Monday, January 31, 2011

The Honeymoon's Over

Okay, enough of my lighthearted little ramblings about the joie de vie over here. Our living conditions have gotten pretty dismal and I'm not sure how much longer we can get by camping in a construction site in the dead of winter.

For one thing, our water pump started making funny noises late last week that progressed into earth rattling thumping sounds that get so loud that we have no choice other than to turn off the pump every few hours. By doing so, our hot water cools down to the point that we don't have enough for a shower and even if we did, you wouldn't want to bath in the Cote de Duras vintage that's been coming out of the faucet recently (including the residual silt). Sponge baths are the norm and are hardly rewarding so we're close to having to accept our friend's kind requests to come over to take a bath. Fortunately, Caleigh has some sweet friends with equally nice parents who have generously put her up a few nights here and there so at least she gets a nice hot shower and and the luxury of sitting on a comfy sofa in a warm living room once in a while.

The nice moderate weather we had experienced during our first month here took a turn for the worst last week as it dipped to below zero right after Hank took down the kitchen ceiling to expose the beautiful beams underneath (and aid in the rewiring of the electrical). Since there is no insulation under the cold roof tiles right now, you can feel the chill blowing through the sides of the structure (think Chair #16 at Mammoth) and it's not very different from being outside. There's also no longer any light, so once it gets dark, we don't have access to a kitchen sink (after 6pm or so). Because of all of the above, I've been shivering so much that my back begins to ache and lately, the most desirable time of day when it's time for bed in our bunk house shared with Caleigh and the critters, Skye, Holly & Ziggy.

That is, until dawn, when we start fresh again and have a clean (hopeful) slate. Today actually warmed up and Hank began the process of installing our new electricity (with the help of both a retired British man during the weekdays and young French man during some evenings and weekends). They will help with the plumbing as well so at least we are now moving closer to eventual normal living conditions. This has not been an easy task as we have had numerous people over to give us quotes and they have been either way over our nearly nonexistent budget, not available to begin the work for months, or just not-to-be-trusted.

Speaking of hiring the trades, we know that for many locals, we are considered an easy target to try and take advantage of because they assume that most Americans have deep pockets. Oh, if they only knew or I doubt they would waste their time coming up with creative ways to approach us. Just yesterday a stranger from a neighboring village dropped by out of the blue saying he had lost his dog. "Oh, and by the way, I am a mason and here are some photographs of my work."

I still feel that most people we have encountered are good, generous and trustworthy though. Isabelle and Thierry have offered their help at every turn, including helping us unload our container and loaning us their trailer. Our American buddy, Rushi has given us invaluable advise in getting through the French paperwork for foreigners, not to mention, acted as an interpreter at times. Our new friends, Mick and Rachel have offered us their bath (literally - to come over and take a bath) and given us countless great recommendations that have probably saved us a few hundred euros. Rosalind and her daughter are loaning us their horse for Caleigh to use. Patrick who keeps his horses here is a kind man who has shared his trailer and will help in caring and feeding of our horse. Our neighbors, Thierry and Cathy, have kept their eye on things when we were gone and even heated our house to keep the pipes from bursting. Margherite and Patricia in the Maire's office have been instrumental in getting us our residency card and now, proof of permanent residency so we are not taxed on our belongings coming from the U.S. There are many, many more people that I'll have to include another time. But, all of a sudden now, I can't feel my feet, so I guess it's time for me to say, "bonne nuit."

Thinking in French

Could it actually be that I am beginning to think in French? I just began to jot down an appointment that I scheduled for Wednesday and I stopped myself when I realized that I was writing the letter "M" rather than "W." Since I sort of do this sort of thing all of the time - have a thought one minute and then actually verbalize something entirely unrelated the next - I don't want to read too much into this yet. But, damn if that "M" didn't stand for Mercredi which is the French word for Wednesday!
Oh, and the appointment I just made? It was in response to an advertisement for a canopy bed for Caleigh in the french equivalent to Craigslist, "Leboncoin." Yes, that means that the person selling the bed was French and I called them. Just like that. And I think that I successfully made an appointment to see it on Wednesday at 1pm (one can only hope).
The best part was that I wasn't scared or nervous. And nor was I fluent, but the woman was friendly and we actually conversed back and forth for quite some time. I definitely have got to give Hank credit for this new confidence I feel. He knows about half of the vocabulary that I do and hasn't a clue on how to conjugate a verb, but he has confidence and an ability to improvise (and I am sure he is very appreciative that there are quite a few english words that mean the same thing in french, especially when using his Pepe Lepiu accent). We've actually become quite the husband and wife tag team with him jumping in to start the conversation and me in the background feeding him important words for "now" (maintenant), "tomorrow" (demain), "today" (aujourd'hui), "at 2 o'clock" (a quatorze heure), "etc" (ectera!).
This newfound confidence has also transferred over to when the phone rings now. Just a week ago, when the phone would ring, the three of us would look at each other wide-eyed with hopes that one or the other would pick it up in case the caller were French. Now, I still get that little knot in my gut when it rings, but I at least pick it up. As Hank said, it's a lot easier than having to call the person back. And I might add, it's a hellava lot easier than trying to retrieve voicemail in french. I have listened to the prompts over and and over again to no avail until I finally felt like I was taking a multiple choice test that I didn't study for and just praying for 50% accuracy. Most of the time I end up unintentionally dialing back the caller because I press 3 and not 2, which was of course the last thing I wanted to do and then quickly try to hang up before anyone can answer...doh!
But, maybe losing some of the fear of the language has to do with our making this major move even after all the obstacles we faced. We've acquired such a sink or swim attitude that speaking French is now probably the least of my worries. Too bad there's plenty of other things that can rouse me at 3am, but hell, at least now I'm thinking them in French!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Out on the Town

or village or what have you. In our case, I guess you'd have to call it, "Out on the Bastide" which is what Hank and I proceeded to do last night. As fun as it was at the time, I'm not sure that my head thinks that bar hopping on a Saturday night at this age is such a great idea. Caleigh had gone to spend the night at a friends and as Hank and I snacked yet again on fine cheese, fois gras and a crusty baguette (geez, I'm getting so tired of this diet!) and shared a glass of wine, we thought it would be fun to check out some of the local happenings in Eymet (a quaint little village about 10 minutes away). It was Saturday night and we knew of at least 3 bistros/pubs around the square that we had never been to; with one often having live performances. So that's where we started, but rather than live music, we walked into a full room of mostly silent people listening to someone read. The kind proprietor tried to explain that they were in the middle of a "lecture," but that we were welcome to stay if we liked. Hank was all for it, so I somewhat awkwardly agreed, and as much as I found it fascinating to sit in silence listening to someone read from a book I knew nothing about and in a language I could barely understand, I couldn't help but also feel a bit intrusive. Was this basically the local book club night and were we foreign crashers? But, we were soon brought out a glass of red wine and since everyone pretty much ignored us, we just sat and listened to the beautiful language being recited and bid adieu after about 45 minutes when there was a comfortable lull in the readings.
Then, just a few doors down we entered a local haunt with pool tables and one other patron and proceeded to play a game which I quickly lost. Not the most happening place this evening, so we we headed town to the town pub where we knew a lot of Brits often hang out as they have pints of ale and fish and chips on Thursdays. But, for this evening, no Brits and only a few locals and friendly French bartender who we later found out was the boyfriend of an Irish woman who owns the local wine shop (someone we met last year). By this time, I start to realize that ordering my third glass of wine of the evening, was probably not the smartest idea, but it had been a very long week and I think we both just needed to unwind and we ended up talking about all of the things that we had accomplished.

We had begun chipping away at the "crepe" on our blackened, exterior walls and discovered that underneath were beautiful stones. Thanks to speaking with our Notaire earlier in the week, we found out that she had put herself through school by renovating an old farmhouse this way and she explained just how to remove the material and refinish with equal parts of lime, sand and cimet. We had continued clearing out our barns of debris and plan to make quite a few runs to the decheterrie (dump) next week. We also met some new neighbors who sold us a beautiful 1860's claw foot tub. We signed comodats (type of legal contract) so our lands would be maintained for the next year, but not inadvertantly "given" away to a local farmer. We bought a new (used) car that we'll pick up next week and continued working on the process to acquire some type of health care (as soon as you get one form filled out correctly, you realize that you need another signed by your doctor, not to mention, we drove to the necessary office 30 km away just to find that it is closed on Wednesdays which reminds me that I have got to put together a chart of the dates and times that places are open). We found a great place to buy fruit trees for half the cost we have been seeing and visited our first Brico Depot (smaller, more expensive version of Home Depot). We received our first phone bill in shock as 85 euros were tacked on for some special French Telecom "ichat" feature that wasn't part of our plan and it took two days just to find someone who spoke some english to explain the charge and then thankfully offer to waive our next bill. Which brings me to the fear I already have of receiving our electric bill after our first winter reading as all we have are these terribly inefficient electric wall heaters that we have to keep on most of the time to keep us from freezing. In fact, I really need to sit down and read our washer and dryer manuals so I can figure out how to program them to run in the middle of the night (less expensive consumption), not to mention, re-read our mobile phone and fixed phone instructions to try and figure out how to program voicemail in french over the phone. Lots and lots of little challenges every day, but so far, we seem to be figuring it all out slowly and really look forward to beginning a brand new week and hopefully learning some more.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

La ceremonie des voeux

We began our day today meeting our neighbors of St. Jean de Duras in the Salle de Fete (local village meeting place) by attending the "Ceremonie des Voeux" or New Year's wishes given by the Maire and his Conseil Municipal. Going in, we knew it would be somewhat awkward with the language barrier, but it really wasn't that bad and most everyone was extremely pleasant and introduced themselves to us. If we could have only understood what the speeches were about, it probably would have meant a little more, but I did manage to pull a word out here and there (and just hope it wasn't evident in the form of a goofy look on my face every time one of my synapses would connect the translation) and think I applauded at the appropriate times. And other than awkwardly accept a class of wine being offered by our Maire, Jean-Luc, and then proceeding to spill it in the middle of the room as I tried to multitask and write down a phone number of a kind British woman I was speaking with, I think everything went relatively well.

Last week was sort of a 'spendy' week as the Soldes began (bi-annual sales) and boy did we shop. We bought a washer AND a dryer which I know is fairly indulgent as the electricity in France is tres cher (super expensive), but it was my little indulgence as I plan to spend the next year living without most of my basic comforts (have you seen a picture of our bathroom yet? Our WC is just a step up from an exterior outhouse) So, I'm using the dryer tonight, knowing that our bill could be astronomical and perhaps I will learn my lesson in the future, but right now, we will have fluffy towels and sheets....a little bit of heaven in the midst of living in near squalor. But our "squalor" is still somewhat cozy with us down sizing to sharing just two rooms of the house all together. Our dining room has been converted into our bedrooms and living room and our kitchen is equipped with a large table that serves as our dining room, office and beauty salon (Caleigh dyed my roots recently and I think has a future calling in hair color). There is a wonderful fireplace that we huddle around at night and sometimes Hank tries something silly like attempting to cook (i.e. burn) a pizza over the flame because he forgets that we don't have a working oven. But all in all, we have been relatively comfortable this first week at Petit Clos thanks to the milder weather and I just wish that this would not be changing so soon when Hank begins demo on the kitchen next week and our existing one moves out into the cold hallway for at least a month or so.

Our home phone was activated as was our internet this week, so we are thankfully connected with wifi (or wee-fee as they say here). The best news is, calls to the U.S. and much of the world are gratuit (free) which amazes me. The downside is calling from fixed phone to mobile phone and visa versa which is not so reasonable. Also, because we missed something critical in the description of our new mobile plan, we didn't understand exactly what we ended up signing up for so we spent 3-4 ineffectual visits back to the Orange store (French Telecom) and finally ended up with their English helpline that helped sort the details out for us. We are still currently trouble shooting how to get the tv up and running which probably entails a satellite dish, but we'll have to tackle that challenge in the next week.

We've been conversing in our limited French at almost every turn and I've got to believe (hope) that it is improving. Many of the locals we meet assume that we will not even attempt the language but "a contraire," we boast and proceed to completely mutilate their mother tongue until I think they are forced to recall the limited english that they learned in school in order for us to stop. All in all, we have been treated with a combination of kindness and curiosity as in, "what would make an American family leave the comfort of California to live in an old drafty french farmhouse?"

Caleigh is doing well in school and never complains about how difficult it is. She had two very high scores in math and french last week, so I think her confidence is increasing, so much in fact, that she corrects my pronunciation and style on a regular basis. I don't mind. She's in the trenches every day and hears how real people really talk, so what she is learning is invaluable.

This week we have to find a car and finish up the massive paperwork in order to obtain our health care (carte vitale). Then, we prep for renovations to begin next week. I think I'll also begin to put the word out about my availability to freelance now that all communication technology is up and running. A little income would definitely be welcome about now as we begin our descent into imitating "Monsieur Petterson Builds his Dream Home."

Until next week...