A Hidden Gem

We met a new friend a while back, Beth. Another American expat who lives here in Argeles-sur-Mer with her two daughters. She’s a friend of the lovely Lisa who assisted us with Lou’s adoption. Beth and I corresponded via Facebook and email and set a date to meet for coffee. She’s a super fun lady and we really enjoyed getting to know her a bit.

After our initial meet, she sent me a note about a new exhibit in nearby Rivesaltes. The exhibit is on the grounds of the Camp du Rivesaltes, one of the many camps set up during the Spanish Civil War. We were really excited about visiting as were our friends Joan and Greg. We set a date to go visit together. Joan found a lovely winery where we could stop and grab lunch; Greg offered to drive.

Greg’s offer was great. When we finally found this new place without ANY signage to help direct us, we had been traveling for over an hour . . . mostly in circles. Several people helped us out along the way, a lineman working on a telephone line, a truck driver at a utility company, a receptionist at a hotel, an employee at a government building. All of them knew about the place, all of them gave us directions, NONE of them actually helped us find the location. We did get excellent directions to the memorial, but the Camp and the memorial do not share the same space and were on different sides of the freeway. One must be quite specific when requesting directions Camp du Rivesaltes Memorial and Camp du Rivesaltes Museum are two completely different things.

We arrived about 20 minutes before our lunch reservation so we hopped out of Greg’s car and took a quick look around at the buildings and inside the lobby of the museum. Then headed back for lunch into the historic district of Rivesaltes.

Lunch at Cazes was amazing. Joan used to run her own catering business and her ability to find delicious and beautiful food never fails to impress. We had a great lunch, some yummy wine, took a look around the small winery, tasting room and gift store. Across from the entrance to the wine tasting room and gift store (they share the same space) a roll up door allowed us to watch the labeling machine at work. A small assembly line machine with two people at the end of the 8 foot track boxed labeled bottles of wine into boxes. Just past the labeling room toward the restaurant and behind the wine tasting room was a small warehouse filled with barrels of wine. This tiny warehouse faced a lovely outdoor dining area. Definitely worth a return trip!

After lunch and our mini-tour, we headed back to the museum getting lost for just a moment on the return trip.

The camp was like taking a walk through time. Many of the buildings that still exist are easily identifiable: barracks, showers, bathrooms, etc. The museum was built into the ground, like a basement. We were expecting to learn more about the Spanish Civil War and the refugees who fled from Spain and were temporarily housed here.

That isn’t want we found.

The history of the Camp du Rivesaltes was far more complex and covered far more world events. During most of its history, the site at Rivesaltes was both a military camp, it’s original function, and an internment camp. The French War Ministry’s decision to build the camp dates back to 19 December, 1939.

Beginning in 1940 on over 600 hectares of land, 19 blocks were built — 13 of the large quadrilateral buildings were used for housing troops the other six for services. In May of 1940 there were already 12,000 men living there It had been a camp for Spanish Civil War refugees, but also Vichy’s Undesirables during WWII, then a camp for assembling Jews before deportation to Auchwitz, then a transit camp for Harkis after the Algerian War, then it was released to the military.

There are over 600 hectares of land, divided into nineteen blocks: thirteen reserved for accommodation for the troops (large quadrilateral buildings designated with a letter), six for services. It was intended to set up a Transit Center for indigenous colonial troops. The first to arrive were Senegalese battalions. In May 1940, there were already nearly 12,000 men. These troops were to be sent to the Front, and after defeat, were soon followed by others who retreated before being demobilized. The sharp decrease in men in the French army after the signing of the Armistice on June 22, 1940 with victorious Germany, made the vast military camps, like Rivesaltes useless. However, in the context of the new Vichy regime’s exclusion policy, the idea of giving a portion of the site for installing an internment camp became obvious. It was accomplished a few months later. What remains is reminiscent of Manzanar in California. Here there are far more buildings and the museum itself is very modern using technology as a great advantage in telling the story of the camp, the people who were forced to live here and similar places all around France.

It is humbling to spend time in such a place.

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And . . . we’re done!

We made the final move on the last Friday in February and just ahead of the worst wind and rain we’ve seen since our arrival in Argeles-sur-Mer in April 2015. We spent the first two weeks enjoying the upgraded internet speed while watching hail, wind and rain from those incredible windows.

Sami and Lou protested the move at first and we weren’t able to leave them alone for the first two weeks without some major howling complaints. They both started up barking when we put them in their crate and tried to leave. Not wishing to upset our neighbor downstairs, Denis, I stayed in with the dogs. Eventually we were able to get it under control just in time for our appointment at the prefecture in Perpignan to renew our visas.

We have had quite a bit of fun exploring this new neighborhood. This end of the plage is a bit more developed with beautiful sand-set brick paths, large grassy areas, lots of trees for shade, beautiful lighting. Which makes walking the dogs in the rain a bit less messy.

The unpacking is being held up by the lack of places to put things. The bedroom has a small but serviceable closet, more than enough space for our minimized wardrobes, but without a dresser for all the things that don’t hang we’re using the closet’s floor and upper shelf for clothing. Eventually our luggage will store up there, but first we really need the rest of our purchased shelving to arrive . . . hopefully this week.

When you haven’t owned furniture in three years it can be a challenge to decide what you want from all the options available. It can be a little more challenging when everything you purchase must serve a dual purpose. For example, the microwave cart that we purchased at Conforama had to be able to hold the induction cooktop, a toaster oven, offer storage for cookware and utensils. It’s a big ask for one item to do all that and fit into a space that is 13″ deep by 26″ wide, the unit also had to be a minimum of 36″ tall so that both Alan and I can comfortably use it. Oh, and did I mention that I wanted something that could be mobile so it’s easier to clean up around it?

Our online shopping prowess has assisted in the purchasing of everything we need. Even if we plan to purchase in the store we do all the research online first to make sure that we are getting a good deal, that the item will fit in the space we have and that it matches the rest of the decor (which isn’t much yet).

We still need to purchase a dining room set, a rug for the tile floor, a few kitchen items that we just can’t live without, and a console table to use as a charging station. Did I mention that we have only 9 outlets in the whole apartment? We have more things that need charging then we have plugs to charge them in . . . first world problems for sure, but still a challenge for our digital lives.

Everything is coming together slowly, but we are completely enjoying this new space. Spring has brought quite a bit of cold, wet weather but now that the jasmine is blooming it’s gentle fragrance is a reminder that warm, summer weather is just around the corner.

Ahoy matie!

Every day in France offers unique experiences. This evening as we were preparing to take Sami and Lou for their evening stroll along the promenade I noticed some activity outside our apartment.

Sitting on a green chair next to a green couch (neither of which were there earlier in the day), was a pirate. Yep, a pirate. He was wearing a tricorn hat, bright pink shirt and drinking a bottle of rum . . . nope not kidding!

As we left the yard (after I snapped a few photos from the balcony) he offered Alan a seat in the empty chair next to him with a pirate-y smile.

Last week we sat with a gypsy, this week a pirate . . . wonder what will happen next week~ 🙂

A Beautiful Valentine’s

My granddaughter Lillian had her first Valentine’s Day at school this week. As many of you know, Lillian has some very creative parents who strive to make each day imaginative and fun for this uber-special kid and her adorable big sister, Lorelei.

Because Lillian isn’t able to assemble her own cards, her Mommy — our daughter Danielle — made up the Valentine’s Day cards for her friends in class.

Being the Mom of a special needs kid comes with some unique challenges and time constraints. I love that my daughter is always able to find the time to do something as unique and special as the child she’s raising.

Lillian LOVES glow sticks. The kind that can be made into necklaces and bracelets are especially nice. This year Danielle shared Lillian’s love of glow sticks with special Valentine’s Day cards that read: “You Light Up My Life!”

Lillian has a classmate who is blind. But Danielle wasn’t about to leave this child out of the special joy of receiving a hand-made Valentine’s card, so she did one of the cards in Braille.

A little research on the Internet, the creative use of a ball-point pen as a stylus and voila, one hand-made Valentine’s card in Braille!

I cannot express enough how much I love this daughter of mine. She amazes me with the depth of creativity she employs to make sure her daughter’s childhoods are fun, loving, and special.

Kudos baby girl, you ROCK!


A Change of Address


Each year in order to renew our Carte de Sejour (visa) the first document we must obtain is a lease. The lease must be for a minimum of one year. Our first three years in France we found apartments online through rentaplaceinfrance.com. It’s a great site that has the added benefit of owners who speak English as either a primary or secondary language.

But our current landlord is planning to sell the house this coming year so we needed to find a new place to live. We very much wanted to stay in the Pyrenees-Orientales region for access to the 1€ Bus and the benefits of a large city like Perpignan close by for culture, entertainment, travel, shopping, etc.

Before this year we didn’t much care where we ended up and felt that anywhere would be perfect as we seem to assimilate easily into whatever town or city we live. But a few things happened this year. One | Sami decided that she loved the beach and the ability to run leash-free. Two | We adopted a second dog, who also loves the beach (though he has currently lost his right to run leash-free, see Renaming the Dog for details). Three | We fell in love with this area. Four | We have friends living nearby. Five | We are already treated like locals.

So starting in June of 2015 we began looking for a new place in this region. We looked at AirBnB and found several options that were close to the beach but the first few we saw were just too small for year-round living. Next we looked at St. Cyprien, just 7 kilometers north of us as they have lovely biking paths and beach access, a larger Saturday market, and more restaurants that are open year-round. The two places we tried to rent didn’t pan out. In both instances the owner or property manager no-showed on the day we were supposed to view the apartment. We decided that it wasn’t really where we wanted to be anyway as they do not allow dogs on the beach or even on the promenade (which is asphalt and not dog-friendly in the heat of summer).

So we moved on to Plan B and stopped into a realty office here in Argeles, Foncia is a large chain of realty offices that can be found throughout France. We talked to an English-speaking realtor and told her that we were interested in a one-year lease somewhere on the Plage (Beach area) and gave her a price range that we would be willing to pay. She asked when we needed the rental and we told her April 1 of 2016. She asked for our e-mail address and promised to let us know if anything came up. We never heard from her.

We lost traction in our new home search August through October as we had returned to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago a second time, but picked back up the search just after Thanksgiving. We had decided that the stress of finding an annual rental was beginning to be too much and thought we might try the Bail de Trois, a three-year lease.

We considered the pluses and minuses of a three-year lease:

  • + less stress while trying to get the coveted rental contract in time to renew our visas
  • + the lease automatically renews unless one party gives notice
  • + a power bill (a very important document for visa holders, proving that we actually live somewhere)
  • + a fixed address for a while
  • – apartments are not furnished, so we would need to adapt our minimalist lifestyle
  • + we can buy furnishings that we actually like and not have to live with someone else’s design choices
  • – there will be a huge financial obligation right at the outset for a bed, fridge, living room furniture, etc.
  • – if we decide to move we would need to give the owner three months notice instead of the 30 days that are required for a furnished apartment
  • – moving our furniture could be a hassle if we move as we do not own a car
  • – we would have to purchase rental insurance, and have an annual expense for maintenance on the large building for stuff like the water heater, furnace, etc.
  • – we would have to pay the taxe d’habilitation ourselves

In the end, we decided that the benefits far out-weighed the risks. So we started a new search by picking up all the “for rent” listings from local realtors, looking at their online offerings and checking all the rentals posted in their windows. Once we found one that seemed like a perfect match, we headed back to Foncia Realty as that was where it was listed.

Marita, the English-speaking realtor, was very helpful. We showed her the listing of the place we wanted to see and she immediately set up a viewing appointment for 10 am the very next day. We went to the apartment the following day and took a look around, it was PERFECT.

Just a block away from where we currently live, right behind our favorite boulangerie, a two-bedroom with a loft storage area, small (but equipped) kitchen and living room, and even a small terrace for the dogs. The price was great too, just 450€ per month. It would allow us to stay near the dog beach where we walk the dogs everyday and we could still stop for coffee and croissant each morning on our way back home. We put in our application, excited with anticipation of hearing a positive response in a day or two . . .

One month later, we still hadn’t heard anything from the owner. We had been checking in with Marita once a week to see if she had heard anything. Then after the first of the year, we finally got an answer. “The proprietor does not wish to rent to foreigners.”

We left the realty office quite dejected. It was an awfully long wait to get a negative answer. Concerned that we might not have a contract in time for our visa renewal if each time we looked at a place it took a month to get a response, we devised a new plan.

The rental process works a bit differently here. You find a place you’re interested in, you make an appointment to view it, if you like it you put in an application, then you wait. They do not show you multiple places and allow you to put in multiple applications. So we found our own work-around. We researched all of the local realty offices, went online to see if there was something listed online that wasn’t in their brochure, we went to the online “classifieds” (leboncoin.fr) as a friend suggested, then we compiled a list of our top choices and the list of realty agencies that each apartment was listed with, selecting a different realty office for each listing.

The following Monday we went to the agency that held the listing of our first choice. There we met Camille. Camille speaks a little English, she isn’t afraid to use a translation program when she isn’t sure of the English word, she was welcoming, warm, and charming. She immediately made us an appointment to view the apartment the following morning.

At 10 am Tuesday morning, we met her at the agency and she drove us a few blocks up the street to the apartment. The previous tenant was still in the process of moving out, which she apologized for, though it wasn’t necessary, we can imagine a space empty even when filled with houseplants.

When we said that we really liked it, she asked to make sure that it wasn’t too small a space. At just 38 m2, (approx. 410 square feet) it is a small space, but for just the two of us it was perfect.

It has a nice sized bathroom with room for the washing machine; a small, funky shaped kitchen — but with a nice big pantry; a small living room and bedroom — with the most amazing french doors; a balcony; a private entrance and staircase; and our own private terrace with a gate and room to park a car (for visitors as we are still sans car). But the nicest benefit is that we are just one block from Centre Plage where all the events happen in the summer, only 50 meters (150-ish feet) from the beach, 1/2 block from a year-round grocery store, and 1/2 block from the bus stop. And the price was amazing too, just 495€ and that includes water. (We normally use about 80€ of power each month, so that with our renter’s insurance which is 15€/month, plus €50 for Internet service and we will still save quite a bit from our current rent of 900€.)

Imagine our surprise when we finished our application and she said that she should have the answer the NEXT day! After waiting more than a month for an answer from our first attempt, 24 hours was a great improvement. We stopped back at her office the following day and were told that the owner had not called her back yet, and could we please come back on Friday thus giving him time to respond to her phone call.

Friday came and when we arrived at Camille’s office she smiled, shook our hands and offered us each a “Ça Va” and asked us to please sit down. She told us that she had heard back from the owner, who lives in Paris and only comes to Argeles two weeks each year, and that he had accepted our application. “When would you like to move in?”

I almost fell out of my chair. Just a few days earlier I had been chatting with my friend, Lisa, who told me that it was very hard to get a three-year lease as not too many French people want to rent to foreigners. It had me really worried about finding a lease in time to renew our visas. We had even put in place a back up plan if we weren’t able to secure a lease in time for our renewal appointment.

When would we like to move in??? “Well, since it’s nearly empty now, how about February 1st?” I told her. She said, “No problem. I will go by the apartment in a few more days and check to see if everything is out and then I will make up the contract. No worries.”

And she was right. No worries. We signed the lease on January 25. We picked up the keys on Monday, February 1. We have the electric now turned over in our name, Internet service is being installed on Feb. 8th, the couch should arrive in a week, the bed in about two weeks. The rest of our furniture will have to wait until we get the two large pieces into the space to see what else may fit. We’re planning to outfit the kitchen after we make the final move over there. Even the dogs have given their approval, met the neighbor and his dog, checked out the balcony and all of the rooms, and successfully navigated the stairs a few times.

We’re moving stuff over a bit at a time, one backpack each per day on our morning walk. We should have everything over there in a few days and we’re ready to settle in once the furniture arrives.

Et Voila! We have a long-term lease in France. Now who’s coming for a visit?



Lucifer’s Morning After

UPDATE: Lucifer Lou had his first day of being grounded to his leash while taking our morning walk.

We made it to the far end of the beach where we usually let the dogs run, Sami happily took off bounding around. Lou took four steps and realized he was still attached. In true Lou form, his response was to wag his tail, tangle us up in the leash, while bouncing joyously and shouting, “I regret NOTHING!!!!”

Sami was able to get some exercise while chasing birds up and down the beach. She managed to come back immediately when called . . . Lou called her a “show-off.”

Yep, life with a dog!

"I regret NOTHING!!"
“I regret NOTHING!!”

Conversations with Sami

As long-time pet owners, we often have conversations with and for our pets. Sami has a wicked sense of humor and often has some great one-liners.

Here is an excerpt of a conversation with her Dad while we having coffee the other morning.

SAMI: Daddy, are there boulangeries in the US?

ALAN: No, Sami, there are no boulangeries in the US, they have Starbucks.

SAMI: Cool, can dogs go there?

ALAN: No, Sami, dogs are not allowed into the Starbucks.

SAMI: Well I don’t know why not. It can’t be because they’re afraid of dogs, they’re all heavily armed.

Just life on a daily basis with our MinPin!

Renaming the Dog

We’ve decided to rename the dog from Lou to Lucifer. Our evil genius gave us quite a run this morning. Quite unintended on our part.

He turned off his hearing. Headed up the beach, always keeping us in sight but not willing to come close enough to be caught, even for a treat.

Three kilometers later, he had stopped to smell something of interest, when Alan managed to put the grabs on him.

We normally enjoy our mornings on the beach, two hours or more roaming on the shoreline, letting the dogs off-leash for some fun. Today was not that kind of day. Lou has lost ALL of his off-leash privileges.

Sami, however, remains the diva princess that she is. She came back when called and assisted in rounding up her wayward minion. Though in the process she nearly impaled herself on a piece of driftwood, poor baby. She’ll be a little sore tomorrow, but no worse for her escapades.

I’d love to add a photo of today’s adventure, however we were both to busy trying to catch the stupid dog to think about stopping for a photo.