La France sur le Gril
French Roast
France would be a great place to live. . .
if it weren’t for the French! 

This book is aimed at:

Anglophones, who are a significant body in France.

Americans. America is a huge, but divided nation. Those Americans who have traveled to France—and there are many—tend to love almost everything French. Many of them are more chauvinistic toward France than the French people themselves.

Readers interested in living in France will find my experiences with the French bureaucracy useful, interesting, and amusing.

 

 

 

La France sur le Gril
French Roast
France would be a great place to live. . .
  

if it weren’t for the French!

Stan Kossen 

 

 Foreword
Once upon a time, back in 1989, Peter Mayle, a retired advertising executive, authored a book for which the world must have been anxiously waiting. Entitled, A Year in Provence, it became an instant best seller in Great Britain and the U.S. and even found an audience among the denizens of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Mayle’s book had a significant influence on innumerable wannabe ex-pats, including me. I had long considered myself a Francophile–an avid admirer of anything with a French twist–after having enjoyed to the fullest an eight-month sojourn in the south of France as a student during the 1960s.  Perhaps it was Mayle’s book that helped nudge me over the fine line of indecision and choose to live in France.

After my student days in France, I returned to California where I taught college and wrote university-level textbooks for twenty-two years, always harboring a dream to return one day to live happily ever after in the south of France. After my first visit to the Provence/Riviera region of France, I never again felt like Jack Armstrong, that “all-American boy.”  

American-brewed coffee was no longer my “cup of tea”; it was far too anemic for my “French-like taste buds.” I ate only freshly-baked, light-as-a-few-feathers, croissants smothered with strawberry confiture for breakfast instead of the usual white-toasted Wonder bread with peanut butter or jam. When I took a female companion on a picnic, we ate French bread and Port Salud cheese and romantically sipped on French Bordeaux instead of chomping on mad-cow hamburgers washed down with Diet Coke.

I was even able to find a quaint little French cafe nestled in-between the topless bars of North Beach called Le Montmartre and owned by a skinny, mustached Frenchman named Jean-Paul and his mother, Madam Levavasseur, a stout middle-aged lady whose carriage was not unlike that of a madam overseeing the equatorial activities a brothel. On Friday and Saturday evenings a stereotypical Frenchman named Sam even played long-forgotten French melodies on his accordion! (He was actually Irish!)

Every summer thereafter, I returned to the Provence/Riviera region in the south of France for six to eight weeks, hardly fazed by the energy-draining humidity and the “caught-you-by-surprise” thunder showers common in the region during the warm months of July and August. 

In those days, I was oblivious to anything negative related to France. I was an avid spokesperson for La Belle France, a genuine bleu, blanc, et rouge Francophile through and through. I even wore a witless black French beret with a silly little string protruding from its top while cruising the hilly streets of San Francisco décapotable in a white Triumph sports car. Those were the days before on-backwards baseball caps became popular among backward people throughout the world.

As a result of the “downsizing,” “rightsizing,” “re-engineering,” or “destruction,”–whichever euphemism you prefer—that occurred in the higher educational system of California, I was encouraged to take an early retirement from university-level teaching. I leaped at the opportunity to fulfill my dream of returning permanently to my Mediterranean paradise. I took the proffered paltry petite pension and the tarnished “brass” parachute and ran—make that, flew—to Europe.

 I currently live near the medieval village of Tourrette-sur-Loup, a quaint artisan’s colony, situated 400 meters–about 1,300 feet–above a valley resplendent with violets and olive trees. I live with Marilena, a Swiss/Italian, who provided much of the inspiration for this book.

Mayle wrote about his life in Provence in idyllic and glowing terms. Unfortunately, he popularized the region so much that the area became overrun with tourists wanting to catch a glimpse of his mas–an ancient little word for farmhouse–and devour as many truffles as their travel budgets could afford. I’ve even learned that Mayle attracted so many tourists to his front gate and received so much static from his neighbors that the pressures got to him and he departed from his exotic paradise to live on Long Island, New York.

My purpose is different from Mayle’s. I will inform you about some of the things Mayle didn’t dare to write about or perhaps didn’t even encounter. Yet such experiences are a veritable part of living in the Provence/Côte d’Azur region today—or for that matter, any part of France.

As the title of this book–French Roast–implies, I am putting France into a figurative oven and roasting her. The term was borrowed, at a high rate of interest, I hope, from American television. Do you remember the “celebrity roasts” that appeared regularly on American television? Well-known personalities in the entertainment industry were invited to be the “roasts of honor,” and other celebrated personalities took turns at the mike ridiculing, deriding, and mocking the guests with haughty, facetious sarcastic, good-natured insults.

The basic motives were not malicious. The unsolicited words were thrown out in playful fun and not intended to critically wound the celebrity’s ego.  I, too, mean no malice toward the county that I truly love, France.

As the late President Richard Outhouse Nixon was fond of saying, “Let’s make this perfectly clear.” I, too, would like to be perfectly clear on something. I have tried to avoid what is sometimes called the “expat syndrome,” which is the tendency to compare and contrast everything in the host country with one’s home country and to see everything through rain-drenched glasses. Au contraire! That is far from my intention.

I am extremely fond of the French people, their customs, language, and rich cultural heritage. I don’t have to live in France, and I wouldn’t live in there if I didn’t really want to. But to live in current-day France as an ex-pat–and even as a native French person, I’ve been told–can sometimes take its toll on one’s central nervous system.  The real purpose of this book is to provide an amusing, and often peppery, account of some of the stresses and strains, as well as some of the joys, that anyone considering the start of a new life in France,  especially the Provence/Côte d’Azur region, might encounter during their first year.

In 1989 Mayle wrote, “The only cloud on our horizon at the moment is a small one…. There are hideous rumors of what our local friends call un boum. By 1992, they say, Provence will be firmly established as the California of Europe. I hope they’re wrong.”

The year 1992 has already long come and gone. Were those hideous rumors truly rumors, or have the portentous predictions of Mayle’s neighbors actually arrived? Was it the right decision for me to have bought a villa with the intention of settling down in France? Are you curious as to how I got here in the first place?

If you don’t have an inquisitive nature about these things, pay the store clerk for this book anyhow and donate it to a branch of the Salvation Army, or another one of your favorite charities, and take your rightfully deserved tax deduction. If your do read on, you should find some caustic, albeit humorous, answers to those questions.

 

Chapter 1
I need a second tongue!
 
Francophile?  What made me think I was a Francophile—a real grenouille devotee? Well, once upon a time back in the 1960’s, as a younger man in my twenties, I decided that a foreign language might prove to be useful. I nearly went to Buenos Aires to learn Spanish—I kid you not—but I changed my mind at the last minute after a Pan Am airline attendant friend of mine, Jan, started supplying me with free miniatures of the orange-flavored French-made liqueur, Gran Marnier. This sweet syrupy delight, it seemed to me, was truly the nectar of all gods and goddesses. Any country capable of producing a substitute for central heating that tasted as good as that had to be the closest thing to this side of paradise.
 
Love it or leave it! I do. . .and I did!
In those days—remember, I’m talking about the 60’s—some people in America were fond of saying “Love it or leave it.” I actually loved it, but I decided to leave it anyhow—not to avoid the Vietnam draft, since at that time I wore hard contact lenses made out of the bottoms of recycled Pepsi bottles and was so blind without them that I would not have had to say “Good morrrrrrrning!” to Southeast Asia anyhow, as did Robin Williams.

The only purpose of my departure from the U.S. was to explore other cultures and to learn a foreign language. In the only foreign language course that I ever attempted while in high school I received a dismal “D” grade. For my ego’s sake, I later decided that learning a second language was a must. French was a romance language—the language of love—one that could even be learned in bed, I had heard. With a reputation as hot as all that, could you imagine a better language to study? It seemed to me that a second tongue might come in useful in a variety of ways someday!

France of the ‘60s—at practically giveaway prices!
As a going away present, my Pan Am friend, Jan, gave me a copy of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5.00 a Day. I flew to Paris from Vancouver, Canada on what was probably the last propeller-driven airplane ever to fly from North America to the European continent. The flight took a “mere” 17 hours. It seemed miraculous to me at the time that anyone could fly from one continent to another in such a short amount of time.

Ah, so you’re wondering if that “On $5.00 a Day” is a misprint. Not at all, mes amis. In the early sixties, the French were giving away 10 francs for each super-powered Yankee dollar, and so survival was possible on even less than $5.00 a day. I left the U.S. with a paltry $500 in American Express checks, an MBA, a naïve sense of security, and the intention to stay indefinitely in the land of Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Jean Paul Sartre, Claude Monet, and Jerry Lewis.

I spoke nary a word of Froglaise when I first arrived in France. Excusez-moi. That’s not completely true, because I could pronounce such French words as Chevrolet, Charles Boyer, and soixante-neuf! Pronouncing Maurice Chevalier’s last name, however, was a real challenge. In fact, it still is!

After my arrival at Orly Airport I took the bus to the airline terminal in downtown Paris. My Frommer bible suggested that the cheapest accommodations could be found in the student quarter on the Left Bank (la Rive Gauche), a district of Paris where such famous American writers as William Faulkner and Gertrude Stein sipped on café express at sidewalk bistros several decades before.

“Je ne comprends pas l’anglais, monsieur”
After departing from my airport bus, I approached a person on the sidewalk and said, “Excuse me, but can you tell me where I can catch the subway (metro) to the Left Bank?” I couldn’t understand a single word of his response. It sounded something like, “Januhcumprendypah,” which made absolutely no sense to me. It immediately became readily apparent that I had a communications problem!

I dashed into the airline terminal and asked a multilingual employee where to catch the metro to the left bank. She suggested that it would be much easier for me to take a taxi. I told her I wanted to “roam like the Romans” and take the metro.  That was only partly true. I had to start guarding my centimes quite parsimoniously since $500 was little money to live on for an indefinite period in France, especially without even having a paid-for return trip ticket to the U.S. in my pocket.

After hopping into a metro car, I suddenly felt very self-conscious. I wasn’t accustomed to being in a foreign country where I couldn’t communicate with the natives.  Everyone in the train was staring at me, at least it seemed that way, and I felt as though I were a 10-foot tall, pointed-eared, forest-green alien from outer space. In retrospect I realized that in a large cosmopolitan city like Paris, I could have been standing there with my blue jeans dropped to my knees and no one would have even cast an idle glance!

I finally made it to the Left Bank, and with the Frommer book in hand found my way to 35 Rue des Ecoles and Hotel St. Jacques. The price of the hotel room was virtually free, based on American values at the time, 8 francs a night—a mere pittance—less than $1.00. Can you believe that?  Incredible, but true.

The first night had to be paid in advance. I handed the granite-faced concierge 10 francs, and he thrust two francs in change into my right hand. It was time to begin my great quest at integrating into the French culture, so I trekked to a sidewalk cafe and ordered un petit verre de vin rouge (a small glass of red wine). The price was a paltry 1.50 francs, about 30 cents U.S.

I handed the garçon the two francs that I just had received in change from the hotel clerk and was told, “Sorry, monsieur, but one of these coins is worth only a centime, which is almost worthless.” “But both coins have the words “one franc” on them.” I responded. He retorted, “Yes, you are right, but one is an ancien (old) franc, the other nouveau (new).” He informed me that French money had recently been devalued and two zeros were knocked off the value of old coins and paper money. After a mere two hours in the “City of Light,” I already had my first encounter of strange kind.

I raced back to the hotel and told the concierge that he had given me the wrong change. He feigned an offended expression and denied engaging in any such nefarious act. I commenced to twist and shout in an extremely emotional manner. I was upset at his attempt to cheat me.

He succumbed to my demands after a minute of my ranting and raving and handed me a genuine one-franc piece. I had my first international incident over the equivalent of a measly 20 American cents.

What makes you think you’re ready for the Sorbonne?
My intention was to enroll immediately in the major university of France, Sorbonne University, founded long, long before the United States was even a gleam in George Washington’s eye—the year 1150. I already had received an MBA from the University of Washington at Rainville, USA (make that Seattle), but I thought that it would be rad, bad, awesome, pure status to be able to subtly interject the cool line at cocktail parties, “Well, when I studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, . . .”

It was chilly Friday afternoon in January, and I scurried over to the administration offices of the university and in English—the only tongue that I could wiggle at the time—said to the charming young receptionist, “Hello, Miss, I would like to enroll in the Sorbonne.”

A rapid-fire response in incomprehensible French was launched in my direction, which probably meant, “What in hell are you mumbling about, Ricain!” (Ricain is a French term of endearment for Americans.) The receptionist apparently didn’t understand my American English.

So I tried again with a different approach. “Me, American. Me want study Sorbonne. Me Tarzan, you Jane! You nice smile. You sexy. You have pretty eyes, you know?”

She grinned. Ah! At last I was getting through to her, I thought. She opened a file drawer, pulled out a Saturday night special, and shot me at point-blank range right between the ears! Just kidding, of course.

Actually, the Sorbonne receptionist whipped out what I really wanted—an application form for entry into the university. There was one minor problem, however. The application was entirely in a foreign language—French—and I couldn’t read a single mot of the language.

After all, what was the reason I wanted to go to school in the first place—to learn how to read application blanks, right?  I asked, “Classes here. . .in English?” I hadn’t a clue what her response to that question meant. I mused to myself, “Myself, perhaps you ain’t quite ready for the prestigious Sorbonne University.”

This vacuum wasn’t a Hoover! 
Feeling a bit helpless and dejected, I crawled on my hands and knees, tail between my legs, head drooped, to a sidewalk cafe on Boulevard St. Michel across from the Jardin du Luxembourg and had another petit verre de vin rouge. I could see young children joyfully playing with their blue and white plastic sailboats in a pond that Joe Dassin, le chanteur français, sensitively sang about. But I experienced none of their youthful glee. I felt extremely alone and alien and not so brave in this strange new world.

Since it was the dead of winter—January—a month accompanied by the usual dismal, gray, and overcast Parisian heavens, there were few fellow American tourists with whom I might strike up amiable conversations. All there seemed to be in Paris were French people.

Being unable to utter one coherent French phrase, I felt like a person trapped in a vacuum, not unlike Jim Carry in The Truman Show after he discovered that his quaint, but unreal, hometown had him trapped. 
In fact, I vacuumed all weekend, and then Monday—as it usually does after a weekend—inevitably arrived.  By the way. in case you’re disinterested, I never imbibe on petites verres des vins rouges or any alcoholic beverages before 5:00 p.m. To assist me in maintaining consistency in this prudent behavior, all of the numbers on my wristwatch—all 12–by coincidence resemble the number “5.”

Consequently, I never feel guilty about what time of day I take a drink.
Oops! Désolé. Please forgive me. I was distracted from my vacuuming. Since my “numbers 5” watch permitted—actually encouraged—me, I returned to the cafe and ordered another petit verre de vin rouge—one of the few beverages my “Paris-on-500-cents-a-day” budget would permit. 

Enchanté, Pierre!
This time, however, lady luck was at my side. A friendly voice gently pierced my vacuum bubble. A young Frenchman saw me sitting there and asked me in “not-so-bad-English” where I was from. I said “California,” and as are many Europeans when they hear that 10-letter word, he, too, seemed enormously impressed. One of their first questions usually is, “Do you know any movie stars?” I always say yes. It seems to make their day! When I really want to impress them, I relate the time when I met Michael Douglas while renting a pair of in-line skates in Santa Barbara.

Back to the amiable Frenchman. His name, as seems to be the case for 12 out of 8 Frenchman, was Pierre. (Pierre, as you may know, means “rock” in French. Do you remember the famous American film star, “Pierre Hudson”? He was a good buddy of Dorise Jour!) I told Pierre of my difficulties in pursuing a solid linguist education in France. He advised me to check with Alliance Française, a school located on the other side of Le Jardin du Luxembourg and especially designed for ignorant foreigners like me.

Pierre seemed like a “mellow dude,” as those of us with limited vocabularies used to mutter during the turbulent tie-dye sixties, and I felt fortunate to have finally made contact with an actual living and breathing human being. I had felt so isolated I would have been just as delighted if he had been Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Ladin, or even  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,  Supreme leader of Iran!

Pierre told me that he was in the process of looking for a new apartment and that he needed some temporary housing until he found something adequate. He asked where I was living. I told him I was staying down the street in Hotel St. Jacques. He then asked if I would be willing to share my hotel room with him. Pierre told me that he was in the process of looking for a new apartment and that he needed some temporary housing until he found something adequate. He asked where I was living. I told him I was staying down the street in Hotel St. Jacques. He then asked if I would be willing to share my hotel room with him. 

I told Pierre that my room was quite small and had only one bed. He asked if it was a double bed, and I said yes. He said, “I will pay two-thirds of the cost of your room until I find a place of my own. I should find another place to live within a few days—a week at the most. I’ll even pay you for a week in advance, and you don’t have to return anything to me if I find a place before then.”

Wow! Since I was living on a starvation budget, Pierre’s proposal sounded like a real winner to me. Besides, he seemed like an okay sort of fellow, so I said, “Why not?” 

Pierre showed me where Alliance Française was located, and I enrolled. My classes would start the following morning. Great! Things seemed finally to be falling neatly into place. 

A bedtime story
About 11:00 p.m., Pierre and I—or, in retrospect, perhaps only I—decided to get some sleep. I jokingly said to Pierre, “Stay on your own side of the bed.” He responded, “Pas de problème, mon ami.” 

As we undressed in preparation for going beddie-bye, I thought my imagination was getting the best of me. It seemed as though Pierre was staring longingly at me. But, as a card-carrying member in good standing of the Woody Allen school of paranoia, I was sure it was pure conjecture on my part. 

I was exhausted and still jet-lagged after the interminable flight from California and a weekend overflowing with high anxiety and substantial uncertainty about my future in an unknown land, so I instantly drifted off into dreamland. It wasn’t long afterwards that I was startled by something that felt like a hand and arm caressing my bare shoulders.

Having long subscribed to that good old American philosophy that one is innocent until proven guilty, I assumed that Pierre was having a virtually graphic French dream in real time and believing that I was a cute young French twist desirous of sharing his fantasy. 

I gently, but forcefully, grabbed his attentive arm and directed it back to his side of the bed. Immediately, the same roaming Latin arm returned to its previous affectionate position.

I exclaimed, “Pierre, lay off! I’m not a woman! This is your American friend, Stan, at your side!” 

The next words to emerge from Pierre’s bouche were a shocker to me. He said, “Mon petit pôte, I’m cold. Move close to me and let’s cuddle.” 

Who said that the French weren’t friendly?
Maybe Pierre thought we were in a “queen-sized” bed!        
I retorted, “Pierre, I’m not cold, and I don’t want to cuddle!”  He sighed, “D’accord” (“okay”), and rolled over.

Although I was a bit tense at that juncture, I was almost asleep again and—you got it right!–his arm started another Ferdinand Magellan navigation around my personal skinworld.

My patience had expired and had no interest in being renewed. I turned on the light and shouted, “Pierre, I told you to back off. Cool it! Do you hear? I’m not into that kind of activity! You can do whatever you want, but not with me!” 

Pierre arose slowly from the bed without saying a word. I observed the glistening of small droplets of moisture in the corners of his breakback, sheepherder-like eyes. He languidly got dressed, all the while his head staring dejectedly at the floor. He then despondently walked toward the door, unlocked it, started to leave, stopped, then slowly turned around, and with a dramatic bit of flair sighed, “Adieu, Stan.” I said, “Good-bye, Pierre. Good luck to you.”Pierre told me that he was in the process of looking for a new apartment and that he needed some temporary housing until he found something adequate.

 He asked where I was living. I told him I was staying down the street in Hotel St. Jacques. He then asked if I would be willing to share my hotel room with him. I told Pierre that my room was quite small and had only one bed. He asked if it was a double bed, and I said yes. He said, “I will pay two-thirds of the cost of your room until I find a place of my own. I should find another place to live within a few days—a week at the most. I’ll even pay you for a week in advance, and you don’t have to return anything to me if I find a place before then.

”Wow! Since I was living on a starvation budget, Pierre’s proposal sounded like a real winner to me. Besides, he seemed like an okay sort of fellow, so I said, “Why not?” Pierre showed me where Alliance Française was located, and I enrolled. My classes would start the following morning. Great! Things seemed finally to be falling neatly into place. 

About 11:00 p.m., Pierre and I—or, in retrospect, perhaps only I—decided to get some sleep. I jokingly said to Pierre, “Stay on your own side of the bed.” He responded, Pas de problème, mon ami.” 

As we undressed in preparation for going beddie-bye, I thought my imagination was getting the best of me. It seemed as though Pierre was staring longingly at me. But, as a card-carrying member in good standing of the Woody Allen school of paranoia, I was sure it was pure conjecture on my part. I was exhausted and still jet-lagged after the interminable flight from California and a weekend overflowing with high anxiety and substantial uncertainty about my future in an unknown land, so I instantly drifted off into dreamland.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I was startled by something that felt like a hand and arm caressing my bare shoulders.Having long subscribed to that good old American philosophy that one is innocent until proven guilty, I assumed that Pierre was having a virtually graphic French dream in real time and believing that I was a cute young French twist desirous of sharing his fantasy. 

I gently, but forcefully, grabbed his attentive arm and directed it back to his side of the bed. Immediately, the same roaming Latin arm returned to its previous affectionate position.I exclaimed, “Pierre, lay off! I’m not a woman! This is your American friend, Stan, at your side!” 

The next words to emerge from Pierre’s were a shocker to me. He said I’m cold. Move close to me and let’s cuddle.” Maybe Pierre thought we were in a “queen-sized” bed!        

I retorted, “Pierre, I’m not cold, and I don’t want to cuddle!” 

He sighed, (“okay”), and rolled over.Although I was a bit tense at that juncture, I was almost asleep again and—you got it right!–his arm started another Ferdinand Magellan navigation around my personal skinworld.

My patience had expired and had no interest in being renewed. I turned on the light and shouted, “Pierre, I told you to back off. Cool it! Do you hear? I’m not into that kind of activity! You can do whatever you want, but not with me!” 

Pierre arose slowly from the bed without saying a word. I observed the glistening of small droplets of moisture in the corners of his breakback, sheepherder-like eyes.

He languidly got dressed, all the while his head staring dejectedly at the floor. He then despondently walked toward the door, unlocked it, started to leave, stopped, then slowly turned around, and with a dramatic bit of flair sighed, “Adieu, Stan.” I said, “Good-bye, Pierre. Good luck to you.”That was the last time I ever saw Pierre.


 

 

Chapter 2
Gene, I’m freezing,
not singing, in the rain

Paris is cold—really cold—in January. All my clothing was California weight, and I wasn’t accustomed to a winter that felt like a real winter. I couldn’t imagine feeling any colder if I had been trekking on a frosty Arctic tundra exploration!

Each morning I walked shivering and shaking like a sick puppy while wending my way through the Jardin du Luxembourg on my journey to my French class. The classroom was also cool and was a perfect temperature for storing the best of French Bordeaux wines for an eon or two. 

After class at mid-day, as was my recently-acquired habitude, I went to a sidewalk café for a—yes, you got it again!–a petit verre de vin rouge, which—of course—was also cellar temperature. Even the temperature in my hotel room would have killed the bacteria normally found in a glass of low-fat milk left out on a kitchen table overnight. And I didn’t even have a kitchen table. I didn’t even have a kitchen! Who knows, maybe that cuddly Pierre guy would have made useful chauffage central!

But cold or no, I was determined to forge on and learn to speak in a romanica loqui fashion. Based on some of my upcoming experiences, it became apparent that I had a desperate need to learn French.
  
Sir, my light bulb doesn’t “walk”!

My linguistic deficiency became even clearer to me one day while I was in my hotel room and the sole source of illumination—a solitary light bulb—burned out. I had to ask the concierge for a new bulb. I hadn’t yet learned how to say in French, “Something doesn’t work.” Nor did I know the word for “light bulb.”

 I thumbed through my el cheapo Cassell’s Compact French Dictionary. I couldn’t find the word for light bulb, but I did find light—lumière—and bulb—ampoule. I then checked out the French infinitive for the word “work.” It was travailler. Great, I’m now well equipped for some heavy French communication.

I descended the stairway, walked confidently up to the concierge’s counter as confidently as a mutual fund salesperson during a bull market, and boldly stated, “Bonjour, monsieur. Mon lumière ampoule, ne travaille pas.” This simply meant (to me, at least), “Hello, sir, my light bulb doesn’t work.”

The concierge glanced at me as though I had just leaped in head first through the window and in apparent disbelief said, “Qu’est-ce que vous avez dit?” (“What did you say?”)

I repeated, “Mon lumière ampoule ne travaille pas.” He mirrored what I just said with a look on his face of absolute amazement first followed by skepticism. “Votre lumière ampoule—il ne travaille pas?”

I thought that perhaps he had a mental deficiency or might have been hard of hearing, so with greater clarity and enhanced intensity I again said in my keenest French, and slightly shouting, “My light doesn’t work!”

Suddenly his face glowed like a 75-watt light bulb and he said, “Oh la la! Vous voulez dire que votre ampoule ne marche pas.”
Marche?

I knew that the French were somewhat different from Americans, but is he really saying that my light bulb doesn’t marche? I had learned only yesterday that marcher was the infinitive for “to walk.” Could he telling me that my light bulb doesn’t walk?

I checked later with my French teacher, and that’s what the hotel clerk—and every reasonable French person–would say. “The light bulb doesn’t walk.” The word marcher does mean, “to walk,” but it also means “to function.” This was my first French class in “Don’t-translate-words-literally 301”!

Time on my hands—make that wrist!    
The next time while working toward my French class—oops! I mean walking, a young child ran up to me in the park and said, “Excusez-moi, monsieur. Quelle heure est-il?” Ah, I felt great for a change. My self-image soared like a hand glider. I understood what the young French child had asked me. I believed that I was truly making progress at last. I had no problem understanding that the child asked me what time it was.

I looked at my watch, opened my mouth to tell the boy the time, but nothing emerged, not even a bad breath of air. I suddenly realized that I had not yet acquired the basic skill of telling time in the French idiom.
Feeling somewhat like an idiot, I mumbled something to the child and then showed him the face of my watch (All of its numbers were not 5, by the way. I was just kidding earlier). He looked at my watch, and then looked at me like I was mentally challenged, as one would say in politically correct America the North. He walked away, glanced at me over his shoulder, and then he shook his head back and forth three times in utter disbelief that this strange mec—me—didn’t even know the time of day.

The bikini land without the bite
Perhaps you are wondering what all this has to do with “roasting the French.” Good question. Have patience though. We’re getting there. This is merely the foreplay leading up to my climatic, “year of the roast” in southeastern France.

The nippy Paris winter had begun to bite into my California-weight skin like a powerful-jawed crazed pit bull, and I had only been there three weeks. I soon realized that I lacked the stamina of dancer Gene Kelly who took consummate delight in singing to French poodles and splashing through French puddles in the pouring rain!

Again I asked myself a question: “Myself, don’t you think that there’s a warmer way to learn the French language?” A trip to Tahiti or Martinique was financially out of the question. I had to figure out something though because I didn’t know how much longer I could survive in this arctic-like environment.

Then one day as I was thumbing through my travel bible, “Europe on a Pittance per Day,” I came across a chapter entitled, “Nice—Bikini Land without the Bite.” Bikini land? No bite? Nice really sounded nice. That’s probably how it got its name!

They speak French down there, too, don’t they? There must be schools for learning French in Nice. And I had learned when I took a geography course at the University of Washington that California had a Mediterranean climate. If California has a Mediterranean climate, then Nice—situated smack-dab on the shores of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea—must also have the same mild and sunny winter weather. C’est logique, n’est-ce pas?

Ergo, on a snowy, glacial Thursday afternoon, I hopped on a train headed south away from the falling Parisian snowflakes. The next morning as we pulled into the Nice train station on the celebrated Côte d’Azur (“French Riviera,” to the geographically disadvantaged), I immediately saw cheery sunshine and graceful swaying Canary Isle date palms. Ah, paradise found at last! I shall learn to speak French sans frozen toes, nose, and heavy clothes.

I located a school across the street from the Promenade des Anglais called Centre Université Méditerranée, situated in an ivory-white, vintage looking building with bronze reclining lion statutes regally embracing both sides of the entrance.

 Looking at the world through rose-colored coke bottles
I enrolled, was given an address where I could rent a room for the equivalent of a mere 90 American cents a night, and was able to eat a mass-produced four-course meal each day at the university restaurant for a only 90 cents. If I desired table wine with my meal, I paid an additional 5 cents, and received a Coke bottle filled with a rose-colored liquid that was worth every penny! (Of course, this was long before the introduction of the Euro.

Although Nice turned out to be much cooler and wetter than I had anticipated, I spent eight of the most fascinating and enjoyable months of my life there. It was during this period that I first acquired the dream to settle one day in the southeastern part of France.

 

Chapter 3
Not quite ready for la belle France!
 
Living in the south of France was a veritable delight during those eight months, but it was a bit premature—both career-wise and financially—for me to think about residing there permanently. Instead, it was back to the good old USA, where I obtained a position with a college teaching organizational behavior. But unlike Tony Bennett, my heart was left not in San Francisco, but in the alluring south of France region, and revisited every summer thereafter for respites of six to eight glorious weeks.

The turbulent sixties
Living in the Bay Area of northern California made it somewhat easy for me to get caught up in the “revolution” of the sixties. The assassinations of Kennedy, King, Kennedy, X, and James Garfield, the turbulence, the unrest, the divisiveness, and the loss of more than 45,000 young Americans in Vietnam seemed to indelibly scar my hyper-sensitive mental tissues. For many of us, the 60s were exciting, but traumatizing, years. The later attempts on the lives of Wallace in 1972 and Reagan in 1981 helped to reinforce my desire to live in another culture. Although I loved, and I still love, America, I believed that someday I would leave it and return to live in south of France.

In 1974, I took a year off from teaching to write a college textbook. Originally, my former wife, Sonna, and my one-year-old son, Jeremy, and I intended to take a freighter from California through the Panama Canal to Marseilles, and then trek on to the southern part of France, where I would write my first university-level textbook.

A travel agent talked us out of taking a freighter to France. He said that there was no doctor on board a freighter, which could be risky with a one-year-old son. He said, “If I were you, I would catch a plane to the Canary Islands, the land of eternal spring.”

Canary Islands ? Where’s that ? The Pacific ? The Caribbean ? Bora Bora ?
The Canary Islands? What, where, and why are they? I hadn’t a clue. We Americans aren’t noted for our expertise in geography. Were the islands named after the Canary songbird? No, no, no. Were the cute little yellow birds named after the islands? Yes, yes, yes. Then how did the islands get the name Canary? As the French might say, “C’est évident.” (“It’s obvious, ” but not really.)

The islands, I kid you not, were named after wild dogs, Canis familiaris, (like in “canine”) that once freely roamed the island. If you don’t believe it, then visit the town squares, some of which have granite statues of the skinny little beasts as a continual reminder to the local denizens.

Exploring the islands with the aid of my trusty cyber-encyclopedia made them sound something like a scientific description of the moon. However, the Spanish Government Tourist Office in San Francisco sent me 10 slick 16-color brochures that described the archipelago as though it were a veritable paradise. The islands turned out to be somewhere between the two views.

So the three of us—Sonna, Jeremy, and I—voyaged to the second largest island of the archipelago, Gran Canaria, nestled about 100 miles off the coast of northwest Africa. By the way, our good Italian friend, Chris Columbus, was likewise a bit confused at first. He stopped off at the islands for some Canary rum and gofio on his way to discover Native Americans. Of course that was a few years before we went there. After the writing project was completed, we returned to northern California where I continued teaching, writing, presenting seminars, and consuming.

The decline of the California empire—deep in the heart of taxes !
In 1978, the benevolent citizens of the grand state of California decided that education for young people was an unnecessary luxury for a brain-dead society like California’s, especially if its funding had to come out of property taxes. As a result, the voters passed a referendum in 1978 called Proposition 13 that mandated a major reduction in property taxes.

Prop. 13 was the beginning of a significant decline in the quality of education in California, at least until the turnaround in the economy during the 90s. Teachers became demotivated as a result of their declining real incomes. Students were neither able to obtain important classes like underwater polo and ethnic volleyball, nor fringe classes like mathematics, French, and history. Entrance standards were raised to reduce the number of incoming students. Supplies became scarce and teachers were no longer able to steal pencils or use their school’s photocopying machines to reproduce handouts. I was even self-canonized as a result of purchasing my own photocopier so that I could continue providing my students with supplementary educational reprints of Larry Flynt essays.

With limited funds available and conditions and morale progressively sagging on California college campuses, state officials seemed to believe that they had to make the hard choice between providing adequate educational facilities and constructing new prisons. Of course, as would be the case in any progressive society, prisons won emerged victorious. Can you think of any better investment in America’s future than building additional prisons? Oh, you can? Good! Where were you when we needed you?

Time to take the “ brass parachute “ and run!
By 1987, money became really scarce in the institution where I taught. Pseudo terms like “work-force imbalance correction” and “downsizing” became organizational buzzwords of the day. (Even my marriage became downsized through the process of divorce.) Professors of a certain age and with a minimum number of teaching years behind them were given the opportunity to volunteer to quit before they would have been fired.

Professors who volunteered for early retirement become eligible to receive “tarnished brass”—not quite considered “golden”—parachutes ($6,000 a year for two years) and a petite pension. My pension began at the prodigious level of $884 per month and increased each year by 3 percent of the base year—hardly a fortune, would you say?

As an inveterate adventurer, I decided to take the early retirement option. Although not completely certain why, I returned for a one-week visit to the Canary Islands—a 17-hour journey from San Francisco—to see if the “land of eternal spring” might be where I wanted to start receiving my E-mail. During my visit, I met a not-so-great Dane who told me of a “riskless” investment opportunity that could provide me with a steady income if I chose to live there. It sounded a chance in a lifetime, so I went for it.

After returning to California, I applied for a Spanish visa, arranged to ship personal belongings and my BMW in a container to the island of Gran Canaria, and three months later I was on my way. The investment, by the way, turned out to be as sour as a rancid lemon—a scam; $40,000 of my scarce resources slithered down that proverbial drain.

A time-sharing romance !
For the next seven years I lived in Gran Canaria during the winter months and Amsterdam during the summers spending most of my time revising three of the textbooks that had earlier been published in the U.S. While joint-jar-jogging one day, I met a Swiss-Italian-Dutch woman, Marilena with whom I soon developed a turbulent ” time-sharing romance.” She had the nasty habit of staying with me for three months followed by a short respite with her Dutch ex-husband, Otto, and then back to me. It was a difficult concept for me to accept, but each time she returned, she promised me that she would remain with me for forever and a day. I naïvely believed her.

Marilena loved gardening, especially growing vegetables. She told me that the main reason she returned to Otto’s house in Bunnik, the Netherlands, was not because she loved him, but because she loved the garden with its many vegetables and fruit trees. She said that she dreamed of our sharing a small house with a large garden one day.
I thought that we could combine our dreams—mine to live in the south of France and hers to have a small house with a big garden. I also thought that our acquiring a house and garden together would help her break her time-sharing addiction of flip-flopping between Otto and me.

A perfect vacation in Provence
We took an idyllic three-week vacation in the Provence/Riviera region of France, one that provided us with everything we might have expected from the trip : romance, adventure, excitement, peaceful tranquility, strenuous activity, and sore feet. By accident we discovered a charming hotel, Auberge du Loup, run by a Parisian and his Polynesian wife, in Pont du Loup, a tiny speck on the map located on the raging cool Loup River between Vence and Grasse.

Although the region is located in an isolated paradise far away from the hustle and bustle of urban congestion, it is only about 22 minutes by automobile to the coastal city of Cagnes sur Mer, 35 minutes to the Airport Côte d’Azur in Nice, and only about 40 minutes from the home of the annual May film festival, Cannes.

Candy-loving tourists often come to Pont du Loup to visit its bonbon factory—the Confiserie des Gorges du Loup. More sportif-type visitors prefer to trek along the banks of the Loup River. During the warm months of June, July and August, the more daring plunge in the cool waters sans slip (without a bathing suit).
The road to paradise!
We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the Chemin du Paradis (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.
Being more sportive than candy loving, and being fairly skinny, we, too, took a skinny dip in the Loup, even though we later discovered that the French are not so open with nudity as we thought.We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.Being more sportive than candy loving, and being fairly skinny, we, too, took a skinny dip in the Loup, even though we later discovered that the French are not so open with nudity as we thought.During the three weeks, we explored the entire region. We visited the twin artistic towns of St. Paul and Vence. Near Vence we visited Tourrettes-sur-Loup, where we each slipped on a petit verre de vin rouge, observed the locals across the street playing the traditional French game of tossing heavy metal boules de pétanque. Then we strolled through the square for a visit to the village’s impressive town hall.
Also nearby is the more modern town of Grasse, famous for its perfume industry. I tend to sneeze every time I get a whiff of the aromatic fragrances, so we didn’t make a visit to a perfume factory as do so many of the go-go tourists who visit this region.
We needed no more convincing. This is the spot where we would try to find a small house with a large garden. We made the decision to come back. All that remained was to return to Gran Canaria, sell my seaside bungalow and apply for a French visa. Then, it would be back to “paradise found “ and the fulfillment of our dreams.We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.Being more sportive than candy loving, and being fairly skinny, we, too, took a skinny dip in the Loup, even though we later discovered that the French are not so open with nudity as we thought.During the three weeks, we explored the entire region. We visited the twin artistic towns of St. Paul and Vence. Near Vence we visited Tourrettes-sur-Loup, where we each slipped on a, observed the locals across the street playing the traditional French game of tossing heavy metal Then we strolled through the square for a visit to the village’s impressive town hall.Also nearby is the more modern town of Grasse, famous for its perfume industry. I tend to sneeze every time I get a whiff of the aromatic fragrances, so we didn’t make a visit to a perfume factory as do so many of the go-go tourists who visit this region.We needed no more convincing. This is the spot where we would try to find a small house with a large garden. We made the decision to come back. All that remained was to return to Gran Canaria, sell my seaside bungalow and apply for a French visa. Then, it would be back to “paradise found “ and the fulfillment of our dreams.
Chapter 4
Searching for our dream house
 
Marilena and I returned to the Canary Islands, where I owned a seaside bungalow and a two-level garage. We decided to sell the house and keep the garage for a while since we had stuffed so much sentimental junk into it, as the human packrat is prone to do. The upper floor of the garage was still needed for storage. A person could even sleep there if a bit desperate, since the floor on the upper level was tiled and even had a window with an ocean view! The costs of owning the garage were covered by renting the street level floor to an acquaintance who wanted to store his vintage Mercedes during the eight months of the year he lived in northern climes.We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.Being more sportive than candy loving, and being fairly skinny, we, too, took a skinny dip in the Loup, even though we later discovered that the French are not so open with nudity as we thought.During the three weeks, we explored the entire region. We visited the twin artistic towns of St. Paul and Vence. Near Vence we visited Tourrettes-sur-Loup, where we each slipped on a, observed the locals across the street playing the traditional French game of tossing heavy metal Then we strolled through the square for a visit to the village’s impressive town hall.Also nearby is the more modern town of Grasse, famous for its perfume industry. I tend to sneeze every time I get a whiff of the aromatic fragrances, so we didn’t make a visit to a perfume factory as do so many of the go-go tourists who visit this region.We needed no more convincing. This is the spot where we would try to find a small house with a large garden. We made the decision to come back. All that remained was to return to Gran Canaria, sell my seaside bungalow and apply for a French visa. Then, it would be back to “paradise found “ and the fulfillment of our dreams. Marilena and I returned to the Canary Islands, where I owned a seaside bungalow and a two-level garage. We decided to sell the house and keep the garage for a while since we had stuffed so much sentimental junk into it, as the human packrat is prone to do. The upper floor of the garage was still needed for storage. A person could even sleep there if a bit desperate, since the floor on the upper level was tiled and even had a window with an ocean view! The costs of owning the garage were covered by renting the street level floor to an acquaintance who wanted to store his vintage Mercedes during the eight months of the year he lived in northern climes.A buyer was soon located for my bungalow. Now began my first dealings with the French bureaucracy, about which I had heard horrendous rumors.  The process of applying for a French visa was begun at the French consul office in Las Palmas, followed by our packing essential household belongings, and then it was away to la belle France we would go.We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.Being more sportive than candy loving, and being fairly skinny, we, too, took a skinny dip in the Loup, even though we later discovered that the French are not so open with nudity as we thought.During the three weeks, we explored the entire region. We visited the twin artistic towns of St. Paul and Vence. Near Vence we visited Tourrettes-sur-Loup, where we each slipped on a, observed the locals across the street playing the traditional French game of tossing heavy metal Then we strolled through the square for a visit to the village’s impressive town hall.Also nearby is the more modern town of Grasse, famous for its perfume industry. I tend to sneeze every time I get a whiff of the aromatic fragrances, so we didn’t make a visit to a perfume factory as do so many of the go-go tourists who visit this region.We needed no more convincing. This is the spot where we would try to find a small house with a large garden. We made the decision to come back. All that remained was to return to Gran Canaria, sell my seaside bungalow and apply for a French visa. Then, it would be back to “paradise found “ and the fulfillment of our dreams. Marilena and I returned to the Canary Islands, where I owned a seaside bungalow and a two-level garage. We decided to sell the house and keep the garage for a while since we had stuffed so much sentimental junk into it, as the human packrat is prone to do. The upper floor of the garage was still needed for storage. A person could even sleep there if a bit desperate, since the floor on the upper level was tiled and even had a window with an ocean view! The costs of owning the garage were covered by renting the street level floor to an acquaintance who wanted to store his vintage Mercedes during the eight months of the year he lived in northern climes.A buyer was soon located for my bungalow. Now began my first dealings with the French bureaucracy, about which I had heard horrendous rumors.  The process of applying for a French visa was begun at the French consul office in Las Palmas, followed by our packing essential household belongings, and then it was away to la belle France we would go.It’s a long way to trip a Ferry
A trip from Gran Canaria to France by automobile is not the most convenient of activities since much of the route is a bit on the wet side. That condition seems to be somewhat normal for oceans and seas. Since Gran Canaria is an island, the only way to go to France from Gran Canaria with an automobile is to take a ferry ship to Cadiz, Spain, not the most pleasant experience for a person who gets mal de mer when he merely drinks a glass of Perrier sparkling water!  The cruise takes two and one-half days along the northwestern African coast past Morocco to Cadiz, the latter of which is located on the lower tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Marilena, who abhors vomiting over the brass railings of sea-going vessels, decided to abandon ship in advance and travel by Iberia Air Lines to join me later in France. We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.Being more sportive than candy loving, and being fairly skinny, we, too, took a skinny dip in the Loup, even though we later discovered that the French are not so open with nudity as we thought.During the three weeks, we explored the entire region. We visited the twin artistic towns of St. Paul and Vence. Near Vence we visited Tourrettes-sur-Loup, where we each slipped on a, observed the locals across the street playing the traditional French game of tossing heavy metal Then we strolled through the square for a visit to the village’s impressive town hall.Also nearby is the more modern town of Grasse, famous for its perfume industry. I tend to sneeze every time I get a whiff of the aromatic fragrances, so we didn’t make a visit to a perfume factory as do so many of the go-go tourists who visit this region.We needed no more convincing. This is the spot where we would try to find a small house with a large garden. We made the decision to come back. All that remained was to return to Gran Canaria, sell my seaside bungalow and apply for a French visa. Then, it would be back to “paradise found “ and the fulfillment of our dreams. Marilena and I returned to the Canary Islands, where I owned a seaside bungalow and a two-level garage. We decided to sell the house and keep the garage for a while since we had stuffed so much sentimental junk into it, as the human packrat is prone to do. The upper floor of the garage was still needed for storage. A person could even sleep there if a bit desperate, since the floor on the upper level was tiled and even had a window with an ocean view! The costs of owning the garage were covered by renting the street level floor to an acquaintance who wanted to store his vintage Mercedes during the eight months of the year he lived in northern climes.A buyer was soon located for my bungalow. Now began my first dealings with the French bureaucracy, about which I had heard horrendous rumors.  The process of applying for a French visa was begun at the French consul office in Las Palmas, followed by our packing essential household belongings, and then it was away to la belle France we would go.A trip from Gran Canaria to France by automobile is not the most convenient of activities since much of the route is a bit on the wet side. That condition seems to be somewhat normal for oceans and seas. Since Gran Canaria is an island, the only way to go to France from Gran Canaria with an automobile is to take a ferry ship to Cadiz, Spain, not the most pleasant experience for a person who gets when he merely drinks a glass of Perrier sparkling water!  The cruise takes two and one-half days along the northwestern African coast past Morocco to Cadiz, the latter of which is located on the lower tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Marilena, who abhors vomiting over the brass railings of sea-going vessels, decided to abandon ship in advance and travel by Iberia Air Lines to join me later in France.The cruise didn’t seem too bad to me. I passed part of the time writing and at other times gazing out from the upper deck observing the numerous bottle nosed dolphins, with their smooth bodies, beaklike snouts, and their bulging foreheads swimming gracefully in the bow wave of our moving ship.  The sleek animals seemed to rest motionless but, I was told, actually ride along side by using the current created by the movement of the ship.

We fell madly in love with the region. Marilena and I both agreed that we had discovered the area where we would like to live. We explored as much as we could, sometimes on foot and at other times with a rented car. We took the three-hour climb from Pont du Loup on a hiking path called the (“path to paradise”) to the medieval village, Gourdon, where we visited a thirteenth-century castle and enjoyed a majestic panoramic view of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.Being more sportive than candy loving, and being fairly skinny, we, too, took a skinny dip in the Loup, even though we later discovered that the French are not so open with nudity as we thought.During the three weeks, we explored the entire region. We visited the twin artistic towns of St. Paul and Vence. Near Vence we visited Tourrettes-sur-Loup, where we each slipped on a, observed the locals across the street playing the traditional French game of tossing heavy metal Then we strolled through the square for a visit to the village’s impressive town hall.Also nearby is the more modern town of Grasse, famous for its perfume industry. I tend to sneeze every time I get a whiff of the aromatic fragrances, so we didn’t make a visit to a perfume factory as do so many of the go-go tourists who visit this region.We needed no more convincing. This is the spot where we would try to find a small house with a large garden. We made the decision to come back. All that remained was to return to Gran Canaria, sell my seaside bungalow and apply for a French visa. Then, it would be back to “paradise found “ and the fulfillment of our dreams. Marilena and I returned to the Canary Islands, where I owned a seaside bungalow and a two-level garage. We decided to sell the house and keep the garage for a while since we had stuffed so much sentimental junk into it, as the human packrat is prone to do. The upper floor of the garage was still needed for storage. A person could even sleep there if a bit desperate, since the floor on the upper level was tiled and even had a window with an ocean view! The costs of owning the garage were covered by renting the street level floor to an acquaintance who wanted to store his vintage Mercedes during the eight months of the year he lived in northern climes.A buyer was soon located for my bungalow. Now began my first dealings with the French bureaucracy, about which I had heard horrendous rumors.  The process of applying for a French visa was begun at the French consul office in Las Palmas, followed by our packing essential household belongings, and then it was away to la belle France we would go.A trip from Gran Canaria to France by automobile is not the most convenient of activities since much of the route is a bit on the wet side. That condition seems to be somewhat normal for oceans and seas. Since Gran Canaria is an island, the only way to go to France from Gran Canaria with an automobile is to take a ferry ship to Cadiz, Spain, not the most pleasant experience for a person who gets when he merely drinks a glass of Perrier sparkling water!  The cruise takes two and one-half days along the northwestern African coast past Morocco to Cadiz, the latter of which is located on the lower tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Marilena, who abhors vomiting over the brass railings of sea-going vessels, decided to abandon ship in advance and travel by Iberia Air Lines to join me later in France.The cruise didn’t seem too bad to me. I passed part of the time writing and at other times gazingout from the upper deck observing the numerous bottle nosed dolphins, with their smooth bodies, beaklike snouts, and their bulging foreheads swimming gracefully in the bow wave of our moving ship.  The sleek animals seemed to rest motionless but, I was told, actually ride along side by using the current created by the movement of the ship. Yes, the cruise was amazingly relaxing and uneventful. However, upon arriving at the port of Cadiz there remained an additional one and one-half long and grueling days of Mediterranean-styled driving (a.k.a. fast!) before I would arrive at my ultimate destination in France. In case you haven’t looked recently, Spain is a large and long country based on typical European shoe sizes.

My car was stuffed—make that overstuffed—with personal belongings—most of which will probably never be used again during the rest of my life, if I live that long.

How stuffed was it?
It was so stuffed that I could hardly touch the push buttons on my car radio.

It was so stuffed that I couldn’t see out of either the rear or side windows.

It was so stuffed that when I inhaled, my personal belongings leaped into the vacated airspace thereby preventing me from exhaling.

It was so stuffed that I had to hire a young Spanish chico to sit on my hood (bonnet) to guide me through the villages. Well, I exaggerate slightly, but it was almost that stuffed.

I had attempted to take as much accumulated belongings as possible with me to France on this trip with the intention of returning to get loaded a second time. I might have been better off had I instead invited my friends to a going-away roast-your-wiener party and tossed all my belongings into a gigantic beach fire!

Czech this out!
Fortunately, I had a place to stay in France. A Czech friend, Hynek, who divides his time between living to eat in Malaga, Spain; Cannes, France; and London, England has a Czechmate, Marion, who owns a large villa in St-Roman, France, a tranquil bedroom community situated high in the hills above Nice. Hynek arranged for me to rent a self-contained apartment from this stately gray-haired widow.

Hynek is one of those unforgettable characters like the Readers Digest used to—perhaps still does—write about. (The only time I ever saw the innards of a Reader Digest was when I was a child. My father had a subscription and used to spend each morning from 6:00 a.m. until 6:45 a.m. in the bathroom reading it. Apparently the R.D. was good for his constipation!)

Anyhow, back to Hynek. His hobby is remaining in bed each morning until 11:00 a.m. studying international currency movements, followed by an afternoon of buying and selling US dollars, European euros, South African rands, Swiss francs, English pounds, ounces, grams, and any other sterile piece of paper that is having its ups or downs. His English wife, Elisabeth, tends after him, doing everything from helping him put on his shoes to wiping the orange juice off of his beard!

Hynek appreciates good food, and apparently good food appreciates him, since it stays with him like a good friend. His stomach is exceedingly large and uniquely shaped, thus serving conveniently as a porta-coffee table at cocktail parties. When he sits, Hynek is able to balance a plate of foie gras and crackers on his lap sans problème. Incredible, but true!

Let the search begin!
About two weeks later Marilena joined me in St-Roman, and we began the search for our dream house. We soon discovered that our favorite area—the region near the Loup River—was located in an expensive part of France, most villas selling at that time from one and one-half to in excess of four million French francs ($300,000 to $1,000,000), and my current budget couldn’t afford anything in excess of one million francs (about $200,000). These were pre-euro times when the U.S. dollar was relatively low in relation to the French franc.
As a Don Quixote type, however, I was undaunted by the high prices and continued to be optimistic that the small house with the big garden—the ideal paradise that was so near and dear to our sentimental hearts—could be found.

The search continues
We enthusiastically began our villa searching. I created a colorful and graphic flyer with my aging 486DX2 computer and ink jet printer. I indicated on the sheet what my wants and financial capabilities were. It said that l desired an exposition du sud (a southern exposure), un garage (a garage), cinq pièces, (five rooms), un jardin de 500 à 1,000 superficie des mètres, (a garden with 500 to 1,000 square meters), and prix: environ 500.000 à 800.000 FF, (price: between 500,000 to 800,000 FF, which is roughly between 76,000 and 122,000 euros).

 Marilena told me that finding a place in the desired region at my affordable price level would be impossible. As an inveterate proponent of the philosophy that the major difference between the possible and impossible is that the latter merely takes a few more hours to accomplish, I refused to believe it.

On an exceptionally brilliant sunny day in October, we confidently set out to contact real estate agents throughout the area that I preferred. The first agent I visited, one located not far from where I was staying in St-Roman, looked at my flyer. He said that didn’t have anything in my price range, but that he would telephone me if anything ever came up. I asked him what the chances of finding something under one million francs (about 150,000 euros) were. He said, “Pas beaucoup.”

My chances were slim, in his opinion. I never heard from him.
Undaunted—and still confident—we forged on heading my aging Beamer car in an easterly direction and stopping at an agency in St. Jeannet, but it was closed. The agent apparently was on an espresso break.

Onward and upward toward Tourrettes sur Loup
My next stop was the medieval village of Tourrettes sur Loup, where Marilena and I had enjoyed a petit verre de vin rouge when we were on vacation earlier in the year. We discovered that there were two estate agencies in the town. The first agent read my flyer and said, “Sorry, but I have nothing in that price range at this time. However, I have some other properties a bit more expensive if you are interested.” I told him that we couldn’t afford anything more expensive. He gave me the old “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” routine and said that he would phone me if anything ever came up. He never did either.

Not yet ready to give up, we went into the only other agency in the village. A young agent in his 30s—Patrick was his name—read my flyer, pondered for a minute, and then said, “I think I have a villa just like you are describing, and the price is excellent—exactly in your range–820,000 francs” (125,000 euros).

He took us for a short ride in the direction of Pont du Loup. We left the main highway and drove down a winding road lined with exotic fig, olive, hazelnut, and cherry trees. The region was breathtaking for its natural unspoiled beauty. The houses were situated on large plots of terrain where eons ago the French—rather than the “gentlemen farmers” of today—toiled on the ancient stone-terraced slopes.

We stopped at a small house, and our first reaction was one of pleasant surprise. The villa was a beauty, as least on the outside. I asked how large the lot was, and he told me it was nearly 2,000 square meters—a substantial area with terraced garden space perfect if Marilena ever decided to pursue her horticultural interests here. The villa had a breath taking view that would have—sans doute—inspired and stimulated the creative artistic juices of Vincent van Gogh. And I was sure that it would likewise inspire and stimulate my creative writing juices.

Surrounded by humid plastic  
Patrick took us inside the house. I could see why the price was reasonable. The house originally was the vacation house of a Belgian family that had the esthetic taste of a Mongolian flea. (Actually, in all fairness to Mongolian fleas, they probably have better taste!)

The floors were covered with well-worn linoleum tiles, the pattern of which resembled Michelin tire streak marks, rather than the more typical and elegant Italian ceramic tile found in most villas of the region.

The small bathroom was a disaster and must have been designed by an IQ-deficient person who was suffering from extreme mindblindness. It had a shower surrounded not by glass doors but by flower-patterned mildewed plastic that was destined to cling anxiously to the torso of anyone attempting to cleanse his or her body. The shower was situated so that one had to slither sidewise past it to get to the toilet. The bathroom walls were covered with plastic tiles busily patterned with pink roses and lime-colored leaves. The faucets were dripping on the stained porcelain basin.

And the worst of worsts for a genuine Francophile: There was no bidet, which—in France—the overlooking of which is the eighth deadly sin!

I could readily see why the house was in my price range. There was much work that had to be done to it. The ceiling throughout the house was covered with off-white squares of acoustical tile that appeared in some places to be willing and able to tumble to the floor if someone exhaled too energetically. The walls of the bedrooms were covered with kitsch-like wallpaper designed with busy, I mean really busy, flowers that resembled drought-resistant rockroses.

And on the plus side
It spite of its shortcomings, however, the house had real potential, especially since all of the lesser-desirable features could be changed with a bit of inspiration, perspiration, and money. The view from the living room was truly magnificent, overlooking a gently rolling valley resplendent with olive, pear, cherry, fig, persimmon and hazelnut trees. The property had a basin with fresh water with that continuously flowed from a source. In addition to every imaginable fruit tree, also planted on the property were a date-less Canary Island Date Palm, a banana-less exotic banana tree, a lemon-less lemon tree, an orange-less orange tree, and a Bougainvillea plant that was struggling to survive the cool evenings. In general, our feelings about the house and location were good, and the layout of the garden was nearly perfect for any real or even aspiring vegetarians like we attempt to be.

Of special importance, the house had the three elements that real estate agents in the U.S. and Great Britain claim are essential when buying property:
(1) location
(2) location
(3) location

And this little house, called Villa Frimousse, had all three. The houses surrounding it were not unlike some of the stately mansions found in Atherton, California.

Searching for castles? Count on one down the road!
Its location even had another plus. How many people living in the US can take a mere three-minute stroll from their house and view the chateau—a castle—where the famous French admiral, Count Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, was born in 1722 in this stately residence. The good count was a buddy of General Lafayette. Even the Americans counted on the admiral, since he was an ally who helped turn back a British relief fleet during the Battle of Chesapeake Bay in 1781. I thought to myself, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be great to be able to ‘castle drop’ when chatting with friends and acquaintances at cocktail parties?”

Unfortunately one of our wants—a garage, was missing. There was only a concrete landing off the road. My aging BMW had only lived in the warm climes of California and the Canary Islands, and had been in a covered garage all of its life. I was certain that it preferred to continue a similar lifestyle. I asked Patrick about the feasibility of having a garage built on the property. He said, “No problem. Just go to the City Hall in Tourrettes sur Loup and ask for permission.”

We both felt elated and nearly made an affirmative decision on the spot. I knew that wouldn’t be too wise though, so I told Patrick “Nous voulions prendre du temps pour refléter.” (We want to think about it for awhile.”) We drove back to the village, and Marilena and I went to a sidewalk cafe. No, not for a petite verre de vin rouge! It was still morning, and I don’t really have a watch with only fives on its face, nor am I a morning drinker. After all, I’m not English or Scottish! (Oh, oh, more non-PC talk.) We each had a café au lait, while our minds raced endlessly thinking about the villa.

Go for it!
We were truly ecstatic with excitement. I said, “This is it! We have found an affordable house in paradise.” Marilena will love puttering around in her garden while I write the “great American novel.”

Houses in this region in our price range were uncommon. I mused, “Yes, this is it. Go for it, and the dream you first had as a student in Nice will finally have come true!”

The estate agency was closed during the “siesta” hours, as continues to be the habit for small businesses in France. Large stores, however, such as the Carrefour hypermarché and the Le Clerc supermarché, remain open during the lunch hour in their quest to wipe out the small French merchant, and they are succeeding. The renowned “nation of shopkeepers” has fast becoming the forlorn “basin of shopweepers,” and unemployment statistics during the past two decades reflect this change.

We could hardly wait until the agency reopened at 2:00 p.m. We were eagerly standing outside its door ten minutes before it was scheduled to open. When Patrick returned from lunch, I exclaimed, “Nous avons déjà décidé!” (“We have already decided!”)

Patrick arranged for the current owner—not the Belgian family—but a Frenchman from Nice, to meet us two days later at the agency to begin the process of transferring a house.

The seller, Alexandre Victor Ardoin, was also a person with a dream. He had purchased the house not for himself but as a gift for his daughter, a psychologist living with her husband and child in Nice. Ardoin kept the house for seven years hoping one day she and her family would want to move in. She told her father that the villa was inconveniently located too far from her work and that she didn’t want to commute. Perhaps she realized some things that we failed to.
Although Alex, as he asked us to call him, was a native Frenchman, he seemed to have a character that wasn’t typically French. He later told me that his father was an American GI during the Second World War stationed in France. Alex’s mother was French, and Alex was a result of their cross-cultural union!

Alex was a delightful character, always friendly and jovial. He even allowed us to move in about five weeks before the official papers were signed, and told us not to worry about the utility costs during that period.
 
Let’s do lunch sometime!
My time was spent at the Villa Frimousse during the next three weeks even though the transaction hadn’t yet been closed. Alex often came by with something for all of us both to eat and drink. He told me that he would invite us to lunch on the day we signed the closing papers.

Oh la la! A typical French meal. That was an event we were looking forward to. Alex told us that before he retired he had been a maître d’hòtel—a headwaiter—at a fine restaurant. With credentials like that I expected a fantastic four- or even five-course French dinner fit for Prince Rainier III of Monaco himself!

The documentation for the house was processed with little delay. So far, I was favorably impressed with the French bureaucracy. Its wheels seemed to be lubricated with a slicker quality of grease than existed in the Canary Islands. Little did I know, however, what would be in store for me in the near future.

The grand day—contract-signing time—finally arrived. We met Alex at the notary’s office. I was dressed in a navy blue blazer, necktie, and gray slacks. Marilena was dressed in an elegant red dress. We was ready for a splendid meal at a 500-star French restaurant!

We signed the papers, and then we hopped into Alex’s Renault. I asked him where we were going to eat lunch. He said, “Villeneuve-Loubet.” I asked, “Isn’t there a famous culinary museum near there?” “Yes,” he responded. “The museum is housed in the home of the Escoffiers, the most famous family in the history of ‘cooking-as-art’.” Alex added, “In that museum is the world’s most famous kitchen.”
I never was easily impressed when I lived in the US. Lately, however, I seem to be on an impressionable roll. This time, however, I was really feeling impressed. I could hardly wait until we pulled up to an exquisite French restaurant. I thought, “I hope all of my father’s efforts at instilling good table manners in me were not in vain.”

At the sign of the golden arches!   
We entered the village of Villeneuve-Loubet, and my heart was beginning to pound rapidly in wild anticipation. Alex suddenly swerved off the road and drove into a parking lot. Attached to the terrain of the parking lot was a restaurant with giant golden arches. Alex was playing some sort of a joke on us, I thought. We were at MacDonald’s, a restaurant that I had successfully avoided since I had been living in Europe.

In English, with his thick French accent, Alex said, “I adore day beeeeeeeg mack, donut u?”  I was too stupefied to respond. We entered the restaurant, approached the counter, and Alex ordered three—count ‘em, three—Big Mac’s, a gigantic bag of French fries, and a strawberry milkshake. Marilena and I had chef’s salads and plastic cups filled with orange juice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

   

    

      

         

              

       

    

     

       

      

    

 

 

 

 

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March 25, 2006 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

Twenty-eight chapters total.

Please note: There are 28 chapters that will ultimately be posted in “The French Roast,” by Stan Kossen. I hope that you enjoy the reading.

 SK

March 25, 2006 at 9:03 am 1 comment


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