June 18, 2019

Off we go on a house swqp to France / Second half

By John Guy LaPlante

NOTE: Annabelle and I did this house swap nearly 15 years ago. I published this account back then. I recently decided to publish it again because I learned house swapping is more popular than ever. Not only to France. To many countries. I thought it might get some of you interested in a swap.

It was a great idea back then. A true win, win. It’s a great idea now.

I published the first half a month ago. I’m late in sending you this second swap because as we know, life has an irritating way of screwing up our best laid plans. Sorry about that.

Please remember that all prices mentioned are the prices in effect back then.

If this interests you, just Google or Bing “house swapping” or “home exchanges” in whatever country you have in mind and you’ll be off and running.

Poitiers , France —  Already Annabelle and I have been on our own for a week now and our house swap is working out fine.

Dr. and Madame Diaz – Paco and Mimi – whose large house is far bigger than we need – are now n my town house in Deep River, Conn., and happy. He’s a psychiatrist and she a professor of education. But he did send a frantic email back yesterday.  “Your place is an icebox!  How do we turn on the heat?”

Well, who expected such a cold spell in May? But really I should have explained how our thermostat works  It just wasn’t on my long check list.

Poitiers is a very old and famous university city. It’s a great pleasure to be here, so much history, so much culture, s0 French.

We’re getting used to their big VW van on the narrow streets and can now find our way downtown and back.  At the giant Leclerc’s – the French version of a Super Walmart – we know exactly where to head to get to the wines and cheeses, and then to the detergents and paper towels.

Downtown we know which streets are pedestrian streets – no vehicles allowed… just walkers. Wonderful.

We go downtown for two hours nearly every day, and always between 12 and 2. That’s because parking is free in those two hours, the lunch break. And we are lucky – we always manage to find a handicap parking spot.  What a blessing.  Annabelle qualifies because of recent surgery and, to our astonishment, her U.S. handicap windshield placard is accepted here.

Downtown Poitiers is a delight. It teems with pedestrians, which in our old-fashioned view is what a downtown is supposed to be like. A lot of people walking around make a downtown so much more interesting. And the downtown is dotted with truly ancient buildings.

The city’s great pride, the famous church Notre Dame La Grande, dates back to the 10th century. The cathedral and several other buildings go back nearly as long. It is common for buildings to be 300 and 200 years old and still be in daily use.

At the same time, right next to one of these antiquities could be a swanky, ultra-modern shopping galleria with gleaming escalators and sparkling shop windows.  Quaint boutiques and little shops line up shoulder to shoulder on the cobbled streets.  There is a regular outdoor farmers’ market, and there are street musicians playing for tips…and hopeful beggars, too.

On these sorties Annabelle and I split up for an hour or so.  She checks out these shops and I head for the Mediatheque. It is a striking contemporary building, which means it boasts plain lines and huge panes of glass. It used to be called the Bibliotheque, the Library.

But now it is called the Mediatheque to acknowledge its rich offerings of books but its many public computers and collections of CDs and DVDs. The French are really with it!

I like to scan the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde and La Croix, two of France’s big dailies.  Oh, I know I could read these in Paco’s study on the Internet but I like going to the library to read the real papers..  Excuse me, the Mediatheque. Not because there’s a shortage of books here in the house. I estimate Paco and Mimi have at least 5,000 books and 1,000 CDs and DVDs. I like to read the real printed papers.

I was in the Periodicals Room yesterday and I remembered Charles DeGaulle’s famous quote when he was having a big headache at the Elysees Palace one day. “How can anyone govern a country whose people make 350 kinds of cheeses,” he complained.  Well, the French seem to have that many periodicals also.  And that many varieties of wine. And bread.  Astounding!

This reminds me of prices here.  In my last article I complained about high prices.  It is still my impression that most things here are more expensive than back home.  Far more. But many cheeses and breads are much cheaper.  We bought a nice Camembert for 2 dollars, and good wines are available for 2 or 3 dollars per liter bottle.  (Sorry, I cannot find the dollar sign on this French keyboard.) And some for astoundingly more, of course.  In fact, I spotted a white wine for less than one dollar.  I could not resist buying it. I had to see whether it was drinkable.  It was.  I would buy it again.

Annabelle and I have discussed prices here a lot.  Who wouldn’t?  They look high for a good reason.  Let me explain.  Back home I will buy a meal in a restaurant for 15 dollars, let’s say. Then the waiter will tack on the 6.5 percent tax.  Then I will tack on the 15 percent tip.  But I will still go home thinking of it as a 15 dollar meal. Isn’t this your thinking, too?

Here the same dinner will cost much more…25 Euros, for example. That would be about 31 dollars. But when the tab is handed to me, it will have a tax of 19.6 percent buried in it…not as a separate item! And I will not add on a tip because here the service charge is also buried in the tab.  But I go home thinking of it as a 31 dollar meal.  Not a fair comparison. I felt I should explain this.

There is a reason for that huge 19.6 percent tax, by the way.  This is more of a paternalistic country than the U.S.A. is, with more generous social programs.  This week I talked about it with Dominique, a social worker.  He happened to mention he has 52 days of vacation a year.

I thought I heard wrong. 52 days…that seems incredible!

“No, that is what I receive,” he repeated.

That becomes very costly for the government.  And that is a major reason why many French goods are pricing themselves out of international markets.  They are too expensive for many people in many other countries to afford.  And a big reason why there is such a shocking rate of unemployment here, about 11 percent.

Still talking about high prices, I must say our strategy is hard to beat for cost-conscious Americans coming here.  It is to swap houses.  And cars. And computers.  The whole schlemiel.  No way could a wonderful vacation like ours become cheaper or easier.  The same is true for Paco and Mimi in Deep River, of course.

Sure, there is risk involved.  You could deal with a bad party and find your home a shambles when you get back.  That can be minimized with proper investigation beforehand. Yes, they might burn a favorite pot of yours on the stove, or run up a lot more miles on your car than you expect, but if you are going to worry about things like that, you might ask for a security deposit. Not a bad idea. Neither of us did that. As it turned out, it did not become a  problem.

A house and auto swap like ours cancels the biggest expense of a trip abroad.  So even high prices like those here have only a minimal impact.  Definitely recommended!

The big question all through France right now is the referendum which will be held at the end of the month on the proposed European Constitution. Twenty five nations in the European Union are all pondering whether to accept or reject the constitution, but France is one of the few putting it to the people as a referendum.

Here it is called the Oui ou Non Question, meaning the Yes or No Question. Yes if you are for it, no if you are against.   It is dominating everything — the media, public life everywhere, private conversations.

It is a complex matter, with much at stake. It seems to boil down this way. Vote Yes if you believe in an integrated Europe…one that may someday become a United States of Europe…even at the cost of some big sacrifices by France.  Vote No if you resent having to help support some of the poorer countries and fear giving them a vote equal to that of your own illustrious and powerful country.

It is a big question worldwide. The highest powers in our country are waiting in suspense and our markets…our stock markets plus many other kinds…are stalling as they await the outcome.

Annabelle and I hosted a small dinner two nights ago. Five guests. I was dumb and brought up the Oui or Non matter.  Renee, an elderly high school teacher, quickly pronounced herself a Oui.  Michel, the retired director of a museum here, let out a loud Non.  Within two minutes they were glaring at each other!

Right away I asked whether Annabelle had overdone the sour cream in her wonderful Boeuf Bourguignon, which she had not. I was so relieved when Renee and Michel both caught on. “Perfect!” they exclaimed.  I will not make that mistake again.

Our big outing this week was a drive to a hamlet called Chizelle.  It was a two-hour drive from here, just outside the city of Surgeres, which is on the way to the big city of New Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.  Actually we were going to La Rochelle.  That is where my paternal ancestor sailed from in 1665 to go to New France, which is now Quebec.

Why Chizelle? My son Mark spent six weeks there one summer in high school some 20 years ago.  He came over on a student exchange. He lived with a family named Gorioux.  They operated a large hog operation, raising hundreds of hogs for market.  The Goriouxs had six kids of their own, and Mark fell right in.

He worked with the others at chores and had plenty of fun on the side…picnics and bike hikes and visiting around.  A wonderful summer and a terrific learning experience.  He came home thinking the world of the Goriouxs.

Annabelle and I decided to stop by, without announcement.  We found the tiny village and the beautiful manor house and I knocked on the door.  A lady answered.  I mentioned my name, Monsieur LaPlante, and started explaining….

“Mark!” she said.  She remembered!  She was Madame Gorioux. She mentioned how Mark had left a farewell note on his  pillow the morning he departed to come home.

She welcomed us in.  We thought we’d be there for 10 or 15 minutes. Hello, how are you, au revoir!  When she heard we were on our way to New Rochelle, she insisted on putting us in their big Peugeot and taking us on a guided tour.  She even took us into the Museum of Discoveries, which we had planned to visit.  Wonderful afternoon.  When we got back to her home, Monsieur Gorioux was there.  Retired now, but still busy.  A friendly man with rosy cheeks and lots of good questions to ask about our country and people.

Well, they invited us back, and we returned on Thursday.  It was a holiday, and some of their kids, now adults of course, could come over and meet us, and with their little children.  Fine dinner.

Then I asked if we could visit the hog operation.  Christophe has taken it over from his Papa.  Christophe was Mark’s special pal way back then.  He took us to see it.

“It will stink!” he warned us.  Still I insisted.  Yes, it did stink, but everything was as clean and well-organized as could be.  A huge operation, with more than a thousand hogs, all in indoor pens. Christophe buys them when they are piglets only days old and keeps them for 180 days, when they are fat enough to head for their destiny.  New piglets arrive every week, and big hogs get shipped off.

They are fed a diet of blended cereals and other nutrients that pile the pounds on fast.  Excuse me, the kilos. It is all high tech and far more complicated and challenging than you would think.

Christophe, like Mark, headed off for university when he came of age.  “But I always knew this is what I would do someday,” he told me.

“It’s a tough business but a good life.  We live out here in the countryside.  It’s peaceful, quiet. Good for our children.  We will never be rich but we are comfortable. I am my own boss. It makes me feel good to do this work well. And I am helping to feed the French!”

Their farm has hundreds of acres of tilled fields. Right now the spread is devoted to peas, for livestock, not the people kind.  Christophe said he sows the fields in a four-year cycle…peas, then wheat, then corn, then colza.  I may not have the sequence right.  But the rotation is a science-based calculation, designed to raise the biggest and best crop year after year while always maximizing the fertility of the land. The fields are a thing of beauty,

In my first report I talked about the beautiful brilliant fields of colza around here, stretching to the horizon in some places. It is used; as I said, to make a delicious and cholesterol-friendly table oil.  I explained that in English colwa is rapeseed…something I was not familiar with.  Well, Len Poulin, one of my readers, very agriculture savvy, just sent me an email.

“We have colza oil here at home..  We call it Canola.  It seems the marketing people here thought that something called rapeseed would never be popular.  They came up with Canola. The Can part stands for Canada, where it’s grown a lot,  and the ola part for oil.”

I have enjoyed colza so much here that I was planning to take home a big bottle.  No need now.  Thank you, Len.

Got to tell you that France is beautiful and impressive in so many ways.  And with their big VW we did have a chance to explore the southwestern corner of the country we were in.  We drove to Paris one day, spent the next day touring what is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, came back the third. We took other tours, for instance down to Bordeaux, famous for its vineyards. And we enjoyed other wonderful meanderings.

Paco and Mimi did the same thing with my Buick. They drove all the way to Niagara Falls. Another time, down to New York City. And of course, here and there in Connecticut.

Yes, Annabelle and I went into this as an economical and wonderful win, win. And that’s what it turned out to be. What a great pleasure it is to think back on it!

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