Airplane in the clouds, Nice, France, December, 2019
Tomorrow we are leaving on the proverbial jet plane, coming back again before the New Year. We’ll be traveling through the dreaded Heathrow airport at the worst travel time of the year to visit precious family in Edinburgh. The weather there is forecast to be dark and dreary, all the more reason to spend time over tea and conversation in one of the lovely museum cafés. That’s the greatest gift I can image.
We are fond of Edinburgh, and the Scots. They remind me of the unpretentious folk of Portland before the big in-migration from the East. The architecture is grave, and uniform, but evocative of the thriving Georgian and Victorian eras. The individual neighborhoods have their own character and claim to ancient lore, with plaques here and there commemorating it, and the city is one of the most walkable anywhere. Plus, I really like bagpipes and kilts.
Dean Village, the waters of Leith, Edinburgh on New Year’s Day 2017
Back home in Nice, people will be celebrating with parties galore and feasts of oysters, foie gras, rich cakes and champagne. Then they’ll walk it off along the sunny Promenade, giving friends encountered along the way warm bisous and seasonal greetings. The French Riviera sun is almost always the biggest Christmas gift for the locals.
We’ll leave the sun for the warmth of a different kind. Perhaps next year we’ll be gifted with both.
A general strike went into effect yesterday, December 5. Leading the strike were unions of the national rail workers, the SNCF and the RATP. Bus and metro drivers, airport workers, Air France, nurses and other worker’s and self-employed groups joined in solidarity against the grievance.
Which is: President Macron’s desire to reform state pensions. There are currently 42 different pension regimes, each one determining different conditions for retirement such as age and monthly distribution. Some retirees receive multiple pensions, accumulated as they switched jobs or careers. Macron would like to equalize and simplify the regimes, creating a universal point system that would cover years worked. Administratively, that would save the public purse a pretty penny. The new pension law would also amount to real losses in pension benefits for some people, however.
While the official French retirement age in general was raised by ex-President Hollande from 60 to 62 — one of the lowest in the developed countries — the “special regimes” under which the SNCF and RATP are ruled allow for retirement as young as 55 years. Those workers would see their retirement delayed as a result of Macron’s pension reforms. They are not at all happy about it.
However, only about 7 percent of 2017 retirees were under 60 years of age. Among these, the SNCF and other “special regimes” account for the vast majority. They also receive significantly higher pensions. The average age of retirement in France is 62 and one month old. The average pension payment in 2017 was 1422.00 euros, or $1575.00 in today’s rate exchange, and it’s less for women. It isn’t much, even if the French don’t pay for essential health care, and enjoy other financial supports for retirees.
Some of the foreign media coverage of the strike has used the word “paralysed” to describe the effect. In Nice, we did observe traffic snarls out of the ordinary as people took to their cars to get around, but otherwise commerce and leisure went on as usual. Today the tram was running, and so were at least some buses.
The strike had been planned for a while, so everyone had plenty of advance notice. However, this strike is historic in size and “illimité,” indefinite in length. We are not sure our December 19 flight won’t be cancelled due to ongoing work stoppages at airports. So far, the government says it will continue to negotiate and warned that violence will not be tolerated.
One precedent for what might happen is the last general strike close to this size, which took place in 1995, also in response to an attempt at pension reform. After three weeks, the government capitulated.
A couple of other scenarios come to mind, that could lead to mounting frustrations and increasing pressure on Macron to cave. Other parties could join the strike, such as truckers who are against a fuel tax increase. The more militant parties could take to violence, provoking a government response and more protests.
To those of us who see life for many Americans and British becoming a merciless dystopia, we wonder why there’s this enormous reaction in France to a .02 cents rate hike, and an attempt by a responsible government to restore balance to pensions. I don’t quite understand why the French support this protest by a small percentage of the population who retire younger and richer than the majority.
We finally each have our official residence permit, called the carte de séjour. This is what we will renew every year until we will have been here five years, at which point we can apply for “permanent” status, and, citizenship if we so desire.
The renewal process is fraught with anxiety and administrative hassle, because of the paperwork required, cost and timing issues. Applicants are required to apply two months prior to the Carte’s expiration, and in some French cities, like Rennes and Angoulême, an applicant can easily book an appointment online. In more messy Nice, you simply show up to the Prefecture hours in advance to get in line, along with hundreds of other immigrants, and hope you are seen that day, before the booth shuts down at 11:30am. Some people have had to return multiple times.
Typically, at that point you receive a six month temporary extension of your permit in the form of a Recipisse, and four or six months later you are supposed to receive a text or email that your Carte is ready for pick up. You must pick it up in person.
In reality, this doesn’t always happen. One of us got the text, the other did not.
You then get in line again to pick up the renewed Carte. Sometimes it’s ready and sometimes it’s not. You can understand why this is the biggest headache of all for expats living here.
One is required to carry the Carte on your person at all times. Technically, a gendarme can ask you for it at any time. However, many people, fearing its loss through pickpockets or carelessness, store it safely and only carry photocopies
I don’t know what permits immigrants to the US have to apply for and deal with, but I imagine the process is similar. When you move out of your home country, there will be paperwork.
Our experience this year was complicated by the fact that our official address all last year was in Cognac. So we had to travel to Angoulême, the department’s administrative center, to pick up our permits. Luckily, we were able to confirm they were ready for us, and once there the process was very quick and efficient. The trip from Nice was long and tiring, and we did a round trip consisting of planes, buses and trains in 48 hours. Now that we have established our residence here in Nice, we will be able to stay local for the foreseeable future.
Angoulême, by the way, turned out to be a lovely city of gracious limestone buildings and lively cafes to be stuck in for a few hours. It’s also the graphic novel/cartoon capital of France, host to an annual international festival of the “Bande Dessinée.” All over the city, starting with the train station, murals and decorations commemorate the city’s high status in the cartoon world. I am almost sorry not to have a reason to return.
It’s been more than a year. It feels like much more.
Moving to a foreign country is hard. There are the expected hurdles and adjustments. Then there’s reality, all the things that were impossible to anticipate no matter how much you thought things through.
If you’re going to do it, you must be someone who gets a thrill from daily opportunities to explore, discover and learn, and who has the resilience to deal with the incessant bureaucratic tick boxes and murky rules of life as a foreigner.
You must be someone who takes the initiative on reaping the benefits of new territory, who gets a jolt from the daily challenges on the “who moved my cheese” level, who can overcome cultural impediments to doing things the same old way.
Speaking the language really makes a difference. All those people waving away the language barrier with “everyone speaks English” and “there’s always Google Translate” are missing a lot. So much that they might end up paying more in local taxes than they need to, or can’t figure out why their visa extension hasn’t appeared on time, or are oblivious to the need for a French Last Will and Testament. Let alone explaining what you need at the pharmacy, post office and police station in an emergency. There’s always something that needs explaining, and understanding, because life is just life.
You have to learn to make light of appalling customer service. Really, it’s astounding. Would it surprise you to learn that our bank, Credit Lyonnais, a major French bank, would up and close a branch with no notice whatsoever, leaving customers to figure out which is the closest other branch? How about the dreaded DHL France, where they decide they don’t have to deliver the package to your home after all? Nor do they let you know where to pick it up? How about the seaside café that left its doors open past the time when it was warm, and when you mention you’re getting cold are gruffly told by the waiter “There’s nothing I can do.” Hey, at least I didn’t have to bribe anyone to get that package, once we found where it was.
Europeans smoke. A lot. Anywhere they can get away with it. It’s common to see bus passengers stick the cigarette between their lips as prepare to exit, the lighter poised at the tip, finger on the switch, desperately taking the first big gulps of toxins before their feet hit the pavement.
In Nice, drivers hold up traffic to nab a prized parking spot, leave their car in the road to “run inside for just a moment” or stop to roll down their windows and get an update from a neighbor. Honk, honk, honk. Other drivers never hesitate to lean on their horns.
French dog owners generally don’t pick up dog poop, and every other person has at least one dog. There aren’t enough trash bins for all the people throwing away stuff. The recycling centers aren’t emptied regularly. You get the picture.
Coming from Oregon, I find the beer is really bad.
In short, there’s a lot to deal with and get used to. Every day is stretched with adventures and misadventures. Time lasts longer.
Of course, we think it’s all worth it. We love the many advantages of being in France, beyond the fact that it’s a beautiful country with a rich cultural history. We’ve met lovely people. Since we walk everywhere, we’re probably more fit (although, that might be offset by the wine). The health care is great. The pace is much more relaxed and humane than in the US. Before we know it, another year will be over, and then another and then another. We plan to stay.
We’ve been back in Nice a little over a week, and have been surprised at how many small and large changes have occurred in the relatively short time (four months) we were away.
The biggest change has been in the area of public transport. The second tram line was inaugurated at the end of June, and is now running from both airport terminals to our centrally located neighborhood (by December it will run all the way east to the Port), with a spanking new underground station a couple of blocks away. Having failed to experience anything like major new infrastructure back home in recent years, I couldn’t help but be surprised at how thrilling it was to see a fine example of urban investment. Honestly, I felt the way I do when I buy a new pair of shoes!
The new tram has made other urban improvements possible. The city has been able to take hundreds of buses off the street by reducing the number of routes and redirecting certain lines, all with the goal of easing noise and air pollution, while actually improving access to fast public transportation. The mayor’s office claims 90 percent of Niçois will soon be served by a tram or bus passing every 15 minutes.
Once choked with noxious traffic, deafening noise and stinky soot, the old bus routes are undergoing an impressive beautification. Projects are underway to re-pave sidewalks and plant trees, the latter being part of the City Hall vast “végétalisation” effort.
The other changes perhaps are a fast forward to what these improvements portend for the status of our neighborhood. The Gambetta/Fleurs/Victor Hugo zone of Nice is populous and thriving. But during our absence the first discreet luxury hotel opened on our former street. A pretty park has been restored. In addition to new CBD dispensaries and shops specializing in the kind of local products tourists buy (e.g., Savoneries), two fairly ordinary cafes disappeared to be replaced by examples of globally trendy coffee houses, with their English names and mediocre pastries. In fact, the tourist district in the heart of the city is expanding here. And everywhere.
It was kind of fun to see the changes. And, after a summer of rural living, city life and its conveniences (movie theaters) are a treat. We’ve promised ourselves we’ll take regular nature breaks in the nearby hills. In the meantime, there’s always the Prom.
Sunday morning I heard a few successive popping sounds in the hills above. Hunting season is on. There isn’t much game left in these whereabouts, but one wild animal there is a lot of is Sanglier, or boar. Given the density of the oak forests on these mountains, it’s not surprising. On a hike, we came across evidence of a passel, with earth rooted through and scattered in all directions.
A hunter we spoke with said occasionally he hunts deer, too. And yesterday, on a short hike uphill through the forest, I spotted a female fox. Sadly, she moved too fast for me to catch her with my camera.
Along with the hunting, the official arrival of autumn means the temperatures are suddenly much cooler, in the 70s F/20s C, which makes October a fine time to visit. But fewer people do. Although Céret isn’t ever packed with tourists, I usually encounter them on my morning stroll through town. Today, however, I was alone in the Place des Neuf Jets taking photos, until an elderly local with her Yorkie sat down to watch and then engage me in pleasant conversation about growing up speaking Catalan.
I am curious about what life is like here once the “season” is over. I note more cultural events on the city calendar, restaurant menus changing, some restaurants closing until next spring, espadrilles being replaced by sweaters in shop windows.
There are many fêtes of a Catalan flavor throughout the year, on religious holidays like Christmas with its chestnut specialities and the musical Procession at Easter, and the traditional folk festivals like the Feria Toriste (bull festival), which, sadly, includes a bull fight. Not even Barcelona holds bull fights any longer, but Céret is a holdout on that odious tradition. In May, a festival celebrates the new cherry crop (I’ve been making a delectable Kir Céretan, in which the fruity ingredient is local cherry syrup).
But we will be elsewhere. It’s hard to believe a month has passed, and that the whole, fabulous, four-month summer is nearly over, and that we’ll be back in Nice soon. I’ll make the mental switch to urban living, which has its pluses: movie theaters, high speed wifi, ethnic food, book clubs, and lots of café time with friends.
The road from Céret to Serrabone winds its way upwards at a slow pace for 600 meters, through a thick oak forest, stands of cork, olive groves, and an occasional cactus. We pass crumbling farmhouses and solitary villas and, surprisingly, through the trees spot a couple of hamlets, where we stop to stretch our legs and ask locals what people do with their time in such isolated places.
The village of Calmeilles, on the road to Serrabone
The village of Calmeilles
Then we are back on the narrow road, darkening as it plunges deeper into the forest, hoping not to encounter any cars from the opposite direction.
The road to Serrabone in the foothills of the Pyrenees
While today we are embraced by the quiet and solitude of the wilderness, the presence of an 11th century Priory as our destination speaks to a time when important regional events took place here. Communities sprang up around the convent that monks were establishing. In turn, Catalan lords propped up the convents, buying favor from God. Power struggles between church and state broke out again and again. Later, in the 17th century, as France negotiated with Spain to incorporate all of northern Catalonia within its borders, the fight to retain Catalan culture began.
The natural beauty we are enjoying from the car indubitably makes the excursion to the Priory worthwhile on its own. However, the topper for me waits here, at the medieval site at the end of the road. We have visited some lovely abbeys and churches in Occitanie, but Serrabone is worth all the others put together. Austere, somber, and dark — Romanesque architects hadn’t mastered the Gothic trick of thick walls and buttresses supporting large windows — the solemn mood is offset by the joyful sculptures of medieval monsters, demons and angels on the cloister capitals and the facade of the exceptional Tribune.
The odd, one-sided, crooked cloister of Serrabone
All this, perched on a mountaintop, overlooking waves of green mountain ridges, is almost more than I can absorb. I recall that “Serrabone” means “good mountain.”