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

Posted in COVID-19, expat, expat life, France, health care, Nice, France | Tagged , | 8 Comments

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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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. 

Posted in expat, expat life, France, Nice, France | 19 Comments

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

Excursions d’été: un séjour en l’immersion

A friend told me she was attending a French immersion course in the Alps. I figured I could use both, a serious language practice and cool mountain air in mid-July, so I signed up too.

The course was held at Lauvitel Lodge outside the village of Bourg L’Oisans, and was positioned in a large meadow overlooking several peaks. That’s where we took all our classes, under shade umbrellas. This was the view from my room.

Lauvital Lodge, La Danchere, France, July, 2020

We were nine of us in the class, with occasional participation by the lodge owner Caroline, a British expat long in France. Jane, our instructor and a native of Normandy who had lived ten years in Portland, Oregon, was excellent. She’d trained as an actress, and loved to role play. Her performances of unhelpful hospital secretaries, gas station attendants and other “service” people during our improv sessions made us laugh in recognition.

Our group met daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with class filling the time in-between, conversations unbroken and entirely in French. After five days, it felt odd to arrive in Nice and have English enter my brain. But it did, and all too quickly, hours or days passed without a word of the local language. Foiled!

It was a worthwhile experience, however. I did pick up additional vocabulary and tips on how to improve further. My favorite: read “bandes dessinés” (graphic novels), such as this one often for mastery of colloquial, spoken French.

I’m eager for more immersion but my next foray will have to be closer to Nice. The train journey from Grenoble home required two changes and took six hours. Even with AC, the car was hot, which felt worse by having to wear a mask the entire time. Which everyone was doing, thank god, as it was packed.

Normally I am happy when traveling, but in the era of Covid that was not the case. I was nervous and hyper-vigilant about getting too close, examining surfaces and using hand gel frequently. It did make me wonder how many more train trips I’ll be on.

Posted in expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, Travel | 8 Comments