Saturday, 14 July 2012

Home-hunting in France 1

It was time to take a bigger step and launch myself onto the road of greater independence and comfort. After 18 months of living in a dark, damp, poorly maintained room I needed to create my own environment, to have a pieces of my own furniture about me, to be able to look around and feel that I was 'home'. I knew I was about to change my life again and it was with a mixture of hope and apprehension that I committed to the process.

The long, long search on the internet began. After many weeks I knew well the market prices, the vocabulary of locataire and proprietaire, bail and rez de chaussee, residence de standing and rangements. My budget was very limited and it appeared that I wouldn't be able to stay in Cafeolait. Cafeolait is charming, tiny village, conservative and expensive. I cast my net much further afield, and it had to be South because North took me closer to Ile de France and that meant rents were too expensive.

I just wanted a one bedroom apartment in better nick than my studio, with parking and if possible a terrace or balcony or even better, a garden. Something bigger, brighter. Eventually I found an apartment in, of all places, Cafeolait. While more expensive than my studio it was just affordable. The rule in France is that you cannot pay rent more than a third of your income after social security payments.

Jean-Claude and I visited it with the real estate agent. First requirement- seduce the agent and get her onside as I am a foreigner and not to be trusted in France. So JC and I were well presented, he rolls up in his BMW and I comment in an intelligent and friendly manner where needed but let JC do most of the talking as he'd needed to get me the appointment.

The apartment had potential despite the horrid rainbow colours of paint in each room. The agent agreed it would be good to do a refurb (at my expense of course). She liked us and JC dropped off a dossier proving I am a sound person. The agent later showed it to the owner who dithered. She had in mind a couple in their 40s who earned 100,000 euros per year. The agent tried to explain that no couple earning that amount would be looking for a flat like her's. Impossible.

The other complication for me is French attitudes and laws regarding tenants. Tenants are the enemy and renting to them is an enormous risk for landlords. As a tenant even if you are French you may need to get another person to act as financial guarantor no matter who you are or what your background is. You must supply a copy of your official identification, a copy of your work contract, bills from suppliers, demands from the tax department.

As a foreigner with no fixed job, no job security I was not popular. Without JC making the phone calls and 'selling' me I wouldn't even have got inspections. The landlord of the Cafeolait apartment was old and had been sick for a bit. The apartment had been vacant for a year because whenever any agent proposed a tenant she always said no.

JC and I went into overdrive to try to convince her to rent to me. The dossier was enlarged with documents indicating I was involved in influential projects, that I was a landlord in NZ, photos of me and my boss, photos of me with key French persons or the Mayor of Grand Rapids in the US. The whole thing was invasive, intrusive, an insult and humiliating to have all the details of my life on display like that. The agent said if the lady didn't accept me as a tenant she, the agent, would refuse to have anything more to do with the case since the old lady had gone through every agency in Cafeolait without success. In the end after waiting, waiting, losing opportunities for other flats, JC rang her but even he couldn't make any headway.

Start all over again. All my evenings were spent researching, my weekends and some week-nights were spent visiting. I had to be single-minded. JC was a chauffeur and dossier maker. More simpering to agents and landlords who viewed me initially with suspicion because, France being so very socialist, no one is allowed not to have a roof over their head. Therefore if a tenant stops paying the rent the landlord finds it very difficult to get rid of them and certainly not in winter. For a landlord to get redress or kick them out it can take up to 3 years. Yes, folks squatting for 3 years with impunity.All the while the landlord must pay all the expenses of the property-imagine that. So, here was me, a foreigner with no permanent work, why risk that? I hadn't expected it all to be so very hard. No wonder I had never heard from any agent when I'd tried to flat hunt by myself. Having JC to facilitate made all the difference.

In the midst of this my boss said he would renew my contract another year and give me a small pay increase. That made a difference. I needed an official letter to say I would be hired again and I needed confirmation of my new salary, none of which is all that simple but I got there.

I still couldn't afford Cafeolait but looking even further field I thought I might just find something suitable if I could win the agent and landlord over. The other thing I was struggling with was what was (not) supplied by landlords. More on that in Part 2 to come.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Looking for positives in Rio

With the Earth Summit turning into a predictable and worrying suck-up to big business and immoral governments I went in search of something positive in Rio. I'd already wandered around the People's Summit full of interesting NGOs and individuals. I'd seen and smelt and felt the sterility of the [beaches and pollution and filth and poverty and crime and noise]. I'd noticed the swanky hotels where conference delegates stayed while spouting off about sustainability and nature's rights, people's rights and the hijacked 'green economy'. 

Three times I had tried to go up the hill to see the famed Christ the Redeemer but the first two times he was hiding behind very low clouds. Third time lucky though. Yes, it's touristy and even Rio looks better from such a birds' eye view. But in reality, a statue and a hill named Sugarloaf (we already had one in Christchurch) and sterile beaches are of little interest and don't stir feelings of 'wow'. Other places less hostile to life can do the wow factor better. Sorry Rio but the picture postcard views are just a tourism ploy and your growing economy is at the expense of the 'little' people.

I didn't go out and get drunk and I only danced samba once in the privacy of our lodgings. I would have liked to see some quality cultural displays but didn't know how to find any and wouldn't have had the money for it anyway.

Things were further darkened for me by my unpleasant experience trying to met up with NZers, none of whom seemed to care a toss about my misfortunes like being ripped off by dishonest taxi driver and being kept in the dark about accreditation to meetings with them. The least they could have said was sorry about that. I got a bad case of flu which I took home with me along with flea and mosquito and ant bites.

So what positive experiences did I bring away with me? I spent a bit more quality time with some of my colleagues, I did see the statue and the panoramic views of the city, I got to become quite familiar with the metro, I lay on Ipanema Beach in the rain (weird), I watched a monkey in a tree and a hummingbird hovered for a split second right in front of me (magical), I saw cacao trees growing along the streets, I deepened working relationships with project members, I understood a little bit more about ecological economics, and I ate lots of fruit and salads so I didn't gain much weight.

I also confirmed to myself why I have little interest in visiting places where human rights are constantly violated, poverty soars and the environment literally stinks. Such places make me too upset, helpless and sad. I want to travel to be inspired and uplifted. Education takes many forms; some of them are depressing.I wondered what other places in Brazil might be like. I'd like to experience a non-touristy part of the Amazon but maybe that would be too depressing seeing the rampant raping of the environment going on and destruction of lifestyles and livelihoods.

A few days after I had left Rio the bodies of two activists from the People's Summit who battled for fishermen's rights to fish without the threats from Petrochemical companies were found in Guanabara Bay, not far from where I had stood on the beach. It seems you don't have the right to live unless you sacrifice everything to big business. And if you don't give in you sacrifice your life. Too ghastly, and I read that one activist is killed each day in our world. Brave people!