Monday, 27 February 2012

A Parisian art collection

JC suggested we visit the Musee Jacquemart Andre, a Parisian mansion built in the Victorian era and filled with original works of art. The architecture itself is worth a view.

Heir of a Protestant banking family, Edouard André spent his fortune on acquiring works of art which he exhibited in his new mansion, built on Boulevard Haussmann and completed in 1875. In 1881 he married a well-known artist, Nélie Jacquemart.

This marriage was to be crucial to the creation of the museum, as Nélie Jacquemart fully supported Edouard André’s plans and presided over the development of the collections with a firm hand. The collection of Italian paintings includes 82 works from the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as some fifteen from the 16th century. The majority are Florentine works.

In 1872, Edouard André decided to sit for his portrait and called on a renowned young artist, who enjoyed a reputation as a successfully portraitist, having painted people like Duruy or Thiers. Her name was Nélie Jacquemart. Nine years later they were married, and Nélie came to live at the mansion on Boulevard Haussmann.

Theirs was a marriage of convenience, entered into by two very different individuals: he was a Bonapartist Protestant, she a Catholic living in royalist circles. Their union turned out to be a genuine success and their shared attitudes and tastes made their thirteen years of life together very happy ones. Childless, they dedicated themselves completely to their joint work: this art collection.

For a self-guided tour of the permanent collections, you are offered a free audio-guide on your arrival at the museum. It provides a commentary on the history of the museum and its collections, and more specialised information on the context of the Second French Empire, the life of the bourgeoisie and the great collectors in the 19th century.

Dentists love to drill

I started having dental treatment last year. It wasn't for much; just two fillings, a crown and a cheap alternative to a crown.

I haven't been to the dentist for a few years. Too expensive,and then my dentist's building got blown up by the owner of a restaurant below trying to get insurance money; everything got to be a hassle. So I brushed my teeth every day, used floss occasionally and hoped for the best. Then I got distracted by my move to France. Time passed but a niggling discomfort developed which gradually insisted on the pain being attended to. Hello, introduction to the French dental system.

Most dentists in France work within the framework of the French health insurance system. As the government controls most charges within the system, you find that you can get basic dental care in France at a reasonable price.

However, once you go beyond basic treatment, like me with an inlay and a crown, things become very different.

The French health authorities have disengaged from reimbursement of specialist treatment, allowing dentists to impose their own charges on such work. The main idea behind this arrangement is to ensure everyone has access to basic dental treatment at a reasonable cost.

Dentists spend around 70% of their time on basic dental care, but it only accounts for 30% of their income. Two-thirds of their income comes from treatment for which they set their own prices. They are required to do so with ‘tact and discretion’ but there is no definition in the regulations as to what these words mean.

So the cost of a crown might vary from €500 to €1200, of which only €75.25 is reimbursable by the social security system. This is because the official tariff for a crown is €107.50. Ridiculous!

Before anything other than standard treatment can start there must be a written agreement between the patient and dentist, called an entente directe. It's a legal requirement for the dentist to write out a document (un devis) showing the agreed price, which the patient and dentist sign.

I was given a quotation for 900 euros excluding 'care' for one crown and one metal inlay thingee. That's a lot for me and I hadn't budgeted for it. Too bad, I was told it had to be done as the filling that had fallen out had been deep and the filling that had to be made for the other tooth was near the nerve so it had to be 'devitalised'. Bugger- there goes another tooth that was previously filling free.

I'm of the baby boomer generation who didn't benefit from fluoride but did suffer the dentists whose preference was to make VERY big fillings for very small caries. Our old amalgam fillings break and fall out. Our heavily filled molars crack and disintegrate. I'm not ready to look like an old pirate or a beggar out of Charles Dickens novels. The microwave had gone on the back-burner. So had my printer for my laptop.All up I had to pay 1400 euros.

What a shame JC was retired. I could have trusted him to do a good job at a good price but instead he found me a dentist in Rambouillet and that's where I spent almost every Friday for months. Yes, months. The dental process is incredibly slow in France. I was told that was because French dental treatment is top quality and they take time to do it properly. Well, the sessions were only 16-20 mins long and I was in and out for the smallest thing. A filling? In and out and no mould taken of the tooth needing a crown etc. The smallest effort needed a separate appointment.

On top of all this a French dentist surgery is rather different to one in NZ. The equipment is different, the computers and software completely different, the tools and processes unrecognisable. I ended up with a dentist with no finesse at all and who was rather brutish with the syringe. I hated having the anaesthetic; it was so painful during and after.

One day he dropped something important on the floor. There was a mad scramble by the dentist, his assistant and JC to find and retrieve it. I rather think it was my tooth.

There were other incidents too where things seemed less than ideal. One filling needed to be ground down by another dentist just after Christmas as my bite couldn't function properly. Finally I have no more visits but the crown I have on my canine is not as solid or insensitive as my NZ ones, despite having the tooth devitalised. It's a different experience in France. I wasn't comfortable with the differences and it was scary being in an environment where nothing was explained to me, where the dentist couldn't tell me what he'd do next time and where it took months for him to get rid of an old fish tank full of stagnant water and green mold that was sitting in the waiting room. Not a good image.

At least the drilling that JC did to re-secure my curtain track that had fallen down since the gangster put it up was a more positive experience for me. The drilling wasn't easy but JC loves his power tools and, let's face it, he's in his element. My goodness, the memory of a well-dressed gangster putting up my curtain track and the sight of a retired dentist doing the same 18 months later was rather bizarre to me. Life is stranger than fiction.

But I did appreciate JC's kindness in accompanying me each trip I had for treatment and coming to the rescue when my curtains took a tumble. I'm lucky to have such a friend.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Defrosting my spirit

Writing is therapy, sometimes. My book is still languishing, waiting for me to make space in my days for it. That means watching less TV and old DVDs but the main issue is lack of motivation and energy, this malaise. Feeling like all the fight's sucked out of me. I'm a fairly determined person but this one's got me beat right now.

I woke up with a massive headache and dizziness this morning. It was too severe to contemplate going to work so I made my breakfast, tried some rather ineffectual meditation and tried to sleep.

 After lunch I decided I'd better try to get some sunshine. Miraculously when I needed it the day had dawned so sunny with blue skies and chilly temperatures but perfectly manageable if you wrap up, which I did.

I'd visited the doctor last night and he's agreed it could be a lack of sunshine that was bringing me down - seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Yes, though it's more than that. Still, it's contributing and so I thought a gentle walk in the sun might help my head and my heart. I went to the chemist to fill my prescription and then headed for trees and other natural things for soul food.

I walked around the park desperately needing to connect with nature, needing to hear birds sing and feel the watery warmth of the winter sun on my skin. I walked along the canals all frozen over. How strange to see water that was usually moving freeze-framed with crazy cracked lines across it. It does make it difficult for the wildlife.

The water fowl were skating while they tried to walk. Even their spread toes weren't helping much. Further along in front of the chateau the sun had burned a space in the ice and the ducks, geese, swans, poules d'eau and other birds were making the most of it.

They were making the most of the families who were out in the fresh air loaded up with bread for them and so I made the most of the opportunity to watch them. Mr Swan was feeling a bit tetchy. The idea that Spring might arrive soon had stirred his feelings towards Mrs Swan and he wasn't having any other bird getting between him and her. His temper was short and he made a few aggressive moves.

Then he paddled back to his lady and made gently murmurings to her. All was well. Peace was restored. I turned away from the canals and admired the perfectly trimmed hedges and groves of trees showing only their winter skeleton but of course my eye is always drawn back to the chateau.

No matter the season, the park always looks splendid in its setting. It's a good tourist attraction and an amenity for the locals. It's a shame they don't cater for English-speaking visitors.

I walked past the chateau and back towards the Town Hall which Napoleon Bonaparte had gifted to the town two centuries ago. Then I headed towards the church around the corner from where I live. It's just in front of the Post Office and just up the hill from Napoleon's son's house . Laura and I had spent time in the garden there last year when she visited me.

All this sounds exotic to someone living in NZ but it's standard living to me now. I'm used to living in a building 300 years old, working in a building constructed by Louis XVI, strolling around a town that had its roots back in the 8th century. It's, well... normal.

For those of you interested in SAD go to

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Expanding on my dream

U2 have a song - where the lyrics go ..." stuck in a moment and you can't get out of it". That seems very apt for me right now. I wonder if I've come down with that winter blues maladysome folks get here during the long European winters. NO energy, feeling demotivated and rather depressed on top of the background anxiety I always feel- wondering what on earth my future could possibly be and the effort required to survive here.

Things aren't so bad. I have the basics of life though little else. I'm getting used to life in France, more and more each week. I have my very close friend JC and I'm still employed but there's been a lot of tension and stress at work. Days, weeks and months like that can get tough. Everything in my life seems so temporary - OK we might all philosophically say that, but you know what I mean. I feel worn down. I'm impatient to move myself forward somehow but have no resources to do so. I've had plenty of time recently to reflect on just how tough this determination to realise my dream has become and the constant sacrifice required to keep it alive.

I don't have close friends here I can really talk to in English in my time off, hardly any leisure activites that I'd like that are available so I'm feeling in a holding pattern. I'm impatient and frustrated. It's a constant battle trying to convince myself that living in the moment is good. My mind is just too tired of trying to convince itself of that. Should be easy? It's not. Just when I think I've got my head sorted out to accept things the way they are I discover I'm back to square one. Sad, unhappy and scared.

Perhaps this is one of the integration phases people go through when they move with nothing to another country. I'm well past the honeymoon period, I don't feel homesick yet something's not right. I don't feel French and I don't feel Kiwi. I feel disconnected to myself and through that disconnected to everything. Add to that a layer of self-protection against hurt of whatever kind and I'm putting obstacles in my own way. Feeling annoyed with myself doesn't help... I need to find the right recipe.

Yes, warm temperatures and a lot more sun would be good. We kiwis are used to brighter light, even in winter but in Paris we're into the two most depressing months of the year when it's very slow to warm up and the skies are mostly grey. It's also wetter.

I felt so under the weather this weekend I couldn't even brave a trip to a museum with JC. That's not like me to pass up something like that. Instead we stayed inside, put the fire on and watched endless episodes of '24 hours'. We both enjoy that.

I've been asking myself what I really want now that I'm in France. Here's my answer so far: I've given up on trying to get a 10 year visa in the distant future. For me it's not good enough. I've decided to hang in here employment-wise for 7 years (that's a little over 5 more years). Once I've been working here continuously for 5 years I can start the application process towards full citizenship. That process can take 2 years so my struggles to stay here must continue for another 5 years minimum.

With citizenship I could stay as of right however my employment status might change. It would also make it easier for me to get work, even temporary work because I'd have the right to be here regardless of a working visa. I could have dual citizenship, free to move between France and NZ whenever I wanted, on business or for personal reasons. That way I could still enjoy my beloved France but also spend time with my daughter Laura and as I get older that becomes quite important for both her and me.

“You wish to become a French citizen. It is an important decision that you must not take lightly. Becoming French is not an easy administrative task. Acquiring French nationality is a decision that will affect you and after you, it will affect your descendants,” explains the Charter of the Rights and Responsibilities of a French Citizen.

From now on, all naturalization candidates must sign this document, as well as passing the assimilation interview that finalizes their demand for citizenship.

I've got a long way to go to make that happen. Somehow I must find a way to live above the subsistence level I'm on now. I don't know the answer to that. I want a charming little French house with a garden I can design and tend myself before I get too old and stiff. I don't need a lot but I do really want that, and enough money to travel to and from the ends of the earth each year.

Recently my mind has been drifting more and more towards my unfinished book. I'm too tired to write when I get home and getting up earlier doesn't thrill me because in the back of my mind is the thought that I can't get really into my writing in the morning because I'll have to stop after an hour and cycle to work. A touch of procrastination? I think I'll need to devote some holiday time for that in April. I've got a long way to go on it but I'm mostly happy with what I've written so far.

And I'm happy that after 6 months of hassle visiting the sous-prefecture many times in Cafeolait, waiting in queues only to be told they are too under-staffed to process my application for a driver's license, that someone went on maternity leave so nothing was done, that they don't know which date they should pay attention to- my visa or my titre de sejour- the letter arrived. I sprinted in the next day and finished the process. Voila, I now have a genuine French Driver License. At last I'm allowed to drive a car. To get it I had to surrender my NZ license. NZTA have said I can get another by coming back to NZ before my old one's expiry date. I need to be able to drive in both countries. So... I've got the license now but no money for a car.

French taxes are high and are not taxed at source. I will have to pay thousands, exactly how much I'm not sure so the car will have to wait in line until after I've paid my dental bills and tax bills. Dental treatment? That'll be another story.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Winter Soul food

How do you gladden your heart, lift your spirits and feel grateful to be living in such a freezing environment as Ile de France in winter?

You take a slice of the beauty of France, share it with someone else, mix in a little of one of your interests and then top it off with a little bit of 'home' from the other side of the world.... for something a little bit special, contrasting and memorable.

I'd like to share this recipe with you.

For the past week the snow from last weekend has remained everywhere due to the very low temperatures and the occasional sprinkling of 'icing sugar'. I haven't been able to use my bike; the bus and kind lifts from Clotilde or Virginia have sufficed to get me to and from work. I had been disappointed not to be able to take photos of the snowy countryside around Jean-Claude's home last weekend so I was determined to capture scenes of it this time. It had diminished from the trees but not the ground.

JC and I went for a walk with our cameras along the river bank. This river is a tributary to one of the canals dug in Louis XIV's time to supply water to the palace at Versailles. The little tributary runs beside the old abandoned railway line; abandoned during WWII because it was bombed and too expensive to fix for such a rural community.

JC's dog was overjoyed to be allowed outside the main property. She bounded and sniffed and hunted. If she was slow to come back when called she got a zap from her electric collar. Hunting is forbidden in the snow because the prey are too helpless and vulnerable but you can't stop dogs bred for hunting from following their natures.

There wasn't anything to find nearby but we did find rabbit tracks in the snow on the lawn behind the house. JC can read the tracks rather well, the spoor too. Taking photos of the white snow was rather challenging at times. The whiteness affected the exposures so sometimes we ended up with unwanted whiteouts but I really enjoyed being out there in nature; no wind, a little sun and seeing something a little different to how I'd seen it before.

Cold winter days encourage one to stay indoors and experiment in the kitchen.

Pavlova is New Zealand's signature dessert. It's a Kiwi creation, not an Australian one, in honour of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova's Tour of NZ in the first half of the 20th century. Light, sweet, fresh, beautiful and you always want more. Bad news if you are on a diet which is why I never ate very many. They had a reputation for being difficult to cook so I shied away from doing that all my life.

Trouble is, when you live in a new country the inhabitants are naturally keen to try your traditional dishes. Nothing for it but to give it a go. I did a lot of research on the internet for recipes and read all the user comments-I thoroughly recommend this method of preparation.

It's almost impossible to impress a Frenchman with NZ cooking but I'm proud to say I succeeded with this dish. He declared it magnificent as soon as he set eyes on it. JC told me he had the urge to plunge into it like a diver. Goodness!

After the first taste he couldn't stop. I had one piece, he demolished the rest and announced it was fabulous. So fabulous I'm allowed to make it again but not too often because he paid for his over-indulgence. Special occasions only!

And on Friday I'm meeting with a free-lance journalist who's putting together a series for France 3 TV. She's hoping I can advise on the French connection with NZ. Let's see where that goes...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

What a difference a day makes

I'm sitting up in bed munching warmed pain au chocolat washed down with a cup of tea for my breakfast. The duvet is pulled up, the house is warm, the fire is dancing in the grate. Outside there's a spectacle in progress.

Overnight it started to snow. The temperature dropped steeply and although the snow was predicted the exact amount of snowfall can never be known in advance. It's quiet other than JC moving around the house. Baika the dog has completely changed her behaviour and now prefers to be confined to the warm kitchen instead of exploring JC's extensive property.

It's beautiful, with consequences.

I'm discovering more about the behaviour of snowflakes (flocons). As I watch there's a dance going on. It's as if there are several large gangs of snowflakes clashing and intersecting in their struggles to gain space to land. They are crossing paths, its a melee. But suddenly all changes; now they are a school of fish swimming obliquely, all synchronised. This lasts perhaps a minute until it all changes again and the flocons agree to fall vertically down, all at the same speed, all the same size. Snowflake sizes change all the time. Sometimes they are small, fine and fast; little sprinteers in a hurry to hit the ground. Other times they are larger and fluffier and fall like feather until they caress their compatriots who have already landed.

I especially love it when the branches of trees become so overloaded with snow that they tip big quantities off. It cascades to the ground and suddenly...ploof!! it's like an ice fire sending crystal smoke into the air. So beautiful. Yes, it's a fascinating spectacle... until you open the door, as I did, in my pyjamas.

The intense cold strikes immediately but you're not as shocked as you expected so you decide to linger, take some photos, run to the end of the property and take photos. And as adrenaline takes you further and further from the house you realise that perhaps it really is too cold to be doing this. Those minus degrees have found a way in under my skin and it's really painful to be out in it without protection. So, a few last photos and I'm racing the dog to get back into the house. She arrives just after me and literally leaps for her basket in the kitchen. Her momentum sends it and her sliding across the room. It's so comical and JC asks her if she has had the courtesy to change her paws before coming inside with her snow.

As usual she's sheepish about that. I'd already removed my gumboots in the frigid garage. Note to self- make an effort next time to wear socks, gloves, hat, coat, scarf, and maybe thermals too. PJs are spontaneous but crazy.

If the snow continues to fall much more I will have trouble getting back to Cafeolait. Ahead of that I have a pizza and an apple tart to prepare. What fun while I look out the windows at the whiteness.

Just a few hours previous, JC was working outside in limpid sunlight, lighting a bonfire. What a difference a day makes.

Can you see me and Baika amongst the trees at the back of the property? The trees are immense.