Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Rekindled Love Affair With Nancy Drew


I’m now home and recovering from jet lag.  It will be a peaceful Thanksgiving because the extended family here in town already celebrated the holiday.  Several have other commitments for other turkey dinners on Thursday.  So mostly I’ll be trying to catch up with my St. Louis life (think “laundry”) while the rest of the country chows down on pumpkin pie.

This week I’m guest blogging on the website of  Sherry Isaac, winner of the Alice Munro Short Story Award in 2009 for “The Forgetting” and writer of mystery and romance.  She’s asked a wide range of writers to share our memories of life with the girl detective.  I’m proud to be part of this series.
Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Russian Princess
Of the large library of books I had amassed growing up, there were only a few that stayed with me as I grew older. Of course I kept my Dr. Suess books. And then there was my Louisa May Alcott series, which showed young women with a spark of independence at a time I knew they really were only supposed to sit there and look pretty. Finally, there was my small collection of Nancy Drew mysteries.

I read them and imagined what it was like to be so confident and intelligent. Nancy was so self-sufficient and willing to place herself in the middle of the most dangerous situations. She never second-guessed herself or had to wonder who she could eat with in the lunchroom. She took on the world on her own terms.

I held on to those books. They sat at my dad’s house until he downsized to an apartment. I boxed them up and moved them from apartment to apartment to first house as my life advanced. One day, yes, one day I would have a little girl. . . .

(Read on here and share your own Nancy tales)

And on a side note, here’s my personal take on Black Friday Creep.  Support your local small business this holiday season and remember to take more family time than shopping time.

What’s your favorite Thanksgiving memory or food?  Share it in the comments box then resume your eating.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 16, 2012

5 Reasons Why It's Not Crazy To Buy A Second Home In Another Country

I turned onto rue de la Liberté late one night and was stopped
by the installation and testing of the Christmas lights
that will illuminate this city during the holiday season

Now that my short-lived span of buyer’s remorse is over, instead of thinking of all the reasons why my husband and I shouldn’t have purchased this apartment in France, I’ve started to count the reasons why this is not such a crazy idea.  What do you think?

5. You can dip your toe in the world of those who’ve made the decision to go all in and move their life to foreign soil, like those who’ve fueled my France love -- Kristen Espinasse at French Word A Day or Lynn McBride at Southern Fried French.  It gives you an opportunity to see if the big leap is for you before you pull up roots and wave good-bye to your hometown in the rear-view mirror.

4. You get this strangely satisfying feeling when you realize you’ve earned the right to complain about changes in the bus routes right along with the locals because you pay taxes, too.

3. Yes, you could keep renting.  I’ve met people who return to the same part of France every year and always rent like we have.  But my husband and I really want to know we’ll have a comfortable bed, a kitchen with everything we need to cook the fabulous foods in the market, and (most importantly) a place to put all the things I want to buy at the monthly brocantes without having to ship them home.  This place has come to feel like home, so we’re just closing the circle.

2. After years of putting your head down and working hard to fulfill all adult/parent responsibilities, it’s OK to do something that seems a bit crazy but doesn’t put your physical or financial health at risk.  Maybe sooner rather than later we’ll realize that this has been “the best bad idea we’ve had” (any Argo fans out there?), but it’s not as permanent as misspelled matching tattoos in a prominent place on our anatomy.

1. You are a permanent part of this



and this (anybody for a little "Hotel California on a Saturday morning?)

Sometimes that's reason enough.

Do any of you own a second home or dream of owning a second home someplace outside of your own state or region?  What draws you to it?  Share your second home thoughts in the comments box.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

10 Reasons Not To Buy A Second Home In Another Country

So tell me why it's not a good idea to have a second home
in a place where these surprises await you every day.

Now that all the papers have been signed, the radiators are kinda sorta finally producing heat, and I’ve bought a fire-engine red aspirateur (vacuum cleaner) for the place, those buyer’s remorse thoughts are snaking their way into the back of my brain.  What business in the-world-of-what’s-sane do my husband and I have buying a second home in a foreign country instead of, say, a condo in Lake of the Ozarks or on a Florida beach like most people I know?

It must be a side effect of staying up late to watch too many House Hunters International marathons (yeah, I know it’s fake, but mostly because they don’t ask the hard questions like “How did the plumbing work after you moved in?”).

So as I sit at my little writing desk with the morning sun washing through my 9-foot French windows, listening to my water heater hum loudly (just a minute, let me go turn on the faucet in the kitchen; that usually stops the noise – for about three minutes), let me give any of you considering something as crazy as this all the reasons you need to run the other way.

1.  You probably don’t speak the language very well.
Some of you may be international business titans who mastered the tongue of your new home through an immersion course in the Swiss Alps or somesuch place.  Most of us, however, don’t have that advantage.  And we really can’t demand that any native friends we have in that country move in with us in case we need someone to make a phone call or translate a bill that arrived in the mailbox.

2.  The heating/plumbing system is completely unfamiliar.
I’m not talking about all the different toilets one discovers as a world traveler.  Believe me, I would never buy a home in a country that had two platforms for the feet on either side of a hole in the ground (although that’s frequently the option in public restrooms in France, e.g., at highway rest stops.  Come on, France! Qu'est-ce qui se passe?).  I’m talking about knowing something is wrong with your heater and all you can do is stare at the box on the wall with all the strange levers, knobs, and gauges and wonder if you should dare touch them.  And you certainly can’t call the plumber (see reason #1).

3.  You may not have a ready supply of friends and family to haul new furniture up to your 3rd floor apartment.
I never understood Europe’s addiction to IKEA everything – beds, chairs, even complete kitchens – until I realized that it came packed in compact boxes that could easily be carried and dragged up winding staircases and through small, ancient doorways into 3rd floor apartments.  The best incentive to make new friends in a foreign country, is to have someone help you haul something home from a brocante (flea market or antique fair) that isn’t packed in an IKEA box (and for my non-European readers, that’s pronounced IK-e-a, not eye-KE-a).  I don’t have enough of those yet.

4.  Netflix streaming and Hulu don’t work across the ocean.
Don’t tell me that you would never waste your life in a foreign country watching TV.  If you have enough chilly, drizzly Sunday afternoons when nothing is open you’d do it. After a while, though, the novelty of trying to watch local programs in an attempt to improve your language (again, see reason #1) grows old.  And then you stumble upon a random episode of Law and Order!  But listening to tough New Yorker Jerry Orbach dubbed with a Maurice Chevalier voice makes you want to put a skewer through your ear canal.  And Joan Rivers’ Fashion Police seems to be your only option in English.  Sometimes you’re just dying to hear an uninterrupted stream of your own language.  So you thank the entertainment gods that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart does actually provide worldwide online access to each episode.

5.  No good Mexican food is available.
It’s an important matter to consider, even if this new apartment is in a food-and-wine capital of Europe.  Why would I want to live someplace, even if not on a permanent basis, that would mean no opportunity for extended periods of time to eat a burrito as big as my head and smothered in queso?  Missing out on that for a vacation is one thing; missing out on it for multiple weeks each year is a challenge up there with adjusting to pit toilets.

6.  If you want to justify the money you put into this home in a foreign country then you have to spend time there, which means not spending time going elsewhere in the world.
Point taken.  But then again, this new place could be a jumping off spot for visits to other countries and continents.  I can swing by my new place to pick up hiking boots (don’t have to use precious carry-on luggage space) and then hop a fast train to Switzerland, Germany, England, The Netherlands, or fly down south to Morocco.  I could get to them as easily as I could take a long weekend in Portland, OR if I need a serious food truck fix and hike in the mountains.  I now have a lifetime to visit them all instead of planning one huge Grand Tour in an unending series of planes and tour buses.

7.  You are not one of those people with a private jet to whisk you off to your foreign digs at the drop of a hat.  It’s 18 hours of grueling travel (and what travel isn’t grueling now?).
That’s true, but I can go whenever I want to now.  I don’t have to make “arrangements.”  No compromising on rental dates, no coordinating with tour groups, no sense of having to make the trip worth the expense and time.  If I want to go and there is a fare sale on, I pack my carry-on and go.  I don’t redecorate my home every two years, I don’t spend money on new cars (well, maybe once every ten years or so), most of my shopping is done at Home Depot and Target (or now their French equivalents of Monsieur Bricolage and le Carrefour).

8.  It’s hard enough taking care of the house you live in every day.  How do you keep up with one across the ocean?
Well, yeah.  Makes lots of sense.

9.  Taxes, taxes, and more taxes.
And in a foreign language and currency.  Yikes!  I think my husband and I should be committed before we can do more harm.

Pizza delivery vehicules in my neighborhood
I think I’m going to stop at 9 reasons.  Finish the list for me.  Give me a reason #10 in the comments box.  Tell us why buying a part-time home in a foreign country is the worst thing a person could ever do.  And then tell us where you’d buy yours after you ignore all the reasons why not. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Banquet of French Paperwork

11/8/12-french paperwork1
As soon as electricity contract is secured, I want this light fixture

Signing up for utilities in France seems to require more forms for proof of identity than signing up for the passport it took to get here.  Even buying a simple coffeemaker was no piece of éclair.

The French are fond of complicating everything.  Why fill out one form when five will do?  My language skills were no match for the onslaught of questions and information thrown at me by anyone I encountered in my attempt to get set up in this new French household.

First stop was all things technological.  Even before I signed the papers everyone said, “You must go today to get internet.  Hurry, hurry.  Do not wait.  You must make the call today.”  And so I waited until the next day.  Because there were a million options.  Not only were there half a dozen choices for internet companies, but there were also as many options for delivering television and landline telephone.  And a puzzle of choices inside choices.  To bundle or not to bundle?  Which “bouquet” (extra channels) to buy?  Who is best if I have a problem?  Which system even works in my neighborhood – let alone my building?

Finally, after endless research online, I threw up my hands and went with Orange, the company that had the most storefronts in town.  I figured if I had a problem, at least I could “talk” to someone face-to-face.  And I added the English-language package because it offered the TCM channel of movies (an addiction back home).

The first thing every service I wanted in Dijon asked for was my mobile number.  Apparently, that’s their favorite way to communicate with you.  But no place would accept my American number.  The clerk at the internet store would only write down the mobile number of the dear friend who had accompanied me.  (Apparently, Didier’s phone number will forever be connected to my account.  Hope I don’t do anything to ruin his credit rating.)  Then she wanted proof that I would be living in that apartment, because, you know, they have a huge problem with people taking the trouble to sign up for internet and television in places where they won’t be living (do the French do sarcasm?).

I don’t know about where you are, but at home if we want services we call the company and say, “Hey, I want services at this address” and they say “OK, when can we come set it up?”  But on that Saturday morning they wanted proof of my residence.  They wanted bank information (which, of course, I carry with me at all times -- not).  They needed my passport.  Thank heavens I had a copy of it stuffed in my wallet.  Then they wanted information about the person from whom I was buying the apartment.  You know, the regular stuff like her name, her phone number, the company with which she had service before.  Stuff we always carry around with us when trying to get cable TV service.

Thank heavens I had been carrying around that little slip of paper the previous owner had given me at the walk-through.  I had no idea what a vital link that would be to living like a non-tourist in France.

My French skills deserted me about two minutes into this transaction.  I just gave up and let dear Didier answer everything and work out compromises when I didn’t have the documents they demanded.  At least I had a local bankcard, which made our efficient-if-slightly-annoyed clerk happy.

Then she handed me THE BOXES.  Yes, while for the most mundane services like buying chocolate or a scarf I’m carried along on a customer support bed of meringue, for the more complicated business, the less service I get.  It would be completely up to me to install my internet/television/telephone services.  Reading the directions in French.  After they sent Didier a series of text messages with special codes over the course of the next ten days to two weeks!  Which he would then have to forward to me because he would be out of town.  Now I knew why everyone was urging me not to even eat or sleep before I signed up for internet if I wanted it before I left town.

And that was just the beginning.

Aggravations can be worth it when this is in your neighborhood
11/8/12-french paperwork2

It took three different clerks for me to buy a coffeemaker and DVD player at the Darty’s store (think Best Buy but with better uniforms and less efficient service).  When I finally tracked down a clerk to help me because only displays are on the shelves, he whipped out an old-school spiral assignment notepad from his back pocket and started taking notes about everything I wanted.  He faithfully recorded the shelf ticket information, tried to answer the questions about different options, and exhibited massive enthusiasm.  Then he escorted me to the first of three desks I would visit just to buy a coffeemaker and DVD player.

And so began the questions again.  Mobile phone number.  Yikes, no French number!  Quel désastre!  He sought the advice of his supervisor.  Darty’s always uses text messaging to send out reports about guarantees, respond to customer questions, etc.  What to do?  Finally, the supervisor made an executive decision that I could use my e-mail account instead of a phone number.  I won’t bore you with the rest of the filling out a large online form before I could hand anyone a bankcard.  But that was not the end of it.  This clerk was not even the one to take my money.  For that he escorted me to a counter where all they did was run my card and give me a form to take to another counter where I would have the pleasure of waiting to pick up the boxes my original clerk had sent a stock boy to fetch.

As for signing up for electricity and gas for my apartment?  Maybe more on that later.  It exhausts me even to think about it.  I’m still recovering from the process – and I didn’t even have to do the hard work.  Didier came to the rescue again and gave up his morning to sit on hold while I paced and rifled through my folder of paperwork finding him any document they were demanding.  My son just moved into a new apartment back home.  You know, all he did was make a phone call and say, “I moved into this apartment” and they said, “OK, name and address for the bill.”

But I guess all of this is the price one pays to have a place to live in France.

What kinds of adjustment pangs have you had to suffer over the years?  Tell us your most memorable one in the comments box.

While I'm not about filling bookshelves with wooden words instead of books,
I'm trying to take to heart this message left behind by the previous owner as I learn
the French way about business

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

View From A Voter Abroad -- Election Day 2012


And would some Power the small gift give us

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,

And foolish notion:

What airs in dress and gait would leave us,

And even devotion!
(modern language translation of Robert Burn’s “To A Louse”)

When I came to France at the height of the crazy season for presidential elections, I actually thought that those annoying robocalls would get a lock on my cell phone and follow me across the ocean.  Certainly their e-mails to donate more money didn’t stop at our shoreline.

Many people I’ve encountered here have been very aware of our upcoming election, asking all the time who I think will win and if I’ve already voted (yes, absentee before I left).  In fact, they’re more aware than some people back home.  Author Sue Williams Silverman reported on her Facebook page that as late as this weekend she encountered a 30-year old at her beauty salon who not only hadn’t decided for whom she’d vote, she hadn’t even realized the election was Nov. 6.

The last time I was in France during autumn (2007), even the average taxi driver had an opinion about the upcoming 2008 election, and an even louder one about George Bush.  The French news programs have divided their reporting on this visit almost equally between French/European news and reports about Hurricane Sandy and the election, even though they are experiencing their own devastating flooding in the region of Calais in the northern part of their country.

This summer, as I reported, one acquaintance asked at dinner why Mitt Romney seemed to be so far ahead of Barack Obama in fundraising.  Have you ever tried to explain Super-PACs and "Corporations are people, too"?  That’s how attuned to the election those outside our country are.  To some extent, they feel they have a stake in it.  As goes America, so goes the rest of the world.

That’s one of the best benefits of travel.  We can step back from our neighborhood perspective and see our own country with fresh eyes.  Too often, I think we act like the high-born lady in Burns’ poem – feeling so secure and special while unaware that we’re carrying the same crawling vermin as every other person in that church on Sunday.  That’s a bit of the foundation on which the “ugly American” image rests.  We often give off the attitude that we’re the beginning and the end of world politics and culture without understanding how we’re seen by others or without bothering to understand what is going on in their country.

We can learn from other countries.  For example, let’s move to Sunday voting like in Europe.  Let’s have national ID cards recognized across state lines for all essentials like voting and cashing checks and be done with it.  Let’s develop uniform voting procedures (that’s been the hardest to explain, that each state – each county –  makes up its own rules for voting in presidential elections).

But most importantly, let’s remind everyone why we should be the model for democratic politics by getting out to vote, no matter how inconvenient.  If you think someone might not have a ride to the polls, give them a call and help out.  Be patient and cheerful while waiting with your neighbors.  Don’t forget some kind of ID because even if your county doesn’t require it, you never know if some pesky poll watcher let loose to gum up the wheels of democracy might try to make an issue of your identity.

I’ll be staying up late and getting up early to follow the results on my computer and my newly installed cable television.

And if your guy doesn’t win, find a way to move on and compromise on the most essential issues so that America can remain worthy of the attention the rest of the world gives us.


Talk to us in the comments box about your experience voting in America or elsewhere.  What do you think we do right in that area?  What have you seen in other places that you think we could adopt?  Why do you or don’t you choose to vote regularly?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Starting to Feel at Home in France

Bienvenue to my new place.  My French shopping cart makes it feel even more homey!

“No, I don’t want to have sex with you,” said the dark-haired American ingénue to her French male companion (yes, he’s French; it’s all about the scarf and the Converse sneakers) as they passed me in front of the Place Grangier post office.

Ah, oui, I’m back in France.

And I’m sitting in my French apartment that my husband, Brad, and I own lock, stock, and temperamental water heater.  Sorry to have left you hanging for well over a week.  Thanks for all the cheers and pep talks you left me in my last post.  Between my arrival and the final signing last Tuesday I was running a marathon of paperwork and preparations during the day and trying to understand French utility websites by night.  No time to post.  I’m currently sans internet in my French paradise.  Or much heat.

However, I’m now the proud owner of a French checkbook the size of my e-reader.  With my trés charmant banker in his trés chic suit, M. Masson, and the help of his young intern, Anaïs, who had taken English in high school (and who, by the way, looked like she had stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting with those tight ringlets past her shoulders, pale perfect skin, and a rose where the rest of us have lips) we managed to finish the business that Brad had started in the summer.  We had a wonderful time playing at pantomimes since my translator phone app didn’t seem to want to work deep inside those 17th century stone walls.  And he googled a lot.  The only real glitch was when M. Masson walked me outside to try my new debit card.  I stuck it in the ATM and everything came up French.  Oh woe!  When I stick my American card in, it recognizes its nationality and automatically gives me a screen in English.  C’est la vie.


This process involved a lot more people beyond dear M. Masson.  There is Charles, our agent.  His job, as I understand it, is simply to make contact with the owner, show up at some meetings, and be a go-between of some sort.  He reminds me of the actor Jean Dujardin.  He loves to laugh and the English phrase he knows best is “Theez ziz not a problem, Julie” for everything (even when I expressed concern my gas water heater was on the verge of blowing up).

There is the ancienne propriétiere, the seller.  I saw her so many times in this process that I started to feel like she was my second daughter.  She gave me a quick round of instructions on all appliances, but in that very French way where they talk very fast, pointing and pushing buttons and saying comme ça (like so) as if everything is immediately evident.  Clearly it wasn’t because I think I screwed up the water heater.  But at least she saved most of the how-to guides for the appliances (but not for the water heater) and she carefully wrote out all information I’d need to transfer all utilities into my name.  And she sold us the furniture and left some pans and dishes so I could eat right away.

The interpreter arrived late to the closing.  For her, English seemed to be a third language; perhaps she earned an A in her French high school class as her qualification for this job.  I listened intently in French, then if I didn’t get the gist of things I looked at her.  Clear as mud.

And the two notaires.  You know those annual day-long readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses?  That pretty much describes the job of the French notaires at a closing.  They’ve shipped reams of paperwork across the ocean to us.  Some for reference, some to sign and return the original.  They’re very serious about this paperwork.  At one point I caught my notaire, Leo D., looking intently at Brad’s power of attorney signature and even trying to scratch it with his fingernail to verify its authenticity because my husband had signed with a black pen.  I held my breath.  What would happen to the deal if I accidentally had packed the copy we made instead of the original?

The closing is about reading every single page of that pile aloud.  In a French monotone.  The notaire for the previous owner would periodically stop, look at me, and wait for me to say, “Je comprends.”  (Shhh.  Just between you and me, I wouldn’t say I understood perfectly, but I recognized most of the important words on the page. I think.)  Right from the get-go, though, a huge controversy ensued over some rule of French property law.  My notaire was waving something he had downloaded from the internet about Missouri divorce law and division of property.  The other notaire kept repeating the words “community” and “contract” amidst a flurry of French words.  And the interpreter, basically nodded toward that notaire and said, “What he said” in English.

No one in that room could make clear to me what I was supposed to say je comprends to.  Plus, they were reading from a paper I didn’t seem to have.  As I frantically searched all the papers I had brought with me the possible nightmare gripped my mind of the apartment deal ending before it began because I didn’t understand this one question.  Through no help of anyone there, I decided they were trying to review marriage and property law.  Unless there is a pre-nup all French property is split 50-50.  I think.  It’s not that way in my state (the paper Leo was waving) so they wanted to know if we have a pre-nup and if I understood French property law.  I told them “Notre voiture (car) ensemble Notre maison (house) ensemble.  Notre compte banque ensemble” and waved my French checkbook with both our names on it (and which Leo examined closely to verify, specifically pointing out “ou” – or – between our names, signifying either one of us could make the deal).  Yes, we own everything equally.  No contract because when we got married we had only two rotten cars and one over-active dog.  And we were teachers.  Not much to fight over.  I thought it was best at this point not to add a bit of side humor by saying that, on the other hand, I thought Brad owned our new car a bit more equally than I did since he drives it and it gets the empty spot in the garage at home.

After clearing up this point at the beginning, and an extensive rundown of French taxes in the middle, we ended with the reading of the history of our building (don’t ask).  It’s the same old rigamarole because we’re in an historic district.  Don’t change anything on the outside without permission.  Don’t hang your laundry out the window.  Don’t change anything or take down any walls on the inside without seeking permission from city hall.  Wait.  Roll back.  On that one everyone in the room looked at each other and laughed.  The consensus was no one ever tells city hall.

And with that, my husband and I became property owners in France.

Come back later and I’ll tell you about things in France seemingly more complicated than trying to buy an apartment.  And maybe my heater will be working properly by then.

One of my neighbors taking his afternoon sun in the window of his restaurant

If you could buy a second home, where would it be and why?  Share your dreams with us in the comments box.  And if I don’t respond to comments right away, I’m still waiting on that internet and will have to hit up the wi-fi at the McDonald’s on the other side of town.
Related Posts with Thumbnails