French Integration – Part One cont’d

It’s amazing to think we have only been in France for a little over two months!  It started off with such a whirlwind of activity in our attempts to get ramped up quickly – driven partly by mitigating expenses related to car and gite rentals.  We had literally been all over the place in 2022; our RV trip through US and Canada including a break in Hawaii, then onto France, then onto the UK for holidays.  Though it has been a profoundly great adventure, we are looking forward to a more stationary lifestyle in 2023😍

The exciting news is we signed the sales agreement for our house!  We are hoping to take possession by the end of February or beginning of March.  The shipper has also informed us that our household goods are scheduled to be delivered at the beginning of April.  We are excited about the prospect of getting settled in🏡

In the meantime we are catching up with new friends, taking long walks, working on our french lessons including the rather involved process of getting a license, and of course further exploring our new surroundings. 

On Bob’s birthday we attended the truffle festival or “Truffle Fete”  in Sarlat.  The majority of attendees were sporting a glass of wine and partaking in the “street food” where local chefs whipped together culinary delights using the famed black truffle found in the Perigord region.  It was a cold but clear day – the French are hardy people and endured long lines and outdoor dining to enjoy this rather indulgent event.  It is a great social gathering for the area, evidenced by the groups of friends huddled around the wine barrels. 

This exploration resulted in a weekend of culinary experimentation that included fabulous omelets and linguini with white cream sauce and shaved truffle.  We of course acquired a “Truffle Shaver” that is also great for shaving hard cheeses and chocolate.  

Truffles Galore!!

I also did the very French thing of driving to the local boulangerie in St. Pompon (a small lovely village not far from us) to acquire a banquette for dinner as we wanted a fresh one (of course!!). Much of rural France shuts down on Sundays – even the major stores are only open until around noon.  Many of the smaller stores are closed on Monday as well so you have to plan accordingly.  As it was Sunday, I needed to get to the boulangerie before noon.  St. Pompon was virtuallydevoid of people when I arrived; I think the only activity is Sunday services but even that seems pretty thin.  

The French keep their Christmas lights up for the first few weeks of January and when we found ourselves driving back in the dark, we were delighted by the light festivals we encountered; the local villages take pride in the festival accomplishments!

Later in the week we ventured off to Villeneuve sur Lot  to take advantage of the bi-annual sales in France.  Here they hold them twice a year to move inventory that is marked down but not allowed to go below the price they purchased it for.  It’s not like they don’t have sales, but this is when they really blow through their inventory. 

Our realtor had referred us over to some great bilingual contacts at local appliance and furniture stores in Villeneuve sur Lot who would allow us to buy now and then ship when we get into the house.  

Since we couldn’t bring our American appliances and of course, the larger ones were out of the question, we bought a good quality washer and dryer, a small “cabinet” or upright freezer with pull out drawers!!!!! I really hated sorting through our chest freezer back in Portland…. We also bought an air fryer, food processor, LG Smart TV (a really nice one to enhance our viewing experience!) and a temporary platform bed and mattress to transfer to the gite when our stuff arrives from the US.  With the new (yet seriously old) house we are doing a much needed reboot of everything that should last us for quite a while. 

On our way back to the gite,  we drove through torrential rain that turned to slush and then to snow.  We got home just in time as the snow was just starting to stick to the back roads.  We lit the fire and watched the snow come down in an ethereal waltz.  We woke the next morning to bright blue skies and several inches of snow.  We saw the local farmers plowing the backroads as they are not managed by the transportation division who were focusing on the main roads.  

We took a delightful walk with the snow lighting up the already arresting landscape.  

We have been keeping moderately busy.  I’m still processing my surroundings; there are days when it’s clear and beautiful and I walk along the insanely quiet country trails and roads – only occasionally interrupted by a passing car.  The area is mostly deciduous, but there are copses of large beautiful pine trees, reminiscent of cedar with their draping bows.  The smell of pine permeates the air as I stroll by – reminding me of the Pacific Northwest.  

Anywhere we drive there are chateaus and farms; even on days of inclement weather, especially when the fog clings to the lowlands, we are surrounded by an other-worldly mural. It seems more like a time warp as we meander through the ancient communes, some so small they don’t even have a boulangerie!  

When we pass by crumbling buildings and walls, we often wonder how old they are and did they house farm animals?  Have these same pastures been tended for centuries?  

Then we take an alternative backroad and find ourselves approaching a thriving metropolis of grand buildings, cathedrals and cobblestone streets that beg to be explored.  Then a chateau emerges in all its glory.  

We took an afternoon to explore one such structure – Castelnaud – a huge castle harking back to the 12th century. 

We had floated by it when canoeing down the Dordogne in 2020; it is constructed at a towering height, emerging from the cliff itself.  It is a true medieval marvel complete with a museum displaying armor, weapons and the “vogue” fashion of the day.  With its sigils buffeting the wind, and the towers overlooking the breathtaking Dordogne valley, you are taken back to a time of chevaliers (knights in shining armor) and princesses.  

One of the things I love about retiring, besides the freedom, is being able to sleep in.  We are both early birds but the idea of not being on a compressed time schedule and rushing to catch the bus or light rail, and then enduring a long day at work – which then required an additional hour commute – is a blessing I embrace with gratitude daily.  

Upon reflection, when we were in the RV, we were always on the go; we could sleep in but typically had to pack up in a few hours and head out to our next destination.  Now it seems we are spending more time “putzing” around, working on our house plans, studying and attending french lessons and other items necessary for our French integration.  

It is not without its challenges as we work to enroll ourselves into the national healthcare system and work on our driving licenses, and being otherwise impatient to get into our news digs.  And we finally connected with a local bank in Bergerac; BNP Paribas who is opening up accounts for us (we were referred through an American contact we met through our network). We are still waiting, yes waiting for months, for HSBC to open our account; they hadn’t processed our paperwork from October, resulting in us having to resend the information.  We have been told that was all they needed and will let us know when it’s done being processed; they will then send the documents to the branch in Bordeaux.  Sigh.

You hear many Americans lamenting about finding a bank who will take them; the FACTA rules are such that reporting can be a burden that many reps at French banks do not want to take on.  

To further occupy our time,we have also been spending time in local cities that are not far from us to get a feel of the place; the bistros, shopping areas and green spaces that run along the many rivers.  We visited “Mr. Bricolage” which is actually the French version of Home Depot!  It’s fascinating walking through the tool sections and seeing name brands such as Stanley, Black and Decker and Ryobi, then discovering the eccentricities of how the French do things such as lots of vinyl material for making your own window blinds.  We will need to make our own fly screens here as the windows open inward so you can reach the shutters to block the light on hot days.  Our new house has some blinds installed already so we can be less reliant on the external shutters if needed; but while the French don’t mind flies in their house, we are not so accommodating!  

We hope to be in our house within the next 4-5 weeks – stay tuned!  

December 31, 2022 Recapping an Extraordinary Year 

It has been a year since I officially retired from the workforce.  After 48 years it came as a welcome relief.  Yet, there were several challenges ahead that included selling off furniture and appliances we did not need for our relocation to France, and prepping the house for sale.  We had lived in St. John’s for 22 years in our lovingly renovated 1923 Craftsman Bungalow.  Anyone who has gone through this transition can understand the emotional ups and downs associated with relinquishing the nostalgia of time spent in a place you have dedicated so much of your life to.  

We then set out for what would be a 27,000 mile long journey through the US and Canada, all of which is chronicled on my blog.  

I have compiled a slideshow highlighting our travels:  We are often asked “what was your favorite place?”  It’s not something that can be answered easily – the national parks, monuments and sites we visited were all incomparable; they are unique unto themselves and I urge everyone to travel to as much of North America as they can.  You will realize the conundrum of that question when you see where we have been! 

One of our more significant stays was on Oahu where I was able to trace my father’s WWII legacy from the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach to Pearl Harbor:  I dedicated a special write up on my blog for those interested!  

Part of the challenge also included selling our house – we managed to close while we were on the road in Canada, signing the final papers in Fairbanks, AK right before the market started to cool down; we counted our blessings on the timing!  

At the end of September, after months of being on the road we were able to take a breather upon our return to Portland.   We had a bit of a fretful wait while waiting for our French long-stay Visas. Fortunately, we had given ourselves enough time for the French to do their processing which allowed us enough elbow room to wind down our life in the U.S.; visiting friends, family and familiar haunts…and bidding our final farewells.  

We landed in France mid-November and got ourselves settled in a gite, traversed the Dordogne until we landed on a lovely Colombage house in Lot et Garonne (about two hours from Bordeaux).  We then set out to spend the holidays with family in the UK where we celebrated and English-style Christmas with family and spent time hiking through Malvern with its beautiful priory and countryside. 

The Priory – Darwin’s daughter is buried here

We also visited famous sites such as Stratford on Avon, the home of William Shakespeare and its amazing holiday lights. 

Stratford upon Avon

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, we motored around the English countryside in Kathryn’s Mini. We ended 2022 with a traditional cream tea followed by fish and chips – wrapping up the year in an authentically British manner!

A Very British New Years🇬🇧🎆

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and wonderful 2023!!

November 12 – December 2 Our French Immigration: Part One – France by way of Seattle 

We arrived in Seattle and landed at the funky downtown Kimpton Hotel. It was a good location as we were walking distance to Pike’s Market and the Piers.  The hotel sports military style paintings ranging from Jimmy Hendricks to Kelsey Grammar and free wine tasting for happy hour.

Strange Bedfellows at the Kimpton

So much had changed since I last visited the waterfront; the viaduct was no longer and much of the area has been modernized, but the smell and feel of the area is eternal; the play of smoked salmon on my senses and the elixir of big sky, the bay, the stir of oceanic breezes that are unmistakably Seattle.  

We spent Sunday afternoon on the Seattle Waterfront catching up with my brother and sister-in-law, Duane and MaryJo, and browsing through some of my childhood haunts such as “Ye Old Curiosity Shop” down at the pier. 

Checking out old childhood haunts with the family

We then had lunch at the Edgewater where we were married back in 1996! We scored a table with a view; the sun shot diamonds across the bay with Mt. Rainier’s unmistakable silhouette in the background.  

The following day, which was our final full day in the U.S., was spent visiting with the Leingangs who treated us to lunch at the Athenian. We then traced the “Sleepless in Seattle” nostalgia as we wandered through the Pike’s Place Market.  We were blessed to have fantastic weather and views of the Olympics across the bay.  

Ahh the memories

Back at the hotel, we packed up our bags (too many, but we were relocating after all!) and headed for the Crowne Plaza at SeaTac, performing one final sort of our “stuff.” This was followed by a trip to Redmond for a farewell dinner with Duane and MaryJo; a wonderful home cooked meal of pork stew and cornbread to send us off.  We bid our final farewells, which would be our last in the U.S. with the understanding they would come and visit us in France.  

It was all so very bittersweet.  

We drove back through downtown Seattle with its iconic skyline, lit up like a constellation against the night sky – the Space Needle refusing to be overshadowed by the unrelenting progress.  

It has been a great way to end our residency in the States; I was born in Seattle and would be departing to another life from there.

The next morning we headed for the airport, where our plane was unfortunately delayed but it didn’t really matter; we had a direct flight to Paris and plenty of time to get to Orleans for our first night stay. 

The flight was delightful as we had upgraded to Delta Comfort and it wasn’t too full.  When we landed, we breezed through passport control to get our Visas stamped and voila!  We are now feet down in our new country.  

We picked up our luggage (lots of bags so that was an experience by itself), but did not need to stop in customs which was rather odd, and the airport wasn’t crowded at all.  As we waited for our luggage, we swapped out our SIM cards which got us immediately onto the French cell “Orange” network, then proceeded to Avis which was across the street (all so simple!!).  We took off for Orleans, just south of Paris.  As it turned out the navigation in the Peugeot we rented was tragically incompetent and had us meandering through the back streets of Paris instead of taking their “freeways.”  After an hour of sheer frustration we popped up Google Maps and we were soon on our way; glad to be out of the Parisian gridlock where it seemed the traffic signs were simply a suggestion.

Orleans is the home of Joan of Arc sporting a large statue in a rather posh square.  It had been raining and the street lights reflected a painterly glow against the historically crafted buildings. This area is the hub of Orleans and was pristine with an upscale flair to it.  Much to my surprise, they were setting up for Christmas and lovely displays in the works.  I had thought they didn’t start any Christmas activities until a few weeks before.

Cool architecture and art in Orleans

As we were tired, we settled in for a simple meal of stew and then registered our visas online that as is customary. The French system wasn’t entirely clear but we powered through it; we are now officially residents – not yet permanent but that’s our eventual goal.  We soon found ourselves fast asleep around 9:00. 

The next morning we strolled around the gorgeous avenues but were anxious to get to our BNB in the Dordogne; it would be a seven hour drive. After a few hours on the road we stopped off in Limoges (yes – home of the famous ceramics) where we started seeing all the culinary delights such as truffles and Foie Gras courtesy of the verdant Dordogne Valley. When we reached the valley, the roads began to unfold into the dreamlike landscape with stone farmhouses and the occasional chateau – the countryside we had been pining for.  

We stopped by the supermarket (Carrefour) in Sarlat to pick up necessary items; it’s difficult not to linger as grocery shopping in France is a whole new experience! But  had been a long day and we at least had some necessities for the BNB (called a “gite” in France). 

We reached our gite, just outside the small hamlet of Prats du Perigord, and were greeted by the lovely Aurelia who spoke little English so we reverted to our very practiced sign language. The gite was a converted tobacco barn; much like the last one we stayed in last September. It had all the amenities we could hope for plus two bedrooms – one we would be using for storage that would also double as our “kitchen pantry” for the goods we had shipped from the US via special carrier. 

I had been working with realtors for several weeks prior to our arrival and we had our first viewing on Friday – the next day!  The house we visited was lovely; a classic French Country home complete with a pool in the peaceful countryside – the problem was that it needed way too much work as the owners had “let it go” and the roof was in desperate need of repair.  Repairing roofs in France is not cheap and no small feat; these are tiled roofs specific to the region – you can’t just slap on the usual roofing materials you see in the U.S.  Some of the quotes we had seen were upwards to 60,000 euros.  

We departed the viewing and went to the Leclerc Hypermarket – think of it as one of the larger Fred Meyer’s but with better food options😍 Including two long mind-boggling refrigerator rows dedicated to yogurt.  The wine and alcohol section takes up a good fifth of the area (of course!). Many of the options are organic and the vegetable section is a display of commercial and locally grown produce. 

We found the “Demi-lait” which is their version of half and half – organic and creamy – just lovely.  

The baking area was an array of fresh baguettes (the basis of the French diet) and an incredible display of artfully crafted tarts and donuts – or as they say in New Orleans “beignets.” They even had a boutique tea section that had Lapsang Souchong which is difficult to find in the markets in the U.S.  

What a delight it all was!

But when we tried to check out we got an earful from the cashier that thankfully a bilingual customer clarified that we weren’t allowed to take our small rolling cart through the checkout area;  ah ha!! So no one will steal them I guess, but this area was pretty middle class and we hadn’t seen any homeless at all.  They also have a clever system where you have to put euros in to “rent” a large shopping cart – when you return it it gives you the euros back.  

The French are very conservative if not downright chic even when running simple errands.  It was a lot like Japan; no sweat pants or sportswear – usually jeans and a jacket and in many cases well matched leggings and sweaters.  And a lovely scarf.  

After that experience we decided to torture ourselves further – we then decided to venture out to a home goods store which was a hodge-podge of crafts mixed in with furniture and decorating.  We found some Christmas paper hoping to ship items back home if we can ever find boxes and figure out the postal system here.  

We then stumbled into “Boulanger” that was next door (curiosity kills the cat) that turned out to be an appliance store with a lovely KitchenAid Artisan Mixer on a Black Friday sale – bingo!  This was our first new edition for our forever-home; and a handy appliance for making bread in the meantime.

We headed back through La Roque Gageac (where the homes are built into the cliffs) which was practically shuttered as it was the end of the tourist season, but it was achingly lovely just the same.  We are looking forward to hikes and picnicking in this area come spring and summer!  

We survived our drive back to the BNB, having had some experiences with the manic French drivers who are thankfully not too much in abundance on the otherwise quiet country roads.

Thankfully Saturday was a break day and we headed to the Sarlat Saturday Market where we indulged in some Foie Gras, picked up vegetables and duck (duck is like chicken in France, lower fat and healthier!).  We had coffee at a bar near the historic center where they were playing American rock music.  Whatever the French say about Americans, our influence is everywhere – much like the French influence in America.  

The Saturday Market in Sarlat

We spent Sunday getting organized and exploring the neighborhood.  We heard the church bells go off as we meandered around the village. We were still adjusting to the dark and the quiet; something we rarely experienced even when we were traveling in our RV.  

We spent most of the following week motoring for hours all over the Dordogne looking for houses.  Though we marveled at the countryside we were getting understandably exhausted.  On Thursday morning (Thanksgiving Day) we visited a home that based on the photos we weren’t entirely set on.  It was a bit further south in the Lot et Garonne but still part of the Dordogne Valley. 

When we arrived we were completely taken with the architecture which is known as “Colombage.”  It had an English Tudor feel to it but with whitewash throughout.  These are known as “timber homes” with a unique style; very light and airy. The house is a few miles outside the “Beaux Village” of Villereal known for its Saturday Market that has been around for centuries.  This area also boasts some of the largest assortment of stunning villages and is a half hour to Bergerac which is a main hub for getting major appliances, furniture, groceries et.al and has a small airport for local flights.  Just far enough away to not be disturbed by any city hub-bub.  

Our New Home!!!!!

We are also just southeast of Bordeaux as an alternate flying route and we will look forward to exploring🍷

More info on the region for those wanting to know:

https://www.francethisway.com/regions/lot-et-garonne.php

The main house has 4 bedrooms and two bathrooms, one with a tub (yeah!), the huge dining room/lounge also called a “Sejour.” The kitchen is new but we will need to retrofit into our own style. There is a cellar that holds the oil heating (hoping to change that as well but it’s pretty prevalent wherever you go).

The property encompasses nearly an acre surrounded by farmland that rotates sunflowers and wheat…I try to imagine sitting on the terrace overlooking fields of sunflowers.  The country road is quiet and dark – except for the occasional truck and mad driver.  We would need to install a pool which is well within our budget.  

The veranda is east facing so we get the morning sun and the afternoon shade as we anticipate it getting hot in the summertime which is standard for this region.

Happy Hour will never be the same – ahhhh

The gite is a beautifully converted barn – what an added and stunning bonus.  We left with a lot to think about.  

We had planned to roast a duck for Thanksgiving (our first away from the states), but wound up in the Sarlat Renault dealership, buying a lovely Renault Captur Hybrid and didn’t get back home until late.  We went with a new build that was sitting on a lot not far away as the used models weren’t much cheaper, and the other dealers weren’t as accommodating.  We scored as I had been pining for one with gold accents and voila!  It magically appeared. 

Renault Captur Hybrid – what a cutie

The purchasing process involved a go-between interpreter/sales agent as the primary agent, the charming Enzo, didn’t speak much English. Adam, our interpreter liked practicing his English so we were extremely lucky. This went back and forth for two hours until we finally got the papers signed and agreed on a delivery date.  Our next step was to get the funds transferred from the US to the Renault bank via international transfer.  This became rather involved as Bank of America required two factor identity and we had just switched our phones over to France. Bob popped his Verizon SIM back into his phone so we could muddle through the process. 

On our way home we discussed the house and asked to see it again on Friday.  

For dinner we settled on a simple salad and FaceTime with Duane and MaryJo.  We were visibly exhausted but happy to connect with relatives on such an important holiday.  

On Friday we ventured back to the prospective house and after further viewing, photographing and discussion we decided this really was the place for us.  All the boxes checked off and most everything fell into place on our wish list (not everything like a water well for example, but we can manage around that and add a pool).  Luckily, the Mairie was in (the local mayor) and we reviewed our plans with them by way of our French-speaking realtor.  He confirmed no problem on the pool and additional solar panels as well as a carport – we were ready to rock.  We made the offer that afternoon and it was accepted and signed over the weekend.  We got such a deal on it as the owner had bought another property and needed the proceeds to move.  We had the added benefit that homes in this region outside the heavily touristed areas can sit on the market for months even during a hot real estate market.

The process will take a while as we need clearance from the local agricultural committee that they don’t wish to buy the property; we are located in farming territory and it’s highly regulated.  Then we go through the usual French process using a “notaire,” much like an escrow agent that may got a bit speedier as we are paying cash.  The realtor let us know that we could actually obtain possession of the house by the end of January which would be a delight.  

What a week it had been!! We purchased a car and a home, all meeting and or exceeding our expectations😍

On Saturday, we did some more reconnaissance of the area not far from our forever-home, including the lovely Saturday Market in Villereal where we sat and had coffee – watching the world go by.  There are no drive-through Starbucks or the like here; you basically sit down for a chat and respite at the cafes.  On a sunny day people just bundle up as the preference is to sit outdoors.  When the sun is out it becomes pleasantly warm.

We will soon be regulars – note our new french shopping basket

The next challenge was getting our funds moved into Euros. On Monday and we had the accounts prepped and by Thursday Morgan Stanley had our funds in an international account ready for conversion to Euros at our signal. In the meantime we will keep an eye out for the fluctuating dollar to work in our favor.

For the car purchase we wound up using an international transfer service known as WISE, but it takes a few days for the transfers to push through and they sometimes ask for more backup info. The money arrived in time to the Renault dealership for us to pick up our new baby on Friday.  Whew!!

Additionally, once we get our French HSBC checkbook and cards (we have been waiting for six weeks) then we will eventually shut down B of A as it’s too much of a hassle managing funds overseas; they do not allow international phone numbers for two-factor ID which makes navigating their systems that much more difficult. 

In the meantime we can set up direct debits through WISE to pay for incidentals through euros so we can manage the exchange rate as the dollar possibly weakens.  

Sigh…we now had time to check out the area around our gite by way of the “groomed” trails sporting old farmhouses and châteaus.  Such a different pace and environment from our haunts in Portland.  

On a sunny day on Friday December 1 we collected our new wheels, headed to Bergerac to drop off the rental and kicked around the city for a few hours; celebrating our good fortune at finding our new forever home as well.  

Proud New Owners!

In the meantime, our other challenges included the switch from Amazon US to France.  We finally got it transferred but we were required to buy the French Prime membership and then let our US membership expire.  Somehow this messed up the app on our phones and it started to show up as Amazon India (it’s these quirky things that you spend your time troubleshooting). After deleting and reinstalling the app we were back in the French app – which does not have English as an option😂. Even the translation options choke on some of the pages.  Then we get on and off French speaking US programming on our Prime Video.

But we concluded that it’s a great way to get to learn your French – when your forced to do shopping in a foreign language!

Then to add to this goat rodeo, I kept getting notifications from Amazon that our shipments had been delayed or aborted.  It turns out they use La Poste (which would make sense as that is the primary French postal service) but we were mystified that our goods were sitting literally five miles away and they couldn’t seem to find the gite. 

Then miraculously… Mon Dieu!!! Amazon showed up with all of our goods at once; I suspect they delay and consolidate shipments in remote areas to economize on trips.  It was like Christmas (but not really but just as exciting) as we opened the boxes and retrieved items we couldn’t find locally – things like calcium supplements, psyllium powder, meat thermometer and a new blender that was cheaper on Amazon than at the local appliance stores🤷‍♀️

Alas, after all this international intrigue, we were now entering the “dead zone” going from a frantic pace to “what do we do today” 😒

Well…there is still plenty to do: Make new friends (in progress), work out, hike, do our French lessons, make healthy meals with our new appliances, go on day trips to cool-looking villages, explore the local markets, figure out how the Captur works using a French car manual — things like that.  Oh yeah, and I have to go to battle at La Poste to navigate their overseas shipping system – I needed to fill out an online customs form apparently – assuming you can find it which I eventually did and then you need to visit the post office and see if you got it right or if they throw you another curve.

Suffice it to say, even though we have made exceptional progress on our goals thus far, navigating some of the quirks in France can be understandably exhausting – as we were warned!

For those familiar with my past know that I’ve had a difficult life and I think it prepared me to meet these challenges; turning adversity to my advantage – if I can survive what I have then I can get through these current challenges. I am equally grateful that I am getting established in a new dream life – more than I could have ever hoped for.

Likewise, I’m thankful for the downtime – it’s been a particularly busy year that we will close out with family in the UK🇬🇧