August 22, 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!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Off we go on a home exchange!

By John Guy LaPlante

Oops, make that off we went on a home exchange.  To France!

By we, I mean Milady Annabelle and me back in 2005. We were of retirement age, of course.

We were innocents in all that. Now there are companies and clubs that facilitate pulling that off. They charge for their services but countless people decide it’s money well spent.

Are you familiar with home  exchanging? Well, thousands and thousands of Americans swap every year with people in countries all over the world practically. More than 180 countries!

They swap not only houses, but condos and apartments.

They swap with folks living in big cities and middle-sized cities and little villages. Whatever they fancy.

We swapped my condo for a palatial home. Well, nearly palatial to us. With a man and his wife in Poitiers, a centuries-old and prestigious university city in southwestern France. Yes, a condo for a big home!

We swapped not only our homes. We swapped automobiles. Computers. Everything except the ladies, I tell people with a chuckle.

How lucky we were! In two ways, the right couple and the right property.

Now an alert. I have much to tell you so I am presenting it just the way I wrote it up and got it published in a newspaper back then that I wrote for a lot. Which was in two lengthy and detailed reports.

You are receiving the first report now. The second one you will get in a few days. This will give you the time to mull if home-swapping would be a great adventure for you. As it wonderfully turned out to be for Annabelle and me.

If you’re curious, just Google or Bing “Home swapping” or “Home exchange.”

And know what? I got the idea and the opportunity while traveling solo in Chile deep down in South America. My oh my!

So, here is my Report No. 1.

Off to France for a few weeks.  Prices are sky high,

but our house swap is minimizing the sting.

I write this from Poitiers in France.  I arrived yesterday on the TGV – the super-fast train from Paris, a two-hour ride.  Being here is a dream come true for me.

I’m here on a house swap.  I’m swapping my small condo in Deep River for their very big house here. I’ve got the better deal. “They” are Fernando and Violette Diaz, in their late 50s, I’d say. Both retired. He was an M.D. with psychiatry his specialty, and she a professor of education.  They are being ultra-nice to me.

We’ll be together for 10 days, so I’ll have the advantage of a thorough orientation before they take off for my town of Deep River, Connecticut.

I’m here alone but Milady Annabelle will be joining me in a week.  She is visiting her daughter and family in Dallas. There’s another reason also for her arriving late. I speak French. She does not. She will come two days before Paco and Mimi – yes, we’ve reached the nickname stage – will fly off to Deep River.

“I’ll get to meet these wonderful people,” Annabelle says, “but I won’t feel like the odd person out.”

The three of us here have hit it off and already we’ve plunged into what is really a wonderful, never-ending conversation. It’s good for both of us, but better for me.  They are instructing me in everything – how to get around the city, where to shop, what things to see. And briefing me about so much – the history, the customs, the trends.  Already a terrifically enriching experience, as good as – in fact, better than I had hoped.  This will consume every day until they leave May 1.

I’ve tried to organize things for them back home. I’ve lined up people to help them – my sister Lucie, who also speaks French of course,  plus good friends. As many French-speaking friends as I can recruit. Paco speaks some English; Mimi does not.

If you speak French and would like to make wonderful new friends, please call them.  You will find my name in the Deep River section of the phone book. Paco will answer the phone. It’s that simple.

Yes, this is a dream come true. You see, Poitiers is the area where my LaPlante ancestor came over from in 1665. He was a soldier in the Régiment Carignan-Salières. They went to France, now Québec, to protect the small colony of 2,500 people from the fierce Iroquois attacking them from what is now New York State. They did that.

When the regiment was called home three years later, half of the soldiers decided to stick it out in Québec. Yes, very rough, especially in winter, and surely they would miss their families back home, but they felt the chance for greater freedom and opportunity worth it.

My ancestor married in New France. Far too few women there.  As the story goes, his bride was either an orphan or a girl of the streets,  shipped over for that purpose in a boatload by the King.  The bachelors stood in line on shore.  The gals stood in line on the ship.

The first one down the gangplank linked arms with the first man, then the second with the second, and so on. They walked over to the priest, waiting to hear their marriage vows.  That’s how it was done.

“God himself is selecting the two of you to become one,” they were told.  And that’s why I exist, of course.

That saga is one I’ve become well aware of.  It’s a prime reason I’ve long thought of coming here someday. There is a museum about that whole story nearby.  It’s at the top of my “must do” list.

My opportunity to come came up in a strange way.

I was on a day-long bus ride in Chile during my Around the World tour 15 months ago. Two more people got on, a man and a woman. Only two seats were left, one being next to me.  She sat in the other, and he plunked down next to me. The two of us soon had a grand talk going. In French. Told me he and his wife were here to do some light mountain climbing.  He said he was from Poitiers. I really perked up. Poitiers! Eventually I mentioned a house swap.

“Good idea,” he said, “but a person has to be sure about the person he’s dealing with.”

Yes, indeed. I got his address. Back in Deep River, my hometown in Connecticut that is right on the great unspoiled Connecticut River, I got to work. I began sending him info about how delightful and historic Deep River is , plus the endless opportunities  in the area. And behold! He and his wife agreed to swap. And we worked out all the details.

Now about my trip over here. I bought a round-trip flight Newark-Paris on Orbitz.com.  The best deal Orbitz suggested, definitely a good one, was on Continental for $549.

On Tuesday morning I took the commuter train at 9:15 to New Haven, and there changed to the train heading to Grand Central Station, New York, all for just $15 with my senior discount.  Then an express bus to the airport, normally $12, but only $6 for me.  So, quite a bargain for $21 in all.

To be honest, the train was grimy and the ride not smooth, in fact surprisingly rough for one stretch. The bus ride, right to the door of my terminal, was excellent.  A bonus was that the bus gave me more interesting views, particularly of Manhattan from the Jersey side of the Hudson. I must say Newark is a sparkling, marvelous airport. Well, I think so.

Our Continental Boeing was jammed but the flight excellent, the crew attentive.  I had ordered a vegetarian dinner not really thinking I’d get it on such a cheap ticket, but I did. We took off at nearly midnight, but I dozed only an hour on the six-hour crossing, at dawn just before landing..

A gray, cool morning in France.  That was a disappointment. Charles de Gaulle, a very impressive airport as you would expect in France, is on the outskirts of Paris. I felt it too much trouble to dash into the city, then dash back for my train.  That was okay. I’d been to Paris half a dozen times.

I had hoped to take a Eurolines bus to Poitiers, but not available. Eurolines is the Greyhound Bus of Europe, so to speak, but better. Most of the time I prefer buses, but that’s a topic for another time.

Paco had given me specific instructions: take the TGV, the very fast train, right from the airport to Poitiers.  I checked and on this day the TGV was the only choice. I bought my ticket but had to cool my heels for more than three hours, a long time. So I scouted, poking into various shops.  I read just about the full LeMonde, the great Parisian daily.

And I got into a couple of conversations.  One with a mustached Australian, in Paris on a sales mission.  Hoped his light French would be good enough. Another with a husky Norwegian with grimy fingernails but fine grooming. Told me he was just back from western Africa. He had  been summoned there to repair a big ship with a nasty diesel engine problem.

What struck me was his perfect English. “All Norwegians learn good English,” he said. “We begin at age 4 and keep it up all through school.”

Finally the train.  Superb.  Remarkably clean, remarkably smooth.  I didn’t feel it when it began rolling.  We cruised easily.  Much faster than 100 mph, I know, but I’m not sure how much.  It often does better than 150.  Much faster than our touted Acela.  A great ride.

The problem was that I had an assigned seat, one where I and my seatmate faced the couple opposite us.  That can be very bad if they’re not up to some conversing. These two were stolid.  After a while I didn’t know how to avoid the eyes of the fellow facing me. Bad, bad.

We made eight or ten stops. Interesting.  The land was flat.  This was the great agricultural plain, with magnificent fields stretching to the horizon.  I was amazed by vast fields aflame with yellow flowers.  So thick they seemed an endless, gorgeous yellow carpet.  Van Gogh would have gone wild with his paint brushes here.

When I asked, the fellow across from me told me it was colza.  Had never heard of colza.  My little dictionary told me colza was rapeseed.  I’m not familiar with rapeseed.  Used to make a table oil, Paco told me later.  The good kind, low in cholesterol.  Beautiful in the field.

Paco was waiting for me in Poitiers.  Big smile, hearty embrace. “Bienvenu!” he said. “Welcome!”  He led me to his big blue VW van and we got to his house in less than 10 minutes. Mimi greeted me with a big sunny smile.

Oh, I must tell you.   The train ride was twice as long but took me about 40 minutes less than my ride to Manhattan.  This was a much better train and ride, as I said. But it cost a whopping 45 Euros — $61.75, in fact, and that was after a 25 percent senior discount.  Remember, I paid $21 back home.  That was the beginning of my severe sticker shock.  So far everything seems far more expensive.

Here are two more quick examples.  A gallon of 87 octane gas is $8.75.  A cup of coffee is $2.  Remember, prices here are in Euros now.  The Euro and the dollar were even just a few years ago, when the Euro was introduced.  Today the Euro is worth $1.35.

Paco believes the Euro has led to this inflation, at least in France.  The Euro is the currency of the land in 15 countries, I believe. I plan to talk more about prices and the cost of living in a later report.

That’s what makes this house swap so wonderful. It makes our trip so economical and affordable despite the inflation.  As I mentioned, we’re also swapping cars.  I eat with them at their table.  At this minute Mimi is doing my small laundry along with theirs in their washing machine.

I am writing this on their computer in Paco’s study.  They’re always asking if everything is fine.  Couldn’t be better!

Paco and Mimi will love our low prices in Connecticut.  Low to them, that is, if not to us.  I hope they’ll live it up.

We’re hitting it off.  It’s early in the swap, of course.

Paco takes me out twice a day.  Sometimes we take his car. Most often we go on walks.

Poitiers is a city of about 80,000.  It is an old medieval city, heavy with history and rich with charm.  It has an acclaimed university, centuries old.  It has thousands of students.  Right now they’re off on vacation, and Paco breathes a sigh of relief. They’re great kids.  Just that it’s nice to have a break.

Poitiers is worth plenty of words, and I’ll pour them out later. For now I’ll simply say it’s a fine destination, perfect for what Annabelle and I have in mind.  Which is to soak up the very best of everything French for a few weeks.

Paco and I have been having wonderful talks.  We go on and on, about so many things.  Mimi is always busy cooking and puttering, but she’s constantly listening and often offers comments. Definitely a sharp lady.  She smiles and laughs a lot. Her students must have loved her.

A fine cook, too.  Honest French food.  A zucchini cream soup this noon, made from scratch.  Then two cheeses, a creamy one and a hard, nutty one, served with chunky bread and a salad of lettuce and olives.  With a robust red wine. Then a crème brulée for dessert.  Finally an espresso coffee. How good it is.

Paco cleaned off the table.  I offered to do the dishes.  I was serious. I wash the dishes, I mean by hand, in Deep River. Mimi smiled but said Non, Non, Non!  She was utterly serious, too. But maybe I’ll get her to give in.

Hope…and trust…are what this whole undertaking is all about.  So far, it couldn’t be better.  I’ll keep you posted.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Please remember, dear reader, that was back in 2005.

You’ll be receiving my second report in a few days. You’ll see in detail how Milady Annabelle and I made out on our own in Poitiers and environs. A bientot, as the French say. Until then!

 

 

 

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