Réfléchissant.

Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France

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.

The Mediterranean Sea from the Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France

Posted in culture, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France | 14 Comments

De Retour

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. 

 

Nice street being improved.

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.

Sunset on the Prom.

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À la prochaine

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.

On the road to Fontfréde, Céret

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.

View from our balcony, Céret

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.

Posted in Céret, expat life, France, Occitanie, Pays Catalan, Pyrénées Orientales, Travel | 2 Comments

Serrabone

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.

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

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 cloister of Serrabone

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.”

 

 

Posted in culture, expat life, France, Occitanie, Pays Catalan, Pyrénées Orientales, Serrabone, Travel | 12 Comments

Occitanie

We are back in Céret in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains, having visited last October for a few days with friends. Now we are ensconced for just under one month. Like the Auvergne and Creuse regions we passed through on our road trip south from Brittany, Occitanie has a lost world ambiance which we love. The bourgeoise in me couldn’t last here forever, but the part of me that disdains superficiality, consumerism and hyperactivity gets a massive lift.

In the Auvergne

Auvergne cow

Like an aged wine with loads of character, these parts of France are an evocative blend of peculiar environments and history. Here in Occitanie, the architecture is pre-Gothic, the towns are built through mountains on ancient pilgrimage paths, the many fortresses recall constant war between rival dynasties, and impressive Cathar strongholds such as Carcassonne tell the story of the violent persecution of Christian heretics.

The southern accent is decidedly a fading relic, but its coarseness still a reminder that we are far from the large and culturally sophisticated cities.

in Carcassonne

View from Carcassonne

Céret is a relatively large town in this area, with 7,705 people at last count. Occitanie means “the west” in Catalan, the dominant culture of the area, encompassing the former regions of Langedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées (France made changes to the official categories of regions in 2016). Languedoc itself was derived from the terms “langue d’occitanie” or “the lingo of the west.” To further complicate matters, the administrative département is Pyrénées Orientales.

From its immediate appearance, Céret would not be the most important attraction in the area. But it doesn’t take much of a stroll through town to feel yourself relax, unwind, pick up the laid back vibe, note the many small artist ateliers and want to join the locals in a glass of  Catalan red at a café under the leaf canopy of mottled plane trees.

If you are a fan of Romanesque cathedrals and abbeys, you’re in luck. You could visit one a day and not run out. The medieval art outpost of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, called The Cloisters (and one of my favorite hangouts when I was in college), obtained its Cuxa cloister in this area. If hiking gorges and forested mountain trails are what you live for, welcome. If 20th century art is a passion, you can follow the footsteps of the Fauves and others at the Cèret Musée d’ Art Moderne. There are several fine options for a thermal bath cure nearby. Mediterranean beaches? Collioure and others are a 40 minute drive or bus ride away.

These are just a few of the attractions. Soon, I’ll also be testing out the Catalan restaurants, for example. Stay tuned.

 

Posted in Céret, Collioure, expat, expat life, France, Occitanie, Pays Catalan, Pyrénées Orientales | 5 Comments

Le Départ

Cap Fréhel

It is the eve of September 1st and we are madly packing for our departure from Brittany and the Atlantic Ocean. This morning we took one last walk on the coastal path, I went to the fish restaurant a block away from our apartment for one more “choucroute de la mer” for the road, and we organized the car for the drive back towards the Mediterranean Sea and  Céret. Over the next week our road trip will take us to Angers, Guéret, Clermont-Ferrand and Toulouse in five of the 95 different Departments of France (the Maine-et-Loire, Creuse, Puy de Dôme, Tarn and Pyrénées Orientales).

We will miss this area. We’ve had more than a respite from a hot, humid and tourist-laden city. We’ve had experiences of nature and folklore that would have been difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Will Brittany remain this kind of throw-back, rural and peaceful haven? Probably not. We’ve noticed fields turned over to repetitive housing developments, and newly built glass-walled contemporary architecture tucked in-between the granite houses. Rennes, Saint Malo and Nantes are expanding their suburbs at a fast clip. It’s probably got a few good years left, however. We’ll be back.

 

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Breton costume, Brittany, Céret, Côte d'Armor, expat, expat life, France | 9 Comments

Cap Fréhel et le Côte d’Armor

We are in Cap Fréhel, the last of our stops in Brittany for this season. We’d first made a visit here last year on a day trip from Rennes, seeking relief from a heat wave. What a glorious escape that was. The bracing morning mist had hovered over the heathery hills, the ocean barely perceptible below, to lift with clear sunshine and a refreshing breeze by noon. Inland, the hamlets of granite Breton houses with blue shutters and hollyhocks growing madly in every crevice emanated cool calm.
So we had to return. And it turns out last August was exceptionally hot, and this year it has been exceptionally cloudy and rainy.
Nevertheless, we’ve had enough lovely weather to spend a lot of time walking on those heathery hills. On the inclement days, we’ve visited historic towns like Lamballe and Moncontour. We drove to Rennes, our old haunt from last summer, and saw our friends  Ruth and John. And now the weather forecast is in the 70s F and sunny for days on end.

 

This part of Brittany, the Cote d’Armor, is significantly more popular than the more remote Crozon Peninsula and southern Finistere regions. Parisians occupy the Belle Epoque resort towns of St. Lunaire and Saint Briac sur Mer (you can tell they are Parisians because unlike the Bretons they don’t greet you with a civil “bonjour”). August is also peak season, which accounts for local beach parking lots being full by mid-morning. We don’t find the tourist presence overwhelming, however. Compared to even Cannon Beach in Oregon, it’s pretty quiet around here.

Mornings I am often on the Sentier des Douaniers, part of the afore-mentioned GR34 path along the entire Breton coast. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk from our rental, and it takes me to the remnants of one of the old quarries that hauled out the Grès Rose stone, responsible for the pinkish hue of the area houses.
Grès Rose stone house in Equy
Generally speaking, we daily visit a point of interest then stop by a market and a café before coming home for a late lunch and down time before our late afternoon picturesque walk. Yesterday was hot — 76F — enough for a long day at the beach in my wetsuit getting tossed by the waves.
If that’s not enough, there’s always the option of an evening drive down back roads and a  stop at the local microbrewery.
back road in Fréhel
It’s difficult to imagine having had a more perfect summer in France.
Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, Côte d'Armor, expat, expat life, France, Travel | 9 Comments