Thursday, 24 December 2015

Leaving 2015 annus horribilis behind

It's almost Christmas Day and while my Christmas will be much the same as I've experienced for the last 5 years it comes in the wake of a difficult year; a year full of loss of things that were important to me, and still are.

It started with the loss of my home and belongings that I had tried to build up since arriving in France. Every year I have to find new employment because my contracts are ever only for a maximum of a year. They are not well paid because I have to fit in to an extremely limited  range of options possible for a foreigner like me. I discovered there was only one option this year and it was worse than any of the others I've had here.

With no assurance of being able to pay my bills I had to give up an independent life as an adult and live with JC within the confines of his systems, rules and environment. He has tried to accommodate some of my needs like giving me a vegetable garden to occupy me for 5 months of the year. He does many little things to please, he is a dear, but it remains difficult for me to truly settle as nothing is secure or even predictable past August 2016 at this point.

The instant I made the agonising decision to give up my independent life and environment (well, it wasn't really a choice) I felt serious pain in my neck. Life had become a metaphysical pain in the neck for me. There are structural/aging reasons for this pain which Xrays and MRIs confirm but I do believe that major stress has been behind the physical pains from problems I've experienced in recent years. There is no medical treatment for neck conditions due to degeneration. One minute I was pain-free, the next I was not and haven't been for 5 months, despite physio. I need to change my circumstances but there are no current viable opportunities to do so.

As a consequence of the debilitating neck pain I've had to give up playing the violin. I'd spent a year working hard to get back some of the skills and joy I'd had in my youth so I grieved. It had been a bright spot for me, physically entering into the music with my teacher and connecting with the instrument I acquired when I was 11.

I'd booked a trip back to NZ for the end of February for my daughter's wedding. I planned to spend time with her, meet her husband-to-be and travel down to Christchurch to see my mother who is 86 and suffering dementia in a rest home. My daughter had to cancel her wedding so I had to cancel my trip. I still have her wedding present, just in case. Getting back for a visit is difficult as I can't take time off during a NZ summer. I'm limited to the middle of a NZ winter. I grieved for that little ray of excitement extinguished.

Other negative things occurred, so I guess if the Queen can have an annus horribilis so can I.

I'm always looking at ways to minimise negative things and move forward even if the likelihood of success isn't great. I'm not one to give up, and anyway what's that? Giving up just puts you in a worse situation you can only blame yourself for so I counted the days until I could apply for French naturalisation. What will that give me? Well, the right to stay here in France. That means a choice even if I may lack the means to stay in years to come, less bureaucratic obstacles to employment even if the French think I'm too old to be employed. And tucked away, trying not to suffocate from all the problems is that soul-thing that brought me here in 2010. It's been months since I sent in my dossier but no word of an interview. That might be normal.

I look at all the happy posts from friends on Facebook and it gives the impression everyone is having fun times with holidays, colleagues, friends and family. And then I remind myself that not everyone is in those sorts of circumstances. JC does his best in the situation dictated to me and I appreciate the little things he does but I really need my situation to positively change. I just can't seem to change myself any more. All I have left for 2016 is hope. Maybe that'll be enough.

To everyone having a less than terrific time - Merry Christmas and hopes for a brighter New Year. Please take care of yourselves and those you love.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Coping with terror

As a university teacher I'm confronted with the after-effects of terror attacks in France. On Monday last week my classes were filled with zombies: unresponsive students with blank faces and no interest in anything. They had no interest in working, participating, discussing, thinking. It then didn't help that at midday our oral assessments were interrupted by a direction to go downstairs for a minute's silence for the victims of the Paris attacks. It was a case of persisting with basic classroom control and hoping that somehow classes would move beyond babysitting.

There was a noticeable psychological effect on students and as a teacher I needed to deal with this throughout the week. Sometimes it was necessary for me to acknowledge that they were behaving like zombies, tired and maybe a bit down. Sometimes it helped to initiate things by building a list of vocabulary around terrorism on the board so they could write about it. Sometimes classes needed a pep talk about how it's normal to feel tired and joyless in these situations but that life is often shit and always changing so there's a possibility that tomorrow will be let's do our best and get on with it all.

My students range in age from 18-24 and it's the younger ones who seemed to find it hardest. Some of them may have known someone directly affected. Even Jean-Claude's son had two friends injured and a third was killed in the Bataclan massacre.

Last week the army were very present, momentarily. They were present on Tuesday at the Versailles train station but my students later explained they'd have been there for the assembly of elected members who were voting on whether the state of emergency would be extended to 3 months (it was). Odd really. The terrorists aren't bothering with politicians, they are killing ordinary people but it's the politicians who get the best and most expensive security.

Security guards or fire-safety staff are everywhere though. I'm constantly having to show my ID card and open my suitcase at every door on either campus. We've had 3 building evacuations in one and a half weeks (usually during important tests) and it's not funny since the buildings are normally so closed off we'd normally never get out during a really serious event. The supermarket in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines insisted we all open our jackets before we were allowed in; paranoid for explosive vests no doubt but a determined terrorist would always get through - maybe explode while we were all queuing up to show our coats?

Life has changed much more than it did after Charlie Hebdo. I myself am a burnt-out zombie; smothered by the 24/7 media reports and online forums. I'd already lost my joy for life and this isn't helping me to feel I have any modicum of control in my life.

This week the only sign of the army I saw was an empty army truck at the Versailles train station and one solo soldier with his automatic weapon. I know they have to be seen to be doing something but as the Prime Minister Manuel Valls pointed out months ago - we just have to learn to live with this. And frankly, the security presence is only symbolic. France is too bankrupt to do anything more.

When I was much younger it was the threat of nuclear war that had us nervous (and we still have reason to be). Yes, we have to adapt, sacrifice, let go of how we used to live. It's tiring and it doesn't come easily. It leaves negative traces in our subconscious, even those of us who live a few kilometers away from the Ile de France region. I often wonder what is happening to all the wounded still in hospital and feel grateful it's no-one I know. Poor Paris and poor all the other places that have suffered from these cretins. We need to wipe them out.

Photo taken from the internet

Saturday, 24 October 2015

How to become French - Part 1

Last Sunday I spent 5 hours completing my application to become a French citizen and it was in the post on Monday. This whole process is extremely time-consuming, expensive and stressful but if I want to have dual nationality I have to see it through to the end. It's time-consuming because everything has to be copied, much has to be done by hand, often you must visit somewhere and stand in line for an interview in order to obtain official documents. Often you don't know who to approach even at your own place of work.

It's expensive because many of the documents from New Zealand must be paid for and so must the official seals (apostilles) to say these are indeed official and original documents. Once you have all NZ documents you then have to get them all translated by an officially approved translator. Even the postage back and forth between ends of the planet can get expensive.

And lastly it's stressful because there is a time limit to it all. The documents must be less than 3 months old even if nothing has changed in decades. The postal service between France and NZ is slow. You have to allow 10 days each way. Documents I sent to NZ spent almost a week in France before jetting off to Wellington or Christchurch. Some documents coming from NZ took at least 2 weeks to arrive in France because they were sent via Australia, then Bangkok, then Hong Kong, then Germany etc.

Full marks to NZ Births Deaths and Marriages for their efficiency in getting things produced and sent directly to the Apostille service. I had to deal with both Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Justice.
BDM were on the ball and got things done and back to me in just a couple of weeks. Not so for my conviction history. They say it takes 20 working days after they receive the official request. Actually they have a backlog so it takes longer. When I heard nothing and my nails were bitten down to the quick I phoned and the nice man discovered that what they were sending me was incorrect so legally useless. They'd spelt my name wrong. Back to the drawing board. The correction seemed to take a lifetime to arrive.

The only hiccup with BDM was that they charged me twice. It took a bit of phoning and sorting and waiting to get reimbursed but... we got there. BDM charges and so you get efficient service. The Ministry of Justice doesn't charge and it takes forever. I had to contact the district courts where my divorces had been concluded and ask them to send me copies. They are photocopies with holes punched in them but have an official stamp saying they are legal copies. I still had to get apostilles and translations done though. Terribly important documents were trudging back and forth across the planet while time was ticking away. Remember, all documents must be less than 3 months old when they arrive at the prefecture.

In my case I had to send my dossier to the Prefecture d'Indre-et-Loire in Tours. It was sent registered, of course, and things now become nail-biting as I wait to see if the civil servants consider I have an acceptable and complete application. If I pass that stage I will wait for an interview. This whole process can take up to two years of waiting and worrying. If my dossier is found incomplete or unacceptable I will have to start the whole thing over again.

Here's a list of what I had to supply in folder number 1.
1. Cover letter handwritten explaining why I want to become a French citizen
2.  TWO copies of the official form CERFA asking for naturalisation
Civil state
3. My birth certificate (an original + apostille +translation)
4. My two marriage certificates (originals + apostilles + translations)
5. My two divorce papers (official copies + apostilles + translations)
6. My parents birth certificates (official copies + apostilles + translations) and I also included my parents marriage certificate just in case
Professional situation and financial resources
7. Copy of my current job contract showing date of hiring, salary, activity
8. Copies of the last 3 pay slips
9. The payslips for last 3 Decembers (I added these in as some prefectures ask for this)
10. Attestation/proof form human resources I've been working at my employment for the past 5 years
My tax situation
11. Complete copies of my last 3 years' tax returns
12. Official form P237 showing I have paid all taxes, including income and local government rates

13. Criminal conviction record from NZ (original + apostille + translation)
Proof of address
14. A letter from Jean-Claude stating I live with him
15. A copy of JC's national identity card
16. A water bill from JC proving his address
Language competency
17. Proof of my competence in French from official tests - level B2 (I only needed a B1)
Additional documents
18. 3 identity photos
19. A copy of both sides of my titre de sejour (residents card)
20. Two standard envelopes, stamped (I also supplied my address stickers )
21. A letter of support from the president of the heritage association in my area (I'm a member and translate brochures for them) optional
22. Copy of my passport

Folder 2 consisted of copies I had to send. I also supplied a list of all documents included in each folder in the order given, to make it easier for the civil servants to find everything.
Later I must pay 55€ in tax stamps. The CERFA forms want all your employment history and all the places you have ever lived. Well, I don't remember the addresses and exact dates of the first 20 years and have no documents to help me. Much of that old stuff I threw out before I left NZ as I only had a suitcase with a 20kg limit at the time. I never imagined I'd need that. I've done my best and so must hope for the best.

I'm applying for naturalisation on my own merit.  I'm not marrying anyone to make it easier as no one is seriously offering that. I could have shaved 3 years off the 5 years needed before applying if I could have done a post-grad degree here but without someone to financially support me that was impossible though I would have liked to do it, despite my age. My European ancestors go too far back to be of any use - it has to be your parents and even then you have to live in France 5 years before applying. So, France either sees value in me or it doesn't. To date it has been totally indifferent or rather discouraging but I'll see this through to the end... whatever that is, I know I've tried.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Damned genes

I never used to think about the genes I had inherited until recently. I don't mean my looks, I mean my health. When we are young we feel and act like we are invincible. We can't imagine how it really feels to be old, to be in pain never-ending. If we have an accident we're as right as rain, usually, a few days later. We spend our time occupied with work, kids, our partner and sometimes our hobbies. Maybe throw in a holiday or two to think about.

It's very different now and the more I learn the less I like it. How well do you know yourself? Deep inside... hard to see I know but in your 50s and 60s the insides make their presence felt in many ways.

For years I've had problems with significant constipation. My record was 18 days without movements in France, 17 days in New Zealand and that is more than painful, it's scary. I got sick of being told to eat more vegetables and drink more water and get exercise because none of that helped. Well, now I know why. My last colonoscopy has revealed that my bowel is much longer than it should be. "You could say it's like a winding trail up and over mountains", said my specialist. Too long means the transit time is abnormal. The longer it takes, the less hydrated things become and the more prone to worse things happening inside like diverticula and polyps. I'd had no idea my bowel is too long but did recall that ever since I could remember as a kid, my parents had made disparaging remarks to me because I didn't 'go' every day like they thought I should. I went two or three times a week. Now it all makes sense. I now drink nasty 'moving' mixtures and take anti-spasm pills. That helps a lot.

I started going deaf when I was 36; well that's when I became aware of it. It was after the birth of my second daughter and I could no longer hear conversations at parties. Darn, and I hadn't listened to much loud music in my youth either, we didn't back then. I just accepted the deafness as part of aging, had a test in NZ back in 1996 which said I was at the bottom of the normal range and put up with it. Hearing aids are prohibitive in price though I knew they might help. My hearing continues to deteriorate and there are many sounds now I simply cannot hear, though JC hears them and he's 10 years older. What could be going on?

I recently found out from an ear specialist who tested me that I have a hereditary hearing problem and it would have been better if I'd known about it earlier but now I'm too old for surgery to be an option. Have you heard of otosclerosis? It's more common in women.

People who have otosclerosis have an abnormal sponge-like bone growing in the middle ear (the stirrup) also known as the staples, becomes attached with this abnormal bone-growth. This growth prevents the ear bones from vibrating in response to sound waves. These vibrations are needed in order for us to hear.

Otosclerosis is the most common cause of middle ear hearing loss in young adults. It typically begins in early to mid-adulthood. The condition may affect one or both ears. Risks for this condition include pregnancy and a family history of hearing loss. Caucasians are more likely to develop this condition than people of other races. It tends to be hereditary.

I don't know enough about my family history in terms of hearing loss but I have had three pregnancies and each pregnancy makes it worse. The hallmark symptom of otosclerosis, slowly progressing hearing loss, can begin anytime between the ages of 15 and 45, but it usually starts in the early 20’s and is unstoppable. It is often accompanied (as in my case) by significant tinnitus (various annoying noises in the ears) and occasional vertigo. The latter would explain my balance difficulties with pirouettes as I got older.

White, middle-aged women are most prone to presenting with this type of loss. Hearing aids can help but won't replace the hearing already lost. Some surgery might be performed if the stirrup isn't already too stiff but this is often not successful. One day I imagine they'll be able to give implants but I'm not sure I'll live to see that. I wish gene therapy was more advanced as there is a lot of death by stroke and heart attacks in my family. My varicose veins are likely to be hereditary the vein specialist told me. " You need to have those out", he said.

While our genes don't necessarily mean a death sentence, since our choices in lifestyle can influence outcomes, I'm not thrilled about the little time-bombs going off inside me now that my body can no longer repair itself properly, especially the arthritis. As a baby boomer I'm 'encouraged' to keep youthful, supremely active and live a long and healthy life. Bollocks! Seems it's all in the genes.

Friday, 4 September 2015

What lurks in the French garden

I love gardening but lately I've become too afraid to go out there unless I absolutely have to. I know there are beasties in France like snakes, though I doubt I'll ever see one, especially where I live, but this nasty has me beat. I'm talking about the Aoûtat. It's very active around August (Août) and September, hence its name.

It's not a sandfly or mosquito or tick. It's an acarien (mite/spider) with 8 legs. Adults are harmless but the larvae are a nightmare. They are generally too small to see. How they get on me is a mystery but if  I step outside the house to go to the car or call the dog or pick some salad I will be attacked, bigtime. They love me more than JC and his dog and the effects last between 1-3 weeks.

Meet Trombicula autumnalis. 
The harvest mite, Trombicula autumnalis, is a species of mite of the family Trombiculidae. Their larvae (stage 2 of diagram) live parasitically; they infect all domestic mammals, humans, and some ground-nesting birds. They feed for two to three days on humans, rabbits, hedgehogs, voles, too. Once they've fed enough they drop to the ground to start the next stage of their life-cycle. They do not suck blood. Instead they pierce the skin (especially around bras, knickers, trousers, socks). They will attack your tender private parts, your head, in your ears, on your face - everywhere, I know.

They use a sort of funnel to inject saliva to dissolve your cell tissue, making it liquid so they can suck it out and it is the damage from the creation of this feeding tunnel, the irritation from the saliva and the tissue damage which makes bites from this mite a misery. On me they are beyond count, and grossly swollen. They itch appallingly for a week, then settle to being red marks that are a bit itchy which sometimes weep. After 2-3 weeks you just have bright red marks left on your body. It's not attractive.

If I must harvest my potager I am forced to stand naked in front of JC while he sprays me from top to toe and in between (I'll leave that to your imagination). Obviously this is more fun for him than me. Reeking, I slope off to do my gardening, knowing that I'm still going to suffer for my art. The spray helps but not enough. I haven't found a product that really relieves the itching. Even the aloe vera plant I have on hand is less effective in France than in Auckland. The aloe juice is more liquid, less viscous and doesn't relieve the symptoms as well as my plants in NZ did.

I've had two months of this torture and can expect at least another month more. I never thought I'd want winter to come quickly. Ha, in winter it's too unpleasant to go outside. They've got me and it's taking a lot of the pleasure of picking my bountiful tomatoes, raspberries, courgettes, cucumbers and salad.  I hesitate to take an antihistamine but I'm getting desperate for sleep. JC says I must taste exotic or I'm giving off yummy pheromones. Screw it! I'm covered in spray, rubber boots and two layers of clothing. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Tax treaty? - what a joke

Working and living abroad while still keeping any financial ties to one's homeland is fraught with problems. It shouldn't be, but there are always nasty shocks and gross unfairness. I just didn't know until I stumbled into 'international tax law' as it applies to me and many other New Zealanders.

Since I've never had any security of residency or work in France it seemed prudent not to sell my house in Auckland, nor close my bank accounts ... problem 1.
I rent my mortgaged home out to pay its expenses. That means I have an income... problem 2.
I am a tax resident in France ... problem 3.

Lets look at this whole issue of tax from these three issues. NZ and France signed a tax treaty in 1981 to avoid residents being taxed twice by either country. Ha! What a joke. Even my accountant thought I'd be OK but it's not true and I'm feeling pretty grumpy about it.
As a tax resident of France I must declare all revenue from NZ (rental income, interest etc) and I must list every bank account (including the mortgage) and what it's for, including Paypal for goodness sake. While I'm all for the dirty-politicians-hiding-money-overseas getting caught, the vast majority of us are not like that and we end up in the firing line. If you don't declare your NZ revenue and list your overseas accounts (even if you closed them during the year) you can be fined mega thousands of euros. They are policing this more vigorously so it's not a Russian Roulette game you want to play. Anyone convicted of tax fraud would be deported. I did 'the right thing' and declared, feeling that the tax treaty would mean fair play. Wrong!

Rental income etc is taxed in NZ so I pay tax in NZ. I get nothing for it - it doesn't give me a democratic vote and it doesn't give me a pension in my old age unless I return to NZ. Using my accountant's tax report I provided the required calculations and conversions into euros. It's the proof I paid my taxes. OK so I've already paid - I should be fine with that because of the treaty.

I earn very little in France, only slightly over the minimum wage and I pay all my taxes - I should be fine with that. How naive of me.

France taxes on global income, not just what I earn in France, even though there is a tax treaty and even though I've already been taxed in NZ. France wants to tax me again. What makes this worse, the income from renting my home is added to my French income and has put me in a higher tax bracket. This week I received notice of my new tax to pay. It's at least 35% higher yet I have received not a centime more in my bank. What's the use of a tax treaty to avoid paying twice if I have to pay twice on money I only received once, AND get taxed at a higher rate for what I never received in France? I'm pissed off, of course.

Clearly, one day I will have to make a decision about where I belong and cut the other ties. That's lose/lose. For those of you wanting the gobbledygook wording from the horse's mouth about the NZ \France tax treaty here you go... click here.

Convention between the Government of New Zealand and the Government of the French Republic for the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of fiscal evasion with respect to taxes on income 
Double taxation shall be avoided in the following manner:
  • 1. In the case of France:
    • a) Income other than that referred to in subparagraph b) below shall be exempt from the French taxes referred to in subparagraph a) of paragraph 3 of Article 2 if the income is taxable in New Zealand under this Convention.
    • b) Income referred to in Articles 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17 and 22 received from New Zealand may be taxed in France in accordance with the provisions of those Articles, on its gross amount. The New Zealand tax levied on such income shall entitle residents of France to a tax credit which corresponds to the amount of the New Zealand tax levied but which shall not exceed the amount of French tax attributable to such income. Such credit shall be allowed against taxes referred to in sub-paragraph a) of paragraph 3 of Article 2, in the bases of which such income is included.
    • c) Notwithstanding the provisions of sub-paragraphs a) and b), French tax shall be computed on income chargeable in France by virtue of this Convention at the rate appropriate to the total of the income chargeable in accordance with the French laws.
  • 2. In the case of New Zealand:
    Subject to any provisions of the law of New Zealand which may from time to time be in force and which relate to the allowance of a credit against New Zealand tax of tax paid in a country outside New Zealand (which shall not affect the general principle hereof), French tax paid under the law of France and consistently with this Convention, whether directly or by deduction, in respect of income derived by a New Zealand resident from sources in France (excluding, in the case of a dividend, tax paid in respect of the profits out of which the dividend is paid) shall be allowed as a credit against New Zealand tax payable in respect of that income.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Living in the past

I've moved from a modern light-filled apartment in a town to a 36 year-old sombre house in the rural countryside and it's full of surprises from the long-gone past. Houses in France tend not to have any storage at all built in; no cupboards or wardrobes unless it's a very modern building, and even then...

My small personal items that I use each day need somewhere to sit and now they are sitting somewhere hundreds of years old. This week I was reminded that it's the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV the Sun King (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715); he who built Versailles, aqueducts, waged wars and certainly contributed to the grandeur and prestige France enjoyed for a while.

How odd that my binders and folders, cables and printing paper should find themselves housed in a wardrobe from the beginning of his era (or even the end of his father's - Louis XIII). The planks don't fit together now without cracks but it has all its original  hinges, key, doors. There's a crack in one front door where the Nazis tried to break into it looking for loot. The wardrobe sits beside my desk, oozing history, and I wish I could rewind its story and see all its experiences through the ages. It comes from JC's father's side of the family.

If I look across to the doorway I see something else of historical value. It's a Directorate chair. The Directory was the government of France during the penultimate stage of the French Revolution, administered by a collective leadership of five. It lasted from 2 November 1795 until 10 November 1799, a period commonly known as the "Directory era." It was overthrown by Napoleon. This chair is in good order and is often draped with my cell phone or computer bag.

My books and what's left of my Lord of the Rings figurines are tucked away in an old bibliotheque (bookcase).

The bedroom with my furniture in it contains a wardrobe from the era of King Louis-Philippe (6 October 1773 – 26 August 1850). During this era my French ancestors settled Akaroa, Banks Peninsula - the one and only French settlement of NZ. They arrived in 1840 but would not have been wealthy enough to have had a wardrobe of this quality. It's now full of DVDs and photo albums.

It's all a bit odd having my modern stuff juxtaposed with these historic, antique items. JC's used to having such items - things handed down, things he has bought. One of his ancestors fought in Napoleon's army - there's an ancient 'certificate' to prove it. His house is full of other stuff from the ages of Kings and Empires and I supposed this might still be common in French homes, at least the traditional ones. But no. JC says it's rare now. Most folks in the past had stuff of lesser quality that didn't last. Newer generations wanted belongings that were contemporary. French families are still relatively large and so goods get split between many inheritors.

It didn't take more than a day to get used to living amongst antiques. I enjoy history and it's cool to imagine the stories that could be behind each piece of furniture.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


Ever felt like you are being shunted from behind by a Terminator in a big rig? There you are on your motorbike, looking behind and seeing the behemoth bearing down on you. Suddenly you are hit from behind with such unstoppable force - pushed onto a trajectory you cannot control. That Terminator in the truck controls your fate but you can't make out its features. It's been after you for a long time, edging ever closer. Sounds melodramatic? Not for many people, including me. It's an apt analogy for what continues to happen. FATE; change of life, tighter restrictions, fewer options and no matter what I do I can't stop this process; it's driven by something exterior.

A little over three weeks ago I was obliged (through employment circumstances) to tell my landlord I had to move out. I gave the requisite three months notice thinking I might have at least a couple of months to sell my furniture, enjoy the last of my home and independence. Wrong! I had exactly three WEEKS. Yes, it's all over, done and dusted folks. Last weekend I moved into Jean-Claude's home. I have most of 1.5 rooms upstairs. I've been lucky; he decided to throw out his very old bedroom furniture upstairs which made space for mine. This is great because it has meant I can have a bit of my own surroundings and a place to work. From the rest of the house you wouldn't know I was there.

Why the rush? JC explained that otherwise I'd be moving during the long summer holidays and nothing 'moves' during that time. Everyone is off work so all of August would be impossible and I'd be back at work in September. If I wanted to hire a truck and some strong guys I'd have to do it now.

It's been distressing to be so rushed and JC kept trying to push me forward, saying I had no choice. He was very helpful of course in providing boxes and tape and carting stuff to our cars and putting my small stuff in his garage attic. The real problem was my furniture. I loved my modest furniture and worried about what might happen if I found myself without a roof over my head in the future and no money to buy stuff all over again. JC's attitude softened a bit over the weeks and he put in effort to find someone cheap to move me. He had to dismantle some things like my table and chairs and store them. It wasn't possible to sell them in time.

There are no garage sales in France. Le Bon Coin (internet site for second-hand stuff) seems to have prices worse than Trade Me and I didn't have time to manage that process, nor the language skills. I made flyers and put them in the letterboxes down my street. I got one 'bite'. Two ladies bought a china/book cabinet and my buffet. Hang on - not so easy!

As is often the case with furniture in France, it is not moved assembled so you have to break it all down into its component pieces and reassemble it at the other location. This meant JC had to spend time dismantling before the buyers could take it away. Furniture held together with nails is a nightmare - things inevitably become damaged. Screws are easier but it's fraught each time you move. With some items of furniture it is impossible to do this without several strong men to help, as in the case of an armoire (wardrobe). You have to have professional-type tools and plenty of experience with furniture - quite beyond my capabilities.

All these moves have taken a toll on some of my most fragile and precious items, especially my Lord of the Rings figurines, despite taking great care. Gimli had his pigtail broken off, Legolas's bow has two breaks and an arrow is broken off, Aragorn's ring finger is hanging by a thin wire, an orc has lost part of his skirt. Most upsetting.

JC's housekeeper found buyers for the fridge, microwave, clothes dryer and single bed. I needed money to pay for the move so I'm grateful that covered the costs. However, JC's loft and garage still contain some large items like the washing machine, dishwasher, another china cabinet/bookcase and we don't know what to do about that. My stuff was almost new. I was lucky to get 40% for any item so I've written the stuff off in my head.

I found this move the most distressing of any I've done (a great many) because it was so rushed, the furniture and appliances needed to go, the furniture needed dismantling and I'd lost my ability to have a life/environment of my own. I'm trying to adjust though I can't change my heart and my nature. I'm now busy wading through the government and private organisations I need to advise of my change of address. Some work well, for instance the site where you can change details for your car ownership, taxes, social security all in one go.

There's naturally the stress of switching to living as a couple though it's not strictly 'conventional'. There have been some sticky moments and there's lots of negotiation and compromise and tolerance required, especially in these senior years. JC has lived alone for 15 years at least (though always with women in his life)  and I'd adapted well to my independent lifestyle where no one told me how things had to be done or organised. The awkwardness will pass and we'll settle into a routine. It's only been a week. He's gone out of his way to help me settle in as fast as possible by setting up my desk, TV and stereo and I've made him a courgette and leek tart to help him feel at ease.

Photos of my old (modern) life in France before the steamroller arrived. 
Next post - my new antique environment.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Learning new skills in accepting a new life

I'd really hoped it wouldn't come to this but it has. After almost five years of struggle in France but having found a little oasis of 'temporary stability' (aka my apartment) in my precarious existence here  it's already the end of an era. Three years ago I needed to escape a dark, damp, unhealthy studio rented to me by an abusive boss. I'd received a small pay increase (my first and only one in France) and I used it to good effect. Though the process of securing a decent habitation as a foreigner was in the hard basket, with Jean-Claude's help I eventually found a place I could call home: warm and dry, well insulated and better constructed than most homes in NZ, in a town with charm but modern facilities, right beside the train station. A little slice of heaven in a world that was sometimes scary and often lonely.

Since that move I had to change jobs to  escape the boss but I ended up going back to my original very modest salary yet now paying a higher proportion in rent (almost 50% with taxes still to come out of the other 50%). That second job had a limited shelf-life of a maximum of two years. I knew how to manage on very little; to not have takeaways or trips to the movies, to never eat out or visit a part of France for the weekend. I knew the benefits of always buying the same ingredients for the same meals so I could keep within my budget, and if I needed to buy some ink cartridges for my printer it meant delaying replacing some aging underwear or often taking home leftovers from my weekends with my boyfriend. All perfectly do-able but just not fun. This tactic didn't have a future because there was no way to save for any fun or emergencies or retirement. Still, being able to live independently is a strong need/urge/drive for me so I hung on as long as I could. I liked my little life in Epernon.

Change. That great certainty of uncertainty. As many of you will know, my time in France is dependent on getting work and years of serious job-hunting in France and NZ have resulted in zilch, nada, zip, zero. My best survival option was to convince my employer to create a job for me. After intensive and nail-biting lobbying against a context of down-sizing staff and institutional bankruptcy with a bailout from the government (a bit like Greece) I've been informed I will be given a new contract for a year, and it's technically renewable. The downside is that I have to teach double the contact hours for the same base salary and if I want more money the extra hours required will be double that required previously. It means no time for planning, preparing and marking. Travel time across regions will also increase.

Most tenancy agreements in France state you must give your landlord 3 months notice. By the time I was told I could have a new contract only two months remained on my old salary. Without the maximum extra hours it would be impossible to live in my apartment and those hours weren't immediately forthcoming. Finding a cheaper apartment would not have gained me much in saving; not enough to make a difference and there would have been costs in moving back to a dark, damp bedsit somewhere. JC said I could move in with him. He said he'd seen it coming for a long time and that, given my circumstances, it was inevitable.

Did I jump at it? No. I agonised and struggled to find ways around losing my independence - I don't want to be dependent on someone else for my existence. In private I railed against having to live a mode of life not of my making or choice in a tiny rural village in the back of beyond. No train station, not even one shop. I shed tears for  the loss of my furniture and some of the few belongings remaining to me from a life of 60 years and too many shifts. And then, quite quickly, I set my mind to being practical and reasonable... and jumped. Sometimes it's better to jump a few seconds before the last minute.
Immediately, the registered letter was written and sent to the landlord. No going back. Change was coming whether I wanted it to or not. The details were now my choosing. Time for action-woman.

I continued to look for extra work. An engineering school in Paris was interested in meeting me but before I could interview with them my uni said it would be better to stay with them and maybe I could find some hours on another of their campuses. That's probably going to happen. So, I'll be working for the same employer, exact annual income unknown but less than now, teaching courses I've never done before (massive learning experience ahead) and living in JC's house located in a tiny village a bit closer to Chartres but further away from my work. I've got a lot of adjusting to do. I'll be adjusting my 'needs', my lifestyle, my attitudes, my behaviours and my brain cells.

There are positives despite the significant losses and adaptations needed. At last I will have an opportunity to save a little for a 'rainy day'. I  have a Question Mark over my future beyond next year rather than an exclamation mark, so things could turn out even more positively, even if I can't see exactly how right now. I can't plan ahead with anything in my life but I can have hope it will end up better than the worst scenario. I'll never realise my dream of living in a little house near Aix en Provence but I can travel to Paris for the odd bit of 'civilisation' if I want. It'll be easier to work in my garden at JC's. I'll have more human interaction in my daily life than I do now (even if it's limited to French). I continue to have a nice man in my life who seems to like having me around though he does acknowledge (as do I ) that he's going to have to make some adjustments too. Like me, he preferred his independent life but I may just have gotten under his skin despite his auto-protections, as his tender side comes out more and more. At those times he's an adorable person.

The final plus is staying in France long enough now to be able to apply for naturalisation as a French citizen. If I am successful (two years and hundreds of dollars later in the future) I don't know if it will be all that useful now (given my working age), except in eliminating the highly unpleasant yearly visit to the Prefecture to renew my residency card and right to be on French soil.  I don't know if I can ultimately stay in France as I have no resources to do so but I still feel, somehow, it might be important to have dual nationality so I'm gearing up for that process.

The next few months will be challenging, life-changing as I dissolve one life (yet again) to begin another; let's see how I get on with putting it all together. The roller-coaster continues. Come along for the ride!
Photos show me in my garden at JC's, scenes from my apartment (note the Monet impressionist painting bed linen - francophile me), JC's place.

Here's what was happening exactly five years ago

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Changing decades

What a difference a decade makes and how our lives can be so altered from one decade to another. How have YOU celebrated your milestone birthdays?

This year I turned 60. Though it may only be a number there is still some significance to it. It suggests I'm not young and not really middle-aged either, yet not quite decrepit. I turned 60 in France. That comes as a surprise to me even now when I look back at those other 'milestone' birthdays and the events and effort it has taken to get me where I am now.

On my official 60th birth day there was no party, no restaurant dinner nor anyone to celebrate it with. I spent the day pleading with my employer to make an exception to the system and give me a job so I could stay a bit longer in France. The evening was spent alone watching an old DVD. That seemed a bit miserable to me so I told my boyfriend Jean-Claude we should have a joint party, a decade-changing party, since I'd turned 60 and he'd be 70 later in the year. He's not into parties and birthdays or Christmas but he agreed.

We invited 14 guests and 10 came on the day. A large number for us to cater for in the French style but intimate. I have almost no friends here but it was great to have a former colleague come to share the celebrations with us, and I know JC's friends. They are all lovely people our age. The challenge for me was planning and socialising entirely in French.

It all came together at JC's place on the day and the weather was superb. JC and I were flat out preparing French and NZ dishes. In NZ I'd have made life easier for myself by having things informal and buffet style but JC preferred things with a bit more formality.
I had prepared some Maggi Onion Dip from NZ via the UK. Everyone loved it with the raw vegetable crudites from my potager, the apple tarts, the pavlovas and chocolate brandy balls. the fruit salad, JC's roasted pintard (guineafowl) with vegetable purees. There was champagne and hors d'oeuvre, French cheeses, salad from the potager, raw ham and fresh melon. We were all well and truly replete after that and declared the day a great success. JC had regaled everyone with his story of the horrors of vegemite/marmite and explained it was totally repugnant to anyone not Anglo-Saxon. I'd have loved to have let everyone decide for themselves how it tasted but the jar is forbidden on JC's territory after he tasted it once.
I don't remember my 10th birthday. It was the final year at Bishopdale Primary School before I went to Casebrook Intermediate in Christchurch.

That's me 4th from the left in the second row, with the teacher who introduced me to the Narnia books by CS Lewis.

My 20th birthday was a non-event and I can't remember that either but my 21st was spent with my father and my future first husband in a restaurant in Christchurch. Just the three of us, me in a long dress I'd made myself. I was sad not to have the 21st birthday party most from my generation enjoyed, but my parents had divorced and had little interest in me. I was in my final year at Teachers College before heading to Wellington.

When I hit 30 back in Christchurch I did so alone, probably watching TV. I was separated from my first husband and living frugally, working as a part-time teacher in the private sector. I had decided I needed to change my life by the time I hit 30 so the week after my birthday I changed jobs and entered the world of medical detailing with a company car, the South Island to manage, selling, selling, selling. I toned down my hair style for that.

My 40th birthday was shocking. The father of my daughter, with whom I had been living with for many years sprang a surprise party for me at my workplace head office and it was the worst party of my life.The only guests in attendance were a couple of colleagues and the rest were my partners friends and family. None of my family or friends bothered to come and in the middle of it my partner proposed in front of everyone. Unexpected and shocking, as it put me under a lot of pressure and I needed time to consider the idea, (since the relationship was neither happy nor healthy) without the eyes of his family boring into me, showing expectations of a positive response. In those days I was sales and marketing manager for the luxury George Hotel of Christchurch but I was now living in Auckland.

Birthday number 50, in Auckland, was also a surprise party but a much better one. My second husband (not my daughter's father) went to a lot of trouble to hire a room in a restaurant and put together a slide show presentation. I thought that was great and friends came. What was left of my family were all down in Christchurch. It was like the 21st I never had and the cake was iced to reflect my hobby as a professional bellydancer. In this era I was a full-time student studying for my Bachelor of Applied Communication.

And as you now know, number 60 was spent in France with a French man and his friends, with me in yet a different career as a university teacher, teaching intercultural communication, and English.

Where will I be when I turn 70? What country will I be in? Will there be a special man in my life? What will I be doing - in retirement or still having to scramble for a job? Will I still be around? People start popping off around now though I'm not expecting to miss out on seventy years. Usually at my age life becomes more settled and secure but, clearly, mine seems to be au contraire. How are you getting on?

Monday, 8 June 2015

Hard labour

No matter what country we come from, where would homes, businesses and infrastructure have been without cobblestones, paving stones and mill stones? I live in a French town that specialised in supplying these products. But it meant truly hard labour for the employees, many of whom died earlier than they would have done in a gentler employment.

Epernon (in the Eure-et-Loir department) was, from the 19th century and even before, a town of sandstone quarries and millstones where more than 120km of material was extracted. At certain times, 40% of the population worked in open sky quarries where the production of these millstones would bring renown to Epernon from around the world.

 It was exhausting work for generations of quarry workers  for whom mechanisation arrived a little too late, in a time where all the quarries were already almost run out. The workers were suspect to various lung and hand maladies because of dust and stone splinters. Each building block and millstone and cobble stone had to be shaped by hand, carted by hand. What a hard job. All the wind and water mills, streets and buildings needed these products. The ancient quarries can still be viewed today via a self-guided walk through Epernon and towards Droue.
It was in prehistorique times this industry would first see the light of day. Later, Vauban (the King's great civic builder/architect) himself  chose the sandstone quarries of Epernon when Louis XIV decided to divert the waters of the Eure in order to make the great fountains of Versailles gush up. Heavy barges laden with stones went down the specially channelled Drouette River that flows through Epernon, to feed the construction site of the aqueduct at Maintenon - a three-storied aqueduct built to send water to Versailles but that was never finished because Louis ran out of money thanks to his war-mongering.

I'm a member of the local heritage society  and am currently translating some of their brochures into English. It's really interesting to learn about my neck of the woods and how it fits into the events of French history. It's also satisfying to make a voluntary contribution to local tourism.

A museum display is open to the public at the Conservatoire of Millstones and Cobblestones from the Epernon Basin.

23 avenue de la Prairie
28 230 Epernon

The conservatoire is open 01 May until 30 September
Visitors are welcome every Saturday 2pm to 6pm,
Sundays and public holidays 10am-12pm and 2pm until 6pm
Other days available for groups by appointment (10 persons minimum).