house, we were told that we had to have insurance to cover the inside of the house (furniture, any anything that we broke). That makes sense: we would do the same in the US. However, having to pay for light wiring, broken window catches, and chipped cupboards that we don’t even use as the proprietor keeps them locked, made me angry.

Life continues to teach me lessons in patience. Without overreacting, we went through the proper channels, and eventually, were able to get most of the fixes done: only the cupboards need to be finished. Luckily, a friend fixed the light wiring for us, and another man fixed the window for $20 euros. I continue to be humored by the experiences that we have had so far this year, of course it might take a couple of weeks to find the funnies.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Le Fromage

The holiday season is lovely in Savoie; trees have changed color and dropped their leaves, revealing even deeper layers of winter color in shades of green, brown, rusty orange and grey. By the end of the first week in December, the Christmas markets are in full swing. One can wander amongst the stalls selling everything from local sweets, cheese and sausage, to handmade toys and clothing, and everywhere is the scent of fresh gauffres and hot-spiced wine.

We went to several of the markets and enjoyed watching the boys’ eyes light up at the piles of nougats and chocolates. Christmas markets are a special tradition in France, and if you are ever in this region during the holidays, don’t miss the market at Annecy, as it is particularly beautiful; it’s petite chalets lining the waterways and lighting up the ancient stone buildings.

I was eager to discover regional traditions and watched many interactions with interest. I also watched the food that people bought for the holidays and asked whomever I could what traditional Christmas foods were eaten here, even attempting to make some of them myself.  Seafood does a brisk sale during the holidays, as does Champagne. In fact, the two can usually be found together, alongside other hor d’oeuvres including fois gras on toast, shrimp, cheese, and caviar.

One week before Christmas there were violent windstorms and several trees fell down on the property that we are renting. A 60-70 foot pine tree fell right next to the house taking out the phone line. We had quite an interesting experience restoring the phone line and internet connection: no small feat.  With the help of two French friends, three stops at Orange/France Telecom, and numerous cell phone calls later we had our phone line hooked back up— two weeks later. We missed being in contact with family and friends during the holidays.

Without the internet for help, I made Christmas dinner with a bit of French style: huitres (oysters) with lemon and sparkling wine, roasted chapon (smaller, finer turkey) stuffed with chestnuts, potato puree with candied chestnuts, haricots verts, and fresh bread. For dessert we had Buche de Noel, the famous Christmas Yule log cake that is eaten all over France during the holidays.

We were also invited to our neighbor’s house to share fondue with their family a few days after Christmas.  Savoie fondue is different that what I have ever experienced. It is a mix of three cheeses, garlic, and white wine, and served in a large ceramic or cast iron pot over a flame. But this fondue does not mix evenly: the cheese congeals a bit at the bottom, while the liquid floats on top. One is told to dip their bread all the way to the bottom of the pot, swirl it a bit and lift it absolutely drenched in cheese. A sign of a perfect mix are “strings” of cheese attached to your bread as you lift it from the pot. For this reason, the pot is continually monitored and stirred with a wooden spoon and you are expected to eat quickly. Day old bread is the only thing dipped in fondue, and after everyone is done, leftover bread is cooked in the fondue pot with the remaining cheese and a few eggs and spooned onto plates. Three words still come to mind after eating this dish: Death by cheese.

Tartiflette is another famous Savoyard dish: it is a mixture of parboiled potatoes, sliced, lardons (pieces of bacon) crème fraiche, and an entire round of Reblochon cheese sliced in half lengthwise and the two rounds placed on top. The dish is cooked in the oven until the cheese is gooey and melting. It is reminiscent of an excellent au gratin potato recipe, both hearty and satisfyingly creamy. I would eat it several times per week if I didn’t care about my size.

The third, and perhaps most health-friendly of the Savoie cheese dishes is called Raclette. One uses a special Raclette grill to cook cheese slices of the same name, which is then served over potatoes, with gherkins and cocktail onions. A salad usually accompanies this dish and one can control the amount of cheese consumed—no small feat in this region! If you have Raclette at a restaurant, you will often find a half of a raclette round cooked under a flame. It is then scraped off onto a plate as it melts and served with potatoes. 

A good exercise regimen is recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


There is a joke in France about the amount of bureaucracy that one must deal with in order to get something done. Well, c’est vrai—it’s true. I don’t know when I’ve completed more paperwork, gathered more “evidence” and paid more fees than in obtaining our one year visitor’s visas for France. As with many situations in life, I found the whole process humorous—now that it’s over. Of course it’s not always so easy to find amusement when in the throes of bureaucracy.

One month before my family left for France, we applied for visitor’s visas at the French Consulate in Los Angeles. We collected passports, paid for a criminal record clearance from the police department, printed bank statements and other relevant documents to prove that we had funds to live in France for the year, wrote a letter promising not to work in France, proved that we had medical insurance, a place to live, and paid approximately $500 for a processing fee.

The day before our trip, we received a call from the consulate saying that my children and I had received our visas and would be able to remain in France after our vacation to begin our year of residence. My husband, who fortunately had to return to tie up loose ends anyway, would get his visa later. 

Off to France we went.  As Americans, we have the right to reside in a country that is part of the European Union for up to 90 days without a visa.  A woman at the consulate told me that we had two months after our visa began to send relevant paperwork to the prefecture in France. Since our visas began September 1 and we left Los Angeles July 4, we had plenty of time to inform French immigration that we were in the country—or so we thought.

We rented a house (a story in itself) beginning on September 1, and with a myriad of things to set up, didn’t get around to sending in our paperwork until the beginning of October. I called the designated prefecture in Grenoble as was told that at this point we were here illegally and needed to send our paperwork in immediately or face possible deportation. Oh and by the way, that will be 340 euros each for French residence tax.

We sent in the paperwork, received an appointment time to have a medical exam, directions on how to buy our timbre or stamp for our visas, and a list of items to complete to prove our identity and that we were healthy.

I then went online to pay our residence tax and receive our timbres. After having entered our credit card number, the website malfunctioned.  Unfortunately, the way that they have their website set up, we were unable to even enter our names before the credit card number had been provided. In the end we never received confirmation of payment, or our timbres.  When my husband looked at our credit card statement, however, he found that we had been billed about $950 for the timbres.  No problem, we thought, a simple call to OFII (French office of immigration) would straighten out the problem.  Not so.

I had experienced enough with the French system at this time to know to seek help from a French person. Luckily, one of our wonderful neighbors is an English/French translator for the prefecture and knows how to work the system. She was an invaluable aid throughout this process. She called the prefecture for me, wound her way through the system in order to get to the right person, and told us exactly what we needed to do.

One might think, as I did, that a call and explanation would be a fairly straightforward way to right the wrong. This is not the way it is done in France. The woman at the prefecture could not simply match up our credit card number with the charge; instead, we needed to fill out a form explaining the problem, include our bank routing number (again to prove that we were who we claimed to be), which would then be sent to the Paris prefecture to be sorted out.

Meanwhile, the time for our appointment was drawing nearer; two weeks later we had still not heard back from the prefecture. Alas, we went to our medical exams.

 At this stage, a large group is ushered like so many cows into the small waiting room to sign in. When one’s name is called, one progresses to the next stage—disrobing from the waist up, and taking a chest x-ray. After, one talks with a doctor about their health, gets weight, height, and vision checked, and proceeds, x-ray in hand, to the next doctor. Between moving people in and out, telling so many foreigners to sit down in so many languages, telling them to sit down again, making phone calls, and calling the next victim er visitor, this doctor makes you feel as though you’ve “got the golden ticket” when you finally reach the inside of her office.

When my name was called, I sat down in the chair across the desk from the doctor and she pulled out my x-ray, stuck it up on the wall lamp and asked me a few questions—did I smoke, have I had my vaccinations, etc.—at which point she looked at my x-ray. Whew, I thought, almost done! The next thing I knew, the pen was raised, it moved toward my chest x-ray and a circle was drawn around a small white area in my left breast. “I am concerned,” she said, “about this lump here.” My heart just about stopped. “I want to make an appointment for you at the health center in Chambery, to have another doctor look at your x-ray and maybe preform another test,” she told me.

That was enough. Tears sprang to my eyes and I fought to keep them back as I was then to go see my husband and two babies while she discussed my ominous “lump” with the secretary in order to orchestrate a return to OFII after my next medical exam.

This happed on a Friday. My medical appointment was the following Monday. I was depressed all weekend. Not so much because I really felt that there was something wrong; I’m 30 years old, in good shape, and just stopped breastfeeding my baby a month and a half earlier, plus have no family history of relevant health problems. My malaise was more because of the fact that there could be something wrong, and all of the complications that would come with getting healthcare in a foreign country, plus, I was…well, angry that this doctor who spent three minutes with me could make such an interpretation based upon a quick glance at my x-ray. Or maybe it was just the wording that she used to explain her concern. “Lump” and “breast” are two words that no woman ever wants to hear in the same sentence, especially in a doctor’s office in a foreign country.

On Monday, sitting in another doctor’s office at a public health center, I was hoping for the best, but bracing for the worst. This time, the doctor asked me the same questions, took a brief look at the x-ray and said, “No, it’s not anything.” Music to my ears! It turns out that the “lump” was really compressed blood vessels in the breast (compressed because of the x-ray) and that it just was a poor quality x-ray. Coincidentally, the moment I returned to the car with my good news, I received a call on my cell phone from OFII saying that Paris had responded positively and we could receive our timbres and complete our visas the next day. At this point, relief covered any remaining bitterness. Now, I can gladly say that we are legal visitors in France.

Throughout the experience I found the French to be cordial, kind, and generally helpful. I can only imagine what many people must go through to come to the United States.  At the same time, I must admit that I wondered more than once, “What the heck are we doing here?” I guess I’ll just chalk it all up to experience.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Seulement en français

July 2011

We have our visitor’s visas, enough luggage to require a larger than normal European car, a stroller, two car seats, and two kids. And….drumroll please…no place to live! We did, however, have a vague idea of what we wanted.  Learning the language tops the list, but the question was, where was the best place to situate a family so that all could have a rich experience? I needed a University close by, the kids needed some type of immersion daycare, and my husband needed access to a rowing club. But, before we were able to find a place, we needed a car.

Buying a used car or “la voiture d’occasion” in France, is, as one would expect, much different than what an American is used to. First of all, with very little experience in the country, good luck finding a used car lot. If you go to a dealership, as in the US, you will be able to find higher quality and newer used cars. But, as we were only going to live abroad for a year (10 months by the time we bought the car) we didn’t see any reason to spend too much, hence, a dealership was not the place for us. In fact, we wanted to spend just enough to get a car that would get us around safely, and not resemble a junkpile. Alas, we found several lots, a few of which looked more like dumps and salvage yards.

To sum up the experience, here are a few things one needs to know if buying a used car in France:

1. You need to pay in cash unless you have a French bank account to write checks with. More difficult to obtain than it sounds.  Without a bank account, the maximum that you can pay in cash is 3000 euros. I had one dealer tell me that if paid him 6000 cash for a car that I liked he would “work it out” so that it looked like I paid only 3000 cash on the paperwork for the government. I don’t even want to know how that would have turned out. Long story short, I didn’t purchase a car from him.

2. When you do find a car that suits you and have specific requests for repairs to be made, or for something basic to be done such as having the oil changed, you should probably get in writing that this will be taken care of.   

3. Know ahead of time what paperwork is needed in order to obtain legal ownership, what fees are required etc. A good site to read is:
I printed out copies in French and English and highlighted all legal requirements. I then gave a copy to the dealer and had him show me all of the corresponding legal paperwork that I would be receiving and filing. He might have thought that my French was horrible, but he also knew that I wasn’t going to be buying something illegally.

An excerpt from my experience:

“I’m so glad that you came with me, Jack (my mechanically-inclined father-in-law) because you can look at the car and tell me if it’s a total lemon.

“Well, we’ll see. Here’s another lot right here. Should we stop?”

We parked, got out of the car and looked around for about 10 minutes. No one came out to greet us. It’s just not the way things seem to be done at a used car lot. The psychology: “Let them come to me. If I don’t seem eager, they will want it more.”  Now, I have found that the French are generally very cordial, but a used car lot seems to exist on a separate plane for some reason. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

After several more minutes of perusing, I found a car that looked as if it might be a good fit.  About that time, a young man came out to greet us. He was wearing a white dress shirt, jeans, and what can only be described as shoes that resembled something from Santa’s workshop—they weren’t made by the elves, but I think they would have been happy to own a pair. With this first impression, I thought that we might just be in the right place. Anyone that serious about dressing, can’t be all that serious about used cars.

We drove the car, looked at the engine, and I decided that it was exactly right for our family. I paid a deposit and came back to collect my prize a few days later.

The return:
Jack reached into the car, popped the hood and came around to see if they had changed the oil as they had “promised.”

“It doesn’t look like the oil has been changed at all, but I can’t tell” he said to me.
I communicated the same to the dealer and his mechanic. They both swore time and again that it had been done. Jack put the hood down and took a look at the windshield wipers. They had not been changed. The mechanic ran to another car of the same model and grabbed the wipers. He then “replaced” the wipers on my car and gave them a test. The wiper fluid sprayed out and was not fully cleared away by the new wipers.

“That’s not good enough,” said Jack. “Tell them I could piss on the window and get it cleaner.” I didn’t translate. 

So, you want to move to France.

You love the food, the wine, the haute couture, and you dream of sitting in a Parisian café sipping kir royal and watching the passersby. Maybe you’ve visited France a few times, and you always left wanting more.

Like many Americans, I had always dreamed of living in France. But dreams are ethereal things, and leave us with more longing than substance. Reality, en revanche, brings our feet back to the ground on which we must build. How romantic it sounds: buying my morning bread at a local patisserie, strolling through market stalls spilling with color and taste, and, of course, learning to speak French.

Fast forward several years, a husband, two children, and a mortgage later, and my little café reveries have become more realistic. Where the heck is a park when you have two small boys who need exercise and not a one and a half hour lunch? (Oh, and that long lunch is broken up as follows: half hour for getting the menu, getting the waiter’s attention and ordering, twenty minutes to wait for the food, ten minutes to eat before baby starts screaming and two year old starts seriously misbehaving, and thirty minutes to wait for the check.)

No, the Paris of my dreams wasn’t going to happen at this time.  In fact, after two weeks of tramping around the city with the boys, we decided Paris wasn’t going to happen at all. Nevermind the expense of living in the city, the fact is, it just isn’t the best place for two kids under two who are used to a lot of space.  Hey, I might have only seen three museums in that time, but I do know where every worthwhile park is in each arrondissement! Thank you, thank you Jardin du Luxembourg for only charging 2.50 per kid.

After a long and fruitless search, we fell in love with the Alps, in the area of France called “Haute-Savoie.” We found a house with a huge yard overlooking Lac du Bourget, the largest freshwater lake in France.  However, I must begin from the beginning…