“All I have is a voice." (W.H. Auden)

We are fortunate to have spent, full time, the last 18 months in France.  We are fortunate to have a home here as well as in the U.S.  It is a nice balance.  The highly charged environment that rewards professional skills and ambition and the low key setting that forces one to relax and repose.  The efficient, convenient and fairly inexpensive consumer life style in the U.S. and the courteous, personal, and almost stress-free way of life in Southern France.

  

Yes, I do miss many conveniences of a U.S. lifestyle as well as the fat paycheck and the ongoing pursuit of professional development.  But these seem trivial when one’s health and welfare can be at risk.  It will be difficult, at best, to return to a life which focuses more on obedience to circumstance and less on the exercise of choice.  But that will have to change.  Bien sûr.

  

And we have noticed the beginning of these changes.  It is very telling, for instance, that first daughter who has spent nearly 8 years in a private school in the U.S. does not feel any emotional attachment with her school and schoolmates.  Yet after 18 months in the village school, she is lamenting her impending departure and the friends, the teachers, and the school that she says she will miss.  “Mom, I really like the experience I have had here.  Even the not so good ones.  People are so much more down to earth and less discriminating and mean,” She says.  Second daughter confides, “my friends here want me to stay on, Mom.  I will miss them and they will miss me.”  Such confessions were unheard of when we departed the U.S. in January 2013.

  

Perhaps they have matured here in the last 18 months.  The experience in France facilitated an independence; a newfound confidence for the “new and the strange.”  Their sudden and unpredictable immersion in a different way of life, in a different way of learning and earning grades did not traumatize them.  Instead, they demonstrated a level of maturity that surprises and pleases me.  I like to believe that these experiences result in life skills that will endure through adulthood.

  

As for me, I can barely remember the hurried pace of a career professional.  Though I miss the intellectual debates and the complex business analytics and problem solving, I found a different application for mental acuity.  The proper phrasing of a French word, the struggle to understand the “Midi” accent, the paperwork and processes to be hurdled, and the many little behaviors to learn for bien être.*  That which is essential and primary in life and living.

  

So this leaves us straddling both worlds and using the best of each to fit our purposeful lifestyle.  It may be complicated but I like to think of it as a competitive advantage that allows us to be mindful of what really matters – deep and abiding relationships, unconstrained faith, the thirst for the unknown, and the productive search for the good in people and places.  It is a gift and a blessing.  Never, ever a challenge.  Comme il va.

 

 

*(well- being, peace of mind, serenity, welfare, wellness, etc)

 

As published in Languedoc Living: http://www.languedocliving.com/licence-todrive-life-45.html

 

Licence to... Drive

In the on-going quest to be almost French, the next best document after a carte sejour (temporary residency card) is the permis de conduire (driver’s licence). It is sought after but not easily obtained by Americans. Generally, one takes the written and driving tests in French to qualify for a licence. In some states, like Virginia, there is reciprocity so one can exchange the U.S. licence for a French one within a year after receiving the carte sejour.

 

It is this privilege that prompted an American friend of mine who has resided in the L'Herault for 13 years to urge me to go for that reciprocity. “I’m from New York City so there is no reciprocity,” she said regretfully. “And the prep courses for the French test are so expensive so I’ll have to renew my international licence from AAA (American Automobile Association) every year to drive in this country. But you don’t have to.” She was very persuasive, even taking the time to pick up a form from the Sous-préfecture for me.

 

So, with her encouragement, I completed the form and we drove to Beziers to drop off the application. The office, far from the main entry to the Sous-préfecture, was tiny and full. I think some people mistakenly assumed that this was the office for the carte grise as well so the queue was fairly long but it moved rather quickly. As our number was called, we approached one of the two windows. The fonctionnaire reviewed my dossier, checked whether Virginia was one of the U.S. states eligible for reciprocity, did a number on her computer and turned to us to explain the next steps. She was giving the instructions about the same time the man facing the next window started to talk loudly to the other fonctionnaire. I could barely hear myself talk much less hear the lady in my window. It was frustrating. It’s hard enough to understand French; much harder to understand when one can barely hear it spoken. But not wanting to hold up the queue, we left the office. Outside, we tried to decipher what little we heard. “She said return in two week,” my friend says. “What’s this about getting the attestation before I can get my licence?” I asked her. We both were bewildered but figured that, with the two stamped and self-addressed envelopes, they will likely contact us.

 

Fast forward 6 weeks and I still have not heard from the Sous-préfecture. “Mom, maybe they said douze semaine not deux semaine.” First daughter chided me. “ You have a hard time understanding what people say here, “ So I waited and waited. In the meantime, I received a speeding ticket which included 1 point on my licence. Which, of course, I didn’t have. No worries, my neighbour tells me. You are in the system and once you get your permis, it will already have 1 point on it. Hmmm, maybe this why I have not heard from them. Maybe they rejected my application because of the speeding ticket. These thoughts ran through my head but were hardly satisfying. So one day, in Beziers for photos to renew my carte sejour, I just happened to pass by the office. It was empty. Yes! No sense embarrassing myself in front of others.

 

So with heart in hand, dictionary in pocket, I walked in and took a number. When it was called, I hesitatingly spoke to the fonctionnaire and asked why my application was taking so long. Is there a problem, perhaps? She asked for my identification, went through the files, and took out the attestation. Apparently, I was supposed to pick it up after two weeks. So they had to modify the date to make it current. They also demanded my U.S. licence. They told me that they had to verify its validity. I waited for a minute or two until a man came out of the office and handed me my attestation. He told me it was good for about 2 months and it was a proxy document for my licence.

 

In a month’s time, one of my self-addressed stamped envelopes was delivered with a notice to pick up my French licence. Once again, I made the trek to the Sous-préfecture. Luckily, it was not full. I presented my identification, the attestation and the notice. And then I received, gratefully and proudly, my permis de conduire. Good until 2029!!!

It’s that time of the year again. Time needed to prepare, collect, and review the documents necessary to apply or re-apply for a carte sejour; the temporary resident card indicating permission to stay in France as a visitor without need of a visa. The card that husband tells me I need to continue to renew so that, one day perhaps, I can graduate to a 10 year resident visa.  One hopes.

 

France, as in other countries, requires a visa for visitors who plan to stay for longer than 3 months. When we applied for a 6 month stay visa in January 2013 at the consulate, the officer mentioned another document that I needed or should fill out.  “Just in case you plan to stay longer” he advised.  Whatever, I thought, just give us our 6 month visa!

 

When we finally arrived in France, a local friend reviewed the additional document and suggested that she write a letter to accompany the mailing to Montpellier. This is the capital of Herault and our region’s prefecture (sort of like a State government, I guess).  I also had to submit a number of documents such as copies of our passports, visas, financial resources, letter from husband indicating his approval of our stay and committing to supporting us, letters from the schools accepting our daughters, etc. Much as I tried to get into the process, my immediate attention was required by the girls as they began school and in getting our home organized as we settled for the next few months. 

 

Despite my almost deliberate neglect, I found myself getting notified to appear in Montpellier for a physical exam. I called up another local friend and asked her to accompany me. I dreaded this rendezvous.  Having been turned down by a French health insurance company earlier in the year for a pre-existing condition (now recovered), I feared that the prefecture would give me a bad health review. But I feared more the idea of the gendarme coming after me for a no-show.

 

Once we arrived in Montpellier, I was interviewed then advised to take a vaccine that is specific to my cohort.  “It is advisable,” the doctor said, “but not obligatory.”  Then on to radiology. The technician pointed to a closet like cabin and instructed me to take off all clothing above the waist and to wait. There were no robes or towels in the room. And the doors on either side were locked and can only be opened from the outside.  At least, I was not exposed to other waiting people. Then the door opened, the technician summoned me and took X-rays. Once the X-rays were done, I waited for another interview to complete the “health examination.” Then I was given my X-rays and a one page document stating that all is well. I was to present this paper to the sous-prefecture (like a county government) when I apply for the carte sejour.

 

So, armed with more paperwork (many of which had to be officially translated in French) and the required online reserved meeting confirmation, my friend and I arrived in Beziers.  My name was called, I was seated and then proceeded to submit each document that the fonctionnaire (woman civil servant) checked off the list. She entered my information in the computer, collected all the necessary copies, and then it was done.  I was in the office for about 15 minutes. Tentatively, I asked, “C’est fini?” She nodded so I asked about a receipt (recepisse); a document that indicates the application is in process.  I was told to return in a week and to request this in the front office.  I did.  Not sure whether it was necessary since I did not leave the country anyway.

 

Two months later, two days before we departed for Barcelona then the States, I received notice to pick up my carte sejour. The rest of the family left for Barcelona sightseeing and I followed two days later, carte sejour on hand.  It was a relief! 

 

So now, and every year for the foreseeable future, I have to renew the carte sejour.  Today, with my scheduled online reservation and my good luck friend along, we returned to Beziers.  We hardly sat down when my name was called (and we were 15 minutes early).  The very friendly and welcoming fonctionnaire collected my documents, asked me if there were changes in my family status, and if I can write down that I do not intend to work in France.  Fortunately, I had a letter ready and I submitted this to him (aided by Google Translate, of course). I asked whether he can give me a 5 year card and he said it was not possible although he would prefer it because it would mean less work for him. Less stress for me, I volunteered. But it was not to be. We were both bound by the rules.

 

And so the deed was done.  The meeting was over in 10 minutes.  When I asked if I can get a recepisse, he told me I do not need it as my current carte sejour is valid until July.  And I would receive the new one then.  So I am good for another year… and another chance to get anxious all over again!   Oh joy!!* 

It occurred to me, as I filled out the application to the Mairie for the holiday rental of our place, that we have been French homeowners for six years now.  It does not seem so long ago when we first chanced upon the house on 12 Impasse JJ Rousseau.  But we certainly feel settled and comfortable living in it now.  There is a sense of permanence that one can never get from rentals, hotel rooms or time shares.

 

The quest started sometime in the mid-2000s when, after saving up for an upgrade from our Virginia USA home, housing prices escalated through competitive bidding wars.  Though husband had visions of media rooms and wine cellars, I was concerned about the economics that came with price inflation and extravagant distribution of mortgages.  So I proposed a distracting idea.  “What about a second home that we used to discuss before we had children?”  He agreed and we searched around for a mountain cabin, a beach condo, anything anywhere that appeals to vacation days and future retirement.  But, alas, all the attractive places in the US were victims of rising house prices.  So we turned east.   We’ve always dreamt about having a pied-a-terre in Spain.  So the researched on Spain continued including some visits to northern Spain that European friends recommended would be better than the drought laden area of the south.

 

But a childhood friend who was (and is) living in Provence enticed us with an entirely new proposition.  “Come to France,” she said, “and be closer to me.  It is so much better here than Spain.”  So we visited in 2007 and talked to her real estate adviser.  Though his counsel centered more on Provence, he did acknowledge that Languedoc Roussillon was a beautiful place and worth checking out.  “Much cheaper than Provence but more rural,” he admitted.  So we took a one day dash to Herault, Languedoc  Roussillon where we checked out four houses through a local immobillier (real estate agency) whose staff spoke very good English.   None of the houses made a lasting impression.  But the vineyards, rows and rows of them as soon as once crosses the border from Provence to Languedoc, stood out in memory.  As we left Languedoc to return to my friend’s place in Provence, I told husband, “This is it!  No question, this is our place and I’m going to find us a house!!”  I don’t recall his answer but I like to think he was just as mesmerized with the region.

 

So armed with more internet research and scheduled appointments with four real estate agents (France has no multiple listing system), I returned on January 2008 to begin the house hunt.   A friend accompanied me and we rented a house in Olonzac for the week.   In a span of four and half days,  I viewed about 16 houses in all shapes, locations and prices.   Unfortunately,  at the same time, the dollar euro exchange reached its highest point and my budget had to adjust accordingly.  Ça va sans dire.

 

During our viewings, we encountered one house  located at  historically preserved village and it was straight out of a Hollywood film.  My friend asked the agent, “People actually live here?  It looks like a movie set.”  He replied, “Yes, it is a regular village but exteriors cannot be changed or can be improved only with government permission.   It is designated as historic.”  The medieval stone house was charming.  And it came with its own grange (stone barn) across the cobblestoned alley for summer dining and wine storage.   And, of course, it was surrounded by vineyards.  My friend turned to me and said, “The house looks great, it is furnished, and the reasonably low price is attractive.   But your daughters will not like it as there is nothing here.  No  school, no boulangerie.  Great if you’re a writer and want seclusion.  But your family will like some company for sure.”  She had a point!

 

Another house we viewed was located in one of the wine villages where the local domaine was well known for its excellent wines.  But the house was undergoing renovation and was unfurnished.  I wanted to see a finished, furnished property.  Another property was an apartment in an imposing but beautiful chateau (castle) and the furniture was custom-made to fit.  The view of the valley with the vines,  sheep,  and distant mountains was picture perfect.  So was the price. A summer pool and horses for riding came with property ownership.  But the chateau was empty and the agent explained that the flat owners were Swiss.  The place was used largely for summer vacations.  “Not good enough,” I said.  “We want to be part of the local community.  And I do not want to drive or walk far to get to the village”

 

By Thursday of that week, I was resigned to the idea of returning in April.  None of the houses moved me.  It was a matter of heart and not just budget.  So on Friday, committed to another appointment, we met another agent.  She had emailed many questions about our preferences, use of the house, family composition and the like.  When we met her, I specifically asked to see a property in her portfolio.  The location was ideal.  It was within the village circulade, close to the old chateau,  and in a pedestrian only street.  The interiors looked like the home of someone’s grandma which was not surprising since an elderly Scottish woman had lived in it.  Though it had promise, I know husband could not visualize its potential.    

 

So the agent, convinced that the village would be ideal for us, took me to another property a few steps away.  It was completely renovated inside.  It was very basic but, nonetheless modern, bright, and welcoming.  There were three floors with one room on each floor and enough space for the parents and young children.  Plus it was nestled nicely in this small, car-free alley with good street lighting and privacy.  Though a bit above my now reduced budget, the agent negotiated the price effortlessly.   Thus, by April, we became homeowners in a country far from our own;  but now familiar rather than foreign.  C'est comme ça!

One Sunday, after mass, we drove to our reserved table in a nearby auberge.  Because I was tired of cooking, because it was a sunny, wonderful day.  First daughter, however, remarked that it was a day to celebrate our one year anniversary in Languedoc.  It was in late January, last year, where we hurriedly packed our bags, begged for long term visas, and flew to this corner of France to relax, repose and immerse.  Husband and I believed it would give our daughters a different but improved perspective of how other people live and, hopefully, gain life skills along the way.

 

And what a year it has been!  And what lessons learned as we adjusted to a different country, different language and certainly different rules and protocols.  We tried to avoid any faux pas so as not to offend our host country and we put all effort in learning to communicate, albeit haphazardly.   We meant to be a part of, rather than apart from, the very place we now call home.  

 

If one was to ask what the lessons were, I would list the following: 

 

-          Learn and use the language:  This is undoubtedly the first rule and one that every reference book on living abroad emphasizes repeatedly.  And it is true.  Even if in broken, butchered sentences (remember David Sedaris’ book: Me Talk Pretty One Day?), the practice makes it habitual and the effort appreciated.  People here have a way of helping you with words and sentences if you ask.  Just ask.

 

-          Practice courtesy:  In our stressful, oftentimes harried lives, we often forget the common courtesies that make the day a pleasant one.  In our corner of France, it is expected, even imperative to offer the daily niceties.  Whether it is bonjour to the boulangerie lady or the meat vendor at the market; the ça va or vous allez bien prompt to a neighbor or municipal worker cleaning the road; the merci bien and bonne journée that accompanies someone’s greeting to you.   Once, in the post office, a Frenchwoman approached the desk after waiting in line (I was behind her) and proceeded to rattle off questions.  The postmaster looked at her and said bonjour.  She went on, so he repeated the greeting.  After the third greeting, she got it and said bonjour.  Then she was served.  Common courtesy... how refreshing!

  

-          Join in: Immersion requires participation.  So jump in and join the movie nights for 5 euros with your neighbors.  Or the Bastille day concert and dinner where for 15 euros you can enjoy a piece of a cow roasting on an open fire after you finish your bucket of moules entrée.  And all you can drink red wine.  If there are religious events, attend for the special masses like one where the winemakers dressed in their robes and medals parade down the aisle and offer their wines for communion.  Have a cup of coffee everyday in the same place and practice your French with the barista/bartender.  Living the vie en France means jumping in and going with the flow.  You may not know where it leads to but the journey and the destination are worth it.

 

-          Make friends:  Living away from the comfort of one’s primary residence means that the usual support and resource systems are absent.  But new ones can be made through reaching out and nurturing friendships.  These can be the new neighbors who are invited over for an aperitif or someone met in church or friends of friends introduced over dinner at someone’s home.   Making new acquaintances is easy; making them friends requires an investment of time.  So have folks over for an aperitif or invite them to celebrate a birthday at a restaurant.  Cook dinner and introduce non-French cuisine or ask them along for a walk in the vineyards and serve tea and cookies after.  It is amazing how open people are and how willing to help out when they know you are sincere and welcoming.   I have asked parents of second daughter’s classmate to watch her after school because of my scheduling conflicts, another friend to help me with bureaucratic processes and papers, a neighbor to help me with my French and another local friend to accompany first daughter to the US to claim her birthday gift concert.  Their gift of time and trust is truly priceless.

 

-          Get to know the neighborhood:  Villages may be small but there will always be something going on.  Know where the mairie (town hall) is and make a visit once a while.  In our village, the mairie hands out the garbage liners as part of our taxes.  Or sometimes they sell tickets to the local events.  They know who’s who and can make introductions.  Find out where the doctor’s office is located and who they are; or the local epicerie for the kitchen necessities.  And the people on your street are better than any security alarm system. They know who’s coming and going and are quick to look out for your place when you are not in residence.  A childhood friend who lives in Provence came by the house with a key that I left her so she can pick up her lamp.  The moment she came out of the house, our neighbor poked his head out of the window and demanded to know who she was.   She quickly texted me to tell me all’s well because our neighbor is watching out for us.  Sweet! 

  

-          Play tourist:  The privilege of living in the area comes with the added benefit of playing tourists to some of the most enchanting sites.  Some are world famous because of the UNESCO recognition while others are less known but much admired by locals and seasoned travelers.  Take the time to drive around and get lost.  There is no need to worry as someone will help point to the right direction.  Some villages are straight out of storybooks.  There are usually cafés/bars and, sometimes, restaurants to discover.  Walk the major towns to get a feel of the place and a sense of its history.  I am always in awe in Narbonne when I come upon the Via Domitia stones that Roman chariots rode upon centuries ago.  Or the churches in Beziers burned during the first crusade against Christians.  Driving around and visiting places – both new and familiar -- is so enriching that I try to do so weekly.

 

-          Experiment:   Sometimes the unfamiliar is intimidating.  But there is no way to know whether it is good or not unless one tries.  So the tielle setoise served by our neighbors may not look appealing but once bitten, it is tantalizing.  Even the girls now look for the appetizer sizes in the supermarket to enjoy as snacks after school.  And yes, minced escargot wrapped in tortellini is an acquired taste but easily developed when served in a 3 star Michelin restaurant.   And the array of pastries is always tempting even the unusual ones.  Once in a while we try something new and different.  For instance, when an email promotion on the TGV to Lyon showed up on my screen, we barely hesitated before purchasing tickets to this grand ville.  Fifty euros round trip for three people!  The price was not something to dismiss.  And the value of the trip far exceeded the price.  We were delighted with the journey and the destination.    

 

-          Live local:  Life is not about trying to find one but living one.  The experience and the wisdom that come are gifts.  Intentions and aspirations adjust accordingly.  For instance, buying a village house or French country home in the hopes of making money in the future is simply not the motivation for living here.  The house, like a favorite dress or a sentimental ring or a reliable car is used to enhance day to day living.  French people tell me that the return on the investment should be the joy gained from having the habitat and its access to experiences.  We buy things we need not what we want.  Or we buy things to consume and not simply to save… to accumulate and put away.  Only to be forgotten thus creating waste (and storage problems).  And here, waste is not acceptable.   One has to bring their own bags to the supermarkets and recycled bins (plastics, batteries, lamps, etc) are ubiquitous.  Brocantes are treasure hunts for furniture and accessories once belonging to a family; oftentimes, many families.  Friends chide me if I discard old things and not re-use them.  So now, an old fridge is my wine cellar, torn linens are recycled as cleaning rags.   As for communication, we strive not to be discouraged.  Learning should be fun and not a competitive sport.  We don’t need to score big; only to be understood and to understand the gist of a conversation.  So  when neighbors ask us to come over for an aperitif or ask the girls to take a slice of birthday cake from the next door’s children party, we go for it despite knowing that we will have to converse for an hour or so.   As a writer once said, think of it as an exercise for the brain.  Work it out once in a while to keep it from being dormant.    

 

   -          Learn new rules:  Every country is different and sometimes at odds with one’s own culture and practices.  But the frame of reference is the “here and now.”  This is the new “normal.”  So if the driver’s license has to be translated even if there is reciprocity, one gets it done.  If the school requires parents to come and discuss grades before receiving the report card, so be it.  If the bank requires your tax statement in the US before you can open a local account, provide it.  If the ATM machine eats up your US debit card and the bank manager tells you he can’t open the machine for security reasons, it is what it is.  If the restaurant owner insists on serving you coffee only after you finish your dessert, that’s the protocol.  Enjoy the dessert.  It can be confusing, and to those resisting, even frustrating to have to follow practices that are so unlike what we are accustomed to.  But is it really worth the discontent when you are surrounded by majestic vistas, grand cuisine, exemplary wines and the welcoming smiles of young and old alike?  I do not believe so.

-          Relax and Enjoy:  The best part of having a place to go to is the chance to get away from the baggage of living in the capital of one of the most powerful countries in the world.  The politics, the corporate competitiveness and the material ambitions are so disconcerting that a sabbatical from all is necessary to keep one’s perspective on what is truly important.  Family, health, and simple generous living.  So we come here to get away from it all; to refresh and rejuvenate and to return wiser and calmer.  During our time here, we avoid or eliminate those things – stuff, events, and people -- that can cause stress.  We don’t go shopping every weekend just to be able to buy something unnecessary but expected from classmate and colleagues.  We don’t really care about the make of our rental car or the brand of our clothes or the price of our furniture.  We don’t feel obligated to host our friends and family who want to visit or to reschedule our time to fit their vacation wants.  But we welcome people who are eager to explore our area and meet our local friends, who are independent travelers in outlook and habit, and who are not already predisposed to unfavorably judge the country and the people.  We take pleasure in living here; this is our truly our home away from home.    

 

Latest comments

14.07 | 08:01

Beautiful! Vive la France!

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17.02 | 01:57

France is awaiting your return, Betty!

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16.02 | 10:07

Such a wonderful experience for all! Truly a beautiful region filled with lovely people, excellent food, and soothing wine! Am looking forward to returning.

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07.09 | 14:44

What a joy for this to be shared. I am reading several times, soaking it in and making my own movie in my mind of this adventure. So excited for you three!

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