Céret and Collioure

Onwards to Occitanie, and Céret and Collioure. These small towns are very near the Spanish border, Barcelona a two-hour drive away. We took a forested mountain road to the border, ears popping, taking in peaceful views over wild country and the Pyrénées Orientales. Down in the valley, we could hear the soft clang of cowbells. It is a primitive sound that shakes me out of the present every time I hear it.

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The border was marked, but this being a Schengen zone there were no guards. How different being here must have been during the World Wars, when Spain was neutral and its villages harbored French escapees from the conflict who crossed these mountains. During the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, leftist combatants and civilians reversed those tracks to seek refuge in France.

The language Occitan (or the language of the Occitanie, langue-d’oc), has largely died out. But Catalan is widespread and there is a common, far from cosmopolitan, identity between these people and the Catalans across the border. The restaurants feature Catalan dishes and in Céret street signs are in French and Catalan. Locals dance the Sardanes at festivals and bulls run the streets every year to celebrate Bastille Day.

The locals retain a distinct accent however, a little nasal, where they say “aine” instead of “oin” (in the French). I like regional differences, and more so if they stem from the middle ages, so I found it a thrill to hear, but I recall many northern speakers of pure French disliking it.

We were enchanted by little Céret, probably for the same reasons the many famous artists who spent several years there. The local art museum exhibits their works, including Picassos, Matisses, Derains, Chagalls, Braques and Soutines. Other than enjoying the ghosts of the past, there is little else to do but while away time enjoying the light (300 days of sun a year), the clean air, the tranquility and the trails into the mountains.

In our lovely Art Nouveau apartment we felt as if we were in a living diorama, with its decor evocative of the interiors seen in paintings of the earlier era and its classic view over a courtyard.

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Collioure, on the Mediterranean Sea, also attracted those painters. Here, you could paint all day without being disturbed by noise, people, things to do, or unwanted stimuli of any kind. Being off-season during our visit, it had a particularly throwback vibe. The French Riviera must have been like this 60 years ago. First of all, there was hardly anyone there. Surrounding it were pine forested hills, with little sprawl. It felt cut off,  the absence of crowds and dazzling light transforming the town into a blessed haven.

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But don’t go there! It’s too quiet. You’ll be bored. No reason to check it out at all. Trust me.

 

Posted in Céret, Collioure, expat, expat life, France, Occitanie, Travel | 7 Comments

Sète jaunt

Our friends Jamie and Jennifer have been visiting us in Nice, and we took a few days to drive west to visit Sète and Collioure. We’ve traveled together to France before, and also to Japan and Turkey. So this is like old times.

I’d heard a lot about Sète on expat blogs and thought it worth a look, for its good weather, affordability and access to a TGV line.  Before that, the only time I’d heard of it was in a touching film, “The Secret of the Grain.”

Sète is bustling and vibrant, with lots of people socializing and moving about in the streets (as you do in a city with good weather year-long), a thriving fishing fleet and wholesale fish market on the docks, a vast indoor market and food hall, lots of good restaurants, a long promenade along the Corniche and a picturesque marina on a canal.

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However, it is not a city we are considering any longer. We want a bit more sophistication and variety in the amenities where we live.

A very generous Texas native who I met on said expat blog gave us the grand tour, and showed us her sun-filled apartment overlooking the old town and dock, before taking us to the Mont Saint Clair hilltop viewpoint over the city and environs.

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It was a beautiful day, and, as we rode through the city with her convertible’s top down, we could understand the appeal of Sète to all the Northerly expats here.

Tomorrow we leave with Jamie and Jennifer to visit Céret and Collioure, near the Spanish border. Maybe we’ll find some paella.

 

 

 

Posted in expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, Sète, Travel | 6 Comments

Settling in

We’ve been in Nice for a week and a half. Administrative matters have taken up much of our time, but we had a lovely visit from daughter Francesca and her partner Paul and have made time to meet up with old friends.

First and foremost, we like our apartment. We dispensed with Airbnb and its unreliable collection of options and chose from a catalog of homes from a local firm that upholds a certain standard of quality. We have wooden floors, comfortable beds, modern fixtures and enough space to not feel confined. It’s also quiet, as its main rooms look out over an inside garden.

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For those who are contemplating a visit, the spare bedroom looks out onto the street, but I believe it is quiet at night. During the day, there is a lovely view of some splendid Niçois buildings

Nice France avenue des fleurs apartment 2018

The matters we’ve attended to are numerous. For example, we cannot receive mail at this holiday rental address, so, taking a friend’s advice, we set up mail forwarding with La Poste. That took three trips and an online registration. But the postal staff were extremely helpful.

We opened up a French bank account. This is really important because when we obtain our Carte Vitale health care account, you need the bank account for the reimbursements to be made. For anything you sign up for that requires regular payments, like utilities, you need the bank account. To rent an apartment that is not a holiday rental, the same. Setting up the account took three visits, and we’re still waiting for our IBAN number.

We heard that we needed to advise the French government on our change of address from Rennes to Nice, so we went to the Prèfecture to do so, arriving on the bus at 8am to get in line and then waiting until our turn at 11am, to learn this step was not necessary and to be turned away.

We have ordered some essential items lacking in the apartment, like a coat rack (storage is at a minimum, as French people live with less stuff than Americans).

We’ve visited doctors. The way the system works is that some doctors take appointments, others don’t. Some take appointments on some days, and not on others. In the case of the latter scenario, you show up and wait your turn. All standard visits are 25 euro. Of course, if you have a Carte Vitale, you are reimbursed 75 percent or more. Prescriptions are far less expensive than in the US. Many doctors speak English.

I have signed up at the Nice Cinémathèque! Filmmaker Claire Denis is coming to speak and show a film and I cannot wait.

Today we are off to do some more fun errands. Stay tuned.

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Arrival in Nice

It’s still summer in Nice. Today’s high was 27 Celsius/80 Fahrenheit. It’s not just the temperature though. The sun is intense, lighting up the Mediterranean that peculiar and mesmerizing beautiful shade of turquoise

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I become seriously envious of the swimmers and sunbathers on the beach. We haven’t had time to loll sea-side, with all the settling in and information gathering we’ve had to do. Today, for example, we spent three hours at the Préfecture,  unnecessarily as it turned out, to change our address from Rennes to Nice. We still have to open a French bank account, obtain bus and train passes, apply for a Carte Vitale (French health care), in that order, and more.

It has been a jolt to arrive here after two months in Brittany. Besides the heat, the streets are much more crowded. Russian, Spanish, English, Italian and Chinese are overheard everywhere. The locals are to the point and gruff.  Many older women have invested in “anti-aging” procedures. Dress is more flamboyantly chic, or trashy. The bins are overflowing with garbage, and the city is generally dirtier.

But that’s part of Riviera culture. There’s also the sea and sun, Italianate food, the dominance of olive oil over butter, umbrella pines and orange trees. Lots of English-speakers have settled here, from which to make friends. Unlike Brittany’s medieval settings, many streets, including ours, are lined with stunning Beaux Arts buildings typical to the French Riviera.

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Serious business does go on, but people are really into enjoying themselves here. There isn’t a single café that is not packed by 5pm every day.

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Soon, we will have the time to join them. And even if the temperature falls, the sun is almost always out.

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Leaving Rennes

It’s hard to believe we’ve only been in Rennes for two months. Hasn’t it been much longer? We’ve been very active, and we’ve paid the price. We got worn down, and feel a bit tired, but overall we are happy at what we’ve seen and done. I have my favorite café, market stalls, craft beer pub, Tunisian patisserie, photo shop and cider maker. Not far from Rennes we have our preferred beach, canal walks and fish soup restaurant.

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Our main objective in spending time here was to explore smaller, less expensive and cooler (in terms of temperatures) alternatives to Nice and we succeeded. We now know they exist, and that Rennes is a good candidate. So is Nantes. And furthermore, we realize there are many such candidates if we only look. Might we become as enchanted by the Occitanie if we spend a summer there? So many smaller French cities, so little time and money.

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What we like about Rennes/Nantes:

  • smaller, less complicated to get around and manage
  • lots of countryside and natural spaces nearby
  • gorgeous coastline nearby in three directions
  • cooler summers
  • beautiful old and new architecture
  • very friendly people
  • relatively safe
  • city populations are younger than those on the Riviera, and feel more energetic, on the move
  • good airports
  • inexpensive

What makes us nervous about settling in Rennes:

  • fewer cultural offerings to our liking (only one movie theater with films in original language, not dubbed)
  • smaller social circle
  • winter weather

Our social circle in Rennes is very small, and social capital is an important criteria for where to settle. We do know one couple, Ruth and John, who helped make us feel more than welcome and at home, guiding us through various bureaucratic processes (btw, we are now official residents of France) and pointing us to choice events.

We met a few friendly expats in Nantes, and a local French woman with whom we’ll stay in touch. At least that’s a start, just in case.

It’s worth remembering that we have been under the spell of unusually fine weather, even for summer, during this stay. The normal is more rain and cooler temperatures. If we were to spend January and February here, we might feel less reluctant to leave.

No question, we have formed an attachment to Brittany. I am certain we will return, for a summer or for longer.

 

 

 

Posted in Brittany, expat, expat life, France, Rennes | 8 Comments

Random notes

We’ve been here long enough that we are going past first impressions to notice patterns of French-isms. Or maybe they are Brittany-isms. Time will tell. Some you’ll recognize, as they are Gallic classics.

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Others are not. Unlike the experiences we’ve had in other parts of France, and by that I mostly mean Paris, people in Brittany are warm and friendly. Whenever I expect to have a nasty word or expression flung upon me, I receive instead a smile, a quip or a joke. I can’t think of  a single exception. We need extra help in the post office, or forget to weigh the produce at the supermarket, or confuse the small change required to pay for an item, and it’s always a friendly and relaxed “pas de problème” or “c’est pas grave” (both essentially mean “no problem”).

The “time-out” people take habitually. You see them in park benches, in cafés, along various promenades, just hanging. No, I don’t think every French person does this every day. But they sure do it more often than Americans.

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The French queue as politely as the British. They even have the proverbial stiff upper lip in certain FUBAR situations. Recently we arrived at a movie theater to learn our film “séance” was going to be more than 30 minutes late. Who has ever heard of such a thing? But there was the long line of patient movie-goers, and as the time stretched on there wasn’t a single peep of frustration except from the gauche American, yours truly.

People actually attend church services in Brittany. I started off going into churches to see if the stained glass happened to be throwing off colorful reflections, and was startled to see packed naves and aisles on Sunday mornings. It’s an officially secular country, remember. Churches are mostly empty in Italy, although it is stereotyped as Catholic.

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I have to add my pet peeve French-ism. They have an approach to toilets that I struggle to understand. In a home, the toilet is always separate from the room with the shower or bathtub. Good idea! But, I find it odd that no matter how fancy the bath room is, the toilet is like an indoor outhouse. Drab, cramped, a kind of embarrassment or afterthought. Plus, it’s weird to almost never find a sink in the toilet room.

Children seem to be loved, but not indulged. As a result, they tend to be very well-behaved in restaurants or other public places. Contrast that with the English family of three boys who loudly tore around a café while Mom and Dad were absorbed in their phones, oblivious to the pained glances from other habitués. And not all French children are obsessed with devices. In the castle town of Vitré, we saw two boys playing on their doorstep with paper models of medieval forts and castles.

boys playing medieval fort and knights Vitré Brittany

I love how, even in the case of the supermarket cashier who sees an assembly line of customers all day long, it’s a pleasant “bonjour” and “bonne journée” to begin and end our interaction. Civility counts for a lot in society, I find.

 

 

 

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Rennes 2030

You can’t be in Rennes long before you notice all the construction. Whether you enter by the train station, which is undergoing a major expansion and renovation, complete with green space for passengers awaiting departure, or by the airport, where a second metro line under construction will have a terminus, the works underway impress. Driving out of the city in any direction takes one past big apartment blocks and more going up. For the most part, they’re not bad-looking.

In the center, new public spaces and renovation of public buildings are underway. Several squares are currently under re-design, with more to come. The Place du Champs Jaquet (that’s a statue of the mayor during the French Revolution, tearing up  a list of people destined for the guillotine) will probably lose its bus traffic in its new incarnation.

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Rennes will probably have a summer beach on the banks of the Vilaine river, Paris Plage-style, by 2020. The central market will be transformed according to the model of the Time Out market in Lisbon or Eataly in Turin. There will be more fountains and trees, pedestrianized zones and cycle paths.  For a city already with fine parks, there will be even more, and different varieties. The plan is to activate the city artfully at night, too, with the help of installations by designers.

It’s all part of Rennes 2030, a re-imagining of the future of the city.

I don’t know how much of the urban planning underway takes its cues from other cities, and how much is original. But I am impressed with the strategy, creativity and intention of the program created to involve the citizens of Rennes. It has three phases over the course of five months with “urban cafés” (I think those are like the USA’s town halls), city walks with a planner, digital platforms and a diversity of other channels for citizens to choose as a means to make their opinions known. Today we were stopped by people in the central square with tablets taking surveys (we told them we weren’t eligible).

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While the plan specifically addresses “le coeur de Rennes,” the “heart” of the city, infrastructure and building works are being designed to accommodate an increase in population around the center and into the suburbs.  What are the best French cities to invest in? Rennes is near the very top of the list.

I don’t see where the mayor, Nathalie Appéré, has a plan to address the problems common to cities that also plague Rennes, such as homelessness, but maybe I haven’t found it. I don’t doubt she’s given them some thought.

homeless man, champs libres

I, for one, am looking forward to the conclusions of the Coeur de Rennes program in early 2019.

 

Posted in Brittany, expat, France, Rennes, urban planning | 6 Comments