The Expat Life As Seen From Outside

This is doing the rounds amongst expat bloggers at the moment so I thought I’d join in. (I came across it here first.)

 

What my friends and family think I do all day.

Photo by Pat Fereday http://www.facebook.com/pat.fereday

 

What the French think I do all day.

Photo by Pat Fereday http://www.facebook.com/pat.fereday

 

What English tourists think I do all day.

Photo by Anna Cervova

or

Lying around - here's Caiti in action!

What I would like to do all day.

Count money while looking glamorous! Photo by Petr Kratochvil

and

Massive book signing sessions - like Bejan Matur has!

What I actually do!

Well, this is what I did in 2006!
Most likely to be llama wrestling these days!

Plan Vélo – France Promotes Cycling

2011 Tour de France

Cycling is forever firmly linked with France, and not only because of the fantastic Tour de France. Mention the country’s name and many people immediately conjure up the image of an elderly fat man in a stripy teeshirt and a beret pedalling serenely along a country lane with a baguette under one arm and a string of onions around his neck. Well, I always did. Until I moved here. The only elderly gents on bikes you see are head to toe in expensive lycra ensembles whizzing along at speeds close to breaking the sound-barrier. But you don’t get that many even of them any more.

Only 3% of French people cycle and Transport Minister Thiérry Mariani wants to do something about that. So he recently unveiled his Plan Vélo (National cycling scheme) to get more people on their bikes. The goal is 10% of the population cycling by 2020. (Comparative figures for Amsterdam an Copehhagen are 28% and 37% respectively.) And M Mariana also hopes that 12% of all trips of 3km or less will be made by bike by then too. Way ahead of you there, brother! We usually cycle anything less than 10km unless it involves picking up large amounts of shopping.

Current non-cyclists will be tempted by the introduction of more cycling lanes, in cities of course, and special bike parking zones. These latter should be a big help. Finding somewhere to safely leave a bike has long been a problem and something that puts would-be bikers off. At Benj’s university residences of around 500 flats, there are 5 bike stands. I repeat, 5. It’s beyond pathetic. Bike security is important as even a bog standard bike is a couple of hundred euros these days and insurance companies never seem keen to pay out for bike thefts. Benj has already had a bike wheel nicked. The government is promoting Bicycode, bicycode.org which is a system of indelible security marking bikes to deter thieves.

from bicycode.org

There will be incentive schemes for cycling employees (not, sadly, the self-employed – plus ça change) and tax breaks on electric bikes, which I shall have to investigate since I’m not entirely sure what those are. There will be schemes whereby employers can ‘buy into’ collective transport projects and the good old Vélib (short for vélo en libre service). There’s mention too of une indemnité kilométrique. The government is hoping to save €5.6 billion on health care by making us all fitter from cycling, and if all Europeans pedalled 2.6 km per day instead of driving it, transport related carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 15%.

Recently cyclists were given official permission to shoot red lights in towns since this appears to be safer for cyclists than having them waiting at traffic lights and then setting off at the same time as impatient motorists behind them. I got swiped from behind at a roundabout once as I waiting for a gap, well tucked into the kerb. It’s incredible how brightly dressed cyclists suddenly become invisible when they stop!

So, it’s a green light for cycling in France. On your bikes, lads. Oh, and that really should include government ministers …

Seagulls, the Louvre and David’s Fountain

Say ‘the Louvre’ and most people think ‘Mona Lisa’. And I did too, right up until Saturday. Now I think seagulls! We saw our first mouettes (seagulls) since August 2006. Having always lived within 10 miles or so of coast in both England and Ireland, apart from three years at Oxford, seagulls were a part of life. So it was a very nice surprise to see some in Paris.

Our first glance of them was of their feet.

Lots of seagull feet

We’d come off the metro at Louvre and were following the endless tunnel to try and get to the surface when we arrived at the entrance to the museum, which is underground. Close to it is an upside down glass pyramid. The famous right-way-up one is a bit further away. Looking up through the pyramid, you see seagull feet and seagull poop. I bet whoever designed it hadn’t seen that coming!

We didn’t have time to ‘do’ the Louvre so we went up to the outside and marvelled at the fantastic buildings that make up this famous art museum. 2011 was the museum’s best ever year with 27 million visitors, despite economic hard times. That’s 1.5 million up on the previous year. The next most visited museums in France are respectively Versailles, the Pompidou Centre, and the Musée d’Orsay.

The Louvre

The first Louvre was a fortress built in the 13th century by Philip II Augustus. Charles V added onto this in the 15th century. Catherine de Médici and Henry V kept up the tradition of making it bigger, followed by Louis XIII and Richelieu. Louis XIV decided to move to Versailles so its development stopped then. It became a museum around 1789 and in 1989 the famous and controversial glass pyramid was added.

In case you missed the news recently, the Mona Lisa’s hotter twin sister was found in a museum in Madrid. She was hidden underneath another painting which was being restored. Because of being protected like that, the colours of this painting are much more vibrant that in the rather drab Mona Lisa. It’s thought to have been painted by someone in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio.

 

Mona Lisa left, hot twin right

And on to David’s fountain. I follow a blog called David in France. David is French and now living in Japan, but keeps up an enjoyable and very interesting blog about his home country. Recently he posted this photo and explained that there were several other brightly painted fountains dotted around Paris.

Pink Wallace fountain photo by David http://davidinfrance.com

Well, Caits and I didn’t find one of the eye-zapping ones but we came across one of the original dark green Wallace fountains that he mentioned in his blog. I was so pleased to find it, and would never even have noticed it if it hadn’t been for David’s blog. Merci bien, David ! So this one is now to be known officially as David’s fountain.

David's fountain

 

One Orange Balloon

Isn’t it amazing the odd little things that happen and give you a boost? We’re all feeling run down after le grand froid and so far the thaw is dispiriting. The farm is slowly turning to mush. However, the animals have cheered up immensely. The llamas have condescended to go out into their field at long last, and the chickens and turkeys have begun pottering around again. They’ve been lying low in the sheep stable up till now.

Anyway, we were doing the rounds of the farm, squelching through the slushy snow down to the big lake, when Rors spotted something bobbing around in the llama field. I went over to investigate. It was an orange, helium-filled balloon dancing on its string. And at the end, on a piece of maroon ribbon, was this:

(Wishing you a year of happiness and good luck. Carlos.)

It was like getting a hug from a total stranger! Thank you Carlos, and the same to you, wherever you are. Your good wishes and little surprise lifted our spirits and gave us something to smile about today.

The balloon has deflated after being boisterously played with by Rors but I shall remember it for a long time.

Before Rors got to it!

 

Thaw, More Chaos and Boursin

Finally the thaw has started but things are still chaotic. We had the heaviest snow fall of the year last night. This was forecast at vigilance orange level, but bizarrely even though the départements to the north, east, south and west of us (Indre, Allier, Corrèze and Haute Vienne) all made the decision to cancel school transport for today, the 14th, good old Creuse didn’t. I guess someone forgot to wake the Préfet up to ask his opinion! There was no way the roads were safe for transport of any kind this morning, and it seems that some transport companies providing ramassage scolaire (school buses) wisely made the decision not to run. Anyway, we’d already decided to keep Ruadhrí at home.

Public domain clipart from pixabay

We trekked down to the big lake to carry on the tree trimming and did a good couple of hours of chainsawing and lugging. The snow turned to slush around us as we worked and the rain came down. Even though we’re only just above zero, the snow and ice is melting extremely quickly. Luckily we’re about done, because I don’t fancy dragging trees around on softening ice above 5 metres of very cold water for much longer!

Le grand froid has been hard work. Chris and I are exhausted from all the extra farm work and the bank maintenance jobs. On top of that my handy husband has been unfreezing the pipes beneath the bath every single morning (using Suze of Suze, Cycling’s  foolproof method) and keeping the gîte fire going. And the fun hasn’t finished yet. We came back from tree chopping to find that the upstairs pipes had finally unfrozen after a fortnight’s non-co-operation, and one upstairs had popped a joint. Water was merrily dripping through the bathroom ceiling from Caiti’s room above. Chris has sorted that problem, but there are several burst pipes next door to repair, and those are the ones that are visible. We hope that nothing’s gone wrong out of sight. We’ll find out soon!

The cold has taken its toll on the livestock. We’ve lost our two oldest chickens, Molly and Black Chicken and four of the younger guinea-pigs, despite doing our best to keep them all warm. The camelids and sheep have been staying in their respective shelters most of the time and the remaining poultry hasn’t wandered far either. They’ll all be very pleased to see green grass again.

Wildlife has suffered too. We haven’t seen much evidence of ragondins (coypus) lately, apart from one frozen corpse which appeared yesterday morning. We’d heard rumours that these South American imports were killed off by extreme cold because they got frostbite in their tails and this led to their death. And it’s true. The chap we found, well, let’s just say his tail wasn’t pretty. Much as we detest these damaging rodents, I wouldn’t want them to go that way. Poor old thing.

And yes, I should be doing cheese since it’s Tuesday. So here’s a quick look at Boursin. Think French cheese, and Boursin is near the top of the list. I discovered it many years ago during a cycling holiday with three student friends. Every day for lunch we’d buy a baguette, a tub of Boursin, a 1kg bucket of chocolate pudding and a bottle of the cheapest wine we could find. The wine we soon gave up on when we realised that cycling after wine when you’re a bit giggly isn’t a great idea!

Boursin is a relatively modern cheese. It all began in 1957 when François Boursin set up a soft cheese factory in Normandy. Four years later a newspaper wrongly reported that Boursin was now making a soft cheese flavoured with garlic – another company was actually doing it. But that gave Monsieur Boursin the idea and he began experimenting. Boursin Garlic and Herbs was launched in 1963. Five years later it was the first cheese to appear in a TV advert. The same recipe is still used, but a variety of other versions have been introduced, such as pepper and walnut Boursin. And my top Boursin tip – add a dollop to mashed potatoes. It gives it a lovely flavour.

Paris Part Deux

As you know I’m slightly éolienne (wind turbine) obsessed, so it was great to see so many on our trip up to Paris, well over a hundred of them. The biggest group was in Beuce, where there were 26 in a row alongside the A10.

I’m surprised there aren’t more wind turbines alongside autoroutes. It would seem an obvious place for them since there is even less population next to them than in Creuse. All our nine éoliennes, which are about to go onstream by the way, are dotted amongst people’s houses, although obviously all at least the statutory 400m away.

We also saw a lot of police, but I’m less obsessed with them. However, it was interesting to see that France does have plenty of law enforcement officers. We go for weeks, sometimes months, here without bumping into a gendarme. We had the great excitement last year when a vanful i.e. 3, rolled up to our door to tell us that our horses had escaped onto the road. (We don’t have horses!) And the next day, Caiti and I saw them all again, plus some extra back-up, buying a baguette in Simply Market. I don’t imagine Paris policemen and women do much horse rounding up or bread buying. The life of a city flic is far removed from that of the country version. The former spend a lot of time looking menacing. When we came through the huge péage (toll gate) on the A10 near Paris, there was a line of coppers, one per lane, glaring at all the cars that came through. They weren’t after us, at least not on Friday, so we were let through. And then on Saturday there was a demonstration about Syria going on near the Opéra. There were rows and rows of riot police with helmets, plastic shields and ‘hitty things’ as Caiti described them! They were truncheons about a metre long. I took a pic but I don’t know how well you can make them out. I didn’t fancy getting any closer.

We saw lots of police cars during the day, and plenty of policemen at various metro stations. I’ve found a suggestion on the Net that there are 25 police officers per 10,000 of the population in France, but how reliable it is I’m not sure. This is something I must look into further. All I can say is that there would appear a huge disparity in the ratios of gendarmes to general population between urban and rural areas.

I’ll finish with a few more photos. It was perfect photography weather, so if only I were a better photographer than I’d have some awesome shots. But I didn’t do too badly. I’ll be posting my pics of the various famous landmarks over the next little while, but here are my favourite non-standard shots from the big city:

The famous Parisian velibs
The Quick cow, with graffiti!
We resisted temptation!
Lawns get tired in Paris

And with that, back to chopping and lugging trees and branches. The thaw is about to start so we have to get our skates on!

 

 

 

 

To Paris and Back

Caiti and I are safely back from our whirlwind trip to Paris which has left us culturally elevated but exhausted! OK, that could also be this afternoon’s post-trip gentle tree lugging session, but it’s mainly Saturday’s long day out in the City of Light. Also known as the Extremely Chilly City, the City of Police (we saw armies of them!) and also sadly the City of Public Phone Boxes Full of Homeless Families (about which more presently).

I’ll blog in more detail later in the week about our adventures since I haven’t yet sorted through my 95 photos and I’m on the weary side, but I wanted to touch base and give you a quick idea of what we got up to.

We walked a lot, went on metros and double-decker RER trains a lot (just how cool is a two-storey train? I never even knew they existed!), saw the Pont Alexandre III, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Latin quarter, Rue Rivoli, two different branches of Quick fast food restaurants, the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde, the Assemblé Nationale, the Arc de Triomphe and the étoile, Montmatre and the Bastille area, plus several more churches, towers and pointy monuments! And we fitted in the JPO (open day) at the Université de Pierre et Marie Curie which is where Caiti is thinking of going, and which was the main focus of the trip. Pas mal.

We had a few technical problems with Caiti’s phone which meant we were out of touch with Dagg base at Les Fragnes for eight hours. Knowing our silence would be a cause for concern, we looked for public phones to use during the afternoon but each and every one was occupied by families, I’m guessing eastern European, consisting of desperate looking women and an assortment of young children amidst piles of bedding and sacks of clothes. There were several tiny babies in evidence. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t need to be there. I don’t think any shelter would turn away small children in this weather, even if the families were sans papiers i.e. illegal immigrants. At least, I really, really hope not.

The JPO was disappointing. It’s the third one I’ve been to, and by far the worst. It gave every impression of having been organised at the very last minute, and I use the word ‘organised’ loosely. There were some students handing out a badly photocopied schematic plan of the Uni which blurrily highlighted the three areas where things were actually happening. This is a huge campus, admittedly with quite a lot of it being rebuilt, but there was still plenty of room to spread things out in. However, the stands of all four major scientific disciplines were packed into a couple of small ‘caves’ with squeezing through room only. There were no displays, no labs open to have a look round, no advice about student life in general and accommodation in particular, no friendly profs chatting to kids – practically nothing at all. Caiti asked a girl student about finding out about logements and was helpfully told to come back during the week and go to the scolarité office! I tried to probe and asked if she’d had any problems finding somewhere to live, but this was met with a fixed but panic struck smile. Does not compute! This may be part of the Sorbonne and allegedly the best science university in the country, but the people that run it couldn’t organise the proverbial event involving too much drink in a brewery. Caits wasn’t impressed, but the course is the one that she really wants to do. I guess we’ll see.

Enough for now. Youngest son is slowly dissolving in the bath and Muscly Men In Lycra (Ski Sunday) is about to start on the telly, the one programme I don’t like to miss each week, for obvious reasons! More about Paris soon …

 

Twenty Years to Publish a Novel – Guest Post by Steve Bichard

I usually host guest posts from authors on my Books Are Cool website, but since this is a novel about expat life in France, then this website is definitely the best place for it! I’m delighted to welcome Steve Bichard who has just self-published his first book, Vantastic France.

 

Twenty years ago, which seems like yesterday, I started to write a novel about the 3 years I spent living in Portugal. I had always enjoyed reading novels about people starting a life in a new country, so I thought why not try it myself. After all, I had plenty tales to tell, from nearly getting gored by a bull in the street before a bullfight, to getting fined three melons for driving an overloaded lorry full of melons, taking them to the market across the Lisbon suspension bridge.

However that book is still on the back burner, but after spending time in France over the past four years, it re-kindled the fire as it were. I also wanted to try a different angle as opposed to the flowery versions of life in France so often portrayed, and thus Vantastic France was born.

Vantastic France the Novel

There are many ‘white van men’ that move to France, with no idea as to what they are letting themselves and their families into. Firstly French bureaucracy, secondly the friendly and not so friendly other ex-pats. One of the star characters that grew out of my fictional novel is Clarissa, who seems to be getting quite a fan base amongst my readers. She is a ‘love her or hate her’ type of character, a ‘Mrs Marmite’ some might say.

Clarissa has been in France for a number of years, so is of the old school style of thinking, in that France was a place to have a holiday or permanent home, for the slightly better off. To her this new breed of ex-pats has no intention of learning French, shout loudly in English to get what they want in a shop and expect to walk in to a job, or work on the ‘black’. Clarissa dabbles in antiques and naturally ‘pin money’ paid in cash is hardly worth declaring!

All my characters are totally fictional. However, upon reading the book you will probably recognise certain well-known traits of people that you might come across in France. In fact, one of my readers swears that Clarissa lives in her hamlet!

So enough about the book, or it might spoil it for those of you that might eventually get to read it. But please do not expect an epic novel; it is more a light entertaining holiday style of read, which will hopefully make you laugh and even shed a tear, as you follow the trials and tribulations of the Taylor family in France.

Publish your own e-book novel

 One thing in life that I really believe in is that what goes around comes around; this is why I am sharing my journey into the world of publishing on my blog www.stevebichard.com. I have learnt so much from other people’s blogs in a very short time, so it is only fair that I pass it on.

Now with the advent of the Amazon Kindle, it is so easy to publish an e-book, and the bonus is that it also costs you virtually nothing. There is also no rejection disappointment after having sent your synopsis to 20 or more publishing houses. You just upload your word file, create a cover or have one made. Then hey presto you have your very own published novel. If I can do it, trust me you can!

You can make 70% of the book price if you price it over $2.99 and 35% if it is under. If you sign up to Kindle Direct Publishing Select, then you can offer your e-book free for 5 days in 3 months. This is not as silly as it sounds. In my first month I sold one book a day, then I did a free promotion and after that ended I am now selling 7 to 10 books a day, because your ratings increase. There has been a hiccup with the sales stats so not all were showing. I am glad to say that now they have caught up. I have now had over 500 downloads in my first 5 weeks.

Paperback Versions

Another advantage of publishing with Amazon is that now you can also have a print on demand paperback version of your novel, through Create Space. Unfortunately the books are printed in the US, so your paperback will initially appear only on Amazon.com and is shipped from the States, making the postage costs quite expensive for UK readers. There are ways around this by ordering a large number of your paperbacks at trade prices and shipping them to Amazon UK for distribution. You will not make a fortune for each sale, but you will be making it far easier and less expensive for UK and European readers. Create Space is working on having the books also printed in the UK. This should happen later this year, so all is not lost. Again the cost is very low for publishing a paperback, I signed up for the better sales exposure deal, which cost about £100.

So for those budding authors out there, what are you waiting for? It has never been easier to get published!

 

Here’s where you’ll find Steve’s book on Amazon.co.uk; on Amazon.fr and Amazon.com.

 

 

 

How To Get To Paris

I may slump into incoherence in the middle of this post. We’re doing some heavy physical stuff around the lakes at the moment, and I’m shattered! However, we need to press on while the lakes are frozen as it makes cutting back all the overhanging branches and trees and then lugging them to a convenient point on the bank a zillion times easier than they would otherwise have been. We have another week probably but there’s still plenty left to do.

And I’m skiving off in the middle of it. This weekend I’m take Caiti up to Paris to the Journée Portes- Ouvertes (open day) at the university she’s interested in. It’s the Université Pierre et Marie Curie.

I began planning the trip yesterday. After a couple of hours I was beginning to think the Creuse masons’ approach of walking there was a very sensible one. It’s taken time and ingenuity to organise a budget-friendly trip to the big city.

First I checked out public transport, since this is always my preferred means of travel. Coach travel is usually the cheapest, and by chance a coach goes from Guéret, where Caiti is at lycée, to Paris. OK, it takes four hours but we both have Kindles. However, the times weren’t the greatest and it would still cost us €56 euro each. That seemed steep, but maybe I’m out of touch. We’d also be delivered to central Paris and would have to find two nights’ accommodation which would be pricey.

OK, train next. The fastest route was from Chateauroux, an hour and a half north-west from here, but it was dear, over €80 each. Montluçon to Paris? Montluçon is fifty minutes’ drive to the east from here. It would be a three and a bit hour journey and was not much cheaper than Chateauroux to Paris. The only vaguely affordable train route at around €35 each was from Limoges, an hour and three quarters south from here i.e. the wrong direction. There was the bonus here that we could call in and say a quick ‘hi’ to Benj, but at very antisocial hours which he wouldn’t appreciate. And for all the train routes we’d have the central Paris accommodation premium to pay on top of that. Plus quite a bit of diesel expended in getting to the station in the first place.

Eventually I decided on driving since this was orders of magnitude cheaper. Sorry planet. And it also means we can stay out of town and so avoid expensive Paris hotel prices. I’ve booked a room at Formule 1 hotel for €35 per night (we’ll stay two since Caiti’s do is on the Saturday afternoon and I didn’t fancy driving home pretty much all the way in the dark). Formule 1’s are cheap and cheerful and I love them. We’re near an RER (light railway) station so we can get into the city easily and quickly. I shall buy day travel tickets that allow you unlimited public transport travel within a certain number of zones in the city. This will be about €15 for me and €4 for student Caiti, which seems very reasonable.

So we’re more or less sorted. I just need to print out timetables and maps and panic, and we’ll be ready. I love travelling but I do get stressed by it these days. I’ve become a bit of a country bumpkin, cocooned away here in quiet rural France. But don’t worry, I shan’t wear my wellies to Paris. I know where to draw the line. (I’m fairly certain they’re banned there anyway!) I’ll polish up my walking boots, sew the missing button back onto my ‘going out’ coat and make my daughter proud of me. Or at least not cringingly embarrassed!

We’ll have Saturday morning to sightsee so my next job is to draw up a list of unmissables. The Eiffel Tower of course, although we’ll just look for now, not go up it; Montmartre; Marks and Spencers; the shop that sells Eiffel Tower shaped cookie cutters  … I must go and browse through Mary Kay’s posts on her wonderful blog. She visits and blogs about all the interesting places in Paris and they’re all so tempting …

 

Good Weather for Schoolboy Biscuits – Petit Écoliers

I’m not generally a great biscuit eater, but this cold weather has changed that. And if the biscuit has chocolate on or in it, all the better. Luckily there was a packet of Petit Écoliers in the cupboard to indulge in.

These are a truly French biscuit. They’re made by LU, a company that goes back to 1846 and which today is owned by Nabisco, which in turn is owned by Kraft. But back then, in Nantes, it consisted of husband and wife team Jean-Romain Lefèvre and Pauline-Isabelle Utile. I bet you can see where LU comes from now!

Originally they made fancy biscuits which they packaged nicely and sold to be given as gifts. Over the years as the company passed down through the generations, it morphed into large-scale biscuit production.

LU had an astute eye for advertising, commissioning top artists of the day to paint pictures that they could use as publicity. One of the most famous of these is Firmin Bouisset’s Petit Écolier (little schoolboy), which he created in 1897. It’s a painting of his own son eating a petit beurre biscuit, made, of course, by LU.

However, it wasn’t until 1983 that the Petit Écolier biscuit arrived on the scene. This is a petit beurre biscuit topped by a slab of chocolate that has the famous painting moulded onto it. It comes in milk, white, dark and extra dark chocolate, all equally delicious. They’re a very popular after school nibble for hungry kids off the school bus. There are plenty of cheaper imitations of these biscuits, but none of them have the little schoolboy picture on.

Ruadhri had a couple today after we came back from playing and ice trucking on the frozen lake. (No school today since the school buses were all cancelled again because of the weather.) We used the sledge to haul wood across from Ragondin Island over to the far bank where we can collect it with the tractor. Here’s Ruadhri with a load.

We messed around too, taking it in turns to tow each other. Here’s Rors pulling me! He deserved his Petit Écoliers after that!