Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Our Year in France—First Anniversary Edition

October 2020 marks our one-year anniversary in France. It’s been, ah, a pretty weird year, and our being in France had little to do with it. Still, let’s just take a look at where we’ve been…


October is breast cancer awareness month, which apparently includes pink umbrellas over the main street in town. (Note the masks...)

And here we are, just one year earlier; same street, same umbrellas! (and, note the lack of masks!)

We arrived in Montpellier on October 10, 2019. We'd rented an apartment in the same neighborhood where we were the first time we came to Montpellier, three years ago. This time we lived on Rue de la Merci: Thank you Street. The view from our bedroom window included a great view of a belfry, which I photographed—and Paula painted—with different lighting and in different moods. We came to enjoy hearing the bells ring every morning about 8. 

The belfry, morning and afternoon.

And Paula's rendering in watercolor!

Rue de la MERCI - Thank-you street; some wag has added the French equivalent of "You're welcome!" (de rien)

Although it was a small place,  Paula managed to host a Thanksgiving gathering of about a dozen people, some French, some Brits, and a few Americans. We had plans to visit Bordeaux, the French city near the Atlantic coast known for its wine. But, massive rains washed out the tracks somewhere west of here, and by the time they were fully repaired we were ready to head for Spain. 

Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

And, Christmas angels in Seville!

It was our third (fourth?) Christmas and New Years in our favorite city, Seville. In addition to all the usual architectural and cultural attractions, we had a particular reason to go: my daughter Nina fell in love with Ricardo, a guy she met visiting us in Seville last year. Meeting and getting to know Riki’s family was a very special treat!

A lunch with Riki's family was a highlight of our time in Seville.

We also caught up with some America ex-pats I’d been corresponding with, Mary and Mark. They’d spent a couple of years in Paris, and came down to Seville for the same reason we did--better weather! And, naturally, we checked in with our other American friends, Karen and Rich, who hosted a fabulous Christmas dinner for about 25 of us.

Christmas dinner for 25 at Karen and Rich's.

Us with Nina and Riki on New Year's Eve, after eating the grapes at midnight.

We returned to Montpellier in February, to a new-to-us apartment, one we’d arranged while we were in France the previous year. On the top floor of an eight-story building, it gave spectacular views of the city. Once we returned from Spain we managed to get tickets for the tail-end of the Leonardo DaVinci exhibition at the Louvre, in Paris. For it’s last few weeks the show was open all night, and our tickets were for 5 in the morning. We headed off to Paris with Debra, another American friend we’d met in Montpellier. 


Our second home in Montpellier. That's our place on the far left, at the very top, behind the wintertime tree.

The retrospective on the works of Leonardo, mostly his paintings and notebooks, was extraordinary. But it was tripping around the streets of Paris in the pre-dawn darkness that we will always remember!


Us with our friend Debra in Paris on a chilly February day.

Pre-dawn Paris (on a chilly February morning).


Obligatory photo of the famous tower.

In early February word started coming through of a major world-wide pandemic, now known as COVID-19. Although, no doubt, you’re heard of it...? We watched with horror as the numbers climbed in Spain—just to our west—and in Italy—just to our east! Then, in mid-March, in an attempt to slow the spread, France went into a full-time lockdown. We could go out one hour a day provided we went no more than one kilometer (0.6 mile) from our home. And, we needed a signed and dated paper stating the reason for out being out. It was weird. We watched the days—and nights—pass from our “Eagles’ Nest” on the seventh floor, and joined our neighbors in applauding the health care workers from our balcony at 8 PM every evening.


Confinement in Montpellier: Empty streets.

More empty streets during the lockdown.

April, and in the midst of the pandemic panic, we're wearing our home-made masks. That's the train station behind us.

Oh, then there was our daughter’s wedding! She and Riki had moved to California, and shortly after the “shelter in place” order came down there we got a call from her: with the promise of jobs, they had just taken on an expensive apartment in the Los Angeles area. Now their jobs had evaporated, and they were in an area where they didn't want to be. We worked out a plan so she and Riki could move to our “pied-à-terre” in Los Osos, the empty apartment on the ground floor of our house.


The bride and groom on their joyful day!

That worked out well: they settled in and got most of their money back from their landlady (who was really quite nice about everything). Then, while still sheltering in place, they got married! Our friends in Los Osos put together a really touching ceremony in a beautiful, private spot outdoors. We got a video featuring all five people present! Everyone always remembers their wedding, of course, but I think this one will be especially memorable, a joyful day amidst the fear and panic of the pandemic!

Our anniversary evening in our new flat...
très romantique!

While we liked our view of the city from our eagle's nest, it really didn’t feel like our place. The décor just wasn’t right, and we really are not “big city” people (not that Montpellier is so very big!). Anyway, Paula began looking around, and on May 1, our wedding anniversary, we left our high-rise nest and moved into a second-story apartment not too far away, but with a completely different feel. We now have more trees around us, and a lawn under our balcony. The views are less impressive, but it feels more like home. It was a bit unsettling, though, moving during the pandemic lockdown (yes, still on six weeks later).

A suburban lawn below the balcony of our new apartment.

But all went well, and we adjusted to our new normal. We were concerned about abandoning our landlady, since we’d initially agreed to stay for a year, but we found her some excellent tenants: our American friends Mark and Mary! They were visiting Montpellier for a month in the winter, as a break from Paris, and got caught in the lockdown. They came to appreciate the area, and figured they’d stay for a year, in the apartment we’d just left. A win-win for everyone!

"Monster Cloud Threatens Montpellier!"

Same view from our former apartment, different year. And I can tell from this picture I got from Mark and Mary that they are really enjoying the view. 

Another Year!


How have we been celebrating the conclusion of our first year? By arranging for a second! We have our récépissé, essentially a permit to stay another year. Sooner or later (the French bureaucracy grinds ever so slowly) we will have our Carte de Séjour , a residency card. We’ve finally got our medical documents, giving us access to the excellent French medical service (and paying 70% of the bill; the other 30% is covered by the private insurance that we’ve purchased). And, we have just signed a contract for another 12 months in this apartment! 

Another view from our balcony last spring.. All summer this has been a solid wall of green. It's opening up now, though!

We also opened our own electric account (a major step: a utility bill is about the only way to prove one’s address, required for pretty much everything), and our own Internet service. We’re layin’ down roots! And it feels good; we’re more in control of our lives now. We’ve recently added a library card, a Tram card (good for public transit), our French bank card – our wallets are getting full!


It's like living in the suburbs, but we still have a city view!


And, in breaking news, I’m working on getting a French driver’s license. It seems our California licenses are valid for only our first year. Now it’s get a French license, or don’t drive. And that is a whole story unto itself, which we’ll save for another time.

          So Where Have We Been? 

We’ll cover that question in another blog, but if you can’t wait, you can check Mary’s blog on our trip to the Parc Ornithologique (bird refuge). And, here she writes about another of our trips together.


Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 3, 2020

We Go to Corsica, Part II

This is the second part of the blog on our trip to Corsica. If you missed the first part, you can find it here!


The Eagle's Nest, the very top of the town of Corte


After several days of hunting for obscure beaches, our interests—and our itinerary—turned to the mountains. We were going to Corte, a town in the center of Corsica—which is to say, in the middle of the mountains. The road was wide and well paved, but slow. At least there wasn’t much traffic!


The territory (a reminder!). Mostly mountains...

Corte is located at the head of the long mountain spine of Corsica, well to the north, and centered between the east and west coasts. It’s the largest town in the mountains, and, not surprisingly, the center of the independence movement in the mid-1700s (it’s a long, hard climb up those steep trails!).

Our first view of Corte, from the road.

Just another view from the upper town.

The drive was interminable, and once we arrived we were ready for some down time. Still, we wanted to sample a bit of the town. Our lodgings were on the outskirts, so we drove in, and were amazed at the views of the city, perched high on its hill. 

A view out over the city of Corte, with a view of the mountains.

A view out the other way over the city, with a view of the, ah, other mountains.

Views of the city.

The next morning we were up early and ready to explore. We learned from our excursion the night before which streets NOT to take, and soon found a parking spot near the Syndicat d'Initiative (another name for the Office de Tourisme, found in every French village and the place we always start our visits, to get a map and local information). Needless to say, Corte is steep and rugged, yet endlessly cute, with a picturesque view around every corner.  And from the upper town there are endless panoramas over the surrounding hills and valleys.

Going down to downtown.

The town fountain, downtown.

We’d booked only one night in Corte. It was enough to get an overview of the town, but I would have liked another full day to explore more. As it was, we had to get on the road. But first, we wanted to drive into the Restonica Valley, a renowned hiking area at the end of a winding road that ran for some 15 km (10 miles). It took an hour! The road started out ok, but as it twisted its way up into the higher reaches of the valley it got narrower and narrower—and the drop-off into the river steeper and steeper—until meeting another car became a white-knuckle affair. We’d pull over as far as we could, and cross our fingers that we wouldn’t hear the scrape of sheet metal as we squeezed past each other. 

End of the trail in Restonica Valley (we drove 15 km on that?

Eventually we came to the end of the road, a huge parking lot with an attendant collecting 6€. Lots of cars there, but very few people. Out hiking, I suppose. We continued along the paved road for a bit, but hiking on pavement wasn’t what we’d come for! The scenery was fantastic; unfortunately, we had limited time: we needed to return to Corte, then get on down to Ajaccio (the capital city) for our next night. And it was not going to be easy driving. So we said a regretful farewell to Restonica and climbed back into the car. We’ll come back again, and stay for longer!


More views of Restonica Valley (all of Corsica seemed to be hazy).

The main road to Ajaccio was in fine shape, recently paved and wide. But winding! It was slow going (we hit 50 MPH several times!), and the car’s manual transmission meant lots and lots of clutching and shifting. The scenery was great, the mountains incredible; we made a number of stops to better appreciate the views. 

Seen (scene?) from a highway overlook. This former fortress earned a nasty reputation during the French Revolution (1790s) when it was used as a prison. 

Different scene from the same overlook. 

Eventually, about three hours later, we arrived at the outskirts of the city, and encountered one of the most incredible traffic jams I’ve ever been stuck in. Only one lane each way (no LA nightmare!), but barely moving. It must have taken 45 minutes to make that last 5 km.

We spent the next day on foot, exploring the city, which gave us a car-free day. But there were places up the coast we wanted to see. There was still much to explore, so the next day we took off for a day trip, leaving our coveted curb-side parking spot. Our destination was Porto, a town on the coast 40 km north of Ajaccio. 40 km? Well, by road it’s 80 km, and takes around two hours (averaging 25 MPH!).Along the way we stopped in the town of Cargése, and visited the fabled red rocks of Les Calanques de Piana.

The harbor at Porto.

The mountain village of Piana.


The fabled red rocks of Les Calanques de Piana

The fabulous heart rock (heart hole-in-the-rock?) in the Calanques de Piana.

Les Roches Rouges, a very classic hotel in the village of Piana, 

It was worth the trip. We spent four (five? six?) hours in the car, and saw some amazing country: rock formations, mountain peaks, white beaches with blue water. But the driving was pretty intense! As we approached Ajaccio we took a different route from the other day to avoid the traffic jams, at the expense of having to negotiate tight, winding roads. I was plenty burned out by the time we got back to our neighborhood, but we did manage to find another parking spot along the curb, a nice ending to a great day!

Église de l'Assomption in Cargèse (yet another mountainous town)

Dueling churches: the Roman Catholic Église de l'Assomption, in the left corner, and the Greek Orthodox Église Saint-Spyridon de Cargèse on the right.

Well, I think Saint-Spyridon deserves it's own photo!

The view of the harbor at Ajaccio from our balcony. 


We spent three nights in Ajaccio, which I think was one too many; in retrospect, I’d trade one night for an extra one in Corte. Ajaccio, in spite of being the major city of Corsica, didn’t hold much attraction for us. It has a busy port, lots of sea food restaurants, and the Fresch Museum, reportedly “one of France's finest collections of Italian old masters” (from Wikipedia). And, of course, "Casa Buonaparte," the house where Napoleon Bonaparte was born (also a museum). But we avoided doing indoor things, paying attention to our “risk budget.”

Where we stayed. That's our balcony, on the right.

Statue of Napoleon, Ajaccio's favorite son, dressed as Cesar.

Perhaps our most interesting experience was the house where we were staying. It was located on a hillside overlooking the harbor, with a long (long!) staircase leading down (down!) into the town. Our bedroom was one of several in the house; there were at least two guestrooms, plus the owner’s rooms. It made for a busy bathroom in the morning! But the house was pretty fabulous, decorated—stuffed—with the owner’s eclectic collections. As we lay in bed in the darkness Paula joked about how it was like a night in the museum; would the collections come alive during the night?  (Spoiler alert: no, they didn’t.)


Who needs a museum, when you're staying here?!

A few miles west of the city is a narrow peninsula and a series of islets trailing out to sea, called the Sanguinaires. From photos it looked extraordinary. And clearly, the time to go was sunset! We had a car, but I was not keen on driving after our stressful arrival, particularly after dark. Paula got on it, and quickly found a solution: there was a public bus, the last one returning after dark. Perfect! We went.


The Genovese tower at Les Sanguinaires.

Paula hikes around the peninsula at Les Sanginaires.

The most prominent feature of the area is the Genovese tower, one of reportedly 510 along the coast. (The towers were the first line in the defenses that kept the Genovese in power for 500 years.) More recently there have been towers and lights mounted on the islands further seaward, making for a very picturesque scene against the setting sun.

The islets of Sanginaires at sunset.

Hiking in the setting sun.

Since we had an early flight out, our last night was spent close to the airport. We arrived at our lodgings early in the afternoon, giving us some time to explore the coast and find one last beach. And again, soft white sand, soft warm turquoise water. Love it!


The last beach, on our last day! (Note the Genovese tower in the distance.)

Fortunately the drive to the airport was short, because it was very dark and there were flashes of lighting in the distance. We found outdoor tables at the small terminal and settled in to watch the sunrise. The weather was stormy, but not cold. Eventually we all filed onto the plane as the clouds roiled overhead. Most passengers got on board dry, but the last few were soaked! I’ve never felt so warm and content on a plane as those first few minutes when the storm broke. Rainwater was sluicing down the window as the poor baggage handler, in his yellow slicker, loaded the last (and now wet!) bags into the hold.


Sunrise at the airport, before the storm.

Storm clouds gathering at the airport.

Loading bags in the rain. Glad we're inside!!

After a short delay on the ground, and the sight of a fantastic full rainbow, we were flying among towering puffy white clouds. A short hour later we were coming in low over the coast near Montpellier, with an interesting view of the bizarre buildings of La Grande-Motte, a nearby coastal town.

Storm's over! And a fantastic rainbow!


Just minutes from the Montpellier airport, the strange buildings of La Grande-Motte.

Not long after we were walking the freshly-washed streets of Montpellier on a sun-drenched Sunday morning, the air clean and fresh from the recent storm. But the river hinted at the recent past: brown and turbulent instead of its normal flat calm, evidence of a massive rainfall up in the mountains.

 It was good to be back home!

A note about travel in the time of COVID: These days, every time we step outside our home we put ourselves at risk. It puts a damper on travel! We think of having a risk budget, similar to a money budget: spend some here, and save some there. Getting on a plane is risky, so we minimize risk elsewhere. On this trip we avoided being inside except at our lodgings. (Staying in the same place every night is best—every new place is a new opportunity for viruses to be lurking—but that may not be practical.) Winter time and colder weather will change things!