On Thursday, February 8, we headed out to the Musée du Liège, or the Cork Museum. Having just opened from their annual break last week, we had been looking forward to visiting another quirky little museum.
Wow! We never realized how much goes into the manufacturing of cork, or that there is a scale of quality for corks, or that it is a renewable resource or that it all has to be harvested by hand.
Though we were only in the museum for an hour — 20 minutes of which were spent watching a wonderful documentary about cork production in our region — we learned quite a bit!
For instance, cork is a type of oak tree and it takes 30 years to mature enough to be harvested. It is a natural firebreak and in the early days of firefighting it was used for helmets.
Cork oaks only grow in a few regions around the globe and has never been successfully introduced into non-natural climates. Our region and others around the Mediterranean produce more than 70 percent of the cork used world-wide.
The largest cork in the world is housed in a little museum in a tiny village called, Maureillas about an hour by bus from our little village and about 5 minutes from Ceret.
It is a very large cork. 2.4 meters tall and 1.3 meters in diameter, roughly 7 feet, 10 1/2 inches tall by 4 feet, 3 inches in diameter.
Housed in the old cork factory, the museum has four display rooms and a small gift shop. The modern room upstairs has a 20-minute documentary playing on a loop, samples of items that cork was historically used for, and a beautiful photo exhibit showing black and white photos of cork being harvested as well as a few historic photos of cork being hand processed after harvesting.
The second upstairs display is housed in part of the old warehouse and has many beautiful works of art all created out of cork. The room is has a large opening in the center of the space where you can peer over the railing into the display room below.
The room below features cork and wine products from around the world all housed in six enormous old wine casks. These are seriously large enough to add in 2 sets of bunkbeds and call it a cabin. I loved the dimmed lighting and colorful displays, especially the one with a large assortment of old jars that all have old corks in them.
The other room downstairs has the world’s largest cork, a large assortment of old machinery used in cork manufacturing. All of which are easily identifiable if you watched the film in the first room upstairs. My favorite in this room, other than the giant cork, was the small display on the quality of cork. With samples of what is the most desirable to the least.
This small museum is easily traversed within an hour, even with time for photos, and oddly enriching and educational. We completely enjoyed ourselves and highly recommend stopping in for a few minutes and checking it out.
Hand tools for shaping
Axe style used for harvesting
An old cork punch machine
An old hand-operated cork compressor
The largest cork in the world
Alan standing with the largest cork in the world
Hand-operated corking machine
Chalk writing on an old brick wall from the late 1930s
A table made from cork
A view of the enormous wine casks on the museum’s first floor
The “cork art” part of the exhibit
Cork sailboat and life savers
Number 1 quality cork, the best of all six quality levels
Number 2 quality cork
Number 3 quality cork
Number 4 quality cork
Number 5 quality cork
Number 6 quality, the least desirable
More cork and bottles
How oxidation changes the color of wine
Some stunning imagery for the oxidation display
Bottle and cork collection
Corks from our region were even shipped to “Nappa Valley, Californie”
As many of you may remember, we do not own a television here in France. Most of the time it isn’t a problem, there are so many other things to do than sit in front of the television that we don’t miss it at all. Until the Super Bowl comes around.
The search for a way to see the game starts about a week before game day. We need to find an online option as the game doesn’t air until 12:30 am Monday morning for us. At that time of the morning NOTHING is open — the one day of the year that we miss living in Nevada with open 24-hour options.
Last year we found the game aired on France’s W9 station with commentary in French. Sadly our French isn’t good enough to follow the play-by-play action. We enjoyed the game but missed a lot.
This year we looked for options with commentary in English. Alan found one option: log into a VPN, have it appear as if we are viewing from the UK, watch the game on BBC-1. At least it will be in English.
With the game switching to NBC we tried downloading their app, but sadly it doesn’t work in our area (or country, really). But NBC had a great list of how to watch the game from countries around the world, including which stations were broadcasting the game.
I did a Google search to find the BBC website and noticed just below the link an option that said watch tv from anywhere. So I clicked on it. A free site called FirstOneTV.net popped up. It took just minutes to get a free account and when I went to the “Watch TV Now” tab there was a very long list of countries to choose from. I scrolled down and saw that there were 81 stations available from the U.S. When the page opened, NBC was available so I selected it, after a 10-second ad it took me directly into NBC’s streaming content.
Other than one moment of having the screen freeze in the first quarter of the game, the rest of the game — all four hours of it — were viewed without incident.
Next year, we’ll just start with this as the option for viewing! Perhaps we’ll be able to catch some of the Winter Olympics this year as well, at least the opening ceremony!
Part two of our micro-adventure was to visit the fortified city below Fort Liberia. Built before the fort, this ancient city was the capital of the region when it was part of Catalonia. The principality of Catalonia was divided in half in the mid 17th century when the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed. The northern region, including the fortified city of Conflent, became new lands of King Louis XIV.
The main industry here for centuries was the manufacturing of material. The village was famous for its fabrics and they sold throughout the European continent. Each bolt of fabric was labeled with the towns crest as proof of its origin. This emblem consists of two towers, a star and water, surmounted by the Catalan colors of red and gold and topped with the crown of Aragon. Because the fabric was so highly sought after the weavers of the city were not taxed for this commercial asset. This move on the part of the government gave the city its name “ville franche” or “free town.”
The village was built at the confluence of two rivers, the Tet and the Cady. Literally built at the river’s edge as part of the city’s defense. More formal fortifications were made and Cova Bastera (barracks built into an existing cave) added at the same time Fort Liberia was being built to strengthen the defensive system of the village under the direction of the king’s military architect, Vauban. Though these additions did not stop General Ricardos’ Spanish army from taking the town without a fight in August of 1793.
The town consists of just two narrow streets and several open squares with four main entryways, none of the original gates exist and the drawbridges have been gone for awhile, but the inner workings of the bridge lifts are still in place near the Porte de France, the place we first entered.
We ate lunch at the only restaurant available, Cafe Le Canigou, which thankfully advertises that it is open 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The restaurant overlooked a small square which had views of Fort Liberia and the Mushroom Museum.
Probably the quaintest feature we found in this tiny village was the continued use of signs advertising the wares of the businesses. Though more modern, we loved the use of this medieval advertising method from a period in history when the average person could not read and thus signs advertising the type of business were necessary.
As is often the case, we always notice that each new village or town has at least one thing we have not seen in other small locations. For Villefranche-de-Conflent it was the marble signage with instructions on the correction of the sundial to have the exact time in any season.
Villefranche-de-Conflent and Fort Liberia receive over 80,000 visitors a year, but our suggestion is to avoid the crowds and visit during the off-season when you have the opportunity to visit at your leisure and enjoy the quaint beauty without hordes of people pushing you through the street.
Church built in the Catalan Romanesque style
Sign for laundry business
One of the four city gates
Tracy at the Porte du France gate
Villefranche-de-Conflent battlement along the Cady river
Fountain in front of the city
View of the battlement (foreground) and Fort Liberia (above)
Pulley for the drawbridge
Name plate for the French gate
Alley to Cova Bastera, the military barracks built by Vauban into an existing cave
Rue des Tisserands, street of the weavers
Sign for the caves
Sign for the mineral shop
Sign for the salon
Sign for a housewares store
ATM built into an old entryway
Medallion in front of the town hall
Correction du Cadran Solaire pour avoir l’heure exacte en toute saison (correction of the sundial to have the exact time in any season)
One of the two main streets within the city walls
Sign for a jeweler
Sign for the bakery
Photo of an aerial shot showing both the village and the fort
Today’s micro-adventure was to Chateau-Fort Liberia in Villefranche-de-Conflent . . . well above it actually. About 1,000 steps above it.
We arrived early expecting a bit of a climb and set out immediately, once we found the starting point. Just off to the left of the parking lot for the train station is a narrow trail along the fence keeping people from the train tracks. This is starting point for those who are walking up to Fort Liberia. There is a summer shuttle for about €3, well worth it I imagine in the summer heat.
We followed the narrow trail, walked over the bridge crossing the train tracks and up to the gate allowing entrance to the private property of the Chateau-Fort. Approximately 100 meters from the gate is the start of the climb . . . a few dozen cement and stone steps. From the top of the steps the climb gets much steeper and there are less and less “steps” but more and more rocks and at this time of year, mud.
The sign at the bottom of the staircase said a 20 minute climb, it took us 30 minutes. We still arrive 45 minutes before the scheduled opening of 10 a.m. Though in reality the place didn’t open until 10:30 and we had already started back down the hill when the three-person team came up in a jeep to open up the fort. Turning around and reclimbing the last 200 meters, we finally made our way into the fort.
First, we hit the bar to pay for our entry and grab a cup of coffee while reading through the tour literature.
Built by Vauban — Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), a military engineer of King Louis XIV — Fort Liberia is 337 years old and played a big part in defense of the French-Spanish border after the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 which gave the northern part of Catalonia to the French. Built above the walled city of Villefranch-de-Conflent a good two-thirds of the way up the Belloc mountains, this sandstone and marble fortress is both functional and beautiful. Used as a fort, prison and private home, it is in remarkable condition and has many of its original features, such as shutters and doors.
Vauban is well known in this area for building some amazing forts and military bases. In addition to Fort Liberia, he has another in this region called Mont Louis that we plan to visit in the near future. He was the leading military architect of his time throughout the world and his designs were emulated for nearly 2000 years. Fort Liberia is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site along with 11 other Vauban military installations throughout France.
Very little has changed through the years, though in the mid-1800s they adapted guard towers to deal with more “modern” warfare and in the early 19th century an underground tunnel was dug which links the fort with the fortified city below.
The most stunning features were the ramparts, the poisoner’s cell and the church. Though I favored the poisoner’s cell and the story of the six women who were imprisoned there. One lady was chained in a cell for 36 years and another for 44 years. The women were not allowed to talk for fear that they would name women of King Louis the XIV’s court who also took part in purchasing poisons from La Voisin, another of the inmates who was imprisoned for not only supplying the poison but also practising black magic. One of the court ladies who the king feared would be implicated happened to be among his favorites, hench the gag order on the prisoners.
The church dates from the 17th century and though small has a lovely alter and two tiny stained glass windows. After the army’s departure the chapel was turned back over to the church by the last private owner so that weddings and baptisms could once again be held.
We didn’t stay long, the entire tour took less than 90 minutes and though we would have loved to take the underground tunnel to the fortified city below, we didn’t think it was worth doing in the dark! Had the lights been on, we may have decided to travel 1.5 kilometers underground . . . perhaps next time!
20 minutes for the average person, 30 minutes for us, 10 minutes for the guys who were running up the hill!
One of the many cannons still on site.
Tracy next to the shutter for the “window”
Tunnel-like ramparts of the outer wall around the “fosse”
arches used for strength and beauty
View from the guard tower
Staircase to the battlements, church to the right
Looking back up at the keep from the lowest level
Map of the fort, the green “arrow” faces the top of Mount Belloc
17th century church, St. Pierre
Staircase to the upper level
Lovely old door
Drawbridge and entry
Very tall walls!
The path to the top
Staircase starting point for the climb to the fort
Bridge over the railway
The cell of the poisoners
Balcony and guard tower
Counterweight for the drawbridge
Alan in front of the wall
The entire hillside of Mount Belloc is terraced, formerly for crops or grapes we didn’t know for sure.
2018 is an off-year election season for the US. Tracy and I previously exercised our right and duty as US citizens to vote, and have continued to vote while living abroad as expats. Our home state of Nevada makes the overseas voting process easy.
As in previous elections while we were residents in France, we simply go to the county registrar of voters’ website, in our case the Washoe County (Nevada) Registrar of Voters, to download a simple, one-page form to complete and return by mail with our signatures.
We have the option to request to vote in the primary, general, or all elections in 2018. If we were over the age of 65, we would also have the option to make our request for absentee voting status permanent.
Absentee ballots from Washoe County are mailed to overseas voters like us (and military service members, spouses, and their dependents) 45 days before all elections.
The Washoe County Registrar of Voters stresses that:
THE DEADLINE TO SUBMIT A REQUEST FOR AN ABSENT BALLOT IS THE TUESDAY PRIOR TO ANY ELECTION, AT 5 pm.
WE STRONGLY URGE YOU TO SEND IN YOUR REQUEST AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
REMEMBER, YOUR VOTED BALLOT MUSTBE IN OUR OFFICE BY 7 pm ON ELECTION DAY IN ORDER FOR YOUR BALLOT TO BE COUNTED.
So far, voting absentee with the Washoe County Registrar of Voters Office has been easy and has worked flawlessly for us. But there are other options for oversea voters from other jurisdictions. There are currently over 8 million Americans living abroad of voting age.
Many state Secretary of State offices will assist overseas voters. Nevada’s Secretary of State has the EASE program, Effective Abesentee to Systemfor Elections, a totally online application and voting process that allows electronic voting for oversea Nevadans, Nevada military service members, and their families for elections that include a federal office race.
Federal law, the Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, ensures ours, the rights of other US expats, US government workers abroad to vote from oversea in federal elections. The law covers:
-Members of the seven US Uniformed Services
-Members of the US Merchant Marine
-Eligible family members of the above
-US citizens employed by the federal government residing outside the US.
-Other private US citizens residing outside the United States.
Our home state of Nevada also protects our right as US citizens to exercise our franchise to vote as expats living abroad.
Nevada Revised Statutes 293D.210 Eligibility of overseas voter to be covered voter.
An overseas voter is eligible to be a covered voter if:
1. Before leaving the United States, the overseas voter was eligible to vote in this State and, except for the residency requirement, otherwise satisfies this State’s voter eligibility requirements;
2. Before leaving the United States, the overseas voter would have been eligible to vote in this State had the overseas voter then been of voting age and, except for the residency requirement, otherwise satisfies this State’s voter eligibility requirements; or
3. Was born outside the United States and, except for the residency requirement, otherwise satisfies the voter eligibility requirements set forth in NRS 293.485, so long as:
(a) The last place where a parent or legal guardian of the overseas voter was, or under this chapter would have been, eligible to vote before leaving the United States is within this State; and
(b) The overseas voter is not registered to vote in any other state.
So Tracy and I will again be exercising our right, privilege, and responsibility to vote in 2018. Now we are just hoping for some highly qualified candidates.
This week’s micro-adventure was to the small community of St. Genis des Fontaines. Specifically we went to see the 8th century Abbaye St. Genis des Fontaines, a Benedictine abbey which was part of the kingdom of Aragon when the Catalan people lived and ruled this area. Built between 778 and 780 AD it is dedicated to the martyr Saint Genis (303 AD).
This little abbey was destroyed by Norman looters in the 11th century and rebuilt throughout the medieval period, including architectural evolution of the 12th century church ceiling vault and the 13th century cloister construction.
In 1507 it was united with the larger Catalonian abbey of Montserrat, also a Benedictine abbey, near Barcelona. This alliance is what caused its decline in the 16th century during the French Wars of Religion. It became French governed under the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when the northern kingdom of Aragon was turned over to France.
Only seven monks remained when it was finally closed during the French Revolution. It remained empty until 1850, when the church became a village parish once more. The abbey and cloisters, sold off in 1924, were finally returned to the parish in 1995.
The abbey has lovely Roman origins and though some parts are still privately owned or still in need of restoration, we certainly found a lot to see in this small, but lovely, little abbey.
The entrance fee also included an art exposition. Most of the photos included in the expo had been taken in Cerbere and Port Vendres in France and Port Bou in Spain. We recognized them immediately and appreciated the artists unique angles having just done photos in this areas recently ourselves.
The town itself had only a handful of businesses, but we still managed to find a place to grab a cup on coffee while waiting for the abbey to open and lunch (mushroom, bacon and cheese quiche) at the little boulangerie as the restaurants were not yet open and we wanted a quick bite before heading home on the bus.
The photos below are mine, Alan posted his to Facebook!
The “main street” of St. Genis des Fontaines.
The local post office is in the lower left corner of this pretty house!
Brick gated-entry to an abandoned residence.
One of the town’s fountains.
Me trying to take a creative shot of the wall and street.
Loved the brick and wood in this lovely home on the main street.
Garden gate near the abbey
Me being creative again!
Interesting lock at the front gate
An old map in the tourist office
The last grape on the vine
Entryway into the art exposition hall on the second floor of the abbey’s cloister
Brick archway, second story of the cloister
Part of the photography expo
Part of the photography expo
Stone and metal scultpure
Part of the photography expo, Port Bou
Part of the photography expo
Part of the photography expo, Hotel Belvedere in Cerbere
Part of the photography expo
Photo of an old painted shield
Modern stone and metal sculpture
The first hall of the expo
Another stone and metal sculture
First floor of the cloister
Multiple colored columns
Alan in the choir loft
The main alter of the church
The bishop’s chair
One of the nameplates on the pews
The nave of the church showing the 12th century barrel vault ceiling
Stairs to the choir loft
Holy water font on a 12th century column
Well and colonnades of the cloister
The capital of this column looks like a bird with the head of a T-Rex!
The Dolium, Roman origins, was discovered in the wine cellar of the abbey. Originally used to hold cereals and wines.
Alan at the end of the colonnade near the Dolium
The colonnade with columns of different marbles
Entranceway into the cloisters first floor
Alan near the front door of a house near the abbey, people were shorter when this place was built!
For our goal of getting out and about more for 2018, we instituted Travel Tuesday (or Thursday if the weather is awful!). Yesterday for Travel Tuesday we hopped on a train to Cerbere. The last French city before you reach Spain, this lovely little community has quite a lot to offer for the day-trip traveler.
We opted for the train as there is frightfully little bus service to this tiny port town. So at 9 am we got on a train, rode for 31.5 km, and hopped off 15 minutes later. Round trip for two, under €20.
The very first thing we did was to go up to the oldest part of the station and take a ton of photos of the station’s gazebo-like outdoor structure. We see a lot of this type of design on older train stations, but this one has a secret — or more truthfully a “little-known” fact — it was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel. Yep, THAT Eiffel, as in the giant world-renown tower in Paris! Cool, huh! We thought so, hence the tons of photos. The station’s border guards smiled and laughed at our enthusiasm, they obviously know the history and were likely more amazed that WE knew the history.
In addition to being built by such a famous architect and artist, the station also has a link to our home town of Argeles-sur-Mer in that nearly all of the refugees of the Retirada (the Spanish Civil War) passed through the tunnels under the Pyrenees, to the train station in Cerbere and then over the hills the 31.5 kilometers to the beaches of Argeles-sur-Mer. Between 1936 and 1939 Argeles received over a 1/2 million people fleeing from the infamous, Francisco Franco.
After our photo shoot at the station we hiked over to the beautiful Hotel Belvedere. This beautiful hotel built in 1928 is still undergoing restoration work, but the completed facade facing the sea is absolutely lovely. More photos, of course!
From there we hiked down on the elevated roadway that includes a nice, wide pedestrian lane which offers great views of the Mediterranean as well as the surrounding hills and town below.
We spotted the new breakwater near the empty harbor and headed down to walk out to the point. From that vantage point we had great views of the small pebble beach and sea-side homes and businesses.
Walking back toward the main street through town, we noticed a couple of backpackers and their dogs. We enjoyed watching their puppy try to play with the larger, older dog who wasn’t really interested. After smiling our good mornings, we went looking for the tourist office . . . which was closed. Not unusual for this time of year but we do love visiting and finding out new things nearby to go and see so it always feels like a missed opportunity when the tourist office is not open.
The small square at the end of the main thoroughfare was a bit lively with a couple of vendors selling their fruits, vegetables and meats. There was a boulangerie in one corner and a small corner grocery store to our right as we entered the square. However none of the restaurants on the square were open so no coffee . . . bummer.
After leaving the mini-market area, we headed out of town to go visit the lighthouse. Cap Cerbere is the most southern French lighthouse on the Mediterranean. It also looks a lot like the Space Shuttle. Seriously. From the lighthouse you can look across the large bay into Spain, which we did.
After playing around the lighthouse for a while, we took photos of the wine tasting building (only open during the summer) that offers free tastings for tourists during the “season.” We did laugh over the idea of something similar in the US, a road-side, free wine tasting booth with plenty of parking . . . probably never likely to see one there anytime soon!
Heading back into town we had lunch at La Cacerne, the “Happy Pizza” place, a small terraced cafe with views of the harbor. Ordering a small pizza to share we were quite surprised when it arrived sliced American-style. So surprised, in fact, that I asked Alan if his French was that bad that the server didn’t bring us forks and knives which is standard for pizza consumption in Europe. Later a group of locals also received their pizzas pre-sliced so we figure it must be a “new” thing for the region!
After a delicious lunch, we headed back toward the square to check out the tunnels connecting the lower town to the hilltop above. One of the main tunnels leads to an interesting cistern like break between two tunnels, but includes an abandoned small home and overgrown yard, and a unique staircase up the curved walls to the train station above. Heading back toward the seafront, we decided to explore a smaller tunnel (pedestrian only size) off to our left. It lead us over the the opposite side of the railyard above us and allowed us to get much different views of the town below and the Mediterranean beyond.
Done exploring and wanting to get home while it was still beautiful out, we headed back to the train station. While waiting for our train we ran into the backpacking couple and their dogs. They were heading in the opposite direction toward Spain taking the 2 minute train trip into Port Bou. Vanessa and her boyfriend, whose name we didn’t quite get, have been traveling for a few years now. She was lively and fun to chat with, offering to play her ukelele for us if we run into each other in Argeles, as they visit up this way on occasion. We told her we would welcome another opportunity to visit and would love to hear her play.
Such a lovely day, warm and sunny with hardly any wind at all. Amazing for mid-January. Much appreciated by us both.
Today we woke up to winds at 87 mph blowing around the furniture on the balcony. It reminded us of a simple trut
Exterior of train station by Gustave Eiffel
Interior shot of train station by Gustave Eiffel
Tunnel to Spain
Reshoot of photo of the Retirada (refugees in the tunnel)
Street sign near train station
In memory of SNCF (French train system) who fought in WWII
Abandoned house in the cistern-like area between the tunnels
“You see what I mean”
Alan at the “drive up” wine tasting place near the lighthouse
Cap Cerbere lighthouse
Cap Cerbere sign
Metal meets wood
This guy visited the lighthouse a lot!
Last hill before Spain
“Space Shuttle” lighthouse, Cap Cerbere
Looking across to Spain
City signs in French (right) and Catalan (left)
Just 4 kilometers to Spain
Cooler shot of the sign!
The old school in Cerbere, Ecole Mixte, boys and girls together in one school
Pretty blooms on a succulent . . . in January
Boulangerie on the town square
Mural of the Sardane, a traditional Catalan dance
Alan with the Catalan fisherman sign
Sign board for a restaurant, a Catalan fisherman
Pretty boat in the harbor
Looking up at the elevated road and pedestrian path
Pretty boat in the harbor
Heading toward town and seeing the new breakwater
View of the point
Another train tunnel (this one toward France)
Unrestored side of Hotel Belvedere
Entryway of the Hotel Belvedere
Hotel Belvedere, a boat shaped hotel built in 1928
Glass panel at the train station
h . . . Gustave Eiffel definitely understood the weather around here. The beautiful structure that we admired at the train station yesterday is brilliant in its design as it allows the wind to blow . . . through it!
For our first micro-adventure of 2018, I decided to join the crowd of 500 local residents in the New Year’s Day tradition of the first swim of the year in the Mediterranean Sea, the Bain du Nouvel An. Tracy expressed her doubts in my sanity, but encouraged me to go, and volunteered to take photos — from the shore. My lovely bride mentioned for me to avoid trouble as she would not be pleased to have to go in that cold water to save me.
The annual Bain du Nouvel An was held at Argèles-sur-Mer’s center beach at the end of the Esplanade Charles Trenet at 10:30 on New Year’s Day morning. The water temperature was 53.6′ F (12′ C) with the air temperature at 55′ F (13′ C).
The crowd was a mix of young and old, athletic and less athletic, swimmers and supporters. There was a Mardi Gras atmosphere with many swimmers wearing Santa hats, sparkling gem-color wigs, and one group with dayglow manga-style hair.
At 10:30 the swimmers rushed into the water while wet-suited lifeguards stood by for safety. Many swimmers were quickly “in and out” but others took to staying in the cold water as a challenge. I strode into the water fast to minimize the shock. The water was chilly, but I thought it was warmer than Lake Tahoe most the year. I quickly joined the ranks of the “in and out” swimmers on shore soon after Tracy got her photos.
After the swim there was free coffee and hot chocolate, and a table to pick up a certificate of participation. There was much laughing and looks of victory in the swimmers’ faces as they waited for their certificates. Tracy and my apartment is only two blocks away so a hot shower was only minutes away for me.
So, a Bain du Nouvel swim in 2019? Let me warm up, drink my hot tea, and think about that.
It’s time for our annual pilgrimage to the Préfecture torenew our Cartes de Séjour (residency permits.) That is to say, to renew our “Green Cards” that allow us to continue living as legal residents in France.
Last year was exceptionally easy and we were hoping our prior good luck and previous positive experiences with renewals would continue.
Our rendezvous with the Bureau des étrangers (immigration office) at the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales in Perpignan was scheduled by e-mail for lucky March 13.The Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales continue to be extremely responsive to e-mail requests and they responded with attachment with the correct forms and a list of required supporting documents that must be brought in duplicate.
The list of documents was the same as last year and (contrary to the stereotype of French bureaucracy) quite short and straight forward. We are required to bring the original document and a photocopy of the following:
1. Current Carte de Séjour (residency permit) that is being renewed. Last year the Préfecture officer made an extra copy of both Carte de Séjours and added them to each other’s renewal application so we had extra copies prepared.
2. Passport with copies of pages with identification information, expiration dates, with all entry stamps, and visas. I had just renewed my passport my current passport is completely blank. We made a point to have my prior cancelled passport with its original visa to France in it and copies of the requisite pages.
3. Marriage certificate since our passports do not confirm marital status. This document was not specifically on our list from the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales but from past experience we knew marriage status had to be confirmed at each renewal. There is also an attestation that we are married on the renewal form that our Préfecture officer witnessed us signing.
6. Four recent passport-style photographs. (Although the forms only request three photos, in the past they required four.)
7. Proof of financial independence. Our monthly retirement income needs to exceed the €1,500 monthly minimum wage in France. I had previously requested an income verification letter about our pensions from the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System. We also prepared a translation including a conversion of dollars to euros at the current exchange rate. That was the only document we bothered to translate.
8. Signed the sworn attestation that we would not to exercise any occupation in France. The attestation is on renewal form that our Préfecture officer witnessed us signing. Our visa status is specifically for retirees and prohibits us from working in France.
9. Self-addressed, stamped envelopes which are available from any supermarket or post office.
10. Payment was not required at the time of the meeting. We are required to pay the annual fee when we pick-up our renewed Carte de Séjour. Payment is made with timbres fiscaux (tax stamps.)
Tracy (A.K.A. the “Queen of Organization”) once more took my collection of miscellaneous paperwork and organized all the documents into the exact order of the checklist and into individual folders. She also filled in with her precise handwriting all the required spaces on our renewal form.
On our appointment date of March 13 we took the early €1 Bus the 23 kilometers (14.5 miles) from Argelès-sur-Mer to the Préfecture in Perpignan.
Our appointment was at 9:15. so we went directly to the Préfecture’s annex in the Hôtel D’Ortaffa located behind the actual Préfecture. There is still a “state of emergency” in place, so a security person checked my backpack with our application and our back-up file of personal documents we carry in case there is something additional the immigration official requires. We try to be prepared for the unforeseen.
We checked in at the reception window and immediately went back to the immigration windows and after a minute we were speaking with our very helpful and friendly immigration official. We have now visited often enough to recognize most of the staff and this woman has helped us before.
Once more, our official was very pleased with Tracy’s organization and the way we tried to make her job easier. And once more my dry hands were an issue for the the electronic fingerprint scanner and it took several attempts to get readable prints. Next trip I’ll anticipate the issue and use some of Tracy’s hand moisturizer.
However, there was a new document required that was not on the list and was not requested on any of our prior renewals. After a bit of confusion caused by our inability to understand or speak much French, an English speaking staff member told us we needed to provide proof of health insurance. That would be the one set of documents we did not have in our back-up file. We briefly had visions of being turned away from the window with an incomplete file and having to make an appointment to return in another month or two. But the representative kindly told us we could finish up the appointment today and we could drop off the missing documents later in the week. We were very relieved and appreciative.
Our official allowed us to finish our renewal appointment and had us sign our Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour (receipt of application for residency permits) that serve as temporary Cartes de Sejours. We confirmed that we would bring the insurance documents to the reception area tomorrow.
Our immigration representative told us that notification letters would be mailed once the application is approved and we could then return with our timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), passports, and Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour to collect our new Cartes de Sejours for 2017-2018.
Almost a completely successful appointment. We stopped for a café crème at Le Grand Café de la Poste and make plans to return to the Préfecture the next day. That evening we make photocopies, downloaded insurance certificates, and made up cover sheets with our names and immigration numbers. Our fear was our follow-up documents getting lost at the Préfecture and our renewal application sitting incomplete in limbo. But luckily when we returned, the English speaking staff member was passing through the reception area, recognized us, and was kind enough to take our proof of insurance and said she would take them back immediately and add them to our renewal application files. Great peace of mind for us.
We waited for four weeks, when we would normally received notification, but no letters. At six weeks there was no letters and we started to get concerned that maybe the insurance documents did get misplaced or that the application was not renewed, Finally, on Friday of the seventh week, the notifications letters arrived.
I was relieved and pleased, but Tracy had a concern about a phrase in the letters saying, “Valable du 30/3/2017 au 29/06/2017.” “Valable” can mean either “Valid” or “Available,” Tracy was concerned that perhaps our renewal was not approved and that we would be issued a short-term Carte de Séjour valid until June 29that would allow us 7 weeks to make arrangement to leave France. I thought it probably meant the Carte de Séjour would be available for pick-up until June 29.
Since the Préfecture was now closed and would be until Monday (and my ability to understand and to be understood in French over the telephone was marginal – amazing how much body language and facial expressions adds context to a conversation) we had to wait to get an answer. We decided to research “Plan B,” just in case if we needed to get flights to America for us and two dogs, what the US required to bring the digs into the country without quarantine, how to sell furnishings, the legal requirements to break a lease, close a bank account, and determine what to bring with us should we have to leave France. In short, “Lifeboat Rules” for a fast, unplanned, international move on retirees pensions. That was a stressful exercise: all the uncontrolled variables of the cost of air fares, minimum 30 days after dog rabies vaccination, when and if dogs can fly on international flights, what to sell or abandon, do we pay additional months rents for an apartment we no longer live in, where do we go in the US since we had sold our house?
To get the real answer to our stress-inducing question we went early to the Préfecture to claim our what would be either a seven weeks or one year Carte de Séjour. We would attempt appeal process at the Préfecture if we were disappointed with the seven week Carte de Séjour.
On the way to the Préfecture we needed to pick-up the timbres fiscaux (tax stamps) we needed pay for the fees for the Carte de Séjour. Tax stamps are frequently sold in specific Tabacs (tobacco and convenience stores), but I have been unable to find such a Tabac in Argelès-sur-Mer or Perpignan. So, like last year, we stopped at the Trésor Public (Public Treasurer) at the Centre Des Finances Publiques à Perpignan where a helpful gentleman at the cashier window was happy to sell us the €269 (each) in timbres fiscaux. This was an increase over the €106 (each) in renewal processing fees we previously paid.
Now for the moment of truth. At the Préfecture we were given a number to meet with the immigration official (just like waiting at the DMV.) But, unlike any trip I’ve ever made to the DMV, we were next up to see the representative. Tracy was up first and had her passport, timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), and Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour immediately ready. Our representative checked Tracy’s face against her passport photo, had her sign the paperwork, collected the tax stamps, and the official handed Tracy her new Carte de Séjour.
It was a one year renewal! No “Plan B” would be necessary! No “Lifeboat Rules!” No panic evacuation back to the US would be required! Tremendous relief with knowing the answer. In two minutes, I got my one year Carte de Séjour too.
We were in and out in less than 15 minutes, the extended weekend stress melted away as we stopped at Le Grand Café de la Poste for a café crème to celebrate. In all, the renewall process was easy and the only real “hiccup” was the addition of proof of insurance. All the stress was self-induced from our confused translation on the notification letter. But we did learn that we could make a hurried return to the US if needed.
Tracy summed the whole adventure up, “We have GOT to study our French harder.”