Up For Air
Where is Jefford? AWOL? In a coma? Dead? Smoking cigars in Cuba? Gone to earth on Islay? Silent and cross-legged on a Buddhist retreat? Or playing the vuvuzela with other Palace fans in a Cape Town bar?
None of the above, though most sound attractive.
[img_assist|nid=739|title=The weary traveller rests|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=250]We’ve changed hemispheres (once) and countries (three times); we’re on our fourteenth temporary address since mid-March. We have, in sum, been attempting to move to France. It’s been the most disruptive three months ever, which is why I am snailed on correspondence and this blog is wired up to a life-support system. (OK: not even that. It was beginning to look like a corpse in need of a grave.) In sum, we have moved from Adelaide via Singapore and via assorted addresses in England and Scotland to Montpellier in France. Apologies to all those who have contacted me and not yet received replies over the last couple of months. They will come, I promise.
If you are going to do this kind of thing, you need one of the following:
a) a company or organisation behind you
b) lots of money, or
c) lots of friends.
We don’t have either of the first options, but we are blessed with the third. Without the help of the friends who looked after us towards the end of our stay in Australia, who gave us shelter and assistance in Singapore and the UK, and who have given us a big helping hand to get going here in France, this venture would have been stillborn. It’s been the most stressful of our time together as a family, but that we have come through it at all is entirely due to the support of our friends and our own families. They would be irritated if I enumerated their names, so I won’t – but thanks, thanks, thanks to all.
[img_assist|nid=737|title=Let's make a cake!|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=250]We’d also like to say a big thanks to our little boys, John and Joe, who have taken to the nomadic life with gusto, and would still be entirely supportive should we now decide to purchase a tent, a flock of goats, and set off into the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula by foot. Their resilient cheerfulness, and the speed with which they glide through crises to seize on to the next bout of fun, is an example to the two problem-stricken adults who enjoy their almost-permanent company.
[img_assist|nid=738|title=Let's get down to work|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=200|height=200]They have, though, missed their Aussie mates! Izaak, Cleo, Riki, Eric, Owen, Harrison: hey, hassle your parents for those plane tickets.
We do, at last, have a permanent address in prospect: a rented house in a village/suburb to the north of Montpellier, though we won’t fully move in until our furniture arrives from the UK in mid-July.
One reason why the process has taken so long is that it’s hard to rent a property in France unless you have a French job, or at the very least a French source of income. As I have neither, I am deeply suspect to rental agents here. Matters were made worse by the fact that we were looking in and around Montpellier, which is thriving and expanding (and full of execs with nice safe jobs at IBM and Dell). Maybe we should have tried Lens or Charleville-Mézières after all?
Some estate agents refused to show us properties. Once again, friends and friends of friends came to the rescue, with attestations and suggestions; a very helpful banker (Robin Boxall of Banque Chaix, who I recommend to any English speakers thinking of setting up in Languedoc or the southern Rhône) enabled us to put the required bank guarantees in the place; we got every conceivable bit of financial history pdf-ed up or translated into French; and eventually, after looking at a good 15 or 16 variously unsatisfactory houses, we found a nice clean functional new one in a new area of Prades. We submitted the dossier – and yes, we were in. Or will be, before too long.
[img_assist|nid=740|title=Bonjour la France|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=262|height=400]It’s been interesting making a few initial comparisons between Australia and France, in both cases with a British eye. We were expecting the bureaucracy to be more onerous in France, and it is. (Example? Buy a second-hand car in the UK or Australia and you fill in the bottom bit of the registration form, write out the cheque, and that’s it. In France, it’s a multi-stage process requiring complex carte grise cancellation, price and transfer of ownership documents, then new form filling, visits to the prefecture, interviews with the carte grise team, separate visits to the payment desk, the flourishing of proofs of identity and residence, DNA test … well, not that yet, but everything else.)
But Australia, we also recall, is bureaucratic, too in a kind of sunny Scandinavian way, and you step out of line at your peril there, whereas the UK seems to have a lighter administrative touch (though maybe that was just because we were used to the rules there).
The weather is loveliest in Adelaide, providing you don’t mind the odd heat pulse. All that fundamentally dry air, that generous sun ... It’s actually been a pretty grumpy start to summer down here in the Midi. Beautiful when the sun is out, but it often hasn’t been, and there have been plenty of grey, mildish, moistish days and not a few storms, too. Not ‘cool climate’ necessarily, but zero fierce heat in the Australian sense. Both markedly better than British chill misery, of course.
Driving is best avoided here. Between five and ten per cent of French drivers are childishly capricious and given to suicidal overtaking manoeuvres; impatience on the roads must also be assumed here, so any day in which you don’t have to climb into the car is off to a good start. There’s much less erratic driving in the UK and Australia, even though traffic levels in the UK are always at danger level and the ‘hoon’ factor in Australia (testosterone-crazed adolescents) seems to be worse than in Europe.
Dog owners are more selfish in France than either the UK or Australia, and routinely fail to scoop the poop. (I’ve had nightmares about dogshit since being here.) Smoking remains a national passion, though hardly anyone seems to smoke Gauloises any more – and that tabac brun was much nicer in second-hand form than horrible Marlboros.
Smiles can be hard to come by, too. Moody, gloomy, grim or cross all seem to be standard street face-attire. When you actually engage people, by contrast, they cheer up a bit. Kindness is in fact everywhere; it just needs the right key to unlock it.
French infrastructure is superb. Montpellier has two great new tram lines, with a third on the way; the old part of town is rigorously pedestrianised, and much the better for it. Little boys wandering city-centre streets: imagine! The Olympic pool here in the centre of town is the cleanest I’ve ever swum in. Bonnets obligatory: is that why? Happily, we haven’t had to put the health system to the test yet, though no doubt that will come. There are fast trains to Bordeaux, Lille, Paris, Barcelona, Geneva.
The food quality is even better than I’d hoped. Superb bread is ubiquitous: I see no evidence yet of the demise of French baking skills. Seasonality is still an important part of food shopping (asparagus is now finished and cherries are in full swing), and the quality of fresh foods can be relied on (provided you have bought intelligently) and often even exceeds expectations. Sausages aren’t padded out with rusk like the over-praised British ‘bangers’, and bacon and ham aren't injected with water which oozes everywhere when you try to cook them. There are no Dutch greenhouse vegetables, which look perfect and taste of nothing at all. There’s much greater food choice here than in either the UK or Australia, and markets are still a widespread alternative to supermarkets. Even processed foods turn out to be unexpectedly palatable here. Sometimes subtle, too: a plausible substitute for home-cooked versions, which is rare in the UK and even rarer in Australia. There can be only one explanation: the national palate is still a good one, and that which doesn’t taste good doesn’t sell. The rise of ‘McDo’ and all the rest hasn’t yet eroded a thousand or more years of kitchen devotion. You see ordinary folk sitting at picnic tables at motorway service stations eating home-made salads of Puy lentils with asparagus alongside slices of Bayonne ham and tight, tiny cornichons. Why do they do that? Because they have learned to taste.
A couple of exceptions are worth mentioning, of course: British fresh milk and fresh cream still strike me as being better than French (even though French butter is outstanding, and the French also invented crème fraîche, which was cunning). And we miss the extravagant bounty of the Great Southern Ocean in Australia, too – though the fish choice here is France is wide, and the price of oysters and mussels here should shame British retailers.
And then … wine. Well, more on that later. There will be time.