Le Mimosa, ou Acacia Dealbata

The end of winter in the Riviera is celebrated with the arrival of the Mimosa, the bright, yellow, fuzzy pompom that grows on trees in the hills of the region and takes up residence this time of year in every florist shop. You don’t have to actually see it to know it’s there, as its presence is signaled by a pungent scent of honey and citrus. This year, it arrived early along with a preternatural warmth, and in the current Covid gloom it was, even more than usual, a joyful sight.

At the height of the season, I went with a couple of friends for a hike through a Mimosa forest in a park above Mandelieu-La Napoule, the flower’s capital. A mad headache drove me to rest in a shady spot, most likely attributed to an allergic reaction to the flower, which grew on every bush and tree surrounding me. I suppose Mimosa is a pleasure best taken in small doses.

Nevertheless, thank god for that outing. We are in lockdown this weekend and next, to prevent families from indulging in risky group behavior during the spring school holidays. As in the first lockdown last March, the Promenade and the beaches are off-limits. There’s talk from the Prefect of a prolonged lockdown in the départment, one of 20 most highly affected out of a total of 94. The 6pm to 6am curfew is still in force every day.

I’ve had my two doses of the Pfizer vaccine (I was fatigued and felt malaise for one day after the second) and David starts his on Monday. With less than three million vaccinated, France is far behind on its vaccination campaign, and that’s part of the reason ICUs in our départment are at 102.8% capacity compared to 68% nationally. Another is the highly transmissible UK variant, responsible for more than half of all cases in the country.

When this Covid era is finally over, I imagine we’ll be over-indulging in kinds of pleasures, floral and otherwise. Travel, cinemas, restaurants and hugs are recalled nostalgically, but I wonder, outside of the hugs, how fast all those other activities will be taken up again. Personally, I’ve enjoyed enduring the winter without as much as a single cold, which must be due to general mask-wearing. Furthermore, how long will it take post Covid restrictions to feel comfortable in a crowded indoor space, or to even socialize in a small group? How many of the favorite old establishments will return? Rumor has it that various global mafias are buying up closed shops and restaurants to launch money-laundering schemes.

For better or for worse, it’s difficult to believe everything will be as before.

From the beach, Nice, France before curfew

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Le vaccin Covid

Last Friday, I got the first of the two Covid jabs. It came about by luck, as no one else I know has yet had their turn, and I am not in any of the top priority groups.

A routine doctor’s visit started it off. My doctor mentioned she had received doses for the residents of the old age home where she provides basic care. She was worried that she’d have to throw out some doses, as she had received more than she could use. “Sign me up,” I told her. And so she did.

I now am in the national database as having received the first vaccination, and have also received a personal code entitling me to the second dose whether from my doctor or the national vaccination plan.

Which, by the way, operates efficiently. You register on a website and wait to be given an appointment or make one on the site or by phone. David received his “convocation” for a jab in email (and ended up not getting it due to a contraindication). According to the anti-Covid app, 824,000 have been vaccinated so far. The health minister has said the entire population will be vaccinated by August.

There are a few obstacles that must be overcome before that can happen. While not the only country experiencing vaccine shortages, France is running out of supply and some vaccination centers are no longer accepting appointments. Then there’s the usual French skepticism about everything, with anti-vaccination sentiment the highest in Europe. How odd, for the country that pretty much invented vaccines (see: Louis Pasteur). We need 80 percent uptake for herd immunity, don’t forget.

One factor that does bode well for uptake is that the vaccine is free under the French health plan. Another is that 11 childhood vaccines have 90 percent adoption, because they are required by law and for entering school. Here’s hoping that habit transfers. And, by August, if people want to get on planes for vacation they might have to show a vaccination certificate.

Meanwhile, France is one of the worst affected countries in the world. Yes, the world. The anti-Covid app reports almost 23,000 new cases in the last 24 hours, no improvement over figures from one month ago. A group of British students vacationing in Savoie have tested positive, and it might be the dreaded UK variant. I’m hearing rumors of another lockdown in February, and the health minister has not ruled it out.

My light at the end of this tunnel is the next vaccine dose. It won’t mean I can go mask-free, or that I can’t catch the virus, but it is almost certainly a guarantee I won’t get sick. By the way, I didn’t experience any side effects from the jab.

Stay safe, all.

Nice, France

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Le Noël Covid

Nice, France, December, 2020

It has been raining for two days so I have been spending this day of gloom determined to finish reading Romain Gary’s “Chien Blanc,” only breaking for hilarious Hugh Grant interview videos. Of late I have had a penchant for random entertainment, possibly as a mental break from the ennui and predictability of our prolonged confinement. Last week, it was about the Steven Sondheim song, “Someone in a Tree,” every version of which I watched repeatedly over the course of a few days.

The new Covid variants, radical lockdowns in the UK, suspension of flights and once-again delayed family reunions are enough to make me feel an emotional kinship to Jetski Man. Don’t we all just want to bust out at this point? And yet.

In France, new Covid cases are at a stubbornly high of about 15,000 per day, and until that number drops to 5,000 social restrictions will not be relaxed. Restaurants, bars, cafes, gym, yoga studios are still closed — sadly, a necessity in my opinion — and a curfew is in force from 8pm to 6am. There will be no exception for New Year’s Eve. A low-key celebration is proscribed, with no more than six at a festive table.

A report by the Pasteur Institute finds that most new Covid cases in France come from family, friends and co-workers. If you are going to socialize indoors, it is recommended to keep the number down to six people, wear masks, open a window, and disperse within an hour.

My perception is that the French are taking the viral threat quite seriously. Virtually everyone wears a mask, and for the most part, properly. Only 2.5 percent are traveling for the holiday, way down from the usual 25 percent.

Man in mask, Nice, France, December, 2020

The social isolation is getting difficult. It’s come to the point where I get excited for a masked face to masked face visit to the doctor. Luckily, Nice is relatively warm during the winter and we can meet friends outside, for a walk or a chat in a park. Some cafes are open for take-out to serve this sort of situation.

That’s likely how we’ll spend our Christmas. The forecast is good, so a long walk and some spot visits outdoors with friends is what we can hope for.

For all of you, my best wishes for a brighter, healthier 2021.

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L’Emménagement

We are all moved in, and, after a long, exhausting process, we are comfortable in a spacious and airy apartment. Our shipment from the US is out of the 250-euro per month storage and we are again among our favorite familiar things. 

But first, a few words about the rental process in France. Perhaps not surprisingly it is exasperating. 

The apartment seeker does all the work of finding a place. You will never get a phone call from an agency telling you about new listings. So hunting them down is a full-time job. Agents are also quick to tell you why you won’t like a place and maybe don’t really want to view it. Often, they seem quite perturbed that you showed up at their office to make inquiries, but since calls and emails are not answered it is what a searcher must do.

The “good” apartments are taken quickly, often even before they are listed, so one is forced to make periodic visits to agencies, an unnecessarily unpleasant task when agents are so reluctant to engage.

There is no such thing as a multiple listing. Even branches of the same real estate company can’t cross sell from one to the other. 

We have heard that the reason for agents’ lack of enthusiasm for finding renters for their clients is that apartment rentals require a lot of paperwork, and return very meager commissions compared to those from sales. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around that one.

Because Nice is an expensive and in-demand rental market, not all landlords feel the necessity to keep their properties in good condition. Sadly, that was true in our case, requiring an investment in painting and sanding that we had not anticipated.

It is perfectly normal for appliances to be missing from an unfurnished rental. So we now own an oven, washing machine and refrigerator that we’ll take with us when we leave. Air conditioning is more prevalent than before, but not routine. Nevertheless, it is indispensable in the Cote d’Azur summer. We asked our landlord to share in the installation of it for two rooms, but he declined and suggested we proceed anyway. Instead, we bought two mobile units that we will sell later or take with us as needed.

We did see quite a few gorgeous, newly renovated places amid a lot of dross, and in a few cases were eager to sign a rental contract. Repeatedly, we were rejected. The reason was the biggest obstacle standing between us and a home.

Renters have enormous legal leverage in France. They are seen as the common folk who are getting screwed by greedy capitalistic landlords. The laws reflect this. It is notoriously difficult to evict a renter, even one who has not paid rent for years. Plus, it is illegal to evict in winter and anyone more than 70 years of age. Even squatters have tenancy rights, only weakened a bit this summer after the trial of a family who had broken into someone’s second home on the Riviera, changed the locks and settled in. 

This is all to say that landlords are very nervous. So they take out a newly popular insurance policy that pays out for unpaid rent for up to three years, the time it usually takes to evict a derelict tenant. The insurance company requires that the tenant have a French income, to eventually garnish against it. Therefore, we do not qualify. And, as we dismayingly discovered, virtually all landlords have bought this insurance, the Assurance Loyer Impayé. 

Which is why, when an unfurnished apartment opened up in the building where we were already renting, with a nice view on Belle Epoque buildings and palm trees, managed by a hard working concierge, on a quiet dead-end street, with no requirement of French income, we went for it. And seriously, we now love it. As we await President Macron’s announcement this evening on new anti-Covid restrictions, which rumor has it includes a one-month national lockdown, we are grateful to have such a lovely place in which to shelter. 

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Excursions d’été: Le Sud-Ouest

Our final summer trip was to southwestern France, specifically the Béarn and the Pays Basque. They look very similar geographically: hilly, verdant, home to loads of sheep, surrounded by the Pyrénées mountains. The Béarn, however, does not have a foot on the Atlantic coast.

Sheep crossing

Sadly for me, culinary cultures are similar too. I found it difficult, no, impossible, to find a restaurant that didn’t have meat as the only option, for every appetizer and main course. Anyone for a gizzard salad?

Basque menu.

What separates the two is traditional culture. The Béarn is deeply, traditionally French. The other is something else.

The Pays Basque is, well, BASQUE, with its own language, Euskara, and non-French culture. Linguistically, Euskara is totally unrelated to any other living language. Which is saying something when you consider that eastern European Hungarian is linguistically related to Nordic Finnish. In bastions of Basque culture like St. Jean Pied-de-Port or St. Jean de Luz, you see signs around town written only in Euskara.

In Euskara. Try to read that.

The current theory is that the ancestors of today’s Basques settled in what is today Europe before Romance languages originated. Euskara must be related to pre-Indo-European languages that have been extinct for some time. I find this fascinating.

I wanted to find a Basque male choir to actually hear the language, or even to attend a church service in Basque (I actually did do that decades ago, in a small village off the Atlantic coast, standing in a full church a whole head taller than the tallest Basque man, who along with all of his compatriots was wearing the stereotypical black beret). But we didn’t get around to that. Next time.

Still, you get a flavor for the language just from the names of towns deep into the country, like Irissarry, Irouléguy, Itxassou, Aussuruq, or the long homestead names inscribed on the large Basque houses, none of which I remember now.

You’ve heard of Pelota? It’s a Basque original, like Squash, but played with bare hands. There are summer tournaments in the major Basque towns, played in the traditional courts called “trinquets,” one of which we visited off-game. We didn’t get around to catching a game either. Next time.

The “Camino” runs through Basque country, with the last stop before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain at St. Jean Pied-de-Port. The town is pilgrim central, dotted with low cost hostels geared to certified Camino walkers. At the outfitter stores, weather-beaten pilgrims stock up on socks, rain ponchos, mountain gear and the traditional shroud. I would have loved to linger longer in the pleasant town, to talk to some pilgrims about how the walk was going for them. Next time.

The shell symbol of the Camino Santiago de Compostela
St. Jean Pied-de-Port, Pays Basque, France

Throughout French history the Basques have suffered, and even in modern times friction between Basques and administrative France existed. After World War II the state gradually provided the Basque region greater autonomy, and so deterred would be separatists.

Pays Basque
St. Etienne de Baïgorry, Pays Basque, France.

And I do hope there’s a next time because it’s a beautiful region. I see myself in a rented Basque pile overlooking sheep pasture, before me a planche of fresh sheep’s milk cheese, gateau Basque and cider, settling in after a meandering walk in the hills.

Basque cider in a cider glass.
Gateau Basque and sheep’s milk cheese.

But in the time of COVID-19, who knows when that will be. After a summer of crowded beach parties, bar raves and large weddings, cases are on a steep rise all over France. Mandatory mask-wearing at last is settling down on most cities, including here in Nice, and Mayoral threats to close down establishments violating the social distancing rules are more frequent.

For my part, I find travel under these circumstances to be drained of much of its allure. So much of what makes travel fun involves going to places that are now risky — restaurants, market, museums. So it’s okay that we’ll be staying put for a while. Plus, we are moving. More on that next time.

p.s. Fans of international crime fiction might want to get a flavor of the Béarn by reading the Detective Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas.

p.p.s. Most of you have heard of Béarnaise, one of French cuisine’s essential sauces.

p.p.p.s. WordPress has a new editing format. I hate it.

Posted in Basque country, Béarn, COVID-19, expat, expat life, France, Pays Basque, Pyrénées Atlantiques, sheep, Travel | 10 Comments