Les Fumeurs

You can’t be a non-smoker and not be shocked, saddened and sickened by the popularity of cigarettes in France. In some French minds, smoking cigarettes is one of many indicators of Gallic superiority to Americans, with their puritanically oppressive anti-smoking attitudes and regulations.

Yesterday, I was going through children’s books in a library (looking for an easy read in French on Vercingetorix) where I saw a cartoon book about some French character in which he is smoking in nearly every frame. Passengers on smoke-free buses and trains stick butts in their mouths and get lighters and vapes out as they are disembarking to save precious seconds before they can start inhaling again. On a regular basis I witness some poor shriveled soul, with barely the strength, lifting up their hand to light the cigarette dangling from their lips.

smoker, Nice, France iphone November 2018

But a new day might be on the horizon. The health authorities, if not the general medical staff population who take smoke breaks outside clinic doors so that they reek of cigarettes all day long, are on the case. November is “mois sans tabac,” or tobacco free month, a nationwide campaign for helping the French fight their addiction. It comes complete with a “get ready to quit” kit, insurance-covered cessation aids at the pharmacy, and a phone app that serves as a digital coach on going cigarette-free.

Apparently, since the annual campaign was launched a few years ago, one million French have done just that. Of course, other measures, like higher cigarette taxes, anti-smoking ad campaigns and new highly visual packaging showing grisly cancerous organs and “le tabac tue” (tobacco kills) in large print, have played a supportive role.

France, and EU member in general, have come a long way since the days when smoking was allowed everywhere — inside restaurants and bars, in doctors’ offices and airports, on any mode of transport, on any beach, park or classroom — basically wherever you liked. Several years ago, after a week of hacking and coughing my way through Paris, I couldn’t wait to get on the actual smoke-free aircraft taking me back to the US to get away from the toxic clouds of smoke in the airport. There’s a long way to go, but I can breathe more easily now.








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Despite its reputation as a haven from bad weather, the French Riviera does experience fall and winter seasons, during which it rains regularly. This year, there’s been more rain than usual.

woman with umbrella on promenade

Here in Nice, we’re lucky it’s just been lots of rain. In southwest France and the close-by department of Var, named for the river which usually flows thinly, there have been days on end of flooding. Likewise in the Aude, which has seen the worst damage from the unusual pattern of precipitation.

The periods of heavy rain are triggered by moist air rising from the warmer than usual Mediterranean Sea, then meeting the Alps and colder air.

Unlike their US counterparts when weather has becomes catastrophic of late, French officials don’t refrain from invoking “climate change” by means of explanation. The phenomenon has been tied to record heat during the last few summers, an increase in the stink bug population and the incidence of locally transmitted dengue fever. Chikungunya and West Nile viruses are other mosquito-borne diseases now present in southern France, due to climate change. By the end of the century, summer heat is expected to reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

Will southern France become an ecological extension of North Africa? Do we have to be worried about the vineyards surviving? And camembert? Will there be any escape from extreme summer heat? Should we invest in air conditioning companies?

For now, the Niçois don’t seem too deterred from their regular Promenade habit by inclement times. In fact, you could say that the grey light and pounding waves only add to the ever-present romance in the air.  Be merry.

lovers on the promendade



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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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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.

Nice France avenue des fleurs apartment garden view 2018

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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