The Signing!

This time last year… We were getting our ‘ducks in a row’ for signing the ‘compromis de vente’, our promise to buy by signing the vendor’s ‘sales agreement’. Birth, wedding and divorce certificates, passports (utility bill?). The thing was that the originals were not enough, there also had to ba a certified translation. We found someone in the directory who was ‘certified’ (to translate… there’s plenty of other ‘certified’ individuals around, probably including us, but I don’ think that’s the kind of certification that was meant). By this time I had quite a collection of ‘scans’ of official documents (actually photos, cropped and adjusted for clarity) so having negotiated a price we emailed the scans to him. However, in order to fully certify them he suggested we come to his house with the originals and to pick up the certified translations.

http://www.delphine-batho.fr/

 

 

The landscape we had got used to in Deux Sévres had been heathland, scattered woodlands and valleys. The translator’s house was located in an area called Marais Poitevin to the west of Niort, marsh and canals – some of the roads had marshland either side and at each turn the roads got smaller until we finally arrived at a dead end. Casting around amongst scrubby trees we found his house. After an hour or so of discussion (he was a kiwi though I had embarrassingly asked if he was South African, I think he forgave me).

 

 

The next thing was a trip to Rochechouart to meet our estate agent at his offices. There we had to go through each individual page of the 40 page contract and sign them. The agent was English but his French was better than mine until we got to the reports on subsidence and earthquakes where my French geological jargon came in very handily.

So, a 3 hour journey back, excitedly chatting together about what we wanted to do with the house we had just committed to. The second major milestone in our French adventure passed (the first being our arrival).

Cheese
There are 5.25 billion* cheeses in France (at least) and none of them taste like cheddar. There are loads of soft brie/camembert like cheeses (possibly 250,000* but I lost count) funnily enough though, apparently the last brie-maker actually situated in Brie has just closed down – perhaps they want some cheddar?).

Coulommiers au lait cru

 

 

In fact there is a local (Limousin) brie-like cheese that is both cheap and tasty called coulommiers which you will be getting if you ever visit us. I actually just looked this up and its French but anything but local… originating over in the east near the Jura – whatever, its cheap and tasty. We do occasionally succumb to buying cheddar at premium prices in the supermarket’s ‘exotic’ chiller section (that’s exotic contents… the chiller itself is a Beko).

SONY DSC

 

 

 

Cantal is a hard cheese that originates in the Pyrenees (that’s what they told me, I just looked that up too and its an Auvergne – Massif Centrale cheese, pah you just can’t trust these cheese sellers can you?). Anyway, the mild version tastes pretty close to cheddar (there is a ‘mature’ version that tastes a bit ‘blue’ – not to our taste).

Only 5,249,999,996* cheeses left to try.

* Some numbers changed to protect the innocent

Now
My laptop died last Friday and since the internet is somewhat central to our existence here I had to buy a replacement). Surprisingly some things are cheaper in France (tea, porridge oats, paint and ladders are at least twice the price here though – luckily they weren’t what I needed) For half the UK price I got a replacement but unfortunately with Windows 8 and further misfortune – an azerty keyboard – so if a becomes q and m is a comma I apologise… and don’t talk to me about the full stop!… But almost the entire week was spent getting my ‘workspace’ back up and running; much was in the ‘cloud’ (i.e. on’t net) and a recent backup helped but you still have to reinstall and reconfigure stuff. Still, its mostly done.

Auto-entrepeneur – self employment en France!

This time last year… I was working through the registration process for us both to have ‘auto-entrepeneur’ status (AE), or, in other words, to be self-employed. In the UK being self employed is pretty straightforward, you just tell the Revenue that you need to ‘self assess’ and voila! In fact, for some of the time I was self-employed in the UK I earned less than my tax threshold (after deductions) so paid no tax and only £4 or so a week for National Insurance. In France the use of ‘voila’ and tax (impôt) in the same sentence or even the same page is illegal. In hindsight, compared with registering the car or getting into the health system I guess its wasn’t so bad.

Back in the UK I had taken advice from a tax advisor regarding French taxation and firstly he had advised to have my start date as 1st Jan and secondly that with our projected income we would pay very little income tax. Moving from one department to another, as we were to do eventually caused much confusion with our registration. So much that we each had 4 different SIRET numbers (‘company registration numbers’) and the same with our social security numbers, over the following 4 months. My advice now would have been to not register until all the moving was done and we were finally settled in our permanent residence.

The big surprise though was that the French equivalent to National Insurance, was 25.5% (called cotisations) of all our income with no allowances for expenses (in fact AE status allows for no deductions at all – it was created because the only previous choice allowed expenses to be deducted but then 45% tax/cotisation combined). Certain occupations must also register with the French equivalent to a guild and pay fixed annual regardless of income. We were careful to describe our occupations as not one of these. For instance, secretary or teacher (both of which could have described some of our activities).

To cut a long story short… we had even less income than we had bargained for and a lot more bureaucracy.

Bœuf bourguignon
In the UK I hadn’t cooked this much (first wife vegetarian and Delia too until a year ago). But mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to use a bottle of red wine.

Things are different when decent wine can be bought for 3 or 4 euros. The supermarket periodically has packs of bœuf bourguignon meat (good chunks of casserole steak) on special at less than 5 euros a kilo. Anyway, because Delia can’t eat onions I often use celery or fennel and loads of carrots with a dessertspoonful of bovril and a bottle of merlot. Cook on the lowest oven for 3 to 4 hours and it melts in the mouth. Boiled beef and carrots? yes but glorified by wine).

Now
Just got back from the neighbours, who had invited us to share a clafoutie au cerises – and I love cherries! Our heads are still spinning from so much concentrated French-speaking. His morning we went to puppy training classes in a field a mile or so away in the cold rain for an hour. Sienna loved it, she’s bilingual now, ‘assis’ and ‘sit’, ‘come’ and ‘à pieds’.

Internet Problems

This time last year… was a week when I really started to get internet problems. I hope this isn’t too techie or dull for you readers, but it certainly kept me occupied… My main client required me to work on his website and monitor his office phones over the ‘net. This worked fine except that a change in ownership of my client’s main customer meant that that type of work was reducing but that he wanted me to do other stuff. That other stuff required me to connect to a secure server.

Any computer connecting to the internet is ‘given’ a unique IP address. Like caller id on your phone, the IP number is used by the recipient to recognise who is connecting. In the UK most IP numbers stay the same until the internet modem is reset, it might sometimes be months before it changes. However, in France, or at least in the spaceship the weather and the service provider combined to change the IP every few hours, on good weeks perhaps 2 or 3 days.

So the secure server’s firewall needed to know my IP in order to let me connect, being a third-party every time my IP changed, someone had to (be paid to) add my new IP to the list of allowed connections. Coinciding with this, Sally the landlord and Jim her husband returned early from their holidays and needed their modem back – switching my internet use over to a plug-in internet extender on the other side of our shared wall. Extenders like they used effectively halves the amount of internet traffic, slowing everything down; so much so that I could barely connect even if my IP address was allowed). After several days of tearing my (already limited hair) out I finally bought a 35m cable and with Jim’s help threaded the cable through cupboards and floorboards directly to their modem. This helped but the IP address situation was getting worse as the weather got more and more foul and often the internet was down for hours. Telephone and electricity in rural France is all above ground exposing to frequent disruption from falling trees and branches (often as not the cables might actually be fastened to a tree rather than a pole).

Eventually I solved most issues with a 2 band wireless extender and friendly neighbour who allowed me to connect to his modem with a different line in. Unfortunately by this time my usefulness to my client had declined and he had decided to wait until I moved and had a good connection with a static IP address. Now his business has moved on to the point where he needs me only as a diminishingly infrequent standby.

The upside is that now, of course, we have a pretty good internet connection, though the static IP isn’t of much use. Skype was impossible in the spaceship but we can use Skype for work (Delia’s at least) family, friends.

Cabin Fever
The lack of windows (only skylights) was getting to us. I was also a bit stressed (see above). The weather was windy, rainy and cold. The spaceship had no central heating and the living space never got above 13.5C. Thermal underwear and two pairs of socks helped but numb fingers don’t help with typing. We had a free-standing gas fire (that cost us 30€ a week to run) that we huddled around – it warmed our bedroom quite well since the heat mostly rose up to the ceiling where our bedroom was on the mezzanine. There was a weird electricity billing system of red, white and blue days where 5 times the rate red days were randomly allocated we had to check a three lighted box in the utility room to find out what tomorrow was to be. On White days, we could do our washing and use an electric fan heater to help dry our clothes we could also use the electric kettle rather than a saucepan on the stove. On Blue days we could at least use the kettle.

Delia wanted a bath (not that she smelled anything but nice – we did have a shower) and even though we had driven several thousand miles in our house hunting we need to get out of there. So we booked a night in a Chambre d’Hôte (B&B to you lot) – importantly with a bath.
tours1

 

We settled into our large suite, unfortunately the central heating hadn’t been on long (we were the only guests after all) so we had to make to with a paraffin heater (disturbingly, the French for is petrole) . Anyway the huge copper bath awaited and Delia turned herself into a prune. I did my best to do the same once she was out.Brahms_sdb1b

 

The hotel was registered as a Table d’Hôte – which meant that they could offer meals but that they must be at the family table. The proprietor’s translation of this requirement effectively limited her to sitting and talking with us at the beginning and the end of the meal. Pate fois gras and veal cheek casserole – a bit of a shock for Delia with her special diet and only recently losing her registered vegetarian status. The proprietor also regaled us with her creative writing skills, insisting we read her English and French children’s story that she was looking to find an illustrator for. Little we could offer except suggesting she replace ‘cock’ with ‘rooster’ to respect the sensibilities of her target age group.

House Hunting
We had been house hunting all over Poitou-Charentes and into west Limousin. 25 houses viewed and we had our shortlist of 5 houses. Close investigation of some internet quality maps revealed that only two were really in the running. One was a town house in a town called Ruffec – which would have been lovely spacious with a small but attractive garden, in a quiet side street but only a few dozen metres from cafés and restaurants. It was at the top of our budget at that time (140k€ but we’d have offered 115k€) but the internet was great. Our misgivings were that living so close to café ‘culture’ could be quite expensive and what would be the point of living in town if we didn’t take advantage of it? So we decided on 15th January and we made an offer on the house in Beaulieu. As it turned out the 30k€ savings on not buying the Ruffec house came in handy when Delia’s main client was headhunted by Penguin and no longer needed a virtual PA. We were to lose half our income during that January so a bit to spare on the house came in handy.

Now
Christmas over and its time to look more closely at last year’s expenditure. We keep pretty close track of all our outgoings but its been difficult to predict how some of it might help budget for next year. The first 3 months’ utility costs can’t compare with here (30€ for a cylinder of butagaz a week is a bit different from 1450€ to fill our garden gas tank). It had seemed that each month we were spending roughly twice what we had coming in and I had been concerned about our savings. However, overall and to my surprise, allowing for planned expenses on the house we have more or less broken even. This, despite Delia only recently getting a regular client, and me not getting any new business (only my annuity, and my existing clients). So, thanks to all of you who visited and helped with the costs. And special thanks too to those who helped us afford our Australian trip.

2013 gave us lemons, 2014 we eventually made lemonade and with Delia’s new account and my new advert 2015 looks bright.

Utility Bill

A year ago today… setting up a bank account in a foreign country isn’t always simple, as Delia told me about when she moved to the UK.

We had started the process early… at The French property show I had spent some time talking to Guillaume on the AXA stand about Car, house and health insurance… and in October I started the process of opening an AXA Banque account. An 8 page application form later… Guillaume was great fielding the form (by email) back and forth until it was just right. Then it stalled because we didn’t have proof of our address. Once we had found the gîte (or the spaceship) we thought the rental agreement would suffice but no, it needed to be a utility bill.

Lacking a utility bill was to cause many recurring problems… with tax and car registration, internet provision, health cover… in fact almost anything… including utilities!

Back in the spaceship… being a private rental, there was no chance of a utility bill with our name on it. You would have thought that the AXA contents insurance policy would work but no. Credit Agricole advertise a nice English speaking service to open a bank account but they were more expensive (no free banking in France, on-line statements, payments in and out even debit cards cost) and there were many problems that we read about on various ex-pat forums – none for AXA but that was probably because no bugger could open an account! AXA Banque had a nice English leaflet but language wasn’t the problem especially with Guillaume’s help. In retrospect perhaps Credit Agricole would have been a good idea, even once we got our AXA banque account we found we could only withdraw up to 300€ a week (from Credit Agricole cashpoints, Axa were only in big towns!) which made it difficult when the rent was due in cash.

We finally managed to open the account by presenting the ‘Compromis de vent’ – the binding contract to buy our house. However when,2 months later we actually did move from the spaceship they wouldn’t change our correspondence address to the our new house without … yes you’ve guessed it, a utility bill!

It was to be May before we got our first utility bill that was fit-for-purpose (nothing but genuine utilities) – it is now framed in gilt and displayed in pride of place – finally we had arrived!

The house hunt
The search had been going on throughout our time in the spaceship we hadn’t fully decided on a budget so we were looking at quite a range of prices, from less than 75k€ to 140k€. We very quickly found the house of our dreams, set in rolling hills, in our ideal location.

Chalais1Chalais2Chalais3 the garden

The location of the Chalais house and the back garden

But, when we looked at internet availability – it was satellite only. Estate agents couldn’t see the problem – download speeds of 20mb after all. But VPN (which I’d need to do any work over the ‘net) and Skype (or VOIP) just doesn’t work. So back to the search.

We actually hadn’t sold the UK house when we came to France– we had exchanged but not completed and, unlike France when once the ‘compromis’ is signed it is binding in the UK the buyer can pull out with little penalty. A bit of a gamble but finally on the 6th Jan 2014 the money popped into of hot little hands (well… our UK bank account at least – since we didn’t yet have a French account (see above J).

Food
Our first shopping bills were sky-high, it took a bit of adjustment to eat the way the French do (and not buy novelty things). Meat has different cuts.. faux filet is more or less sirloin, rumstek (rump steak…well d’uh) prices are around 20-25€/kg, free-range (élevé en plein air) chicken tends to be around 8€/kg – so we tend to wait for specials that can knock the price down by 50% – the freezer helps. Beef Bourguignon is often sold in 1.5kg amounts (usually skirt and shin) and on sale can go from 8.50€ to 4.30€ (I just bought 3 kg for the freezer). How do I cook the bourguignon when Delia can’t eat onions I hear? It’s usually beef and carrots, more or less, sometimes celery and various root vegetables. The key is a 4 hours in a slow oven with a whole bottle of red wine which at 3€ not extravagant and it’s what we drink too. Plus a spoon of Bovril… all the supermarkets have a ‘foreign’ section (mostly English) but we want to fit in so we tend to avoid these overpriced shelves. That being said, we do import; Bovril, Marmite and Porridge oats (which are only available as whole rolled grains top quality but I like my porridge sloppy). Our UK shopping bill had been about £350 per month, we changed our French monthly bill from 450€ to eventually about 350€. Most of those savings are probably the wine!

Lunch times would not be the same for me without real French baguettes – even supermarket ones, though on 2 days a week the baker delivers and we buy a slightly bigger baguette (pain Parisien). Nothing tastes like them . Delia loves them too but needs to eat them sparingly and usually eats bread machine-made spelt loaf. We get our spelt delivered in 25kg bags from a Brittany mill – tasty, slightly nutty and otherwise a perfect replacement for good wheat flour (not a patch on the baguettes though J).

Now
Adjusting to temperatures in single figures, not often sub-zero this week. There has been some blue sky but my morning and our afternoon walks with Sienna have often been moist. Currntly enjoying not being woken by Kookaburra laughing or those insane ravens that sound like amplified version of those moo-ing devices you can buy in souvenir shops – shaped like small tins that you turn over for a sound not completely unlike a cow/sheep/goat. We now just have the clinking of the radiator warming up.

This time last year… the Cat Returns

Not that he really went away I suppose. After digging him out from behind the kitchen units shortly after we arrived we blocked it up. He then went to hide under the bed and wouldn’t come out. So we just left him there with his litter, water and food. We had put him through a lot after all with weeks of boxes and finally stuffing him in his carry crate and traipsing him nearly 1000 kilometres on the back seat of the car. I figure Wallace had good reason to hide.

There had been a Wallace and Gromit when, back in 2007, I gave Delia a birthday present of two kittens, but Gromit, always the bolder of the two, was sadly run over shortly after we started letting them out. 

We’d go to bed with Wallace still hiding until shortly before Christmas he had established a habit of greeting us as we went to bed and sleeping at our feet. But as he gained confidence and explored he insisted on being able to get out of the bedroom at night (we weren’t letting him into the outside world since we figured we’d be moving soon). This culminated in being woken one night around 4am as he chased a mouse around the bedroom. He finally chased it downstairs and I was sent to deal with it. By that time it (the mouse) was quite slow but still difficult for me to catch. I must admit I ended up playing whack-a-mouse with a shoe. The next day I was at the local hardware store buying humane mouse traps – we caught a further four mice but set them free (probably to be eaten by owls), Wallace’s only amusement in this was to show an avid interest in certain locations guiding us as to where to set the traps.

Éclairs Chocolat
By popular request something about food… I am not sure if this will be what was expected but you can always comment…

eclairs  - OTT?Anyway, part of our mission in France was to check out the pâtisseries. Difficult, but we considered it our duty to accept. We chose to specialise in éclairs – specifically chocolate. There is some variety in size shape and taste, and OTT decoration (see left) the best was from a pâtisserie in the Charente-Maritime at St Ciers du Taillon. The house we saw there was disappointing, a lovely location and climate but randomly renovated and over-priced. I can’t quite describe why these éclairs were the best – a combination of the perfect slight crunch of the outer layer of the choux pastry with the inside being soft but not soggy, the soft and shiny chocolate icing and the sweet creamy filling – chocolate with a very slight coffee taste. Our local pâtissier makes his own but they are irregular in shape and the icing is too firm. Our local supermarket is very close to perfect and we keep trying them to make sure there is no variation.

We considered trying some in Australia but having a choice of custard and cream or just cream filling was not very  inviting.

Now… Home from Australia from 40 degrees to -2 degrees but with a glorious blue sky. When we collected Wallace from the cattery he seemed pleased to see us. We try to keep him at night but with a new puppy it had been difficult before we went away – now though we keep him upstairs rather than the kitchen with the dog and he has been very attentive and seems to be back sleeping at the foot of the bed. Love? Probably more to do with the temperature.